Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Part Thirteen

More about life at the farm

Maybe I didn’t make clear the location of this place: it’s nearly 1000 miles due north of Beijing – at the northern tip of Manchuria – 50 miles from Russia (i.e. Siberia) –and like Siberia, it was cold, desolate, and had recently been used as a kind of penal colony for the rehabilitation of criminals after they had served their time in prison.

Some residents were army veterans whom the government had relocated after the Korean war. It was a remote and uncultivated land, but some of them were happy, because they had a better life here than in their home land and I think they were also being paid by the government.

A strange thing we noticed when we first arrived: all the girls and boys started smoking at the age of 7 or 8. I was used to see grown men smoke, but not children, and especially not young girls. Later I learned that it was to protect themselves from all the biting bugs and flies which I was told hate the smell of the smoking. But unfortunately, so do I, and I never got the habit.

Each village (which still included some of those former criminals) received an allotment of young high school students like us. The village had to feed and build shelters for us – and we had to work for them – under the supervision of the village leaders - who then selected our student leaders to be in charge. Overall, the region was administered by the army – so all of us were issued green coats, similar to a military uniform.

Everyone in the village was Chinese, but there was one half-Russian – the adult son of a man from a village just over the Russian border who had been abandoned by his Chinese mother. He was borderline retarded, and people would tease him. “Hey – we have found a wife for you – just wait here and we’ll send her over” – and he would wait there all day.

Though the growing season was short, the soil was black and fertile, and during the summer and fall, we harvested crops of winter wheat, soy beans, and corn.

There was still a lot of good, uncultivated land there, but for some reason local people were discouraged from using it. One day, during my first summer there, the village leader named Liu took us to a small vegetable field filled with huge Chinese cabbages almost ready for harvest, but we were ordered to destroy them. I was puzzled and asked for an explanation. Mr. Liu told me “we do not encourage capitalists in our society. Let the cabbage rot just like the Capitalist society ”. No argument from us -- we destroyed the entire cabbage patch. (but what a waste!)

Early in the planting season, we worked three shifts to put seeds in the fields with machines. On windy days, we came back from work covered with dust a—but still each of us had only half a basin of water to wash ourselves..

Every day, we had to stand in the line waiting for that water—and hopefully it was hot – but some days, nobody remembered to turn the heat on, or someone took too much hot water before every one else got a chance. Those were the days we washed ourselves with icy cold water!

In mid-summer, our day began before 4 am – just as the sun was rising – and we’d begin by walking two to three miles to the fields. Then we’d spend the next 12 – 16 hours walking down the field rows picking the crops (each row could be several miles long) – and throwing the harvest into piles that ran along each row – to be picked up later by the carts. We’d all line up – one to a row – and work side-by-side – with a kind of pride in moving ahead of the others in line.

In the beginning, I was slow and always got left behind. Usually, those who finished first would pick a line from the other end to help the slow person get to the end of her row, but nobody ever helped me. Later, I learned to choose an inner line, close to the pile, so I could be the leader of that line, and it really saved me a lot of time. I also got faster, and eventually I had time to rest as well as pick and choose those whom I would like to help.

We got a break for lunch – when freshly steamed bread was brought out to the fields – but often there was nothing to drink – and we’d get so thirsty, that we would drink from the puddles in the cart tracks if we had the chance (straining it through our neckerchief)

One time, the farm’s bad girl (I’ll talk about her later) told me that she had found a pond where we could drink and swim. I followed her into the brush, but as she walked into the pond, she sank into mud, almost up to her waist. I tried pulling her out – but it wasn’t easy, since I was getting sucked into the swamp as well. (After that – I stayed away from open water).

Back at the buildings, there was also work to be done: preparing the grain for shipment. This was hard, dirty work and the floor was swarming with mice, hundreds of them. (I had nightmares about them, and still don’t like mice, to this day). We tied strings around the cuffs of our pants to keep mice from running up our legs.

One day, a mouse ran into a girl’s pants and she was so terrified, that she was screaming and grabbing it for almost 10 minutes. Finally, as she let other people help her catch it, the mouse dropped out from her pants. It had been squeezed flat.

Life was hard, but the young people tried very hard to please – and there weren’t any serious discipline problems – though once in a while, people noticed that things were missing from their pocket or from the trucks stored in the shed, and sometimes there were fights among the boys or quarrels among the girls.

One area of contention, was the spot on the chimney that could be used to dry our wet shoes which had been specially designed for the people of this area. The tops and the soles were of rubber, while the insides were cotton padded, and if you did not dry them out , they could be hard as a rock to wear the next day, but not every one could get a safe spot on the top of the chimney every night.

So, almost every night, someone’s shoes got scorched, and we were often woken by clouds of black smoke accompanied by much crying and swearing.. The smell of burning rubber shoes was almost unbearable --especially during the winter, when all the dormitory windows were kept tightly closed.

I was not lucky enough to get spot on the kang, but at least I was not one of those who slept close by the door, and who were always yelling whenever the door swung open during the winter.

I remember once that I was bullied by the girl ( mentioned above ). She pushed me down to the floor from my second level bed. But no one helped me because everyone else was afraid of her and I was so unpopular due to the arrest in my family. I felt so bad, sad, and helpless.

But on the whole, there were no serious crimes, nothing that couldn’t be handled within the criticism sessions we had at night.

I never saw students get beaten – but one time we caught some young men from the village who had come to steal our grain. The village leader had them tied up – and then instructed our young men to give them a beating. It was a terrible – I remember their screams – and one of them was nearly killed (it took him a month to recover)

And even though there were so many adolescent boys and girls working side by side – in the entire two years I was there – only one girl got pregnant – that bad girl I mentioned earlier – who slept near me on the shelf above the kang. She was overweight, and not very attractive, and had a reputation of being available for any boy who wanted her. An older couple from the village adopted her child, and eventually, she married and moved into the village herself.

During the harvest months, we were too tired to do anything at night – but otherwise, we would have political meetings – many of which concerned preparing us for an impending Russian invasion. One time, we were loaded up with packs, and got to practice our own “long march” throughout the night.

Regarding food, I should mention that since we were paid a salary, we had to purchase our own food at the cafeteria – but the offerings were rather minimal: steamed bread and “soup” – where the soup was hot water that had been politely introduced to a few slices of turnip.

One day, when I took my usual breakfast meal of hot soy milk and steamed bread back to the dorm., I spilt the soy milk on my little finger. Within a few seconds, my finger had turned white, and it was so painful, I almost dropped everything in my hand -- but I held on – because otherwise I would have had to go back to buy the meal again. I was in tears.

Being a cook was the best job anyone could have (since you could eat whatever and whenever you wanted) But being a blacklisted person like me, almost everyone treated me badly, and every time I was buying my meal, I noticed that I was given the smallest portions. Nor could I complain, because I knew that if I did, I would be treated even worse.

An exception was New Year – our one, big holiday – where we all got together to make dumplings – using our own wash basins as pots. One of the offerings at the cafeteria was soy milk – and this is what I bought every day – not because I liked the taste – but because it was the only offering that had serious nutritional value. (who knows what went into that bread –one time it was filled with sand and mouse droppings – as if it were made from floor sweepings)

Due to poor nutrition, I was among the first students from our group who got night blindness. I could not see anything at night except for the flame of the oil lamps, and I got scared. I wrote to my mom and friend in Beijjng, and both of them sent me a few bottles of vitamin A. When I opened the package, only one bottle was left – but that bottle was enough, and soon my vision had recovered.

The water from the wells was yellow – so all of our towels turned the same color. We survived it, but it must have affected the people who grew up here – because all of them had swollen joints – and rather than walk straight , they seemed to waddle from side to side.

Regarding my life among others, it had been immediately announced (by a blabbermouth who knew me) that my father was in prison – not the ordinary kind of prison where so many people were detained for questioning in those days – but in a special high security prison – with walls 30 feet high – that incarcerated the very worst political prisoners. So being friendly with me was not a wise path to follow – and that’s why nobody would ever help me.

Our group leader especially hated me (she was 2 years older and came from Tienjin). It was policy that all working women got a 3 day rest during their period – but this policy was not applied to me – and I had to work everyday, regardless.

I had never imaged that I could end up like this. All my dreams were gone, and I was facing a grim reality – not only of physical labor – but of missing my mom and everybody else I knew, ---as well as the mental torture inflicted by my peers. I just could not handle it any more. There is a Chinese phase like “ calling the sky, the sky will not respond --calling the earth, the earth will not answer” . I felt helpless, I was so sad, and I could not imagine spending my whole life there.

I made a pledge that I would get out in 5 years. I did not know how I would survive until then - or where I would go --but I was determined.

And in the meantime, I became a fervent writer of letters.

One day, my oldest brother was staying with mother when she received one of my long, whining communications – begging her to help me get me out – telling her that I could not stand my miserable life any longer.

When he saw how mother wept to read it - he sent me a reply – gently asking me to take her feelings more into consideration. I think I grew four years older on the day I read his letter – and I never shared my misery with mother again.

But I also wrote letters to everyone else whom I thought might possibly return them – including – and especially – my first real boy friend.

Yes ! -- amazingly enough -- I had fallen in love – for the first time in my life – with a student who was working on a nearby farm.

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