Her family was not poor, at least not by Chinese standards of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet her daily life would be considered squalid by first world standards. Her family lived in a two-bedroom apartment. She, her brother and her parents shared one bedroom (and two plank beds). Her paternal grandparents and an uncle shared the other. At times, another uncle slept in the living room. They shared the kitchen and bathroom (such as it was) with the family next door. There was no running hot water, and the toilet was a hole in the floor. The elderly had a particularly hard time crouching.
Ying Ma's childhood was nonetheless relatively carefree. She longed for more possessions and eagerly consumed whatever Western products -- like nail polish and candy -- her relatives brought from nearby Hong Kong. But she excelled in school, was surrounded by friends, was doted upon by her grandfather and looked forward (here's the wince) to a fantastic new life in America.
As a child, Ying could not comprehend the more menacing aspects of totalitarian rule. Her third grade teacher, for example, announced one day that instead of doing math, "You are all going to spend the hour confessing." When the pupils expressed confusion, teacher Fu explained, "The school knows that each of you, or someone you know, has behaved wrongly. ... Now start writing."
Ying recalls, "I always believed my teachers. Now I was genuinely worried. Did the school already know I had relatives from Hong Kong who brought me toys and clothing from the world of the capitalist running dogs? Did it know I really, really liked American movies...?"
Panicky, she wrote about her brother's choice to hang out with some bad elements in the seventh grade. "For days after my confession, I lived in abject horror." She thought the police might come for her brother. She wanted to warn him, but didn't dare, because to do so would reveal her betrayal. Such are the torments communism imposes on 8-year-olds.
In a better world, the Ying family would emigrate to the sunny uplands of the United States and bask in prosperity and freedom. Emigrate they did -- but without money and speaking no English, they settled in a poor neighborhood of a poor city, Oakland, Calif. And there, Ying Ma was forced to confront some of the shameful aspects of life in this country.