Authors: Aisling Juanjuan Shen
Aisling Juanjuan Shen
THE STORY OF A MODERN
Portions of this book appeared in altered form in
, Vol. 7 (2007) and in
#1 (Fall/Winter 2007).
Copyright © 2009 by Aisling Juanjuan Shen
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
CIP data TK
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Table of Contents
which forged me,
which found me
ASIDE FROM MYSELF
and my family members, the names of the people who appear in this book have been changed to protect their identities. If there is or ever was anyone by one of these names, he or she is not the person portrayed here. Similarly, the names of many of the businesses featured here have also been changed to protect the privacy of the employees and owners described in this book.
CHAIRMAN LIN IS
telling me his plans to make his company one of China’s biggest. Sitting across the oval oak table with his chin perched in his hands, he smiles sincerely. Two of his managers, in suits and ties, sit in leather chairs at his sides, all eyes focused on me. At the end of the long table, the heavy oil of the impressionist painting on the wall is gleaming in the afternoon sunlight coming through the picture windows. The fresh-cut yellow tulips in the vase sitting between us give out the first scent of spring.
This is my first time hosting a management team from China. I feel a little nervous. Gazing at the chairman, I tell myself to stay alert.
“We are planning to invest two billon dollars in Suzhou to build a couple of new plants.” He points to a dot on the page.
“Oh?” I respond, leaning forward with interest. “I’m from Suzhou.” Here in the faraway land of America, the familiar name warms me.
“Really? No wonder, Ms. Shen. The city is famous for producing sophisticated and pretty women.”
“Well, I’m not from the city itself. I’m from a tiny village in the rural area around Suzhou. My parents are just illiterate peasants.” I smile shyly. “If you had seen me fifteen years ago on the street of Suzhou, my fingernails were still filled with dirt,” I say, probably telling him more than I should.
He chuckles and dismisses my words with a light wave of his hand. “Oh, come on, Ms. Shen.” His expression tells me that he doesn’t think this can be true. The same girl who he is now so eager to impress couldn’t have been one of those dirty countryside people he ignores back in China. I remember standing outside a big factory in Suzhou fifteen years ago in drizzling rain, desperate for a job, when a boss just like Chairman Lin caught sight of me while walking to his limousine and ordered the guard not to let me through the gate. I stood there and watched him getting into the limo with its tinted windows, never giving me a second look, and then zooming away in a cloud of dust.
Flipping the pages of his presentation, Chairman Lin continues to speak about his grand expansion plan.
I nod my head from time to time, but my concentration is broken. My mind can’t help but drift back to those early years. I think of planting rice shoots in the paddies with my bare feet deep in the mud. I can hear the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears and feel the leeches sucking the blood from my calves. I see myself later, wandering penniless in the streets. All I wanted at that time was a hot steamed bun. It was years ago, but it feels like yesterday.
This man, who once appeared on the cover of
, sits here flattering me, while for my whole life I have begged one powerful man after another for a slice of opportunity. I’m in this gorgeous office in Boston’s financial district dressed in a black suit, but just ten years ago I was literally homeless, wandering from city to city in China.
I tell myself that it would be silly to try to convince this multimillionaire that what I said is true. Even if I told people a fraction of the struggles I have gone through, few would believe me. I’m only thirty-three, but I’ve faced enough for a hundred lifetimes.
This is my story.
THE SHEN HAMLET,
where I was born, is a small rice-farming village in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta. Surrounded by rice paddies and fields of mulberry bushes on one side and bordered by a small river on the other, the hamlet had only about fifty villagers. My parents, the Shens, lived in the center of the hamlet. I was their first child. Old Auntie Feng, the toothless neighbor who had delivered me in our thatched shack, always said that the year and time of my birth, seven o’clock in the evening in September 1974, portended that I was a tiger coming out of its den—nothing but trouble.
And it did seem like I was trouble from the start. When I was a week old, my father took the family residence booklet and went to the commune office to report my birth so that we could get more land and monthly sugar coupons. The cadre behind the desk asked what my name was. Full of disappointment that I was a girl, my father hadn’t bothered to choose a name for me yet. In haste, he said, “Hmmm. I don’t know. Just call her Mei Yun.”
My mother almost spit in his face and called him a pig-head when he returned. Family seniority was very important in the countryside. Not only was Mei Yun a dated name used only in Old China, but because my mother’s name was Lin Yun, the shared second character made it sound like we were of the same generation. My father didn’t say anything in response to her angry scolding. He just sat in silence in his usual spot behind the lime stove. My mother insisted on calling me Juanjuan, meaning “pretty,” instead. I never liked the name Juanjuan. Later I changed my first name to Aisling, after I had moved to the United States.
I spent most of my infancy on the ridges between the rice paddies, crying and getting tired and sleeping and crying again, while my parents worked with all their might. Our region had very fertile soil, and almost all the villagers made their living working in the rice paddies.
The commune controlled all our land. It allotted blocks of fields based on family size and distributed seeds and fertilizer at the start of each farming season. Rice was planted and harvested twice a year, once in the early summer, once in the late fall. Safflowers were planted in the winter and harvested in the spring for vegetable oil. After each harvest, every family turned over the required amount of rice and oil to the commune and kept the rest for itself. For some reason, what was left was never enough to fill our stomachs.
At a meeting at the end of every year, the party secretary would hand a red envelope containing the yearly income to a male representative of each family. The red envelope was always very thin after all the deductions for the seeds, fertilizer, and debts the family owed to the commune. Sometimes it only contained a strip of white paper with a negative number on it.
My parents worked desperately because if the fields were left uncultivated, they would starve every day of the year instead of only some days. As the first son in the Shen family, my father was duty-bound to work the fields of his mother, Old Number Two, and of his youngest sister, Number Seven, in addition to our own. My mother had to help, of course, a fact that she resented to her bones. Though my parents tended to her fields and fed her, Old Number Two never helped with the housework and never took care of me like a normal countryside grandma. She just rambled around the village, sometimes disappearing for days.
My mother didn’t like sharing our cramped thatched shack with Old Number Two and Number Seven either. Old Number Two had been my mother’s enemy ever since my mom turned fifteen, when her widowed father, Lianshen, gave her away to become Old Number Two’s daughter-in-law. Old Number Two had lost her husband a few years before and started to carry on with Lianshen, and she was able to persuade him to give my mother away without the betrothal gifts that were usually required. My mother barely knew my father, Yu Lin, at the time, but she had heard that the Shen family had nothing but the four mud walls of their thatched shack. Her hatred for Old Number Two only grew after she married into the Shen family five years later. The two women quarreled every day, and there was hardly any peace in the shack.
When I was almost four, my sister, Spring, came into the world. Shortly thereafter, the One Child Policy was introduced in China. From then on, a couple could only have one child and was only allowed a second if the first was deceased or handicapped. When I was young, I often wished that this policy had been enacted earlier, because then my sister would never have been born, would never have taken everything away from me.
Deeply disappointed that he would never have a son to carry on the family line, my father, who had never been very communicative, became even more reticent. He hardly made any noise, spending most of his time at home eating or sleeping, and sometimes you forgot that he was even living in the shack. After Spring was born, I was moved from my mother’s side of the bed to his. Every night, my mother held my little sister in her arms and fell asleep, while I lay next to my father, who barely breathed. I grew unaccustomed to touching my mother, and whenever my finger accidentally brushed her skin, my muscles tightened.
My mother was always exhausted and muddy from working in the rice paddies, and she never smiled. If she had any energy left at the end of the day, she would use it on stamping with fury and swearing at my father.
I knew my mother was a pretty woman because the people in the hamlet said she was like “a flower in a pile of cow dung.” So I looked at my father, five foot eight with small eyes and a small mouth on a flat, ashen face with droopy eyebrows, and I realized that he must be the cow dung. I felt sad, but then secretly a little happy, because the villagers said I didn’t look like my father at all. I had a pair of thick eyebrows like my mother’s. She was proud of her eyebrows. They made her look dashing and spirited.
I didn’t know why she never talked to me and why she was never happy. Soon I learned that I had better keep quiet around her, because she was always in a bad mood, especially when she was lying in bed and moaning over the festering wounds on her shoulders from the pole she had to use to carry rice during the harvest. If I tried to talk to her, she would yell at me to shut up or get lost—or worse.
When I was six, my mother put a schoolbag she had made out of old clothes on my shoulders and took me to the local elementary school for the children in the surrounding eighteen hamlets. The government was encouraging parents to send their children to school for at least nine years, and the villagers were starting to warm up to the idea of letting their children learn instead of just working in the fields.
Before taking me inside, using a gentle voice that I rarely heard, my mother told me that I should be a dear, listen to the teachers, and study hard, because not every girl was lucky enough to go to school. “You see, Mama and Dad never went to school. Among the girls in the hamlet, only you and Peony are going to school.” She knelt down in front of me and tidied me up. I said “uh-huh” softly, but I was nervous. What was school about, and what would happen now? I wished that my mother would explain it to me, or that I had the courage to open my mouth and ask.
Teacher Pang, the form teacher for first grade, welcomed us in a pleasant dialect, which I later learned was Mandarin, our national language. Her voice was sweet and soft, the way polished glutinous rice tastes in your mouth, and the skin on her face and hands was white and delicate. I liked her instantly. The skin of the people in the hamlet was like smoked pork, thick, dark, and hard, and when two or three people talked in our local dialect, it was like a dozen ducks quacking at the top of their lungs simultaneously. Even five-year-old girls used language like “fuck your mother’s pussy.” The Villages Committee had borrowed Teacher Pang and Teacher Shi for the fifth grade from Zhenze, a large town nearby. Because they were from an actual town instead of just a hamlet, they were “city residents.” They were lucky enough to have gone to college for teaching and didn’t have to work the rice fields their entire lives.
Sitting up straight in the classroom with my hands crossed behind my back, I watched through the open window as my mother disappeared in the distance. Feeling dazed, I turned to the big blackboard and the pudgy Teacher Pang. I had no idea that I, a small girl whom the world had shut out, was about to enter the most wonderful world in the universe, the one made of books, from which I would learn everything I would ever need in my life.
My home life, however, was still unpleasant. My mother couldn’t live under the same roof as Old Number Two for one more day. She lost control at the sight or sound of her. In October 1981, my parents borrowed a hundred yuan from the Villages Committee, and with that and the savings they had somehow dug out from the space between their teeth over the years, they built a new brick house with the help of the villagers. The Villages Committee arranged for Old Number Two and Number Seven to move to a small brick room owned by the hamlet in front of our new house. Finally my mother and my grandmother lived separately.
My mother became calmer in the new house. She didn’t scream all the time and instead used her natural voice more often, especially to Spring, who was almost four by then. As she grew taller, Spring became my mother’s “pearl on the palm,” so precious that my mother didn’t know what to do with her. She grew up exactly the way my mother wanted her to be, completely the opposite of me. Thank Buddha, my mother said. Loud and outgoing, she was the most fearless child in the hamlet, and she spent her days running back and forth between the Big Poplar Tree at the entrance of the hamlet, where the villagers always gathered to talk, and home, reporting gossip. By contrast, I was simple and slow and afraid of other people. I seldom spoke and liked to hide myself in the corner where I would attract the least attention.
I was vexed about what was wrong with me and wondered why I couldn’t be fast and brave like Spring. She always slipped out of my mother’s arms after she fell asleep during the noon nap and searched the mulberry-bush fields for toads. With the big fire tongs and a gunnysack, she could always bring home lots of them. Then she would chop their heads off, skin them, and put this delicious treat on the table, making my parents love her all the more. I, on the other hand, was afraid of toads and even of small insects. I was so timid and frail that I couldn’t slide the knife across a chicken’s neck to kill it. I couldn’t scrub the clothes clean enough on the washing board, which meant my mother always had to rewash them. I couldn’t please my mother by stealing a pumpkin and covering it with grass in a basket to hide it like Spring did. Spring brought home lots of hard-tocome-by peaches from the next village’s fields. Because she was fast, she was able to shake off the owner’s chasing. She could catch the rabbit that we had raised and fed, grip it by its ears, and whack it against a poplar tree again and again until it was dead.
I could never make my mother smile. She told the villagers that not only was I ugly, but my personality was bad too. “She is just not lovable,” she told her younger brother, whom I called Small Uncle.
As every bumpy day went by, I became more and more withdrawn. Sometimes I didn’t talk for weeks, and I avoided the villagers in every possible way. Soon they started to call me a “sneaky devil” and my little sister a “precious angel.” Nobody knew that at night I buried my head deep in the pillow and sobbed silently for whatever my mother and the world had done to me that day. Sleeping beside me, Spring’s breathing was always peaceful and even. We now shared a small bed, across the room from our parents’. My father had built it when Spring turned six and was about to start kindergarten.
Every morning, by the time the Villages Committee had started to broadcast tips for keeping crops healthy from the speakers that hung on every family’s walls, I had finished my bowl of congee and was on my way to school. I knew that later in the morning my mother would take Spring to kindergarten, and Spring would refuse to let go of her hands when they got to the door, and they both would end up crying. Spring hated school. Sometimes she would even run away from school and go back home.
I didn’t understand how anybody could not like school, not like learning to speak like Teacher Pang or how to write Chinese characters or reading the beautiful Tang poems or even playing with numbers. For me, school was heaven, the only thing I enjoyed. Nothing could pull me away from it.
After school, instead of going out to catch cicadas, frogs, and eels with the other kids, I would study hard all evening until my father yelled at me to stop. “You’re going to use up all the kerosene,” he would say. I didn’t mind working hard or being scolded, because school was the sweetest thing in my world.
My hard work paid off. At least I thought so.
After my last third-grade class, I ran home through the threshing ground and the fields. As Teacher Pang had instructed, I went to my father, who was sitting at the table in shorts, eating pickles with his congee, and handed him my report card. “Dad,” I said shyly but with pride, “I got my grade report today.”