Chinese Stories in English
If You're Ugly When Young, Choose a Pretty Wife
Foggy River [Cui Jinsheng] 雾满拦江 [崔金生]
I’ll tell you a tale about an ugly child.
This child was not just ugly – his family was poor, too. And not only poor – they also weren’t sensible and didn’t understand the value of education. The ugly kid's father, especially, was one of those men who impose their stupidity on their wives and children.
But even wild lilies have their spring, and poor children have their beautiful dreams.
This child, he had aspirations in life.
One day, his father saw him at home and, very surprised, asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m your son,” the boy replied.
“My son?” His father shook his head in puzzlement. “That can’t be right, can it? How come I don’t remember you being in the family?”
“Father,” the boy explained carefully, “you have eighteen children, and I was the twelfth. You not only can’t remember me, you can’t even tell most of your kids apart”.
The father shook his head angrily. “It’s your own fault for growing up so ugly. If you was a little better looking…. Number Twelve, come on over here. Tell your Dad, what do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I want to be a writer, Dad,” the child answered.
“A writer?” His father was lost. “What’s a ‘writer’?”
“A writer is....” the child started to explain. “A writer is one of those guys who sits at home writing things, and other people send you money.”
“Bull-pucky!” The father slapped his son upside the head, knocking the ugly child to the floor, then yelled at him. “What’re you thinking? You sit at home and people send you money? Where in the world you gonna find such a good deal? If there was such a good thing, your Dad would’ve been doing it a long time ago, and you think you can do it?”
To be a writer, that was the ugly child's first aspiration.
And a head slap, that was his father’s attitude toward the child’s wish.
The ugly child's second aspiration was something his teacher stimulated in him.
Once when he scored the top grade on a test, the teacher rewarded him with a book of world maps. He brought it home and was about to open it when his father yelled for him to boil some water for the washroom. The old man wanted to take a bath.
While he was boiling the water, the ugly child opened the book and took a look. He happened to open it to the page on Egypt. He got excited and his aspiration was born right then.
The child told himself, “My second life wish is to travel the world!
“And my first stop will be Egypt!
“Egypt is great! There’s the Nile River, and Aswan Dam, and the pyramids, and the Sphinx, and... and... and the most beautiful Cleopatra. Oh, Cleopatra, Cleopatra….”
If the child had kept on imagining things, the third aspiration for his life would have been born then as well. But he was out of time. He was startled by a ‘bang’ as the bathroom door was kicked open and his father burst out angrily, clad only in a towel.
“What the hell are you doing?” his father shouted.
“I’m looking at a map.” The ugly child was scared.
“What map?” his father demanded.
“It’s a… a map of Egypt.”
“I’ll give you something to look at! Your ass!” His father slapped the ugly child hard, ‘pow’, so hard that the boy saw stars. Then he kicked him fiercely, ‘thwap’, knocking the child to the floor. “The fire’s gone out and you’re looking at a fucking map. You piss your old man off!”
The boy wiped the tears from his eyes and squatted there, stewing.
His father turned and walked to the bathroom, but he stopped in the doorway and turned back. “Listen to your old man. I guarantee, on my life, that you won't never get to Egypt in your whole life. You won't never go nowhere!”
The boy didn’t dare say a word. He was afraid he’d get beaten again. But after his father had shut the bathroom door, he said through his tears, “It’s my life, and no one else can make guarantees about what I’ll do, not even my own father!
“I will go to Egypt when I grow up!”
That was the ugly child's second aspiration.
The ugly child was in junior high.
One day he and seven of his classmates skipped school and went to the movies. They saw "Roman Holiday".
The film's leading lady was Audrey Hepburn....
Hepburn was one of the most beautiful women in the world, elegant, refined, and such extraordinary poise. The ugly child had been born in the countryside and grew up in the countryside. In his whole life he could never have seen such a beautiful woman before. He stared in rapture that day at the movies.
It wasn’t only the ugly child who was astonished by Hepburn’s beauty – his seven little playmates had the same reaction.
The eight ignorant little boys came out of the theater after the movie was over. Sixteen eyes looked each other over, and they all had the same thought. They all knew that every one of them had been entranced by Audrey Hepburn.
And so, by the light of the moon, the eight little boys swore a blood oath that evening. In unison they promised: “As the blue sky is above and the earth below, we eight, being of like mind, do vow this day to grow up quickly, to lay our old men flat, and then to take Audrey Hepburn to wife. We pledge our faith and our loyalty, from now until death. Any who deviate from this oath shall no longer be considered human!”
After they swore the oath, the eight young boys, still excited, broke up and went home.
The ugly child suddenly realized something was wrong when he got home. "Oh, no, all eight of us vowed to marry Hepburn, but she.... I guess she won't agree to marry all eight of us guys at once, will she?"
But he couldn't do anything about it. The oath had been made, so it wasn't up to Hepburn. She'd have to marry them whether she wanted to or not.
This was the ugly child's third aspiration.
The ugly child grew up.
His first aspiration was realized when he really did become a writer.
After which he packed his luggage. Someone asked him where he was going and he replied that he was going to Egypt.
The fellow thought that was strange. "What're you going to Egypt for?"
He turned to face the fellow and said, one word at a time, "Because it’s my life, and no one else can say what I’ll do. That's why I'm definitely going to Egypt."
He said it and he did it. When he arrived at the foot of the pyramids, he wrote a letter to his father:
"Dear father, I remember when I was a kid, you slapped me and kicked me and guaranteed that in my whole life it would be absolutely impossible for me to ever get to such a distant place. Now, here I am, sitting under the pyramids of Egypt, writing this letter."
He sat under the sun after he sent the letter, watching the camels in the desert, and tears rushed to his eyes. He'd become a man of tears.
When the letter arrived at his father's home, the old man read it and muttered, "See, I slapped you a good one all right. Knocked you all the way to Egypt."
Of his three life's aspirations, he'd already completed two.
That left the last one.
The third aspiration ... was not so easy to do.
But the writer wrote in an introduction to his works:
"Some decades later we organized an alumni reunion in the countryside. Everybody brought their wives. Halfway through the banquet I stood up and looked around the room. Only one of the wives looked like Audrey Hepburn.
"Whose wife was it?"
The writer wrote, "Mine."
Judging people by their looks should not be our approach toward social interaction. Why do we say that this writer was "an ugly child" when he was little?
There is a reason for it.
A few years ago, when the writer came to Beijing, he took a taxi in from the airport. The driver asked politely, "Where to, young lady?"
The writer was furious. "Take a good look. Am I a young lady?"
The driver looked again and apologized profusely. "I'm sorry, Ma'am, I'm sorry. Where would you like to go, Ma'am??
"Go...." and the writer fell silent.
This ugly child who was called "Ma'am" by the taxi driver now looks like....
That's right, his name is Lin Qingxuan. He's the homely Taiwanese essayist with shoulder-length hair whose former and current wives were both young and beautiful.
He had three aspirations in his youth, and all three were realized.
[Part 07 was published online but not in the book.]
Who hasn't been crushed by the process of growing up?
But we still need dreams, don't we, on the odd chance that they might come true?
These days the kids who complain, who cry and sigh that they're not from a 'rich second generation' family, your circumstances are what Lin Qingxuan had to struggle for two decades to attain. At least your parents are more enlightened and sophisticated than his father was. But why don't you dare to dream?
Dreams are never far away. You just have to start. There are no difficulties or obstacles in this process, just the hardships and necessary dedication of a long road. Not every aspiration will be realized, but a life without dreams is a great sorrow. Especially when we've lost our way and are just slogging through the mud, there's nothing better than to settle down and work towards our life goals. The path you take is your life, and the wisdom you attain is the value of that life.
The Best of Chinese Humorous Writings, 2015, Guan Heyue, Anthologist, p. 253
Translated from this version, also available at https://www.douban.com/note/477101939/
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