Chapter Two: Behind Every Closed Door is an Open Space
Hong's endless crying made my ears hurt. I was hungry and exhausted from crying myself. Shadowy figures moved like paper puppets through the dormitory corridors. Angry shouts from Red Guards just a few years older than I, yet infinitely more powerful, pierced the thick concrete walls. Nightmares became only more disturbing after I awoke and found them to be real. I was separated from my parents and older siblings, and I had no outlet for my frustration and anger. This place was the reality I had to face now. There was no escape and no one to rescue me.
Memories of those first days at the Nanjing dormitory form a hazy picture in my mind. Somewhere around the third day, an announcement came over the loudspeakers calling all the "children of black elements" out to the common area for a "bitter meal." A Red Guard came by our room to collect us. As we continued down the hall gathering others, he used his rifle butt with casual cruelty to strike at the laggards and sleepyheads.
From the field near our building, the Red Guards ordered the forty or fifty kids from our dormitory to march in military formation, ten to a row, into the soccer field just to the west. I realized then that we were not alone: additional lines of young people streamed in from other parts of the NUAA campus. There must have been a hundred of us all together, all children of black elements, most without parents because the Communist authorities had sent them away for reeducation.
Although Shanghai, similar to San Francisco in its weather patterns, had been cool and rainy when I left there in late June, the heat in Nanjing was oppressive. The Chinese called the city one of the "three hot stoves" of the country because of its infamously high summer temperatures and humidity. Sweat stung my eyes, but I kept my expression impassive, fighting the urge to run and dive into the nearby canal to cool off.
Red Guards took turns lecturing us from a podium on the field. We had been labeled "black elements," they told us. We were not even worthy of being treated as people because we were the bastard outcasts of educated, affluent parents. Black has a bad connotation in Chinese culture — it is the color of evil and death, a color worn at funerals. Being marked "black" meant that we had been born guilty for the crimes committed by our parents and ancestors, and that we must suffer for their corruption and greed.
Unlike us, the Red Guards were descended from generations of workers, peasants, and soldiers, and so their blood was good. It was red, the most favored color in China. Red is the color of celebration and happiness, a color worn at weddings. It also was known as Mao's color, the iconic symbol of the Communist revolution and hope.
We black elements had led privileged lives, while they had had nothing, the Red Guards ranted. We had lived in big houses and had plenty to eat, while their families had starved. Our parents and grandparents were responsible for depriving millions upon millions of workers and peasants of a decent living.
Now it was our turn to pay the price, they declared. Chairman Mao had called for the reeducation of all black elements. We were extremely lucky that our supreme leader was giving us a chance to reform. We had better do what we were told and keep our behavior in check.
So that is why I am here, I thought. For the first time since I had been taken away from my Shanghai parents and shipped to Nanjing, something made sense. I had grown up with all those blessings, while others were suffering. I felt a tinge of shame for my family's guilt, and for the delicious food and comfortable home that I had taken for granted throughout my life.
There was a big pot on the field into which the Red Guards began dumping dirt, animal dung, pieces of tree trunk, and anything else they could scoop off the ground. One of them scraped a sheet of yellow mold off a tree trunk and flung it into the pot with an evil cackle.
"This was what our ancestors ate," a female guard said loudly. "Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents suffered because your selfish families deprived them of good food. Today you will eat this bitter meal to remember our families' suffering." I watched her carefully as she spoke. I didn't see any signs of suffering on her face, only the glimpse of a devilish smile.
As we lined up to be served, I noticed a young girl in the army of Red Guards whose face seemed familiar. She was about my age, but far taller and more muscular than I was. I realized that I had seen her before on my visits to my Nanjing parents. I had played with some of the other kids who lived on campus during those times, but never with this girl because the other kids had warned me away, saying that she was mean. She had a long, square face and a pronounced chin, and some of the other kids had called her "horse face." Zhang – her name was Zhang, I remembered.
Zhang was begging her mother, who was a Communist Party leader, to let her serve us. Her mother handed her a ladle. I watched as she took the ladle in one hand, scooped out the mixture, and slammed it onto a boy's plate. He wasn't holding the plate tightly enough, and his bitter meal spilled onto the ground. A Red Guard hit him hard. Zhang's eyebrows shot up, and then she giggled with pleasure. She could make a game of this.
When I arrived at the front of the line, I held my plate securely in both hands in anticipation. I couldn't help but feel a sense of victory when Zhang failed to make me drop my food as she smacked her ladle down with extra vigor. She squinted her eyes at me as I quickly sneaked away to hide among the other children seated on the field.
The meal tasted sandy and repugnant. I was hungry but afraid ofgetting sick or stuck with splinters from the wood, so I spit my first mouthful out. All around me, other black elements were doing the same, while moaning about how terrible the food tasted. I knew to keep my mouth shut. The more the loudest kids complained, the more fun the Red Guards seemed to have forcing many of them to clean their plates. The Red Guards looked cheerful, as though they'd just won a championship.
From Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu and MeiMei Fox. Copyright 2012 by Ping Fu. Excerpted by permission of Portfolio / Penguin.