Sunday, April 19, 2009

In That Faraway Place ...

More than thirty years ago, in that faraway place I started my long journey to a university. Everything then is still vivid in my mind … …

In the middle of nowhere, at some point of a paved road along the rim of the world second largest desert Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China, several of us “Re-educated Youths”, a few boys and girls, aging from 17 to 22, were hitch-hiking to catch a ride to the County seat for the National Entrance Examination to the universities. It was a major road in the region, but rarely could one see any vehicle passing. Both ends of it disappeared into the horizon. Behind us, there were waving sand dunes. In front of us, the flat endless gobi desert far reaching into the sky. There were no buildings, no trees, not even a grass in sight. It was December 1977.

The sun was warm, the only pleasant thing that cheered us a little. But the wind was not merciful. With sand and little rock particles it blew hard like knives cutting into our faces. The boys and two girls were hiding themselves behind the sand hills, not from the wind but from the drivers who would give us a lift. It is such a classic game, I believe, everywhere in the world that girls are put to the front to get a ride. I and another girl were the chosen ones. We put our blanket bundles on the road and sat on them, waiting.

I really did not care that they had put me up there as a shield, if it was good for all of us. We were all desperate to get a ride to get to the County town in time. The examination was scheduled the next day. It was the first official entrance examination open after ten years of “Great Cultural Revolution” when all the schools were paralyzed. We must catch it. Nobody knew what kind of political wind would blow the next year, i.e. if there would still be an examination – a chance for us to go to a university. Even in the normal time, such national examination would be held only once a year, so we could not afford to miss it - the opportunity that would not only send us to the colleges but more importantly also get us city kids out of the farm where we had been sent to get the peasants’ re-education for three years by now.

We waited and waited, nothing coming. Those hiding were lying on the ground, pillowing the bundles, a couple smoking, the others dozing. We two up here called their attention constantly not to fall asleep. It was easy to get “twisted face” (paralyzed facial muscles) sleeping in the openness in the weather like this, especially after last night’s long fatigue marching from our farm to the commune headquarters.

Not until last night, we were allowed to leave the farm, and by then we had been given only half of each day for a week for preparation for the exam. At the supper, each of us was given two extra wheat-flour-made buns for the trip – s special treat. We had been eating only corn bread, corn porridge, and corn soup, without anything else. Already, we felt lucky. It was nearly dark when we were about to leave. We each carried a big heavy quilt on the back, a bag with books on one shoulder, and another bag with food and water on the other shoulder. We had to bring our own sleeping mats and quilts for the next few days. It was winter. We wore very thick clothes and an extra long warm coat on top. With a big bundle on, we all looked like a ball, clumsy and funny, and could hardly stand still. Finally we started our journey, with “goodbyes” and “good lucks” from our buddies.

We had to walk about 15 miles to the headquarters of the Commune, and from there, hopefully to find a ride to the County for the exam. Between the farm and the headquarters, there was no road, except a trail of people and animals’ footsteps lying serpentine among the sand dunes.

At first, we were extremely excited. Like some caged birds set free, we were singing and screaming at the top of our lungs, happily. Whether we could pass the examination was not the concern at the moment. Just a few-day freedom from the routine daily labor work was enough a treat to make us go wild. We sang all the songs we knew, talked about everything we could think of. But before long we all got exhausted. We had passed no more than two miles, yet. It was hard to walk in the soft sand, especially with heavy load. Someone suddenly had a splendid idea: why don’t we throw it on the ground and drag it! So each of us tied a long rope to the buddle and made the other end into a loop and put it on the shoulder, began to drag.

The night sky in the desert was extraordinarily high and clear. Its color was always deeply blue like lapis lazuli; the moon was forever bright; the stars twinkled tirelessly. It was beautiful and tranquil. We stopped talking, overwhelmed by this vast universe and its eternity. In a place and time like this, one could be easily moved – by its poetic nature, its grandeur and beauty. We were also moved by our own spirit and efforts. Someone started humming: “Raising the head to look at the Big Dipper Stars, we miss our great leader Mao Zedong …” (how ironic it seems today), one revolution song that had a little nostalgia tune. The North Stars point to the directions and symbolize hope. We were walking step by step towards hope.

Our little farm village was located at the southwest side of the famous Taklamakan Desert, with about 20-30 families. Deep in the desert, the farm had very limited water source distributed by the local government through irrigation system. The farmers were mostly migrants from Gansu and Shanxi provinces who had fled from the big famine in early 1960s in China. When we, high and middle school graduates, were sent there, we became the Commune farm members. We lived and worked like other farmers, earning our own food from working in the fields, but with a little government subsidies. By the end of the year, the best of us could earn a hundred yuan (less than fifteen US dollars) cash besides enough bags of corn flour for the year. The farm was so poor that everything was done manually. It did not have a tractor or any machinery. The method of farming was still the most primitive. The farm was under the administration of Commune, named Happiness Commune, and so our farm was also called Happiness Farm.

Now we were heading to the Happiness Commune headquarters, where we hoped to get a lift to the County town. We dragged luggage and ourselves all night through the desert. A couple of hours before dawn, we arrived. The secretary of the commune had known that we were coming so he had a meeting room left open for us. The room was empty except for a few chairs. No light, no heat. Luckily the moon was full that night, so we could see our trail without getting lost, and now could see a little bit of the room, thanks to two windows. The ground was brick paved which made it look clean. We were too tired to pick a spot, and too exhausted to bother opening the quilts. All collapsed at each one’s most convenient spot, leaned against the luggage and fell asleep.

Early in the morning, the secretary came and led two of us out looking for a lift. Nobody seemed to leave for anywhere that day. We began to worry. It was impossible for us to walk to the County. It was thirteen kilometers from the headquarters to the main “express way”, plus four hours of normal car-drive to get to the town. Two hours passed, no good news. We decided to walk to the main road and wait for our chance. Again we dragged the luggage and started our next long journey. Under many curious eyes, we filed out in the dirty street of this little town, pretty much like a mob of desperate war refugees. We were lucky. Twenty minutes after our start, a small tractor came up. The driver agreed to take us to the main road. From there he was going to the opposite direction. Better than walking another several hours! We jumped into his small trailer.

And now here we were, on the side of the road, still waiting.

A car was coming to the opposite direction. It must be VIP’s. Only the chiefs of the County could have a car. Two of us in the middle of the road had to move our luggage to let the car pass. A military jeep and a truck full of loads passed. We felt hopeless. It was almost noon. Some of us took out the frozen bread to eat. Some hopped and jumped to get warm. Nobody wanted to talk, no spirit, no energy for it.

We were at the age of dreaming, but tragically, none of us could have a wild dream. We were so bound in the desert that we lost our imagination and became extremely realistic, and so limited by the harsh reality that the only dream most of us had was to get out that farm by any means.

I went to the farm whole-heartedly to learn the peasants’ life and help them improve poor living conditions, believing that together, we could make a better society where there would be sufficient material supplies for everybody, and where there would be no difference between the poor and rich, between the city and countryside. For a couple of years of real life there, even the loyalist people to the noble idea like me realized that having sent millions of young people to the countryside did not accomplish any main goals, but negative effects. Now, the whole country decided to change from the 10-year chaos, so did we, the “Re-educated Youths”.

“Look, a truck!” Someone excitedly cried. We jumped up. Something appeared in one end of the horizon. Small like a bug, slow like a turtle. Finally it came closer. To our much disappointment, it was only a tractor, but with an empty trailer. We couldn’t wait anymore. All of us went up the road, blocking the way and waving. It stopped. Immediately we threw our luggage and selves into the trailer fearing that if we were not fast enough it would move away. The driver told us that he did not go to the county seat, but could drop us at the road to the town. There was about 8 kilometers from the main road to the city. It was our last chance. “Ok, let’s go!”

Luckily the trailer was big enough for us to make ourselves comfortable. We huddled ourselves closed to each other to keep warm. Relieved and exhausted, we soon fell asleep.
Six hours later, the driver woke us. We found ourselves frozen. Our lips could barely move to talk, the limbs refused to stretch out. The driver couldn’t wait. He urged us to get off immediately. We elbowed and kneeled ourselves up. With frozen hands, we rolled the luggage on top of each other and rolled it down. We also rolled and tumbled ourselves out of the trailer. Fortunately we had heavy coats on so we did not break our bones. For the next eight kilometers, we dragged our bundles once again on the road. Only this time, the road was better paved with little pebbles. But still, half way to the final destination, most of our luggage got worn out. We were too exhausted to care.

The County seat was actually a very small town. It was dark already when we got there. We were led to an elementary school where we would stay for next three to four nights. A guy from the County Education Department took us to two classrooms for resting, one for boys, one for girls. Before we could ask about anything, the guy had a man give each of us a baked corn bread nang, as hard as stone, for supper, apologizing the situation and quickly left. We were left alone.

Stores were closed. Nowhere could we find a cup of hot water or a candle, not mentioning a fire. A couple of us had hand flashlight, we quickly viewed the room trying to find a spot to put the sleeping mat. To our surprise, the rooms were absolutely empty. Not until now did we realize there were all together five or six rooms for the school. Each room had four windows, but none had glass on. They looked like black holes swallowing us into the darkness. The walls were made of adobe, neither inside nor outside painted. The ground was not paved, very uneven. We wondered where did the desks and benches go and how the children could have classes in the room like these. But we had to put away all our wonders and pick up a space before the light went out. We quickly snug ourselves in the quilts with the most clothes on except the heavy coats, which were needed to put on top of the quilts.

We could not sleep. At last, we were here. Tomorrow we would face a more serious test. We needed to gather ourselves together, to forget all hardship we had been through and to ignore every difficult situation we were having now. To pass the exam or not would decide our each one’s future. We must concentrate on it now. We could not read or write. So, in the pitch darkness, we studied together by asking each other questions, repeating answers, memorizing formula, recited ancient poems and essays …

The next morning, we woke up early from the coldness. Without washing – no water or any facility for it, we were again given a dry and hard bread and a cup of hot water, and led to a middle school next door to this elementary school, where the exam would be held. Here we met a lot more students from the county and other “re-education” units. Those who lived in the county town looked refreshed and comfortable, but we poor “re-educated youths” were hungry, cold and dirty. Although many of us had come originally from a bigger town, Hetian (Khotan), the headquarters of the higher administration district that was responsible for seven counties, including this one, we were not allowed to go back to our hometown to take the exam since our personal files and records were kept here in the county. However, we felt fortunate enough to have the opportunity.

In a confusing and messy situation, I finally found my classroom. It was a similar adobe room, only better with glassed windows, desks, and benches. The desks and benches were the simplest furniture in the world. The desk was made of two or three wooden boards, roughly smoothed; somewhere the tree bark was still visible. The boards were not trimmed so the spaces between the pieces allowed a pencil or even a book to slip through. The bench was a simple one-piece board with four legs. Two students shared a desk and bench. On the two top corners of each desk there were numbers assigned to the students. I was checked with ID at the door and pointed to the seat. I sat down and looked around. Two exam assistants and a couple of students were busy setting a fire in an iron stove in the center of the room. The firewood was too long and irregularly shaped. They could not get it in the stove. There was no any kind of tools for them to use to cut the wood short. The firewood was also still wet and tough. Two guys tried hard to break it with their feet, but failed. Finally they had to let the long wood sticking out of the stove. At one time, they tried too hard to get a piece of zigzagging wood in the stove that the chimney pipe fell. It caused a little panic. And then they put the pipe back. The disaster was made already. The smoke immediately filled up the room. Those who sat beside windows quickly opened the windows.

With tears and running noses from the smoke, cold, coats and gloves on, we started our life-deciding national exam.

Three days later, after five sections of the exam, two subjects a day, we took the bus directly home. We would be waiting for our results in our hometown. About two weeks later, some unofficial news came out that I got the highest score in the field of Humanities (it was confirmed later as true). That year, about 20,000 students participated the examination in the District. With the highest score, nobody would doubt that I go to the best university in the country.

I felt relaxed and waited for the admission letter.

My old classmates, friends, fellow re-educated youths, one by one, got their admissions, and left. My parents felt something wrong. Meanwhile there were kinds of rumors floating around. So they went to see the person in charge of the Commission of grading and admission. What they had found out was that I was barred with my “Political Evaluation” issued from the Commune and County, which, we much later learned, evaluated me as pretending to be sick to gain time from field work for the examination (which was untrue of course), and as an influential leader of the re-educated youths in the region whose leaving would shake the spirit of the remaining youths (I had never seen my influence that great, and how contradictory of the two reasons!); therefore, the youth in question was not recommended.

In that same year, my brother also took the exam in a different county and too, got very good grade, and too, was not recommended by “Political Evaluation” simply for being from an intellectual Bourgeoisie family. My brother had been a “Re-educated Youth” himself for about five years, and just got a job in a few-men weather station far deep in the desert in Endre. He had been interested in astronomy since childhood and now wanted very much to study astron-physics. His dream was ended then and there.

So that was it! I went back to the farm. One mail-delivery day, I got a letter from my parents telling me that a few of my close friends had left for the universities in the major cities throughout the country. I hid myself under the quilt that night – did not cry, but read books with the hand-torch light till the battery completely exhausted, till the morning light came out. …

The end of the story is this: because two other top students from that examination were also rejected for the same political reasons, one because of her uncle being an high official in Taiwan, and another for her mother’s ex-husband’s being in Taiwan, our school teachers and university professors who graded the exams protested against the local governments decisions; the parents also pleaded; my father even wrote a complaining letter to Deng Xiaoping. Eventually, three of us were given an opportunity to choose one of the only three colleges in Xinjiang Autonomous Region. So, about two months after all schools had started, I finally sat in a university classroom.


1 comment:

  1. Dear

    Silk Worm,

    I was deeply touched by your short story, In a Faraway Place. As a man with a soft heart I shed tears.

    The hardship and deprivation you suffered were punishments for a criminal and I believe so intended despite the political rhetoric. The trek in the desert would have been enough to destroy some. Your survival, accomplishments, and success are a tribute to you, your parents, the Chinese people, and the oft-times indomitable human spirit. How evil of those petty officials to have tortured you further with ridiculous contradictory words. How you withstood this crippling assault I know not? Thank God for your brave parents and courageous teachers to have come to your defense. I wonder how your brother has fared?

    Your stories may not be understandable to
    Sasha at present, perhaps they are, but some day they certainly will be. I hope you will try to publish them as they are an insight in to personal and collective (no pun intended) history as well the human spirit. My mother had her diary “published” and printed by a small company to share with family.

    The photos are also wonderful and full of feeling. Are you on the bus?

    Again thank you for sharing this very meaningful memoir. I look forward to reading the others.