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-from “Socialism Is Great!” A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, by Lijia Zhang
“Where? America! Mother of mine!” My mother’s new moons shot up when I informed her of my grand new dream. She wouldn’t have been more surprised if I had said I wanted to go to the moon.
“Impossible, impossible!” Ma fanned herself ferociously with a palm fan. “You didn’t even go to a proper university.”
That was my own concern, too, but Liang assured me that TV University was as good as any so-called “proper university.” In fact, in my application to an American university, he had suggested I stress how I’d taught myself. “You’re experience has fully demonstrated your ability to learn, your initiative, and your intelligence, al of which mean more to Americans than anything else.”
I repeated his words to Ma.
“But what about your worker status?”
“Doesn’t matter. There is no such silly system in America. It’s a free country where everyone is equal.”
She paused for a while, fanning herself and thinking hard. Going to America? There must be ten thousand problems to tackle, she hardly knew which to choose. “Surely, it will be harder than climbing to heaven. Do any of your classmates from TV University want to go there?”
“No one so far as I know, but I don’t care. How can a small sparrow know the ambitions of a great roc?” I borrowed a Chinese idiom to encourage myself.
“American is very dangerous, isn’t it? It’s a place where dragons and fish are jumbled together. Robbery, murder, all those black people, how can a young girl like you fend for yourself there?”
“Don’t believe the government propaganda! The crime rate may be higher, but it’s not that bad.” The government never forgot to criticize America when it had an opportunity to do so.
“Oh yes, and how much money will university fees cost? Living costs, too? Terribly expensive country, isn’t it? The total cost will be astronomical!” Ma waved her fan at the heavens. After overcoming the initial shock, her practical nature came into play.
“I don’t know. Once I’m there, I can take on jobs in my spare time, working as a waitress or something. In America, wages are very high.”
“Waitress, Little Li? Outrageous. You’ll be the worst waitress in the world!” Father predicted, holding out his fan like a plate. “Here is your food, sir” – he said “Sir” in English – “and crash!” He pressed his fan against my head.
“I am not ‘sir,’ but ‘madam’!” I brushed off his fan, annoyed that he was trying again to show off his few English words. I was very clumsy and constantly spilled food on myself, yet waiting tables was the only job that I had heard Chinese students took up in America.
“Yes, madam, madam, I know that word, too!”
“Oh, just shut up!” Ma barked at her husband. “If you really were a learned man, we wouldn’t worry about money so much, would we? You half-baked man, Kong Yiji!”
Tail between his legs, Father went outside.
Ma resumed her talk on money, something tangible, and vitally important in her book. “How much does the ticket to American cost?”
“Around five thousand yuan, or maybe less.”
“Five thousand! Mother of mine! I won’t save that much by the time I die. And you haven’t got much yourself, I gather?”
Not much at all. “A beggar never spares food for the next meal,” Ma used to warn, but it didn’t stop me from spending every penny at my disposal.
But the financial difficulty was only a small bump compared to the mountain of challenges en route to America, or so Zhou Fang and I agreed. She was extremely supportive, for her fiancé, also a classmate of hers, shared the same dream and had been studying for the TOEFL. With a master’s degree and a teaching position at a good university, he stood a much better chance than I did. Still, why not try?
“Maybe I can borrow some money form you, Weijia, and our relatives. It is effectively an investment. You know what? I am going to study business management! With that degree, I can make big money.” I didn’t know what business management meant. Liang chose the subject for me. He reasoned China urgently needed people with management skills, which would allow me to pick any high-paying job upon my return to the country. Studying journalism, on the other hand, would be unrealistic, because I stood little chance of competing with native speakers.
Nai had been scrubbing clothes on a washboard (we now owned a washing machine, but she insisted on washing her own clothes by hand). When our conversation made enough sense to her, she began to cry: “I just knew,” she said, blowing her nose. “Look at the way you hold your chopsticks near the end.” Since I was little, Nai had tried in vain to correct the way I held my chopsticks: according to superstitious belief, the way I did it instinctually foretold I would end up marrying far, far away from home. She also tried to correct my brother, who held his chopsticks too close to the tapered, eating end, which suggested that he would rely on his family too much. Not a good sign for a boy.
I went over, holding her coarse, soapy hands. “Nai, going to America is just an idea. It may never come true.”
“It will, I know. Just like your Ma, once you set your mind on something a four-horse cart cant’ hold you back. Who’s going to wash my hair then?” She wiped her tears. Since Nai didn’t take proper showers regularly, every so often I would wash her hair at home in a basin, scratching and massaging her head. She would shut her eyes tight, moaning with pleasure, “Yes, harder, oh, so itchy!” It had long been a ritual that both of us enjoyed.
“So, come to America with me.”
“I’m going nowhere. Don’t understand the foreign farts. Half my body is already buried in the yellow earth.”
She still didn’t look her age, her hair black and her skin smooth. She was simply getting smaller. But her health was slowly declining. And her unselfish, unscientific approach didn’t help. One night a few moths earlier, she had suffered another minor heart attack. Unwilling to wake Ma up in the middle of the night, she just endured her discomfort quietly. The only precaution she took was to take off the ring I gave her. “It wouldn’t come off if I died and my fingers went stiff!” she had explained, to our anger and laughter, the next day.
Now, looking at the dear face of my dear old grandma, I thought about how much I would miss her and the rest of my family, if I left. There were dishes that only Nai knew how to cook, like “lion’s heads,” and dumplings filled with shepherd’s purse and minced pork. And I might never see her alive again.
But I had set my heart on America, where I would find freedom and love with Liang by my side.