Read an Excerpt
“Would you like to be a worker, if you have a chance?”
“Of course not, Ma. Why?” I answered my mother flatly, without even looking up from my homework. To be a worker? What an odd question! I was only sixteen, in my first term at senior middle school, and I –was doing well.
Across the table, Ma tugged threads into a tassel for an Islamic prayer mat, made for export. For years we had been taking in embroidery work for sorely needed extra cash. Nai, my grandma, also clutched a prayer mat to embroider, but had dozed off. She dozed off more often now. If we asked her to go to bed she would straighten up and resume her work, only to fall asleep again within minutes.
“Not even working at a first-class enterprise like Liming, a real ‘iron rice bowl’?” Ma had spent her entire working life at Liming Machinery Factory, the largest state-owned enterprise in our city, Nanjing. Under the authority of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry, our factory had nearly ten thousand employees. Its prestige derived from not only its scale but also its status as a military factory. With free services from nurseries to cremation, and countless bowls of rice in between, the life of a state employee meant cradle-to-grave security. Plus free showers and subsidized haircuts.
“Not even Liming.” Finally I raised my head to look at Ma, who was frowning in my direction. I liked to look at Ma. She was pretty—when she didn’t frown. She had lovely high cheeks, and bright, slanted eyes. Her arched eyebrows were like two new moons. Her name was fitting too: Yufang, fragrance of cloud.
Now she seemed at a loss for words. After a while, she added: “I would think twice if I were you, Little Li.” That was my pet name at home, though I hardly merited its meaning, “little beauty.”
It was the beginning of December 1980. Winter had come early. My hands, swelling red with chilblains, were carefully copying English words into an exercise book. How fascinating! This language system, reintroduced to schools recently, was completely different from Chinese. Our characters developed from pictographs, real pictures of actual things. Jia, for example, means home, where a roof shelters a pig and reveals our farming roots. Hunched over a naked bulb of low wattage, just about bright enough for our tasks, three generations of Chinese women, bundled up in padded cotton jackets and trousers, sat around three sides of a table pushed against a window. The lack of heating was geographic fate: the Communist central planners permitted no central heating south of the Yangtze, the river that splits China in two. The “southern capital” Nanjing lies on the lower reaches of its southern bank, where, though temperatures never fall as low as in cities to the north, the damp cold goes straight to one’s bones. To fight the chill, we stuffed our feet in a straw basket warmed by a copper hot-water bottle. I could always tell which pair were Nai’s—the tiny, bound ones. A warm, womanly intimacy hung in the air.
There were others in my family, but they weren’t around. My father had spent his whole working life in another city. My elder sister Weijia was studying at her college in a far corner of the city. My naughty brother Xiaoshi was out playing in our village, Wuding New Village, the largest residential area for Liming employees.
Located just outside Wuding Gate, one of the thirteen city gates that once defined and guarded Nanjing, the village was still classed as rural, although the sprawling urban landscape was slowly swallowing up the green patchwork of fields that surrounded it. With few trees and little green space, there was none of the rustic beauty or tradition that the word “village” suggests. There were several thousand villagers, packed into three dozen or so concrete blocks, identical but for being either three or four stories high, depending on the year of construction.
Our flat, on the second floor of a four-story block, felt matchbox-sized, with low ceilings, one main room, and one side room. The walls of peeling yellow paint were bare but for a factory calendar and the two school certificates of merit that my sister and I earned each year without fail. Two beds took up much of the main room where we sat, but the bedding was neatly folded, for the beds also served as seats and worktables. An old wardrobe, a wedding gift from my mother’s in-laws, gave off distorted reflections in its full-length mirror. The once intricate carvings were cracked, like an old worn face. A white tablecloth, crocheted by Weijia with sewing threads, covered a coarsely made cupboard. On top sat a colorful biscuit tin, long empty, but kept for decoration. Beside it stood a “hero” clock. “The masses are the real heroes” read one of Chairman Mao’s quotations, printed on the clock face. A worker grasping a hammer, a peasant her sickle, and a soldier his gun were painted waving aloft his Little Red Book.
Looking at the painted worker, I smiled to myself. A worker? How funny I would look if I wore his canvas uniform and peaked cap.
Three weeks later, I was summoned after supper for a “little talk” in Ma’s bedroom. I knew it was serious when she shut the door. Our last closed-door session had been nearly four years earlier, when I was in my last year at primary school. My teacher had recommended I study at Nanjing Foreign Languages School, an exclusive place whose graduates all went on to university, and were later trained as diplomats or interpreters for high-ranking leaders. “Would you like to go there to study?” she had asked. I had jumped up with joy. But my happiness was premature: I failed the political censorship—my father had “political problems.” I was therefore rejected.
Ma’s room was always so dim—high wattage would use too much electricity. When I started middle school, she arranged for me to sleep with her, thinking I was too big to share a bed with my brother and Nai. While Ma, next door, made endless tassels into the night, I was scared on my own—the eight-watt fluorescent lamp flickered in the darkness like a jack-o’-lantern. To forget my fear, I began to read books. Within months the characters on the school blackboard became as blurred as crawling ants. A pair of black-framed glasses came to reside on my small nose. When Ma discovered why, she banished me back to Nai’s bed—it would have been wasteful to install a bright light just for my reading. I slept better, holding Nai’s thin legs.
Now I looked expectantly at Ma as she sat down on the bed. What could it be this time? Even in the semidarkness, I could see her “two new moons” knitting together in a frown.
“Remember I asked if you would like to be a worker?” she began, her voice husky and low. She cleared her throat.
“You are going to take over my job.”
The sentence fell like thunder from a bright blue sky.
“What?! NO!” I jumped up again, this time in protest. “Why? I’m still young!” I pleaded.
“I became a worker myself at your age, only half a year older,” she said matter-of-factly. I remembered Ma once boasting that she had been a promising student, too, but was forced to give up school because her family was too poor.
“But surely, Ma, you can support me to finish school, then...”
“Poverty is only part of the reason.” Then, calmly, she began to explain the rest. When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, China was a mess, its economy on the brink of collapse. To tackle the soaring numbers of jobless, a temporary policy appeared called dingzhi, literally, “replacing job.” If parents could secure retirement, their children could take over their jobs. Several rounds of dingzhi had followed until it was strongly rumored that December 1980 was the last such opportunity. Despite excellent health at forty-three—some seventeen years away from the normal retirement age for women—Ma had decided to take advantage of the opportunity. When she first raised the issue with me, she had already applied to retire early on the grounds of poor health: she had been working for many years on the hazardous acid-pickling line. My poor reaction had not deterred her in the least, and now her application had been approved.
“I don’t want to be a worker!” I insisted, stamping a foot in disgust.
In my mind’s eye, I saw the blue canvas uniform and Ma’s coarse hands. A worker? I knew it was the likely fate for children from our village, but I had grand plans for myself.
“I want to be a journalist!”
“I told you before, don’t even dream about it,” she replied. “A journalist? Writing is a dangerous thing to do in this country. Your dad is a good example.” She frowned: the sheer mention of my father seemed to vex her. “Anyway, becoming a journalist is just one of your flights of fancy. You also wanted to be a pilot, a barefoot doctor, and an interpreter, just to name a few!”
Ma had a glib tongue, but I was far from convinced.
“I’m good at writing, my literature teacher said so.” At school, teachers often read out my compositions, and fellow students copied my prose. “Whatever happens in the future, I want to go to university first,” I added assertively.
“Getting into university is harder than climbing to heaven!” she retorted. “I know you’re a good student, but your school is very bad. Look, this year they ‘drew an egg’ again—not a single student passed the university entrance exam.”
That much was beyond dispute. My middle school, like my primary school, had been established by Liming for its employees’ children. Only later was the school’s administration transferred to the city’s education authority and children from nearby areas allowed to attend. No self-respecting teacher would choose to work at either of these remote and poorly equipped schools. After the humiliating failure of last year, the school introduced a new strategy—streaming students into classes based on their abilities, so that the most resources and attention would be spent on pupils with the greatest hope of reaching university.
But I was in the fast class, wasn’t I? As if reading my mind, Ma continued in a crisp and clear voice, with a fluency that spoke of many rehearsals in her mind. “Even if you do pass the entrance exam, your bad eyesight will probably fail you. Look at Weijia, she scored quite well but only got into a teacher-training school.”
A fair point. My sister Weijia was training as a primary school teacher at Xingzhi Secondary Normal College, not a “proper” university and hardly a place for an ambitious youth. However, poor sight (as in my sister’s case) or any other physical defect was held against you. The university entrance system, only reintroduced in 1977 after the chaotic years, demanded almost perfect physical health—a useful way to reduce the pool of candidates. China’s proper universities could accommodate fewer than 4 percent of those who took the entrance exam. In other words, only one out of six hundred Chinese children was lucky enough to experience higher education.
“But at least I can try, and if I score really high, some university will surely accept me. Can you wait for three years, Ma?” I knew someone from Weijia’s class had gotten into Beijing University, China’s Oxford, despite his bad eyesight. I didn’t need to remind Ma that university was one of few guaranteed routes to success for an ordinary family like ours.
“Wait? I can, but not dingzhi. You know government policy is like a child’s face—three changes in a day.”
I wasn’t good at arguing with Ma. To be a good child meant tinghua, “to listen to words,” a phrase that conveyed obedience, the most desirable quality for Chinese children. So I listened, obediently, to the words of my teachers at school and my mother at home.
Barely comprehending, I listened as she went on. If I failed the university exam I would end up one of those jobless youths, or get a job in a collectively owned factory, if I was really lucky. A good job with Liming? No chance!
The prestige of state-owned firms remained high. “The working class leads everything!” newspapers reminded us. “Workers are our elder brothers” and “the masters of the nation.”
“Look at this house. We are so poor,” grumbled Ma, kicking her bedside table. One of the legs slipped from its brick support. That table and a bed were the only furniture in the cramped room. “We can’t rely on your dad. He is useless, and Nai is getting old. She nearly died from the stroke. It hurts me to look at her hunched over the embroidery, like an old shrimp. After you become a worker, I can find another job, and our lives will be better.”
Irritated by my wooden expression, Ma raised her voice. “But above all, Little Li, let me tell you I’m doing you a big favor! I simply don’t understand why I have to beg you to take over my treasure.” She blew her nose. “Your mouth still smells of breast milk; you don’t know what’s good for you! You’ll go to work at the factory next week. That’s it!”
She got up and walked out, her back straight and erect. For me, her back always spoke volumes about her proud, stubborn nature. Once she had set her mind on something, a four-horse cart couldn’t hold her back.
I followed her lamely to the main room and met Nai’s concerned look. Wide-awake in her usual place, she was still clutching her embroidery.
Ma banged and clattered around the flat for a while, voicing her displeasure, and then went into her room.
“You didn’t agree?” Nai whispered.
I didn’t answer. If I’d been wearing a hat, the force of my rage would have shot it into the air. Agree? What was the difference if I agreed or not? Everything had been decided. Although it was common practice for parents to decide what was best for their children, I still felt shocked, even wronged. But how could I bring myself to say anything unkind to Nai, the dearest person in my life? After raising Ma, her only surviving child, Nai had cared for her grandchildren like a faithful servant. We called her Nai, slang for paternal grandmother: Chinese people held paternal grandmas dearer than maternal grandmas.
“Dingzhi is the best for you,” said Nai, her soft eyes focusing on me as I sat down heavily. “If you can’t go to university, no point in finishing senior middle school, right?”
My semiliterate grandma would not make such a connection herself. Ma must have fed her the lines.