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“What are you doing?” My grandma peered into my room, holding my basket of freshly laundered clothes in her hands.
Barely looking up from my biology book, I muttered, “Homework.” After chewing the cap of my highlighter, I added, “I hate school. Life is terrible.” Grandma chuckled, the sagely lines around her eyes crinkling as she laughed.
She looked at me over the mountain of books of my desk. “Xinyi,” she called me by my Chinese name, “you complain too much!” She dropped off the laundry in my closet. “You have no idea. When I was young…” She launched into another story, another heartbreak.
I saw my mother again. She was standing there, holding in her hand a platter of dian xing, little sweet pastries. The decadent aroma of bean paste made my mouth water, and I greedily reached out to her. She smiled encouragingly at me, her eyes upon my own, my own smiling face reflected in the depths of them. Suddenly, a hand reached out and snatched me. The factory overseer’s iron grip closed around my neck. “Ma!” I cried. “Mama!” I writhed. I thrashed. I awoke.
The ghost of the overseer’s fingers still lingered around my neck. I massaged it vigorously and rolled over on my straw pallet away from Li Hua. “Mama?” I whispered into the dark. The resounding silence answered my question. Mama was dead. She died in 1938. It was 1943, and she wasn’t coming back. My body convulsed as the weight of reality crushed me, but I sobbed silently so I wouldn’t wake the girls. It was only the end of the first week of work at the silk factory, and already the smell of steam and dirt clung to my skin. The other girls would go home and wash off the factory stench. I had no real home. I had no Ma.
The day was an unraveling ball of yarn that had to end. Li Hua and the other girls chattered incessantly about their weekend plans and the treats they would buy with their salary. No one asked me where I would go, and I gladly did not answer them. They complained pettily about their mothers without realizing that I would have given anything to have one to complain about. Through the thick veil of steam, I enclosed myself in my own world, and continuously prodded the boiling vat of silk cocoons with my bamboo shoot. Back and forth. Back and forth. My bent back ached and sweat poured from every pore of my body. The heat was nauseating but soporific, and my mind numbed itself slowly with the monotonous bobbing of the cocoons. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“STOP!” I jerked bolt upright to find the overseer’s face inches from my own and my bamboo shoot in the boiling vat of water. “Pick it up,” he sneered. His steely eyes smoldered the flame of fear in mine. I glanced at the boiling water, spewing angry droplets at the surface. I dared not move. “Pick it up!” Without warning, he lashed out with his wooden stick and pointed at the boiling cocoons once more.
Pressing my lips together, I hesitated before plunging my hand into the vat. My fingertips felt ablaze and then frostbitten-cold. My hand glowed crimson, and I dropped the bamboo onto the floor. My fingers were pulsating. My head was pounding. My breath came out in short spurts. The pain flowed freely, and it couldn’t be stanched.
A bell echoed throughout the factory signaling the end of the day, but no one around me moved. I looked up fearfully at the overseer and could not find the voice to ask for my pay. I did not need to. He nonchalantly tossed me ten feng, cents. “Get out,” he muttered.
Outside it was pouring. Torrents and torrents of rain fell from the murky gray sky. The sky was crying for me, and I was crying for myself. Tears and rain. I clung my ten cents to my chest and ran through the mud in my straw shoes. Freedom. This is what it felt like. Light and permeating and cool and smelling of grass and rain clouds. I clung my ten cents to my chest. Finally I had something my step- ma could not take from me, something my Ba would never give to me. Ten cents to spend. Ten cents for sweat and tears. Ten cents to symbolize a new beginning.
I knelt on my twelve-year-old knees and prayed. “Dear Ma, I left home, but I just want you to know I’m fine…”
Outside it was raining. “Wow,” I whispered. “I had no idea.”