My father was the first in his rural hometown to ever go to college.
In China the colleges are scarce. College entrance exams were created to wipe out the majority of the people who wanted to advance from high school. In my father’s time, not all the high-school graduates took the exams, and out of those who did, only three percent made it to college. It was the accomplishment of this feat that led him to meet my mother and eventually move to the United States.
Ten years later, our family took our first plane trip back to China. I was twelve the summer we rode on a silver bird over mountains and seas to fly to my father’s homeland. We transferred to a seven-hour bus which bobbed over miles and miles of blue and green expanse with fishermen laying sheets of plastic on the sides of the road to dry their newly harvested crayfish. Bus changed to pickup truck when an uncle that I had never seen enthusiastically picked us up in the only automobile in the village, a large clumsy machine with a roar that mixed with that of the wind until I could not tell which was which.
Stretch upon stretch of green dotted with red and purple and white caught my eye. Beautiful flowers lay upon artistically stretched leaves that were waist-high. “They grow flowers here?” I shrieked. I caught the hint of the word “cotton” screamed back at me. My mom used to be obsessed with the movie Gone with the Wind when I was little, and the only cotton fields I had ever seen were the black-and-white ones in the movie. Seeing the fields of bright color, I had not realized that it was cotton.
When the engine of the pickup finally stopped roaring, there was a shabby courtyard to the right of us. In contrast to the bright shades of green in the fields, everything in the village living areas was a brown, as if all color had been washed out and worn away. A group of no less than thirty people of all ages stood outside the wooden double doors that were chipped at the edges from fifty years of use. From the youngest at age eight to my grandma with sixty-some years behind her, they all seemed to be staring at me, eyes squinting from the sun. My family.
Something about the scene intimidated me into getting off on the other side of the pickup truck. The arrival of visitors from outside the country that no one had seen for ten years was a rare event; at night a crowd of farmers carrying stools flooded into my grandparents’ courtyard and seated themselves there, all looking as if waiting for me to do something. They did not revert to normal conversation until I told a few jokes in English and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for them, and it was not until after I had fallen asleep on my bed—a clay block covered with a layer of woven bamboo—that they picked up their stools and left.
I begged my dad to take me to the cotton fields the next day. I wanted to get a closer look at the tiny flowers and lush greenery so I could come to a conjecture about whether picking cotton was anything like Gone with the Wind had portrayed it. I studied the farmer closest to us. He was bent over, a large straw hat covering a sun-browned face. His shabby clothes were wet, droplets of water and sweat collecting on his shirt and his pants. A large tank of battered metal weighed upon his back. In one hand was a hose connected to the tank that he used to spray pesticide onto the plants below.
As I watched, he squirted the pesticide. A wave of pungent scent nearly choked me and my dad when the toxic fumes hit us. Clouds of sickly yellow misted the air. The farmer treaded into the cloud to reach the next stretch of cotton plants, and was hit by the spray. It clung to his clothes, sticky little droplets that covered all parts of his body. I realized with a jolt that what I had thought was water on his clothes was really pesticide.
My dad waved to the worker, and greeted him loudly. The farmer turned around, eyes squinted in thought. It was apparent that he did not recognize my father.
“Qing!” My dad called out the farmer’s name. To my shock, I recognized it as a popular name that parents in villages named their little girls, “hard-worker.”
The farmer’s face lighted in sudden recognition, and I realized that it indeed was a woman. She had apparently grown up with my dad and had all but forgotten him. My dad explained that he had moved to America after college and flew back with my mother and me for a visit. She had not known my dad at first sight, but she did seem to know what America was. Her eyes lit up, and she pointed to an empty can of pesticide on the ground. “That’s from America,” she said.
I went over and inspected the can. The Monsanto Company, St. Louis, had produced it.
“Say,” Qing asked me, watching me read the words on the can, “do they grow cotton in America too?”
I shook my head, expecting her to start denouncing American farmers for not growing something as precious as cotton that she had grown all her life. Instead, she got a misty look in her eyes.
“America must be such a wonderful place. Don’t have to grow cotton.” She made a dramatic sweep with one hand, indicating the field. “The bugs have gotten worse and worse. Why, just a coupla years ago, Chinese pesticides work. Now only imported ones do. And sometimes even imported ones ain’t strong enough. You gotta spray ’em once every ten days, or else the cotton’s gone for sure.” Her voice was strong now. She didn’t know about America or plane flights, but she did know about cotton.
Looking down, I saw her point. There, nested in a hole it had created in a premature boll of cotton, was a boll weevil enjoying a nap in the sun. Qing had just sprayed waves of pesticide over that very area. A sudden thought popped into my head. “Isn’t pesticide highly toxic?”
“Aye,” she replied. “Two villagers were rushed to the hospital in town just yesterday from pesticide poisoning. It’s a dangerous job, it is.”
Two villagers. I shuddered. How could you keep on doing something like that every day knowing that others had already died from it? Knowing that you could he next? From what I gathered from Qing and my dad’s conversation, the “dangerous job” paid only two yuan or so per pound. That was a year’s revenue of five thousand yuan, or about six hundred dollars. Yet it was the only way cotton growers had to put food in their children’s mouths. For every twenty-five-dollar Kmart jacket that most people dismiss as being too cheap to be worn in public, only about fifty cents goes to the cotton farmers. If the cotton farmers reaped half as much as they sowed, those ugly jackets would be expensive enough to be worn in public.
I did not go back to the cotton field that day or the day after. My curiosity seemed to be suddenly sucked up, and even the flowers weren’t so pretty anymore.
The day before we left, someone told my father that Qing too had received pesticide poisoning and been rushed to the hospital. Somehow, since I had talked to her, I felt like she was my special cotton grower. Thankfully, by the time we received the news, she had been discharged from the hospital and was recovering in her home. I begged my parents for us to visit her. Since it was the custom to bring gifts whenever visiting anyone, I rummaged in my pack. All I managed to find was an electronic bouncy-ball, the kind that lit up and played music if you bounced it hard enough.
As I stepped onto the dirt floor of the dusty room that Qing was resting in, I noticed that even though she was extremely pallid and frail, she managed to look more spirited than the first time I saw her.
“We’re going back to America tomorrow,” my dad said softly. “We heard about what happened and came to see you before we left.”
I took out the ball, bounced it for demonstration, and then put it in her hands. “This is something else that is made in America,” I explained. Just like her pesticide.
She fingered the ball gently, running a digit over the line where the two rubber parts had been put together.
“America must be a wonderful place,” she said. “Don’t have to grow cotton . . .”
Note: Cotton is grown in some parts of the United States.