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.

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