At the army base, usually one soldier would train us as soldiers. There were very strict rules. We practiced walking, hiking, running, shooting, and packing. It was tiring training all day long. We often had night drills too. We could not turn on the light but we had to pack everything we had in addition to getting dressed. That was chaos. Some people couldn’t find their shoes, put on the wrong person’s clothes, and packs fell apart on the road. Some days, our goal was to take over one hill from different directions. There were no trails and each group had to find the best, fastest way to the top. Since I used to play on the hills when I was with my cousins at my grandmother’s place, compared to most that grew up in the flat city, I was good at locating the best way up the hills. My group was one of the fastest to get to the top. Some girls cried but I enjoyed it a lot. I even get a chance to fire a few shots from a real rifle. My scores were not too bad.
Another semester, we went to the farm to learn from a farmer because Chairman Mao said that it was a shame that most of us didn’t know where our food came from and misidentified grains as weeds. First, we had to overcome the bad manure smell. We couldn’t talk about it among ourselves or complain. The manure issue was very political. So we got used to it. We usually went to the farm in May corresponding to the largest harvest season for the year. The farmers wanted whomever they could get to help them harvest. We worked liked farmers. We were not as skillful, especially in cutting wheat. Almost every student in the class cut their fingers at least once. Despite that, we kept working after putting on a bandage, except after several cuts. Students were proud of themselves if they could work fast and do a good job, watching an acre of wheat cut down and laying in the field. I was amazed at some students when they worked. They sweated so much. Their whole faces were wet with sweat. I didn’t sweat like them even though I worked as hard as they did, but they looked like they worked harder than I did.
One thing I could not do was to walk with bare feet in the rice paddy. I just could not even imagine putting my feet in without shoes in the farm. No way, I could not stand a grain of sand in my shoes. I could not think of putting my bare feet in mud filled up with manure. I would come up with whatever reason that day not to go. The good thing was none of our teachers thought I was not telling them truth. So I got away every time.
Every now and then, I was fascinated by a new discovery. I found a bird nest in the wheat and we brought the nest home. We found a nest with small mice that hadn’t opened their eyes yet. Since we were told that mice ate the farmers’ wheat and the mice were bad; we threw them into the creeks. I felt bad to watch because the baby mice were so cute and helpless.
Some student found a snake and the farmers told us horrible stories about snakes. On a winter morning in a farmhouse, the farmer was ready to get up and felt something heavy on top of the blanket. So he kicked it from below and an orange snake was thrown from the bed and slid away. I guess it was common for snakes to find their way to the farmer’s bed because the farmhouses were built with bricks of mud and a straw roof. The second night, worse was that the same snake got into their blanket and they felt something cold go swiftly by. I could not go to sleep when I thought about the possibilities. Every now and then, somebody would find a garter snake and chase it off.
I did encounter a snake on the way home one late afternoon. I was carrying a field hoe on my shoulder because we had been turning over the soil. I saw a three to four foot long blackish gray snake by the creek that I was going to walk by. I was horrified and stopped right there. Oh, what was I going to do? Was it poisonous or not? Was there another way home? No. I had to go that way but I couldn’t. My feet didn’t move. I was thinking that if the snake attacked me then I could use my tool to strike it. But what if I missed? So, I waited. Maybe, it would go away. I waited without moving. A few minutes went by. I saw the snake go down by the stream and drink water. I had never seen a snake drink water before. It was quite interesting that he used the two sides of his 2-forked tongue alternatively to touch the water. Then, he swam across the creek and climbed up the bank and disappeared into the crop field on the other side. Then I started to walk back again.
One afternoon, we tried to finish an individual field before dark. I don’t remember who initiated the idea that we compete, boys versus girls. Our rule was that if the boys won, the girls would wash the boys’ clothes for three days; if the girls won, the boys would not eat their dinner for three days (dinner was the best of the three meals). As usual back then, the boys didn’t pay any attention to us girls. We divided the field into two equal parts, then started. We worked at our best pace. The boys were too proud of themselves. The boys gave two teachers to the girls’ side. Very soon, it became obvious that they were going to lose. Then they started to blame each other slowing them down even further. So, the boys lost. But the boys didn’t want to keep the terms unless we tried a second time. So, we agreed. For the second time, we tied. Then, they wanted to try a third time. I said, “no, no way.” I knew that we would lose if we tried again. Average two, they still lost. Finally, we told them, we have a big heart. They were not real men because they had their dinner anyway.
We did another thing between boys and girls on the way home from work or on Sundays. Boys liked to challenge girls to jump over some creeks. Those creeks were usually shallow for irrigation but wide. Most girls didn’t want to join the game. I was one of five girls who always joined the competition. I did fine jumping over all the creeks, while two others got themselves all wet.
By the end of four weeks, we usually had a big feast. Then after dinner, we put on a performance for the local farmers. I used to sing solo. My voice was one of the two best in the class. The next day, we went home with lots of farm goods from the local farm market and gifts from the farmers. The farmers liked the free labor from us and they wished we could come every May.
The factories were usually not far from us, by the edge of the city. We usually could walk or take a bus there. The fun part was getting the chance to stay in the factory’s dining hall for lunch instead of going home for lunch with our parents. Sometimes, we even went out for lunch with a few friends even though our purpose was to learn from the factory workers and the work there.