How My Father Survived a Communist Labor Camp & Forged a New Life

A profile of Dr. Zehao Zhou.

June 13, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

There’s a defining scar in my father's heel. It’s deep and dry and cracked—and self-inflicted. The mark is a remnant of his six years on a Communist labor farm in his youth, when one night he purposely took a scythe to his flesh to cause enough injury to be granted rest, despite not completing his daily quota.

As he often explains, "It was getting dark and I was hungry and I was not close to getting it done."

As a result, decades later, even two grains left behind in a rice bowl would lead to a lecture on how many years my dad spent hunched over in the rice field—and out would come the heel of proof. Now 40 years removed from the farm and a college professor close to retirement, he still shows off the scar on his foot as a physical reminder of how far he's come.

To this day I associate rice, that comforting Asian staple, with hardship and sacrifice.

My father was born and raised in Shanghai, China during the rise of Mao-era communism. His father, for the little time he knew him, suffered greatly from tuberculosis yet was deprived of necessary medical care by a government who deemed him a political enemy. Part of these “crimes” included working with American soldiers while stationed in Yunnan Province as a colonel in the Chinese army during World War II.

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“Your father mentioning his health being "the greatest gift he can give his daughters is a healthy dad who is not a burden in old age" is something my parents strive for as well. I think about the sacrifice they made for my sister and me often, and how they still strive to "not be a burden" to their children despite the burdens they carried in their youth. ”
— Karina L.

However, my grandfather’s time with the forces of the China-Burma-India Theater also left him with an advanced American nutritional training that he brought home with him to his growing family in Shanghai. He raised his five children in accordance to these strict nutrition and food hygiene guidelines, but in 1957 lost his job to political persecution as the Communist Party, under Mao Zedong, began its infamous Great Leap Forward campaign. Suddenly for my father, chewing with your mouth open was no longer an issue: One cannot chew when one no longer can afford food to chew. Instead, they began focusing on how to survive.

The early famine years of the Great Leap Forward—in which at least 20 million people died, even by conservative estimates—led the government to institute food rationing. Rice, flour, meat, tofu, everything was rationed. How much you could eat depended on how much the government was willing to give you. My father's family was so poor at times, the only accompaniment they could afford to serve with their rice was salt. A family of seven, subsisting on rationed, salty rice. Nothing went to waste, either: If they were able to get winter melon, they ate its thick rind, too.

With a working mother, a sick father, and costly daycare out of the question, my father spent his childhood roaming the streets, eating whatever detritus he found on the sidewalk, including the contents of olive pits, knocked open with a brick. Eventually the parasites found a home in his intestines, causing enough pain for a hospital visit after which he threw up what seemed to be "a big eel"; his mother grabbed and helped excavate, like a magician pulling tapeworm scarves out of a small child. He had not yet started school and was no more than 6 or 7 years old.

As my grandfather's tuberculosis worsened, everything was sold to pay for his care. The dining table was traded for food, a cruel irony lost on no one. Their home became as thin as the people in it, as anything of value they could scrounge up went off to the pawn shops. In the summer, they sold their winter coats. My dad doesn't remember how they survived that winter.

What he does remember is making eggs, when they could get them. His bedridden father could no longer cook them for himself, but remembered his nutritional training from his time in the military—so he’d direct his sons instead.

"When the flame reaches green-bean-size,” he’d instruct my dad to poach an egg, “turn the heat down to the size of a soybean." He was an armchair general, directing operations from a bed-shaped command center, my father his tiny culinary soldier. Once, they somehow got their hands on a bread pan; to this day the taste of tangzhong brings my father back to "those deprived years with the occasional bread.”

At the height of the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s, everyone was herded into public canteens. Orders came down for people to destroy their woks and cooking utensils in backyard furnaces, part of a misguided and failed attempt at ramping up China's steel production—but an initiative which also prevented anyone from cooking at home and furthered the “communal” in “communism.” In a public cafeteria, there were no choices. This arrangement allowed better rule over a population: When you control the food, you control the people.

My grandfather succumbed to tuberculosis and politics on Oct. 24, 1967. My dad was six weeks shy of his 12th birthday.

Six years later, he was sent to a labor farm outside Shanghai—a common fate for those considered to be from "Black" families, including those of educated, wealthy, or counter-revolutionary backgrounds (my dad's family roots checked all three). It was here where he slashed and permanently scarred his foot for the sake of a rest. Another time, my mostly-vegetarian father splurged what little money he had to buy a meatball, only to drop it on the run home. On that heavy rainy day, he watched it roll into an open sewer ditch.

"I went back to my dorm, feeling terribly sorry for having lost that hard-earned meatball,” he told me, “but then, when I was sure nobody was looking, I dashed out in the downpour, found the meatball, bent over, snatched it, ran back in the rain, and then rinsed it and put it in my mouth.

"That sewer-covered meatball was among the best I ever had."

The summer of 1987 found my father a newly married, newly emigrated graduate student, searching for the American Dream in Lexington, Kentucky … and drinking lard.

Upon his arrival in this country, he had discovered the local Kroger, noticed cans of frozen lard, bought a dozen, and took them home to pop into the microwave (a new technology to him). He drank this lard, melted, over the next few days. His life in China, even post-labor farm and post-Mao, had left him emaciated, and he contends that he was "probably trying to fatten myself"—while also alarming his host family, who would watch him down three to four bowls of rice per meal.

Lard aside, in some ways life in America came as a rude culinary awakening. Hamburgers and hot dogs—coveted dishes my dad said he had dreamt of his whole life till this point—were finally tasted and disappointingly dismissed as "average to bad food.” Fried fish was deemed to be a "waste of a great fish" while pan-seared fish, filleted of its thorny bones, was a delightful novelty.

Another night, my dad was invited to another family’s house dinner and served salad, lasagna, and … that was it. He waited and waited for the next ten dishes, Chinese banquet-style, but they never came. Afterward my dad mused, "American food can be very simple. They are big on silverware but small on number of courses!"

Wariness was a two-way street. Later while at Kent State, my parents cooked hundreds of tea eggs for American dinner guests, only to be amazed at the end of the night that the bounty had barely been touched. They decided the Americans were probably just worried about the look of the eggs or maybe the cholesterol (this was the ‘80s); either way, it came as a shock to my dad who, just the month before, had been called lucky by his own mother for eating two eggs in one day, at a time when food was still scarce in China.

After Ohio came New York City for a spell, then Pennsylvania—where finally my once-starving, blacklisted, meatball-in-the-sewer-eating dad settled into academia and home ownership, and raised two daughters on American school lunches layered between Chinese breakfasts and dinners. I grew up craving pork floss as much as pot pie, though I ultimately craved neither as much as I did the approval of my tiger dad. My childhood became peppered with screamed accusations of "You don't know how good you have it" and "When I was your age … !" and the sounds of doors slamming in their frames all around the house.

On Christmas Day 2007, we received a phone call. My grandmother's heart had given out. One emergency visa run to the Chinese Embassy in D.C. and three last-minute flights later, my parents and I arrived at my grandmother's bed in Shanghai. She had gone quickly, which was a small comfort, but quite unexpectedly, which was not.

In the kitchen, sitting softly in the same space where decades before my grandmother had struggled to feed my dad more than a bowl of rice with salt, were rows of her last batch of homemade wonton. Made by her hands just the day before, neatly folded with fresh pleats.

These days, my dad has found balance. He has tenure and he watches what he eats, in both Chinese and other flavors. He swims and gyms regularly, proclaiming the greatest gift he can give his daughters is a healthy dad who is not a burden in old age. We have reconciled from the tiger days. When I visit him now, nearly 30 years old, I can still see the jagged scar on his heel as he climbs the stairs late at night to bring wonton soup to my room, worried that I could possibly still be hungry. In the mornings he makes me eggs, watching the flame and turning it down until it's the size of a soybean. ◆

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Edna Zhou

Written by: Edna Zhou

I like gin and travel a lot. Always on the search for a good meal and a great story. @expatedna


Farmgirl June 26, 2020
Thank for sharing, my father raised us after our mother left and I still treasure the little and big things he did for us. I’m grateful for your story as I have a new neighbor from China whom I have a good relationship with but the communication is difficult at times and understanding on both sides is a challenge, lol. I live in Norther B.C. Canada
Vanessa P. October 12, 2019
What a lovely story. Thank-you for sharing.
dmason July 28, 2019
What an amazing piece. Growing up in a traditional Korean house, while living in America, I understand the dichotomy you describe. Your story speaks to me on many levels and I highly enjoyed the nostalgia.
Katherine June 17, 2019
your powerful writing knows no bounds. Breathtaking endurance, love of life. A heritage of valor.Thank you
Karina L. June 15, 2019
Thank you for writing this. This was so beautifully written. My parents were born the same time as your father in Shanghai, where my father was sent to a similar labor farm to work, and moved to the US in the mid-80s. Your father mentioning his health being "the greatest gift he can give his daughters is a healthy dad who is not a burden in old age" is something my parents strive for as well. I think about the sacrifice they made for my sister and me often, and how they still strive to "not be a burden" to their children despite the burdens they carried in their youth.
Brent L. June 15, 2019
Thank you Edna. I'm your father's contemporary, Chinese American, but growing up in the US. I vividly remember my mother's hardship stories of horrors and survival of the WWII years, and of constant reminders of how good we have it compared to all our relatives who were starving and dying in China. I was glued to the screen as I read your tribute to your father.
Eric K. June 14, 2019
This is so beautiful, Edna. Thank you.
Sarah June 14, 2019
This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing your family's history with us.
Dana E. June 13, 2019
Wow, what an incredible tribute to your dad Edna. It's amazing how often we take things for granted here in America, like simply having enough food to eat (usually more than enough). I can't possibly imagine the fortitude of someone who went through that. Thanks for sharing.