Jia and I were talking about summer jobs, spurred by the article in today's Star-Ledger about dwindling opportunities for teenagers. I told her about my time mowing lawns and other yard work, manufacturing, warehouse work, and other adventures in temporary labor. Any difficult or boring labor I endured was easily topped by my wife's tale.
From high school and on into university, Jia joined her classmates and worked the fields of Xinjiang--they needed students to do the work because they didn't have enough local or migrant laborers. Most of those expeditions involved picking cotton, though she also had to harvest barley. Sometimes it was just for a weekend, other times it was for two-week stretches. The students slept on hay in a barn with rats running about. They drank from dirty plastic barrels of water that were dragged out to the fields by exhaust-spewing tractors. And they drank thin soup and ate bland mantou (steamed bread).
Jia said they had no running water--just a large trough in the field to rinse the dirt from their hands. And the field was their toilet. It wasn't so bad when the work was only on the weekends, but for the longer stretches it was difficult to live without a shower.
Early into her time at university, Jia and her classmates staged a protest--the upper-classmen told the younger students to stay in their rooms when the teachers came to take them to the fields. When they were finally dragged to the farm, they refused to work. They wanted to at least eat some meat if they were to work so hard. In response, the farm slaughtered a single pig to feed the group of hundreds of students. Jia doesn't recall even seeing meat in the soup that day.
For their hours of hard labor, the students were expected to meet daily weight goals for their harvest. Those who didn't meet the daily goals were fined. This led to some students adding water or small rocks to their sacks. Jia says she lost money every time they made her work in the fields.