Chinese Stories in English
Don't Forget Whose Child You Are
My friend called me the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. Her dumpling-shaped face with its pointy jaw and widely spaced eyes flashed in front of me. The eyes always made her look rather foolish, but she was exceptionally astute. Her voice was like dumplings, too, sweet, soft and gooey. The boss, the chairman, was fascinated by her voice, but other people in the company didn't like her. She was a bit much.
She said: “I haven't seen you in a really long time. I’ve been thinking of you.”
I said: “I’ve been thinking of you, too.” My mouth replied automatically while my mind was thinking of zongzi dumplings, traditional food for the Dragon Boat Festival.
She said: “Let's get together. I’ll treat you to dinner.”
I knew something was up. I said: “You don’t have to.”
She said: “Yes, I do, for sure. I’ve got some things I want to talk to you about.”
We agreed on a time and place. I took money with me when I went because I really didn't intend to let her pay. No one wanted to owe her a favor, so you can imagine what kind of person she was.
The place we’d agreed on was in a building that had just been constructed. It was the tallest building in the city, with a revolving restaurant on the top floor modeled after the Shanghai Oriental Pearl. The wait staff consisted of long-legged, thin-waisted girls wearing cheongsams with padded breasts – a eyeful of scenery. It was like you were in a big city and you could see the whole thing from there. One couldn't help but think about the vagaries of life, history and whatever!
She hadn't arrived yet. She used to dress like these young women, in terms of fashion, I mean. Her eyebrows were always meticulously trimmed, thin and gently arched. She certainly wore eyeshadow, but not too much, because otherwise her eyes wouldn’t be so glowing. And her waist, even after she’d obviously just had a baby, was clearly bound up fiercely and with strength. She went to work every day with her chest thrust forward so that her male colleagues couldn't help but keep looking at her, increasing their dislike for the boss who kept her around.
Now she came rushing in, obviously dispirited, fanning her face with a handkerchief. She wore no makeup on her face, or perhaps only a couple of quick daubs. If you want to know whether a woman is strong or not, look at her makeup. Makeup won’t do for a woman who wants to be strong.
She apologized first thing and said there was a traffic jam outside. I was wondering if she’d come late on purpose. When she was feeling complacent and someone invited her out, her practice had always been to arrive little late and then apologize. Wouldn’t she be the same way now?
She started talking about her child right away. I used to be in education and my husband was still a school principal. She said: “I want to tell you something about Bonita.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Talking about her child’s problems would be easy – I for sure couldn’t have handled it if she’d wanted to talk about her own difficulties.
There was a time when people in the company called her “Second Boss” because her relationship with the boss was atypical. Back then, whatever she said carried more weight than orders from several assistant chiefs, and everyone said she was going to be promoted to that rank. A request for promotion had been made but not yet approved. As a state-owned enterprise, promotions had to be approved by the National Development and Reform Commission, as well as our organization’s own departments, and each request had to be followed by copies of any complaints filed against the person. At one time the boss had wanted her to be assistant chief of the company’s Singapore Division but it wasn’t approved. Her child's problems couldn’t be that troublesome, could they?
I said: “Don’t ask too much from a child. Let them grow naturally, like trees.”
She said: “I won't have my child lose right at the starting line. Bonita is an exceptional child, superior both academically and in terms of her character.” That made me feel uncomfortable. If you think about it, all mothers feel that way about their children. My goose bumps started to recede.
I said: “Yes, your child certainly is exceptional. I held her in my arms when she was little, so I know!”
She said: “I can't let her go the way I did. She must be an exceptional person. A crane is a crane, and a chicken is a chicken.”
I interrupted her: “What’s the problem?” I was referring to the child.
She said: “There is a problem, and it’s not small. Some problems can be a real hassle if they’re not nipped in the bud.” The following narrative was a bit chaotic. One moment it was about events and the next about feelings, but I finally got it. The problem was the selection of section leader for her section at school.* Her child had applied and my friend had had high hopes for her.
“And what happened?”
She said: “That’s what I want to talk to you about. The teacher was unfair. What kind of democratic election was that?” With that, she started to cry. Wiping away her tears, she continued: "You see, I'm too fragile now. Bonita was only three votes short. Do you know what those three votes were? After school the other child invited classmates to go to KFC to get their votes, and half the class went. If it wasn’t for that dirty trick, Bonita would’ve been ahead by over twenty votes. And they call that a democratic election.”
I laughed. “Kids.”
She said: "Don't laugh. They haven't gone out into society yet. They just started elementary school. It was their first lesson in democracy and that’s what happened. How is that a trivial matter.”
I stopped laughing out of respect for her, but I still didn't take it seriously: Wasn’t it just kids choosing a section leader? What was the big deal?
She said: “I’m not willing to accept it, I can’t let my child suffer such a blow. I’ve been watching her closely these last few days and she hardly talks anymore. She used to yell, ‘Mom, I’m back’ when she came home, but now she comes in quietly. Her face used to be ruddy, you know, a child’s rosy red, like an apple, but now her face is yellow and rusty. She always walks up against the wall to stay out of other people’s way, or if she really can’t avoid them, she smiles at them, an unnatural smile.”
She was pulling me in. This was a mother, and one who’d made careful observations, not only with her eyes, but with her heart. I remembered that when the chairman retired, she tried to avoid others like that, and if she couldn't avoid them, she smiled. That’s how she acted when she saw me at that time. I really wanted to comfort her, but before I could ever say anything, she’d start talking about something else. She’d refused to give anyone a chance to sympathize with her.
Back then she’d told me how satisfactory and rich her life was. She was practicing yoga three times a week, and swimming with her husband on the weekends. She was explaining her sudden weight loss, saying that she was skinnier but healthier.
As I picked up my level of sympathy, I expressed my envy for her current life. I knew that her position had completely fizzled out once the chairman retired – no one would consider his former lover important. I went to the chairman's office one time and knocked on the door, but it was a long time before he opened it and I saw her inside. Her eyes were red and she’d obviously just been crying. She left when she saw me coming in.
The chairman explained: “She came to talk to me about her promotion.”
I said: “Some people in our company are good at filing complaints.”
The chairman said angrily: “They’d complain about anyone I wanted to promote. They’d only stop complaining if I didn’t promote anyone.”
I said quite a bit in response to the chairman’s grievances. I was rather ashamed when I thought about it later, but please believe me, everyone’s hypocritical in front of their boss, especially a boss who’s problematic. Would you be able to tell him that making a pretty woman the chairman's secretary is not a wise move? Nowadays not even the bosses of private companies keep beautiful women around them. Could you tell him that this woman knows very well how to manipulate power for her own personal ends? Or that people under you wouldn’t know if her transmittals were orders from you or just her own views? Could you tell him that people hate the woman and that it all reflects on the boss?
No, you couldn’t. Not only couldn’t you tell him those things, you’d feel compelled to tell him that this woman has a good reputation in the company and great ability, and that she works diligently with no regard for herself. I don't understand why people hate a woman far more than they hate the man who keeps her. Yang Guifei, the famous concubine of Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, is one of the all-time worst criminals, but Xuanzong is considered one of the most distinguished and accomplished emperors.
She had a rosy complexion back then, and she smiled at everyone she saw. Her voice was pleasant as well, like a dumpling, sweet, soft and gooey. People were willing to talk to her and, even though they gossiped about her behind her back, they expressed appreciation and goodwill to her face. They hoped she would convey good feelings about them to the chairman.
Now she sat across from me, talking on and on and then crying. The chairman had already been retired for a number of years and that pain should have healed. It was her child's problem which had triggered her sadness now. She said she wanted to invite the teacher in charge of the child’s section to dinner to talk about it.
I didn't know the teacher, but I did know the school’s principal. Going to see the principal for such a thing seemed a bit much, and even if I did, I couldn’t ask for a favor. The teacher was awesome and what kind of parent wouldn’t have seen that? Besides, was it really so important? I remembered that I’d competed to be section leader when I was a child, but I couldn’t recall how hard I’d fought for it. Later, at class reunions, I’d forgotten who the section leader was. I told her these things and said that she shouldn’t argue with the teacher.
She said: “No, what I care about isn’t the section leader position, it’s that my child was hurt. Bonita is better than that other child, so why did she fall three votes short? Why did he take half the section to dinner?”
I had to go along with what she was saying.
I suspected that the pain had been with her all along. Her child's problem had aroused her memory. Some things can never be forgotten, only covered up, and a gently thrown stone can send out ripples. I tried hard to turn the conversation in another direction. I talked about the style of this building, and how I felt about seeing the city from this bird's eye view.
I asked her what she was doing these days. We rarely saw her at work. She’d moved on from office manager and chairman’s secretary to director of the research department, and she rarely came in to work. The current leader took care of her and had her doing research from outside the office. She had nothing to do with the former chairman anymore, either – a retired leader could no longer help her. He was like a stone, quite naturally cast aside.
She said she was researching education and had read many books about developing talent.
It sounded to me like she was just idling her time away. She hadn’t done yoga for a long time, which could be seen from the shape she was in, and I guessed she hadn’t been swimming much, either. She said she didn’t have the time. Her husband was especially busy and she had to attend to his needs.
At one time I’d been worried that her relationship with the chairman would affect her family. I’d met her husband. He was a well-mannered young man, a mathematics teacher at a university who specialized in "Probability Theory", and people said he was good at it. I wondered if he’d researched the probability that a boss would have a relationship with his secretary.
During the time when she was being attacked at the office, I often saw her and her husband taking walks as a couple. I was happy for her. She was a sensible person who had found a good young man, so she had a stable family life with nothing much wrong. Now she was clutching at her child. I said I’d help and told her not to worry, that I’d treat her child as my own. When we parted she clasped her hands in front of her in the traditional gesture of respect. I could tell that she really was grateful.
I went to see the elementary school principal, who’d been the deputy secretary of the Youth League Committee at the Bureau of Education when I worked there. It’d been rumored that I was going to be sent down to take a principal’s job, and I was relieved when leader chose him instead. I don't like stress in my life. It was just luck when I transferred to my current job from the educational system and had nothing to do with that situation. The principal was surprised by my visit and said enthusiastically: “I’ll do whatever you ask, if I can.”
I told him about Bonita’s problem and said her mother wanted to invite the teacher in charge of her section out to dinner. The principal said: “Forget about the meal. Let me see what I can do.” He phoned the teacher and asked her to come to his office.
I was a little embarrassed that it would seem like I’d come to complain about the teacher. Sure enough, the teacher got a guarded look in her eyes when she heard it was about Bonita’s problem. She stared at me and asked what relationship I had to the child. I said: “Her mother is my colleague.”
The teacher said: “Your colleague has the problem. She came to see me a dozen times about the election for section leader. Is the election significant enough to come and see me again and again?”
I said: “As the child's parent, she’s come to understand something and wants to tell you about it. Have dinner with her. You have your meal and she talks to you, and maybe the problem will disappear.”
The principal said: “Eating a meal’s no big deal. I’ll go with you.”
The teacher said impulsively: “If you want to eat, go ahead. I’m not going!” The teacher's face flushed red and the principal hemmed and hawed.
After she left, the principal guaranteed me: “Go back to your office, and I’ll talk to the teacher again. What’s the big deal about having dinner? This teacher is an excellent one, the backbone of my staff. She’ll definitely listen to me.”
The principal seemed to have overestimated himself. This teacher's stubbornness was surprising. She had a fixed idea about dealing with Bonita’s parent and wouldn’t have dinner with her. She agreed only to talk with her again.
I made it a point to accompany her to the school. Out of respect for me, the principal had arranged for the conversation to take place in a small meeting room. He introduced me to the teacher again, repeating that I was a highly qualified old-timer in the education field, that two generations of my family had worked in education, that my father was a member of the Provincial People's Political Consultative Conference, and so on. The headmaster's words worked – the teacher was cautious and polite towards us.
My friend was polite as well, even a little humble. She spoke slower than usual, her voice low and hoarse. She said, “You’re an outstanding teacher and highly conscientious. We made the right choice at the outset when we selected your section. It’s the top students’ section.” The teacher was rather uneasy and her eyes looked guarded. Sure enough, as soon as my friend started talking about the section’s election, she began to speak more quickly and repeatedly mentioned how excellent Bonita was.
Her voice lukewarm, the teacher said: “All mothers feel their child is excellent. Lots of people are willing to cite their children’s excellence as proof of their own superiority.”
My friend paused a moment before continuing: “Maybe! I’m satisfied that all the children are excellent, but this is also true – Bonita is the best student in the class.”
The teacher interrupted her politely. “The student who got elected is equally outstanding. He’s even better in math and foreign languages. The Education Bureau prohibits us from publicizing student rankings, but if I did, he’d be first in the entire class.”
This obviously surprised my friend and she looked quite suspicious. The teacher went to the staff room and returned with several test transcripts. My friend looked at them and didn’t say anything. I took them and saw that the other child had placed first every time, while Bonita's score was around fourth or fifth. This hit my friend even harder than the section leader election. In my opinion, there’s not much difference between first and fourth place – they’re all good students in the top ten. It wasn’t good enough for her, though. She wanted Bonita to be the best. Her face alternated between red and white while she stared at the transcripts. Eventually she lost her self-control a little, just like when she wasn’t promoted at work. She got flustered and exasperated and felt like everyone was against her.
She said: “Bonita's grades aren’t as good as that classmate’s, but she did a lot of work for the section. I believe it was worthwhile even if it got in the way of her studies. I don’t think that academic performance is the most important thing. What’s important is to cultivate the child’s ability. Encouraging the child to compete for section leader is letting her refine herself from an early age.”
The teacher said: “Refining a child’s talent is good, of course, but they don’t all have to be section leader. If they all compete for section leader in grade school, what’ll happen when they get older? Will they all want to be mayor of the city? Lots of ordinary people live quite well, too, don’t they?
She said: “What are you talking about? What's wrong with a child wanting to get ahead? Isn't it promoting competition?”
The teacher said: “In competitions there are successes and failures. It’s impossible for all to succeed. It’s as important for a child to learn to accept failure as to strive for success.”
She said: "I don't think so. Our generation’s like that, but our children shouldn’t be. And it depends on what kind of failure, too. If it’s a fair competition, of course we can accept the result. But how can we have a child accept the result of an unfair competition? That boy invited half the section out for dinner. Isn’t that getting elected by bribery?!”
The teacher narrowed her eyes, apparently suppressing her emotions. I noted that the principal kept looking at the teacher meaningfully. My friend was too rash to notice such things. She kept on talking about injustices and grievances.
The teacher waited until she’d finished speaking, then told her: “As for inviting the children in the section to dinner, you reported it previously and I investigated. It was your child who first invited her classmates in the section out to eat. She divided the section into three groups and invited twenty-some children each time. She also gave every child in the section a gift. If you want to talk about improper practices, her classmates have their opinions about Bonita Liu. They say she led them astray.
My friend seemed to have been slapped. Her face turned pale in a swoop and she gave me a depressed, pleading look, hoping that I would back her up. I didn't know how to react. She looked away quickly and her face slowly turned red, then swelled up and became as purple as jam. The principal interrupted and asked the teacher to go back to the classroom to maintain order. Then he said that bribery in an election is wrong no matter who does it. Since bribery had occurred here, the original election shouldn’t be counted and another must be held. He said that to save face for me, so I could say I’d accomplished something, although I hadn’t expected it.
The teacher left the room in a snit without saying goodbye. I watched my friend as she calmed down. She hadn't wanted to see the matter end this way. Her child was still a student in that section, after all. I expressed my gratitude to the principal, but my friend lowered her head and didn’t speak, apparently in shock. The principal reached out to shake hands with her and say goodbye: “Feel free to let us know your opinions on the work of our school anytime. We value your insights.”
In my opinion, that was so much BS. But he’d done me a good turn and I’d have to find a way to return the favor. We are a society where people do favors for one another. Bonita treating her classmates to a meal couldn’t be considered wrong – it was the kind of thing that adults had passed on to her.
My friend didn't speak on the way back after we left the school. She kept her head down, deep in thought. I looked at my watch and it was almost time for school to let out. I said, "Go pick up your child. I’ll go on back to the office."
She said: “I have to ask my daughter what really happened.”
As we were about to go our separate ways, we suddenly saw her child standing by the side of the road. She ran over and asked: “What's going on? Why are you here alone? Didn’t I tell you I don’t want you running around just anywhere?”
I walked over to her as well. After all, it’s quite worrisome for a child to be alone on the street. I was also concerned that our visiting the school had made the child's situation worse. There was a shop selling cold drinks not far away. I said: “Don't worry. Let's take a break over there.”
I took them into the shop. The seats were like you’d see on a train. I ordered a cold drink. She insisted on paying, but I wouldn’t let her. I said: “It’s on me today.”
She asked her child: “How come you got out of school so early?”
The child said: “Our teacher was really mad just now and said there’d be no study hall today. She let us go early.” Study hall had also been the time when they went over the answers to their last test.
My friend glanced at me and said: “This teacher is something else.”
The child said: “I don’t know why Teacher was so mad. She left after she told us we could go and was wiping tears from her eyes.”
My friend and I glanced at each other. I thought to myself: “Our trip here today didn’t go very well. We originally wanted to fight for the child, but instead we messed things up. I didn't expect the principal to do give me face like he did, and she didn’t expect the teacher to be so obstinate.
She asked her child: “The teacher said that you gave gifts to all your classmates and asked them out to eat. Did you?”
Bonita said: “Didn’t you want me to give them gifts?”
My friend’s face got purple again. Maybe she’d mentioned gifts casually and had long ago forgotten about it. I hurriedly said: “Buying gifts for classmates is no big deal. Classmates should be friendly to one another.”
She said: “Yes, I had you buy gifts for your classmates. It was so you’d be on good terms with them in general. I didn’t want you to give gifts during an election.’
Bonita said: “Yes, you did. You said, ‘Who’d cast their vote for nothing. Everything in society has a price.’”
"Whop"! She gave her child a slap in the face. It was so loud and unexpected that the people in the shop all looked our way. Some of them stood up, thinking that two adults were fighting.
The child didn't cry, but tears swirled around in her eyes. She’d never seen her mother like this. This mother was a stranger to her.
That’s how she was, apt to do anything when she was flustered. I remembered once when I got back from a trip to attend a promotional event for some new technology and she wouldn’t reimburse my travel expenses. She said she hadn’t known about the event, and any event she didn’t know about was inconsequential and therefore not reimbursable. I was trembling with anger and wanted to quarrel with her, but others pulled me away. They told me her promotion had fallen through again. Some unknown person had made comments to the upper-level leaders about her having an untoward relationship with the chairman. Anyone wanting something from her while she was in a snit would hit a brick wall.
Back then I was disgusted with her, but now here I was helping her. I’d even spent over a hundred yuan to buy cold drinks for her and her child. But the worst of it was, I had to watch her take out her anger on an innocent child. I pulled Bonita over and held her tightly in my arms. I stroked her face where she’d been slapped and said: “Don’t be afraid, it’s okay, it’s okay. Your mother’s just angry with someone else.”
The child eventually cried and snuggled up close to me. My friend also cried an unending stream of tears. She must’ve been remembering her own problems; how innocent she was and how wronged she’d been. She for sure wasn't thinking of the seven or eight mid-level cadres in the company who were waiting for promotions, some of whom had seniority over her and some of whom had better work records. She and the others didn’t get promoted because of the way the upper level departments viewed our group and our company. It was like playing mahjong – if no one was at peace after playing a round, they’d all wasted their time.
She’d come to see me a week after that business trip and told me to turn in a travel expense claim. I said to forget it. She said: “Don't mind me, I was in a bad mood that day.” I considered her apology quite sincere and forgave her. That’s the kind of person I am. Others say I’m simple minded but in fact I understand things well. Since then she’s regarded me as a friend. I know we hear a different beat of the drums, though. I’m not a competitive person and if I do compete, I can accept failure.
Not her. She took her child from my arms and said: “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have hit you. I’m in a bad mood today.” How familiar that sounded. It turns out her mood can influence her family relationships as well as those at work.
I’d heard she burned a batch of office documents the day the chairman left the company. She’d always held on to the official company seal like it was a treasure, but it fell to the floor when she was handing it over to the person taking her place as office manager. The new office manager picked it up from the floor and rinsed it off. Her lust for power had turned into contempt in a flash.
The child was still crying. She’d seen an extremely violent and wicked mother turn back into a mother full of love, and how could she understand the complex mentality of an adult? She threw herself into her mother's arms.
I wanted to give her some advice but didn’t know where to start. Language is pale and weak, which is why the song can only say "When the days are cool, autumn’s here" when in fact it’s not autumn and midsummer hasn’t even fully arrived. If the cicadas haven’t climbed to their highest point yet, there’s naturally no way for them to sing their praises successfully. They’re hiding under some unknown clod of soil, about to suffer the pangs of metamorphosis, and only the soil knows how much anxiety they’re suffering.
I said: “Let's go. Let the child rest up, and you can relax, too.”
She gestured to me, a clenched fist waved in the air to show her indomitable spirit. I admired her for her physical strength. People in the company don't understand why I got close to her, but she’s like a warrior who won't give up until she’s achieved her goal, a spirit which I lack. Now she wanted to transfer this spirit to her child, which would serve her for the rest of her life. I understood and was willing to help her as soon as she told me what she was doing.
I called the principal again after we parted. I talked about her situation and the child's situation. The principal agreed to do a teacher’s job and get the teacher to understand the mood of the child’s parent. The teacher was also a parent and would understand. He said this in a very relaxed manner. The actual result was, after it had been decided to re-do the election, the child they’d originally elected had declined to run. I heard his parents were teachers in the Department of Economics at K University who’d become Ph.D. advisors when they turned thirty. They didn't show up for parent-teacher conferences throughout this process, just had their child write a note stating that he wasn’t interested in the section leader position.
Bonita also wanted to withdraw from the election, too, but my friend told her: “No! We will not withdraw! That student withdrew just to make you withdraw, too. We didn’t do anything wrong, so why should we withdraw? I’ve never shrunk back from anything in my life, just had some bad luck. Don't forget whose child you are! My hope is you’ll be strong and get ahead!”
She came to me again after she’d bucked up the child. She said she wanted to go to the teacher's home for a look. I understood what she meant by “a look”. I said: “That isn't necessary, is it?”
She said: “Yes, it is. Whether the child gets elected or not, we need to have a good relationship with the teacher. She’ll have a huge impact on my child over the next three years. Life will be very uncomfortable for my child if we don’t have a good relationship with the teacher.”
She meant she wasn’t going to see the teacher about the election. Who believed her? I did! She has a kind of aura about her that allows her to lie freely and naturally and make people believe her. I feel our former chairman had been in the same state I was in now. She spoke so sincerely, looking straight at you without blinking, just trust and expectation in her eyes. I’m a woman, but I still couldn't help trusting her just as he had. In a trance, I assented.
I took her to the teacher's home. The principal had told me the address. The teacher was a little surprised to see us and let us into her home reluctantly. It wasn't too spacious inside. It was an old-style three-room condo, smaller than two-room condos these days. The rooms were a mess with stuff spread all over. I felt like there was no place to sit. The teacher picked up the plush toys, back scratchers and expensive Zhongnanhai cigarettes from the sofa, and my friend and I sat down beside each other. The teacher took a wok off a chair, pulled the chair over and sat facing us.
The teacher said nothing and listened to my friend speak. She wasn’t willing to confirm that the other child had withdrawn from the election and just smiled. Despite the smile, which looked friendly, her posture on the chair was guarded and her expression declined to be sociable. It wasn’t too reassuring, I felt.
Before reciting her views on the election, my friend apologized to the teacher for making so much trouble for her. She said it was just her feelings as a mother, looking forward to the healthy growth of her child, and nothing more. She talked about her own experiences again, but without mentioning her failures at the company. She also thanked the teacher and expressed her admiration for her, that kind of stuff. The things she said would’ve impressed both me and her boss, but apparently had no effect on the teacher.
The teacher neither agreed nor argued against her. The smell of something burning wafted in from the kitchen and the teacher hurriedly ran over to turn off the heat, then came back and continued listening. The phone rang, and the teacher answered and said: “You guys take care of Dad for now. I’ll be over in a while.” It would obviously be inappropriate for us to stay, so I glanced at my friend. She was still talking and all I could do was prompt her. She stood up, still talking about Bonita this and Bonita that. The teacher said: “I know what you mean!”
Was that a promise? It could be taken that way, or it could be understood as something else. It all depended on whether the teacher was willing to accept the gifts my friend had brought. The teacher stopped us and asked us to take back all those boxes and bags. There was a box of eggs, two bottles of expensive Drunken Liu Ling Wine and two boxes of Mongolian Cow Deluxe Milk.
My friend said: "They’re nothing. They’re for the old folks in your family."
The teacher said: “You have seniors in your family, too. If you’ve come to look after my seniors, I should look after yours as well. The students in my class have so many parents, if they all came here to look after my elders, it would be too tiring for me to return visits to them all. I hope you understand. I'm almost fifty and don't have all that much energy.”
Her words were rich in implied meaning and had barbs in them. I signaled for my friend to let it go, but she insisted on continuing. She said: “They’re a small gesture of respect.”
The teacher said: “I’ve been a home room teacher for twenty years and have never accepted gifts from parents. You can ask around. If you really want to show your respect, wait until your child graduates. At this time, though, I absolutely will not accept gifts!”
We had no choice but to leave with our tails between our legs and take the gifts with us. The teacher showed us to the stairs and waved goodbye. Her expression was relaxed and kindly, and I knew what she was thinking: It’s over!
The result of the election was: The child who’d withdrawn turned down the unanimous nomination of his classmates. He simply would not participate, even though the students shouted his name repeatedly. Bonita was not elected. Another child was elected by a margin of more than forty votes over her. My friend didn’t tell me that – the principal did.
I didn’t call her when I heard the results. It’d be better if she thought I didn’t know and never would know. It's just that it was impossible not to see her. We worked in the same building every day, after all. It was rather awkward whenever we met – awkward for me to maintain the pretense of not knowing, and awkward for her to deliberately keep it concealed.
Her face was ashen, but when you met she’d pretend to be standing on the sunny side of the street. It made you feel particularly uncomfortable. She’d smile at you kindly, then turn her face and make a little expression that only you could see. It used to be that her expression would melt your heart, but now your heart would just twitch nervously.
She called me six months later told me that Bonita had taken the position of section leader. I was a little surprised. How had my friend settled things with the teacher? I didn’t dare ask, just listened to her talk about how much prestige her child had in the class and how outstanding her accomplishments were. She said: “Bonita’s grades were highest in the class for the year. The principal and teacher met with us and were quite cordial.”
I told her, from the bottom of my heart: “Your Bonita has taken a great stride toward success in life. She’s an outstanding child, as outstanding as her mother!”
She’s not a simple person and can take on a new role as fast as an actor in a play. She could change from ordinary salesperson into office director and chairman’s secretary, so couldn’t she turn around a school exam by sleight of hand? And maybe she could turn around a school election by sleight of hand, too! I’ve seen a lot of exams and a lot of elections. They were all magic tricks, but after all they were adult’s things. Children’s matters shouldn’t be so complicated! I couldn't ask her for details, though. I had to suppress my curiosity.
I saw the principal a few days later. He apologized right off and said he’d done a poor job of the thing I’d asked him to do. Then he said: “That colleague of yours is really OK. She transferred her child to another school. Too bad it’s not one of the “key schools”.
When he saw I was surprised, he said: “Didn’t you know?”
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 318
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from 小说导航 at
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