Soon, I was in 6th grade. We cleaned our classroom after school everyday; four students took turns to clean the classroom. Every Saturday, half of the classmates would bring everything from mops to basins from their home to clean the classroom more complete. The school didn’t have any cleaning supplies. One Saturday, it was my turn to bring in a basin to carry water from the bathroom to the classroom for washing the table and windows. My job that day was just to carry clean water into the classroom and dirty water back to the bathroom. I should have brought the basin for washing feet from my home but I brought the nicer one for washing our face. When a basin is old then it is downgraded to washing feet. Every family strictly separated basins for washing face and feet.
When I brought the first basin of water, I announced to everyone that this basin of mine was for washing faces. Please don’t put your feet in it. No one said anything because I was not the first one to bring a face basin to school to avoid the embarrassment of the old rusty feet basin. But one boy his name was Wong Young (汪洋) which means “Ocean” challenged me. “What if I put my feet in?” He tried to test me since I was a new student with a funny accent. The rest of the students turned to watch what I would say. “I will pour this dirty water over you!” I replied. Everyone then turned to him. The boy was so ignorant that he simply said, “oh, yah!” and put one of his dirty feet in and out of my basin with his two hands resting on his waist. Then he proudly looked around to show everyone his strength. Yet, he still did not look at me like he was trying to prove something to them, not to me. I was so humiliated that I picked up the basin of water and poured it all over him from head to toe. I did this so fast that he and the rest of the students were in shock for a minute or two and just stood there. I had started to run to the girls’ room, but it was a good distance before I could reach it. He caught me right at the door of the girls’ room. He was trying to grab my basin to smash it and I was trying to get away from him and pushed the basin against him. It looked like the whole school was around the two of us.
Girls do not fight; they argue with one another. Fighting with a boy was the first ever. The whole school knew my name Han Ying (韩英), a female head of a local army who could fire guns from both of her hands, from a famous old movie, now they saw me in action. We both went to the teacher’s office. The teacher asked me first what happened even though all the other students already told him what had happened. For some reason, I felt something stuck in my throat. I started to cry and could not speak. My teacher then turned to the boy and said, “you think you are a big man now and you could do anything you want—you got what you deserved.”
The fight and my grades soon caused the teacher and everyone to give me special notice. Soon, I blended in and forgot my eastern accent. I could even wear short sleeves and nobody seemed to care about the hair on my arms. I looked at them again; the hairs were so few scattered here and there; yes, long, but light. You had to really look to see them.
I admired two popular girls in my class. One was the president of the class and the other was the leader for gym. They always dressed up in fashionable clothes and they had those thick, shiny black hair braids, nice and neat with a different style everyday. My hair was more on the brown and dull side, still short because I never learned how to braid my hair. People used to call me “黄毛丫头 yellow-haired girl” which meant that I was born without enough nutrients. Moreover, they stood in front of us, ordering the class to line-up and walk to the school playground. Sometimes, they used whistles.
We had an after-school study group. Usually three or four persons got together to go to one person’s house to study and then play. I was chosen to be in the popular girls study group, not because I was anything above. I did not have nice clothes and my hair was “yellow” as they called it, not black and shiny. My grades were the only criteria that allowed me into their group. Unlike here in the U.S., grades were posted on the wall in China at the time, and we knew who was at the top and at the bottom of the class.
Our class president’s home was my favorite place to visit. Her parents were in Chairman Mao’s Long March. They lived in enclosed areas where there were soldiers on guard all the time. She was the only child and they had 11 rooms. Most of our families had three rooms. Her parents looked very old and were in poor health. Later on her father died. We learned that she had an older sister who was married. Both of them were adopted. Her mother’s health was failing after her father’s death. Rumors said that her mother had a bad temper and often beat her up. I felt very sorry for her but I didn’t know how I could help. Soon after, her mother decided to move back to her hometown where she could get help from her relatives. The day before she moved away, I gave her my favorite boy star’s picture that all the girls loved. Mr. Yin, the storyteller in our yard, gave it to me and it was only thing I had over the girls in my class. Everyone loved it but could not get it anywhere in my city. She was surprised that I gave my favorite possession to her and that really moved her.
We kept in touch after she moved away. Unfortunately, they had rare floods the same year when they moved to Henan (河南) Province (later I learned it was my parents’ ancestral place too). Henan is often referred to as Zhongyuan (中原 means central plains), which applies to China proper. It was regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization and has been its cultural, political, and economical center for over 2000 years. Four of the eight Great Ancient Capitals of China are located there.
The Yellow River flooded the place when she and her mom just arrived. She wrote the most moving stories about how so many soldiers sacrificed their lives to save others. Still a lot of people died. A year later, her mother passed away. She joined the army and we lost contact.
When I was in the seventh grade, the political movement in school was quite “in style.” One year in class, I was elected in charge of study and public relations. The principal of the school wanted all the students “red” both academically and politically. For me, my grades were always great since I started school. This was my first year on class duty. I had to attend a lot of political activities and sang in school and around the city. My mind was all on it. Then, my grades for the first time dropped to just passing. Classes and homework suddenly became difficult for me.
When my parents received my report card, they were angry as expected because I always left home before them and came home after them. My mom started to check my homework every night. Besides my school homework, my mom gave me extra homework. I had to finish all of my homework including my mom’s before going to sleep. I was so tired that I could hardly keep my eyes open and my mind didn’t function when I was tired. My mom got frustrated too. She would pull my ears and pinch my face to wake me up. I went to bed crying every night. I felt as bad as my mom did. I was humiliated when my grades were bad. So I paid more attention during class and listened to what the teacher had to say. I cancelled activities that I did not have to attend. Very soon the next semester, my grades were back to normal.
Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen showed dialect differences in China in their "Phonemica 乡音苑 "