Thursday, June 28, 2007

Part Eighteen

Getting back to my own life, mother and I moved back to Beijing,

following my younger sister who had graduated from her rural high school and was allowed to return and take a job as gardener. Half a year later, toward the end of 1972, mother was allowed to join her, and she was given a two bedroom apartment in a building attached to the same complex from which we had come – i.e. the one built to accommodate the employees of the Friendship Hotel where my father had been a security director before his arrest.

Most of the hotel staff had been sent to the 5.7 cadre school for two years, and all their old apartments – including ours - had been reassigned. But since almost all the foreigners had fled China during the Cultural Revolution, the hotel itself was almost empty, and two of those Hotel buildings were converted into residential buildings for the returning former residents –
and a wall was built to separate our two buildings from the rest of the complex.

Our new apartment was not as spacious as the double-apartment that we used to have –but at least we had a kitchen, toilet, and bath – which was a dramatic improvement over the dirt-floor sheep barn where the three of us had been living for the past two years.

As she returned to Bejing, mother’s life was restored in many ways. She could finally visit our father in prison – she was living near her old friends and neighbors, and she was even given access to her bank account – although visiting the bank was, again, an event that caused much anxiety. She was afraid to go herself, so this time my aunt and I made the trip – handed the account book over to the teller – and waited nervously while the matter was discussed in a back room out of our hearing.

Finally, the account book was handed back, along with the several hundred Yuan we had requested, and we were no longer living hand to mouth. Actually, during his imprisonment, my father’s salary had continued to be credited to our account – after deducting the 24 Yuan/month that were given to sustain us in the interim.

My sister had been at the top of the class in her rural school ( it was a part-time school, with students working the fields in the morning and attending school in the afternoon) – but the best job she could get was as gardener in a recreational park west of Beijing. I think she enjoyed her job – she cultivated the flower beds – and it was certainly an enjoyable environment – but even a factory worker in the city had a higher status, and mother wished a better job had been offered to her.

The park was located near an army facility, and many soldiers visited it for relaxation or exercise – including one young lieutenant who noticed this pretty girl carrying a heavy pot of flowers up the hill everyday and soon fell in love with her. He was a tall, handsome, and very pleasant young man – and even though he came from only a workers’ family, my mother adored him --- we all liked him. But after they had been dating for about four years, and expecting to be married, my sister came home from the park one day and announced that their relationship was over.

No reason was given then – or ever – and everyone was disappointed – especially the young officer who came to us many times asking us for help to get her back. He was even given permission by the army to postpone his next assignment, so he could stay in our area to pursue his flagging courtship. I don’t know whether iron-willed stubbornness is unique to our family – but that’s often how we are – and my sister would simply not be moved – nor would she ever explain her decision --- and soon she declared her love to another man.

But now it was the rest of us who objected to the relationship – since the new boyfriend was nowhere near as handsome as the last one – and worst of all – his father had been convicted of political crimes back in the fifties.

Since our own father had spent many years in prison, maybe we should have been more open minded – and certainly this young man had had suffered a quit a bit in his life. He was very young when his father went to prison, and his mom had a very hard time making ends meet. Every day had been a struggle for them ever since he could remember.

My younger sister had pity on him. She knew that our family would never approve their relationship, so she never brought him to see us. It was her secret. Soon she was losing a lot of weight and started looking very fragile and pale.

But this time we dug in our heels – we had family meetings – and after many evening of tears and talks, she finally she gave up her second boyfriend. Soon thereafter, my old sister’s new husband introduced her to his co-worker, and soon after they met, they got married.

Perhaps the non-Chinese reader of my stories is wondering how China ever came to have a billion people – since sex outside of marriage is so discouraged – and marriages themselves seem almost impossible to accomplish – and yet, somehow new generations manage to be born.

So my mother and sister were beginning to lead something like normal lives – but I was still a displaced person – without a job – without an education – and not really supposed to be in Beijing. But I wasn’t completely indolent – for I had discovered the English language lessons given two hours daily on the government radio --- English was the ONLY foreign language being taught in this way – and I was a very eager student. The fact is – I love English ! I listened every day – and I did all the exercises.

But still – I was over 20 years old – I needed to have my own life – I needed a job – so my mother sent me to one of her old army comrades, now a general, to help get me into the People’s Army.

Unfortunately, the army was not accepting recruits at that time – so next my mother reached out to another contact – a second cousin who held a high position in that same far northern province where I had been sent four years before – and he found me a job as a nurse in a hospital.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Chinese medical industry –– there were no nursing schools during the Culture Revolution– so nurses received only on-the-job training. During those years, China produced a lot of “bare foot doctors” who worked side-by-side with farmers, but who were also functioning as “doctors”

I took that 1,000 mile train ride back up north – even further north (and west) of where I had been – and moved into a room above the hospital.

What an improvement over life at the farm !

Instead of 60 roommates – I had one – a very nice young woman from Shanghai who had been a nurse for many years. We became good friends, and she helped me learn the ropes of my new job.

First, I worked as a receptionist – getting the patients to sign in as they lined up outside our outpatient clinic. But after proving that I was a quick study, I was taught how to give shots (practicing on a pillow), to sew up wounds, and to sign the doctor’s name on prescriptions. Isn’t that all that nurses ever do ?

Actually, the physicians at our clinic were well trained –some of them had been sent to this location back in the late 1950’s. They had been accused of being rightist, but never denounced as criminals, and since our location was so remote – there hadn’t been pressure to turn our doctors into farmhands during the Cultural Revolution. But I’m sure they all wished that they could be living closer to civilization.

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about the Chinese medical system.

The only people who don’t have to pay for health care are government workers – and even back in the first decades of communism – 92% of the population were peasants and they were not included. In the 1980’s, as the government began to cut back, fewer and fewer people qualified for health benefits, and even those who could afford coverage still had to pay 20% out of pocket.

My father, for example, as a government employee, had complete health coverage – but this did not extend to his wife – so after she quit her ministry position, mother had to pay for her own healthcare. She has been very lucky and very healthy, but now that she is 88 years old, health insurance is big a problem for her. Government insurance will not cover her, and private health insurance is too expensive due to her advanced age. They may take her in, but it would cost her a fortune.

This is why so much of the Chinese economy goes into savings instead of consumer spending. Everyone needs to protect both themselves and their family.

When one of my uncles came down with a liver disease in the 1990’s – he had to come up with 18,000 Yuan for an operation. That’s a fortune ! His son told him that they did not have the money, and he would have to go home without an operation.

Only by pooling their resources could his siblings afford his health care. (he got the operation – but, unfortunately, died a year later).

(The last time I saw him was in 1992, during that year after his operation. When we visited his village, he was very thin and his back was bent low, but he was very happy to see us, and he made a great effort to put a smile on his face while bustling about trying to help his wife cook a meal for us. He showed us the flowers that mom had given him a few years earlier, and he told us that some of them had been stolen by villagers. He had such love for beautiful things. Before we left the village, he asked us to take at least five long strings of garlic with us. They almost filled the entire trunk of our car. He knew mom and dad would appreciate his garlic – and he also asked us to take a pair of Ming Dynasty tea pots with us to give to mom. They were very precious to him, and many years earlier, antique dealers had offered him 400 Yuan for them, but he had refused to sell. Then, while he was busy carefully wrapping them, I had a feeling I cannot describe. I knew it would be the last time I would ever see him. Now, whenever I make dumplings I remember him. He made most beautiful and fast dumplings I have ever seen. )

No comments: