Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Part Twenty Two

And now, within six months after graduation, I found myself a husband.

I was 26 years old then , and this was really the first time in my life I could be together openly with a man.

Graduation was in early Spring, - the new job began late in the Summer, --- and during the time in between, I was introduced to several young men by various mutual acquaintances.

I realize that in other countries, young, urban people may spend several years dating and playing the field in high school, college, and beyond – but I left the field almost as soon as I had entered upon it.

Once word got around that a young person was available for marriage , the volunteer matchmakers would get busy and eventually invite the lucky couple over for tea.

I remember meeting one young man that my sister had found for me – and I remember how he was not too tall, but also not too short. He sounded smart, he looked kind of handsome – and I would have liked to meet him again. But his call never came – which did not improve a self-confidence that was not so great to begin with. I just never felt myself to be especially attractive, even if people often told me otherwise.

(Believe or not, but many years later I met this guy again, on an outing organized by my husband’s work unit in a newspaper company called “China Daily” which was the only English news paper in China at that time. He and my husband were both journalists. He looked so surprised when our eyes met – and he was still single. I knew several people in the crowd, and I think my popularity and laughter that day put him in a very quiet mood. Or… at least I hope it did !)

Then my family was paid a visit by an “uncle” I had met when I was working as a nurse up north in the provincial hospital.

He was in my father’s generation, but not really related to us. ( He was a subordinate/friend of my mother’s uncle - the general who had helped me so much at the hospital). He knew the family of another high-level military officer who had a son about my age who was available for marriage and he jumped on the opportunity to do all these important people a favor.

So he invited me and the boy over to his place for a blind date, and the three of us spent 90 minutes making small talk.

My date had been late, and his appearance definitely did not impress me . He was short, average looking, overly casual, and wore a military green overcoat which may have been fashionable among the Red Guard ten years earlier, but was definitely backward in 1979.

But there was no question that he was smart, ambitious, and especially witty – and I guess that’s why I got interested in making a second date.

And of course, he came from a family background commensurate with my own. His father, like my father, came from a peasant family, and then joined the People’s Army in the late 1930’s, rising through the ranks to become an officer. But unlike my father, he stayed in the military after the revolution, and met his wife while serving in the Korean War. She had been one of the many teenage volunteers who were sent to the front to boost the morale of soldiers in those days.

By the late 70’s, his father was the #2 commander of Liaoning Province (bordering Korea) and he lived in Shengyang, its capital city of 7.2 million. Even though his rank was similar to my father’s, since they were in local government, they lived much more luxuriously in a single family, 10-room house. They had three sons and a bodyguard who lived with them and did all the household chores.

(One time, when I was visiting, the guard had just finished the dishes and was sitting down with the family, when all of sudden, it began to rain outside. Mother-in-law immediately ordered the guard to close all the windows, but there were so many , he could not close them all at once. The sons were doing nothing at the moment, but none would join me in getting up to help. There was a younger brother who lived at home. And I often saw him ordering this guard to do this or that for him. It seemed to me that the guard was serving the son more than the father, and I complained to my new husband who agreed that his younger brother was spoiled and abused his power.)

Being military, the family was untouched by the Cultural Revolution – except that since all the universities were closed, my boyfriend had to spend three years as a recruit in the People’s Army. But as soon as a few schools began to reopen in 1971, he enrolled in Shanghai University where he got a four-year degree in English language. He then spent another 18 months studying French at my school , Beijing Foreign Language Institute #2 ( but I don’t remember ever seeing him there.) He had also gone to the Foreign Language middle school before the Culture Revolution for two years. So his English was quite good by then.

When I met him, he worked as an interpreter for a manufacturing business – but he had many plans for further advancement –and unlike me and almost every other young person our age – he had his own apartment – which is where I was invited for our second date .

On that second date, he invited me to meet his two friends who lived in the same complex – and I really enjoyed their company. They had all grown up together, so their families knew each other. They were smart – high spirited – and we were all at the threshold of our new , exciting lives. What did young people like us talk about when we got together in those days ? Politics, of course ! Bemoaning the corruption everywhere in government – but certainly not as idealistic communists. Even though we were all the privileged children of high officials, we did not like our party and did not like our system. We were curious about the freedoms found in the West – especially those of us who had learned Western European languages.

Following that, I came over to visit every week, and eventually was given a key to the apartment.

Regarding my family, father, as usual, had no opinion about my new boyfriend, but mother was very opinionated – and she asserted strenuously that I “could have done much better” She thought he was too short (she and her siblings were all tall) – as well as ill-mannered and too full of himself. But as usual – the more I was told what to do – the stronger I felt the urge to do the opposite

I wanted to go ahead with a marriage – but it wasn’t as if I didn’t have some misgivings.

One day, I paid a surprise visit to his apartment – let myself in with the key – and waited all night for him to return. (note: there was no telephoning ahead for such visits – since telephones were still very rare – and the only phone in his entire building belonged to the doorman.)

Where had he spent the night ? Could I believe that it was “just with a few friends” ? I felt that I had been very open with him about my life – while he shared very little about his.

So, yes, I had some reservations – but I also had this feeling – I guess you’d call it traditional – that he was now my man, for better or worse.

I also badly needed to move out of my parents’ house. There were only two bedrooms for all six of us, and there was no privacy at all. And being so cramped, the conversation among us was always turning unpleasant. We endlessly talked about how to change our living conditions, but nobody could do anything. For 30 years, the Chinese government had not built any residential housing, so it was impossible to get a larger apartment. Even after dad’s name had been cleared and he was entitled to a bigger place, no such place was available. All we ever got were promises, and it wasn’t until 1986, that my parents finally moved into a 3-bedroom apartment. (My mom is still living there now, while they allowed us to keep the old two bedroom apartment, and eventually my older brother purchased it.)

Within six months of our first meeting, we applied for a marriage license, and six months later we got married.

The wedding itself was not big deal. It wasn’t that huge ceremony one associates with traditional weddings in the countryside. It was really just a big dinner. Stubborn until the end, my mother refused to contribute to the trousseau or other expenses – but that was OK – since his family could easily afford everything. She wouldn’t even contribute that kind of comforter/quilt that Chinese mothers usually give to daughters when they get married –so I had to grab the materials from her trunk and make the quilt myself.

After the wedding, we spent a week at a lakeside resort (with his two younger brothers !) and then moved into his apartment – to which another room had been added – only it was on a higher floor in the same building. It wasn’t much – but it was way more than almost any other newly wedded couple could expect in China at that time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Part Twenty One

I graduated from Beijing Second Foreign Language School in 1979,

after 3 ½ years of study. (actually – much less – since almost a year was lost to political action and the aftermath of the Tangshan earthquake)

Back in the early sixties, university programs ran for a four full years, and the salary of graduates started at 56 yuan/month (while the salary of a new factory worker was at 18)

But after the Cultural Revolution, the time required for a college degree was trimmed by six months --- and the beginning salary of graduates was trimmed accordingly –down to 43 yuan/month.

Over the course of those years in college, I made several friends, and other than that trouble-maker that I hung out with in high school, everyone whom I still keep in touch with was met at college, and everyone whom I met at the big farm or at the hospital has drifted away.

(Sometime I regret that I never wrote a single letter to the hospital co-workers after I left there. I did promise them that I will keep in touch, but I broke my promise, and I felt bad about it for a long time. Those people elected and sent me to college, and changed my life forever. I was very graceful for that, but meanwhile I also wanted to leave my life in the country behind me. After I graduated from my college, there was a visitor from my hospital to my new home. I did not know how she got my address, but she managed to find me in Beijing. I was very happy to see her. She was a doctor with whom I had worked very closely, and sometimes she would ask me to sign her signature to prescribe medicine for patients when she was too busy to do so. We were good friends, but she was about 10 years older than me, so we did not share the same interests.)

And all of those friends, except one, came from the same high-official background that I did – i.e. one of their parents was at least a level-12 government official. (the single exception being a girl whose father only got to level 16)

But this is not to say that all of the students at the school came from our social class – many of them were workers or even peasants – and in some ways these peasants became better students because they couldn’t go home to visit their family over the weekends – they had to stay in the dormitory where there was nothing to do but study.

The smartest kid in the class turned out to be one of those peasants – with a very thick accent that came from someplace very far from Beijing. He had a big, ugly head (his nickname was “big head”!) and he liked to flirt with girls in a very obnoxious way. He never did master the sound of English – but his memory – and thus his vocabulary – was incredible. He went to hold a very high position in the foreign service.

My college friends ended up with various careers related to their language skills in English (but I was the only one who ended up living in an English speaking country )

One of them became a translator in the office of a large chemical facility in in Beijing. Then she managed to switch to the Finance Ministry which sent her to London to got a masters degree in finance. She eventually worked for the World Bank, as well as other big financial institutions. Obviously, she is a very smart and extremely capable person.

Another friend worked in the International Travel Agency, Beijing branch where I worked for 6 years. A few years ago, she retired from that company, and started working for an Import and Export Cargo business.

Another went back to work in Tien Jing at the company where she had come from. The last time I saw her was in 2004.

All of these friends are retired now- since government workers receive a pension after 30 years of service –and all them, like me, began working for the government as teenagers. The pension can be quite substantial, depending on whatever salary level you reached – and this, combined with a post-retirement occupation can lead to a very high standard of living (almost enough to pay for health care !)

By 1979, my siblings had also all left the countryside and were beginning their careers.

My older sister had gotten office work in a provincial police station. There she began to date another man who worked in the same office, and he eventually used his connections to get himself – and then her – transferred to Beijing. Getting to Beijing was not easy – because someone else from Beijing had to be found who was willing to transfer to their small, provincial township.

Their relationship was still not presented to our parents, when I happened to see them walking together on the street (young couples had nowhere else to go, since each one lived with the parents in small, crowded apartments)

I was happy to report to our mother that he was tall and nice looking – but there was something wrong with one of his eyes – he was just a little bit crosseyed. My mother was surprised, and actually, so was my sister who claimed that she had never noticed ! But by the time they got married, he had a successful operation on that eye, and he looks quite normal now. He is a very good, caring man, and my old sister is very lucky to be married to him.

Later, my sister’s boyfriend introduced my younger sister to one of his co-workers – and shortly thereafter my younger sister was also engaged to be married.

My younger sister, as you might recall, had worked as a gardener in the Fragrant Hills recreation area west of Beijing ,and some of early boyfriends had not worked out. But this young man, just like the eventual spouses of all of my siblings, was the child of high officials – so one and all (soon to include myself ) we married within our social class.

In 1979 my oldest brother was finally able to return to Beijing, after an incredible 10 years of living in a cave. My parents were able to get him a job an Agricultural Science Institute, where he repaired tractors – and everything else for that matter. He never ended up in college, but in some ways he was the best educated, since he had spent a lot of time in that cave reading – and he is the only sibling who can read traditional Chinese texts.

He had almost finished his senior year at high school when the Cultural Revolution interrupted his chance to go to college. Then when it was over, he was too old to be admitted (remember – I just barely got in under the wire). However, he did manage to get a college diploma through evening school many years later.

My second oldest brother had ended up working in a power plant in Shan Xi – and my parents worked hard to get him a slot at the university. He got accepted, but while he was visiting my parents in Beijng, and awaiting the official announcement, some local official’s son took his position at the engineering school.

In exchange, he was offered a slot in a school of Chinese herbal medicine – but he refused to go, since he had no interest in that subject. So despite his high intelligence, he was not going to have a university degree – and he even lost his membership in the Communist party when he lost all of his documents while moving back to Beijing.

Instead, he applied his abilities to private industry where he began several unsuccessful operations. The engineering ability and inventiveness was there – but the social skills and political connections to make things happen were not.

Now he is back at the power plant – just making a living.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Part Twenty

So then I spent the next three and half years
attending the Beijing #2 Language School,

which was something like an American undergraduate liberal arts program except that there were no classes in mathematics or any of the physical sciences.

Of course, the emphasis was on foreign languages – and there were about 400 students in my English department, (100 in each of the four graduating classes), while there were other, usually much smaller, departments for German, French, Cambodian etc.

But we also took classes in history and political science, writing, and physical training. and these classes were all taught in Chinese – so it really wasn’t an intense foreign language emersion.

There was only one native English speaker in the entire English department, a humorous, overweight fellow who presumably could not find better employment anywhere else (his salary and living conditions were not spectacular – and neither did he seem interested enough in Chinese civilization to learn the language - but he did end up marrying a Chinese girl and moving to Hong Kong)

Every morning we got up at 6:00 AM, and after washing up, everyone tried to find a spot outside to read aloud in English. We were told this was the only way we could master English pronunciation . So everywhere you looked, you would see students reciting – and it sounded like monks reading scripture in a monastery.

I wish I could say that my experience at this school, after all of my previous mishaps, had been a happy one – but this was not the case -- for once again, I just had a hard time fitting in.

To begin with, I had gotten a head start on the other students by following English lessons on the radio broadcasts for several years, so I started out at the head of my class, making me an object of jealousy.

This being a communist university, the idea was that students were supposed to learn as a class, not as individuals, so it was the job of the best students to help the worst., and I’m afraid that I did not appreciate being teamed up with a student who couldn’t speak any English at all.

Having spent so much time as a farm laborer and then as a low-level nurse, I wanted nothing other than to excel in English and begin a real career -- but this eagerness just made me enemies and the topic of malicious rumors.

Then, during our evening meetings, students would stand up and accuse me not helping others. At first, I could not understand why only I had been targeted, but soon one of the male students told me that they had talking about me all along, and that was why he could not study with me.
(I had wanted to study with him because he was a top student – not because I had romantic feelings about him or anyone else)

And then to compound the problem, the entire country was moving into another tumultuous period with the decline of the old guard, culminating in 1976, with the death of Zhao En-Lai in January, the horrific Tangshan earthquake in July, and finally the death of Mao in September.
There was much unrest concerning what would happen next – and our school was assigned to publicly denounce Deng Xiaoping on a daily basis.

(Note: regarding the Tanghan earthquake, perhaps readers in the West are not aware of just what a enormous catastrophe this was. Over a quarter of a million people died in Tangan, and since it wasn’t that far from Beijing, we felt the tremors ourselves. I remember how the doorway to our classroom began to weave back and forth, as we waited for it to quiet down so we could all run out of the building. Then, we spent the next three months living and studying in covered trenches dug into the earth near our buildings which we were afraid to enter)

Very little serious studying was done in that year – and much of our time was spent in political meetings and demonstrations in Tiananmen square.

Meanwhile, I had very little incentive to remain at the top of my class – it only got me into trouble – and I had already been criticized many times for being too self centered. So for better or worse – my grades began to decline, I became a mediocre student, and I did not care any more.

Being a bad student wasn’t all that serious – since almost nobody got thrown out school for test scores. But I do remember an attractive young woman being dismissed when she became pregnant (and her boyfriend was thrown out as well)

Still, it did sting when a special class was assembled of the best students, and I did not make the cut.

Fortunately, the rumors of my romantic entanglements were just that – rumors . Even though I had already broken up with my boyfriend from the farm, I had no interest in anyone else. There was one boy, from an older class, who was interested in me, and he asked an intermediary to arrange a date for us before he graduated. He was a smart, attractive young man whom I had noticed when he was playing action roles on a local stage. I would have loved to know him, but I politely refused his date. ( Believe it or not, but a year later, after my graduation, on the first day of my new job, I sat down at my desk and noticed a young man sitting across the room – and it was him. I didn’t know what to say so I pretended not to recognize him – for by then I had already begun dating someone else)

The Language Institute was a boarding school (like every other school I’ve ever attended) so I slept in a dormitory room with 6 or 7 other young women, and then went home to visit my parents on weekends, just like I’d been doing almost since I was born. During these years, my younger sister was the only sibling who was still living with them – but eventually, my older siblings were allowed to return fom the countryside and stay with my parents again, even my oldest brother who had spent 10 years living in a cave. He finally got back to Beijing in 1978, and then he then spent several years living in my parents’ apartment.

(perhaps this is a good place to talk about some unusual details of residential property ownership in the People’s Republic. Officials were assigned a certain square-footage of apartment space based on their official rank. My father qualified for enough space for two apartments – and that’s what he got before he was arrested. After my mother returned from the countryside, she was given a single apartment, then in the mid 80’s the family got a second apartment, but it still fell short of the square-footage to which we were entitled. Then, five years after my father’s death, the government paid my mother a lump sum of cash to make up the difference. So, in a way, the family now owns two apartments, but there's a 70-year limit regarding everyone’s property, and sometime around 2050 there are going to be a whole lot of people who lose ownership of their homes)

Meanwhile, my father had resumed his career, not at the Friendship hotel any more, but with a similar, high level job with the Beijing Foreign Language Institute (which, as already told, helped me get into language school)

When it came time for me to graduate, I was assigned a position as language teacher in Beijing People’s University, but I refused to go !

I had never wanted to be a teacher. In the distant past, teachers had been highly respected, but during the Culture Revolution, I had seen them get treated very badly.

In the final year of study, all students had done a residency at one of the various jobs for which graduates would be qualified, and I had done my residency at the foreign tourist bureau. Tour guides got to travel all over the country – they got to talk directly to foreigners – and so they also got a lot of extra experience in perfecting their language skills – and that was what I wanted to do. So I went to my father, and he helped me to get the assignment that I wanted.

I suppose that some readers may see me as a spoiled little girl who will never do what’s she's told (beginning with the time when I walked away from elementary school) and who relies on the indulgence and prestige of her parents to get what she wants.

But I’ve always just wanted to excel and enjoy doing whatever I can do best.

Who doesn’t ?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Part Nineteen

I spent two years as a nurse. I liked my job.

I liked all the doctors and nurses – and my head nurse was a very nice and patient woman. She taught me all her tricks and skills, like how to inject the needles without causing a lot of pain, and how to clean the wounds and sew them together without leaving a big scar.; I was even given some training in acupuncture,

But I didn’t really want to spend my entire life with sick or injured people and their distressed families – I just couldn’t handle all that suffering – especially with small children. When they were crying for mom, I was crying with them.

There’s plenty of sad stories, but one I remember most was the student worker who was injured while working on the railroad. He was carrying one end of a large wooden beam, when he fell and the heavy beam crushed his head against the steel tracks. When he was carried into the clinic, his head had swollen to twice its normal size and his face was blue. The doctors managed to save his life, but his mind never recovered.

And I wasn’t always proud of the job I was doing.

One of my patients was an infant – and every day his mother took him to clinic for his shots. The baby knew what was coming – he knew the shots were painful – and he was kicking and screaming all the time – making it a real challenge for the nurse (me) to administer his medication. I had to move quickly and firmly – and one time I may have moved too firmly –because the next day, when his mother brought him in, one of his legs was curled up and he refused to walk on it. Later, the nursing supervisor asked me quietly whether I had administered the shot – and I felt very bad. (but don’t worry – the little boy made a complete recovery)

So though I wanted an education and a professional career – I really didn’t want a career in medicine – and I talked about this with my mother’s distant uncle – the army general who was in charge of our area (including the hospital) – and the man who had gotten me the nursing job in the first place.
( I called him grandpa, but he was closer to my mom’s age which was about early 50’s)

In those days, entrance to university was no longer by competitive examination – but by popular election conducted by groups of workers all over the country. (all the universities had been closed in 1966. A few began to reopen in 1970 and most were reopened by 1975. The percentage of college students at that time was 3%.)

Each district or working unit was allotted a certain number of openings from each of the professional schools – and workers within each district would elect the student candidates from among themselves.

Since my workplace was a hospital – it was only reasonable that all of our student slots would be for a medical school – and everyone who worked at the hospital, from the janitors to the clerks to the nurses were eligible to run for election.

But I didn’t want to go to a medical school – I wanted to go to the language institute – to study English and enter the diplomatic corps.

I had wanted to study English ever since 1966. That’s when my second brother told mom that his teacher wanted him to go to Middle school of Foreign Language in Beijing which was very difficult to enter. You had to not only pass the normal high school exams but also pass the layers of oral exams and appearance tests. Only a few students were carefully selected from the entire school to enter that college, and usually only one would be chosen. Mom asked my brother what he wanted to do, and he replied that he did not want to be a “butt follower bug --- i.e. an interpreter who followed the VIPs and did not have an identity of his own. That was the image he had in his mind, so he refused the opportunity.

A few years later my younger sister applied for the position, and she passed all the tests except the last one. Later her teacher told mom that she did not fail that test either, but the school needed more boys than girls.

These two events stuck in my mind, and I wanted to take the challenge – so
I raised this issue with my mother’s uncle, the general.

I guess you might say that I had gone from the bottom of the social order (as the daughter of a “bad family” at the farm) to the very top – since now my father was out of prison – and I had family in many high positions. When the Cultural Revolution began, most of the country was placed under military control – so my mother’s uncle, the general, had complete authority over the district in which I was working – and I often visited him and his wife for dinner during the week. (his poor wife, by the way, was a terrible hypochondriac – to the point of nearly being an invalid – though as it turns out – she lived into her 70’s)

I told the general my dreams about going to language school and he promised me nothing – but later that year, when the student elections were announced for our district – the hospital was given four slots at the medical school – plus one slot at Beijing #2 Foreign Language Institute. Hurray !

This was very good news for me – but of course, I still had to get elected by my peers at the hospital – and I worked very, very hard to be a popular, model worker. For example, I dedicated myself to cleaning the floors of the clinic. Country people had been tramping muddy shoes over those wooden floors for so long that the wood was nowhere to be seen – but once I spent an entire evening digging them out – and everyone was quite surprised when they saw those wooden floors for the very first time the next morning.

I felt that my campaign was proceeding quite well – but the day before the election – a poster went up on the hospital bulletin board denouncing me as a “back door candidate” (i.e. everyone knew all about my uncle) – and I ended up being elected #6 for the 5 open student slots – which put my future in serious jeopardy – since the age limit to apply for university was 23 – and I was already 22.

Nobody signed this denunciation (nobody ever does) – but I’m sure it was a group of workers from Shanghai who were trying to improve the chances of their own candidate.

But as destiny would have it – one of the five elected candidates had second thoughts about leaving her family. She was a local girl who had never been out of the area, and she was a bit scared of moving to another city for school. So she resigned her election – leaving me with the #5 slot. Hurray again !

But I still had to win the approval of school representatives who had to interview and recommend each candidate. Since language school leads to a career in international relations, students must be able to speak and present themselves accordingly – and I managed to pass that qualification. But the news about my “back door connections” was attached to my file -- and this file was carried to Beijing by the person who had interviewed me and was hoping that I would be rejected by those ultimately in charge of education for the foreign ministry.

And this is where incredible fortune smiled on me yet again – for my father worked for the foreign ministry – and now that he was out of prison, he was temporarily assigned as a director at the Beiing Foreign Language Institute #1 – and my file ended up on his desk – where an associate showed him the negative report about me, and then tore it into little pieces.

So I guess “back door connections” really did have something to do with my career – but they had opened only a very brief window of opportunity – since my father was only working at the Foreign Language Institute for about 6 months – and the following year, civilian control was reinstated in our hospital district, and my mother’s uncle, the general, was no longer in charge.

So finally my dream was coming true !

Back during those first miserable weeks at the farm, I had promised myself to get out and get myself a real life in five years – and now, six years later, I was finally on a train going south to Beijing – ready to begin my new life – meeting both of my proud, happy parents at the train station – and riding home with them in a (very expensive) taxicab.

This was the first time in my life that I felt I was also important and paid attention by my parents. The next day, I had a high fever – coming from all the excitement and exhaustion of the previous few weeks.

(and I think I’m going to cry again)