Frog in a Factory Well

I stumbled across this old piece, which started my memoir.

Frog in a Factory Well

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Updated Dec. 15, 2000 12:01 a.m. ET

BEIJING — When I was young I dreamed of becoming a journalist. I saw myself grasping a pen to write beautiful, compelling things. Instead, at the age of 16, I was grasping a toolbox and my mother’s "iron rice bowl"–a job for life in a state-owned factory.

Personal Journey
By Zhang Lijia

It was 1980, the dawn of the reform era, and the Chinese government encouraged young people to take over their parents’ positions. With unemployment rising, my mother worried I might never land such a good job elsewhere. The Chenguang Machinery Factory in Nanjing, one of China’s largest enterprises, was home to an army of 10,000 employees making military and civilian products.

At our hand-over ceremony, my mother presented me with her treasured pincers, pliers and spanners. And a warning. "Be very careful with inter-personal relationships in the factory," she said, "and don’t try to be different!" I made little use of her tools or her wise words. For my 43-year-old mum, a poorly educated worker, early retirement was quite a sacrifice, but one I never appreciated. I cannot remember how many times we argued. She accused me of being ungrateful; I accused her of ruining my potentially brilliant future.

I guess she was too poor to hatch any long-term plans. My father was still stuck in rural exile, after the Communist Party labeled him a "rightist" in 1957. Both my elder sister and younger brother were at school. Since I had not "earned" the factory job myself, I gave my mum 30 yuan of my 30.5 yuan monthly salary, and kept just 50 cents in pocket money.

High scores on a factory exam won me a "good job" checking pressure gauges, but we were mocked as "neo-white-collar workers." Our uniform of white coats belied our status of ordinary workers. The job was not physically demanding, but simple and boring like my whole life, confined within the gray Chenguang empire. The mediocre schools I attended, my family’s tiny flat, the public bathhouse, the library, the cinema . . . all belonged to the factory. I saw myself as a frog trapped at the bottom of a well, glimpsing little of the world outside.

My mother’s warning soon proved accurate.Guanxi , or relations with one’s bosses, determined success far more than mere ability. Political cadre Wang Yimin, the chief ideologue of my work unit, took an instant dislike for me. Only later did I learn why. Although my hair was naturally curly, Wang suspected I wore a perm. In the early ’80s, only "decadent bourgeois elements" curled their hair. And I was the first girl to wear skirts at the factory.

I felt miserable and out of place. Efficiency was not part of the workers’ vocabulary. When I naively tried to get as much done as possible, my colleagues stopped me. "What will you do for the rest of the month?" they asked. In theory, our bonus was performance-linked, but the difference was marginal if one worked hard or not. So they sat, sipping tea, smoking and telling rude jokes, with some work open on the tabletop as if they were only taking a break. When I sought a corner to read my books, they joked: "If you’re such an intellectual, why didn’t you go to university?"

I had missed the last three years of middle school, but in 1982, I did go to a university of some sort, set inside the factory and at the factory’s expense. Mechanical engineering was hardly my preferred option, but the course was my only route to any kind of education. It was a struggle at first, but I loved the studying atmosphere. Jiangsu Television & Radio University was an "open university"-style college to satisfy the growing thirst for knowledge. China’s "proper" universities could accommodate less than 4% of student hopefuls.

Bad news broke just before graduation in 1985. Previous graduates of the TV University had all obtained "cadre" status and the title of "technician." But our class was to be returned to the same "work units" we had left. I now felt like a frog that had nearly climbed out of the well, only to fall down again heavily to the deep, dark bottom.

Six months later, I suffered the first major blow in my life. I was ignored when almost all my former classmates were upgraded to "cadres," and assigned better jobs. Political instructor Wang would never allow me to get anywhere at this factory. I would forever check the pressure gauges, with greasy hands and an empty brain. Then, I would marry one of the factory hands–most of my fellow workers intermarried. All my youthful dreams and ambition were fading away.

At this low point, I was fortunate to meet two inspiring people at one of the factory’s interminable patriotic education sessions. Both Bian Yang and Zhou Fang had graduated from "proper" universities and urged me to write and study English. There was nowhere to study at our crowded home, where I shared a bed with my grandma and younger brother, so each night I cycled back to the factory workshop. I dreaded the dark ride on an unpaved road beside a river, but my drive to improve kept me going.

Books like "Jane Eyre" and "Great Expectations" were inspirational. I loved stories of little people from the bottom of the society fighting hard to improve their fate. I felt energized by my new interest, and used every free moment to study. Sometimes, I found I was talking English to myself. During political meetings, I secretly read my English books. Even after being caught and publicly humiliated by Instructor Wang, I smuggled a tiny English dictionary into every meeting. I was losing my fear of the authorities.

Although I still worked at the factory, my secret studies allowed me to escape the factory mindset, and opened new windows in my life. I attended a weekend "English corner" downtown, to practice English with other Chinese and foreigners passing by. All kinds of interesting people showed up, including one who introduced a YMCA-run English club featuring genuine North American teachers.

As China’s foreign trade rose in the 1980s, the most desirable jobs were offered by trading firms, though guanxi still played the decisive role. I was short-listed but poor connections failed me. I had to reject an offer from the Dutch manager for Phillips in Nanjing when I realized he was more interested in me than my work.

I moonlighted by translating American movie songs and English travel programs for friends at local TV stations. A Chinese publisher loved my translation of an American novel, but fate intervened again. The June 4, 1989, massacre occurred just before printing and all publication of foreign books was held up.

I had other things in life to occupy me then, however. In the summer of 1988, on a rare business trip to Beijing, I met a young Scottish lad, Calum MacLeod. By the end of 1990, after ten solid years at the factory, I left China for England as Calum’s fiancee.

But even my departure was bitter-sweet. Factory elders and Instructor Wang had not forgiven me for my role in organizing one of the biggest demonstrations by Nanjing workers in support of the 1989 Tiananmen Square students, and they obstructed the processing of my passport. Luckily, my own sister had risen to become a guanxi-packing cadre herself. The frog got the passport and finally abandoned the well to see the beautiful world outside.

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