When I was five, my kindergarten instructor in China asked me to stop painting my nails. She explained that none of my classmates had access to nail polish, so I should try not to make them feel bad.
I was too young to understand: Socialism had made China too poor to afford basic goods like nail polish.
Today, the Democratic Party’s proud socialists simply choose not to understand: Socialism brings equality, but it is the equality of scarcity.
When I was asked to stop painting my nails, I lived in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China. It was the early 1980s. After decades of totalitarian chaos and failed socialist experiments, my native land was finally beginning to open up to the outside world and undertake economic reforms.
One weekend, relatives I had never seen visited from Hong Kong, a nearby British colony. One of them presented me with nail polish.
I looked perplexed. No one I knew owned or used nail polish.
“Don’t worry… I’ll show you.” The woman who presented my gift laughed, grabbed my hand and proceeded to paint my nails. Afterwards, my nails were red for the first time in my life.
That following Monday, I showed off my nails at kindergarten. Children swarmed around me, curious and envious. None of them had seen nail polish before either.
Teacher Lee, our instructor, soon joined the ruckus.
“Your nails look so pretty,” she said.
I smiled, happy to receive the compliment.
My fellow students wanted nail polish too. Instinctively, we all wanted products China did not have that the wealthier, developed world could offer.
As my nail polish began to chip and peel, I started to dole out the chipped and peeled pieces to the class as if I were a pedestrian handing out change to beggars.
My system did not provide for everyone. Those unlucky ones who did not benefit from my handouts walked away empty handed. Those blessed with my favoritism walked away with peels or chips of dried nail polish to carry in their pockets, but no color on their nails.
Finally, in the middle of our kindergarten’s—and our country’s—nail polish scarcity, the children of my class found a solution: They started to paint their nails with colored pencils.
This inferior substitute left sloppy marks and scratches on my classmates’ fingernails, and the pigments from the colored pencils washed off easily. As such, my classmates had to recolor repeatedly each day. Soon enough, they spent less and less time running around the playground and more and more time coloring their nails.
One afternoon, Teacher Lee took me aside.
“Will you stop painting your nails, for the good of the class?” she asked with the utmost sincerity.
I did not understand.
“Because none of the other children have nail polish,” Teacher Lee quietly explained. “As you know, nail polish is not widely available in Guangzhou. Look at your classmates. They spend their time ruining their nails with colored pencils. They all feel bad that they don’t have nails like yours.”
Usually, my instructors did not make such requests. They would just tell us what we needed to do. If we did not do as instructed, we were either punished or our parents were advised to punish us.
Something was different this time. I could not tell what it was. Teacher Lee was no longer exuding the confidence and optimism that she exuded when she told us, as she regularly did, that we were the flowers of our country and the future of socialism.
Had I been older, she probably would have explained that China’s economy did not offer the plethora of goods that the outside world, like Hong Kong or the United States, did. Perhaps she would have shared that she had never painted her nails, either. Perhaps I would have asked why China was so impoverished and why it did not have what citizens of other societies took for granted.
Perhaps I would have understood what she did not explain: Our country had emerged only a few years before from our decade-long Cultural Revolution, in which millions perished or were ruined in the midst of political struggles and campaigns; and we had bidden farewell less than a decade before that to the Great Leap Forward, in which millions starved to death following government edicts for production and collectivization. Had I been older, perhaps I would have understood why there was not enough nail polish for everybody.
But I was not older. It was not my fault that Communism had left my country and my city impoverished. My instructor, out of concern for the other children of her class, had decided to ask me to share the burden of our country’s economic backwardness.
She was asking me for a favor, one that I did not have to grant. Yet she somehow appeared to have faith that I would grant it.
I slowly nodded my head. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Later that day, Teacher Lee informed our class that she would be confiscating everyone’s colored pencils. We had been making far too much of a mess, she told us. She would reissue the colored pencils when she believed that we could behave better. She did not mention my name. My classmates grumbled but turned in their colored pencils.
I honored my promise and stopped painting my nails. Once that happened, the other children forgot about painting theirs too. In due time, they returned to the playground.
In the past four decades, China has liberalized its economy and adopted chunks of capitalism. As a result, it is now the second largest economy in the world, and nail polish is no longer a scarcity.
Though it remains one of the most ardent practitioners of socialism, China has roundly rejected the type of scarcity that denied its little girls the chance to paint their nails. As prominent Democrats fantasize about the grandeur of socialism for America, Americans should remember that there is nothing charming about socialism’s equality.
This essay is adapted from Chapter One of Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, a story about getting to know freedom from Communist China to inner-city Oakland, California.