Chinese Stories in English
White Illuminates Night
Some aromas can only be smelled when it rains. The fluffy, warm scent of things drying in the sun is different, like woodlands on a summer evening when a warm woody fragrance spreads throughout. The rainy-day smell isn’t so warm, but it lasts a bit longer. It leaks out from all the little nooks and crannies and floats in the air for a long time.
A small classroom with white walls, blackboards, fluorescent lights, and a dozen or so rows of tables and chairs. There’s also a small platform for the teacher to stand on while lecturing, several inches above floor level, as is typical in Chinese college classrooms. The rain outside the window washes the plants again and again. The dark green juices inside the leaves seem to be struggling to break through to the surface, to flow away with the rainwater.
Her colleagues walked up to the platform in order and opened their course materials. They smiled, presented, explained and gestured. Dreamy Brocade Xie looked up at the platform with pen in hand and notebook open, but it was all pretense. She was secretly tracking aromas, the abstruse mysteries darting through the room like Zen riddles or metaphors.
First she heard the cloth of people’s shirts breathing in and out, carrying their aromas along. Then she discerned a blended perfume of musk, citrus, jasmine and sandalwood, with neither a core nor a body. It radiated slowly from the grain of her jacket, paused for a while, then drifted farther away. This was the smell of the laundry detergent with which she washed her whites. She had a little less than half a bottle of it left on the far right of her shelf at home, and there were more bottles on the shelf in a long row. They were all the same type of bottle but on close examination they had different labels: different detergents for denim, cashmere, non-whites, silk sports clothing....
When the meeting let out, Wren Flower Zhao walked to the back row of the classroom to say hello to her. When Dreamy saw her closest colleague approaching, she momentarily forgot, “Flower”. The second she uttered the sound, she realized suddenly that something wasn’t quite right. The sound of "Flower" stuck on her rolled-up tongue and barely managed to stumble to the edge of her mouth. The syllable that should have slid along the tip of her sucked-up tongue came out stiff and broken, strewing debris all over the ground. All of a sudden she started to sweat and could feel the coolness moving down her spine. She bowed her head to collect her pen, notebook and water glass from the desk and stuffed them into her bag forcefully.
No one should have heard it. A completely out-of-whack sound from her tongue, a puff of breath through closed lips, flat, twisted, and weird, like the sound made when the battery of a Walkman is almost exhausted.
“Take a sip of water and don’t talk.” Wren said.
She nodded, pointed to her throat and frowned, a gesture to indicate that she couldn’t make a sound.
Wren took her arm and they went downstairs. It hadn’t yet stopped raining outside, and a thin layer of fallen leaves lay under the trees. Still emerald green, they’d just been blown to the ground by the wind and rain. The two women held up an umbrella and walked toward the carport along a sidewalk paved with greenish tiles. They’d walked this path, with its two peach trees and three Burmese gardenias followed by a row of pomegranates to the end of the path, more times than they could say.
It was just noon, but layer upon layer of rain clouds in the sky made it as dim as dusk. Their eyes brightened after they passed by the peach trees and the gardenias – the pomegranates were in bloom, and the rain had made the bright red of the first crop even more vivid. They stopped and stood under the umbrella before one of the trees, quietly admiring it.
Raindrops hung motionless from every flower, as if the petals attracted them.
They could hear each other breathing.
“This row is all flowering pomegranates. They don’t bear fruit, or even if they occasionally do, the few fruits aren’t edible.” Wren said. She brushed one flower with her finger and the raindrops fell from it.
“I know. We don’t call them ‘flowering pomegranates’ in my hometown. They’re called ‘viewing pomegranates’. It doesn't matter if they don't bear fruit, that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that only the viewing pomegranates can produce such awesome blossoms.”
Given the way she’d set things up that day, she couldn't make a sound, so she just said this to herself. She thought of the cupboard drawers in her home. They were filled with cups, pots, and dishes which she hadn’t been able to use even once in several years. They were there for show, to look at and appreciate. It seemed that everything she’d liked since she was a child was a for-show thing.
Dreamy opened her car door and sat in the driver's seat. Wren’s car pulled out first. Wren rolled down her window and told her, “I really wish I’d been the one with a sore throat, Young Xie. Then I wouldn’t have had to get up on that platform.”
Words surged up in her. Words she really wanted to say surged up in waves but congealed in her throat, choking her. She wanted so much to talk to Wren about things. Right away she heard Wren telling her to drink some water again. She nodded hurriedly but, afraid that Wren wouldn’t be able to see her through the glass, she opened the car door at once. With one foot on the ground, she stretched her neck sideways out of the car to let Wren see her nodding. Wren waved and drove away.
“It’s been six years, Wren, and the first time I didn't go up there to lecture. All those comments, I didn't want to say a single sentence.” She was sitting in the car talking to herself, saying what she’d wanted to say to Wren. She raised her eyebrows, relaxed her chin, opened her mouth and all the other cavities in her head like she was broadcasting some important information. She clearly enunciated the initials and finals of each word – not one sound was slurred or cut off, and the four tones were all precise as well. These perfect syllables remained parked in the passenger compartment, ringing away, some standing and some sitting, accompanying her all the way home.
Every time she cleared a bunch of things out, she felt that the places where her life had been blocked were unblocked again. Doing it regularly is a good habit to get into. Tidy up the closets, the bookcases, the refrigerator and storage shelves after a set interval. Even if you don’t throw anything away, you’ll feel much more refreshed after you’ve carefully combed through all the stuff and put it all in order.
That row of laundry detergents on the shelf. Of course she’d known that one person doesn't need and can't use so many cleaning products. She just hadn't been able resist the word "conscientious". The first time she’d walked into that store, the one that sold the housecleaning products, she’d seen the infatuation that creative people have with the trivial matter of washing clothes. There are people in the world who are so conscientious that they take every thread seriously. They strive not to let white clothes turn yellow and struggle to prevent the natural oils of wool from being washed away with the stains. She’d seen too much shoddiness not to realize the value of what she was seeing, and she also knew that what she was seeing wasn’t inevitable. She’d thought to herself, “Since I’ve encountered these things, it would be a crime not to buy them.” She’d bought everything she could. There were nine bottles all together, and the moment they were lined up on her shelf, the life she was living was miraculously dignified.
She’d tidied up her bookcases the night before. Seeking uniformity, she put books from the same series together and organized more than a dozen shelves according to their publication date and author. While she was sorting through the books, she found class schedules from previous years in a few of them, which she took out and put aside. After she finished arranging the books, she crumpled up the schedules and threw them in the wastebasket.
While throwing them away, it suddenly occurred to her that she could also tidy up her work as well. She turned on her computer and sorted through the teaching assignment books for the last few years. She’d had four courses all together, two of them school-required courses, one required by the department and one elective. The assignment books included the exact number of hours she’d spent in each class. She added them up, semester by semester, and ended up with a number displayed on the computer’s screen.
She added them up again and got the same number.
The regularly scheduled end-of-term meeting would be held the next day. Everyone would get up to talk about their teaching experiences, just for a few minutes. It was an easy matter for a teacher, so no special preparation was needed. Just one thing definitely had to be on her mind the night before – there’s always one thing – nothing to complain about, since she was used to it. What’s called daily life is made up of many small torments, some important and some not, and all of them can be tolerated.
She’d gone to see Lustrous Ji, the deputy dean in charge of teaching, early in the morning. She covered her throat with her left hand and struggled to use her voice – one word, one rasping sound, another word, another rasp. Her expression became more painful as she went along. It seemed as if her vocal cords were no longer able to vibrate. She couldn't make any real sounds, basically just heavy breaths.
Lustrous Ji was changing something on his computer. Books were piled everywhere in his office, and some of the piles were so high that the top half had fallen off. No “gentle breeze bringing warm comfort” style calligraphy hung on the wall, and the cabinets held no resin handicrafts. The only decorations were some owls, some of them ceramics, some braided straw and some wrought iron, some hanging on the walls and others sitting on the corner of his desk. When someone asked, he’d always say, “Just my owls, is all.” His words and his earnest look were more than a bit childish.
“Okay, I know, I know. Don’t talk. Hearing your voice makes me uncomfortable. Why would you go if you’re sick?” he asked.
Should she respond with another raspy breath? Her taut energy and courage dissipated. She didn't want to re-adjust herself to acting mode. She glimpsed some scratch paper on his desk out of the corner of her eye. She tore off a piece, wrote something on it and handed it to him.
“There’s nothing else, no fever, just a sore throat.”
He glanced at it, said “Yeah” and turned back to his computer. She wrote another line on the paper, “Thank you, Dean Ji.”
As she got up to leave, the clock shaped like a wood cabin began to announce the time, right on the hour. A window under the clock’s spire flapped open and something popped out. She’d never noticed until then that there was an owl hidden inside.
She watched the owl as she walked out. It pushed open the window and popped out, then slowly closed its wings and disappeared back into the cabin.
Like the first time after getting the job, when she should’ve spoken, she didn't. She sat in the last row of the classroom listening to the fabrics in the clothing breathe. She smelled the aromas that were still alive after being washed and bleached and exposed to the sun, and she saw the rain-washed leaves outside the window. The flat, thin leaves looked different in the rain. The green color of their surfaces had form, each one practically bulging. From the look of it, the green color was weighty, too, and made people's eyes droop.
She hadn’t prepared anything to say last night. She’d spent the entire evening practicing how to make it sound like her voice was out of sorts. She tensed up her vocal cords and lowered her voice as much as possible. She’d hold a syllable in her mouth, then let it wriggle out when her mouth had been numb for a while.
From more than a dozen rows of tables and chairs away, she saw Wren’s hands trembling slightly as she stepped onto the platform. The hand in which she held her pen started to tremble as well, as if a copper wire were transmitting the tremor to her through the air like an electric shock. Wren had been working for more than ten years and looked well-practiced. Not a shred of timidity showed on her face, and her tone of voice when she spoke was steady but not monotonous. She appeared neither frazzled nor overbearing. And yet, her hand had trembled for a while, and Dreamy had seen it.
The next two weeks passed easily. Classes were over and some routine tasks had been completed. The vacation that had secretly propped up everyone’s spirits since school started was actually coming. For Dreamy, those two weeks were a little different from previous years. The infection in her throat had worsened and she lost her voice intermittently. She continued her regime of not speaking, and people’s inquiries and concerns about her gradually became less frequent.
She really had no need to speak.
She’d taught 4,128 classroom hours in six years. When she’d first realized that, her initial reaction had been that she’d calculated it incorrectly.
Now, she was secretly enjoying the pleasant feelings that came with the loss of her voice. The end of the semester saw lots of dinner parties, and on the phone she could rasp, "No, no, I’m still not well and can’t go.” She mastered making her voice barely discernable, and then even less discernable, to escape having to speak and to avoid several social events. She didn’t have to keep appointments she regretted having made and was secretly delighted that she could get out of the house every day but still not have to put up with the nonsense and the pain of ridicule.
The office was on the seventh floor. As she stepped into the elevator, she figured she only had four days left. At the end of that time, next semester’s classes would be listed.
She walked into the office and saw Wren at her computer recording her students’ grades. The office wasn’t crowded with people coming and going as it had been before the end of the semester. She wanted to go over and have a few words with Wren, but after taking a few steps she noticed someone in the booth behind her. She hesitated, then retraced her steps toward her own seat.
She opened her desk drawer and took out paper and pen. She wrote down what she’d wanted to say on a piece of letter paper.
“You must use a microphone in class, Wren, and use a falsetto voice more often even if you have a microphone. I know you’re conscientious and diligent, but don't tire yourself out. For example, it's okay to wait a while after posing a question, to give yourself a break.”
She read it over twice to herself, then added a salutation, date and signature so it looked like a letter.
She still remembered that September afternoon two years previously when she’d left her USB flash drive in a classroom. She returned to the teaching building to retrieve it and, walking along the corridor, she heard a familiar voice came from a classroom. She stood on tiptoe to look through the glass, and the voice turned out to be Wren’s. She’d stood in the middle of the corridor that afternoon, listening to Wren's lecture.
Wren’s normal speaking voice was almost a whisper but she exerted all her strength and threw herself into her lecturers. After listening for a while, Dreamy felt that the person who was speaking was obviously running out of breath. The sound made her whole body bristle as it gently scratched the air on the way to her ears. The students got noisy when class was about to end, and Wren raised the pitch of her voice in an attempt to control them somewhat. Dreamy could hear the sound even through the wall, and it made her heart tremble. She wanted to cry.
Wren hadn't known she was outside the door, and Dreamy never mentioned it to her.
Now, in their office, Dreamy folded the note she’d written. Wren left for a moment, and Dreamy took the opportunity to place it on her friend's desk.
Dreamy finished up some odds and ends from the semester and was about to go home when she looked up and met Wren's gaze. She was standing next to the cubicle’s partition. “Come on,” she said, “let’s go to the snack shop on the third floor for a glass of fruit juice.”
She left the office with Wren. Wren walked in front and she followed. When they got to a quiet corner at the end of the corridor, with no one else around, Wren turned to her and said, “Think of a solution.”
She nodded. Thousands upon thousands of words, but it seemed unnecessary to let any of them out of her mouth.
Wren phoned her that evening. Dreamy was standing on the balcony, sighing. “The moon’s so low tonight. It’s stopped above the ridge not far away.”
“It's been a long time since I’ve seen anything on letter paper.” Wren said.
“Things feel different when you write them down.” She said.
She spoke quite naturally with Wren. There was no need to explain things clearly, let alone recount every drop of rain or gust of wind. They were each too reticent to use strong ways of speaking when they interacted.
As night fell, the moon nestled quietly next to the ridge where the hills lay. It was a small halfmoon, powdered with a layer of freshly melted pale gold. The screen window filtered the moon’s color, and on the ground, the shadows crowded up against one another. Wren seemed at that moment not to be on the phone, but rather at her side, so very close that her breath wound toward her along with the color of the night. Wren was the mother of two children, the youngest a son only two years old. Chronic anemia had yellowed her face, but it wasn’t a withered, gloomy color. In soft light, her face glowed with a jade-like luster, a warm, soft shade of yellow.
“Think of a way.” Wren didn't inquire about anything or advise anything, not one superfluous word.
“Don't be embarrassed. Take your medical record and go see Dean Ji.” Wren continued.
“Okay, I will.”
“Your medical record, do you have it? You can go see Old Lu.” Wren said. Old Lu was Wren’s husband and worked in the Finance Department of the Number Two City Hospital.
“No need for that, I have a way.” She said, “Don’t worry, Wren.”
She arrived on campus in the afternoon. She sat on the bench by the lake, then walked into to the office building when it was almost on the hour.
The wooden window opened and the owl flew out, that beautiful owl whose feathers shone with a metallic gleam. The expression in its round eyes was downtrodden mixed with several parts arrogance, as if it were ready to break out in laughter at any time. She didn't want to speak in her raspy voice anymore, so she put her medical record on the corner of his desk, then handed him a piece of memo paper on which was written, “Excessive use of vocal cords can, in brief, cause loss of voice” and so on and so forth.
“Chronic occupational diseases, both physical and psychological, are unavoidable.” Dean Ji said. His face was a little puffy and his hair resembled a bird's nest. Perhaps he’d once again spent the night in his office reading books.
“Spend the holidays relaxing. What else can we do? This job is how we earn our bread.”. He didn't look up at her when he spoke.
Since she’d already decided to do this, she didn't care what anyone else thought of her. She was sitting on a chair facing the window and she’d made up her mind. What supported her were things she’d accumulated over many years. She counted them off in her mind: she was gentle, forbearing, gregarious, sensible, no drama, indifferent to honors and benefits, etc., etc. Her behavior over the years proved that she was not a troublesome or demanding person, nor was she one to pick fights or provoke disputes. She was neither shrewd nor stupid, she did everything in the proper degree, and she made people feel reassured.
He said a few more things, one after the other, to let her know it was time for her to leave, but she sat stubbornly on the chair, showing not a whit of shame, as if she hadn't heard him. Her silence was justified, since she’d lost her voice, and did not convey any particular mood or hostility. After a while, she peeked at him and saw him take a quick look at her.
The pressure was on him. When the time was right, she pushed the memo paper toward him. Birds were flapping their wings and flitting through the air outside the window.
“Unless you’re willing to do social courses, personal finance and the like. They’re usually in the evenings or weekends, and no one wants to take them. Fortunately, they don’t require many classroom hours, the content is flexible and there’s a relatively large amount of free time.
“That would suit you.” He added.
The sun was not so strong anymore. She sat down in the shade when she came to the lake and looked back at the office building. She could see the curtain of the office where she’d just been sitting with Dean Ji and felt grateful. The curtain held a wonderful ambiguity. Her medical record hadn’t been opened all the time she was in that office. From beginning to end, he hadn’t once used the word "regulation", and she could appreciate his rejection of the term. As a leader with ability, and especially with emotional sensitivity, he was obviously unwilling to use too cold a vocabulary.
The wide expanse of the lake was covered with sunshine. The footpath she and Wren had walked was on the far shore, and the pomegranate blossoms were in full bloom. They erupted with a red so deep that people looked at them twice. But she felt a dull ache in her heart. “Pomegranate flowers must love to talk,” she thought, “with voices so loud and clear that people far away from them can listen in on their conversations.”
When she stood on the lecture platform, the first thing she saw was a man sitting in the back row. He was wearing a blue shirt, a blue that didn’t hesitate at all but was simple and precise. His forearm lay on the desk so she could see a row of buttons on the cuff, each one sticking out of a buttonhole. She didn’t learn it was called Klein blue or absolute blue until she was chatting with someone after class a long time later.
Only twenty-plus people came to the first class, and she knew that even fewer would come in the future. She felt relieved at the thought because her style was better suited for small classes. They have a special feeling about them. Sounds ring out but don’t clash with or disperse the quiet. Standing on the platform, it seems like a soliloquy communing with spirits, but it resonates widely. The depth of communication is often beyond the ability of language and proceeds on a more profound level.
In a small classroom, what she brings to the fore is a private room. In a small classroom, it’s easier for her to convey to the audience what she’s extracted over many years, and even deliver it to more people who aren’t present. A small classroom at night will also yield some mysterious things which, while difficult to reproduce, will always fascinate people every time they come out. She’ll suddenly be able to discover the words she’s had planted at the bottom of her heart all along, and bring them out, perfectly rounded and complete, without thinking about it. This is the way it was originally, with nary a trace of human labor.
After a few weeks, the class had settled down at seven students. Once, during an interval between lessons, the man in the blue shirt walked up to ask about a picture. She only learned that he was Happy Chen when they began to talk. She could hear the unique quality of his voice as soon as he said something. She immediately realized who he was when he told her his name. “Yes, it’s Happy Chen. Happy Chen!” Everyone who listened to their car radio was familiar with this name. In the traffic station’s 7:30 a.m. program, his voice, full of life, reverberated in the moving car, accompanying people on the way to work. His voice, steeped in sunshine, friendly and brisk, made people feel there’s always hope in the world.
“A radio host comes to this class?” she asked. His answer stunned her into silence. She didn't respond immediately. She always avoided drama, even if it was a high-quality performance. From then on, however, she no longer regarded him as a student.
He said, “I don't want to talk anymore. I just want to listen to other people talk.”
He really was young, both his appearance and his voice. His dusky skin had a healthy complexion that could only be achieved by persistent outdoor sports over many years. The bridge of his nose extended long and straight from between his eyebrows, where a pronounced rise could be seen.
She used a large capacity, closed-top cloth bag for class, one which had an ancient painting printed on the cloth. Happy asked about this painting and she told him it was called "White Illuminates Night". That was the name of a white steed owned by Li Longji, the Xuanzong emperor of the Tang Dynasty. “The horse is tied to a wooden stake,” she said, “Look, in the painting it wants to fly away.”
“Have to paint a pair of wings on it,” Happy said. “Or else” – and here he made a sword dance movement – “use a sword to chop through the stake.”
He went on to say, “The three words ‘White Illuminates Night’, connected together, brighten things up immediately. They have a sort of feeling of brightness.” She understood and thought of the moment when the curtains are opened in the morning and the daylight pounces in without reservation.
She didn’t participate in any meetings or parties for a long time, and also declined all invitations for outside teaching appointments. She said her tonsils were inflamed; she said she had intestinal problems; and these lovely little illnesses sheltered her. Later she stopped asking these illnesses for help and answered calmly with a simple, “No thanks”. A partner who’d been with her for many years gradually withdrew from her thoughts – that partner was called Struggle.
Her mother asked her lots of detailed questions over the phone. She advised Dreamy to be content with her situation and pried into whether she had enough interactions with people. Dreamy told her mother to pay closer attention to her blood pressure.
One time she ran into Wren in the school cafeteria. Wren laughed at her. “It’s not that I’d have you come out onto the battlefield,” she said. “I actually have escapist thoughts, too.”
She thought back on all those evenings spent talking about uninteresting topics under the glow of strip lighting. She watched two people with an ordinary relationship who had to behave more intimately than they were in reality. She went back out to her car and then came back home. When she turned her head to look, she saw a large expanse of sluggishly repetitive blankness standing amidst the already departed hours smirking at her. Examining herself again and again in the mirror, she seemed to have become ugly, to have two blobs flushed with futility and dejection floating on her cheeks. “But they were only evenings spent in public, without a shred of free will, neither mine nor yours.”
When luck was with her, the classroom was her own. In this class she’d talk about Yasujiro Ozu's movies. She said they were suitable for watching at home on holidays. In them one was able to see the world and people as they are, and it turns out there is amazing beauty in the commonplace. “When a cloud appeared on the screen, I clicked pause and looked at it for a while, then did something else. I forgot it for a while and it stayed in the room, stayed an entire afternoon.”
Her eyes lost focus when she spoke of this scene. She was momentarily entranced, off in some secluded realm, thinking of nothing and seeing nothing. When she came out of it, she felt clammy and chilly inside and out.
Halfway through the semester, the section on films wasn't finished yet. Things weren’t quite right in class and she was acutely aware of it. She felt in her bones that an air of unease was growing stronger and more volatile.
In one session Family Joy Yu, a female student who sat in the second row, seemed impatient and fidgety, and her inability to sit still greatly impeded Dreamy’s teaching. She couldn’t keep her mind on the lesson. She continually searched for errors in what she was about to say, so that everything she did say turned out dull and insipid, and her enthusiasm for what she was saying sank to the bottom. Similar problems seemed to be competing to see which would crop up next. All this was tiring and frustrating.
Her voice became crinkly and her hair turned gray. She grew old in a flash.
She spoke mechanically because of her worries. From time to time she tried to console Family Joy with a soothing glance, but it was like getting an anxious child to calm down. She feared that the girl wouldn’t restrain herself and would jump out of her seat and leave class without looking back.
She was standing on papers that had been glued together to form a high bridge. Under the paper bridge flowed the elongated river of time. Or she’d been placed in a hot clay pot and was boiling on a small fire, roiling and frothing. At long last, when she’d boiled all the way to the end of class, she walked out of the room, opened the window at the end of the corridor and let out a long breath. Then, returning to the teacher platform, she found Family Joy with her eyes and gave her an encouraging look, a signal that she wanted to talk. She needed to grasp the situation, to know what was going on.
A few minutes passed and she waited. Family Joy came over and propped her elbows on the lectern, keeping her hands clasped. “Ms. Xie,” she said, “I’d like a few words with you. I’m aware that this is a course in applied techniques called ‘Your Eloquence Is Worth Millions.’
“Who went so far as to give it such a name?” She scrunched up her eyebrows.
“I signed up for the class thinking it would be a crash course, strong on practical applications and with an immediate effect.”
She understood the girl's feelings. Family Joy sold home furnishing at the Furniture Mall and said that the business was so-so, depending on impulse buys over the holidays. On normal days they had to watch the store from morning till night even if there were no customers. The thought of this girl stifling her frustration in the store every day was too much. She still remembered how dreamy-eyed Family Joy had got when she said she planned to go to a famous brands store in Dream City Mall to apply for a job selling exquisite leather goods and jewelry. She hoped the girl could get the job she wanted as soon as possible.
“We’re a general humanities course. Eloquence and presentation are not mere matters of technique, but are also related to basic artistic cultivation and aesthetics.” She said that in a low voice, feeling that her words weren’t convincing.
“But it’s so vacuous, not enticing at all, and also not very useful.”
“There’ll be specialized instruction and exercises later in the course.” She had to say that. Sadly she bid farewell to Ozu Yasujiro, as well as to Balthus, Giacometti and the Northern Song artist Su Shi’s essay "Red Cliffs II", which she had not yet had time to bring up in class. Compared to his previous work, “Red Cliffs I", she’d always felt that the former was closer to the gods due to its lonesomeness. Reading it the first time was like being reincarnated.
When she walked into the classroom for the next session, she put down her bag and looked over the room below the lecture platform. The same few students were there. Family Joy sat in her accustomed place. Dreamy felt a little out of sorts as she waited anxiously for the bell to ring. She feared all of it, from coming through the door and getting up on the platform through speaking and having a dialog with the students. Even though she’d done these things tens of thousands of times, she was still afraid. She’d known as soon as she walked in that she’d become one with things she hadn't thought about clearly and didn't fully endorse.
“Eloquence is the most important factor in success. The word ‘success’ always comes with an accented syllable to emphasize that effect. In this lesson we’ll work together to explore the art of speaking. The oral art. People are social animals, and everyone wants to be welcomed in their group by everyone. Who is ‘everyone’? And each person must master the skills of communication and social intercourse. To induce the operation of the group.
“These frivolous works are the best with which to begin the discussion. We’ll take Hiroyuki Ishii and Rick Kirschner as our basic texts and will cite a large number of cases, mixed with fashionable techniques for reading people’s thoughts, micro-expressions and so forth. We’ll also have the students drill and drill again. The classroom will overflow with an atmosphere of satisfaction and joy in learning about real things, and each lesson will pass quickly.”
But the previous evening, when she’d gotten out her lecture notes, she hadn't even wanted to read them. She’d futzed around until late at night and, laying on her bed, thought, “I’ll get to the classroom twenty minutes early tomorrow and get familiar with the materials before class.” Until almost the very last moment, she hadn't wanted to even glance at the stuff.
After the bell rang, she made like she was in a big rush. She collected her things hurriedly and strode to the door. Then she couldn't help turning her head to look back. She saw Happy Chen stand up and sit back down. She turned away again to leave, but before she got out the door, she hesitated for half a second.
She drove fast on the way home, anxiously trying to put the previous evening behind her. She made the last turn and arrived at her community. She slowed the car down as she did every time she caught sight of the flower shop in the complex of buildings. The lights in the shop were still on. She stopped the car and watched the clerk move the flowerpots placed outside the door into the shop, one by one. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass, she could see the space inside filling up with flowers. It wasn’t a large space. She’d worried that the shop wouldn’t do much business when it first opened. It’d be a shame if it had to close one day. She was among the first batch of people to buy a pre-paid card for the place. After all, with a flower shop open downstairs, the residents would have something higher than just living from day to day.
The clerk had turned off the row of floodlights by the window by the time she got out of her car and walked into the shop. The clerk asked, “This late and you’re coming in to buy flowers?” She nodded and pointed to a bunch of flowers in the corner. “I want these lilies of the valley.”
Most flowers hold their heads high and don’t droop helplessly until they’re fading. Only lilies of the valley face downwards when they’re in their prime. They do it themselves, voluntarily. “I want to bow my head and look down. I want to have flowers blooming toward the ground.”
She heard her heart beating. “It’d be great if it was a nightmare.” She closed her eyes and opened them again. It wasn't a nightmare, but Evaluator Cheng had showed himself. He sat in the front row of the classroom and his every expression seemed to mean something, something that needed to be explained. He had no need to say hello politely, but you knew he was there. He clenched the pen in his hand tightly, like he was ready to make notations at any time on the white form laid out flat and quite conspicuously on the desk in front of him.
Several thoughts spun around in her mind. Every teacher with rich experience can, in the few minutes before class, adjust the order of the lecture to accord with the evaluation criteria on the white form and merge the substance with the preferences of the Evaluator, so as to lecture on the most appropriate content. Analyzing, judging and selecting all of this is a reaction done with the speed of a bolt of lightning, while simultaneously gathering one’s spirits, smiling and standing on the lecture platform like some kind of outdated and pompous rhetorician.
Of course she also had a plan.
But the most dismaying moment was when the performance was done. First she felt ashamed and then sad. While she was on the platform, frightened, flustered and performing for all she was worth, pandering to an evaluator in spite of herself, the feeling of being hard-pressed had gradually filled the air. Everyone knew what was going on, and even the students sitting in the last row raised their heads to look her over. She reminded herself not to be sensitive and continued by force of habit in an inertia that was difficult to restrain.
Her spirit sank.
That was enough acting.
She hadn’t watched the Evaluator’s reaction throughout the entire process, nor did she wait for the peacock to spread its tail afterward. She ended the class in very much her normal fashion, picking up her cup and going to the corridor to get some hot water.
Turning around, she saw that Evaluator Cheng had followed her out. As they stood face to face, she noticed that his expression was neither angry nor calm. The artifice he was using was a display of pity.
He kept shaking his head while he spoke, half smiling.
“You’re not that old, so why are you out of date? Your method of lecturing hasn’t kept up with the times.”
“I didn't want to keep up.” She said.
Evaluator Cheng gave her a hard look. His eyes were like a chisel, first a downward stroke, then around in a circle. “It was too plain,” he said, “no energy, and nothing to hook the students.” He paused a moment, then explained, “What I mean is, you didn’t grab their attention. You need to interact with them. Be witty, tell jokes, so that the class isn’t so lifeless.”
“I’ll never tell jokes.” She said. She used to like telling jokes, but she was the only one who laughed. She could also embellish her lessons, like pearls and green jade on silk brocade, as garish as could be.
“When you have time, sit in on an open class in the School of Management. The teachers’ conduct there, and their personal charm – the enjoyment knows no bounds. They bring it all together.”
Fancy words to start with. She didn't panic at the mention of a class at the School of Management; to the contrary, she wanted to laugh. She’d taken a class there, attracted by their reputation, and it was an unforgettable experience. The enthusiasm of the teacher on the platform poured forth. When the guy’s thin upper and lower lips finished flapping, they always ended on an exaggeratedly round “O” sound. Halfway through the class, she’d wanted to remind the guy to be quieter, to quiet down a bit. Towards the finish, the lecturer/performer was breathing heavily and couldn't say two clauses in one breath. It was painful without end to see. She lowered her head and stopped watching. She felt feverish and could only hope it would be over soon. She’d already heard enough.
The Evaluator didn't notice her expression and continued to share his guidance generously. “Bring it all together first. The students will be more willing to accept what you’re saying and will cooperate with you if you’re passionate about it. Things go better when you bring it all together.”
She kept her distance from people who used that expression, “bring it all together”, and here the Evaluator had said it three times in the space of a minute or two. It was his precious and he had to like it so much. She suddenly thought of Dean Ji. His purity of language would be especially valuable at that moment.
She calculated to herself. All students in a section take general education classes together. so, as a rough estimate, she’d brought it all together with thousands of people over the years. She laughed out loud. It wouldn’t be good for her to say anything; all she could do was laugh.
Evaluator Cheng, a man who’d seen it all, looked at her with a dazed expression. She heard her own laughter and really didn’t feel at ease. “This old man sits in classrooms all day pretending to be an authority, using formalistic but dysfunctional language to guide people, and going through all the motions he has to. It’s really embarrassing for him.”
Evaluator Cheng went back to the classroom with a dark look on his face and collected his forms. As he went downstairs, he said, “This attitude of yours, it’s crazy, crazy.”
“You sat in on a lot of my classes, Teacher Cheng,” she said to his back, “This one was the most ordinary.
“Is the lowest grade a D or an F?”
Right when she finished speaking, she heard Happy Chen's voice coming from behind her. He was asking, “First time, right?”
“The normal practice would be to walk over to the Evaluator as soon as class is over, take it on oneself to listen to his critique, nod at whatever he says and revise one’s position in order to improve.” She said.
“Why didn't you nod your head?”
“I had it all thought out. You don’t nod if you’ve already thought it out.”
“What’ll the consequences be, if you don’t consider the costs of your actions and stuff?”
“The cost of nodding would be even greater.”
The campus was built up against a hill, and the two walked up the path toward the top. There was a copse of oak trees on the way. The tree branches were sparsely covered with leaves, so the yellow light from a streetlamp leaked through in a confused pattern on the stone bench in the copse. The stone shown with a coppery luster.
She said, “Let’s sit for a while.” She felt quite calm at that moment, and calm filled every corner of the copse like the dim of the night itself, wrapping around her from head to toe.
The two lingered there together. They spoke little; neither had a strong desire to express themself, so speaking or not speaking was all the same, and they mostly chose not to speak. They’d never searched for a topic to discuss when they’d spoken before, just talked about whatever came up, and that evening was the same.
The cool stone of the bench warmed up as they sat. She heard a long sigh from Happy before she heard him speak.
“There are times when people don’t want to talk. When the time comes that they have to say something, it’d be better if they could push a button. People – it’d be great if they all had a button on them. And not just for talking; other things, too.”
She turned her head to look at him. His voice had become strange – slower, lower, not as youthful and lively as on the radio. This voice was more suitable for nighttime shows.
She said, “I’ve always had a wish, or you could say a fantasy. One day I arrive in the classroom and sit down without speaking. The students don’t say anything, either. Everyone sits there like that, silent, for one minute, two minutes, forty minutes, forty-five minutes. The bell rings and everyone departs in silence, never having said a word.”
Right away, without waiting for him to pick up the thread of the conversation, she continued. “Just think about it. How could that be possible for a large group of people. Whether to talk of not isn’t ever something one can decide on one’s own.”
She imagined the scene, sitting on the lecture platform and not saying a word. The students thought it strange at first, and before long they began to clamor. The scene was out of control and noisy. Everyone stared at her, using various methods to try to force her to say something. She ran towards the door, turning around to look as she ran. She didn’t make it all the way out the door – a set of vocal organs remained floating in the air, swaying. She shuddered and said over and over, “Impossible. Impossible.”
“That’s crazy when you think about it,” Happy said.
“Yeah, crazy. But I think of it every day, and I’m still thinking about it a second before I walk into the classroom.”
“You have to think about it. How couldn’t you? But you’re a good speaker, quite experienced and careful in the classroom. You handle the class with skill and nonchalance.
She imagined herself as skilled and nonchalant. It seemed like another person, someone who might somehow be called skillful and nonchalant, who wouldn’t seem to carry any hint of embarrassment among people who were models of skill and nonchalance. She nodded and shook her head again, not knowing how to answer him. Looking at the dappled lights of the campus down the mountain, her eyelids became heavy. An attack of fatigue and exhaustion spread slowly and disturbingly over her.
She lay down in bed when she got home and thought about Happy’s evaluation of her class. She could manage only a wry smile.
“Of course I’m a good speaker. Things I should say gather around me as soon as I approach the classroom building. They’re all pushing forward, so I stretch out my hand to clear them away, to make them go far away. But they don’t go. They follow me into the elevator and come out with me when I get to my floor. They jump up and down in excitement when the bell rings. I open my mouth and they roll out.
“Making the atmosphere lively; getting closer to my students; making fun of myself; tossing out jokes that suit young people’s tastes; dealing with people who speak rudely; resolving sudden outbursts – I’m so good at all those things. I can adjust to different circumstances. I present an easy-to-approach image for classes coming to school, lucid and amiable, ready to answer any questions.
“In some classes I appear indifferent and accustomed to disappointment. I lecture only for the limited purpose of accomplishing my duty without emotion. When questions are tossed out for discussion, my attitude is that the students should answer their own questions with no response from me. This attitude precludes the embarrassment and setbacks of awkward silences. I learned it for self-protection.
“Winter afternoons when students have their heads laying on their desks, it’s completely unnecessary to get angry to preserve my self-esteem. At the end of class I’ll give them a reminder, a few seconds of silence as both a deterrent and a time-out. These are exquisite command methods to regain control of a classroom, even when a class feels the need to erupt in anger or talk some trash. I’m well-versed in the logic of these methods.
“What about the happy part? When did it start to go bad?”
She’d even get emotional when she talked, but she felt it immediately the moment it started, it was so familiar. She was afraid she’d never again taste the true flavor of being emotional. Her infatuation and joy were all on an oil slick.
The muscles on Evaluator Cheng’s face had been twitching when he finally left. The twitch was like lightning shining brightly a fixed frame. It was a non-professional expression, so very real and touching. Something cracked open and he departed.
Maybe she could call Happy Chen up and sit down with Family Joy Yu to have a chat. She could tell Family Joy sincerely that the things she says in class, she’s certain about to the best of her knowledge, understanding and ability.
At least she could give it a try.
It was raining lightly and slender streams of water trickled down the windshield. The weather in Southridge in November really wasn’t cold. The rain fell in fine, gentle drops, but it did seem like an autumn rain. It reminded her of Wren. Wren looked people in the eye when she was talking to them. What was good about her with people was that she settled on them drop by drop, first dampening a layer of skin and then slowly and endlessly seeping down into them.
This week it was dusk at class time and it was still early when she arrived at school, so she walked around the campus first. She walked to the pavilion in the middle of the lake, sat down and watched the rain fall quietly on the water. After watching for a while, she felt at peace.
The alarm on her phone rang. She looked and it was almost time. Only then did she remember that she rarely had this sort of leisure time before class. She was always in a hurry, unable to get her mind to settle down. She got up and walked towards the classroom building and, from a distance, saw Happy Chen standing at the entrance. He was wearing that blue shirt again, but its color didn’t look as vivid in the evening drizzle as during the day. She felt a little distracted. His witty remarks during his morning radio show made listeners smile, but in class, he was the most silent shade of blue.
He came forward to greet her. “During class, in this class, you won't have to say anything.”
“What do you mean. Who’ll give the lecture?”
“You had a wish, didn't you?”
She stopped walking. “The impossible one?” she asked.
“Who said it’s impossible? There’s just a few of us students.” His eyes shown as he spoke. “I talked to each of them.”
“Talked about what?”
He smiled. “I didn't use any techniques, the speaking techniques you taught us. I didn't use them at all. I just told the truth.”
She was stunned. “Impossible.”
“How is it impossible? You’ve been teaching us over ten weeks. Believe in yourself. We learned a little bit more in every class.”
She was getting emotional. She’d never thought of changing anyone; she’d only hoped that the light that had shined on her could also shine on others.
Happy looked at her. “Of course,” he continued, “two of the students said it was nonsense. I promised to reimburse them for this class’s tuition.”
“What about Family Joy Yu?”
“Family Joy wouldn’t let me pay her tuition. She just mumbled a few words, like ‘What’s with staying silent? I could stay silent at home. Come here to be silent, hrumph.’”
He had a sudden thought as they approached the classroom. “I had a bit of a thrill,” he said. “There was a new face in the classroom. Maybe he thought he’d come and listen in since it’s almost the last class. Got me all nervous.”
“So, what did you do?”
I told him you were sick and the class was suspended this once. I was still nervous, watching him go.”
For a moment she didn't know how she could step into the classroom. She was afraid to go in and stood timidly at the door. Happy said, “I reminded them not to pay too much attention to you. It's like playing a game. Adults should mostly have their own games. Let's finish the game together.”
She didn’t feel quite herself at first. She glanced down from the lecture platform and everyone had their heads lowered, doing their own thing. No one was watching her. Looking out the window, the dim of night was mixed with the autumn rain. It was quite misty. Looking inside, all was silent under the lights, but it was different from the quiet of a study hall. This was the quietness of a special ceremony that everyone knew about without being told. She let her arms drop, slowed her breathing and stared intently at the scene. It was both a fantasy and incomparably realistic. In the scene she saw herself lower her arms and slow her breathing.
The silence deepened and stretched out a little. It was too deep to see bottom, and wide enough that the edges couldn’t be seen, either. The tautness in her body gradually relaxed, the chords loosening one by one. Warmth spiraled up in the parts that were cold and stiff. A stream of water was gurgling up through the bottom of her heart, which for years had been withered and listless, hard and stagnant, making it flexible. It dispersed. She gradually lost her bearing and melted into a deep, boundless silence.
She remembered the year she’d come across two hoary willows in the flower shop. They had elegant little white flowers blooming sparsely on their brown branches. The owner said they’d only gotten them in recently. She hesitated and for some reason didn’t buy them. She went back the next day and the vase they’d been in was empty. She’d never seen another one. Sitting on the lecture platform at that moment, she missed those two snow willows sincerely.
Her ears were empty, completely empty. After a while, some music came from far away. She listened to a piece that she couldn't be more familiar with, and listened to it again. Why did it sound like wind? She listened carefully and it turned out that at the end of the piece there was wind blowing, and that it had been blowing all the way through.
Two shoddy, brazen-faced flower pots had appeared in her life. They’d come as free gifts with the purchase of a range hood and, muddle-headedly, she’d been using them for many years without giving them a second thought. She wondered, “How could I be so concerned all of a sudden about things I’ve been using every day?” She decided to go buy new ones the next day, ones of sturdier quality but plainer, not bright and shiny like a mirror.
She seen some Solomon’s seal with lotus seeds and yam stewing in an earthenware pot in the cold of winter. She’d been sitting beside a traditional platform stove and reading, just like sitting beside a stove burning charcoal briquettes. She didn't remember what the book was about, only that the fire had whispered its innermost thoughts to the earthenware pot all afternoon.
A horse whinnied through the boundless silence. Each hair of White Illuminates Night’s mane stood upright. The horse’s snow-white body bulged from the yellowing paper, its muscles leapt under its pelt and its head leaned forward. Then its front legs jutted out from the painting’s paper and reached up high in the sky. Its four hooves soared and it galloped off towards the distance. Looking at the paper again, there was nothing left.
Text at p. 37. Translated from 腾讯网 at
[If you want to try reading the Chinese text, be forewarned. This story is an example of an unfortunately prevalent condition among some Chinese writers: A belief that florid and esoteric vocabulary coupled with an enigmatic style can adequately make up for patently banal content – Fannyi]
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