1 In my memory she has a pair of foreign-colored eyes, the pupils yellow with a hint of green. They reminded me of a wildcat. She stood by the classroom door, her face in shadow. Behind her the sun looked like a giant red lantern. As the sun rose, suddenly the light spilled out. The beam hit the windows, bounced, and was reflected in her eyes. It was there, in her eyes, that I saw water in motion, the bottom of a pond clearly illuminated by the light. The water weeds swayed gracefully like ancient long-sleeve dancers.
I remember my thought: she’s not Chinese. Then I thought no, it’s impossible. It must be the sunlight playing tricks on me. She was just like me, a girl with thick short braids at the side of her ears. She was in a blue Mao jacket. Her right hand held an abacus. She wore an old pair of army shoes with her big toes on their way out. No Red Guard armband on her left arm. I remember my fear from that instant. It was what connected us — a sign of political uncertainty. I thought of Hot Pepper, the bully girl, the head of the Red Guard. She would definitely suspect that the newcomer was a reactionary.
I remember I began to feel sorry for the newcomer. The same way I felt for myself. I was rejected for membership in the Red Guard because I was not from a three-generation-of-labor family. My parents and grandparents were teachers. It didn’t matter that we were just as poor. We lived in a converted garage in Shanghai. Eight people in one room.
Hot Pepper believed in violence. Hitting was part of her treatment. She said that she had to “pump” the “dirty bourgeois blood” out of me. The authorities and society encouraged her. People of my category were considered to have “reactionary dust” in our thoughts. It was Mao’s teaching that “the dust won’t go away unless there is a broom.” Hot Pepper called herself a “revolutionary broom.” Hot Pepper had a pair of mice eyes and an otterlike body. No neck. Her bangs were so long that her eyes looked as if they were behind bars. She wore a Red Guard armband and an extra-large green military uniform. She was very proud of her uniform because it had four pockets. Pockets were an indication of rank — the more pockets, the higher the rank. The uniform was from her uncle, who had served in the People’s Liberation Army. Hot Pepper also wore two palm-size ceramic Mao buttons, which were pinned on each side of her chest. The buttons were peach-colored morning sky with a tiny Mao head in the middle. From a distance they looked like two breasts with Mao heads as nipples.
Every morning Hot Pepper led a team to block the school gate. They were there to examine everyone’s loyalty toward Chairman Mao. The school’s requirement was that everyone bring the “three-piece treasure”: a Mao button, a Little Red Book (Mao quotations), and, if you were a Red Guard, an armband. If you forgot, Hot Pepper lined you up and held you until the bell rang. Sometimes Hot Pepper picked people at random to quiz them on Mao quotations. She would say the page number and the person was expected to recite the quotation. If the person made a mistake, Hot Pepper would decide on a form of punishment. She would either order him to stand by the gate and read the quotation aloud one hundred times until he was able to recite it, or she would order him to clean the school’s restrooms for a week.
Every morning when I got near the gate and saw Hot Pepper’s shadow, my heart would pound. I could feel my fingers turning cold and my breath shorten. I made sure I brought all three pieces and updated all my Mao quotations. Still, Hot Pepper found fault every time. She would say that I hadn’t made the proper pause at a comma or at the period. When I did pause she would say that I recited the paragraph too slowly, that I was trying to cheat.
I was excluded from school activities, including my favorite sports, table tennis and swimming. It didn’t matter that I was a good swimmer. Hot Pepper believed that I would betray the country and swim across the ocean. “She’ll swim as fast as she can, out of the sea, into the Pacific Ocean, where a Western ship will be waiting. She will be picked up and sell all our national secrets to the enemy.”
It was 1969, the midst of the great movement called the Cultural Revolution. I was fourteen years old and attended the July First Elementary School. July 1 was the birthday of the Communist party. I wasn’t learning much in those years. The Cultural Revolution had started when I was seven. We had been studying Mao. We were taught to write our teacher’s name on the ground with brushes and cross the characters with black ink. We were on the streets parading all the time. We celebrated Chairman Maoo’s every new teaching, copying his words onto big posters. Fifty-six of us in the class. Fifty-six posters. We put up the posters on doors and gatesssss around the neighborhood. It was our mission in life. As a line leader, Hot Pepper always carried an electric loudspeaker while I, as a line tail, carried the heavy paste bucket and wet broom.
Once in a while we were shoved back into the classroom. We were taught basic math in the mornings. In the afternoons, on odd- numbered days, a guest speaker who had horrible stories about the old society would be invited from the countryside or a factory. The entire three-hour speeches demonstrated one thing: without Chairman Mao we would all be dead. It was effective. We all began to believe firmly that we were saved and protected by Chairman Mao. We began to love him. On even-numbered days, we would be assigned to read heroic stories about soldiers who died defending the country and honoring Chairman Mao.
My biggest wish was to be old enough to join the People’s Liberation Army. I couldn’t wait to die in order to prove my loyalty to Mao. I wanted to go to Vietnam, North Korea, or Albania. I wanted to fight the enemies like those heroes whose stories I had been reading.
My mother said that people had too much fire in their bodies. When I asked why, she lowered her voice and said it was because the Communist party had banned the worship of the spirits. And this was how our ancestors showed their anger. Right after hearing my mother’s words, I started my menstrual cycle. I had no idea what it was. I thought the fire my mother had described had boiled down into my body.
Since turning twelve I had been feeling uncomfortable with my body. I was ashamed of my developing chest. It was terrifying. I wrapped my chest with three layers of cloth plus a tight undershirt. Even in the summer heat I wore the same shirt, ignoring the skin rashes. I wondered how other girls were coping. Most of them began to act hunchbacked. Some girls were proud of themselves because their chests were as flat as washboards. One day a dozen girls from the neighboring class sobbed together. It was because boys had threatened to “marry” them.
We were again learning nothing else except Mao’s teachings on how to carry on the Cultural Revolution. “The battle between the bourgeoisie class and the proletarian class has intensified and is taking the most violent forms.” Violence was a part of living then. People divided themselves into factions according to their backgrounds, and each faction tried to prove itself Mao’s loyalists. Hot Pepper was proud because she was born “red.” She came from a family of illiterate miners. Even though I didn’t necessarily belong in the anti-Maoist category, I was told that I had to earn my right to breathe. “When I order a reactionary to crawl, you cr...