ZHANG YA LIANG: I had a very strange dream one day. I dreamt that I was on my way to school one morning around 9 o’clock. I was late and when I arrived the teacher didn’t let me into the classroom. I was very scared and didn’t understand why I couldn’t get in. I knocked at the door very hard but the teacher didn’t let me in. Suddenly I was no longer in front of the classroom door but in front of the door to somebody’s house. It was the house of a family that I had been working for. I used to herd their cattle in the morning, from 6 or 7 until 10 o’clock, and they paid me 0,5 RMB.
This family was working in the cattle business. The man often went to other provinces to buy cattle. In my dream I was knocking on their door and I became their cattle herdsman again. We also made a deal about my payment. Then I went to herd the cattle. I put down my schoolbag but it fell into a small river and the water washed it away. I ran after it calling “Dad, quick! My schoolbag!” But the bag was lost. I sat down on the ground and started to cry. Then my older sister came and said: “Don’t cry, I have some old schoolbooks, I can give them to you.”
So I went to herd the cattle with my sister, we spent the whole morning outside without eating anything. Then we went to get our salary, but the man didn’t want to pay us. We got very upset and angry and wanted to quarrel with him, but we didn’t manage to get the money. In real life I herded the cattle many times and I always got paid. In the dream, I felt very sad because I had lost my schoolbag and the money. Then I went home with my sister.
At home, I saw that my father had fallen ill again, just as in real life. My father was always ill when I was a child. In the dream, my mother asked us to buy some medicine for my father. I didn’t know what to buy, so my mother wrote down the name of the drug on a piece of paper. I went to the pharmacy but for some reason they didn’t have the medicine. In real life I always bought the medicine for my father, he had a bad stomach. Then I dreamt that I went to the pharmacy again with my sister, she took me by the hand and led me, but still we couldn’t get the medicine. The road seemed endless and my father was very seriously ill, so I got very scared. Then I woke up. I was very frightened and at first I wasn’t sure whether this had been real or just a dream. I called my family and then I knew that it was only a dream. I have no idea why I dreamt this.
I’m from Yi Yang city in the province of Hunan. The first time I came to Guangzhou was in 1998. I worked there for a year in a textile factory, then I went back to my hometown. My uncle said my job had no future and I should learn some trade or have my own shop or something like that, and that I should find a good boyfriend and decide what I wanted to do with my life. He said a young girl should be more independent economically. I’m still grateful for his words. I always call him with questions because he is from a big city and knows more about life.
1998 was a strange year. At the end of it I went back to my hometown. My sister had just married. My mother told me that I shouldn’t travel during certain months of the year. That was a traditional superstition. I was very young then and didn’t care about what my mother said. I had to go back to work at the factory. My sister was in her honeymoon and couldn’t come with me, so I went to Changsha on my own and bought a train ticket. On the train I met the woman who became my hairdressing teacher. I didn’t know her at that time. The hairdresser’s shop that I have now used to belong to her.
In the train, I was sleeping in the upper bed and she slept in the bed below me. She was in her thirties, I was just a teenager. My sister had told me not to talk to strangers on the train and not to accept food from them. She said I should get off the train and go directly to the factory. In those days I thought that there were a lot of bad people in society. But this woman treated me well and took care of me. She gave me to eat. I asked her where she came from. She said she was from Yi Yang, which is my hometown, so we started talking in our dialect. I asked what she was doing in Guangzhou and she told me she owned a hairdresser’s shop in a military base. Actually, before I left home, I had been talking to my uncle about learning to be a hairdresser. Then I met this woman on the train. Was it luck or sheer coincidence?
I got interested in talking with her. It was much easier back then because people were so simple. I asked her how big her shop was, whether the business was going well, how much she earned. I asked if she had ever had an apprentice, or if she needed one, because I wanted to learn to be a hairdresser. It seems that she was looking for an apprentice, anyway she gave me her phone number and address. During the holidays around May 1, I called my twin sister who was studying at the university in Changsha to tell her what had happened to me. She said it was a good idea. I didn’t tell my older sister because she was a manager at the textile factory, she is much older than I and we don’t really have much in common.
Now I feel that my former life was quite bitter. There were a lot of children in my family. My grandmother died early and my grandfather married another woman who brought more children into the family. My mother got kicked out when she married my father, at that time she already had my older sister. Then my mother suffered complications when she gave birth to me and my twin sister. My parents didn’t get anything from their parents, so our family situation was pretty bad.
My parents had to start their family life with no support from anyone, so they suffered a lot. When the family situation isn’t good, the kids have a hard time. We understood the difficulties quite early and helped each other wherever we could. We tried to earn money when we were very young, for example by herding cattle for a few hours each day, for less than 1 RMB. We listened to what our parents said. At one point my father stole fish at night and sold them to pay our school fees. My father’s relatives were pretty selfish, actually my father’s condition was worse than my mother’s. I still remember what my father said to me and my sisters, as if he had said it yesterday. He said: “If any of you has the ability to study at university, I will afford it even if I have to sell everything. If you don’t have the ability, I won’t pay anything.”
Actually, my older sister and I did quite well at school. My older sister didn’t pass the university entry exam, so she started working in order to support my twin sister’s studies. I saw that she earned good money so I hoped that she would come back and help me as well. But she didn’t come back until two years later. Then she got me a job in the textile factory. The money I earned went into the education of our younger brother. We are three sisters and one brother. My father was getting older, he could no longer earn any money by doing farm work, so my older sister and I had to pay the schooling fees for my twin sister and our brother. I supported my brother until he graduated from university, and my older sister supported my twin sister until she graduated. They were good students, they got a scholarship every semester. Now they are working and doing very well, both of them bought houses for themselves. Today our family has a much better life than before and I really cherish that. Sometimes I tell my husband about my former life and he is always very surprised that I had such a tough childhood. Even now, I feel sad when I talk about it.