I arrived in my father’s home village of Mengjinzhuang a few days before Duan Wu Jie – a major festival best known for Dragonboat races and for gorging oneself on zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves). Da Bo (oldest uncle) and my cousins still live there, and I planned to stay with them until the festivities were over. When I stepped into the courtyard, I was greeted by Da Ma (uncle’s wife) with a wide smile and open arms. She spoke to me in tu hua (local dialect) and beckoned me to rest inside.
Da Bo finally came home a few hours later after his shift at the factory nearby. He tends the boiler room where he maintains the furnaces and transports coal. He works 12 hours a day with no weekends, often switching between day and night shifts. Although the hours are long and there are many health hazards, work in the boiler room is less demanding than the jobs he’s held in the past. Over the years, he’s planted crops, raised pigs, driven tractors, transported shipments, sold clothing – almost every manual job you could think of.
Da Bo is one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution that lasted from 1966-1976. During that time, the country was in chaos from internal political clashes that resulted in bloodshed throughout cities and villages. Groups of youth (as young as 13 years of age) fought those who supported different political factions. Da Bo recounted what the times were like: “The Cultural Revolution put everything in turmoil. Kids were fighting kids – up in arms over internal political conflicts. Many were injured and even killed.”
The countryside is considered the poor and neglected part of society with limited opportunities for a good future. Due to the hukou system, the only honest way to a better life is through joining the military or getting into university. Da Bo is highly intelligent and there is no doubt that he could have gone far given the opportunity. Unfortunately due to the Cultural Revolution, all schools were closed and Da Bo only graduated with an elementary education. “If I had grown up with your circumstances, how different things would be for me. I’d have a much different life. All these years of hardships…” He still had hints of regret in his voice. “Our family is one of honest intellectuals. In academia, we would flourish, but in this society, we are suppressed. Bad people involved in hei she hui (black society) are everywhere. Here, you can only rise up if you have connections or money to bribe with.”
Da Bo recalled a disturbing scene he witnessed the year before. “As I was driving on the village road, I saw a police car cut off the car ahead of me and force it to stop. A large, burly man jumped out, pulled the driver out of the vehicle, and started him beating him to the ground. The police officer also took part. The victim’s wife started screaming, but was also beaten. People nearby shouted for them to stop, but the men threatened to hurt anyone who looked their way. The victim most likely got on the bad side of a local leader. What could anyone do against thugs like that when even the police are so corrupt?”
Despite having experienced many of his own setbacks, Da Bo has done everything he could to support his family. “My goal in life has always been to make our family stronger. I helped your father find his first job, and step by step he’s climbed. Your Lao Shu has been quite successful as well. While they were away for work and university, I would take care of our home and aging parents. When your cousin’s son was sick, your father helped cover the hospital bills. Despite being so far apart now, we share a deep bond and we always look out for each other. Family is everything.”