A Good Girl in the People’s Republic

By LEI HU

A Good Girl

When she stepped outside and closed the door, the iron handle was so cold, it felt like it was burning. With the basket on her arm, Fu Rong slipped her hands into a pair of cotton mittens her mother had made. She knew she would warm up once she started walking. The stone lane in the village was slippery with ice; someone must have spilled water carrying it from the village well to their house. She slowed down and kept her pace steady, leaving the village behind her.

The North wind was rising, the sky lightening, when she finally arrived at the peanut field. She dropped to her knees, searching. Though the field had been harvested, there might still be a few peanuts left in the field. Some plants along the edge, disguised by the weeds, might have been missed.

She spotted a peanut, half buried, its shell pale yellow. She rubbed the nut with her bare hands to scrub off the dirt. It was plump and firm, leaving no room for her to crack the shell with her fingers. She put the peanut between her teeth and bit down. The shell cracked, leaving a grain of dirt in her mouth. She spit out the dirt, and rolled the peanuts under her tongue.

Oh, the fresh taste of raw peanuts! Its juice was sweet, the nut crunchy. She squatted down, scouring the spot, and soon found more. In just a few minutes, the bottom of her basket was covered with peanuts.

Her mother used to say that they were so happy when their village formed the Commune. Suddenly you owned your neighbor’s cow, your friend’s plow; they owned your horses. But all the Commune produced was also shared by the whole village, and it was never enough. People were always hungry. They started to salvage the fields. Then the Commune announced that every grain produced by the field belonged to the Commune. If you picked up any leftover rice, sweet potatoes, or peanuts, you had to turn them over to the Commune.

She’d started to pick peanuts three years ago, when she was seven. Her small body in the middle of the field was just a lump of dirt, not anything a person would notice. And if she was caught, she would turn over all the peanuts in the basket—only half of what she’d found. The other half she tucked away in a special pocket her mother had sewed inside the jacket.

She was lucky: no one saw her bring half a basket of peanuts home. Her hands in the mittens were numb, her feet tingling from squatting too long. But her heart was flying. She would wash the peanuts and dry them under the sun. Then she would line them up along the stove. The smell of roasted peanuts was heavenly. Her mother would beam and offer her a bowl of hot gruel, a reward to a good girl. Her little brothers would stare at the nuts, waiting for her to crack them.

 

The Choir

Before school, Fu Rong hid five peanuts in her pencil box. But then her mother said she’d have to stay home from school to watch her brothers. Mother was in a pair of heavy boots, the outfit for repairing the irrigation ditch for the Commune.

“Where is Gramma?”

 “She had to go help your aunt. Your uncle’s leg was broken from that tractor accident. Their youngest daughter has the scarlet fever.”

“But our first choir rehearsal is this afternoon!”

“I’ll tell the teacher you’re sick.”

“I’m not sick!”

She had worked hard to join the choir. To get selected, you didn’t have to have a good voice—you had to move heavy bricks from the kiln to the school’s new kitchen site. She’d carried 215 bricks with her bare hands, over many days, more than anyone in her class.

“I want to go to school,” she begged.

“Then who’s going to watch your brothers? A boy was hit by a truck in the other village last week.”

 

When her mother was out working, Fu Rong was the mother for her brothers, five and three. First she latched the door, so the boys would not open it accidentally. Then she laid out a stack of cigarette package papers she’d found on the street. The red package had the image of a worker operating a lathe, the yellow one a woman driving a tractor, and the green one three soldiers carrying rifles. She showed the boys how to fold the package papers into a triangle, and then toss them out like cards. The five-year-old was quick. The three-year-old was simply throwing the package papers in the air, giggling when they dropped on his head. But eventually, they both dropped the package pagers and said they were hungry.

A pot of rice gruel on the stove was lunch, still an hour and a half away. On cold days they always had gruel. In spring, summer and part of the fall, when the adults were working in the fields, they ate steamed buns, pancakes, and rice. Just like the Great Leader had instructed:

Busy time, eat solid; idle time, eat soft.

Fu Rong went to get her pencil case. She fished out the peanuts, cracked the shells, and gave them to the boys.

Near lunchtime, her mother came home. “I have a sprained ankle,” she said. “So you can go now.”

 Fu Rong hadn’t noticed any limp, but she didn’t question it. She grabbed her school bag and ran.

 

She arrived just in time, breathless. She could see the teacher, in the second row, between the shoulders of two classmates. The teacher raised her hands, and nodded. The choir sang:

Socialism is good, Socialism is good!
In a Socialist country, people are respected!
Bad elements are overthrown,
the Imperialists run away with their tails
tucked between their legs.
All the people are united.
Start a Socialist building boom!

As she sang, Fu Rong forgot her hunger. As her voice mixed with others’, and theirs with hers, she was bigger than herself, and she was powerful. She was going to build the future. She was going to build the country where she and her brothers would have plenty to eat and never have to worry.

 

The Kitchen God

After school, as Fu Rong entered the house, she saw Gramma in the kitchen, placing balls of dough into the bamboo steamer. On the edge of the stove, a line of peanuts was roasting, emitting their tantalizing aroma.

“Bring more firewood for the kitchen!” Gramma called. To make the buns fluffy and moist, you needed high heat to boil the water under the steamer.

From the courtyard, Fu Rong fetched an armful of branches, dry and crisp, good food for the fire. After she set down the branches, she noticed something on the ground, in the corner between the stove and the wall.

“Gramma, what’s this?” Fu Rong picked up the wooden figure, normally covered by firewood. It was five inches tall, and as thick as a rice bowl—she could barely grasp it with her small hand.

“The Kitchen God.” Gramma placed the lid on the steamer, twisting it to make sure it covered the steamer tightly.

“Why do you need a Kitchen God?”

“To protect us.”

Fu Rong looked at the Kitchen God. The figure wore an ancient, tall, official hat, and a gown draped down to its feet. His hands were on his knees, palms down. He was beaming, as if to an audience. But, on the ground, in the corner between the stove and the wall, he looked small and lonely.

“But Gramma,” Fu Rong said, “we’ve got protection from the Commune, from our Motherland, and from the Great Leader.”

“It won’t hurt to have more.”

“It’s a piece of rotten wood.” Fu Rong turned the Kitchen God upside down, inspecting it. “We might as well use it for firewood.”

“Don’t you dare!” Gramma dropped the kettle in her hands, and it clanged loudly on the floor. “Never turn it upside down, he will burn down our kitchen.”

“Gramma, that’s superstitious! At school, the Kitchen God would be smashed!”

“I don’t care what your school says. Here in the kitchen, I’m in charge. Leave the Kitchen God where it is. Put some branches on top.”

Fu Rong did as she was told: she piled branches on top of the figure, and pressed down. No one would know it was there but Gramma. How Gramma could trust this old ugly piece of wood to protect their family was beyond her.

When Fu Rong was done, Gramma dried her hands with her apron, and closed the kitchen doors. She started to tell a story.

When Gramma was Fu Rong’s age, the Kitchen God was placed on the shelf above the stove, surrounded by incense, fruits, and flowers. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the first dumpling the family cooked would be placed in front of the Kitchen God. Gramma’s mother would bring the Kitchen God down to wash off the grease, and her father would repaint it. Because they paid such respect to the Kitchen God, they survived three famines—they were hungry, but they didn’t starve to death. In good years, they had plenty of food, all prepared and cooked in this kitchen. The stove never caught fire.

“Now, people say to revere the Kitchen God is old fashion, from an old society. I don’t know what has gone into their heads,” Gramma said. Her voice was low, but she made sure Fu Rong heard every word. “See what a new society can do for you? No rice, no cabbage, no meat, no eggs, no nothing.”

Fu Rong watched Gramma wipe sweat off her wrinkled forehead. Somewhere inside her ached for the old woman. She didn’t know much about the old times, when Gramma had lived. Fu Rong had been born in the new People’s Republic. Though the country was still poor, she’d been taught at school that she and all the children were lucky, because they would learn about science and technology, and they would have the skills to build a brand new country where machines would sow the seeds and harvest the rice. She hoped to grow up fast, like the country, and show all that to Gramma. The yield would be so high that no one would worry about famine. And when you pressed a button, the stove would turn on—no need for firewood, no need for a Kitchen God.

 

 

Lei Hu was born and raised in China. Her childhood spanned the entire period of the Cultural Revolution. In 1988, she came to the United States to pursue graduate study in English and writing. She writes in English and Chinese. These stories are her first published pieces in English.

A Good Girl in the People’s Republic

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