THIS IS A TRUE STORY
Guang’s stomach grumbled. He sighed, took his bread out of his backpack, and looked at it, trying to control his appetite. “Remember, don’t start eating it as soon as you get off our doorstep!” his mother had said as she placed the bread in a small paper bag with her flour-covered hands. But his stomach growled again and he took a very small bite.
It was 1960, and ever since the Communists had taken his parents’ land and business, Guang had been given only a small loaf of bread to eat for lunch at school. His once handsome features were now pale and almost fleshless. There were six children in the family: three boys and three girls. As the fifth child in his family, and the second boy, Guang was not given enough to eat, as Chinese in those times thought that the oldest and youngest children were most important. Being a boy didn’t help (Chinese considered boys superior to girls); he had one older brother and one younger one.
The three-year famine between 1958 and 1961 had been caused by Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy. Chairman Mao had stated that China could catch up with Europe and the U.S. in industry if more steel could be manufactured. The whole population was forced to make steel. Anyone who didn’t comply was considered an enemy of the state and punished. Farmers stopped farming and melted their farm tools for material to use to make steel and cut down scores of trees to make fires. People in the cities melted pots and pans—Guang remembered how his family had only been allowed to keep one pot and one pan. Over the fires they placed a huge stove and threw all their metal in there. But steel-making is a very exact procedure. Metal must be burnt at just the right temperature, and the exact procedure has to be followed. The ordinary people didn’t know the procedure, and a small wood bonfire is definitely not the right temperature. The metal they produced was not steel; it was useless scrap metal molded into shapes. Meanwhile, no one was farming, and even if they were allowed to, all the farm tools had been melted. Food was scarce. There was only bread to eat, and very little of that, too. In the countryside, some people were forced to eat things like tree bark and flowers.
Before the Communists took over, Guang’s family was wealthy and well-to-do. It had owned two factories: a soy sauce factory and a biscuit factory. Then the Communists came to power and took away all their land and property because the Communist theory was that money, property, and other possessions should be distributed evenly amongst all citizens. His parents had often muttered about the Communists, and Guang had heard them sometimes. Guang still longed to gorge himself on a bag of biscuits and a plate of well-cooked meat. He missed the life he had once had. Now, standing on the cracked, broken sidewalk, he couldn’t resist his hunger. Even though he knew that by the time he got home after school, ten hours later, he would be starving, the temptation won. He took another bite, savoring the sweet taste of the bread.
As he ate he thought of the biscuit factory his family had owned. He remembered the bags of biscuits, with buttery crusts and soft, delicious insides that he had feasted on so often. He remembered how privileged he had felt every time one of the factory’s delivery trucks trundled by, how glad he had been that his family was so well-to-do. But now, whenever he noticed one of those delivery trucks, he remembered the Communists, and now he tried not to walk past the factory, now owned by the country.
The loaf was only the size of his fist, so he tried to make it last as long as possible, holding each piece in his mouth until it softened. Taking care not to drop a single crumb, he broke the bread in half, then took one half and broke it again. The aroma of fresh-baked corn bread tantalized him, and he pulled off another piece. He started ripping off large chunks and stuffing them in his mouth, but instead of subsiding, his hunger elevated.
When Guang arrived at school, he was just finishing the last piece of bread. Though he had devoured the equivalent of a small meal, he was just as ravenous as he was when he had taken that tiny first bite. Digging into the bag, Guang pulled out a few crumbs and swallowed them as well. The bag was crumpled into a small round brown ball and tossed into a nearby wastebasket. Guang pretended to be a basketball player, flicking his wrist and muttering, “Two points! Score!” in Chinese. He gazed out at his school, a long three-story brick building with long windows that looked out on the grassless field where some children played with a ball. His friend greeted him with a halfhearted “Hello!” as he walked through the gate and into the schoolyard. The bell rang and he trudged up the stairs and along the hall to his classroom, slung his backpack down on the floor, and pulled out his textbook.
Another long day, he thought.
Guang is my grandfather, and this is his true story.