She sweeps aside a lock of hair from her forehead. It’s damp from the heat and curls around her ear as she tucks it away. With her other hand, she pushes her test paper forward on the small wooden desktop. “Summarize,” her dark eyes read. “The speed problem is an important problem.”
Zhihong Yao – Xiǎo Mèi (小妹 – “little sister”), to her family – stretches her legs out in front of her and thinks. Her eyes concentrate on the pen that sits in her hand, willing the tip to spew forth ink in logical and analytical characters. A tangle of panic forms in her stomach. What if this is the one she can’t answer?
The air around her is heavy and still. It’s June, one of the hottest months in Beijing, and the mercury thermostat on the wall reads 32°C. Sweaty bodies fill the desks that extend in a straight line behind and in front of her. Not even a ceiling fan offers respite from the heat. The only sounds in the room are breathing and the occasional crinkle of test papers, which are two-feet long and drape off both ends of each desktop.
She reads again. “The speed problem is an important problem.” Like the others in the test, this prompt holds many possible interpretations hidden in its cryptic words. Decades later, she would look back with remaining uncertainty as to what it really meant. For now, however, she must find the conviction to continue.
So much has led up to this moment. Before she walked into this classroom of this high school-cum-exam center, she knew she had to do well. Before she left her uncle’s home in central Beijing early that morning, where she had stayed because her own home was an hour’s bus ride away. Before she had eaten a breakfast of rice porridge and marinated pickles, which he had cooked for her, and brushed her teeth with toothpaste and a tub of washing water, which he had readied for her.
Even before the laborious year of preparation – math, physics, and chemistry exercises, speed tests, practice essays – my mom understood the gravity of the exam. Known as gāokǎo (高考), it’s still today China’s national college entrance exam It’s held only once a year and tests knowledge as well as endurance, with eight topics covered over a 2-day span. After each morning session, test takers are allowed a brief lunch break before returning to the exam center at 1 p.m.
My mom, along with over five million candidates of varying ages, took it in 1978 – the second year that it was reintroduced after the Cultural Revolution. The topics included Chinese and English language, Math, Sciences, Geography, and Chinese politics.
Her success was crucial, not just for her but for her family – something her uncle intimately understood. He was an OBGYN with a bachelor’s degree in science and a focus in internal medicine, completing his residency in the United States in the 1940s and now chairman and chief surgeon of a large hospital in Beijing. He has six children, all highly-educated. Some of them were doctors and engineers, and the others were in university.
The eldest of twelve, her tall, handsome Dà Bó Fù (大伯父 – “big paternal uncle”) was reserved and soft-spoken, with the same high cheek bones and sharp eyes as her father, his Qī Dì (七弟 – “seventh younger brother”). The brothers were close – her father deeply respected him and would visit him every month. Sometimes, he brought her along. The brothers talked for hours, cups of tea long gone cold in their weathered hands. What they discussed, she had no clue – they always spoke in their local dialect. She would find ways to entertain herself while they talked, wondering how/why they had so much to say.
When the Communist Party of China (CPC) took control in 1949, they replaced her uncle’s stethoscope with a broom. He was demoted to public janitor, sweeping the streets and cleaning public bathrooms. At one point in the 1970s, the Red Guard Army forced him to wear a large wooden sign around his neck as he swept the streets of his own neighborhood in the dead of winter. It read “I’m the worst human being on earth. I need to be re-educated.”
All six of his children were removed from their positions or taken out of school and sent away to the poorest parts of the country to work in the fields. This was xiàfàng (下放), a program designed by Mao Zedung to “reeducate” the urban class, who he believed to be the enemy of true communism. Literally translated to “sent-down,” it brought the intellectual class closer to the peasants by sending them to the countryside to work as indentured servants. More than 18 million men, women, and youths were taken from their homes, separated from their families, and forced to live in communal and below-poverty conditions. My mom’s family was no exception.
Before the Cultural Revolution, my mom lived in a one-acre sìhéyaàn (四合院 – courtyard house) in Beijing’s east district with her siblings and parents. It contained two 3-bedroom houses that opened onto a tíngyuàn (庭院 – courtyard) and a small outhouse facility that served as the family bathroom. An 8-ft-high wall made of mud and bricks ran around the entire property, sheltering the residence from the outside world. Towering sunflowers stood watch along the wall’s outer perimeter and gave outsiders a taste of the lush garden that my Yé Ye (爷爷 – “grandfather”, my mother’s father) cultivated on the other side.
He grew all kinds of things in the inner courtyard: peach and pear trees, endless types of flowers, and two huge grape vines that snaked up overhead in shady canopies. One burst forth huge, long, white grapes that tasted better than any you could buy at the market. The other – round, burgundy ones.
There was no indoor plumbing, and the closest public water was a quarter-mile away. My Yé Ye would make his eldest son, my Dà Jiù (大舅 – “big maternal uncle”, my mother’s eldest brother) carry buckets of water back for him and his plants. Dà Jiù was always the one assigned this task, which he undertook with two wooden buckets hanging from either end of a long bamboo pole resting on his shoulders. Everyone joked that the reason why he was so short was his laborious job of lugging water for his father.
My Yé Ye kept chickens in his Eden, along with rabbits that his two eldest daughters cared for. “Tortured” may be a better word, for they were both young and callow with their furry cohabitants. They taught my mom that crickets could fight like roosters and dogs, and that cicadas could be flown around the yard on leashes made of thin thread.
Each day began with a calligraphy lesson. In the summer time, when the morning sun warmed the patio floor, everyone would gather in the tíngyuàn to write the many pages assigned by my Yé Ye before they could go out into the yard to play. This was a routine that he himself maintained every day for his entire life: wake up at 5 am, brush his teeth, wash his face, make some tea, and practice his calligraphy. It was meditative for him, an introspective morning ritual.
But an incubus lurked outside their small paradise. An imminent wave of turmoil loomed over them, threatening to black out the gentle morning sun. However idyllic their routine, country life was, however protected they felt by the earthen walls around them, my mom and her family could not escape or endure the flood of communist revolution, of the unrelenting and nondiscriminatory xiàfàng that was about to swallow them whole.
 32°C is about 90°F.
 Actually, Lǎo Yé (姥爷) is the proper way to say “maternal grandfather,” while Yé Ye (爷爷) actually means “paternal grandfather.” Likewise, Lǎo Lao (姥姥) is the proper way to say “maternal grandmother,” while Nǎi Nai (奶奶) actually means “paternal grandmother.” Growing up, I was taught to use the paternal versions of both names out of highest Confucian-esque respect and because my own paternal grandparents were American and, thus, not referred to by their Chinese titles.