Shanghai Life and Death(107)

One afternoon, I was in my room sewing curtains for my aunt when three older sisters of the neighborhood committee cadres came to see me.

“I’m a neighborhood committee cadre in this area, called Lu Ying, and I’m in charge of the lining group here.” One of the women introduced herself, and then she pointed to the next obese woman and said, “This is our branch secretary.”

A third woman took over and said, “I’m assisting her.”

I got up and welcomed them, and my aunt served tea.

The neighborhood committee in each area is a branch of the police station of the Public Security Bureau and works under their leadership. The staff of the neighborhood committee has direct contact with the residents and reports to the police station. This organization is responsible for the weekly political study of the residents and handles specific cases of the residents’ lives, such as issuing rationing tickets, allocating birth quotas, and mediating disputes between neighbors. Sometimes, the neighborhood committee also assists the public security authorities in solving cases and arresting criminals, because they know the details of the residents’ lives within their jurisdiction.

Most of the officers of the neighborhood committee are retired workers who receive state pensions and are only obligated to work in the neighborhoods, and only in special cases, due to the low pension, do they receive a small allowance. These women (and some men) have the authority to manage the residents, and their evaluation and reporting of each resident is considered very credible and is entered into the files of the Public Security Bureau.

Once everyone was seated, the branch secretary smiled vulgarly and said, “We came to visit you because we heard you were new to the neighborhood and, in addition, asked you to come to our political study every Tuesday and Friday afternoon.”

“Thank you for coming to see me. I should have come to report to you first, only because I was busy with medical appointments and some chores to settle down.” I said politely.

“What kind of illness do you have? Is it not-” The branch secretary hesitated to finish his sentence.

“It’s not a big problem. The operation went well.” I said.

“Is it cancer?” The one who spoke lacked tact.

“No, it’s not that serious.” I continued. They probably got the information from the guardhouse or the police station.

They exchanged glances with each other as if they were surprised, but quickly put on an expression as if nothing had happened.

“Can you come to two afternoons of study a week?” Luying asked.

“I would love to. But could you let me take a break for another two months? The doctor has prescribed that I rest every afternoon until I fully recover.”

The branch secretary went out to the balcony and said aloud, “Heh, what a spacious balcony!” And then went to see the bath room: “You use a bathroom alone.” She went so far as to open my cupboard, peered into it, and exclaimed again, “What a cupboard.” Then she sat down again and said to me, “You have two large rooms all to yourself. You know, the government has taken special care of you.” With that she looked at me seriously, as if waiting for me to make a reply indicating agreement.

“Normally, a single person would not be assigned such a large area of housing.” Her assistant secretary said.

They couldn’t force me to attend the study, because it had to be voluntary. So when they heard that I would have to take a few months off, they were not happy. When someone doesn’t agree to their request, it creates a sense of ungrateful guilt in that person, which is the way some party cadres work.

“I thank the government for taking care of me, and I hope you will pass on my words.” I said.

They were happy to hear this from me and both nodded their heads in agreement.

“But I hope to move back to my own room someday. Do you know the government’s policy about private housing?” I wanted to remind them that my house was occupied by the state, so I deserved to be allocated more houses than others.

The smile on the secretary’s face disappeared and she said rather stiffly, “I’m not sure about that.”

Lu Ying said, “Your body will recover quickly, and taking part in the study will raise your consciousness; we all need to study Marxism-Leninism and the writings of Chairman Mao. The bourgeois elements need it more than others. I live near here, only three houses away from your house, and I will often come over to see how you are doing.”

“That’s great.” I said politely.

“I only have one room, and I live with my daughter and son. We have three families living in one house.” Lu Ying spoke eloquently, indicating that the government was taking great care of me. I also felt from the tone and expression of her speech that she did not quite agree with me being assigned such a large area of housing. Because she was the leader of our group, I had to get on good terms with her, and I hoped she wasn’t too difficult to deal with.

In China, people are divided into different levels according to the different treatment of each person. Before the Cultural Revolution, I did not have anything to do with the general public, and everything that I did with my sister in the neighborhood committee was done by Lao Zhao. And the municipal United Front Work Department treated people like me with courtesy. The government’s special treatment of me and some other people similar to me could help the government create an impression of generosity in the minds of overseas people, as I often had visits from foreigners. But everything has changed since the Cultural Revolution, and I have now become one of the ordinary people. So this period of my life, from the First Detention Center until I left Shanghai, gave me an opportunity to understand more about the life of ordinary Chinese people and their hardships.

They got up and were ready to leave, but the branch secretary finally said something else: “You must read Chairman Mao’s book, it will help you to correct your attitude.”

I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Should I say to her that I felt very happy in confinement in the First Detention Center? Would she believe me? She looked like she was waiting for me to answer. But seeing that I was silent, the deputy secretary looked at Lu Ying, who said, “By the way, I brought you tickets for wool, sewing thread and cotton, and I have given the grain and oil tickets to my aunt.”

After I thanked them, I should have sent them to the front door according to etiquette, but they insisted that I stay in the room and asked Auntie to go down and lock the door for them. I thought perhaps they wanted to speak to their aunt alone, so I did not insist on seeing them off.

I cleaned up the tea cups and went back to sewing the curtains.

When Auntie came back, she asked, “Did you already clean up the tea cups?”

“Yes, but I didn’t wash them. I wanted to get the curtains out so you could use them at night.”

Auntie put her hands together and exclaimed, “Gee, you’re not at all like they say.”

I didn’t know who she meant by “they”, but I thought if “they” didn’t mean the Public Security Bureau, it must be the neighborhood committee, but I thought I’d better keep quiet, so I just laughed it off.