Jenny Xu (University of Sydney, Australia)
The first time I was in the country side, it was the mid 80s and I was in Communist China. Our primary school teacher had arranged for us to visit a chicken farm, some eternity of a drive away from downtown Shanghai.
I remember being sick in the bus. Dizzy and nauseated as fresher air poured in through the bus windows and choked me. I was looking for dandelions in the blurry landscape flashing past, for they were the only wild flowers I had known and expected to see. They grew in the corners of buildings in my neighborhood in the crevices where concrete walls and concrete foundations met and grated, leaving gaps. From this space the dandelions sprung, one, five, ten along each crack. It was easy for a child to imagine them trees, to see a miniature forest of them sticking out of lush green hills which were in fact tiny mounds of dirt, mud, dregs of down rubbish covered in moss. It was delightful to see their yellow faces made up of thousands of crowded gold petals, so amassed they could barely unfurl. And the ecstasy of finding a dandelion that had gone to seed was incomparable. To see a complete and perfectly round fluffy seedhead, as rare and fleeting as a soap bubble, and to be the one who admired it and sighed at it and timidly touched it, to be the one who puffed up her cheeks and blew on it hard till only a bald stump was left, making a hundred rushed wishes as the seeds disperse. Once I plucked dandelions in bud, got my fingers sticky with milky sap and got my grandfather to set it in a jar on a sunny window. For these troubles I got a rotted weedy soup. Dandelions are not for sitting in vases and growing in houses.
The farm house was a factory. After disembarking from our bus, we were asked to produce our handkerchiefs. Then we were tied, one boy to one girl, by our handkerchiefs. We were to take a walking tour and to never let go of our handkerchief under any circumstances, to do so was dangerous we were told. We might stray and meet with strangers, we might become lost and forgotten.
Our tour was brief. A walk around a muddy paddock. We marvelled at the black soggy soil, we looked skeptically at some seedlings unconvinced as to how such tiny, delicate things might turn into food. We did not see any chickens, though in the distance there were ramshackle structures without windows. The chickens were asleep or working in those shacks, we were variously told. They were gleefully and industriously laying eggs for little children to eat. They were professional egg laying hens who took pride in the quality and quantity of the output of their toiling reproductive facilities. I imagined a mother hen, inspecting her jewel like clutch with the same sense of obligated pride as an engineer who had built a dam over the Yantsze. I also thought of my mother with a block of jade in her hands, turning it for carving; making a jade egg in the factory where she worked to process rocks into expensive and rarified souvenirs. She worked in the gift shop on the weekends, wearing a long silk dress, gesturing towards oriental beasts and motifs with her supple hands. Communicating to visitors from the West with coy smiles, flicks of her eyes and her beautifully proportioned body, better than words can, why Chinese objects were so desirable and meant for the keeping.
I remember the room at the end of our tour the clearest. A white room with no furniture. A row of machinery stretched across the longest wall. I had not seen vending machines at that age, but that’s exactly how I would describe it now. A big vending machine, in which row upon row of eggs sat in their assigned seats, going from bottom to top as if in a Ferris wheel. They are then passed along a conveyor belt, where a light is shone through them. They lit up like light bulbs, some pure white, some with the shadows of things forming within. The guide watched with an experienced eye, until an egg passed which shone bright red.
“Would you like to meet a little chicken?” he asked, a gap in his front teeth showed as he beamed at us.
We clapped and squealed and begged him to show us.
“This little fellow is not quite ready yet,” he said. “But maybe we can convince the shy little guy to say hello.'”
“Students, please pay attention for the next few moments,” our teacher said. “This is how chickens grow through incubation.”
We held our breath.
In one swift movement, the guide brought the egg down on the side of the machinery, the white shell cracked into two neat halves. But it was thick blood, instead of egg white, which came pouring out. And not a golden soft yolk or a golden fluffy chicken. This was a clumsy convulsing creature, hairless and in its deaththrows. It twisted in the guide’s proffering palm, its pained face with its squeezed shut eyes, wavered before our astonished children’s faces as it died. Gently, as if lovingly, the guide prodded it with his pinky so that it would move for us to see that it was alive. Then, when it could move no more after half a minute, he tipped his handful into a bin, wiped the mess from his hand, turned back to us and smiled.
One child screamed somewhere from the back of the room and was instantly hushed. The teacher stepped up and said “Now class, I hope everyone has enjoyed our country excursion. Please give our guide a round of applause for everything he has shown us today.”
We all clapped. Then off we went, following the teacher back to the bus, which broke down twice on the way home.
Jenny Xu migrated to Australia in the early 90s. After attaining degrees in Law and Arts in 2004, Jenny has been working in various legal services roles. Jenny is currently undertaking further studies in English literature at the University of Sydney.