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)

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