By Xiaoyu Olivia Wang
Time Period – 1978 and 1982
Location: Beijing and Da-Qing, China
Summary: Many people are amazed by the Chinese Athletes’ performances at the Winter Olympics’ figure skating events. Many are also surprised by what they had to go through to come to where they are. The following story gives insight into a similar journey of ballet dancers in China. For readers who are not familiar with it, China is known to have some of the best ballet schools, the most prominent and oldest one being Beijing Dance School which was the cradle for the National Ballet Company. Chinese dancers during the last few decades earned more than 70 major prizes (gold, silver and bronze) in world-class ballet competitions, including the Varna International Ballet Competition, known as the Ballet Olympics, and the Moscow International Ballet Competition, known as the Ballet World Cup. But behind every success story, there were many tears and heart breaks. Growing up was a journey to be savored, wherever we came from, wherever we were going. China, as a growing country was also looking into alternatives, at that moment, green energy.
Even before entering primary school, I already knew that I wanted to be a ballerina. Mom said that both of us had strong legs and not so flexible backs. But our great stomach muscles would help compensate our shortcomings as long as we worked hard. I certainly worked very hard – practicing day after day, taking every single opportunity in the communities and at school to deliver my best performances.
On a morning of 1978, my school counselor Shao came to me with much excitement.
“Come Xiaoyu, we are going to the audition for the Beijing Dance School (now Beijing Dance Academy). Three students each school. I am taking you, Svea and Min-Min.”
I was Counselor Shao’s favorite student. I had done everything she asked of me. I volunteered my time whenever she needed someone to fill in. I performed in so many shows and attended so many activities that I became a pillar of support for any school organized events. Back then, it was very hard to find students to engage in extra-curriculum activities. There were no incentives for the students or families involved. People were struggling to make a better life for themselves. Extra-curriculum activities only consumed resources and time. But for me, my hard work was about to pay off.
Svea was not of Han heritage. She had greenish large sunken eyes, silky chestnut hair and a very peculiar rear-end. It pointed slightly upward and made her legs look exceptionally long.
Min-Min was often my partner in crime on stage. She enjoyed the spot light as much as I did.
We arrived by bus at Ri-Tan (Sun Temple) Park where the audition was held. The gatekeeper directed us to spot #31. It was on the far east corner from the stage, which was still being set up. I looked around, there were several hundred students and teachers waiting in designated spots. Three men in green uniforms combed through different groups to select finalists. After what seemed to be a lifetime, one of the men with grey hair came to our group. He pointed at Svea without any exchange with Counselor Shao.
“You here. Bend down.” He measured her legs.
“Raise your hands up. Close them above your head. Reach as high as you can.” He let her stood there for quite sometime.
“Do a split.” She followed his command.
“Go wait behind the stage.” He proceeded to move on to the next group. My jumping heart almost exploded. “Wait.” Counselor Shao called out, “What about her?” She pointed at me.
“She will never grow a ballerina figure. Too tall, no leg. Too much work on the back.”
What did he say? I remembered every word because every word stabbed me like a knife, but I didn’t understand a thing.
“And her?” Shao became timid as she pointed to Min-Min.
The guy gave an impatient wave so obviously as to say, “Don’t waste my time” and left.
The next hour and half was unbearable. Many groups exited the park. Since Svea was up on stage with 20 other students, following music and doing dance steps, I had to stand there and suffer humiliation. I hated every sympathetic look as people passed me by. I wished that I had never come. I wished I could dig a hole in the ground and bury myself there.
Now I think about it, I am pretty sure I started digging with my feet.
When we finally arrived at the school door, Counselor Shao congratulated Svea, praised my graciousness, and continued to comfort Min-Min – she’d been crying non-stop.
“Well, it’s been a long day.” She looked at her watch. In fact, there was still 2 hours left of school. She shook her head.
“Why don’t you all go home now. Your teachers will help you make up school work tomorrow.”
I sat in the sofa that my father made by hand, waited for my parents to come home, and told them the story.
” Thank God.” My father said, “You know what will happen if you get selected? You will be taken away from us and live at the ballet school. And if they think you are not good enough after a few years, they will dump you. By that time, your school work is shot. They would have ruined you! Thank goodness they rejected you.” He rubbed his hands excitedly.
“I am hungry.” He plopped down to eat.
Mom eyed Dad with disapproval.
“What? It’s true. It is a blessing in disguise.” Dad turned to me again, “You know your mother wanted to be an actress when she was 16. Even broke up with me because I disagreed. Took me months and dozens of poems and songs to get her back.” Dad apparently enjoyed his accomplishment.
My mom, an actress? I was surprised and for a moment forgot my misery. In my mind she was the most intelligent woman I knew. She was born for academia. But acting? Mom saw through me and nodded to confirm what Dad said.
Dad ate and talked and laughed as usual. Mom and I ate dinner quietly. My sister winked at me and slipped off the table without eating any vegetables.
I felt small.
I did not get up the next morning to do stretches.
I stopped performing at school events, or anywhere for that matter.
I read more and wrote more…
I started to win article competitions, some in the district, some city wide…
1978 was the year China started to experience economic expansion. By the time I was in middle school in 1981, some people higher up had the foresight to organize a national article competition on alternative energy among middle school and high school students. Out of the thousands of students participated, ten students won first prize – I was one of them. The prize was an all expense paid 10-day trip to Da-Qing Oil Field in northern China.
I waved to my parents as the train started huffing north, couldn’t help my excitement seeing their proud faces fading away – my first independent days away from home. Better yet, I earned it myself, literally. I settled into the seat where the camp counselor assigned me and brought back a girl from her dreamy state. Something about her intrigued me. Her features were smooth and refined. But her hair, although short, seemed to hide her face. She looked at you without looking in your eyes. Her mind seemed to be constantly drifting away. It felt that she wanted to diminish from scene. However her body defied it. Even with my young age and my general ignorance of such things, I knew that she had a body of girls’ envy and boys’ longing.
“Hi, my name is Xiaoyu. I am from #50 Middle School in Beijing.”
“What’s your name?”
“Julin (Bamboo Forest). A junior from Qiao-Dong High School.” Also in Beijing, though not a very good school.
“What did you write about?”
“Ah, I mean content…”
“Renewable energy around the world, summarized which part can use what. ”
“For example?” I felt like squeezing toothpaste from a consumed tube. But the topic was worth the effort in my opinion.
“Ugh, within the equator, solar… South America, ethanol… Mongolia, wind mills… Japan and Holland, water mills… and nuclear for some…” This was the first time I heard the term renewable energy with meanings attached to it. But the way she said it made me afraid that she was going to doze off mid sentence. And there were so many mid sentences.
“That’s excellent work.” I was really impressed. She shook her head. I feared that she would be closing her eyes too. So I urged on, “isn’t it wonderful that you found all the solutions with alternative energy sources?”
“No… it’s useless. Costs more… and… hard to transport. Easier to drill holes… burn it up or …nuclear…” The sharpness in her tone made me uncomfortable. She seemed to be holding a grudge against the world. But strangely, I felt she liked my asking her questions.
“Hello there, I am CC. You must be Julin and Xiaoyu.” This new arrival took our hands in turn to shake, set down two bottles of water on the table.
“My seat is here too. Counselor Van assigned us Beijing students to the same booth. I got water first before the washroom becomes too popular.” She smiled her splendid smile and sat next to me. She was taller and stronger than I, confidence exhuming naturally as she moved and talked. Within minutes, we acknowledged each other as kindred spirits.
CC and I talked almost non-stop for the eight-hour train ride. Both of us wanted to engage Julin, but she seemed standoffish at times, timid at others, and dazed back and forth between minding us and fading into faraway land. It wasn’t until Counselor Van happened to ask her whether she missed ballet school, that I suddenly started to understand.
A big red tour bus picked us up from the train station and took us to Da-Qing Campus. Such a big bus for eleven people, I thought. We were so hungry that the walk from the dorm to the cafeteria seemed forever. CC and I enjoyed and laughed over the infamous glass noodles with stewed pork, while Julin deliberated over bread. Yes, they had yummy sweet bread, in addition to your typical steamed buns. Although not of great varieties, food was certainly of huge quantities here.
When we came out of the cafeteria, dusk brought a gusty wind through campus.
“Shalalalala…” The trees sang and I felt they were calling me. I turned around and was awed by the most magnificent sunset. The campus was situated on the foot of Big Xian-An Mountains. The evening sun shone through the trees. It was not the orange color often seen in the city. It looked like blood, rich with iron, a deep red color, with a hint of black. It was not flat, but a sphere breathing and withholding passion. And the trees, what majestic trees they were. Each of them not wide, unlike the old city trees, they went straight up and reached far into the sky. Their branches intertwined as if raised hands holding each other, sang and waved in symphony.
“I want to go to the forest.” I blurted out.
“I am cold. I am going back to the dorm.” Julin said.
“I will stay with you.” CC answered.
CC and I chased each other into the forest. The earth underfoot was soft like a cradle and made me want to sink into it. I stopped and knelt down, reached both my hands into the soil. The soil was moist, dark and rich. My hands felt cool and warm at the same time. I thought I could just stay there and grow.
“Look at the mushrooms.” CC pointed to the roots of a group of pine trees.
“Yes, they are edible,” I remembered the ones Uncle used to bring to us from this land. “So are those.” I pointed to the ones under the birch trees.
“Wow, that one’s pretty.” CC dashed over to a red cap with white dots.
“Don’t touch that one. That’s poisonous.” She retreated.
“Ok, let’s pick the good ones and take them home.” I suggested.
“You mean you will spread them out onto the tiny desk at the dorm and wait for them to dry in the next ten days. And then pack them into your bag so you can eat them when you get home?”
I liked her keeping me on my toes.
“Ok, we will leave them alone. Now what do we do?”
“We will look for different types of trees.” That was very hard to do, for two city girls to apply what we heard and read into real life. But we still recognized maple, hickory, aspen and possibly a sycamore.
“I want to be a scientist. I love finding out how things work.” CC said.
“I want to be a scientist too. I’d like to study something tangible, but not to look at a tree through a microscope and forget the forest if you know what I mean.” I said carefully.
“You will study people.” CC told me.
When we got back to the dorm, Julin, my roommate was already asleep.
I was deep in dreamland when I heard shuffles and scuffles. I was a very light sleeper.
“What up?” I grumbled.
“Sorry.” Julin said. Then I heard the door opened and closed. The halls of the dorm, like many modern buildings at that time, had a very polished floor with poor noise insulation. Her footsteps slapping in the hallway was quite audible. Within seconds, I heard a couple of doors open and people’s complaining voices.
Now I was wide awake. I wrapped the blanket around me and tip-toed out the door. Luckily I didn’t have to travel far. Julin was retreating back. I took her arm and pulled her inside. She was wearing ballet slippers.
“What time is it?”
“Ah, you would know.” I yawned, “No, don’t say sorry again. What’s your plan?”
“What were you trying to do getting up at 5?”
“Stretch, I always do…”
“Ok, stretch then.” I sat back onto my bed, blanket still around me.
“Can’t sleep anymore. I will watch you.”
“I… I should not.” She went back to her bed.
“Come on, do it.” I jumped off my bed, “I will join you. Show me the ropes.”
“Really?” She climbed down hesitantly.
“Chairs, we need chairs.” She said.
I put two chairs far apart leaving enough room on the chair back side.
“You are not new at this.” She said and started her barre position, going through the five positions of hands and feet.
“Good form. Long legs. You should…” I could hear her swallowing very hard. I couldn’t see her face. Whatever distant pain I was still feeling, hers weighed like mountains.
“Can you share with me?” I asked gently, “When did you leave ballet school?”
“How long were you there?”
“Five years.” That was more than half of her school years.
“May I ask why you left?”
“Couldn’t you tell? I got too fat.”
“You are not fat. You are beautiful.” This was the first time in my life I said that to anyone. I was brought up to ignore physical appearance, or at least make sure mind over matter. But she truly was beautiful.
“You…thanks.” She choked. An overwhelming urge came over me to comfort her. But I did not leave my chair.
“I was rejected by ballet school, you know.” I thought some distractions might help her.
“…You are lucky then…” That wasn’t what I was expecting, may be I should have.
“Yeah, some one said that too.” I tried to laugh.
“Sorry I didn’t mean it…It’s just…my world ended. Everything I worked for… sixteen-hour days, even weekends, five years and three months, all for nothing…”
“If you knew you had to leave, would you have gone through it?” I wasn’t sure I was formulating the question correctly, but I wanted to know.
“But why are you still stretching?”
“Because that’s the only way I know to keep from ballooning further.” The bitterness in her tone made me regret asking. But she went on.
“I stopped in the beginning and gain 20 pounds in two months. And I had to repeat junior year in middle school. My parents hardly know me. My classmates avoid me…Do you think I am weird?”
“No, you are smart and beautiful. Anyone who sees you would know that.” I meant it and hoped that she would recognize it too so that she would stop hurting.
“Was there anything beneficial that you came away with?”
“Beneficial?” She laughed cynically. I felt the uncomfortable sharpness again.
“Maybe. I was always hungry there, although nutrition was meticulously calculated and controlled. Or maybe they indeed starved me and made me think that they provided the best.”
“You are a good writer.” I kept trying.
“Well, we did read a lot. Ballet related literature mostly.”
“Did you ever perform in the big theatres?”
“A couple of times, The Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and some other smaller pieces. But we saw many rehearsals. Even foreigners’ performances…” Her voice trailed off…
“Were many students let go?” I had to ask.
“…Yes, a few every year…”
Julin ate a lot of bread that morning. I had to drag her out of the cafeteria. I felt responsible. But I also believed that talking was a good beginning.
The first day of tour was the drill sites. We saw many quarantined old drill sites on our way. Counselor Van said that they were still able to produce oil but were closed up for natural reserve and for environmental reasons. We soon reached our designation number one, production wells. A girl with plump features greeted us. Her rosy cheeks under the hard hat denoted much sun exposure. She was 16 and just started working here two months ago. The oil wells built pressure to spit out oil every few hours. Her job was to open the valves periodically to let the oil shoot into the designated tanks in the ground. She said this was the easiest job on the field. No special skills required.
“Anyone want to try it?” She pointed at the wheel to open the valve.
CC and I looked at each other and volunteered. We stood on either side of the wheel and tried to turn to the direction the girl directed. But nothing budged.
“Julin, help us.” I asked. But even with all three of us, the wheel did not move an inch.
“Sorry I didn’t mean to… Maybe the old wheel does not perform for strangers.” The girl seemed to be more embarrassed than we were.
Her two hands held on to the wheel, dug one foot into the ground (now I noticed her shoes had split in the toe areas), and her other foot kicked hard at the wheel pole. With a very reluctant creaking, the wheel started to move. She dug her feet one after another to clockwise direction. After a slight hissing sound, her steps became easier and a tar like substance came out of the opening and shot 30 feet into the deposit, and kept spitting for another minute or two. She then proceeded to close the valve up.
“I then move to the next one. There are about twenty I am in charge of today. After I get the last one open, it is pretty much time to come back to the first one again. Thank you for coming…”
I saw CC shaking her head.
“Don’t worry. Brain people are not expected to be as physically competent.” I said. She laughed.
Our next stop was the drill site. Those were the wells under drilling. A gentleman in his 40s received us at one of the wells.
“The drill head in this well was just exhausted. It is good for you to see how we change the drill head. Xiao-An-ze!…” He shouted loudly. We heard clunking foot steps behind us. “Zhao-Si-Na-Ni? (Are you seeking death?) Older guy said. We all turned around to look at him. This Xiao-An-ze guy wore a military hat, backwards, swaggered himself past us. Talk about looking cool. Many years later when I first came to the States and saw college kids wearing baseball hats backwards, I thought they were copycats.
“What? You know full well the brim of the hard hat would likely kill me quicker than wearing nothing. Why do you want me to pretend wearing it for these kids? Just so you can report that you didn’t violate the hard hat rule? Go do something useful for a change and get someone to make no-brimmed hard hats!”
“Not before I kill you first! Your mother will thank me…” That was apparently soft-hearted hard words.
Older guy turned around to us, “I am too old, can’t do this work any more. Needs strength, smarts and precision. Xiao-An-ze is nineteen and has done over a thousand drops…”
“That’s right. You need a smart powerful guy like me… What, you don’t believe me? Hey, ge-men (brother), why don’t you give it a try?” He challenged the one and only male student in our group – Awaru, a husky young man from Xin-Jiang with long braided hair twirled on his head to follow the tradition of his nationality. He probably had as many years on horse back as he was born and hunted wolfs and foxes regularly for food. Awaru slapped his hand on his right thy at the challenge and charged forward. Both the older gentleman and Counselor Van stopped him.
Xiao-An-ze cockily stretched his legs. He put on a pair of gloves with fingers cut off. Pulled the metal chains from the pole down onto the ground where the drill head lay, locked it into position. Then he pulled the lever again to raise the drill head up. As the drill head moved, he gradually turned it closer to the pole. But the minute the drill head was completely airborne, it waved drastically. At 5 feet long and may be 12-15 centimeters in diameter. It weighed a ton. The older gentleman nervously spotted Xiao-An-ze, who used his hands and shoulders to moderate the wild swings of the drill head. Now I could understand why the hardhat brim would be unwelcome. It would have blocked some precious view. What’s worse, judging from the closeness of Xiao-An-ze and the swinging drill head at times, the drill head would have bumped frequently onto the brim and knocked him out of the way. But Xiao-An-ze got the drill head into a close range of shakes, then in one swift movement, he used one hand to pull the lever to lower the drill head, his other hand and shoulder pushed the drill head into the chamber – I finally realized the pole was the chamber for the drill head to go in. And I wondered how badly Xiao-An-ze was bruised on his shoulders, waist and legs. There were a sharp screeching and hard clunking before the drill head completely disappeared from view. The chain now settled into a steady movement downward.
“There you go. Now she goes down 200 meters.” Xiao-An-ze took off his gloves and made a rather offensive gesture to Awaru.
“I will see you at the party, ge-men!” Then he swaggered off, leaving us all speechless.
The next few days we visited many plants that used oil to produce household items, such as ammonia, soap, skin protectant, synthetic fiber, batteries, and artificial arms and legs. These visits were often a physical attack to the senses because of the fume and smell these factories produced. Many of us got sick on our visits and often had to leave the group to get some fresh air. On the one hand, I realized how far reaching into our lives that oil drilling was; on the other hand, after seeing these products in formation, I was scarred for life and avoided many of them later on.
My morning exercise routine continued with Julin. Sometimes we talked, other times I thought she resented me. But one positive thing was that she started to call me “little one”, although I was a tad taller than she was.
The last day was a shopping day. The bus took us to the big city Harbin, about 100 miles from Da Qing. The scene was quite similar to Bejing’s own “Bai-Huo-Da-Lou” or “Hundred Goods Big Building” (The Department Store). A familiar phrase to describe it would be “people mountain people sea”. I was very non-materialistic when I was growing up, until I experienced the “second hunger” in the US. So after a few minutes, I came outside to wait. Counselor Van was there smoking. Never saw anyone smoking in Da Qing – might be a regulation for the oil field. Probably hard for a smoker like Counselor Van during this time. As much as I disliked smoking, I was happy to have company. He told me that people in Da Qing and Harbin were quite well off because of the oil and its by products. In addition, the Da-Xing Mountain area was full of natural resources. The forests produced livelihood for people here and the economic benefits reached far into other regions in China. Based on measured drilling, it was calculated that the oil here would last for more than 200 years for China.
“Counselor, why the big bus for the eleven of us?” I was finally able to ask what’s been bothering me.
“Gas is cheap here. Besides, they want you kids to have the best treatment possible. You are among the best and the future is yours.”
“So what is our next step? I mean we all wrote about alternative energy and you took us here, to the deposit and excavation plant for conventional energy. What plans do you have for us?”
My question must have pleased him because a smile crept up his eye brows. He puffed a perfect circle and tilted his head to me.
“What do you think?”
This was one of these rare occasions that I did not have an answer prepared.
At the farewell party in the evening, the workers produced their best performances – a chorus not in concert, an off-key trumpet piece and a poem read with heavy northern accent. Then they invited the student guests to perform.
I asked Julin to do a ballet piece. She immediately turned red and uneasy. Perhaps to revenge, she said I should be doing a ballet piece. I sighed and ended up singing a song.
But CC danced to a famous Tibetan song: “The sun shines on Beijing’s Gold Mountain; Chairman Mao is that golden sun…”
Then Awaru sang a folk song of Xin-Jiang that I had never heard before – about a young man’s lover being married off to another tribe. It started mellow, went into anguish and eventually came to a haunting battle. When it ended, people were quiet for a long time before bursting into thunderous applause. Even the young worker Xiao-Shan-ze who challenged Awaru was clapping very hard. He did not wear his hat. His short hair made him look more of his age now. During the whole performance he was casting looks at our direction. As soon as the disco music started, he came over to ask Julin for a dance. She refused. I would have accepted if I were Julin. It was just a dance. But Julin was Julin.
I was impressed by the strobe lights. Those were not the ones in the clubs in Beijing. The lights here were much smaller and colder.
“LEDs?” I asked CC.
“I believe so.”
As Julin, CC and I danced together, I felt drunk with elation.
“Let’s become best friends forever. We promise to meet together at least once a month and we will work hard until all our dreams come true.” I proclaimed loudly.
Julin rubbed my head gently with a tolerant smile and a tint of sadness that I had grew accustom to,” Little one, you talk like you have the world at your fingertips. Dreams are useless… you will wake up… you will be old…”
Not able to reach Julin ever since we came back to Beijing, CC and I kept our commitment to each other for many years to come. We met every month at science museums, art museums, historical sites, book stores… We went on to the top high schools in Beijing and eventually we both went to Peking University and subsequently came to the states.
Julin, if you are out there somewhere, I’d like to share with you my green dance…