A SCHOLARLY FAMILY
Compared to the vast majority of the population in China at the time, my childhood was infused with privileges.
My grandfather was a well known Chinese doctor. He had treated many famous people in China, such as the last emperor, Pu Yi, after Pu Yi became an average citizen of China.
Grandfather built a a four-in-one compound 四合院, a classical architecture style of residential homes. It's a key characteristic of Beijing dated from the Ming Dynasty. It has four houses facing ease direction, surrounding a courtyard, with a red gate and high walls.
My earliest memories were the huge mahogany plaques hanging across our walls. They had Chinese calligraphy engraved on them. These were from grandfather's patients, grateful for their treatment and cure. They appeared so grand, heavy, and serious.
One of the plaques was on the wall directly above my bed. It read 妙手回春, roughly translated as "Your magic brought back my vitality." These four characters were the first Chinese characters I learned to read and write. They are permanently engraved in my brain.
After the communist party took over the country, grandfather had to close down his private medical practice. The government assigned him to be the chief physician in the Navy Hospital of China.
In the hospital, grandfather was on-call 24 hours a day, ready to treat the generals, admirals, captains, and other high level officers in the navy. I barely saw him around.
On Sundays, two young sailors from the navy would take grandfather home in a shiny black sedan.
Back then, cars were a rarity in China. When kids saw a car passing by, they would excitedly run after the car until the car disappeared from their sights. Grandfather coming home in a beautiful and shiny car became a big event for the neighborhood children.
Before the car arrived with grandfather on Sundays, neighborhood children would gather outside of our home to anxiously await for the car. Once the car appeared at the end of the street, and became bigger and bigger, the children would cheer and wave with excitement. When the car stopped, the children would crowd around the car to look inside, their noses pressed against the windows.
After the sailors accompanied grandfather to inside, the children would wait for the sailors to come back out.
When the sailors came back, they would wipe the little handprints off the car, and polish the car until you could see yourself on it. Then the sailors would stand at attention while waiting to take grandfather back to the hospital. They stood with their chins up, backs straight, and eyes steadily casting forward.
In my mind, I can still clearly see the sailors in their crisply pressed white uniforms, with red four-in-hand neckties, and blue striped collars. Two inscribed black silk ribbons at the rear of the sailor cap would sway with wind over their shoulders. As a little girl, I was absolutely fascinated with these sailors.
The bigger boys would put on homemade straw hats with two straw streamers behind their ears. They would mimic the sailors to stand at attention.
Every time I see the British royal guards, I would be reminded of those young sailors standing straight and tall. In fact, the Navy, along with the Army and Air Force, were the de facto royals guards in China.
Dad was a professor, educated in the famous and prestigious Beijing University. He was the youngest professor and later the department director in North China Electric Power University.
Dad was officially recognized as an authority in research on energy efficiency. He published numerous books and papers in his field and could speak with ease to an audience of thousands eloquently, without written notes. He was well known for lacing his academic lectures with humor.
Dad was also extremely handy. He could build and fix just about anything. Traditionally in China, many educated men either would not or could not do anything with their hands.
Dad was very handsome and popular with his peers and his students alike.
Mom was from a coal miner's family and grew up poor. She lost her dad at 3 and her brother at 15 to mining accidents. Her sister-in-low married away not long after her brother's death, leaving her two young sons behind. Mom practically raised my cousins on her own since the age of 15. These cousins treat mom as their biological mother. They refused to visit their biological mother and their step siblings. The only time they visited their biological mother was when she asked for them on her deathbed. My cousins told me that they didn't shed a single tear at the funeral, even though traditions had them kneeling and weeping.
Some of my favorite times growing up were spent with these cousins.
Mom and cousins told me all kinds of stories. Some stories were happy ones, like when the older cousin got his first paycheck, he took his brother and mom out for dinner spending half of his paycheck. Other stories were sad, like when local bullies tried to get fresh with mom, the cousins beat those guys senseless.
My favorite story was when mom was still a teenager and the cousins were five and six years old. Mom took the boys out on the night of lantern festival. The traditional food on lantern festival is a bowl of soup with 6 round sweet rice balls, stuffed with sesame, dates, and other similar foods. The rice balls signify safety and peace, and 6 is a lucky number in China. At the time, the rice ball soup was an once-a-year treat. Teens and children loved the sweet rice balls as they hardly had any candy or other sweets during the year.
On that night, after browsing the colorful lanterns, mom took the boys to a food stand to eat the rice ball soup. Mom didn't have enough of her babysitting money to buy a bowl for everyone. So mom bought two bowls for the boys, and told them she wasn't hungry but thirsty. She told the cousins to eat the rice balls, and she'd drink some of the soup. The two boys glanced at each other without saying anything. They each quietly ate four rice balls. Then they combined the rest into one bowl of four rice balls. They pushed the bowl to mom.
Mom is smart and well liked. In high school, she would be voted as class president every year. Mom could not afford college. She went to an accounting trade school by working odd jobs at night. She became a licensed accountant in the university where dad worked.
Mom and dad met at a dance. Mom's beauty dazzled dad and dad's intellect and sense of humor attracted mom. They were married a few months later.
The university where mom and dad worked was part of the Ministry of Energy in China. One of the privileges I had as a child was growing up in a boarding kindergarten owned and operated by the Ministry. My brother and I lived in this fancy kindergarten Monday trough Saturday. on Sundays, mom and dad would pick us up and take us to the famous Beijing Zoo, Summer Palace, Forbidden City, and restaurants. It was a tremendous privilege in many ways. At the time in China, a lot of children hardly had enough to eat, let alone going to kindergartens. Many children started working at an early age to help their parents, working on farms, raising animals, cooking, cleaning, and fetching water from wells or rivers. It wasn't uncommon for a 6 year old to babysit their younger siblings while their parents worked in factories or on farms.
At that time, foods like pork, chicken, eggs, and milk were rare and expensive. They were considered luxuries. Some children were lucky enough to have those foods once a year, on Chinese New Year. Others never even tasted any of these foods.
In our special kindergarten, we would have these 'luxury' foods everyday or several times a week. (Now as I'm remembering and writing about these experiences, I feel great shame and guilt.)
The teachers in the kindergarten were strict and fierce. The stern boarding school headmasters you would see in movies or read about always remind me of those teachers in my kindergarten. They never smiled. I was scared of them. All children were. If a child did not obey the rules in the kindergarten, the teacher would ask the child go up to stand in front of the class, bringing their own ruler with them. The teacher would ask the child open their hands, and beat the child's hand with their own ruler. The teacher then would turn to the class, tell the children they would not want to follow the example of the offending child. If the child being disciplined started crying, they would get additional ruler beating.
As a child, I hated milk. Milk made me nauseous. But not drinking milk was not an option. Every morning, I would swirl the milk in my bowl, close my nose and force down a sip, and put down my bowel and breathe. Once the other children finished their breakfast, the teacher would keep me at my breakfast, and watch me to force down my milk, until the last drop in my bowl. The teachers told me that, if I didn't drink milk, I would get PF chondrosis and they did not want to be blamed for that.
Some days, just the smell or the look of the milk made my stomach turn. I would tell my teacher I was not hungry and did not want any breakfast. The teacher would take away other parts of the breakfast, and leave the milk to me to drink. I had had days where I would sit at my little table all day, staring at my milk bowl, my stomach turning.
On Saturday afternoons, before our parents came to pick us up, the teachers would say to us: "Be careful what you say to your mom and dad about the school, and about us teachers. If you say anything about not liking the school or the teachers, we could hear you right way. Then you'll see on Monday what kind of trouble you are in."
(I feel ashamed recalling such an ironic situation. At a time when few children in China had milk regularly, I had it everyday but I hated it.)
Most children at that time did not have any toys. We literally played with dirt everyday. But I was lucky enough to have one doll. I named her Ling Ling. She was my most treasured possession. Each time before I could play with Ling Ling, mom would have me scrub my hands with soap and change into clean clothes. I was never allowed to sleep with Ling Ling or take her outside. We wanted to keep her clean and new.
One day, dad brought home a red toy car. It was an expensive gift from one of the grateful patients of grandfather. The car came with a clear case that you could see through. Dad left the toy car in its case and placed it on a high shelf that we kids could not reach. Dad told us to never touch the toy car, so it would remain shiny and beautiful. I can still remember to this day how I wanted to touch and play with the toy car.
BEIJING SECOND EXPERIMENTAL PRIMARY SCHOOL
As the capital, Beijing had the best schools, universities, and teachers in the country. Two of the most elite primary schools in Beijing were First and Second Experimental Primary Schools (实验小学). These schools experimented with more advanced teaching principles and modernized teaching methods. Admisson was fiercely competitive. To get in, children needed to go through a whole-day entrance exam.
Mom and dad did not take my brother to these tests. He went to a boarding primary school, also owned and operated by the Ministry of Energy.
When I turned 6, mom and dad decided to take me to the test to try my luck. That year, the school was enrolling 20 first graders. When we got there, hundreds of families already filled the entire play ground. My memories of the tests have long been faded. I just remember going through a half dozen rooms, each with its own theme. In one room, the teacher showed us a picture and asked us to form a story and tell the story out loud, within certain time limits. In another room, a teacher did a dance. We had to repeat the dance with all the details. In the final room, there were several teachers standing around. They were there to struct a 'free form' conversation with us, to see if we had the personality to handle such an occasion. Some of the children started crying seeing all these adults. They did not get admitted to the school.
By the end of the day, all parents and children gathered on the playground again. A stage had been set up with long tables. The administrator announced the final 20 admissions. If your name was called, you would climb up on the table - so everyone including all the children could see you - and bow to the crowd.
When my name was called, I knew, without looking, mom and dad's faces were filled with pride.
In China, parents place great hopes and dreams on their children. Their children's successes are their success, and their children's failures are their failures. That day I made mom and dad proud.
The school was 10 miles away from home. Since both mom and dad worked full time, I needed to take public transportation to go to school and come home by myself. The week before school started, mom and dad took me out and bought a monthly bus pass for me. I had to take a photo to be pasted on my pass as the passes were not transferrable. Mom threaded a pretty pink ribbon through a small hole on the plastic cover of the pass, so I could hang it on my neck to easily show my pass to the ticket agent on my bus.
Next, mom and dad and I walked to and from the bus stop, which was about 1 mile away. They showed me how to trace my route by memorizing unique buildings and other landmarks along the route. Then they asked me to walk by myself, with them trailing behind, to test my memory. Once I got the whole route down, I walked one again to time the walk.
Then we got on the bus to the school to familiarize with the 7 stops before I would reach school. Mom picked out one landmark for me on each stop. She told me if at any stop, I didn't see my mark, I'd know I either missed my stop, or I got on a wrong bus all together.
I already memorized our address and mom and dad's phone numbers at work. I knew if I got lost, I should call mom or dad from a public coin phone. If I happened to see a traffic patrol police, I should tell him I was lost, and clearly state my name and my address.
When the night came around before the school's first day, I was prepared and ready. Next morning, mom made a special breakfast for me with a treat, a fried egg, before she and dad left for work. I finished my breakfast, hang my buss pass on my neck, making sure my photo side was visible, picked up my book bag that mom had placed next to the door, and got on my way. I was excited and nervous at the same time.
When I got to the bus stop, it was already overcrowded. There were no lines. People stood next to each other, forming a mass. When the jam packed bus came, the whole mass moved forward toward the bus doors. People on the bus who had reached their destination barely had room to step down on to the side walk. Sometimes people would get pushed back onto the bus and could not get off at all.
By then I had taken crowded Beijing buses countless times and I was already a veteran bus taker. I knew how to not be pushed aside by the grownups. Taking advantage of my small child frame, I would look for voids among the grownup legs and squeeze myself in, to be carried by the mob onto the bus.
We had a light first school day, mainly getting to know each other and assigning seats. The seats were assigned in order of our body height, with shortest occupying the front rows and the tallest sitting in back rows. I was the second tallest kid in the class so I sat in the very last row.
We took photos to put on our school IDs. Small badges with our school's name were handed out. We were to pin the badge on our left chest. Without the school badge properly pined on you, you were not allowed to enter the school.
When I got home after school, I stayed home by myself until mom and dad came home from work.
This school experience really trained me to be independent, to watch my surroundings, and to tell friendliness from danger.
MAKING THE SWIM TEAM
In China back then, athletes were hand picked and trained by the government. Training started from a very young age. The government placed great expectations on these select few. They would be trained to compete internationally, to show the 'imperialist countries' in the west the strengths of Communist China.
One day in first grade, teachers told us to ask our parents if they would agree for their children to be trained as professional swimmers, if their children were picked. There would be daily training after school. The students would need to go to the training site from school, and going home from training. If our parents were not available to do the drop off and pick up, they should make sure their children were capable of going back and forth by themselves.
A couple of days later, those of us who had obtained agreement from parents who had grades above a threshold, were called to the play ground. Two men and one woman were standing there. I had never seen these people before. The teachers told us they were there to evaluate us and select 2 girls to be trained for swimming.
The evaluation did not involve a pool at all. They didn't care if you could swim already. They would rather train you from a clean slate. They wanted kids with potentials.
We were asked to stretch, jump, run, and do flips, cartwheels, splits, and so on. Then they took our body measurements. Afterwards, they called out 6 girls including me, and excused the rest of the kids.
They told us that they needed to meet our parents. They wanted to make sure our parents had athletic bodies as adults, and were not too short or too tall, too skinny or overweight. They wanted to gauge what we would be like as adults. They also wanted to inquire about our siblings and other blood relatives, to ensure there were no family history of genetic diseases.
After the home visits were done, I and another girl from my school were selected.
Training started right away. Every day after school at 3pm, I would take a public bus to go to training. At 6pm, I would take a different bus to go home. After dinner I would do my homework. I was not allowed to miss any homework before going to sleep. My bed time could be anywhere from 9pm to 12am.
My training was cut short abruptly when I lost my left leg in a horrifying accident. I was 13. More on that in later chapters.
One day I would realize this training gave me grit, tenacity, and perseverance, which allowed me to deal with many ups and downs later in life.
CULTURAL REVOLUTION AND THE RAID
One night when I was 9, I was awaken by loud and fast knocks on our front gate. I heard someone yelling: "Red Guards. This is a raid. Open up immediately, or we'll enter by force!"
A few months prior to that night, Chairman Mao Zedong had launched the Cultural Revolution. His intended to 'purify' and solidify the Communist ideology, and purge capitalist and other Western ideology from Chinese society.
Mao alleged that intellectuals and professionals, such as professors, scholars, doctors, teachers, and authors, had been infiltrating the government with capitalist ideology and introducing bourgeoisie ideas to weaken the will of working class people, i.e., uneducated manual laborers. They were accused to be conspiring to overthrow the Communist party and transform China into a capitalist society.
Mao called these intellectuals and professionals capitalist monsters and demons. He incited the working class people to down these monsters and demons, by force and violence if necessary. He called it the battle of the classes.
The working class people and their offsprings responded to Mao's appeal by forming Red Guards. Across the country, Red Guards, in army green uniforms and a red bandana wrapped around their left arm, raided homes of the monsters and demons, seized or burned their personal properties by force, tortured them, and humiliated them in front of their families and in public. The bloodshed and chaos would last a decade.
Grandfather, dad, and mom were all classified as the monsters and demons.
The money that grandfather earned by curing countless suffering patients via his private practice was said to be the result of grandfather exploiting the working class people. Red Guards ordered grandfather to voluntarily hand over his money and valuables, or it would be taken by force. He was then tortured by Red Guards into a comma. He never regained his conscious.
Mom and dad knew Red Guards would come to raid our home. It was just a matter of when. The ax could come down any moment. Mom and dad slept fully clothed in anticipation they would come while we slept.
That night they came. Dad barely opened the gate when 5 or 6 Red Guards pushed through. These were students from dad's university. Mom told my brother and I to stay quiet in bed. I wrapped myself into a ball and sat in a corner of the bed, trying to make myself invisible.
The Red Guards searched the whole house and the courtyard, digging holes through the floors and the walls, tearing down the plaques from the walls and smashing them into pieces. They ordered mom and dad to stand in the middle of the house to watch. When they found money or anything else of value, such as arts by famous artist, antiques and other collectables, they ordered mom and dad to pack the items in boxes.
From my corner of the bed, through the paned windows, I watched the dark sky slowly turning gray and cloudy. They were finally leaving, taking the packed boxes. I was grateful that they didn't handcuff mom and dad right there and right then, and take them away to be imprisoned in cowsheds. But this was not to last.
Mom and dad's university, along with all universities across the country, had closed down all classes. Many of the students joined Red Guards. They turned classrooms into 'war rooms'. Military representatives had garrisoned the campus and were in charge.
Every day, Red Guards would force their former professors and staff to write down how they had tried to corrupt their students by stilling capitalist ideology and bourgeois ideas into their minds.
One of the most devious strategy of Chairman Mao was to get people turn on each other and spy on each other. No one was safe. If you expressed the slightest doubt about the revolution or Mao, even behind tightly shut doors and windows, there would always be someone who had heard you and who would report you. The next day Red Guards would be at your door to take you away. .
At home, mom and dad always whispered. They would wait after my brother and I were at sleep. Every night, I pretended at sleep but perked my ears to listen to their conversations. Some nights I got caught by mom, some nights I couldn't stay awake, and some nights I heard what was going on at their work.
One day mom came home with her half face swollen. She told us she was being careless and fell on the ground. That night, after I went to bed, I pretended falling sleeping. I closed my eyes and slowed down my breathing. After mom checked on me twice, she told dad what happened that day.
Red Guards interrogated mom, urging mom to tell on dad. Someone had told the Red Guards that dad made a short-wave radio, a banned device, and secretly listened to The Voice of America.
Mom denied the charge. The red guards kept yelling at mom to 'draw a clear line' between her and dad. When mom would not change her response, one of the red guards, a former student of dad, jumped up and slapped mom on her face, hard.
When mom whispered to dad the name of this red guard/former student, I almost screamed "no". I was shocked. I knew him well.
Prior to the revolution, this student, I'll call him Hai, was among dad's several brightest students. Dad used to give these students extra lessons at home on nights and weekends, as the regular classes could not satisfy their intellect.
Among this group of students, dad always said Hai was the most promising. Hai was extremely handsome, and was very good with us kids. After the lessons, he would stay a few extra minutes to hang with me. He would carry me on his back and run around the courtyard, neighing all the way. I even developed a little girly crush on him in my little innocent heart. I resolved to marry someone just like Hai when I grew up.
That night, my little heart was broken. My innocence was stolen from me.
THE CONFISCATION OF OUR HOME
A few days later, we again heard loud knocking on our front gate. Dad told us to stay inside and went to open the gate. I heard a woman's loud voice saying something about she and her family were moving in. I peeked from behind the curtains, and saw a short, heavyset woman probably in her 40's. She exaggeratedly waving her left arm, with a red bandana wrapped around it. She was talking and spitting, exposing her yellow teeth. Standing next to her were a quiet tall man and 4 kids about my age.
I recognized her. She was the head of Neighborhood Watch Committee, which had sprung up all over the country to monitor the monsters and demons.
She said her family was tired of living in a crammed room and she was not going to put up with it anymore. She said the move is permitted by Chairman Mao, and protected by the Red Guards patrolling the neighborhood. This family occupied the north side of the house that night.
They were a 'working class' family. We came to know them as the Lis.
The father of the family was a steel worker. He was very tall and introverted. We rarely heard him talking. I believed he was a good person. The mother of the family, the short, heavyset and loud woman, was a housewife. I could see she called all the shots in the family.
The Li children loved torturing us and insult us. But mom and dad would repeatedly tell us to try to keep peace and not get into arguments or fights with the Li children. This way, at least mom and dad didn't have to worry about this one thing.
One of Li children's favorite game was to not let us get water. Back then we didn't have in-door pluming. Everyone living on the property drew water with buckets from a single faucet in the yard. The Li children would often 'guard' the faucet forbidding us to get water, saying we basters of monsters and demons did not deserve clean water. If we need water, we could get it from the outhouse. When that happened, mom would tell us to simply wait to get water until they were at sleep.
We tried our best to avoid the Li children. We didn't want to add more anguish to what mom and dad were already going through.
One day I was washing clothes in a basin on the yard. One of the Li sons came out and started calling me names, looking for a fight. I just kept washing without looking up, as though he wasn't there. He saw he couldn't spark any reaction from me, he started insulting my mom, with the ugliest language your could use on a woman.
I felt blood rushing to my face, and I blurted out: "At least my mom is not fat, loud , and obnoxious like yours." My voice was still in the air when I felt his fist on my face. Blood started rolling down my nose. I yelled, "You coward! I know you don't dare to pick on someone your size." Before he could hit me again, his dad came out and dragged him inside, but not before he kicked over my basin. The water and the clothes flew out towards me before falling on the ground
No sooner than mom came home that night, the Li wife knocked on our door. Mom invited her to come in and sit. She refused. She loudly told mom how I dared to insult her son and herself. Without missing a beat, mom apologized, saying she knew it was my fault and she would discipline me for sure.
After the woman left, I waited for mom to scold me. But mom was quiet. I said, "Mommy, please don't be too mad at me. I didn't start the fight." Tears started swelling up in mom's beautiful and loving eyes. "I know, I know. I know not only you didn't start the fight, you also would have tolerated insults to you. He must have insulted me and your dad. I'm heart broken that you had to go through all this. Childhood should be a happy time." I wrapped my little arms around mom's neck, and we both just sobbed. At that moment, I couldn't love mom more. Her chest was my safe harbor. I resolved to never get into fights again regardless what those kids say or do, so mom wouldn't have to worry about me getting into fights.
MOM AND DAD SENT TO COWSHEDS
Some monsters and demons were imprisoned in 'cowsheds'. These were sheds that for raising cows. Red Guards forced their former professors and teachers to build these by hand, quickly. Then the professors and teachers were imprisoned in these sheds.
In the cowsheds, the imprisoned were subjected to torture, persecution, and hard labor. They were forced to acknowledge they were anti-Mao and anti-Communism, to admit they conspired to overthrow Communist party, and to turn on their peers to reduce their own punishment.
After our home was raided, Red Guards allowed mom and dad to come home at night. A few months passed. One day mom and dad came home looking even more distraught than usual. Mom must have been crying as her eyes were red and swollen. They sat my brother and I down.
"Starting from tomorrow, we have to live in the cowsheds at work for a while." Mom made a futile attempt to put on a smile. "You kids don't worry for us. We will be living there with many of your aunts and uncles." I knew by aunts and uncles, mom meant their colleagues and friends. We used to visit with these aunts and uncles and their families around Chinese New Year and other holidays. I knew many of their kids. Mom was trying to make it sound like a party, not the prison it was.
I bit my lips to not cry. I did not want to add to mom's anguish.
"You kids would have to take good care of yourselves. Hopefully, we don't have to live there for too long." Mom said.
Dad turned to my brother, aged 11. "You need to be a man of the house and keep your little sister safe."
Mom and Dad gave us each 10 Yuan, which amounted to a little over $1. It was a huge sum to Chinese standard at the time. We each were to live a month on this money.
I was determined to stay awake so I could spend the last few hours with mom and dad.
I wished time would stand still. I wished the earth would stop turning. I wished tomorrow would never come.
At some point, I fell asleep. When I woke up, mom and dad were already gone.
My brother and I headed over to the local grocery store to buy grocery for ourselves.
I had gone to that store many times before to buy this and that for mom and dad. The store sold cooking basics such as soy sauce and salt. It also sold candy and other treats for kids. My favorite treat was chips that were fried plain flour dough, garnished with black sesame seeds. It costed 10 cents per gram. Mom knew how much I liked those chips. Sometimes when mom sent me to the store, she would give me an extra 10 cents for the chips. I could never wait to get home and always ate the chips as I walked home. Not every kid in the neighborhood had the luxury of these treats. I would have a small crowd of kids following me to watch me enviously with their mouths watering.
That day was my first time to go to the store with my 'own' money, without mom and dad told me what to buy. I remember feeling a sliver of excitement and pride. I felt like a big kid who was independent, and was able to be responsible for my money.
In the store, I took a long time to browse each item in the treat counter. the candies in colorful wrappers. cookies in a variety of shapes. roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, and tea eggs. I decided to get a little bit of everything. As I was telling the friendly lady behind the counter what I wanted, her eyes became bigger and bigger. Finally she asked me, "Do you have money to pay for all of these?"
I took out my 10 Yuan bill, placed in my hand, and stretched my hand out proudly to show her. The lady quickly closed my hand and looked around. She said in a hushed voice, "Put the bill back to your pocket fast so you won't get pickpocketed and lose it." She again glanced around the store: "Where did you get that kind of money?"
"Starting from today, my brother and I will live on our own. This money is my monthly living expenses." I said proudly, trying to make it sound it was not a big deal.
"Where are your mom and dad?"
"They have to live in cowsheds and confess their crimes now."
The lady shushed me before saying sympathetically, "You shouldn't spend your money on these treats. You should use the money to buy rice and flours and vegetables so you can eat lunch and dinner."
"These treats will be my lunch and dinner."
The lady sighted and shook her head slightly. "All the treats you want will cost you nearly 3 Yuan. You still have a month to go. You really shouldn't spend that much for one day. You will be starving later."
I knew she was kind and just wanted to watch out for me. But I had my heart set on the treats, and told myself I would skip meals later. I bought the treats and went home bouncing and skidding the whole way. The fact that mom and dad wouldn't be around had not completely sank in.
When the newness for my 'freedom' subsided, I missed mom terribly, often waking up from sleep crying for mom. Mom would come to my dreams but when I reached out to her, she would disappear.
One day I heard knocks on our front gate, then I heard the voice I had heard in my dreams. I heard mom calling my name. I ran to open the gate, fearing it was another dream. When I opened the gate, I knew it was not a dream. I saw two Red Guards standing on mom's each side. I dashed forward toward mom. One of the Red Guards stretched out both arms to stop me. I staggered back. "No one is allowed to touch the inmate," he said with a very serious expression. A pair of handcuffs hanging from his belt. Mom must have pleaded to not let us see her being handcuffed.
Mom's head was half shaved, with hair on one side and bold on the other side. I had seen this happen to other people. This was one of the ways that Red Guards publicly degraded and humiliated the 'monsters and demons'. Mom's beautiful face did not show embarrassment. In stead, mom's face showed dignity and grace. Mom was as beautiful as ever. Maybe even more beautiful now.
I bit my lip to hold back my tears. I didn't want to give the Red Guards the satisfaction of seeing this baster of monsters cry. I bit so hard I tasted a little blood seeping out.
The Red Guards walked mom to the courtyard. The Li Woman and children ran out. The children started giggling. The woman walked up to mom and said loudly to the Red Guards, "I'm the Director of the Neighborhood Watch Committee. I'll make sure the inmate does not try any funny business."
With dignity and poise, mom calmly 'thanked' the Lis for helping take care of my brother and I, and keeping us safe. Of course mom knew fully well they'd been doing just the opposite. I watched Lis' faces for any signs of sorry. None.
Mom asked me why I was so skinny. I didn't know how to respond to mom. I certainly would not tell mom I spent my 10 Yuan in the first week. I had been skipping meals on some days, and eating a bowl of rice on other days. Seeing I was hesitating, Mom did not ask again. I knew mom probably guessed as much. Mom's eyes got misty. Her lips were trembling. But she did not cry. Mommy and I were connected heart to heart. We both were determined to not give these people the satisfaction of seeing us cry.
I suddenly realized that I needed to eat regularly and stay healthy for mommy. I kicked myself for being so irresponsible for myself and for adding worries to mom's cowshed days. I resolved to do better in the future.
Mom turned to the Red Guards: "As you can see these children can't really take care of themselves without adults. Please allow me to send them to stay with my relatives for a while." The Red Guards only pondered in their heads and agreed. But they y had to accompany us to our relatives.
I didn't want other people see mom humiliated like this. "Mommy, we'll be fine at home. I'll eat regular meals everyday and won't buy candies and treats anymore."
To my surprise, before mom could answer me, one of the Red Guards said to me: "You should listen to your mom and go stay with the relatives, so your mom will know you are taken care of." They are not totally animals, I thought to myself.
When we got to our relatives' house, the couple quickly sent their kids to play outside. Mom calmly explained why we were there. When she was finished, the relatives readily agreed to take us in.
The whole time, they did not acknowledge the Red Guards. And they pretended not noticing mom's half shaved head.
After mom and the Red Guards left to go back to the cowshed, the husband and wife sent us to play outside with their kids. After a little while, the husband called us in and told their children to keep playing outside. Looking at their serious expression on their faces, I had a bad feeling. "You kids need to go back home, today, the husband said. "We cannot possibly let you stay with us." They told us they had nothing against us kids, but they were too afraid to be connected to mom and dad. "We have to 'clearly draw a line' from your parents'. Mao had asked people to 'clearly draw a line" to separate themselves from the monsters and demons'.
I was about to open my mouth and ask why they had agreed to let us stay when mom was here. But I immediately realized that they mush have pretended to agree to get mom and the Red Guards leave. They must have desperately wanted to avoid catching their nosy neighbors' attention.
Our relatives insisted on accompanying us to the bus stop. They made sure we got on the bus. They waited for the bus to pull away before they left the bus stop. I knew they were afraid we might go back to their house.
My brother and I lived on our own for 2 years, until mom was allowed to come home. Dad was being held for several more years.
One night, I woke up in what looked like a hospital room. My two cousins were at my bedside, talking in a hashed voice.
I opened my mouth to ask where I was, but nothing came out, and I felt my face was burning with pain. I tried to sit up, but realized my hands were tied down to the bed rail.
My cousins gave a long sigh with relief when they saw I opened my eyes. "You are in the hospital," they told me. "Don't try to talk or try to move. You fell on the street and hurt your leg. It's not bad. You'll recover in a few days."
Hearing that, I kind of felt happy. Being sick and spending nights in a hospital was almost a treat for us kids. All the grownups would fuss over you, and bring you all kinds of treats like it was Chinese New Year. I secretly hoped I could stay in the hospital longer than just a few days.
The last thing I remembered was leaving the house in the afternoon. I had no memory of what happened after that. Overtime, I I learned what had happened a long while later. Mom just couldn't bring herself to talk to me about it.
In that fateful afternoon, a public bus jam packed with passengers was traveling on one of the busy streets in Beijing. One of our neighbors happened to be on that bus. She recalled later that the bus suddenly juked on something and came to a full stop. There was a ghostly scream that sounded like an animal being slaughtered. The passengers pushed each other to try fertilely to get to the windows, to look out and see what happened. Actually there was no use. The bus was so packed and no one could move an inch.
The young driver, white as paper, holding his head in his hands, shaking. He must have been too shocked to think about getting off the bus and checking on the wounded.
A crowd quickly formed a circle surrounding me. They saw my left thigh was smashed and there were bone pieces all over the ground. People told me later that, days later, they could still see tiny bone pieces on the ground of the accident site.
At the time in China, telephones were a rarity. No private citizens owned a phone. There was not a 911 type of emergency phone service at all.
The street was crowded with buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. A bus would not be able to cut through the traffic to get me to the hospital, and a bicycle would not be able to carry me. As the crowd were murmuring they hoped a car could magically appear, a soldier was driving by on a motor cycle with a sidecar. He stopped immediately. The crowd stepped back to give him a path to get to me, Then the crowed quickly closed in to form a circle again. The soldier took off his green army overcoat and gently wrapped it around me. There was a red star on each collar of the overcoat, as well as on his green army uniform. Then he picked me up and asked the crowd to step back again to open a path to let him through. He gently situated me in the sidecar of his motor cycle and sped away.
When we arrived at the hospital, the soldier's coat, the motorcycle, and himself were soaked in blood. The red stars on the collars of his coat and uniform had disappeared into the blood.
As the doctors and nurses rushed to get me to the emergency operating room, the soldier quietly left. Up still this day I never met and don't even know the name of the soldier who laterally saved my life.
Mom was getting worried at home (dad was still imprisoned in cowshed). It was getting dark and I was still not home. My brother came home from visiting friends, and said there was a serious accident, where a bus ran over someone. Mom told herself that couldn't be her daughter.
Then the police knocked on the front door.
On their way to the hospital, the police told mom that the doctors asked them to inform the family to prepare for burial. I had lost the last drop my blood. They just didn't see how I could survive.
When I finally came to, the doctors said I must have had super vitality to pull myself through this kind of trauma.
The doctors later told mom, that on that day, even though had extremely bad luck, I was also blessed.
Firstly, I lost all my blood, and the doctors couldn't find any blood vessels. They cut open my wrists and my right ankle to locate blood vessels, to no avail. Eventually, the doctors poked around the open wounds on my left thigh to find blood vessels. Because it was so urgent to transfuse blood into my body, the regular method of transfusing blood would be way too slow for it to work. So they injected the blood directly into the vessels with a syringe. It was almost certain that would lead to infection, as the blood was not being filtered and satirized properly. But I did not get infected in my new blood.
Second, a human body generally could not absorb so much foreign blood all at once. But again, my body took all the blood.
Thirdly, the soldier who took me to the hospital was knowledgeable about hospitals and medicine. He took me to the hospital that had the best orthopedics doctors in the country. My left thigh had comminuted fractures, in other words, my thigh bone was smashed into countless small pieces. It was impossible to save the leg, But when the doctors amputated the leg, they saved as much thigh bone as possible by doing skin graft. They took patches of skin from the upper thigh of my right leg and put them over the wound on my stump. A green doctor might have amputated my leg from my hip down, in which case it would be extremely difficult to fit a prothetic leg for me, if possible at all. I would have been unable to walk without crutches.
Lastly, I didn't sustain permanent brain damage.
I asked mom why my wrists were tied to the bed rail. Mom said it was because of the open wounds on my face. The doctors did not want me scratch my face to avoid scars forming. The real reason to tie down my hands, I learned later, was that mom wanted me to recover and become stronger before telling me my left leg was no more.
In the hospital bed, I didn't feel the missing of my left leg. Rather, I felt my left leg was tightly wrapped in thick bandages. I later would learn that the feeling was a phantom limb. The nerve ends in my stump gave me the sensation my leg was there. The tight bandages were wrapping around my stump. The phantom limb never went away. I still feel it today.
When nurses came to change my bandages, they would drop a piece of drape at around my whist, so I couldn't see below my whist. They told me that they didn't want me to see my open wounds.
As the wounds on my stump started to heal, it started to itch, but I felt it was my ankle itch. One day I asked mom to scratch my ankle for me. Mom reached under the bed cover and tried to scratch my stomp. I told mom no it was my ankle that was itchy. I still think about that. It must have felt like a cruel joke to mom.
After a few weeks, I started to feeling stronger and was able to sit up a little. One day I asked the nurse to please loosen the ties on my wrist a little as they were hurting from the constant tie. The good hearted nurse loosened it for me. After a while, I found I could pull my hand out of the ties. So I did.
I reached under the bed cover. It happened like in slow motion. I couldn't understand why my hands could not find my left leg. Then I touched my stump. I wrapped my stump in my hands. I hesitated to slide my hands downwards. I slit my hands downwards.
My first thought was that I would never be an Olympic swimmer. Other than that, My mind was strangely calm, almost blank. My eyes were dry. Almost as though someone else was in the bed and I was watching her.
It didn't' really sink in until much later, how losing a leg would impact my life.
That night when mom came to the hospital from work, I cheerfully told mom: "Mommy I knew my left leg was lost in the accident. I'm OK. You don't need to worry for me."
When I healed well enough to get out of the bed, the nurse brought me a pair of crutches. I tried them for a day, then tossed them aside. I just hopped everywhere. I even somewhat felt a little 'cool' when I hang out with the other kids on the same floor, as in, with an eye patch, I would be a pirate! None of the other kids could claim the same. I made a lot of friends and never felt sad.
Then one day, I was chatting with a fellow patient who was about my age. We were playing a game to name things that were in pairs with symmetry. For some reason I said: "knees". As I was saying that I looked down to point at my knees. And there was only one knee. For some reason this seemingly insignificant occasion had a big impact on me. At that moment it really sank in that I had only one leg now.
Over the years, I often wonder if it was a Freudian slip.
Traditionally in China, a disabled person was considered incomplete and useless. The Chinese translation for word 'disabled' literally means 'incomplete' and 'useless'. More on that in later chapters. Suffice to say the real realization of what this meant for my life would come later.
At the beginning of Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao issued directives to get rid of all literature and books, especially literature from the west, such as world famous literatures like War and Peace, Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, Nineteen Eighty Four, One Thousand and One Nights, and so on. The only books that should stay for everyone to study were his own books, and books by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the forefathers of communism.
Chairman Mao charged those literature and books advocated capitalism, imperialism, and bourgeois ideology and propaganda. They were toxic to the minds of the working class, giving them ideas to overturn the communist government.
All over the country overnight, Red Guards force closed libraries and burned books.
All schools in the country stopped teaching math, chemistry, physics, and literature. Instead, we read the Little Red Book day in and day out. The Little Red Book contained thousands of quotations from Chairman Mao's books, articles, and lectures. One example quotation would read: "The Chinese Communist Party is the core of leadership of all the Chinese people. Without this core, the cause of socialism cannot be victorious."
We were required to memorize the quotations by heart. If, when asked, a student could not recite a quotation word for word, they would be kept at school after school was out. They must write a self reflection to acknowledge their serious offense, and their disrespect of Chairman Mao. They must guarantee in writing they would never forget another quotation from Chairman Mao. They would then be required to copy the quotation again and again, until the student was able to recite the quotation word for word. Otherwise, the student was not allowed to go home. It was not uncommon for the students to have to stay at school overnight. The parents would be too afraid to protest.
Prior to Cultural Revolution, a tremendous amount of western classic literature was translated beautifully into Chinese. These translations were not just straight translation, but recreations of the originals maintaining the same style, spirit, type of languages of the originals. Because we were not learning anything from school during those years, and there were no outlets for our youth energy, the surviving copies of these literatures started circulating underground. Each copy was a big treasure for us. We can only read behind our parents, teachers, and society at large. If we got caught reading any of these books, we would be in serious trouble, and were arrested for possessing and distributing 'anti-revolutionary' materials, a corrosion for the impressionable young.
We became very creative to disguise what we were reading. We used Chairman Mao's books' covers to pretend reading his books. That was very risky though. If one got caught tearing the covers off Mao's books, or possessing a copy of Mao's books without covers, the action itself was punishable offense. So we read at night under covers. Generally, we only had a day to have these books in our hands, so they could be passed along to others, I would read all night under covers with a flash light. We were so barren spiritually and mentally, we absorbed the literature like a dry sponge to water. I learned so much about different cultures, histories, politics, populations, etc. Those literatures were my real university. They opened up the world for me.
This practice had such a big impact to my psyche, years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, while I was in college, when a young teacher asked me what I was reading, I automatically blurted out that it was the book by Karl Marx, The Capital. As soon as I said that, we both started laughing. The young teacher totally got it that I still had that fear as one of the after effects of the Cultural Revolution.
A GIRL'S PRAYER
In those days, parents and teachers never talked about sex. Any mention of sex was considered "yellow', or lewd. Students were prohibited to date, period, regardless if sex was involved. Dating, reading about sex, or talking about sex was a punishable offense, which could get you expelled or even arrested.
Of course the more the authorities prohibited it, the more curious we got about sex. Manuscripts of imagined sex stories started circulating underground among the young. One of the most famous was a manuscript titled A Girl's Prayer. It was about a young girl and young boy's secret first time. The writing was crude, laced with typos and grammar errors. But the author was either very imaginative or knowledgable about sex. Everybody was anxious to get ahold of a copy.
The army representatives in schools, officials, parents, and police monitored closely who was reading the manuscript. They also asked all students monitor each other, and report immediately of any sighting of this manuscript. Simply possessing a copy was considered a crime, not alone reading and circulating it. Kids getting caught were sent to police station and intimidated.
I was such a kid who got caught, before I even got my hand on a copy.
One day, I was called into an office at school. There were 3 men, a policeman, an army representative, and a teacher. They all stood. There was a single chair. No other furnitures. For all intends and purposes, it was an interrogation room.
"Sit down. Hand over A Girl's Prayer immediately." the policeman said with a fake smile on his face. "If you do, we'll let you go off easy. You just need to write a confession, stating why it was a serious wrong doing to possess such a book, and give us your guarantee that you'll never commit another offense like this."
I absolutely had no idea what he was talking about. "I don't have a copy of that book, and I have never read it."
Immediately, the expression on the young policeman's face changed. With a frown, he raised his voice: "Don't play hard ball with us. We know you have a copy."
The teacher could see I was genuinely confused. He whispered something to the policeman's ear, who nodded slightly. The policeman pulled out a letter from the front pocket of his uniform. "We know you have a boyfriend who's not even a student here. We'll deal with that later. Now we need to stop this lewd book from being circulated among students."
He read the letter loudly. I started having some faint ideas what this was about.
One day not too long ago, two of my best girl friends and I ventured out to a public park, which was a famous hangout for young people secretly attempting to meet opposite sex. It didn't take us long to catch the attention of 3 boys. Older boys. Young men really. We struck up a conversation with them. We told them which school we were in, and they told us where they worked. At the end of the day, the boys asked for our contact details so they could keep in touch with us. Of course we refused and parted ways with them.
Apparently, one of the boys sent me a letter to my school. School officials opened and read the private letter.
"Why did you open my letter?" I protested softly, knowing well why they did. "We've been monitoring you closely", the policeman said. "We know you read a lot of prohibited books. And you dared to tell your schoolmates the stories from these books. You spread toxic, bourgeois ideas among your schoolmates, corroding the minds of working class children. We've been trying to decide how we should deal with you. We want to make an example of you to show other students what they should not do." He continued: "Now you dared to have your boyfriend write you to school. You just voluntarily delivered yourself to us."
I knew I was in a shit load of trouble. I was mostly concerned that mom and dad would be called to school and scolded for not disciplining me properly. Dad would be so disappointed at me, and mom would be heart broken.
"I don't have the book, and he's not my boyfriend", I casted my eyes to the floor. "I admit I befriended boys not from our school. I admit I tried to spread ideas and propaganda from the west. I was terribly wrong. No punishment for me would be too excessive. I just beg you to please not tell my parents."
"How dare you to ask us not to tell your parents!" The policeman barked. "But if you hand over A Girl's Prayer, we might consider it."
I thought it was worth it for me to falsely say l did have the book, if it could spare mom and dad the anguish that was sure to come. But I really did not have a copy of the book. Finally, I sad: "I did commit the crime of reading the book, but I burned it after reading as I was afraid to be discovered."
The policeman hit the wall with his fist, startling me. I looked up. He shouted: "Stop playing games with us! No book. No leniency. We will be calling your parents today!"
When I got home that day, mom was in the bed with her eyes red and swollen from crying. Dad had a solemn expression on his face. I knew right away school had called.
I hated myself for putting mom and dad through this, as though they hadn't gone through a lot for me.
I told mom and dad to please not believe everything the school was saying. Yes, I made inexcusable mistakes. I deserved any discipline actions coming my way. But I never read A Girl's Prayer. The boy who wrote me was not my boyfriend. Mom motioned dad to leave the room. "Did you let him touch you?" mom asked in a hashed tone. "Are you still a virgin?"
I cried out loud. I used all my strength to held back tears during the interrogation that day. Now I couldn't hold it anymore. "No mommy. I didn't let anyone touch me. You know I'm not that stupid." Mom nodded. "Of course I know that. I just have to make absolutely sure. You know with your prothetic leg and all, if you lost your virginity, no man would ever marry you."
"Mommy, I'm so so sorry for putting you through all this and gave you so much worry. Why can't I follow all the rules like the other kids and give you and dad the peace of mind? What's wrong with me?"
Dad walked back. "I'll tell you why." he said in a low voice as he slightly opened the curtain and peeked out. "You are intelligent and cultured. The crap they teach at school bore you. You needed outlets for your energy. I don't want you to think your actions were right, because they are not. But I understand. I wouldn't be able to sit still myself if I were a kid in this environment. However, I would have learned to restraint yourself and adapt."
I loved my mom and dad, so much.
THE BOOKKEEPER JOB
When I 'graduated' from high school, all graduates from the urban areas were sent to farms and mountains to be 're-educated' by peasants. At that time, all agriculture work was one by hand. it was extremely rare for a village to own a tractor, a mute, or a horse. Because of my handicap, the villagers did not want me. They did not want to add a mouth from a useless person to feed with their already scarce food.
So I stayed at home. There was no job aspect, no possibilities. I became what were called unemployable youths.
In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise. I filled my time with non-stop reading literature, both western and Chinese, whatever I could get my hands on. This reading The benefit of this reading had on my understanding of the world could not be over
One thing that mom worried the most about me was whether I would find someone to marry me. In general, the handicapped were considered non-marriable material. In order to find marriage prospects, I would need to have something worthwhile to offer the prospect to exchange for the benefit of marrying me. Although in big cities marriage was no longer arranged by parents, parents still considered it their responsibility and obligation to find the 'right' mates for their grown children. Even an educated professional like mom was stilling thinking this way.
Living in Beijing was one powerful bargaining chip. As the capital, Beijing had the best of everything. The country supported Beijing. Being able to live in Beijing was a highly enviable privilege.
At that time, we had no freedom to choose which city to reside in. No one born outside of Beijing was allowed to migrate to Beijing without explicit permission from the government. One way to get around this regulation was to marry a Beijing citizen, not unlike the green card in America.
Another bargaining chip for me finding a husband would be having a full time job. Mom's thinking went, if I did not employed, I'd be just a mouth to feed - since disabled people were literally considered useless. So earning a regular salary would be a big motivation for marrying me, or so mom thought.
So mom cast her sight to outside of Beijing. And dad pulled out all the stops to find me a job.
Mom and dad did not tell me they were busy finding me a husband. They knew me well. They knew I would be upset with their meddling. They figured if they screened and found a prospect that was really strong and met their criteria, I would have no reason to say no.
One day, dad came home excited. One of his connections was able to secure a bookkeeper position for me in a small neighborhood kindergarten. In return, dad would tutor their kids as schools were only teaching Chairman Mao's red books. This was no small feat. Millions of youths would kill for a job like this. And it was in Beijing, no less.
I could get it solely because dad had something so valuable to their children, a future.
I really don't know what possessed me that day. I told dad I did not want to be a bookkeeper in a kindergarten. I jokingly said that I wanted to do bigger things, like publishing a Nobel worthy literature or solving a Nobel worthy scientific problem. Like Madame Cuire. Or at least becoming a well known scholar, or something.
Besides, I didn't want dad to go tutor some grade schoolers so I could keep books at a local kindergarten. It just didn't add up to me.
Dad of course was furious. "Who do you think you are!" Dad shouted. "You think this job was easy to get? You think it's beneath you? I've got news for you. You are not that smart. You are not that special. This opportunity might be your only chance to be employed and earn a living for yourself. You can't count on your mom and I to be here forever to support you."
Mom intervened. "You don't have to be so hurtful." Mom said to dad. "Reason with her. She is not unreasonable, You know that."
"I say these things to her to clear her head and bring her back down to earth," dad said. "We always tell her she's smart and she's strong, and at's why she's being a stubborn spoiled brat. It's time for her to realize that whatever she's thinking is just an empty dream. I need her to seize this opportunity."
Later Mom asked me If I felt hurt by dad's speech. I told mom that I knew dad did not mean those things he said. He was jus giving me some tough love and wanted me to face the reality. I told mom I knew I was probably making a big mistake but I couldn't make myself to take the job. I needed to know what was out there.
In the end, I did not take the job.