It is an inspiring story of a Chinese man who survived a communist labor camp in China and went on to forge a new life in freedom in the U.S. For many Cuban Americans whose fathers and grandfathers survived the communist Castro dictatorship, it is a story we can all relate to.
How My Father Survived a Communist Labor Camp & Forged a New Life
There’s a defining scar in my father’s heel. It’s deep and dry and cracked—and self-inflicted. The mark is a remnant of his six years on a Communist labor farm in his youth, when one night he purposely took a scythe to his flesh to cause enough injury to be granted rest, despite not completing his daily quota.
As he often explains, “It was getting dark and I was hungry and I was not close to getting it done.”
As a result, decades later, even two grains left behind in a rice bowl would lead to a lecture on how many years my dad spent hunched over in the rice field—and out would come the heel of proof. Now 40 years removed from the farm and a college professor close to retirement, he still shows off the scar on his foot as a physical reminder of how far he’s come.
To this day I associate rice, that comforting Asian staple, with hardship and sacrifice.
My father was born and raised in Shanghai, China during the rise of Mao-era communism. His father, for the little time he knew him, suffered greatly from tuberculosis yet was deprived of necessary medical care by a government who deemed him a political enemy. Part of these “crimes” included working with American soldiers while stationed in Yunnan Province as a colonel in the Chinese army during World War II.
However, my grandfather’s time with the forces of the China-Burma-India Theater also left him with an advanced American nutritional training that he brought home with him to his growing family in Shanghai. He raised his five children in accordance to these strict nutrition and food hygiene guidelines, but in 1957 lost his job to political persecution as the Communist Party, under Mao Zedong, began its infamous Great Leap Forward campaign. Suddenly for my father, chewing with your mouth open was no longer an issue: One cannot chew when one no longer can afford food to chew. Instead, they began focusing on how to survive.
The early famine years of the Great Leap Forward—in which at least 20 million people died, even by conservative estimates—led the government to institute food rationing. Rice, flour, meat, tofu, everything was rationed. How much you could eat depended on how much the government was willing to give you. My father’s family was so poor at times, the only accompaniment they could afford to serve with their rice was salt. A family of seven, subsisting on rationed, salty rice. Nothing went to waste, either: If they were able to get winter melon, they ate its thick rind, too.
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