1 In my memory she has a pair of foreign-colored eyes, the pupils yellow with a hint of green. They reminded me of a wildcat. She stood by the classroom door, her face in shadow. Behind her the sun looked like a giant red lantern. As the sun rose, suddenly the light spilled out. The beam hit the windows, bounced, and was reflected in her eyes. It was there, in her eyes, that I saw water in motion, the bottom of a pond clearly illuminated by the light. The water weeds swayed gracefully like ancient long-sleeve dancers.
I remember my thought: she's not Chinese. Then I thought no, it's impossible. It must be the sunlight playing tricks on me. She was just like me, a girl with thick short braids at the side of her ears. She was in a blue Mao jacket. Her right hand held an abacus.
She wore an old pair of army shoes with her big toes on their way out. No Red Guard armband on her left arm. I remember my fear from that instant. It was what connected us a sign of political uncertainty. I thought of Hot Pepper, the bully girl, the head of the Red Guard. She would definitely suspect that the newcomer was a reactionary.
I remember I began to feel sorry for the newcomer. The same way I felt for myself. I was rejected for membership in the Red Guard because I was not from a three-generation-of-labor family. My parents and grandparents were teachers. It didn't matter that we were just as poor. We lived in a converted garage in Shanghai. Eight people in one room.
Hot Pepper believed in violence. Hitting was part of her treatment. She said that she had to "pump" the "dirty bourgeois blood" out of me. The authorities and society encouraged her. People of my category wereconsidered to have "reactionary dust" in our thoughts. It was Mao's teaching that "the dust won't go away unless there is a broom." Hot Pepper called herself a "revolutionary broom."
Hot Pepper had a pair of mice eyes and an otterlike body. No neck. Her bangs were so long that her eyes looked as if they were behind bars. She wore a Red Guard armband and an extra-large green military uniform. She was very proud of her uniform because it had four pockets. Pockets were an indication of rank the more pockets, the higher the rank. The uniform was from her uncle, who had served in the People's Liberation Army. Hot Pepper also wore two palm-size ceramic Mao buttons, which were pinned on each side of her chest. The buttons were peach-colored morning sky with a tiny Mao head in the middle. From a distance they looked like two breasts with Mao heads as nipples.
Every morning Hot Pepper led a team to block the school gate.
They were there to examine everyone's loyalty toward Chairman Mao.
The school's requirement was that everyone bring the "three-piece treasure": a Mao button, a Little Red Book (Mao quotations), and, if you were a Red Guard, an armband. If you forgot, Hot Pepper lined you up and held you until the bell rang. Sometimes Hot Pepper picked people at random to quiz them on Mao quotations. She would say the page number and the person was expected to recite the quotation. If the person made a mistake, Hot Pepper would decide on a form of punishment. She would either order him to stand by the gate and read the quotation aloud one hundred times until he was able to recite it, or she would order him to clean the school's restrooms for a week.
Every morning when I got near the gate and saw Hot Pepper's shadow, my heart would pound. I could feel my fingers turning cold and my breath shorten. I made sure I brought all three pieces and updated all my Mao quotations. Still, Hot Pepper found fault every time. She would say that I hadn't made the proper pause at a comma or at the period. When I did pause she would say that I recited the paragraph too slowly, that I was trying to cheat.
I was excluded from school activities, including my favorite sports, table tennis and swimming. It didn't matter that I was a good swimmer. Hot Pepper believed that I would betray the country and swim across the ocean. "She'll swim as fast as she can, out of the sea, into the Pacific Ocean, where a Western ship will be waiting. She will be picked up and sell all our national secrets to the enemy." It was 1969, the midst of the great movement called the Cultural Revolution. I was fourteen years old and attended the July First Elementary School. July 1 was the birthday of the Communist party. I wasn't learning much in those years. The Cultural Revolution had started when I was seven. We had been studying Mao. We were taught to write our teacher's name on the ground with brushes and cross the characters with black ink. We were on the streets parading all the time. We celebrated Chairman Mao's every new teaching, copying his words onto big posters. Fifty-six of us in the class. Fifty-six posters. We put up the posters on doors and gates around the neighborhood. It was our mission in life. As a line leader, Hot Pepper always carried an electric loudspeaker while I, as a line tail, carried the heavy paste bucket and wet broom.
Once in a while we were shoved back into the classroom. We were taught basic math in the mornings. In the afternoons, on odd- numbered days, a guest speaker who had horrible stories about the old society would be invited from the countryside or a factory. The entire three-hour speeches demonstrated one thing: without Chairman Mao we would all be dead. It was effective. We all began to believe firmly that we were saved and protected by Chairman Mao. We began to love him. On even-numbered days, we would be assigned to read heroic stories about soldiers who died defending the country and honoring Chairman Mao.
My biggest wish was to be old enough to join the People's Liberation Army. I couldn't wait to die in order to prove my loyalty to Mao. I wanted to go to Vietnam, North Korea, or Albania. I wanted to fight the enemies like those heroes whose stories I had been reading.
My mother said that people had too much fire in their bodies.
When I asked why, she lowered her voice and said it was because the Communist party had banned the worship of the spirits. And this was how our ancestors showed their anger. Right after hearing my mother's words, I started my menstrual cycle. I had no idea what it was. I thought the fire my mother had described had boiled down into my body.
Since turning twelve I had been feeling uncomfortable with my body. I was ashamed of my developing chest. It was terrifying. I wrapped my chest with three layers of cloth plus a tight undershirt.
Even in the summer heat I wore the same shirt, ignoring the skin rashes. I wondered how other girls were coping. Most of them began to act hunchbacked. Some girls were proud of themselves because their chests were as flat as washboards. One day a dozen girls from the neighboring class sobbed together. It was because boys had threatened to "marry" them.
We were again learning nothing else except Mao's teachings on how to carry on the Cultural Revolution. "The battle between the bourgeoisie class and the proletarian class has intensified and is taking the most violent forms." Violence was a part of living then. People divided themselves into factions according to their backgrounds, and each faction tried to prove itself Mao's loyalists. Hot Pepper was proud because she was born "red." She came from a family of illiterate miners. Even though I didn't necessarily belong in the anti-Maoist category, I was told that I had to earn my right to breathe. "When I order a reactionary to crawl, you crawl," said Hot Pepper, "or my umbrella will teach you a lesson." "Class! We have a new person here," Mrs. Cheng, our teacher, a woman in her late twenties, announced. Her voice carried a cautious tone. I noticed that she didn't say "a new comrade" or "a classmate." She said "a person." That was another sign. It gave obscurity to the girl's background. "She is a transferring student from Number Nineteen District. Her name is Wild Ginger, pronounced as Wu-Jiang Pei."
"Wild Ginger?" Hot Pepper's eyebrows frowned. "What a strange name!" She began to laugh shrilly. "How do you write it?" The sound was characteristic of the bully. It gave me goose bumps every time.
"Wu as ‘Wild,' a luxuriant growth of weeds. It is written with a Grass head on top of the character Nothingness," the newcomer said, stepping out of the sun's shadow. There was no fear in her voice. "Jiang as ‘Ginger' with a flat tone. You can call me Wild Ginger."
The class was quiet, actually surprised.
Hot Pepper stood up. "But Wu-Jiang can also be described as ‘A wasteland.' Correct me if I'm wrong, Mrs. Cheng."
Mrs. Cheng pretended to be deaf.
The girl raised her eyes cautiously.
I blinked in disbelief: the sunlight hadn't fooled me. The pupils were yellow-green! I stared. Is she a foreigner? The eyes were almond shaped, wide apart; they couldn't have been more Oriental. The nose had a high bridge, narrow and long, with only a short distance between her nose and upper lip. The shape of her face was like a goose egg, and her neck was gracefully long. Her skin color was lighter then everyone else's in the room. Except for her gleaming black-lacquer hair, she could indeed be taken for a foreigner.
"What's wrong with your eyes? Is it a kind of disease?" Hot Pepper sat back down and kicked off her shoes.
The girl made no reply, but brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
Hot Pepper continued, "This is definitely not a pair of proletarian's eyes. Red Guards, be prepared to perform your duty."
The class watched in silence.
My worry for the newcomer increased. Not long ago Hot Pepper had done this to me. It was my first day too. Hot Pepper wouldn't let me into the classroom. She questioned why I was wearing a boy's jacket with buttons on the right side instead of the left. I explained that my family had no money to buy clothes so I wore my cousin's hand-me-downs. Hot Pepper laughed and told everyone that she had found lice in my hair.
People in the class were afraid to stand up to Hot Pepper.
Fear not only tamed them but made them her accomplices. Often, after Hot Pepper beat someone, that person turned to join Hot Pepper's gang. Hot Pepper said that she had learned her way from her uncle, who was a horse trainer in the army. "The technique is called xia-ma- wei. It is a warning against insubordination. My uncle once showed me how it was done with an unruly horse. It was really simple. He gave a head-on blow at the first encounter. He beat the shit out of the animal!"
"My name is Wild Ginger." The sound was uncompromising. The girl looked straight at Hot Pepper. An excitement stirred inside me.
Finally! Someone was standing up to the untouchable bully! I only wondered how long she would last.
Wild Ginger looked determined. She tilted her chin high when she spoke.
"Your name doesn't sound proletarian enough," Hot Pepper sneered. "Change it! How about Supporter-of-Red?"
"No, thank you."
"Then you are not coming into the class."
"I am not changing my name."
"Are you an anti-Maoist?"
"I am Wild Ginger."
"State your background! Is there an enemy in your family?"
"Who are you to ask me this?"
"I can tell right away that you have an evil background from your appearance. You have a very reactionary look."
"Mind your own business, please."
"Explain why your pupils are such a strange color!"
The girl paused for a second. "Well, may I ask why you have a short neck? Show me your neck and I will tell you about my pupils."
The class laughed.
An earsplitting sound came from the loudspeaker hung from the ceiling. "Ceremony!" the party secretary's voice from the speaker yelled.
"Ceremony!" Mrs. Cheng echoed. She was rather relieved by the interruption. "The Mao Quotation Book on the table. Hurry up, everyone!"
To the music of "The Red in the East," the class rose.
Mrs. Cheng quickly took Wild Ginger to a vacant bench in the front row on my right. It was the worst seat. She had to look sideways in order to see what was written on the board. Wild Ginger placed her school bag inside the desk drawer and took out her Mao Quotation Book.
We began to sing "The Red in the East," the slow and clumsy song that had replaced the national anthem. It was originally shouted out by a peasant in mid-China. I noticed that Mrs. Cheng's chest was wet again. She stood with her milk seeping. Two round spots. The circles grew bigger and bigger. Her bra underneath the blouse was soaked and was clearly visible. She had been to the restroom but it didn't help. She was not allowed to go home to her newborn.
Hot Pepper strode from her seat to the front of the class to lead the recitation of quotations. We chanted mindlessly. It would usually last two hours.
Bored, I stole a glance at Wild Ginger. From where I sat, I saw her profile. She had amazingly long, thick eyelashes. Her sleeves had worn edges and her navy blue pants were so worn and washed out that her knees showed. She sat with her hands constantly scratching her limbs as if she had a skin disease. Her mouth wasn't moving in sync with the rest of the class. After a while she bent down toward the desk drawer and fumbled with her bag. She dug out Mao's book and flipped through the pages. Obviously she hadn't been following our reading she was unable to locate the page we were on.
We were reciting Mao's Three Famous Essays "Serve the People," "In Memory of Norman Bethune," and "The Foolish Man Who Moved the Mountain." I could tell Wild Ginger was faking. It surprised me that she was not a bit nervous. She turned the pages back and forth. Her nails were dirty. The hands were covered with frostbite.
"‘When one dies for the people, his worth weighs heavier than a mountain,'" the recitation continued. Hot Pepper's eyes brushed across the room. "‘When one dies of any other cause, the weight is lighter than a feather . . .'" I felt sleepy but reminded myself of an incident during which a boy was expelled from the school because he couldn't stay awake during Mao readings.
"‘. . . Although we come from different backgrounds, we are fighting for one purpose. It is to liberate the world, to provide the poor with food and shelter. We are the true revolutionaries. We live like a big family where everyone is treated as a brother or sister.
We are learning to be truthful, kind, and caring . . .'"
I looked at the Mao portrait on the wall. The Chairman had kind-looking features. Smiling eyes, glowing cheeks, a round nose, and a gentle mouth. It was a peaceful face. Hot Pepper once said that if you stared at Mao's portrait long enough, the Chairman would come alive. His eyes would blink and his lips would open. I experimented with staring, but the man never came alive. I was getting bored looking at him. But there was nothing else besides the portrait on the wall in the classroom. A couple of months ago I scribbled in my notebook during the reciting. Mrs. Cheng stopped me. Later she explained that she was trying to protect me. Although she didn't spell the words out, I understood the message. She was right. If Hot Pepper had caught me, I would have been expelled from the school as a reactionary.
Mrs. Cheng's wet spots had melted into one large blot.
Hot Pepper was enjoying the sound of her own voice. She was showing off her skill by speeding up. We were reaching the end of the section. My fear of Hot Pepper sank in. I began to think how to escape the beating today. Maybe I should try to walk through the school's back fence instead of the gate. What if people saw me? They would report me to Hot Pepper. No one could stop Hot Pepper, not even Mrs. Cheng.
I often prayed for Hot Pepper to be sick. Her sneeze brought me delight and hope for the day. But she was strong as a spring bear.
She often asked others if they could "spare" food. To give or not give her what she had set her eyes on signaled the difference between being a revolutionary and a reactionary. Her mouth smelled like a garbage bin. Her teeth were corn yellow. Her tongue was always black and blue from licking her ink pen. Now she was staring at Mrs.
Cheng's chest. She made faces with Titi and Yaya her gang members.
They giggled. The class saw them and some joined in. Suddenly Hot Pepper's expression changed. Her eyes stopped at one spot. Her mouth hung open as if shocked. I turned to see what she was looking at. I was shocked too: Wild Ginger had laid her head down on folded arms.
She was sleeping.
Umbrellas fell on my head like storms my day's meal had begun. Hot Pepper and her gang attacked me from all directions. I tried to protect myself from the blows with my arms. In the meantime I searched for an escape. Hot Pepper came to block my exit. Her umbrella landed on my shoulders. I cried out in pain. Yaya and Titi came and began to punch my chest. Hot Pepper circled behind me. In a swift motion her knees knocked right into my joints. I fell on my kneecaps, my mouth in the grass.
Titi and Yaya clapped. I heard Hot Pepper's laughter.
People passed by me. No one stopped. I had told my mother about Hot Pepper's treatment. Mother had come to the school and had complained to Mrs. Cheng. Mrs. Cheng told my mother that she had gone to the principal and was told that Hot Pepper represented the Red Guards and was permitted by Chairman Mao to do "whatever necessary to change the world." "If your child had come from a working class family she would have been protected."
The beating resumed. My hair was pulled. My sleeves were gone by now. My collar was coming off. I was unable to reach the gate. The more I struggled, the harder they hit. Wrapping my head with my arms my tears flowed in despair. I shouted, "Chairman Mao will hear me now! I am his loyalist too! I have never misspelled one word of his teachings. My test scores are all excellent. You, Hot Pepper, your treatment is unfair and cruel. If Chairman Mao learns what's happening to me he will be upset!"
"Quite the opposite!" Hot Pepper's umbrella chopped down. "He will say, ‘Wipe that rat off the face of the earth! If the enemy doesn't surrender, send it to die!'"
Suddenly the umbrellas stopped. There was a cry. Someone had punched Hot Pepper. Under my elbow, I stole a glance. It was the new girl, Wild Ginger. She was wrestling with Hot Pepper. She pulled Hot Pepper's umbrella away from her and smashed it against the concrete.
Enraged, Hot Pepper threw herself at Wild Ginger. Her teeth were in Wild Ginger's blouse. The buttons on their jackets began to pop.
Suddenly Wild Ginger landed a heavy punch. Hot Pepper fell backward and landed on her butt.
"An enemy has revealed herself!" Hot Pepper shouted. "This is the one who slept through the Mao study section! Look at that funny- looking face! She must carry the blood of a Western opium seller!
Comrades, let's go to the secretary's office! Let's dig out her dossier!" Copyright © 2002 by Anchee Min. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.