Sunday, February 10, 2013

Growing Up in the Courtyard

We moved into the regular residential courtyard. It was a small courtyard with nine families and our parents all worked at the same institute. We shared one, only one, water faucet in the middle of the inside yard, and one bathroom behind the yard. The yard was paved except for around a crepe myrtle tree that flowered every year. We had a big gate to close the courtyard at night. We were about 12 kids in all in the yard. The other Han family, shared my father’s surname, the father also worked in the oil institute. He had two daughters, the older one’s name was just like mine, Han Ying (韩英), then changed to Han Ming because her mother’s surname was Ming. One boy’s surname Cheng (程) and I were the oldest.  Cheng was a Chinese muslim (Hui 回族), the only difference we could tell was they could not eat pork.  They got more coupons for beef and lambs from the government.
     Mr. Yin (殷) was very popular to all the kids in the yard. He often went on field trips far away to Tibetan regions, but whenever he was home, he always gathered us together to sit around in a circle in the yard. Then he would tell us a story. We, too, had to take turns, one by one, to tell him a story. My favorite stories were the Monkey King (Journey to the West) stories he told us; I still remember most of them. He often gave us some chores to do while we listened such as shelling peanuts or cleaning vegetables. Time flew and we always looked forward to the next time.
     One day, he came back from Shanghai and showed us a series of pictures of child movie stars. We were all impressed and we all wanted to be like them. I was especially interested in this boy who played in a movie called “ Shining Red Star.” He was so cute and all the girls loved him. Mr. Yin must have noticed that I had a crush on that star. Later on after all of us went home, Mr. Yin called me back and gave me that picture. I was so excited that I kept asking him, “Are you sure you want to give this to me.” The next day when I brought it to school, all the girls were excited and screaming.
     Our parents had to walk about 40 minutes to work so all of the older kids had to start cooking and cleaning after school. We had these bee nest-like coal stoves outside in the yard. There were 12 holes, 12 individual covers, and a bottom door for air. Most of us kids were supposed to steam rice at 5:00 PM because the rice needed 45 minutes to one hour to cook. Then, our parents would come home and stir-fry vegetables and in a few minutes we could eat. However, we were kids and every now and then, one of us would forget to do one of the procedures for cooking. We sometimes forgot to open the stove’s 12 holes or to put water in the rice bowl or accidentally let all the water boil away and burned the rice, or even lost the house key. So every evening, you could hear one of the parents in the yard yelling at his or her kids.
     Grandmother Liu’s (刘) was taking care of her grandchildren in our yard. By watching her cooking, I gradually learned to cook more than just rice. I began to prepare the whole dinner before my parents came home. I also learned to wash not only my own clothes but also sheets and towels during vacation because it was impossible to wash those by hand with my parents and everybody else’s parents at home all sharing the same water faucet and the same line to dry the clothes. The water pressure was so low. We had to line up for water. I became a model for all the other kids. Other parents praised me since my parents had an extra hand inside and outside although I never heard my mom’s appreciation but only her complaints. She complained about almost everything to me. My father was mostly quiet.
     I never built up a good relationship with my mom then. I was happy when my parents were not home. I used to sing, sing, and sing; my brother and other kids would join me. The whole yard knew my voice. I would never sing in front of my parents. I was very quiet in front of them. I would say that there was hardly any communication between us. If they asked me a question, I would answer in the shortest possible way. Life did not change much after that. I tried to learn to do more everyday. The more I learned; those chores became my duty. I still got blamed for everything. I just couldn’t please my mom no matter what I tried. I used to cry a lot, mostly tears in my eyes when I was sad; I missed my grandma more and I wanted to go back to her.
     There were times such as when I forgot to take in the clothes or sheets drying on the clothesline at night. My mom would ask me to get up from bed to bring them in even though she hadn’t gone to bed yet. In a word, everything I volunteered to help with became my duty. One time when I washed dishes by the water faucet in the yard, some rice was stuck at the bottom of the pan. I dumped the rice in the big stone sink. My father was shocked that I would do such a thing and made me pick up every one of the rice grains by hand so our chicken could eat them. He shouted that many people in the world didn’t have anything to eat and went hungry. I had just wasted that rice down the drain. My father always threatened to send us to his hometown farm in the north to taste the hardship of life so that we could appreciate the sweetness of life in the city. Kids had to do farm work like adults and there were no good things to eat. They threatened us a lot, but we never went once to my father’s hometown.