BY SHEN YANG
Shen Yang came to the world as an “excess child” (heihaizi) and does not legally exist. Born in Shandong China in 1986, she belongs to the millions of excess-birth children who violated the One-Child Policy and were forced to live away from their families, in the shadows of Chinese society.
Her debut memoir “More Than One Child” recounts her adventures and sorrows as an illegal excess child during the nineties. Those were the years in which the One-Child Policy was at its fiercest: following the 1990 census, the government uncovered an enormous number of families who secretly had more than one baby, leading authorities to enforce the policy very strictly in 1991.
In the following excerpt from “More Than One Child” family planning officers are closing in on Shen Yang, who had been living at her grandparents’ house for already five years in order to not alert authorities of her existence.
“The family planning officers began to make frequent raids on the village, and my little sister and I were no longer safe with Nana and Grandad. Fourth Sister was just a baby, and my grandparents sent her back to the aunt where we had spent the night, because they were afraid she would make too much noise and bring the officers to our door. And I, after five years of security and happiness, had to play cat- and-mouse with the family planning officers.
At first, the raids only occurred during the day, but later they came by night too. I clearly remember one night, I was sound asleep cuddled up to Nana, when Grandad rushed in from the big room and picked me up in his arms. He held me under one arm and grabbed the bamboo ladder in the other. Nana held the ladder tight, and he scooted up to the roof space. After we had curled up safely on the big cross-beams, Nana quickly stowed the ladder downstairs.
‘Open up! Open up!’
‘Hurry up! Open the gate!’
‘We’ll break it down if you don’t open it!’
It was the middle of winter, and the middle of the night, and the knocking on the door was deafening. I cringed in Grandad’s arms and clutched his thick padded jacket, staring with terrified eyes at the faint chinks of light between the floorboards.
Nana tottered outside on her bound feet and opened the big wooden gate with trembling hands. The family planning officers rushed in and began to turn the house over. They even turned the big bed upside down.
I was so frightened I buried my head in Grandad’s jacket and blocked my ears. I couldn’t look or listen. I was afraid that if they discovered me, I would vanish into the dark night and never see my grandparents again.
After that night, if there were any rumours that the family planning officers were making night raids, Grandad took me to sleep in the roof space, leaving Nana waiting on tenterhooks downstairs.
Grandad’s familiar smell of alcohol gave me a great sense of security. I nestled in his arms and listened to his powerful heartbeat, and felt very warm.
I thought this warmth would last forever, and I would grow up happily sheltered under the wings my grandparents spread over me. But one day, my so-loving Nana who, along with Grandad, never laid a hand on me no matter how naughty I was, played a monstrous joke.
It was a foggy morning, and a middle-aged woman who said she was my father’s older sister turned up. I was five years old but I’d never seen her before. Her name was Shen Wenjie, and she had moved to Nanyang in Henan when she married.
My father had written to tell her that he had four daughters and was heavily in debt, so she packed her bags and got on an overnight train. Her plan was to take Fourth Sister, Star, away with her, because she was still too young to remember and miss us, and Auntie Wenjie was prepared to adopt her as her daughter.
Auntie Wenjie’s own children all had factory jobs, and the family was not badly off nowadays. Besides, Nanyang was hundreds of kilometres from where we were in Jining, more than twelve hours by bus or train. If Star went there, she would be much safer than in Sunzha. However, when everyone thought that Star was about to be taken away, Nana said the words that changed my life.
‘Wenjie, take Yangyang with you. She’s getting too much of a handful, she spends all day running around the village. My old bones can’t keep up with her anymore.’
Compared to my cute little sister, I had become a demon-child in the eyes of my grandmother. I ran wild all over the village, I was out in the morning and back home filthy dirty at night. I got into all sorts of trouble every day.
‘Yangyang, you want a gun, don’t you? Auntie Wenjie’s going to take you to town to buy one.’ Nana had told her that I envied my neighbour Zhengzheng’s toy gun, and that was how she bribed me to go with her.
Just before we left, I couldn’t help running over to tell Zhengzheng my news, ‘I’m going to get a gun,’ I boasted, ‘You just wait till I get back. We can play with guns.’
That evening, Grandad stood with his hands clasped behind his back at the entrance to the village and saw us off. I waved happily at him out of the back window of the car, ‘Grandad, Grandad, wait till I come back and show you my gun.’
Grandad opened his mouth as if to speak but no sounds came out. Our car drove further and further away, until he lost sight of the little girl who had dogged his footsteps ever since she could walk. Then his mouth twitched, he turned around, and took the road back home. It was almost dark as Grandad’s lonely figure stumbled through the trees.
Many years later, my mother told me that after I left, my grandmother was devastated. She would cry quietly every time she thought of me. The first night, she lay awake, tossing and turning. Then the cocks crowed, and it was dawn. That was when she suddenly realized that her Yangyang really had gone. She sat up slowly, and caught sight of the strap of the little ragbag she had made me, stuck in a crack of the bed. She pulled the bag out, and finally burst into floods of tears.
She begged Grandad, ‘Please, go to Dongzha as quickly as you can, see if Yangyang’s left yet. If they haven’t, fetch her back!’ And she wept bitterly, ‘I miss our Yangyang, I miss our Yangyang.’
Grandad looked at his distraught wife and his eyes welled with tears too. ‘Don’t be upset, I’m going right now!’
Grandad pedalled the three-wheeler as fast as he could along the tarmac road, the beads of sweat running down his face, still hopeful he could get his favourite granddaughter back. He was unaware that I was already in the train being carried far away from him.
‘I want my Nana! I want my Nana!’ I sobbed.
As the train in its dark-green livery sped through the forest, my heart-rending cries could be heard all through the carriage. My tears dripped onto the big steamed bun I clutched, uneaten, in my hand.
I was getting some very unfriendly looks from our fellow passengers. My aunt was greatly embarrassed. She had already had enough of me. ‘If you don’t stop crying, I’ll throw you out of the window,’ she threatened me.The warm and friendly face she had presented to Nana and Grandad had completely gone, and there was a snarling lioness in its place. I ignored her and carried on crying loudly. Tears and snot mingled and gathered in a big bead at the tip of my nose. Auntie was so furious that she sat glaring at me, her arms folded across her chest. A young woman passenger sitting opposite had finally had enough. She pulled some toilet paper from her bag and leaned over to wipe my nose. But before she could press the folds of tissue against my nostrils, I wiped it for myself, on the sleeve of my jacket. Just like that, my nose was clean and dry, but everyone who was watching this little scene wrinkled their noses in disgust. The kind-hearted girl clutched the toilet paper awkwardly, unsure whether to give it to me or not.
Eventually, Auntie Wenjie said, ‘Don’t cry, be a good girl and eat up your bun. I’m taking you to see your Nana.’
As soon as I heard the words, ‘See your Nana’, my tears stopped abruptly. I sniffed, and looked at her with brimming eyes, then at the tear-soaked bun in my hand. Slowly I raised it to my mouth, and stuffed it in. The warm sunshine shone through the train windows, onto my cherry-red cheeks, and my snotty, tear-sodden sleeves.
‘I want Nana, I want Nana!’ When we reached Auntie Wenjie’s, I stood at the gate, bawling my eyes out.
Her daughters, Li Ruomei and Li Mingmei, leaned against the gate, arms folded, watching me curiously. The looks on their faces suggested I was some sort of circus monkey. It was mid-winter and I was bundled up in a patterned padded jacket that Nana had made for me. I had been wiping my nose on both sleeves for the whole journey, and the north wind that met us when we got off the train had dried the goo to a shiny crust.
My habitually rosy cheeks were horribly chapped by the cold, and my very proper, clean and tidy cousins clearly saw me as a little peasant, a country bumpkin.
‘If you go on crying like that, your scabby cheeks’ll crack all over!’ Mingmei shouted impatiently.
This bumpkin was getting anything but a warm welcome. Back in Sunzha, I was the pet of the family. If I ever cried, my grandparents would rush to comfort me. But now, I’d been standing at the gate crying for ages, and everyone was ignoring me. My aunt had had enough of my wailing like a banshee for the whole journey, and had gone straight indoors, while my cousins, instead of consoling me, were laughing at my chapped cheeks.
So I ignored them back. But no matter how I cried that I wanted Nana, there was still no sign of her. I looked around me at this strange place, and was terrified……”