Chinese Stories in English
So she’d had to leave the city, the city that had suddenly become so brutal. But she’d never expected to end up settling down in a small town in Louisiana. The house she’d just bought was built on an oval-shaped hill. She could see both the sunrise and the sunset from the bedroom window. She had a stable job. She had a reliable husband. At the age of thirty-nine, she’d given birth to a lively and endearing son. Her only worry now was that the child might grow up unable to communicate with her in her native language.
She’d been twenty-five years old when she entered the city that would abruptly become so brutal. It was a "complete" accident. She’d thought that for a long time. Her body and mind had undergone obvious changes after she gave birth to her son, though. Her thinking about a lot of things had changed along with them. She was neither as absolutely sure nor as arbitrary as she had been. Now she could think it “seemed like” she’d come to the city by random chance.
One day she and a colleague at the university had started talking about how the city was booming. He mentioned that a company in the city had asked him to be on the lookout for an English translator. He’d asked whether she knew anyone suitable she could recommend. She’d recommended herself.
The company’s boss interviewed her briefly over the phone and was obviously quite satisfied with her. And she couldn’t complain about the compensation package he offered for the position. During their second brief telephone conversation, they agreed on when she would report for work.
The night before she left, she rode a bicycle aimlessly around the familiar streets of her hometown. She was imagining the faraway city and looking forward to her future life there. She was very excited. For years she’d been thinking about leaving the town where she’d always lived. She’d been born in that ancient town, spent all her student days there, and then embarked on her career there.
She’d felt deeply bored right from her first day at work. Not bored by the job itself, but bored from working in that town that she’d never left.
She didn’t even have any especially close friends in that town she’d never left. She liked to be alone. When she was alone, she felt free and fulfilled. In contrast, a bustling crowd would make her feel lonely. This was probably a scar left on her life by her father's sudden death. He’d died in a car accident. On an absolutely meaningless trip. It was a "complete" accident. She’d always thought so. She’d never change her mind about that. The fluke accident had almost made her lose the courage to go on living.
She’d loved her father. She remembered that when she was a child, her father would often go out for criticism sessions, either to criticize others or to be criticized by others. Before leaving, he always held her on his knee and hummed the "Volunteer Army Song" for her, a song she couldn’t get enough of. For her, such intimate scenes held the entire meaning of the word "intimacy".
And she remembered that her mother seemed to deeply dislike that kind of intimacy between her and her father and would impatiently urge him to leave quickly. He seemed to be seriously afraid of her mother, but her mother always said that things were in fact just the opposite. She didn’t know why her parents’ relationship was so tenuous. She hadn’t found the time to ask that question before that preposterous car accident happened. Her father’s sudden death almost took away her courage to live.
She felt a strong impulse to live whenever she thought of her father. She was particularly envious of his opportunities to travel to faraway places when he was young. Yes, he’d been to North Korea. He’d became well-known as a war correspondent there. Many of his reports had encouraged and excited the young people of that time.
Her mother had been one of those young people. (She’d only been a middle school student at the time). She remembered her mother saying that everything she knew about that war had come from her father's reports. At the very first she’d thought her mother said that as a compliment to her father, but later she felt it was a complaint. She didn’t know what on earth had happened between her parents. She loved her father. This love made her unable to understand her parent’s relationship.
She was particularly envious of her father’s opportunities to travel far away. She remembered that he had once explained the rationale of "the journey of human life" to her. He said that the destination and the terminus are often not the same, and sometimes the destination is the more distant of the two.
Many of his statements were too esoteric for her. For example he said: "Sometimes the destination is closer than the terminus, but sometimes the destination is farther away." For another example, he said: "A life without a destination may have the most distant destination." It was only when she walked past his lifeless body that she suddenly understood the meaning of a lot of the things he’d said, including the sentence that had mystified her so much when she decided to take the test for admission to the English Department. "English was the language of an enemy, and now it is the language of a friend," he’d said. "That’s life: it seems that everything has happened, and it seems that nothing has."
She wanted to have a most distant destination, too. She wanted to spend a lifetime in the process, to spend her lifetime in the process, to go far, and farther, and farthest. Living in the town she’d never left, she was deeply tormented by fear. She was always worried she might die suddenly. As she saw it, dying in a town she’d never left would be the same as never having lived.
So she chose to leave. The evening before she left, she rode a bicycle aimlessly around the familiar streets of her hometown. She remembered her father. She believed his soul was pleased to be guiding her, or following close behind. She believed his instinctual longing for faraway places was a blessing and a compliment for her.
Three days later, she was sitting in an office on the twenty-fifth floor of the tallest building in the center of this city. But the excitement that accompanied her new job passed quickly because she soon discovered that her status in the company actually wasn’t really "translator": Her job seemed to be simpler than "translation", but when she started doing it, it was obviously more complicated than "translation".
When her boss introduced her to people, he called her a "female secretary". She’d never thought much of the profession of "secretary". And she definitely didn’t understand why he added her self-evident gender in front of the "secretary". Yes, she gradually got used to this status of hers. However, the new identity had greatly reduced her enthusiasm for this new city and her expectations for the future. She started to feel that, even though she’d left the town she’d never left before, she hadn’t gone very far.
She was slowly getting a bit fat. Her English was gradually getting a bit rusty. But she picked up Cantonese quickly. When she’d begun using Cantonese to communicate with customers, her boss had praised her expansively and said that her language skills greatly improved the company's competitiveness.
She didn’t think this sort of praise was realistic. She had a strong sense of hierarchy as far as language was concerned: English was at the highest rung on her language ladder. She didn’t let on about how much she missed English or how uneasy she felt about the decline in her English proficiency. She turned English into a part of her private space.
She kept her copy of "Sense and Sensibility" in her office desk drawer. During the short breaks after lunch, she’d shut the office door and casually read a few pages of the text she was already familiar with. That was usually the happiest time of her day.
The words would sometimes carry her back to her college days. The hardcover copy of Austin’s novel had been a birthday present from a foreign teacher during junior year. Her classmates thought that the young British fellow from Brighton must like her. Later, though, he’d married her best friend in the class. This personal experience sometimes made her feel that life is like a novel.
She often received letters from friends and students in the first few months after she came to the city. In the letters the students wrote in English and used a lot of vocabulary she’d already become unfamiliar with (which reinforced her uneasiness about her declining English skills). They all said they missed her. Her English grammar class had been the most popular course with students in the university where she taught.
At the same time, the students also said that everyone admired her ability and courage. She’d resigned from a secure position to travel alone to seek her fortune in a city which, they’d heard, had been constructed with legendary suddenness. This had created no small waves in the university where she’d taught.
She was ashamed because her new job didn’t actually require any special abilities and absolutely didn’t require any courage. Part of her job was things like receiving and reply to letters, answering the phone and making return calls, and categorizing incoming and outgoing documents. She didn’t like that part of the job.
But there was another part of the job she disliked even more, because she didn’t like socializing. Her boss wanted her to go along every time he went out to eat with customers. He said it was one of her duties. She couldn’t refuse, but she really didn’t like it. She didn’t like the way they talked or the content of their conversations. Once, a customer crowded right up in front of her and started talking about how beautiful she was. Her boss was right there and said humbly, "No, not really, your secretary is much more beautiful." She felt like they were talking about some commodity. She thought that was gauche.
She thought that was gauche. She got up from the table and went up on the stage. The lyrics of a popular English song were rolling across the huge TV screen. She picked up the mic. Her voice surprised all the people there.
Many years later, one evening as she was anxiously waiting for her husband to come home from Boston, she suddenly realized it was her voice that day that had changed the rest of her life. She was a little regretful. She shouldn’t have been so rash. She didn’t know why she’d been so rash.
Her husband got home a lot later than planned that day. He said there’d been an accident on the highway near the airport. His car had been stuck there for a long time.
At the time she didn’t think what she’d done was rash. She got a lot of compliments and explained that she’d inherited her voice from her mother. Right away she regretted mentioning her mother because she didn’t want to answer any questions about her. She didn’t want to tell people that her mother, encouraged by the reports that her father sent back from the front, had herself later joined the army and been a singer in a unit entertaining the troops; she didn’t want to tell people that her parents’ life together had been so unhappy that they’d fought every day, usually over trivial things; she didn’t want to tell people that her mother had finally divorced her father when she was a freshman in college and immediately married a man who’d been her senior officer back when she was in the military, and moved to another city.... She didn’t want to answer any questions at all about her mother.
The evening of the second day after she’d come down off the stage, her boss invited her to go to a revolving restaurant for dinner with just him. She was really tired and not interested, but she didn’t say no. As usual her boss let her do the ordering – he always said he liked the dishes she selected.
After she ordered, her boss suddenly started talking very seriously about his wife. He said he was more and more disgusted with her. She did not want to get into that kind of conversation. She looked away and focused on two of the wait staff standing by the door whispering to each other. But her boss kept on talking. He said his wife had no taste. She really wanted to remind him, "You don’t have any taste, either." But she didn’t. She kept staring at the two servers.
She listened as her boss talked very seriously about how he hadn't slept with his wife for a long time. She turned to look at him and saw that he was staring at her. At the time she didn’t have a clue why he wanted to talk to her about such a thing, or why he was staring at her so openly.
She’d already become familiar with many of the company's secrets and had already lost her enthusiasm and respect for her job, but she still respected a lot of things about her boss. This respect made her overlook the import of what he was saying. A few months later, when she no longer had any respect for him, the import of his words finally struck her. It was undoubtedly a conspicuous mile marker of her life in the city.
The following weekend, her boss again invited her to dinner with just him. He said he wanted to talk to her about her recent work. She still wasn’t interested in the least, but still didn’t say no. For years afterward she deeply regretted that she hadn’t turned him down, because he’d started talking about his wife again even before all the food had been served. He said she’d never cared about him. He said he’d never liked her. She really wasn’t interested in other people's family lives. "Why are you telling me that?" she asked. "What does it have to do with work?"
"You don’t know?" Her boss looked directly at her.
"I don’t want to know," she said quietly.
Her boss grabbed her hand. "I like you," he said impulsively. "You should know that."
She took her hand back. She thought about leaving but hesitated and didn’t act on impulse. Her boss began an interminable explanation of his feelings. She didn’t say a word. Nor did she eat anything. He was drinking a lot and finally couldn’t stand up. She helped him out of the restaurant.
He got agitated and said he didn’t want to go home. He said he had no home. He said he wanted to go to the office, that the office was his home. She was quite disconcerted. She’d never been to the office so late at night, but she was worried about her boss.
She hailed a taxi. The driver wasn’t willing to take them. At first he said they’d mess up his cab, and later he said he had to go get his wife and daughter. She ignored him and jumped into the cab.
She stuffed a large bill into the driver’s hand when they got out. She told him to keep the change. She noticed that there were tears in his eyes. While he’d been driving he’d talked continuously about how his wife and daughter hadn’t been home for two days and he wanted to go look for them.
She walked her boss into the building, into the elevator and into the office. She helped him to the couch. He mumbled that he wanted a drink of water. She gave him a glass. He took it but only sipped at the water. He acted like it was painful to swallow. She crouched down and looked at him blankly, not knowing what to do. Suddenly he vomited. He threw up all over her. The pungent odor filled the office.
That was the first time she spent a night in the office. Her boss shed a lot of tears that night. He said he’d wanted to divorce his wife for a long time, and that their emotional separation was between him and his wife and had nothing to do with her. But, he said, the first time he’d heard her voice on the phone was like being struck by lightning. He’d known that one day he’d be captivated by her. He also mentioned her amazing singing voice. He said that her singing had changed him completely and instantaneously. He’d felt he should start a new life and should start it immediately.
It was a sleepless night. She thought about her father. She whispered to him in the warm dimness of the night and the thick aroma of alcohol. She talked to him about his terminus and his destination. She suggested that his field reports might have been his destination. But her father said he’d never been satisfied with those reports of his. He said that, compared to the things he’d seen, the things he wrote were like a glass of plain water.
She loved her father. His place in her heart hadn’t been replaced until her new life started, when she’d given birth to her child at age thirty-nine. That sleepless night, she’d excitedly affirmed that her love belonged to her father alone. She’d vowed to love him with a woman's purest spirit. She made that promise silently while her boss brutally broke into her body.
She never urged her boss to divorce his wife. She knew she couldn’t be his wife. To be precise, she didn’t want to be his wife. She looked on her private life with him after that night as just a part of her job. Since her workload had increased, she felt that an immediate increase in salary would be natural.
After that sleepless night, however, she began to despise her situation. She wanted to leave, not only to leave the company, but to leave the city as well. She even wanted to leave her motherland and her mother tongue. She had another language. That was her capital. English has brought her vainglory, but she was sure it could also bring her tangible benefits. She believed she could find a life she’d love in a language different from her native tongue.
She began to look for reasons to avoid the endless stream of dinner parties. She wanted time and space for herself. She wanted to write, like she had in her student days. She had the asset of a strong will and the courage to do so.
When she went away on business trips with her boss, she often cited fatigue as a reason to avoid the banquets in the evening. She hid out in her hotel room enjoying the peace and quiet, enjoying the time away from work and away from her boss. Those were the only times she wasn’t a "female secretary." Losing the identity she hated made her feel full and rich.
She seemed to have her farthest destination. She’d sit on the hotel room carpet, spreading out lazily, and put some of her feelings down on paper. Sometimes she wrote about her conversations with her father. "I am increasingly dissatisfied with my own life." That’s the kind of thing she told her father. She envied him for going so far when he was young. She said she’d like to go far away, too. She wanted to go even further.
One day she forgot to put her notebook away and collapsed on the sofa, sound asleep. She wasn’t aware of her boss when he got back to the room. He shook her awake and she noticed out of the corner of her eye that he was clutching her notebook in his hand. She reached out to take it back from him. She didn’t expect it at all when he had the nerve to hit her savagely in the face twice with the notebook.
She was outraged by the sudden brutality. But she immediately calmed down. "Give it back to me." She said it calmly. He didn’t do what she wanted, and instead tore the notebook to shreds in a fit of exasperation.
"I'm so good to you, so what are you so dissatisfied with?" Her boss spoke in angry frustration. Then he threw the shreds of the notebook into the toilet.
She held back her tears with all her strength. She reminded herself that she absolutely could not shed tears in front of a man for whom she harbored no respect.
"Who is he?" Her boss grabbed her hair and shouted the question.
She didn’t answer. She closed her eyes like she did whenever he was lying on top of her body. She refused to communicate with him through her eyes. She didn’t want to see. She refused to see.
Her boss shook her head violently. "You are so in love with him," he roared. "But you never said you love me." He paused and then screamed, "You never loved me!”
She knew that her boss could only get a few simple words of the English she’s used to record her feelings. She didn’t want to explain, though. She didn’t want to tell him that the “you” she said she “loved” in the notebook was her father. She didn’t say anything. She believed that only silence would help her get past this sudden brutality.
Her boss shoved her down onto the couch and rushed out. After a long time she changed her position. She buried her head in her hands. Her thoughts were fragmented. She thought about the pleasant days she’d spent in this suddenly brutal city. She thought of her gloomy future. She especially worried about herself. She didn’t know what to do.
Around midnight, she once again began to worry about her boss. She didn’t know if he might get into an accident. She even regretted a little that she hadn’t answered his “Who is he?” question. She had another sleepless night.
Her boss didn’t return until the next morning. Some friends brought him back. They said he’d been drunk the previous evening. She had them put him down on the bed. She covered him with a large towel. He slept the entire day. She stayed beside him the whole time.
Her thinking was much clearer. She’d wait for him to wake up and then immediately tell him she wanted to leave. And she did tell him. He said that would be absolutely impossible. He said that her leaving would be tantamount to killing him. He said he would therefore kill her first.
She left the company week later. She found a small apartment in Blue Wave Gardens. Her boss wasn’t "killed" by her departure. And he didn’t come looking for her to kill her.
Six months later she got a student visa to the United States. She returned to her home town for a visit just before she left. She placed a rose on her father's tombstone. She could still dimly remember some of the things she’d written in her notebook. She repeated her thoughts and her love for him. She even had a very strange premonition. She foresaw that in the future, in a distant place, a car accident was waiting for her, too, which would take her to the terminus of her life and let her meet once again the person she loved the most.
But she hadn’t at all expected to eventually settle down in a small town in Louisiana. She hadn’t at all expected to give birth to a lively, lovable son at the age of thirty-nine. She hadn’t at all expected that she would have such a strong hope that her child would be able to ask her questions in her mother tongue, questions like whether she had a father, and where she’d come from.
2011 中国最佳短片小说，主编王蒙，辽宁人民出版社，第 89 页
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 89
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