In the Kindergarten

by Ha Jin
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906

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.

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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, even though it is against the rules, and places the shell under her pillow.

The Second Day
The next morning on the playground, Shaona walks past the place where Dabin and the other boys play army games. She plays "court'' with the girls. They elect her to be queen because she is good-looking, and for a king they assign Dun, who is the only boy willing to play with them. Shaona is disgusted by Dun because he is weak and mousy and would have made a better courtier than king, so she quits.

While they take a nap after lunch, the teacher takes the children's sweaters and skirts to clean off the mud. Shaona finds the three peanuts that she had left missing, as well as the peanut shell that she had hidden under her pillow the night before. The teacher obviously confiscated them and then looked around the bed for more.

They go out into the turnip field again that afternoon to find any purslanes that they might have missed the afternoon before. Uncle Chang is not at his post. The field is being irrigated, making it muddy. The teacher once again promises them purslanes for dinner, explaining that they were too late turning in the ones they picked the day before. The children dutifully tramp through the mud, trying to find any purslanes that might be left.

When Shaona goes to search through some high grass, a wild rabbit jumps out. The rabbit has an injured leg, and it is confused by the children's noise. Even though she had told them to be careful of the turnips the day before, the teacher is excited about the possibility of catching the rabbit. She encourages the children, who are slipping around in the mud and ruining the turnip crop, to keep chasing it.

While everyone is concentrating on the rabbit, Shaona goes to the duffel bag where the purslanes have been collected. She urinates in the bag and then carefully covers the wet plants with dry ones.
After the rabbit runs away, the children talk excitedly with one another, but Teacher Shen quickly gathers them together and rushes them back to the school before Uncle Chang arrives and sees how they have ruined the turnip patch.

That night, there are no purslanes at dinner. Shaona is excited about having sabotaged them: she eats heartily and then later plays "soldier'' with the boys, "as though all of a sudden she had become a big girl.’’ She is confident that she will no longer cry for her family when she is lying in her bed at night.

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