Saturday, February 2, 2013
A Craving for Oranges
In the late spring of 1987, following formal graduation ceremonies at the Academy, I moved my belongings from the student’s quarters and into a small apartment in an officer’s facility. I was commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned as an aide to the staff of the Academy’s executive officer.
The pay and privileges of an officer in the People's Liberation Army at the time, compared with other professions, were generous. Starting salaries for military academy graduates were higher than starting salaries for graduates of academic schools. My first-year salary at the Academy was higher than salaries of professors in Qinghua University who had been teaching for 20 years. When I received my first month’s pay my father pointed out that I was earning more than he was and he had worked for 20 years as a physician.
In addition to high pay, room and board and uniforms were provided without charge. Transportation in chauffeur-driven military cars was customary. As a result, I was able to send part of my pay each month to my parents and to save what remained for my future.
The executive department where I worked supervised the faculty, staff and students. We maintained personnel files, monitored faculty performance and student progress. We planned and acquired funding for construction and new programs and provided permission and funds for travel for faculty and staff.
Despite my new position and the pay and authority that came with it, I was not happy. I was, after all, separated by a 24-hour train ride from the man I planned to marry. Han Yuanchao and I wrote to each other daily -- sometimes more. I often waited in our mail room in the early afternoon to pick up the latest letter from my fiancee.
On October 1, 1987, China’s National Day, Han Yuanchao was granted a brief leave of absence from his school and came to visit. Although I reserved a room for him in the Academy’s guest house, he stayed with me every night. When his leave was up he reported in sick to his school and remained an additional five days. On the day finally was departed for Taiyuan I accompanied him to the train station and clung to him until the moment he boarded his train. We both cried and vowed to find some way to be married as soon as possible and to end our painful separation.
After that the frequency of our correspondence increased. We wrote two and three times a day to each other. As the weeks past after his visit, I realized something was wrong with me. I started to feel physically sick. I thought I knew what had happened and I began to worry. I visited the library and paged through several medical books. And in late November I wrote to Han Yuanchao, “Congratulations. You are going to be a father.”
This presented us with yet a serious dilemma. According to military regulations we were still too young to be married. And a child born out of wedlock might ruin both of our military careers. The Academy’s ambitious political commissar, Col. Zhu Lin, was a heartless and vindictive man. He’d previously barred me from Party membership for dating Han Yuanchao in my senior year. And he’d pursued Han Yuanchao for his breach of military rules and entrapped him and then demanded a detailed public confession of contrition. When Han Yuanchao consequently embarrassed Col Zhu with a a terse and defiant apology before the corps of cadets and when he subsequently refused to volunteer for service in Tibet, Col. Zhu engineered his assignment at a third-rate military school in Shaanxi. Col. Zhu fancied himself the official protector of Party and PLA purity and he was endlessly sniffing out suspected moral breaches by PLA officers and cadets. Having been stung by him once already, both Han Yuanchao and I feared the withering puritanical wrath of this Party watchdog.
My morning sickness became severe. Yet I had to conceal my pregnancy. The odor of food made me ill and I had to invent countless excuses for missing luncheons and banquets. Han Yuanchao had no answers as to what we should do. Of course, I concluded, I had to get rid of our child. But where and how? Han Yuanchao was of little help in the matter.
Whenever I called in sick or missed a meal, I imagined Col Zhu hearing of my absence and carefully examining my behavior for a clue to some secret transgression. I became increasingly troubled because I wasn’t sure how to do what needed to be done. I didn’t know whom I could trust. Finally, I concluded I had to act and take care of the problem instead of simply agonizing over it and that Han Yuanchao was not going to be of any real help. I had find a place where no one could identify me and where I was relatively certain no record of my visit would get back to the Academy. I knew of a public hospital in Nanjing about three miles from the Academy. So, one morning I called in sick to my office and then, wearing my uniform but carrying no military identification card with me, I took a bus to the hospital.
I went to the woman’s department of the large facility and asked to see a doctor. My uniform apparently impressed the clerk and within a few minutes a doctor came out and asked what I needed. I told her I wanted an abortion. She brought me a form to fill out providing detailed personal information. I gave a false name and said I was 25 and gave my permanent residence as a city in Sichuan province. I knew if I said I was from anywhere nearby, they might call and check the information. But it was relatively difficult for them to make a long distance call to Sichuan and a letter would take several days. Before they he received an answer to any inquiry, I would be gone.
The doctor looked over the completed form and then asked me several additional questions. I told her my husband and I worked in the headquarters of the Sichuan military district and I had been sent to the Nanjing Academy study English. I had arrived only a few weeks earlier. I said I had not had a period in 45 days. I said I had taken pills for a high fever and I was afraid the unborn child had been damaged. She asked me to step into a nearby room where she gave me a preliminary examination. She confirmed that I was pregnant and agreed to the abortion. As I dressed she asked me if I had a craving for any particular food. I told her I was always hungry for oranges. She then said, matter of factly, “You are carrying a girl. If you crave oranges you will have a girl.”
Before I might respond to her observation, she pointed out that there was a military hospital at my Academy and said I should have gone their first. “I know some of the doctors there. I think you should arrange to have the procedure there.”
I had to think fast. “I’ve looked into it, doctor. There’s a medical conference at the moment. A special medical conference in Beijing for PLA physicians. The doctors from the Academy are attending the conference and won’t be back for ten days. I really need to take care of this before then.”
She thought for a moment and finally said, “OK. We can do it here. Can you return on Wednesday at 9:00 AM?” That was in two days.
“Yes, of course,” I told her.
“Remember,” she said, “You must bring a friend to care for you after the procedure. You will not be well enough to care for yourself. And you must bring a document from your unit authorizing the procedure. We can’t go through with this without it. Do you think you can acquire it on such short notice?”
“Of course,” I assured her.
I anticipated no trouble in securing the required documents. I had access to official stationery from the Academy, as well as the locked box containing the chops of officials at the Academy.(Chops serve the same purpose as signatures in the West. An official chop, or seal, usually accompanies all official documents and gives them authenticity).
I wrote a brief authorization for the abortion on Academy stationery and then signed it with a false name and stamped it. I expected the letter to be filed by the hospital with thousands of similar documents and never reappear. Since I’d disguised the hand writing(by writing with my left hand) I thought the document could never be traced.
Han Yuanchao wrote telling me he’d been trying desperately to find a way out of this for us. I wrote back to him, assuring him all would be well. “I’ve arranged to take care of things myself,” I told him. “Stop worrying.”
Despite my reassurances to him and my apparent confidence, I felt lonely, isolated, frightened and perhaps wronged. I thought I should have known better than to allow myself to become pregnant. But he, too, I believed, should have done something to prevent this. As a single woman I could not get birth control pills nor an IUD. But he certainly could have acquired something from his married male friends to make our relationship less risky. Now, it seemed, I alone was paying the full price for the recklessness for which we’d both been responsible.
I was extremely nervous during the next day. I’d never before had even minor surgery. I was preoccupied with thoughts of my own mortality and with thoughts about the child -- the girl, as the doctor reminded me -- that I was carrying. I was tortured by questions about the necessity and the correctness of what I was doing and of the long-term consequences of it.
On Wednesday, I again called in sick to my office, then left the Academy and took a bus to the hospital. I arrived at 8:45 A.M. and climbed the stairs to the women’s ward on the third-story. I waited alone on a bench in the lobby and watched as the physicians and nurses to arrived. I heard babies fussing and crying on another part of the ward. I stood and followed the sounds down the hall until I came to the nursery where newborns were tended by several nurses. I stood at a window and saw the babies tightly cocooned in their blankets. Nurses moved from crib to crib tending to them. I suddenly had pangs of doubt and guilt. I realized didn’t want to go through with this.
I returned to the bench in the hall. I reconsidered my plans. Then I stood again and walked down the stairs and out the main entrance of the building. I paced around the large courtyard in front of the hospital, mumbling to myself. “Get hold of yourself, Xiaoying,” I said. “What are you going to do? This is very important. This is one of the most important decisions you will every make in your life. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Is your career important enough to make this sacrifice?”
I answered some of my own questions. “I am not sure I am doing the right thing. I want to be married. I want to live beside my husband. I want to have this baby. I want to live a happy life. I don’t want to be in the PLA anymore.”
Then I suddenly found myself questioning God. “Why did this happen to me? Why am I being punished? If I have done something wrong is there no other way I can atone for my sin? Must I go through with this? How can I save my baby? Please, speak to me now! Help me!”
But there was no response. I waited for a redeeming flash of insight and there was none. My questions were followed by dead silence. “If there is a God,” I concluded, “he must hate me.”
Next I found myself speaking to the child inside me as though she was already a living breathing child. I cried while I whispered to her. “I am so sorry,” I said. “Please forgive me? I wanted to have you, to bring you into this world and to love you. But this is out of my hands now. Can you understand that? Can you forgive me for this? I am not strong enough to keep you. I am not smart enough to see another way. So, you see, you have no future here. I promise I will care for your brother or sister especially well. I will tell them what happened. I will remember you and I will see you some day in heaven.” Soon I was sobbing, overcome with emotion. I struggled to regain my composure and then returned to the hospital and again, with forlorn resignation, climbed the stairs to the third floor.
While I waited another girl arrived accompanied by mother and several other relatives. They’d brought a thermos of warm tea for her and food for later in the day. The girl was trembling and pale as a sheet and they held her hand and comforted her and stroked her face gently. When I saw the love and the concern they showed for her I felt even more alone.
A physician appeared at the door and said to me, “I can take you first. Where is the friend who will care for you later?”
“She’s working. She’ll be here shortly,” I lied.
“Fine, then, let’s begin.”
I told her I had to go to the bathroom first. She waited outside the door for me. I went in and leaned my head against the wall, trying to get convince myself that I had no other choices but to do what I was doing. I was actually aware of a living thing inside me. I was tortured by my uncertainty. I thought I should change my mind, return to the hall and tell the doctor I could not go through with this. But I couldn’t. I returned to the hall and told the doctor, “I’m ready now.”
She led me to the room where the abortions were done. A nurse at the desk just outside the door asked for my documents. I gave them too her. She studied them for a moment and then asked for my military ID card. I apologized and said I’d been in such a hurry and left it at home. “What should I do?” I asked.
“It’s OK,” she said and smiled. “I trust the uniform.”
I tried to calm myself. I visibly trembling and feared I might faint. The physician asked me to sit down in a chair just outside the door. “You’ve got to settle down,” she said, “or we can’t go through with this.”
She reappeared a few minutes later and summoned me inside the room. There were two tables side by side in the room separated by a curtain. There was a steel tray beside each table with instruments and bottles on it. I looked away.
It was a chilly morning. The hospital was unheated. The table had no sheet or pad on it and was covered only by a long piece of pale pink butcher paper that was pulled from a roller at the head of the table. Two doctors -- both males -- entered the room, leaving the door slightly ajar behind them. One of them told me to remove my clothing, place it on the floor and lie down on the table. I did as he directed. I was shivering partly from fright and partly from the cold. I felt especially vulnerable lying naked on the table while people walked around the room. There was no consideration of modesty or dignity here. Two nurses came to the table and strapped down my hands, arms, shoulders and waist and then spread my legs and strapped them down, too. I felt like someone about to be executed. I could only move my head. I could not stop trembling. I wanted to cry.
The doctors and nurses pulled on surgical masks. As one of the doctors turned to pick up a metal instrument from the table, I closed my eyes. The abortions were done without administering either anesthesia or sedative. I felt the doctor’s gloved hand on me and then felt an instrument slide into me. He said, “There will be a little pain.” He guided his probe in further. Then it did hurt, a sharp, unusual, pain like a needle piercing nerve tissue. When I started, the doctor said “My god, you are tight. Try to relax.”
A moment later I felt the probe catch on something. The doctor made several small tugs with his probe and then suddenly he jerked the instrument and I screamed once and then again and then I couldn’t stop screaming. I struggled against the leather restraints and tried to raise my head and twisted from side to side banging my face again and again against the table. Piercing shrieks rose upon from deep inside me that sounding like the noises I’d heard animals make as their throats were slit.
“Oh God, stop it! Stop it please!” I pleaded and a doctors voice from somewhere, said, “Shut up!” But I could not shut up and I continued screaming and begging. I was sobbing between screams and praying and my prayers were answered by the voice of the doctor telling me, “It will be just a minute, now.” Then he was done and he pulled out his instrument and the dead pain still lingered and hurt and I was alone and cold and I could feel the blood draining out of me covering my legs and puddling beneath me. The doctors turned and walked away. One nurse unstraped me and another stuffed a towel between my legs and told me to hold it tightly against myself.
I was cold and shaking and sweating at the same time. I watched nurses lead a very young girl to the table next to me. She had removed her clothing already and she looked at me and I could tell by the way she looked at me that she’d heard me screams and she was terrified. I watched her silhouette through the curtain and they helped her up onto the table and she lay back. They strapped her down. I heard the doctors talking her as they prepared for her abortion. “She’s just a stupid little country whore,” one of them hissed. “She’s been here several times already -- haven’t you?” he asked, turning to her. Before she could answer he continued his tirade. “Damn you,” he said, “Why didn’t you take your pills? That was stupid of you. Why did you do this again? Why do you always bring trouble to your family.”
When she tried to answer the questions, the doctor cut her off with a curt, “Shut up!” Then he continued, “The next time you want pleasure, you should remember this. Think of what it feels like when you come here.”
It was silent for several seconds and then the room was filled with her screams once more. I started to cry again and I covered my ears with my hands. I realized that these doctors enjoyed inflicting pain on the women who came to them. They seemed to believe that the agony they produced provided a useful deterrent that might prevent the women from becoming pregnant again.
When the screaming on the next table subsided and gave way to quiet sobbing a nurse returned to me and felt my forehead. She whispered, “It was very small. I think the surgery went well. There should be no complications. But take good care of yourself.”
She asked if I could sit up and I found I could not. She pulled me to a sitting position and asked me to remain for a minute like that. I was so dizzy I almost fell off the table. The nurse returned with a several clean pads and placed them between my legs again and told me to hold it there. Then she helped me stand. Again, my legs felt rubberry and weak and I did not think I could walk. But she helped me get to my clothing and then walked me into the hall where I sat down on a bench next to several other women waiting for their abortions.
I turned and looked back into the room and saw the nurse tearing the paper from my table and pulling out a new strip as another young girl was led in. My blood was still blood on the table and floor and it was not cleaned up. I looked away again as the girl started removing her clothes and glanced up at me with a pathetic look.
When the nurse returned to me minutes later and I asked her how often they did this and she told me that they completed one abortion every five minutes for eight to ten hours a day and six days a week. She then walked me to an adjacent room that was filled with several single beds. But there were too many girls for anyone to be given a bed of her own and several of the beds were occupied with two women resting food to head. The nurse helped me lie on one of the beds beside another girl whole was whimpering and obviously was in pain. A doctor came into the room and said, “You may stay her for 40 minutes because you are weak. But we need the bed space. You cannot stay longer. You’ll have to leave them.
A nurse returned for me in exactly 40 minutes and helped me up again. She gave me a permit to give to my employer authorizing 15 days of leave for my recovery. When the young girl who’d had the abortion next to me asked for the permit and the nurse refused to give it to her. “You come here to often,” she said. “Go home and go back to work and think about what happened today.”
I was sickened by their treatment of her. Why do Chinese find it so easy to be cruel to each other? I’d seen it all my life. It turned my stomach. I felt so bad for the girl, and for myself. Before leaving the floor I went to the young girl. She was sitting on a bench crying. I patted her on the shoulder and handed her my authorization for a leave. When she what it was she gave me a quizzical look and I just smiled at her and left..
I slowly descended the three flights of stairs to the lobby. Each step brought pain and I had to pause. It took me 30 minutes to reach the first floor. Coming up the stairs on the other side I watched a sad procession of young women. I walked out of the hospital and sat down on a bench near the door. I saw dozens of women arrive and enter the hospital. Almost all of them were poor. Some walked with their parents, friends or husbands. Some pulled up on bicycles and or the backs of large tricycles they had borrowed or hired. A few, like me, walked alone. And some came in from the countryside in wheelbarrows pushed by a mother or father. They sat in the front of the wheelbarrow covered with blankets looking forlorn and frightened. I had never before seen such a sad procession. I felt sorry for the girls and I felt sorry for me and I felt sorry for all of the children who would never be born. I felt sorry for China and I felt sorry for all women.
When I felt I’d regained some of my strength I walked a few blocks to a street vendor and bought a bowl of noodles and ate it to regain my strength. Then I walked to a nearby post office and sent a telegram to Han Yuanchao. “Mission accomplished,” I wrote in the banal military phrase we’d both heard so many times. He’d understand what I meant. There was no need to sign my name.
So, it was over.
I caught a bus back to the Academy. When I got off, I had to walk for fifteen minutes before I reached the front gate. The pads between my legs were soaked by that time. I hoped they would not leak through onto my uniform. I passed through the gate and saluted the sentry, who recognized me. I walked across the campus to my quarters and passed out on my bed.
The next morning I returned to work. My bleeding continued for the next ten days. I went from 125 pounds to 100 pounds in a month. But I survived, physically.
But I was even more disillusioned than ever before with the system under which I was living. I wanted to be married and I could not. Why not? I wanted to have a baby and could not. Again, why not? Why must I conceal everything, why must I be so secretive? Why must I suffer so?
Had I kept my child, I calculated she would have been born on June 10th. How different then my life might have been. I count the days every year. I remember what happened when June 10th arrives. And I am so sad.
Two weeks after my procedure the political commissar of my Academy, Col. Zhu Lin, the man I feared more than any other at that time, was arrested in a hotel room in Shanghai with two teenage prostitutes. Officers from the Ministry of Public Security burst into the room and dragged the naked girls the naked commissar from his bed and photographed them. He was permitted to dress before he was hauled off to jail with the young women. The arrest was the biggest scandal to hit our Academy to that time.
The MPS turned Col. Zhu over to the PLA for discipline and he was returned to the Academy for punishment by his own unit. I was surprised to find a good deal of reluctance on the part of most of the high-ranking officers at the Academy to personally attack Zhu. It was as though the MPS had captured and caged a venomous snake and delivered it to us for disposal. Now everyone was afraid to reach inside the cage and crush it. The officers treated him with unusual deference considering what he had done. They found his information, I concluded, his contacts and his connections still made him a threat. And yet he had to be punished, he could not retain his old position and authority at the Academy nor within the PLA. Col. Zhu was questioned before a gathering of officers at the Academy. But instead of confessing to his crime and pleading for mercy, as so many of those he had charged had done, he was defiant and arrogant. When he was questioned he roared back at his interrogators indignantly. “Why are you telling me what I did was wrong?” he asked. “Have you any idea what officers above me do every day? Have you any idea at all of what kind of behavior is practiced by higher officers than me? I can tell you as a matter of fact that what I did in Hongzhou was nothing. NOTHING!”
He insisted that corruption and so-called immoral behavior were pervasive and endemic in the officer corps of the PLA and the Party. His allegations stunned me. I wasn’t concerned with this venal and pathetic man’s unsubstantiated charges toward others until I learned of his questionable charges until I saw how he was treated. Every officer in the Academy appeared to fear him. No one came forward to denounce him publicly. There was never a mention of a public confession or of the need for reeducation. Col. Zhu had connections and information and even while under arrest he seemed fully capable of inspiring fear in men around him.
In the end Col. Zhu refused to confess to wrong doing and nobody seemed interested in challenging his stance. But the PLA, nonetheless, had to discipline him. The details of his transgression were widely known within the military. His case was disposed of by kicking him upstairs. He was cashiered from the PLA and lost all of his military privileges and retirement pay.
He was then named as the supervisor of a labor camp (Laogai) for political prisoners. In his camp the prisoners worked from dawn till dusk making manufactured goods for export and sale on the international market. The profits from the labor of the prisoners went directly to Zhu. Within a few years he became a very wealthy man.
Everyone seemed to agree that we had not heard the last of Col. Zhu. He was not the kind of man to take this humiliation and loss of face silently and to simply go away. He would seek vengeance and many people feared he would get it. He would try to find out, using his connections within the military and the MPS, who it was who’d set him up and in his own way and in his own time he would get even.
I must say that I admired whoever turned the man in. He was, indeed, a demoralizing and disruptive presence and he terrified the cadets and intimidated the officers. But on the other hand I too felt apprehensive since I did not know who had connections enough to find out about his private vices and to arrange for his fall. Whoever that man was, he was intelligent, secretive, and powerful, too. A worthy foe for Col. Zhu and his kind. But a man who must now always watch over his shoulder and who would probably have trouble sleeping well at night for a long long time or until Zhu was in his grave.
If corruption and immoral behavior were rampant in the PLA, then I wondered why Zhu had been caught and arrested in the first place. With all of his power and influence, how in the world did he get caught in such an uncompromising position? I asked some of my fellow officers this question and they said the answer was simple. He was set up. Col. Zhu had injured or crossed someone and they, in return, used the rules of the PLA and their own friends to destroy his military career.