I often looked forward to being sick as a little girl. There was a delicacy to be had only when I was sick. It was a hardboiled egg.
My mom would put her palm on my forehead and announce, “Sweet Daughter, you have a fever. I’ll boil an egg for you.” I touched my forehead, content – even thrilled – to feel the heat.
I put the hot egg in my pocket, enjoying its warmth on my leg. I cleared the clutter from the pocket in case the egg might crack against something. Then I took it out, spinning it on the table and catching it before it fell to the floor. Not wanting my second brother to see it – he would snatch it from me, I put it back in my pocket again. I toyed with it until I couldn’t resist the temptation anymore. I cracked it with great care. I wanted it to remain whole and smooth. First, I studied the half-transparent, jelly-like white before I peeled it off and ate it. Then I studied the thin gray film wrapping the yolk. Finally, I bit off half of the fine, yellow ball and chewed slowly before swallowing it.
Then, I was sick no more.
My mom told me there was a severe famine in 1960 in China. “The newborns starved in our village, all but three. They were so skinny that their mouths looked disproportionately huge, stretching from ear to ear. And they had their eyes open after death.”
I felt a chill running up my spine. I imagined their moms holding them and their thin arms hanging listlessly.
“Your second brother is one of the lucky ones, thanks to your granny,” my mom continued while sewing buttons on a shirt. “She went around to her sister and nieces and everyone even remotely related. She got a pound of peas here and a pound of rice there. I cooked porridges and soups and fed your second brother. Good thing he was never picky like you. He ate anything I put in his mouth.” My mom had told me this more than once before, but I never reminded her of that. Nor did I ever stop her.
“When you were born, things were a little better. However, you refused to eat anything but my milk. I didn’t have much milk. I fed you cookies, but you pushed them out. I gave you a bottle of powdered milk, but you wouldn’t eat.” I envisioned cookies and milk and my mouth watered. I couldn’t believe that I had ever turned those down. I hadn’t seen cookies or milk for a year, maybe two years! Turning down cookies and milk was a luxury that I couldn’t associate myself with anymore. Bread cost 1.1 cents, but my parents could only afford it two or three times a year.
The decade long food shortage was a result of both natural and man-made disasters. There was a lasting drought in 1957, 1958 and 1959. The production continued to be meager, contrary to Mao’s gospel ‘Men will conquer nature!’ Then, Mao, who was upheld as God, mobilized a political movement which came to be known as the Great Leap Forward. He mandated that industry supersede agriculture and he believed that an impressive steel output would elevate China to the status of an industrialized country. For one thing, households all over the country were ordered to smash everything made of iron or steel, including their cooking woks, to be melted in a commune furnace. That policy proved to be even more disastrous than the running drought. Farm lands were neglected, and the steel produced at villages was useless. To make things even worse, the breakup between China and the Soviet Union led to an immediate payment of national loans, which further drained the country.
For years, there was no food. People were left to their own extreme resourcefulness. They hunted for grassroots, tree leaves and membranes from the barks of elm trees, corncobs, peanut shells, and anything that was not known to be poisonous. Poplar and willow tree leaves were known to be poisonous, but eventually people were left with no other options. They boiled and soaked the leaves in water overnight to get rid of the diarrhea-inducing poison. If they didn’t soak long enough, they ended up in violent diarrhea and dehydration.
“Mom, did you really eat corncobs? But how?” Hungry as I was most of the time, I had not been forced to eat things out of the ordinary.
“I ground them, mixed them with a little starch and some leaves. Then I stir fried them,” she was pedaling the sewing machine.
“Was it good?”
“Hard to swallow. They stuck in the throat. There was no cooking oil or anything that could help ease it down,” she didn’t look up from the pants she was working on. “Once I ate willow leaves and I had diarrhea for days,” she stopped pedaling to align the pieces for stitching. Thinking of what she had gone through, I began to feel luckier. Up to that point, I had often complained about our invariable menu: two meals a day – lunch and dinner, with solid food only for lunch – alternation of steamed yams or corn buns – and flimsy soup for dinner. They didn’t fill me, and they gave me heartburns. But at least they were food meant for humans!
On my way to school, there was a butcher’s house. On top of his short fencing walls there were always piles of stripped fish bones or pork bones. I couldn’t resist stopping and admiring the bones. Grease oozed out in the hot sun; the left meat morsels had turned dark red. Every time, my mouth watered and I imagined a big feast on their table. They were a royal family to me, and sometimes I fancied having a butcher relative.
The butcher worked mainly to serve the soldiers stationed at the nearby military airport around the year. There were not enough pigs and no farmers had money, so there was no meat, except for two big festivals: Moon Cake Day in mid-autumn and the Chinese New Year at the beginning of spring. Only then did the butcher slaughter pigs for us. Naturally, the slaughtering of pigs was the beginning of a carnival, for both adults and kids.
Word had spread several days before, and both kids and adults gathered at the butcher’s shop, waiting indulgently. The butcher, stout and bald, came holding an inch-thick metal bar. He went up to a dead pig on the ground, pushed the bar through a cut in a leg and slid it back and forth. He pulled out the bar, put his mouth to the cut, and began to blow hard. The pig inflated like a balloon.
“What’s that for?” a child asked.
“It’s easier to skin the pig,” someone answered.
“This is a fat one!”
“Real good!” That was not sarcasm. People preferred fat meat to lean meat because fat meat seemed to quench the meat craving better.
“It must have lots of lard!”
The butcher worked in silence, glancing at the crown once in a while. He obviously enjoyed being the center of the attention. He tied the pig’s leg with a bloody leather string to prevent deflation. Three guys stepped up and helped him lift the pig into a big wok of boiling water. The butcher flipped the pig and started to shave it. After that, the pig was hung on a wooden scaffold. He slashed it open and caught the hanging intestines in a bucket. He sprayed a bucket of water on it; blood was washed away and there displayed clear layers of ribs, lean meat, and fat.
“Granny, I want that!” a little girl wriggled in her grandma’s arms, pointing to the hanging meat. “Honey, we’ll have it. Just wait a little while,” the grandma cooed. “No! I want it! I want it!” the girl started to cry.
The butcher cut off a thin slice of lean meat and handed it to the girl. She grabbed it and put it in her mouth. She chewed it and swallowed it! “Good heavens!” Adults shook their heads; kids watched and sucked their fingers.
It was time to allot rations of meat to each family based on head count. One person got two pounds of meat, with the pig heads, feet, and intestines going to only the few privileged ones like my father who held the position of a councilman.
That would have been enough to make a feast for every starving child, but it was not going to happen too soon. The tradition was for families to first entertain parents, uncles, aunts, and everyone who had done them a favor. That was no feast for kids, because they were not allowed to sit and dine with the guests. They were not even allowed to stand by and watch with their hungry eyes. If there was some meat left, enjoy. If nothing was left, get over it. Often times, the guests wolfed down everything on the table, while the kids looked on with a growling stomach. Once, a little cousin of mine started whining in front of the guests.
One good thing came from the shortage of food. It helped me to develop my imagination. The texture of sawed limber made me think of stewed lean pork; the pronunciation of the Chinese word for acre, mu, reminded me of the feel of its homonym, mushrooms stewed in pork; any drawing of peanut-sized dots flashed pictures of roasted peanuts in my mind.
A national legacy is in how we greet each other now, in many parts of China. We don’t say “Hi” or “How are you”. We ask each other, “Have you eaten?”
Guixia Yin was born and raised in a rural village in Northeastern China. She spent her childhood through the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution in China, which derailed and isolated the country and left many in starving poverty.
She was educated both in China and in the USA. Now she works as an Assistant Professor of English at Bunker Hill Community College, Boston, MA. She is passionate about inspiring students to aim high, apart from developing their writing and critical thinking skills.