Vol. 10


How to Steal a Potato

c. 1980; Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China

About thirty-five years ago China was not the rich toy-making, factory-filled, polluted, and overpopulated country one encounters today. This story takes place long before all those images became reality — when China was selfish and poor, when schools did not feed children properly and teachers had no respect for anyone. When my mom, Liu Chang, was thirteen, she was sent to boarding school in Beijing. This is her story.


“I hope it tastes better than it smells,” I whispered as I looked down at the slimy green goop that was plopped onto my plate. I had acquired it as I had passed the vegetable section of my new school’s cafeteria.

“I hope so, too,” a voice said behind me. When I walked up to the checkout, I had gotten the green goop, moldy bread, and purple chocolate milk.

At the checkout, the lady in the pink apron took a bottle of good-looking fresh water and gulped it all down. Underneath her scowl her black teeth showed. “Two yuan”* the lady barked at me, sending saliva all over my face.

Li Ling and I walked outside to the benches and sat down in the windy weather. I took a sip of the chocolate milk and almost threw up. Li Ling looked at me. “Is it eatable?” she asked me. I shook my head fast.

After class Li Ling and I walked back to our room in hunger. In our room, eighteen other girls were getting ready for bed. When we were all in our beds, which were spread around the enormous room, with the lights out, Gao Hong got up and pulled out a bag of dried mangos. “You guys hungry?” she whispered to us.

Some of us got up and lumbered toward Gao Hong. “Lunch was horrible!” Jian Mei cried as Gao Hong handed us that were still awake a piece of the dried mango.

Suddenly the strong scent of potatoes entered our room. “Teachers’ dinner is so much better than ours.”

Our noses led the way in the dark to one end of the room. “Wait, guys,” Liu Ning whispered as she reached into her pocket. A dim light appeared in Liu Ning’s hand. “Pocket light,” she said. The light shined at the area where the potatoes smelled strongest. At the very top corner was a huge vent, body-sized and glittering in the dark.

“I am going to sleep,” Ming confirmed to us as she left seven of us spread around the room.

“I could climb up and unscrew the vent,” Liu Ning whispered excitedly.

We all looked at each other’s starving faces and nodded. We quietly crawled through the vent to the other side, where there were small peepholes where we could smell and see the potatoes. As soon as the teachers left the room to go to sleep, we unscrewed the vent and hopped out into the room, grabbing handfuls of potatoes. The taste was savored in my mouth when I crawled back.

Day after day my little “group” crawled up there — every day stealing food, never getting caught.

Amber Wang; New Jersey, USA


* In 1980, 2 yuan would have been about $1.33.


This copyrighted story may be copied for limited classroom use or reprinted in an article about The Grannie Annie.


Return to Vol. 10 Stories page



Built by Hen's Teeth Network