1. Filial Piety
3. You Say
4. Recounting the Job
5. In the Aftermath
Stories by Lao Ma (Ma Junjie), Page D
laomaruc 的博客, translated from pages cited below
Chinese Stories in English
1. Filial Piety (孝顺)
Having more money is useless; the more you have, the less you can spend.
Don't look at me. That's not something I said. It's something my uncle told me categorically. Is my uncle stupid? Am I? Shit, you're the stupid one! People in my hometown all say the same thing. When I went back there during Chinese New Year last year, two shocking tags had been written in white lime on the wall of the village committee's courtyard. One said “One person's ligature; A whole family's glory”. The other said “Having more money is useless; the more you have, the less you can spend!"
No, no, it definitely isn't a "Village of Crazies" or a "Demented Village." Nor is it a "Wealthy Village" or a "Utopian Village". There're no millionaires in my village, and that's the truth. Let me put it this way: When I went visiting door-to-door during the New Year's celebration, I held a big hundred-yuan bill in my hand to show to folks. It was the first time they'd ever seen that large a banknote. Most of them didn't believe it was real.
I was going to leave one for my uncle, but the old guy said that it was useless and he couldn't spend it. No one could break such a large bill, understand? There was no way to get change. When the villagers saw me, they all said, "Having more money is useless; the more you have, the less you can spend." It sounded like a drill or a secret code. They were afraid I couldn't understand this rustic maxim. They explained it to me as an iron-clad fact.
That's the way it was.
We have this guy in our village, Old Man Song. His wife died young, leaving him to act as both mother and father to raise their two sons to adulthood. The eldest son wasn't too sharp, he'd had encephalitis. In a word, he was a dummy. The youngest son was sharp, and the old man put all his hopes on that boy. This kid really did work hard and became the first university student in our village's history. He lived in the big city from the time he started school until he went to work, and didn't come home very often. People say he became a rich man later and his life was a breeze. He had all kinds of money, and even bank presidents would come to him for a loan. Everything in his house was silver if it wasn't gold, nothing else. Even the toilets were gold-plated.
Old Man Song lived in the country with his dimwit son. No need to say it, their life was really tough. The two of them couldn't go out at the same time because they only had one pair of pants.
The youngest son was quite filial and came for a visit one year. A row of high-class sedans drove up and stopped at the entrance to the village. The road into the village was inadequate and they couldn't drive in. Several people disconnected a car seat and carried the son into his father's home. He was followed by a group of people, four or five of whom were just bodyguards, all were wearing sunglasses and shining gold rings. Some people also carried boxes of things, such as a refrigerator, a washing machine and the like. Old Man Song later stored coal in the refrigerator and pickled veggies in the washing machine because there was no electricity in the village.
That time the younger son only stayed for half an hour. He had no time for a longer visit because he was too busy and had to get to the provincial capital to catch an international flight.
Old Man Song said he hoped the younger son would take his dimwit brother to the city, but didn't say anything about himself. The younger son wouldn't go for it. He said his brother was used to the country after living there all his life and would get sick in the city.
The wealthy son asked his dad if he needed anything, and the old man told him he didn't, except he didn't have enough to eat. The son hadn't even brought a piece of steamed bread with him, which rather disappointed the old man.
When the rich son was about to leave, he gave his father a boxy, thin, very good looking card. He told the old man there was lots and lots of money in that card, enough to buy the whole village and still have a bunch left over. The old man was skeptical. He looked over the tiny card for a while and then reached out and touched his son's forehead. He didn't have a fever, so it didn't seem like he'd been talking gibberish. The son told his father that all he had to do was swipe the card to use it.
Then he was gone. The old man went to the small variety store in the village wanting to buy a bottle of kerosene for his lamp, but no matter how he swiped the card, he couldn't get any money out of it. He brushed it with a brush – no money. He rubbed it against the brick bed – no money. He tried the top of the stove, the door frame, and even the racks in the variety store, but he still couldn't get any money out of that card.
The old man was on his deathbed. The card-swiping incident had caused a sensation in the village. The vast majority of the villagers thought that his son was either a con man or a mental case.
A few people said that this gewgaw couldn't be used in the village but could be used in the big city. Old Man Song had never been to the city, not even when he was young. Now he couldn't even get to the outhouse without his nitwit son propping him up. How could he go to the big city just to buy some food? His neighbors said that if his youngest son could've just left him thirty or fifty yuan to start with, he wouldn't have made his father sick from anxiety.
It wasn't easy finding anyone to help him in the village because of his son's reputation for having money. Some well-intentioned villagers occasionally gave him some tofu or steamed buns or porridge or something, and the old man had to get by on that for half a year.
Then Old Man Song died. No one knows how his younger son found out about it, but anyway he came back to the village. There was a huge show on the day of the funeral, and it really opened the villagers' eyes. Loads of fish and meat, expensive cigarettes and wine, and other offerings were enough to fill a large carriage. There were fireworks all day, and paper houses, cars and horses to burn....
Right at the end, the younger son wrote a check for ten thousand yuan in front of the villagers, then lit it with a lighter and burned it on his father’s grave. They say it was so the old man could take it with him to spend in the underworld.
2. Cola (可乐)
The province’s Governor came to the city on a research and investigation tour. His agenda included chairing a symposium to be attended by young cadres in the municipal government. Ah-Ming, a recent college graduate, was fortunate enough to be selected to attend. He sat excitedly at the oval conference table.
A microphone, a name placard and a bottle of cola were on the table in front of each participant.
During the symposium, everyone wanted to be first to speak. They raised their hands eagerly, hoping to say a few words and make a good impression on their bosses. Because of time constraints, Ah-Ming didn’t get his wish.
Other guests had grabbed the speaking opportunities, so when the time came for the meeting to end, Ah- Ming still hadn’t felt the need to wet his throat. When the host announced the end of the meeting, without thinking about it, Ah-Ming picked up the bottle of cola that had been placed on the table for him and casually stuffed it into his pocket.
The Mayor, who was accompanying the Governor on the tour, took note of what he’d done. He frowned and asked his secretary who that boy was. The secretary replied that he was a college student who’d just been assigned to work in the Foreign Economic Commission.
After the Governor’s tour ended, the Mayor convened a special meeting for committee, office and department heads to convey important directives issued during the Governor’s inspection and to briefly summarize what had been done to make him feel welcome on this visit. In his summary, the Mayor pointed out some deficiencies in the reception process. He singled out an instance where a new university student in the Foreign Economic Commission had participated in the symposium but had not followed the rules. He was greedy and petty, and had pocketed a beverage without regard to the image that presented.
The leaders of the Foreign Economic Commission had lost face. Back in the office they sought out Ah-Ming and tactfully reminded him to pay attention to all the small details in his work for the organization. They told him how the Mayor had criticized him for taking the bottle of cola, but played the matter down.
Ah-Ming felt wronged and tried to explain his actions to the Commission Chairman. The Chairman waved him off and said, "Forget it, forget it. Just pay more attention from now on."
The more Ah-Ming thought about it after he got home, the angrier he got. “That bottle of cola was intended for the participants, and there wouldn’t be a problem if I’d drunk it there, right? So drinking it then was acceptable, but taking it to drink later was greedy and petty and ignorance of the rules. What is this rule, and what’s the logic of it?”
In college Ah-Ming had developed a bad habit of being obstinate, and this habit came to the fore now. He spent that night writing a letter to the Mayor to explain from different angles the reasonableness of his behavior.
The Mayor hadn’t known Ah-Ming from Adam, but as he read the letter, he got angrier and angrier. He wrote comments on the letter and made heavy underlines beneath some of the letter’s key words. The letter was transferred forthwith to the organization’s departments and the Foreign Economic Commission. The leaders were quite embarrassed and decided to speak to Ah-Ming separately.
The more they talked to Ah-Ming, the more confused he became, and the more he felt that he had a serious problem. He began to write papers, one after another, examining and explaining his position over and over to his co-workers in the office. Time after time he used his salary to buy carton upon carton of cola and invited everyone to drink some. He also donated blood several times. He was hoping to prove that he was neither greedy nor cheap, and still less avaricious or selfish.
It was all to no avail. Ah-Ming lost hope, because at various meetings within the origination, the "cola incident” was always held up as a negative example, albeit without naming names. It was cited to tell all cadres, and especially the young ones, the meaning of governing for the people and being incorruptible in the administration of public affairs.
Ah-Ming decided to file an appeal, but he could find no evidence that he was being persecuted. No one had deducted anything from his salary and no one had stopped him from working. But he always felt that something was wrong. He spent several years being uncomfortable and depressed.
The next government restructuring, he volunteered for a grassroots position. The leadership approved his request.
Ah-Ming relaxed when he was assigned to a poor village to work as an assistant to the village chief. On the day he started work, he bought a cart-load of "Coca-Cola" in the city. When he arrived in the village he let everyone, man, woman, young or old, drink as much as they wanted.
A month later, Ah-Ming received a public criticism, assertedly for “excessive eating and drinking” at the grassroots level. He knew in his heart that, while the "eating" part fell short of the mark, the evidence of "excessive drinking" was incontrovertible.
3. You Say (你说)
The young fellow bowed quite properly to the examiners sitting on the rostrum. Then he calmly and carefully sat down on the chair.
With a well-prepared smile, he tried his best to give the experts an impression of relaxed confidence. The examiners in charge of the interview all had their heads bowed reading the application and resumé they’d been given in advance. Maybe the silence was a bit long and the young fellow was not mentally prepared, but his smile grew stiff, his leg began to twitch at high frequency, and beads of sweat shone on his forehead and neck. He tried pushing down on his knee with his hand, to no avail. His leg carried his arm with it and started it twitching in resonance. He jerked his hand away from his knee and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
"What’s your name?" The questioning finally began.
"You say, you say, my name is Fang Fangfang." His voice trembled slightly.
"Don't be nervous, young man,” one of the examiners comforted him. “I didn't say your name is Fang Fangfang." The other examiners immediately laughed.
"You say, you say, you didn't say it. I said it. My name is Fang Fangfang." The young man was somewhat anxious.
"Your name’s quite unusual. What does it mean?" another examiner asked.
"You say, you say, my dad is a stutter...."
"I didn't say your dad was a stutterer." The examiner defended himself immediately.
"You say, you say, it was me that said my dad is a stutter." The young man quickly ended the misunderstanding.
The examiners all happened to look at one another and through their eyes immediately reached a tacit agreement: This young man Fang Fangfang was obviously his father's son, a fact shown specifically by his habitual expression "you say, you say".
"Okay, okay, you say, you say, say your positive points compared to the other applicants applying for this position." An older examiner sitting in the middle of the podium said this seriously.
"You say, you say, you say...." Fang Fangfang politely kicked the ball back.
"Since you're the one applying, you should of course be the one to state your positive points. Why would you have me say them?" Titters spread unevenly around the examiners' podium.
"You say, you say, I'd say if I knew." Eventually the young man took up his end of the discussion. "I have many advantages. First, I have a master's degree with advanced studies in broadcasting. Second, I'm in good health and can lift 150 pounds of grain. Third, I have wide-ranging experience. I’ve seen a lot, and have also met a lot of famous people; I've had my picture taken with the county magistrate; I've shared a meal with the stationmaster of the county radio station; I've listened to the reports of Professor Autumn Rain Yu, and asked for his advice in person...." Fang Fangfang's on/off switch had been located, and he broadcast with great fluency the introductory speech that he'd recited to himself several times.
"Wait, wait!" The Chief Examiner interrupted the young man. "You say, you say, you've attended graduate school. May I ask which school?"
"You say, you say, I was a graduate student at Fudan University in Beijing."
"I didn't say you were a student at Fudan University in Beijing. You said that you were a graduate student at Fudan University in Beijing, right? Are you mistaken? Tell us, when did Fudan University move to Beijing from Shanghai?" The Chief Examiner raised his voice.
The young fellow’s face paled. He began to pant and his hands patted his thighs: “You say, you say, everything is so fake nowadays. I spent three hundred dollars to have a guy get me a diploma, and the guy fucking cheated me. You say, you say, you say where's the fucking sense in that?"
4. Recounting the Job (述职)
Comrades, not to boast, but we accomplished a lot this year! Many good things happened, happy things and great things. We did a lot of things of practical benefit to the people. It would take more than three days and three nights to sum it all up. The county radio station wanted to pick the top ten news items. I said it was good idea and should be done, but we have to keep it low-key. Don't get all het up, don't get spoiled by success. My personal opinion is that, for the time being, for some of our accomplishments, we shouldn’t beat the drums too loud in promoting them. It’ll be better that way. It’ll help create a good image of our leadership team as modest, cautious and humble.
Today is our leadership team’s Democratic Life Meeting. I’ll just tie in my own thinking with the realities of our work, and briefly report to the team members on our principal tasks. Then I’ll talk a bit about my personal understanding. Call it a debriefing.
The best thing to happen this year is that we finally got the Poor County label, a “National Poor County”. This is a great achievement, worthy of praise, both gratifying and hard to come by! We spent so much effort to get it, so much energy, so much money. We took so many paths and gave out so many gifts. Think about it. Sometimes I’m so proud of myself that I really want to pat myself on the shoulder and brag, really brag. The dream of several past leadership groups has finally come to pass.
A "bad label"? Whoever spouts such nonsense is fucking short sighted. This is a "gold label" [because of the government assistance funds it will bring in]. Got it?....
As for the second best thing, it should be that we met environmental standards. I’m not taking credit for others’ accomplishments or seeking any reward, but as the "top leader" of the team, we were able to accomplish this mainly because of my good planning. Of course the person in charge of the project, County Commissioner Hu, coordinated things well, too. Old Hu’s drinking during the half month the inspection team was in town is in itself worthy of imitation. He drank until his eyeballs were about to bleed, and then drank some more, exceeding his limit at every meal. There’s a saying, something like "A cadre who can hold half a pound but drinks eight ounces can be nurtured." Old Hu wouldn’t stop even at eight ounces. I think he drank a pound plus eight ounces at each meal. That guy, no one on the inspection team failed to admire him....
The third thing, of course, is the turn-around in law enforcement. What are you muttering about? I’m well aware that the incident rate has gone up, but our costs have decreased. Ah, if you don't believe me, ask Chief Lang of the Public Security Bureau whether I’m speaking groundlessly. How much got stolen in bank robberies last year? This year more banks and savings centers got robbed, but less money was taken than last year. This is an accomplishment. What? What are you saying? There was no money to rob? What kind of talk is that? If you don't want your job, just go ahead and write out a letter of resignation. No one’ll stop you….
The fourth thing is, the tax scam was successful. This achievement is mainly attributable to County Commissioner Qi. The guy’s sharp as a tack, with lots of crafty ideas and lots of guts. One time, ha, ha, ha, I laughed myself silly. I’ll let him tell you about it later. I can't stop laughing when I think of the classic story Old Qi told that night....
The fifth achievement... I’m thinking, education? You! Old Fan, my great County Commissioner. I knew you’d bring up renovation of the dangerous buildings in primary and secondary schools again. Education is a hundred-year plan. When have I not cared about it? But it’s a "hundred-year plan." Do you understand "hundred-year"? It’s not something that can be resolved in a day or two, or even a year or two. Are you rushing me? Everything has its own priority....
What? "Can it only be resolved after a hundred years? Who’ll be here after a hundred years?" Are you putting a death curse on me? Old Fan, if you talk like that, don't blame me for not giving you any respect. How can an incompetent oaf like you make a living? You can’t get a hold on the job assigned to you so you push the blame off on me. What kind of logic is that?
What, teachers’ salaries can’t be issued? Everyone listen. Our salaries can't be paid in full on a monthly basis, either. What’s the big deal about salaries being in arrears? Are we the only ones in that position? Just keep on teaching whatever happens. As I see it, if you can’t do the job, quit….
OK, well, I’d planned on saying a few more words of encouragement to inspire everyone. It’s disappointing! Certain individuals always look at things through sunglasses. All they see is the shadows and not the light. They can only nitpick and can’t see how healthy things are. When this kind of attitude gets going it never ends. It makes both the workers and their superiors pessimistic. Morale suffers and enthusiasm slackens. I’m against this as a matter of principle. I wonder about the motives of this kind of person….
Anyhow, returning to the main topic, it’s just because of this kind of mood and understanding that I’m optimistic, too. It can produce a sense of vigilance in us and build an awareness of hardship. I see it this way. To do a better job, we can't just talk about achievements, we must also search out any shortcomings and find any deficiencies. I’ll only suggest a line of thinking for you for next year's work, in order to unify our thoughts and get things arranged as soon as possible.
First, we need to get a firm grip on our “National Poor County” label. We must not lose this label that we’ve extended such excruciating efforts to obtain. Second, we must maintain our grasp of environmental protection work. We cannot rely solely on drinking and must open up new ways of thinking. We must put this job in the forefront, strive to take the initiative, and find every possible way to keep the inspection team from coming back in. Further, none of the small coal mines, small chemical plants and small fireworks factories can cease production. Third is to advance our work of arresting and taking firm measures against criminal elements. We’ll need to expand detention centers and prisons using funds taken from the criminal suspects themselves, working toward a system that uses the criminals to support law enforcement. Fourth, we must rely on the students for teacher salaries that are in arrears.... Old Fan, Old Fan, Deputy Commissioner Fan, whatever you do, speak about your affairs correctly....
5. In the Aftermath (善后工作)
“The student dorm caught fire again.”
“A big one?”
“Not big, but not small, either. It gutted one room. Burned it clean.”
“Did the fire department come?”
“Of course. At least five trucks. It doesn't matter. They don’t charge, so there’s no haggling over the cost. They’re real Lei Fengs. You know, real public-spirited people.”
“How big was the loss?”
“Only one room burned, but water got in ten rooms. The fire department’s water. They really laid it on. First they smashed the windows and then they sprayed water. They sprayed ten rooms in addition to the one on fire. And there were no casualties, just one student who said he twisted his ankle. That was because he took too big a step when he was running down the stairs. We gave him some pain killing ointment.”
“How is it now?”
“Everything’s back to normal, except one room is black. It was scorched black. The other ten are white from the ice all over the walls and floors. You couldn’t light them even if you wanted to, so there’ll be no more fires for the time being.”
“OK, good. As long as nobody died, it’s OK.”
“Hurry up and call a meeting to inform everyone. Study what should be done in the aftermath. What? Have the reporters done any interviews? How would they have found out about it?”
“I heard that a student in the dorm phoned them. First thing after seeing the fire, this student called the TV news hotline, and only called the ‘119’ emergency number later.”
“What a pisser. Why not call the ‘119’ first?!”
“The ‘news hotline’ has rewards. The reporter paid that student a hundred yuan on the spot.”
“That money, he fucking earned it. OK, OK, stop with the money, money, money. I feel suffocated at the mention of the word. The phone line at the student dorm should've been replaced a long time ago. If it had been, how could this kid've thought about getting money? A long time ago I said there’d be trouble sooner or later, and I was right on point, wasn’t I? I realized the importance of this question the last time we had a fire. I knew there’d be another one, and sure enough, it happened just like I expected. Why are you looking so distracted?”
“Your eyes caught fire at the mention of money. They’re glowing red. Would it do any good to spray water on your eyes?”
“You haven’t left yet? Go tell the relevant department heads we’re having a meeting. Ask them to come today. We won’t do anything else, just specifically study this fire in the student dorm. Everybody can discuss their views.”
The Director General: “There are many reasons for the fire, but the most important point is the question of education. Comrade Deng Xiaoping once said, ‘Our biggest problem is in education. We’re not strong enough in our ideological and political work.’ This fire once again confirms Comrade Xiaoping's incisive judgment....”
The Chief Minister: “After settling on the political line, cadres are a decisive factor. Comrade Mao Zedong instructed us long ago that cadres are the key. If cadres at all levels put their minds to it, fires will not happen....”
The Safety Section Chief (and Director of the Fire Prevention Office): “General Secretary Jiang pointed out that fire prevention is better than disaster relief, hidden fires are more dangerous than open ones, and responsibility is weightier than Mount Tai. His words could have been directed specifically at this fire....”
After that the Director of Logistics spoke, then the Dean of Students, the Minister of Propaganda, the Director of Administration.... Then a summation:
“We’ve always advocated short meetings, but we cannot lump everything under one rubric. Important meetings of course last longer. Moreover, the length of today's meeting shouldn’t be considered excessive. It’s been less than four hours.... Everyone's opinion is important. It seems that this fire was not an entirely bad thing. Every cloud has a silver lining. This fire serves as a lesson and a warning. Through it we can raise our awareness, unify our thinking, and also increase our cohesiveness.... That’s it for today. The meeting’s over.”
“Just a minute, Leaders. I’m sorry, I’m the dorm administrator. The power supply line in the dorm is getting old, besides which the students have hooked up a mess of extension cords for personal use. They have electric stoves in their rooms, and rice cookers. There’re gas tanks, kerosene stoves and spirit lamps all over the place. It’s almost turned into an ammunition depot, and something has to be done about it!”
“You can discuss the resolution of these specific issues with the relevant departments. They’re not suitable for decision at today’s meeting.... What’s all that noise outside?”
“This is bad! There’s another fire in Dorm Seven, the girl’s dorm....”
“One problem after another! First organize the fire crew. They say we have too many meetings, but do you think we could do without them? We’ll have to have another meeting tomorrow."
6. Spies (探子)
There are many examples in the world of a son inheriting his father’s profession.
Whether it’s a butcher shop, barbershop or photographer’s shop, an acrobat or a singer, or even today's merchants, government officials and the like, all have several instances of two or three or more generations engaging in the same line of business or type of work. It could probably be called “occupational inheritance”.
The Spy Shen family is an extraordinarily typical case.
“Spy Shen” doesn’t refer to a single person, but to the whole family.
The grandfather, the father and the sons are all called “Spy Shen” by neighbors in the hood and others who are familiar with the family. Let me explain it this way. As I recall, my grandfather called the Shen family’s old man “Spy Shen”; and my father called the old man’s son “Spy Shen”. Now, when I see the middle-aged grandsons of the old man, I call them “Spy Shen” as well. In the same way, my son calls their sons “Spy Shen”, too. Anyone in the family could answer if you call out “Spy Shen”.
“Spy Shen” isn’t a pejorative nickname, but more like a trademark, roughly equivalent to "Zhang the Clay Man" or " Wang the Hemp Guy ". It’s just that the Spy Shens aren’t as well-known as Wang the Hemp Guy. They’re only known to neighbors in the hood, and relatives and friends, and the name hasn’t been formally registered. For that reason, it can’t be considered an “intangible asset”.
There’s no way to discover which generation of the Shen family first acquired the sobriquet “Spy Shen”. The Spy Shen who’s the same age as me says that someone in the family started as a Brocade Guard in 1383, the fifteenth year of the Hongwu reign in the Ming Dynasty. As one of the royal bodyguards, he served as the Emperor’s eyes and ears and, in particular, was responsible for shadowing and arresting traitors. No telling what deeds he performed. The Shen family still had people in this line of work in the Qing dynasty, and they continued to have a lot of power during that dynasty’s final years, when members of revolutionary parties were being hunted down and arrested. Astonishingly, under the Japanese puppet regime during World War II, the family’s Shen Three passed himself off as a secret agent by writing that title on his business card. On that basis he scammed money from people until he was arrested by the Japanese Military Police and thrown in jail. After liberation in 1949, the government regarded him as a spy and ordered him to be reformed in prison. He had it up to here with the suffering of being a spy.
But that’s all in the past, and I’m just talking off the cuff. There’s a lot of details I didn’t see with my own eyes, and I’m not willing to embellish the story.
I am clear about the Shen’s family’s current situation, though. Our family’s been their neighbors longer than anyone else. Other neighbors had to move because they couldn't stand the Shens spying on them.
To sum up, the Spy Shen family has the following characteristics:
First, the whole family, young and old, like to wear sunglasses. Also, they often add gauze masks in winter. I always thought they were the height of fashion when I was young, and I asked my mother to buy a pair of sunglasses for me. She told me the Shens have a medical problem and the light hurts their eyes. This dispelled my thinking that wearing sunglasses was cool.
Second, the Shens young and old invariably whisper when they talk to one another. I always want to know what they’re saying, but I can never hear. When they see me coming they stop whispering and don’t talk at all, which makes me even more curious. Once I went out of my way to listen in and finally overheard a few words. As it happened, the elder Spy Shen was asking his wife, "What’s for dinner tonight?" I don't know if it was a secret code.
Third, the Shen family always hugs the wall when they walk, and they deliberately step softly. If you’re walking in front of them your heart hangs in the air, wondering if something unexpected will happen.
Another thing is that the Shen family members always love to get to the bottom of things. If something is going on with another family, whether it’s a big deal or not, they make it their particular concern. Their constant questioning is really annoying. It was a long time before I learned to give them the runaround and avoid disclosing any consequential information to them.
For example, if I’ve just left home and happen to run into one of the Spys, and he takes it on himself to ask, “You are….?”
“Going out,” I’ll answer.
“To do what?”
"A little something.”
"What little thing?"
"A minor thing."
That’s how the conversation would go. Anyone overhearing it would feel awkward, but I’d feel it’s quite natural because I’m used to it.
Every one of Shens wants to be a police officer, whether because of their history or some other factor. Except for one of them, who’s a graduate student studying criminal investigations at a university, none of them has succeeded.
Some of the neighbors say that everyone in the Shen family just might be a plainclothes cop, but I don't believe it. Although the Spy Shens are into that sort of thing, they’re at an amateur level and don’t seem professional. I won’t talk about the rest of them, but I know the elder Spy Shen and his one-eyed second son (let’s call him Spy Shen Two) were very unprofessional. The elder Spy Shen focused on some little thing about a guy and followed just inches behind him late one night. The result was that he didn’t even notice that the cover had been left off a manhole. He fell in and didn’t survive.
His second son is even less of a prospect. When he was sixteen he started following this one girl like he was afraid she’d disappear. He camped outside her window and stuck with it night and day, right up to the time she was taking a month off to recover from having a baby. It was a cold winter, but he stood there for the full thirty days waiting for her (some guy’s wife) to recover. The freezing almost ruined his other eye. (I should tell you the way Spy Shen Two lost that first eye: His specialty was peeping through keyholes. He originally wanted to peek in on the room where that girl he’d been following for several years was spending her wedding night, but he ended up going to the wrong room. Some wicked fellow stuck a needle through the keyhole and blinded his eye.)
There are too many spies in the Shen family, and society doesn’t think they’re important. Heroes can't do without ample scope for their abilities, so the Shen family's Spies have taken to stalking and spying on each other. At first our neighbors thought it was in-house training, but later they often saw huge fights between brothers and aunts and spouses. One after another they got divorced and remarried and divorced again. It was really confusing.
Now I’m moving to another house, but not because I feel any need to protect myself from the Shen family. In fact, in all the years I’ve been a neighbor of the Shens, nothing of mine has ever gone missing. It’s just that my wife recently discovered that my son has been hiding outside our door listening in on us talking. My wife is most trustworthy and I’m sure my son is mine, but I can’t defend against the neighbors’ influence.
7. Collapse (坍塌)
The discussion turned white-hot right from the start. Each and every expert and scholar got so excited that they couldn’t hold back.
The meeting’s chair held an electric baton in his hand to shock to any speaker who refused to give up the microphone after exceeding his allotted time. He’d make the guy get off the podium.
The post-postmodernist topic worried the attendees to physical exhaustion. Fortunately the meals at the conference were prepared pretty well. Otherwise such serious topics and endless debates would’ve soon upset the attendees to the point of collapse.
It seemed that every discussion was the same. Truth lay in the hands of whoever had the loudest voice. Authority was decided by volume and hung on the length of time one spent on the chair’s rostrum, as if those without power weren’t even present.
On this occasion, stutterers who were usually taciturn and uncommunicative turned into heroic debaters who spoke in unceasing torrents. These were all people who held the rank of professor and spoke in low whispers around their wives, but who would steal a goat at the vegetable market if they thought it was to their advantage. Placed in this kind of situation, they could beat their chests and scream “your mother” like world-class masters.
On the third day of the meeting, there was still no indication that the smoke was clearing. The organizers’ subsidized meals were a factor – experts who’d been screaming for two days straight showed no sign of tiring and their volume didn’t decrease.
Expert A started screaming again. The contrast between theory and reality made his skin three times thicker than normal. He had to stop four times to spit up during the course of his speech because he was so stirred up.
Professor B disagreed with A’s screaming. This fellow, usually a self-effacing believer in cynicism, barked “arf-arf-arf” all the way to the podium. It was like he’d suddenly converted to “canine-ism” and was having a rabies flare-up.*
Expert C’s tone was more scholarly. His softly-spoken “meow-meow-meow” reminded many of the attendees of the gentle, sleek swoosh of a shoe brush. Some of them teared up or even sobbed.
Expert D’s voice quickly caused the atmosphere in the hall to tense up again. His volume, tone and sound quality were different from everyone else’s. One moment it was the thump of a ground tamping machine, and the next it sounded like an ear-piercing electric drill. The audience, all of them rather long in the tooth, started stuffing tranquilizers in their mouths. One slow-moving old fellow tilted his head and passed away.
Two guys rushed up to the podium at the same time. One of them cared about nothing but his excitement and even forgot what he wanted to say. He flailed his hands in the air a few times and then, to thunderous applause, let loose a sonorous and putrid fart that went on forever. The other guy endured the stench emanating from his fellow traveler but ended his speech with a severe bout of coughing and facial convulsions.
The heated atmosphere and fierce debate caused a cracking sound to explode from the ceiling in the meeting hall. The building was already close to condemnation.
A guy who claimed to be using "Occam’s Razor" waved the flag of “principles of economy in thinking” to cut and slash any old way. He was at the podium when roof of the conference room collapsed.
One group of people was crushed to death and another group suffocated. Several people continued their probing discussions in the pile of rubble.
This was the first time I’d been invited to attend such a high-level academic seminar. My job was to pour tea for the experts. If not for the building’s collapse, I’d have thought about putting arsenic in their cups. In fact, I’d been thinking about doing so for some time, but couldn't figure out which was the arsenic and which was salt.
[“Cynicism” is called the “dog-scholar doctrine” in Chinese – Fannyi]
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