Sixty years ago, as an elementary student in Guangxi China, Bill Zhen climbed a 15-foot tree and fell out. “I kept feeling that, before I fell, my soul was sort of out of my body, floating in the air, and looking down at the principal and students on the playground,” he said on a recent San Francisco morning as he waited at the Alabama Street food line.
It is his strongest memory of being a student, and one of his last. Zhen was one of a whole generation of Chinese students whose educations were prematurely curtailed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Some 1.2 million immigrated to the United States, and 43,000 reside in San Francisco (5 percent of San Francisco’s population), where their children have thrived. But behind many an Asian excelling in school is a parent or grandparent whose education stopped short.
“They have little choice about job selection,” said Bonny Li, the Active Older Adults program coordinator at the Chinatown YMCA. According to Li, the vast majority of San Francisco’s elder Asians who were forced to abandon their studies now work as packagers, tailors, dishwashers, and vegetable sellers.
As the son of a hydroelectric engineer, Zhen grew up wearing leather shoes; he was close friends with the son of a local Chinese Communist Party section chief. After Mao’s government became increasingly hostile to degree-holders, however, officials banished the family to a small village outside the capital city of Guangxi.
A few years later, in 1968, Zhen’s school and local civil servants forced him to abandon his education entirely after the ninth grade. Instead, officials sent him and his sister to Hainan province, where Zhen spent a decade caring for rubber trees. This assured Zhen would never follow his father’s path to a college degree.
Furong Zhou, who immigrated to San Francisco 29 years ago, discovered in the seventh grade that local officials had chosen him to drive one of 40 new tractors, gifts from the central government so that his hometown could excel in rice cultivation. “I’m not sure why,” said Zhou, whose height of almost six feet was probably a deciding factor. Regardless, it meant the end of his formal education.
Silver Avenue resident Zhaobin Zhang was more fortunate. Unlike Zhou, Zhang was allowed to finish middle school in 1969. “I was very lucky at that time. I was assigned to be an electrician at a state-owned shipyard in Guangzhou,” said Zhang. “There were 50 people in our class. Except for several of us who went to high school, only eight of us went to the factories, and the rest were all sent to the countryside.”
During our conversations in the line, the three men occasionally borrowed my notebook to write down their names, places where they used to live and things peculiar to the era. They wrote traditional and beautifully executed Chinese characters.
Zhou’s eyes came to life when I complimented him on his penmanship, a skill which, in China, has always been associated with a strong educational background. His lost education, however, is just a fact of his life. When asked how he felt about the educational opportunities their younger generation has, which were once so scarce for them, “That’s just how it is for the young,” he said.
As we spoke, a woman nearby, Mei Zhao, watched us with a curiously blank look. When I handed her my notebook to write something down, she was unable to write a single character. Unlike the others, she speaks only the local dialect of Taishan, China, and is otherwise illiterate. She’s unable even to recognize her own Chinese name.
According to Bonny Li, the limitations for illiterate women are huge. Immigrants such as Mei Zhao often work only for bosses from the same hometown, Taishan, primarily as poorly paid cleaners.
They can communicate only with members of their own community; any outside communication requires a mediator. They live a life without newspapers and, most of the time, even cell phones. Occasionally, some are even unable to read numbers, a deficit unscrupulous employers use to their advantage, Li said. Other than work, they can have TV as a pastime. “TV has pictures, you know,” said Li.
J. Zhen, the translator for the Asian community at the Alabama food hub, said illiteracy, among women especially, is not uncommon. “There are many of them in San Francisco. In our day many, girls were not allowed to go to school,” J. Zhen said.
Added Li: “At that time, if a poor family had both sons and daughters, they would choose their sons to go to school.” In certain extreme cases, women such as 69-year-old Suzhen Yu were even forced to drop out of school in the fifth grade to pay for two brothers’ education.
J. Zhen, now 48, grew up in 1980s Taishan, and, by then, things had improved somewhat. She was forced to walk three hours a day between her home and school, but at least she was allowed to go.
When she immigrated to the United States in 1984, she was better prepared, and attended City College of San Francisco for two years. It is largely her fluent English that helps her navigate U.S. life, which includes buying a house with her brother and successfully applying for refinancing on her home mortgage twice to save money.
Compared to her, most of these older immigrants are far less fortunate.
“I know nothing about English,” said Furong Zhou, who spent almost three decades selling pork and vegetables 15 hours a day, six days a week, at Mei Sheng Market in Chinatown. Li said that many immigrants work part-time jobs in addition to their full-time job.
“Even when some of them have the chance to attend school, they don’t,” said Li. “They are too tired after work, and have no energy to study.”
This manner of fatigue is familiar to Bill Zhen, who attended a citizenship preparation program when he was working at his cousin’s restaurant in Maui, Hawaii. Zhaobin Zhang attended a program in San Francisco to study English after working as a packager until 6 p.m. every day and taking classes at 8 p.m. Even so, his English is minimal. Suzhen Yu has been studying English for two years at City College in preparation for the U.S. citizenship test, but her English is still a work in progress.
Their children, however, have thrived. Furong Zhou sent his younger son to college, which later made it possible for him to find a position in San Francisco’s court system.
Zhaobin Zhang’s grandson is happily attending kindergarten. This past Thanksgiving, J. Zhen’s cousin, who earned a Ph.D in political science, brought her fiancé to meet Zhen. “Coming to the U.S. has been good for our family,” said J. Zhen, a sentiment the others seem to share, even after working the same low-paying jobs for 30 years.