And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (Ruth 2:2)
I grew up in a Chinese family with a strict rule: you had to pick every grain of rice dropped on the floor and eat all the bread crumbs on the dining table. My mother adhered to it as to a religion. I stuck to this rule not only because of my mother’s education, but because I witnessed many of the hardships my grandmother endured in life.
Grandma died when she was 66, an age that Chinese believe is a dangerous threshold that may lead a person to another world. My mother always said, in tears, “Your grandma didn’t pass that threshold, and her life was so hard…!”
From age four to ten, I stayed with my grandmother about three to six months each year. Life was extremely difficult during Mao’s time; our poverty was penury, destitution plus oppression. Despite the lack of food, my childhood was happy and carefree, because my mother and my mother’s mother always prepared three meals for me and my brother while literally starving themselves.
Grandma had bound feet, called “three-inch golden lotuses” in ancient China. I often regret that I was a mischievous child and laughed at her because she could not catch me when she wanted to punish me for breaking my rice bowl.
In 1972, I was six years old, and my mother, as usual, sent me and my brother to stay with my grandmother for some time, because she had to work both day shifts and night shifts without a day-off, sometimes for the whole week. Winter was around the corner. My grandparents didn’t need to go to the field, so they began storing some food for the long, harsh winter.
During Mao’s time, all peasants worked for the collective system. They did the farming for their communes and the commune authorities representing the government, in turn, distributed the harvest according to the record of how many days each member of the commune worked in the field, as well as their family background. Since the Communist Party enforced the law of “equal pay for equal labor-time”, more and more people just showed up to the farming field, but only pretended to work.
The productivity was actually getting lower and lower, and the harvests were not enough to feed all the families in the commune. If one’s ancestor used to be a landlord, the food distribution for this family would be drastically reduced. Unfortunately, my grandpa’s great-grandfather had been a big landlord, and my grandma always worried about food. In the summertime, she secretly kept a small vegetable garden in her back yard. At the time, private vegetable gardens were strictly forbidden by the commune; no “private property” was allowed.
One day, before the soil froze because of the low temperatures, grandma took me to the fields farthest from the village. We walked for hours to get there, because of grandma’s mini feet. She put a small knife in a basket and covered the basket with a piece of faded, dark blue cloth. It was noon; most people were at home having lunch, and usually took a nap afterwards. Once at the deserted field, grandma began digging holes to see whether we could find some leftover peanuts. Grandma was so smart that she knew where the leftovers were. We got some peanuts, and I could not wait to go home and clean them. I peeled the dirty peanut shells and put four or five into my mouth. Grandma looked at me and smiled.
We moved to another field. Grandma told me we could get some carrots here and steam them as our main food for a couple of days. We were basking in our discovery when, all of a sudden, four to five men emerged in front of us, with sticks in their hands. I immediately knew they were cadres from the village, always wearing the Mao-style coat and a hat with a red star. One of them was the group leader from the commune. He carried a “Little Red Book”, which contained Mao Zedong ideas on Communism; he looked at us angrily and yelled at my grandma. “What are you doing here? This is the property of the people,” he chastised us.
I was scared, shaking, but grandma replied in a calm and firm tone, “We are starving! Even the Communist Party should allow us to find some food.” The group leader didn’t reply. He waved his right hand and said, “Leave the field, now!” Grandma took me by the hand and we left immediately, without saying a word. When we got home, grandma grinned and proudly showed my brother and grandpa our small harvest – a bunch of carrots and half a basket of peanuts.
In the Bible story of Ruth’s journey, the leftover grain was God’s reward for her faith and commitment. In today’s China, my fellow Christians may not need to scavenge for leftover carrots and peanuts, but they -and I- do need, at least, the “leftover grain” of the world’s solidarity and help in the face of official religious intolerance and persecution.