Many years ago in the countryside's winter field, a boy—also an "insert" sent down from the city—hugged me, both of us in thick, fashionable army greatcoats. Other than the pressure against my clothes, I felt nothing. Still I worried. "Did we do anything wrong?" I asked him. He let me go and replied in an annoyed voice, "No, girl! We haven't done the wrong thing yet!"
A few days after that hug, I got a stomachache. It was not like any pain I'd ever felt. I was unable to work in the field, yet I did not dare go see a doctor in the commune. From morning to evening I lay on my bed alone; under the cover I stroked my smooth belly skin with increasing panic. I tried to determine if my stomach had grown bigger but I couldn't tell. The unnamed fear tortured me far worse than the pain itself. A few more days passed and the pain gradually went away. I breathed out in relief, still confused by what the boy meant by "the wrong thing." I was eighteen. My passion had been for other matters then; I had purposes in life, purposes that I have since lost.
Nearly a decade later, one summer evening a friend asked me to go with her to a ballroom. I had recently graduated from an engineering college, and my mother had knocked on all her backdoors to secure me a job in our city. She made sure I would not leave home again, as I had done at 17. My official assignment was a technician in a local factory, a place that needed neither a college graduate nor a technician. And switching jobs was not allowed. As Chairman Mao had—before he passed—repeatedly put it, each of us is just a gear or screw on the revolution machine, and must stay fixed wherever the Party places us. My job and life were so boring the idea of going to a dance actually seemed exciting.
The ballrooms were a new fashion in town. I had never been in one before and it was curious to stand near the windows, where all the young women waited for an invitation to dance. As the Blue Danube washed lyrically on, a young man approached us and asked my friend to dance. She timidly placed her left hand on his shoulder and her body turned slightly away, but the waltz ended before their first steps. The two stood waiting in the middle of the dance floor, his arm on her waist and her hand on his shoulder, like a statue. Just when the music restarted, this time the Friendship as long as Earth and Heaven, my friend suddenly pulled her hand off her partner's shoulder as if burned, and she giggled, covering her face with both hands. As she kept giggling, I was baffled, the whole room was baffled, and for a while no one danced, all eyes were on her. This attention made her more bashful so she ran from her dance partner and back to me. Before she could regain herself and before I could comfort her, a second man approached and asked her to dance. She sheepishly went with him while I remained in my spot—no one came to invite me. A new song began and a man walked toward me; almost within reach, he glanced up at my face but continued to walk past me and led another girl to the dance floor. I stood by myself through two or three more songs, and started to feel strange. I turned around to look into the window glass. The girlish round face mirrored in the glass did not seem too ugly, even without make-up. The slender figure in the reflection looked fine. So what was it in me that scared off men? I might be a female nerd in conversation, but how could they know this when I had yet to say a word?
When I was in the countryside, my neighbor talked to me only once. In the village I was "inserted" into, a pigpen separated my room from my neighbor's. The pigs belonged to the village head. Over the years I had gradually grown used to the oinks and the smell, although I still feared falling into the big opening of the latrine when going into the pigpen to relieve myself. My neighbor and I were both urban high school graduates who were sent down by the government into this farm production team. He was from the local county while I was from the big city up the Yangtze River. Most of the year my neighbor was not in the village. He showed up only during food-distribution in the fall after harvest. Even when he was there he did not go to labor in the fields. He would either lie lazily under the sun reading a book, playing his Erhu instrument, or having a Go match with a friend from another village. He talked to me only once. He asked me why I stayed in the village year-round without going back to my city. I replied sincerely that I wanted to root myself in this poor farmland. He tried to hide his laughter, which made me feel I needed to explain things to him.
"Do you know?" I said. "All other countries in the world have population flowing from the countryside to the cities; only China is practicing the opposite. Our population flows from the cities to the countryside. This is a creative revolutionary movement and its historical significance can never be overestimated. We are making history and I am proud to be part of it."
His grin gradually shifted to astonishment, and he walked away as if I was running loose from a mental hospital. I watched his back with sympathy and sighed over his poor spirit, a spirit with no purpose in life.
The men in the ballroom didn't know this, of course.
My friend had been dancing non-stop and finally came back to take a break. She looked completely gratified, her face red-hot and misted with fine sweat. When she saw me standing there, alone, her eyes opened wide projecting ten thousand question marks. She asked me why I did not dance. I was agape, and tongue-tied, and could not respond. I waited until she once again merged into the crowd on another man's arm before I escaped. A ballroom was not my place and I would never go to one again. On the way out, I thought hard about how I once excelled in math, English and philosophy, to pillar my faltering self-esteem.
On the way home I walked past a door that I had been familiar with for years. It was still early so I decided to drop by and pay a long-due visit, to a friend from my time in the countryside. Because he was the oldest among the "city inserts," we all called him "Old Brother." The rest of us were new to the countryside, young and far away from parents, so it was he who gave us advice and tips on how to cope. The remote memory of his kindness in the alien countryside warmed me. I wanted his help to figure out my current dilemma. More specifically, I wanted to ask if he knew why the boy I fell in love with in college stopped seeing me before our first kiss; instead he mailed me a letter that said "you are a woman too outstanding—perhaps this is exactly your own tragedy." This calm analysis made me long for mediocrity. I feared that something odd in my bones had somehow leaked out to my face, something that caused even strange men in the ballroom to sulk away at the sight of it without me saying a word.
Old Brother's door was ajar and a hubbub of voices inside floated out through the crack. After two knocks with no answer, I pushed the door open. In the haze of light-blue smoke I saw several bare-shouldered men in their mid-thirties cracking sunflower seeds and chatting. Some faces looked familiar. A buzzing floor fan slowly stirred the hot air, a mix of cigarettes and sweat, a much better smell than the ballroom's competing perfumes. It aroused memories of a small messy room in the countryside, where I argued red-faced with male inserts on national and world politics. Well, at that time cigarettes were rare luxury stuff, so the boys mostly smoked dry tobacco leaves like the farmers. The tang from the cloud they blew was much stronger than this, but I never disliked it.
Old Brother greeted me like he had just seen me yesterday, and made a man move to offer me a seat. "She's a university graduate," he told everyone. I sat down among the men, ignoring curious glances. The noise level of their chat dropped a notch or two and some put on their T-shirts. A few moments later I realized that they had been talking about their first loves in the countryside; their language grew more civil with me there, their disconsolation somewhat more strained. Why couldn't they continue to use their true voices? I felt again like an interloper.
A door banged behind me and I turned around to see a man walking out of the bathroom zipping his fly. As I averted my eyes, I heard Old Brother telling the man a lady was present.
"Is she Chairwoman Mao?" The zipper asked without any hint of smile.
I tried to hold my cheeks tight but failed. Unladylike laughter burst out with a flow of released energy from my jammed chest. All the men laughed at my laughter, their heads swaying to and fro. This made me laugh harder. I finally wiped my tears when Old Brother handed me a cup of tea. He lowered his head, smiled at me with familiar caring eyes, and asked softly how I planned to spend this weekend. I told him I was going to hike the South Mountains.
"Alone?" he asked.
"Unless your wife lets you go with me," I said.
"How about I go with you?" A man stood between Old Brother and me. I looked up and saw the wise guy from the bathroom. Who had cut his hair? I nearly said this out loud. His rumpled hair, pale face, and the old handloom cloth shirt showed a man who cared less about appearance than I did. Lowering my eyes, I saw his ill-fitting pants, one leg shorter than the other. His humility somehow eased the strangeness between us.
He sat by me without invitation. "I am a fortuneteller," he said, "I see a word written between your eyebrows."
I was expecting another joke; instead I was startled at his observation. The word was death; I said it instantly. I knew this because Guan Lu, the legendary diviner and I-Ching interpreter in the Three Kingdom Period, once saw a father and son plowing a field, and told them the 19-year-old son would die within three days. Guan Lu's divine eyes had read the word "death" between the young man's eyebrows. Begged by the father to save his son's life, Guan Lu taught the young man to bribe the gods of North Dipper and South Dipper as they played a match of Go. The boy secretly provided them with wine and venison. After they had consumed the wine and meat the boy made himself known and asked for a favor. The gods added the character "nine" on top of "nineteen" by his name in the life-and-death book, so the young man's life span was changed from 19 to 99.
"No," he said, taken aback by my reaction. Then he slowly spelled "loneliness" and gazed at me. I exhaled with relief.
"You know The Three Kingdoms well?" he said. "That's not a book for ladies. A lady who reads books like that . . . be prepared for a rough and bumpy road ahead. It doesn't matter how much you have been spoiled by life so far."
I wanted to laugh, but stopped short. There was a strange seriousness in his gaze. As to his fortune-telling skill, he was wrong—I didn't have the luxury to be spoiled. Never before, not now. Most likely not ever. But I said nothing. My heart was softened by his words even though I felt this was exactly the wrong reaction. No one other than my mother had cared about my fate before. For some unknown reason everyone seemed to regard me as a girl too strong and too smart to need any help or care. This was how it had always been.
I turned my eyes away from him, in time to hear the others announce that they were going to stay up and talk right through the night. Old Brother's wife was out of town and would not return until tomorrow—a golden opportunity for an overnight chat party. Old Brother mentioned I was welcome to stay too. I glanced at the "fortuneteller" and saw the expectation in his eyes. It was time to leave, I thought, but I didn't move.
So I stayed with them in a roomful of smoke, talked and teased and laughed as if drunk from the tea, sunflower seeds, and cigarettes. It was like the old times with my fellow inserts in the countryside. Old Brother served the tenth round of tea as his wall clock struck midnight. We continued to chat into the small hours until irrepressible yawns started circling the group and sleepiness overcame the men. One by one they fell to the messy floor and the sofas, and snores replaced words. Even the never-tired Old Brother dozed in an armchair. Only then did I really notice I was the sole female in the room and the man who sat next to me was the sole man who remained awake. When had he stopped talking? Over the loud buzzing of the floor fan, I turned to ask him for a cigarette, though I did not smoke. I held it in my mouth and he leaned over to give me a light from his. When the ends of the two cigarettes touched, I felt as if his breath and mine were threaded together, and I feared that a pair of eyes somewhere among the littered bodies might be peeking.
I drew on the cigarette hard but my lungs rejected the smoke. I tried to blow smoke rings but could shape nothing. All my efforts just resulted in a soggy cigarette. We sat there, no words, and did not look at each other. Our two chairs were like volcanic islands standing out among the sea of male bodies cluttering the floor. I suddenly felt naked and exposed. I stood up in panic and walked toward the door.
"Where can you go at this hour?" he said and frowned.
He was right; it was too late for me to go anywhere. Outside on the street the People's Militias were patrolling. Walking at this time of the night, I could be easily arrested as a female hooligan.
"Could you walk me home?" I asked.
"That would be even more dangerous."
So I sat down. He and I smoked in silence. In our two strings of smoke the window glass changed from gray to black then to gray again. From there it grew whiter and whiter. The pale yellow bulb in the room became fainter and fainter until I could no longer tell whether it was off or on. At last the entire chaos of the room was exposed clearly in the new daylight.
In the first rays of dawn I glanced at him. Thin smoke from his nose lingered on his pale face. The long sleepless night had painted dark rings around his eyes.
That night gained me a gang of new friends, though all were older, married men. Apparently the university girl who dared to sit overnight with those bare-shouldered men had won their affection. Their generation, the one that preceded mine, was a strange production of the Cultural Revolution. When they were about to graduate from middle school, all schools in China were closed. After a few years as Red Guards, they were sent to spend the better part of a decade in the countryside, either laboring in the fields, fooling around or doing both. They received no more formal education; though many of them, especially those lucky enough to be inserted alongside erudite high school students, got the chance to read lots of "illegal books." They did many illegal things, including stealing and cheating for survival, besides reading illegal books. As a result, my new friends were a mix of wit, eclectic knowledge, and unusual survival skill. They were neither completely ignorant, nor fully educated. This signature of their generation was magnetic to me. I had also been in the countryside, but I was caught in a much later wave, got the chance to finish high school, and my "insertion" time was much shorter.
This age difference granted them the right to buy me nibbles and toys and to enjoy doing it. We went to movies together. On weekends, they brought me to sit in a teahouse all day long, leaving their wives and young children home. Around a square bamboo table, a covered teacup in front of each of us, we chatted about each other's real life stories. A waiter would come, carrying a tin teapot with a foot long spout, and refill our cups from a yard away. With a effortless wave of the teapot, a stream of hot water appeared from high in the air, then landed in the cup—no drop missing. Almost before a cup was filled, another stream was launched toward the next cup. I watched the waiter with amusement but the waiter never seemed to notice. I was always the only female in the teahouse; the glances from other "tea-guests" who played Chinese Chess or Go matches at nearby tables did not last long enough to bother me. It was in the noisiest teahouses that we found our most peaceful haven.
At the age of 25, I became a spoiled baby sister of these adoring big brothers, and happily tasted this belated teenage joy, ignoring approaching danger. One evening, the streets ablaze with colorful neon lights and crowded with pedestrians bumping elbows, Old Brother told me I was the only girl besides his wife with whom he went to movies. His face dimmed when he added that there could really be no friendship between a married man and an unmarried girl. It could be dangerous. Look, I immediately rebutted, this is a friendship between one girl and a bunch of men, what's so dangerous about that? When Old Brother was silent, I felt a sudden loss. Something, some innocent happiness had just evaporated. I gazed at the ground and kept walking. My unusual quietness led to their endless jokes; each of the men took a turn to try to make me smile. When they finally succeeded and the shadows were gone from my face, I caught the glances they exchanged among themselves, glances with an unconditional and tacit understanding that could only occur between men. Why couldn't we women have that? Why could I not share these mysteries with my female friends? Why was I not a man?
I sank into my own thoughts and did not notice the disappearance of the men, one after another. At last only three of us were left. Old Brother entrusted my "fortuneteller" to escort me home. "Don't be too serious," Old Brother warned before saying goodbye, though I wasn't sure that his advice was directed to me. It was advice I remembered often later, only when it was too late.
The two of us continued to stroll. "Fortuneteller" asked me why I always gave people the impression I was an orphan when I actually had a big family. His question made my nose tingle and eyes moist. I found I was telling him that every time I saw my younger sister, who was twenty, wrap her arms around our mother's neck and play the pampered child, I wondered why I was unable to do the same. I told him, perhaps my mother had given birth to me when she was too busy with revolutionary work, and I grew up so fast that she had no time for me. She followed the Party's doctrine that revolutionary work was more important than family. My younger sister only got lucky with mother's love because the shock of the Cultural Revolution had smashed mother's revolutionary will. I even told him that since I was a child, I received praise only when I brought home the highest grades, and willingly wear the patched clothes handed down from my older sister.
My outpouring of words was followed with silence. We walked on and then stopped to sit in a cold-drink store. He suddenly stood up and said in a low voice, "this is scary!" Before I was aware, he had hurried out. I stood watching his back disappear into a dense crowd.
That night I stayed awake for a long time and could not figure out why the pleasure of his company had turned to heaviness.
And the heaviness continued. The more we tried to maintain a rational friendship, the less our words made sense. I was almost unaware that we had stopped meeting the others in teahouses. We met, only the two of us, in his humble one-room apartment in a compound of indigent households. This was not his home. His home was in a distant suburb. He went home on weekends only.
My visits had started with lightness and pleasure. With each visit my fear of running into one of his neighbors increased.
"You know, I have a wife and a kid," he said one day. Until this point he had never mentioned his family. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, leaving the bamboo chair to me. The only other furniture in the room was a coat rack and a bamboo bookshelf full of old books. He did not seem to know where to put his hands; they kept moving from his lap to the edge of the bed then back to his lap. He said something, but I was not listening. His speech came out roughly with breath between them.
"I like you," I said. I had not thought of saying these words; they were said of themselves, without me knowing their exact meaning. All at once the street noise outside the window turned loud as thunder; inside the small room was dead silence.
His hands stilled. Then he stood up, slowly walked to the window. He stood there watching the busy traffic and the hurried pedestrians outside. I stared at his wide back, holding my head high.
He moved again. He walked to the closed door, each step echoing my heart beat. He grabbed the coat rack and started to shake it. The aged wooden rack made a cracking sound as if it could not bear his strength. He let go. Then he grabbed the iron door bolt and slid it back and forth, letting a vast echo of Ping Ping Ping Ping noise rub on my raw heart. I waited and said nothing, felt nothing. I was aware of my emptiness for the first time.
He stopped playing with the bolt and turned to face me, his gaze delirious and wild. Before I could react, he was standing over me. He pulled my face up with both hands and pressed his lips rudely on mine.
I closed my eyes, shivering. Within seconds, he erased all other men from my memory.
As I did not anticipate his sudden move, I did not anticipate his sudden cessation. Is that it? I opened my eyes confused.
"I have a wife and a kid," he said, almost inaudibly.
I walked out, my body rigid. The only sensation in me was the touch of his hands and lips. He had touched me.
The following weekend he didn't go home. In a suburban woods where no one else could see us, we sat shoulder to shoulder. At a pause of my own happy voice, I noticed that he seemed muted by something. At my next pause he had moved away from me a few inches. I continued talking and he moved a little more. When he stopped, he was more than a foot away. Puzzled, I stood up and walked over to him.
"No please," he said. His arms held his knees.
"What's the matter? Are you all right?"
"I'll be all right if you stay a foot away from me."
"Why? Are you not happy to be with me?"
"I am . . . my mind is . . . my body is not . . . "
I stared at him, completely lost. That was when he started to laugh madly. "Are you really twenty-five?" He asked when his laughter finally came to a stop.
But I really hadn't any idea. My parents never talked about it school never taught it books never mentioned it, so where could I have gone to learn it?
This was what I had learned:
In the fourth year of my country life, my mother increased the frequency with which she wrote me, urging me to return to the city and take the job she had arranged along with her "backdoors" to make my return legal. I had witnessed the escape, through various legal and illegal channels, of almost all the city inserts. Old Brother had left first. He was a man I respected. He never made fun of me although sometimes, meeting on a market day, he would look at me as if I were a lamb that had gone astray.
But my faith kept me in the village. I stayed in the country even after the Gang of Four, deemed the culprit of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, was arrested in October 1976, following Chairman Mao's death in September. My father contacted his old friend, the local county's Party Secretary, who came to my village himself with the mission to convince me to return home. I patiently explained to him my reasons for staying. As he was leaving he looked like he did not know whether to laugh or cry. He, in turn, sent his subordinate, the district director whose jurisdiction included the commune of my village. Not wasting his saliva, he simply ordered me to go home. That angered me. I asked him if I could make him believe my revolutionary determination by writing a vow with my own blood. He also left.
In desperation, my mother found a new weapon: a newspaper story about Zhu Kejia, a nationally publicized hard-working insert whom I sought to emulate as my role model. She clipped it out and sent it to me with a short note, "see for yourself, my daughter, that your worshipped Zhu Kejia is in jail now. He was a fake model made by the Gang of Four. He left the Kawa village long ago and had been doing politics in the provincial government yard all these years. Now, do you still want to root yourself in the country?"
I crumpled the letter, feeling numb for hours, and then cried behind my door.
From that day I stopped working in the fields, stopped teaching the night-school I had started for the peasants (not that they cared), and stopped talking to people. I neither returned to the city nor wrote letters home. I was in a trance when the news broke that the entrance exams for university would soon be given for the first time in eleven years.
For two months I buried myself in textbooks and scored number one on the exam for my district. I was admitted into the best university in the province. That's how I ran away from the village after those four long years. It was surprisingly easy to pull my feet out of the dirt there. Digging dirt, carrying pig manure, and eating sweet potatoes every meal. I did not miss it. Instead that whole existence became the source for prolonged new nightmares.
So that is how one's belief is broken.
From then on at home whenever a TV screen extolled the virtues of a communist martyr from Before Liberation, my younger sister and I would snicker while our mother wiped her tears. Five years my junior my sister was a different generation. She laughed more than I. She had never gone to the countryside or held the belief that I had so painfully lost. I envy her, not burdened by a black hole in the heart.
It was more bothersome still when I realized that during the years of false belief I was more content. Which is better: to have a false belief and be content, or to break the false belief and feel empty?
Did my persistent pursuit for a higher purpose stagnate my sexual sense? Eight years after my false pregnancy from hugging a boy, my confusion remained.
An autumn night he wrote on his table calendar: "Could you please stay tonight?" It was past midnight and his walls were thin. I panicked. Unknown desire and a sense of danger hit me with hot and cold waves all at once. How would he do it? Exactly how would he do it to me?
"No." I wrote back.
"Yes!" He wrote.
"No!" I wrote again.
He tore the calendar page to pieces and pointed to the door. I wanted to kiss him good night but he pushed me away. For the first time he did not walk me home. I dragged myself through empty night streets in the cold wind all alone.
For several days we did not see each other, nor did we talk on the phone as usual. At work and at home my mind was occupied with only one thing. I must think it through before seeing him again. During these days the picture of a hanging lifeless body appeared in my mind more than once. In my college, a woman schoolmate hanged herself on a fourth floor window of our dorm, because she was pregnant by her boyfriend. She left a note to say she had no face, no will to live any more. I needed a reason for not killing myself, and for facing others.
I found an anatomy textbook in the city's public library and sat in a remote corner behind bookshelves to read it. All the time my face burned and my heart beat like a drum. Whenever someone passed by I covered the book with a newspaper. The book actually did not tell me directly what I was looking for. But my woman's instinct belatedly woke up as I stared at the picture of the naked male body with all the labels and arrows. At that point, I fell into a dilemma. Should I agree to his request? I had been told that an unbroken hymen was the most precious treasure. But why was it so precious? Because it was required to be unbroken when you marry? What if you loved someone you couldn't marry?
I then considered from a different angle. What would be the benefit of not giving myself to him? I would become a spinster. A spinster is another name for a crank. I didn't want to be a crank. Besides, an unbroken hymen would do no good to my physical health. I read in a Japanese novel that, if a woman didn't get married by thirty, black spots would grow under her eyes. Where else had I also read that a woman's body would wither without a man?
That was how I convinced myself—love and health, two very good reasons.
What I did not expect was that it turned out to be so simple; so simple that I had not even had the time to feel anything. We spent our first night in a close friend's apartment, while she went to stay in a nearby hotel because a marriage certificate was required for a couple to share a room. We lay side by side on a bamboo mat, completely dressed and fully prepared to jump up at any minute, long after the dark, long after the human steps outside the door could no longer be heard.
So much for my precious hymen— it was pierced through with just a pinch. A significant moment passed with no significant feeling. I knew, however, from this moment on, that things could never be reversed. Sadness overwhelmed me while my arms wrapped around his back and my breasts pressed tightly to his chest. When he finally turned on the light and saw fresh red spots on the mat, he seemed in a daze. He wanted to wipe up the blood but I was quicker to turn off the light. Our bodies were again intertwined as one and I soon forgot everything else. The last thing I remembered before falling into sleep was that he was still in me.
I woke up before dawn. Gray moonlight shed in a long thin wedge through the slightly cracked curtains. I pulled the cool sheet up to cover my naked body and turned aside to look at his rough profile. He was soundly asleep. An immense satisfaction filled my heart.
"I love you," I whispered, wanting to say these unspeakable words before he woke.
"I love you too." He replied with such clarity, without opening eyes, that it startled me. It was the first—and also the last—time we said this to one another. In our dialect the word "love" has an embarrassing sound, and no sane person would speak it in daylight.