Sunday, February 10, 2013

My First Turning Point

The last year of middle school (eighth grade) was one very important turning point for me. At that time, China’s Cultural Revolution was still happening. Chairman Mao wanted all of the high school graduates to go to the farms, to learn survival experience. Since 80% of the people in China were farmers, naturally, most high school graduates went to the farm to live just like them, to be self-sufficient. All of the universities in the country became “factory worker, peasant, and soldier colleges.” Each university had a few factory workers, peasants, or soldiers who usually didn’t have a college education themselves in charge of administration. All the professors who spoke out against the government were sent to the farm to work. The whole education system changed. There were no entry examinations. The high school graduates who worked on the farm, factory, or army base and met the local leader’s approval for excellence were then sent to college for higher education. People said that the criteria to go to college was not how high your grades were but how thick the calluses were on your hands or if your leaders felt that you were the one.
     Most city-raised high school graduates who did not even know crops and weeds had to learn everything from scratch. To stay in the field from daybreak until dusk seven days a week, 365 days a year, was already impossible. Not only did the local farmers spend a lot of time teaching them how to farm, by the end of the harvest season, you could imagine how much the city kids could harvest from their own farms. Naturally, they had to eat. Most of their parents in the city sent whatever possible to support their kids on the farms, not to mention that the parents did not have extra to start with. They collected from relatives, friends, and colleagues. A few city kids on the farms gradually became problematic to the local farmers. They stole the farmers’ crops and livestock. Of course, there were some successful stories also. City kids completely blind to farming brought their limited high school education to the farm and made a lot of progress on the farm.
     In my parents’ oil institute, every other year or every three years, there were openings for employees’ children who were over 16 years old. General rules considered the oldest child first, then the second, and so on. Usually they put the kids together for a period of intensive training then sent them to different oil fields or to local petroleum institutions. That could still be harsh but compared to farming, it was still better because of the guaranteed salary and benefits. Best of all, my parents got the inside story that the next time would be the year after next. Their institute would keep all of the quality kids in the institute instead of sending them away to lower or far away oil fields. This kind of chance didn’t come very often. Like many other parents in the institute, my parents wanted me to stay home to wait for one year and to work with my parents in the same institute since I was the oldest. I had the best chance. But if I went to high school, I would be disqualifying myself even if I quit after one year of high school. I would put myself in with the rest of the world, and go to the farm to become a farmer even though I didn’t have any idea about the hardships, only admiration for those who changed the poor remote villages.
     I could not bear the fact that in my life, I would not have a high school diploma, even though I knew how to study and get the equivalent. What was I going to do in my parents’ geological institute without a high school diploma while they had trained as geologists in Northwestern University? My uncle and aunts all had their college degrees. I always dreamed that I would do better. Maybe someday, like my uncle, I would go abroad to study, to bring a Ph.D. home.
     Just when it was time to make the decision, my father was gone on a business trip. It was decided that I, like my girlfriend Zhang (张) Liqin should not continue to high school but stay home, and wait one year to work in our parents’ institute. If I went to high school, I would lose my qualification. I told my teacher my parents’ decision. I couldn’t do anything but be disappointed. My teacher decided to visit my home and my girlfriend’s home to see whether he could make a difference. My teacher and my mom talked for hours that night until midnight. We all knew that scientists were mistreated at that time during “the Cultural Revolution.” The more you studied the more you knew, and the worse place you could be. But my teacher sharply pointed out that this kind of situation could not last forever. The knowledge that I would learn would be mine; no one could take it away. Without education, I could only be a laborer all my life. Finally, my mom said that she couldn’t change the decision that she and my father made. My father wouldn’t be back for another month and the school needed the decision immediately in order to transfer my records to the Number 5 High School (列五中学) since summer vacation would start the next day. My teacher said that if my mom would like to discuss it with my father again after he came home, he would make a special delivery just for me to the high school during summer vacation.
     The moment my father came home, I brought the forms to my parents and asked them to sign and allow me to continue my education at high school. My mom did not want to discuss it and blamed me for bothering them since my father just came home, so I started to cry and cry. I felt so low because I would not get a chance to earn a high school diploma. I would probably end up as a janitor, cleaning all my life. I hated cleaning. While I cried, I heard my parents discussing in their room. I don’t know how long I cried at my desk in my room until my father came to my room and asked why I cried so hard. I told him that I wanted to go to high school. He told me that I could go if I wanted. Then I let him sign the papers. He said, “okay, go to sleep. You could go to school tomorrow and turn in the forms.” Suddenly, I felt all my blood rush up to my head. I was so dizzy and excited. I couldn’t go to sleep right away.