HOPE IN A THIN SHELL

My Madeleine: in Chairman Mao’s China, it wasn’t just supplies that were rationed. The novelist Yiyun Li remembers the queues and what they taught her

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013 

When I think of food, I think of queues. I was a child of rationing, and a big part of my education about the world and the people who inhabit it came from queuing for food. This was Beijing in the 1970s, and most of the things on our tablerice, flour, oil, pork, fish, eggs, milk, sugar, sesame paste, tofuwere rationed.

What was not rationed were the marvels a child could find in the world. Every Sunday I went shopping for food with my father. There was always more than one queue, and my father would install me in the longest one before joining a shorter one himself. The queues moved at the speed of a worm. It took courage and faith for a child of four or five to stand in line alone with people several times their size threatening to cut in. To secure my place I learned the trick, much to the frustration of whoever was in front of me, of pressing myself tightly to their backside. And then there was the fear that would never go away: what if I reached the front and my father didn’t show up? What if I were abandoned in that line for ever?

But he did always come back in time, so I learned to enjoy the wonders in the shop. It had an overhead transit system with motorised lines zigzagging around. The shop assistants would attach the payments to metal clips, the money would travel to the cashier and later the change would travel back. There was an apparatus fixed to the giant jar of cooking oil, and when each person handed a bottle to the assistant, he would only need to raise a lever to release the right amount of oil through the funnel into the bottle. On the counter were huge chunks of pork that looked inviting, though the slice the assistant cut for us always had more fat than lean meat—but don’t ever think of complaining, because the moment you opened your mouth he would withdraw the meat, and others would ask for it. Rationing didn’t mean you could always get your share.

Among the marvels, there were glimpses of grim reality. A man walked from line to line, saying he had lost his family’s ration book: had anyone picked it up? But no one would meet his pleading eyes. Another time, a crowd gathered to watch two women calling each other nasty names. One was foxier than the other, and stood accused of using her charms to get a better slice of pork. From time to time the shop assistants, reigning from the other side of the counter, would stop to have a long chat about a movie, just so they could keep everyone waiting. One day the line spilled outside the shop, and I watched a bus pull in. The conductor leaned out of the window, looking at an old man running to catch the bus. The moment the old man reached the door, panting, the conductor hit the button and banged the door shut, waving goodbye with a wide smile.

If you were a child of the rationing system, sooner or later you learned that it wasn’t just food that was rationed. So was hope, dignity, comfort, love. When my mother heard that I had cried for the old man, she dismissed my tears as shameful, saying my heart was too soft.

But even that soft-hearted child could find the goddess of fortune smiling on her. Standing in the queue one Sunday, I noticed a basin of eggs on the counter. It can’t have been the first time it had happened, as I already knew that one lucky customer would get that basin of eggs, sold off cheap andbest of allnot recorded in the ration book.

We waited for the shop assistant to point her magic finger. It picked out my father and she said the eggs would be ours if we wanted. I trailed home a step behind my father, watching more than a dozen eggs, yolks and whites, floating in a clear plastic bag. It was a warm day and we didn’t have a refrigerator, so my father cooked them right away, and I found myself tucking into a plate of scrambled eggs.

If you were that child of the rationing system, you’d have never seen such luxury. You would grow up and always feel hope when you see a full plate of scrambled eggs. That feeling is still there 30 years later, but it comes with another shadow. The day you were lucky enough to get a basin of eggs, you also watched a long line of strangers eyeing you with jealousy, even hatred. You were not who you were, but what you were rationed to be.  

Yiyun Li moved to America from China in 1996. Her books include the award-winning collection of stories "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers"

Photo Beijing 1980: the author (right) with her older sister and their egg-scrambling father