"In the Kindergarten'' was originally published in a small magazine, Five Points, and was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 1999. It was written by Ha Jin, a writer who first came to the United States in 1985. This story takes place in Jin's native land, China, a country that has remained isolated from the West even in the modern information age. In this tale, a teacher who is unable to afford food for herself and her mother tricks her students, promising them a delicious meal from the plants she has them pick only to take their harvest for herself. One child, Shaona, who has only been in the school for a few weeks, notices how the teacher has taken advantage of her students and takes revenge against her. American readers will be interested in the subtle ways that the Chinese school is different from Western schools, especially in the relationship between the teacher and her pupils. Even so, the most surprising thing for Westerners might be in how similar the Chinese kindergartners are to the children in all other societies.
In 2000, Ha Jin became the first writer ever to win both the National Book Award and the PEN/ Faulkner Award, for his novel Waiting. That year, "In the Kindergarten'' was included in his collection of stories called The Bridegroom. His fiction and his poetry offer quiet, understated insights into what it is like to live in contemporary China, in an ancient society that has been hostile to Western scrutiny and repressive toward its own artists.
The First Day
"In the Kindergarten'' begins during naptime at a kindergarten in China. Shaona, who has only been there less than two weeks, is having trouble sleeping. She listens to her teacher on the phone in the next room. The teacher is asking for three more months to pay the money she owes to a Dr. Niu. She explains that she is weak, that she has lost blood "because of the baby,'' and that she has to provide for her elderly mother at home. Near the end of the conversation, she begs Dr. Niu not to tell anyone that she has had an abortion. Shaona does not understand much of what Teacher Shen is talking about, why she says a baby weakened her, as if it came out of her body: her mother had a baby a week before Shaona was sent off to school, and she was told that it came from a pumpkin patch.
After the nap, Teacher Shen gathers the entire class together and takes them out to the school's turnip field to pick purslanes, which are weeds that grow between the turnips. She shows the children what purslanes are and explains that they are delicious when cooked, promising that they will have some sautéed for dinner that night if they pick enough. The children turn picking them into a competition, while Uncle Chang, the old man who watches the field, warns them to be careful not to hurt the young turnips. A bully named Dabin gets into a fight with a girl, throwing her to the ground and kicking her. When the teacher asks who started it, Shaona points to Dabin, and he is taken inside to be punished by being locked in a closet.
As they are leaving the turnip field, Shaona is surprised to see Teacher Shen give a large portion of the purslanes they have picked to Uncle Chang. She is further surprised that night to find that there are no purslanes served for dinner. She remembers seeing the teacher ride off at the end of the day with a duffel bag on her bicycle that looked like the one they had collected the purslanes in, but she had thought the teacher was taking her laundry home. She comes to understand that the teacher has left with the plants that the children gathered.
Dabin looks at Shaona throughout dinner, and she knows that he is planning his revenge against her for telling on him. She has some peanuts that her father gave her, so she gives some of them to him as a peace offering. He tells her threateningly that she will have to keep coming up with gifts for him.
At night, Shaona cannot sleep because she misses her family. She eats one of the peanuts her father gave her,...
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