Twists and Turns

A short story that acts as an ode to a father who went to extreme lengths to ensure his children received an education…

by: Huina Zheng

My husband, daughter, and I visited my parents in a town about two hours’ drive during the May Day holiday. My brother and two sisters were all there, a rare reunion. We talked about our childhood. My father said when we moved to this town in the 1990s, he went through a lot of trouble so we could go to an elementary school near our home. 

When I was young, my father managed a factory in a faraway hometown, so he was rarely at home. This was the first time I heard him mention the twists and turns of our school transfer. I was curious and asked him how he did it. 

“One of my friends introduced me to the school principal, who demanded 500 yuan for each child,” he said. I made a mental conversion. At that time, the average salary in China was 1,000 yuan per month, so 500 yuan was equivalent to half a month’s salary for each of us. My father also bought expensive cigarettes and wine for the principal. 

“And then what happened?” I asked. 

It was just after the Chinese Spring Festival. On the first day of school, my mother took us to the school for registration. 

“When I got to the school, the registration teacher said we also needed to provide a family planning certificate.” But we didn’t have it because my parents hid and lived in the mountain to escape the one-child policy. 

My father said, “My friend took me to the local village committee secretary’s home. I bought cigarettes and wine and gave his children luck money, so he agreed to issue the proof.”

The lucky money for the children must be enough for the secretary to be willing to help issue the proof. According to the Family Planning Regulations, people who violated the one-child policy must pay a fine called social maintenance fee before going through the relevant procedures to register their children. According to the regulations, for every extra child born by residents who violated the family planning policy, the couple would be charged a one-time social maintenance fee at a rate of between three and six times the local yearly per capita net income. The secretary issued proof that my father had paid the penalty, so he could go to the family planning bureau for the family planning certificate. 

At that time, school had begun, but my siblings and I had not yet gone to school. I remember asking my father several times when we could go to school. I had no idea what my father was going through. My questions must have put a lot of pressure on him. 

My father said, “The family planning official asked me to provide a fine payment receipt. I didn’t have it, so I said I lost it, and they couldn’t issue me the certificate without the receipt.”

My father went to get help again. He visited the manager of the village’s real estate development company, who was in charge of village development, and gave him 1,000 yuan. With his help, he finally got the certificate. By that time, it had been ten days since school started. 

He took these certificates and rushed to the school for registration, but the school official said he needed to provide a transfer certificate issued by our previous school. That school was in another town, so my father left in the afternoon to get the transfer certificate. 

Two days later, he returned to the school with all the necessary certificates. Because we didn’t have a local hukou, or a registered permanent residence, he had to pay each of us extra 500-yuan sponsorship fees each semester. Four children cost 2,000 yuan a semester, 4,000 yuan a year, equivalent to four months’ salary. 

I never knew my father experienced twists and turns to let us go to school.

As a Chinese saying goes, even if we are poor, we cannot stop funding education. Chinese parents devote themselves to the education of their children. Because my parents violated the one-child policy, they paid so much extra for our education. Now I understand why we always scrimped and saved when I was young. 

I used to complain that my parents never cared about my study and were stingy. Now I know they saved the money for our education. 

My father had a bad temper, and I feared him when I was little. He was always busy with his work and seldom at home. I became distant from him. Whenever he complained that my mother spoiled my brother, I would reply, “But you were never there.”

Now that he is old, he regrets not being there for us when we were young. When he started telling us about his life, I felt myself forgiving him and moving closer to him. And this step took decades, after twists and turns.


Huina Zheng holds a M.A. in English Studies degree and has worked as college essay coach. Her stories were published in Baltimore Review, Variant Literature, Evocations Review, The Meadow and other journals. Her fiction “Ghost Children” was nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Guangzhou, China with her husband and a daughter.

Header art by Xavier Puente Vilardell.

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