Wednesday, May 16, 2007
With my older siblings dispatched to the countryside, I spent the next year in the Beijing apartment with my mother and younger sister.
I was supposed to be attending my first year of high school at this time.
But when high schools reopened after Red Guard chaos, it was a completely different system. There were only local schools now – no more schools ranked by student ability – and it turned out that what had been the lowest school ( with the lowest ranked teachers for the lowest ranked students) – was now my local school. It was a disaster – I hated it – I learned nothing the entire year – and I skipped classes as often as I could , so I could hang out with my friends.
My friends were like me – children of high officials – whose parents had been arrested or sent to the countryside – so they were often under their own supervision, left alone to live on their own with money left by their parents,
One time, I was invited to a friend of friend’s house.
She was a very pretty girl, about 15 years old, and she lived alone with her brother, age 7. She was so mean to this poor boy ! She forced him to do all the chores – constantly beating and slapping his face. He had to cook for her, and if she didn’t like the food, I saw her shove it into his mouth. He was in tears, but dared not to cry out, because the more he cried, the more she beat him. I felt so bad that there was nobody to stop her.
We were so-called hooligans – but of the genteel sort. Breaking into movie theaters was our worst crime. One time, my best friend stole a tomato off the window sill of a security office -- but that was the most outrageous thing we did (and I remember running like crazy to get away)
This wasn’t the 60’s in America – we rebellious youth had no drugs – no sex -- or even any rock n’ roll. (sometimes we played recordings – but the only records anybody had were Russian)
There was some dating among us – where someone would introduce someone else to a brother or sister – and we had some neighborhood boys on bicycles who liked to chase young girls. They especially liked to chase the girls who wore a military uniform or blue Mao jacket (since that could identify us as children of high officials)
I went out with a few boys --but I never had any special feelings for them. All of our behavior would have been quite appropriate for a church social.
But as I said – my high school was hell – and I especially hated the principal teacher who supervised my class. He knew that my father was arrested , and he used it against me before the other students. He was a peasant who had worked his way up to teach in a Beijing school.
One time he took a few students with him to visit our apartment – to berate my mother for having such an awful daughter. When I heard what he was doing, I raced home – but he was already there – and my mother was so upset by his attack, she went into a kind of fit – falling on the floor and clenching her fists. It was something I had never seen her do before – but it would happen several more times over the next 5 years.
I was furious ! And I ran out of the apartment to where the teacher had left his bicycle – and I stomped it – jumping up and down – going kind of berserk. Seeing his bicycle destroyed, he ran up to me and punched me full in the face, knocking me down.
I saw stars ! – yes, I actually saw stars, just like in the cartoons.
I was 15 - he was over thirty – I was a small, skinny girl from the city – he was a large, country man, strong as a horse – but I jumped up and slapped him twice on the face – leaving red hand prints on both his cheeks. (Well -- I’d never done that before - and I never did it again)
So as you can see, I was probably more eager than anyone to leave town and go to the countryside – and indeed, as summer came, all the students my age were being organized to leave the city. At first it seemed that my family’s bad record was going to keep me from going – and since my school was going way north – up near the Russian border – somebody like me might well try to escape to the other side.
But eventually – in October – the orders came for me to join them – and I was really looking forward to it.
For one thing, the students got paid 32 Yuan a month – a real salary. And for another – I so longed to get away from the neighbors ( who spied and accused us) – and, of course, away from that hellish school. Working with a bunch of boys and girls my age – out in the fresh air - among the valleys and streams – it all seemed very romantic – and I was eager to go.
Our destination was a large farm , formerly used to rehabilitate political prisoners –way up in HeiLongJiang province (Manchuria) –in a village about 50 miles from the Russian border.
We were on the train for 36 hours – and when it finally stopped – it was the middle of night – and in the middle of nowhere.
It was very dark – and there were no lights.
There was a very small train station—but nothing else.
No buildings - no trees - no nothing – just shoulder-high grass – and several tractors from each village that were waiting for us.. We were loaded into wagons – and the tractors pulled us for another four hours down the dirt road that led to the farm – where we were greeted with a great banquet upon our arrival.
I’m calling it a great banquet – it was only stir-fried cabbage and steamed bread. But compared to what would become our usual meals – it really was a banquet – even though we were eating in candle-lit darkness. (there was no electricity – and by the way, we never saw candles again)
And it did I mention that it was cold ? The newly built dining hall had windows – but they hadn’t yet been glazed – and this was October in a rather high latitude.
Yes, there was a lot of crying during the first week at the farm (and not just by me)
In preparation, my mother had used some of my uncle’s money to purchase a new, large wooden trunk to carry everything that might be needed in a place where nothing could be purchased—all my clothes – toiletries – bedding – water basin etc. It was probably the heaviest trunk taken to the farm – but that’s as far as it got – as it split down the middle while being loaded off the cart.
The boys and girls lived in two separate dormitories – that were like long tunnels with a long bed – called a kang – on either side – that were like horizontal chimneys that circulated hot air within them from the fire that burned at one end. That’s how homes have been traditionally heated in northern China for thousands of years. The room itself isn’t heated, but the bed is – though there wasn’t much warmth for those sleeping at the far end of the dormitory.
That autumn, we worked 12 hours a day – first in the fields, gathering brush/scrub to serve as fuel – and then in the barns winding rope out of hemp – a regimen that left most of us in a very bad mood at the end of the day.
We got a half-basin full of hot water every day. First we drank a little – then we used it for a sponge bath – and all of us had fleas.
I was meticulously clean and kept the fleas away as long as I could – but basically we were all sleeping in the same bed – and the fleas had a field day.
It was especially tough as winter wore on – as the snow piled up and the temperature sank far below zero. We used to say that if you spit – the frozen spittle would shatter when it hit the ground. And foraging for fuel became much more difficult as well – because several feet of snow had to be cleared off the top.
But the summer was not necessarily a holiday either – as we had great, black clouds of mosquitoes – and walking along –we continuously had to flail our arms to brush them off.
To relieve the monotony, we had singing (songs from the 8 operas approved by Madame Mao) . Occasionally, we got to see a movie, but they were all the same - and usually just more propaganda. Sometimes we had to walk many kilometers to a nearby village to see them. At other times , the headquarters would send some local entertainment team to perform shows for us (shows that were all about praising Mao and down with the rich. )
The only thing kept me going was letters from my family and friends. I cannot describe the joy I had whenever I received a letter.
It was at this time, that I became such a fervent correspondent – written by the light of a simple, oil burning lamp I had made. I wrote letters to anyone-everyone I ever know or hoped to know – and was, of course, so happy to get letters in return. One day, at mail call, I got 5 letters ! This was my greatest achievement – and one of the happiest moments of the two years I spent there.