Where Cotton Balls Grow This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

M y father was the first in his rural town to go to college.

In China, he says, colleges are scarce, and their entrance exams are intended to wipe out the majority who want to continue after high school. In my father's time, not all high-school graduates took the exams, and of those who did, only three percent made it to college. Accomplishing this feat led him to meet my mother and eventually move to the United States.

Many years later, my family made its first trip back to China. I was 12 the summer I rode on a silver bird over mountains and seas to the land of my father. Upon landing, we embarked on a seven-hour bus ride which bobbed over miles and miles of blue and green expanse with fisherman laying sheets of plastic on the sides of the road to dry crayfish. We left the bus for a pick-up truck when an uncle I had never seen picked us up in the village's only automobile, a large clumsy machine with a roar that mixed with the wind until I could not tell which was which.

Stretches of green dotted with red, purple and white chased the road as we flew by. Beautiful flowers lay upon artistically stretched waist-high leaves. "They grow flowers here?" I shrieked. By some miracle my dad heard me over the wind, and I grasped the hint of the word "cotton" screamed back at me. I thought immediately of "Gone With the Wind," a movie my mom used to be obsessed with. In my mind, cotton was gray and dull. Seeing the fields of bright color, I was surprised.

When the engine of the pick-up finally stopped roaring, we were next to a shabby courtyard. In contrast with the bright green of the fields, everything here was a tired brown, as if all color had been worn away. A group of 30 people of all ages stood outside the wooden double doors. Their faces bore the mark of the sun, matching the color of everything around them. From the youngest, at eight, to my grandma of 60-some years, they all seemed to stare at me, eyes squinting from the brightness of high noon. My family.

Something about the scene intimidated me into getting out on the other side of the pick-up truck. The arrival of visitors that no one had seen for years was a rare event; at night a crowd of farmers carrying stools flooded my grandparents' courtyard and seated themselves, all seemingly waiting for me to do something. They did not resume normal conversation until I told a few meaningless jokes in English and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it was not until after I had fallen asleep on my bed - a clay block covered with a layer of woven bamboo - that they left.

The next day I begged my dad to take me to the cotton fields. I wanted to get a closer look at the tiny flowers and lush greenery so I could see whether picking cotton was anything like the way "Gone With the Wind" had portrayed it.

Farmers bent over their fields, working the land. There was a certain tenderness in their motions, like that of a mother with her child; they nurtured the land, coaxing the purple and white blossoms into unraveling their beauty. At the same time, they tamed their land like it was a wild beast, working it with hoes and picks and trying to lasso the rebellious earth.

I studied the farmer closest to us - he was bent over, a large straw hat covering a sun-browned face. His shabby clothes held droplets of water and sweat, and on his back was a large tank of battered metal. In one hand was a hose connected to the tank to spray pesticide onto the plants.

As I watched, he squirted the pesticide. A wave of pungent scent nearly choked me and my dad as the fumes hit us. Clouds of sickly yellow misted the air. The farmer treaded into the cloud to reach the next stretch of cotton plants, and was hit by the spray. It clung to his clothes in sticky little droplets and I realized with a jolt that what I had thought was water on his clothes was actually pesticide.

My dad waved to the worker and greeted him loudly. The farmer turned around, eyes squinted in thought. It was apparent that he did not recognize my father.

"Qing!" my dad called. I was shocked that he'd called the farmer by a popular girl's name. Just as American parents name their children Rose or Daisy in light of their baby's beauty, proud Chinese parents name their children Qing, which means "hard-worker."

The farmer's face lit in sudden recognition, and I realized that it indeed was a woman. She had grown up with my dad and had all but forgotten him.

My dad explained that he had moved to America after college and was back with my mother and me for a visit. Her eyes lit up, and she pointed to an empty can of pesticide on the ground. "That's from America," she said.

I went over and inspected the can. The Monsanto Company in St. Louis had produced it.

"Say," Qing asked me, watching me read the words. "Do they grow cotton in America?"

I hadn't even known cotton was colorful, so my knowledge about cotton growth was clearly not that broad. So, I shook my head, bracing myself.* I was sure she would start denouncing American farmers for not growing something as precious as cotton. Instead, she got a misty look in her eyes.

"America must be such a wonderful place. Don't have to grow cotton." She made a dramatic sweep with one hand, indicating the field. "The bugs have gotten worse and worse. Just a couple of years ago, Chinese pesticides work. Now only imported ones do. And sometimes even imported ones aren't strong enough. You have to spray them every ten days, or the cotton's gone for sure." Her voice was strong now. She didn't know much about America or planes, but she knew about cotton.

Looking down, I saw her point. There, nested in a hole it had created in a premature boll of cotton, was a boll weevil enjoying a nap. Qing had just sprayed waves of pesticide over it. A concern popped into my head, "Isn't the pesticide highly toxic?"

"Yes," she replied grimly. "Two villagers were rushed to the hospital just yesterday with pesticide poisoning. It's a dangerous job."

I shuddered. How could you keep on doing something every day knowing others have died from it? Knowing you could be next? The "dangerous job" paid only two yuan or so per pound of cotton. That was a year's revenue of 5,000 yuan, or $600. Yet it was the only way cotton growers had to put food in their children's mouths.

I did not go back to the cotton field after that. My curiosity was gone, and even the flowers didn't seem pretty anymore. The day before we left, someone told my father that Qing had pesticide poisoning and had been rushed to the hospital. Thankfully, by the time we received the news, she had been discharged and was at home. I begged my parents to visit her. Since it was custom to bring gifts whenever visiting, I rummaged in my pack. All I could find was an electronic bouncy-ball, the kind that lights up and plays music if you bounce it hard enough.

As I stepped onto the dirt floor of Qing's house, the noises of children scampering about caught my ear. I remembered that Qing had said her husband left to scrape up money in the cities as a construction worker, leaving her in charge of the household.

Even though Qing was extremely pallid, she seemed more spirited than the first time I had

met her.

"We're going back to America tomorrow," my dad said softly. "We heard what happened and came to see you before we left."

I took out the ball, bounced it for demonstration, and then put it in her hands. "This is something else that is made in America," I explained. Just like her pesticide.

She fingered the ball gently, running a finger over the line where the two rubber parts met.

"America must be a wonderful place," she said. "Don't have to grow cotton."

*Editor's Note: While China is the world's leading cotton producer, the United States is a close second, followed by Pakistan, India and Uzbekistan, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. These five countries accounted for over two-thirds of the world's total cotton production in 2001.

Over 28 million family farms - with an average size of one acre - grow cotton in China, 50% in the Yangtze River region.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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