Ground Covered with Chicken Feathers（一地鸡毛）
Young Lin's bean curd has spoiled.
Half a kilo of bean curd contains five cubes, one hundred grammes each, the common kind on sale in state groceries. The bean curd cubes you buy from a privately owned shop or pedlar weigh half a kilo each. They are watery and thin, and disintegrate if stir-fried in a wok.
He gets up at six each morning to queue for bean curd in front of a state grocery. In spite of this early morning effort, there is no guarantee he will get it. Sometimes there are too many people queuing and the bean curd is already sold out by the time it's his turn, and at other times, it is already seven o'clock and he has to leave the queue and hurry to catch the work unit bus. A certain Old Guan has recently been assigned to the office as the new head who pays close attention to late-comers and early-leavers —a new broom sweeps clean. It's most disheartening when your turn in the queue is just about to come and it's already time to go to work. After walking away, Young Lin always curses the long queue for bean curd: "Damn! It's really too bad there being so many poor people on earth!"
This morning, however, he succeeded in getting the desired bean curd even though he queued till 7 : 15 thus missing the shuttle bus. It doesn't really matter today. Old Guan, the head of the office, is supposed to be attending a meeting at the ministry while the deputy head, Old He, has gone on a business trip, so a university graduate newly assigned to the office is temporarily in charge of the job of checking up on attendance. So Young Lin did not worry about queuing late for bean curd. Since he was in a rush to catch the public bus to work, he forgot to put the bean curd in the fridge. When he got home that evening, the bean curd was still wrapped in the plastic bag in the hall. In hot weather like today, there was no way the bean curd wouldn't turn sour.
The bean curd has spoiled and Young Lin's wife has returned home before him, which makes the matter complicated. At first, his wife blames the childminder for not putting the bean curd into the fridge. But the nanny refuses to take any blame. She is unhappy with her pay, which she thinks is low, and with her employer's poor cooking. She has long threatened to go on strike or go somewhere else. She remains only because Young Lin and his wife have repeatedly persuaded her to stay. She doesn't feel at all sorry about the spoiled bean curd and unhesitatingly shifts the blame onto Young Lin arguing that he didn't tell her to put the bean curd away before going to work that morning. So his wife vents her anger on him as soon as he comes back from work, saying that it might have been all right if you hadn't bought the bean curd in the first place. But once you've bought it, how could you allow it to go off in the plastic bag? Why did you do it? Young Lin has had an unpleasant day in the office today. He didn't expect the newcomer to take things so seriously. Seeing that Young Lin was not there at 8 am, he marked him down as "late." Although Young Lin tartly changed it into "on time," the matter has been weighing on him the whole day long, not knowing whether or not the newly assigned university graduate will report on him tomorrow. Now back home, he is once again disheartened knowing that the bean curd has turned bad. On the one hand, he blames the childminder for being too petty. Couldn't you have just made the effort to put it in the fridge even though I didn't tell you to? Would it really have tired you out to just carry the few cubes of bean curd to the fridge? On the other hand, he blames his wife for making a fuss over a trifling matter like this. Half a kilo of bean curd, that's all there is to it. Nobody made it turn bad on purpose. Why nag about it endlessly? Both are very tired after a day's work and there is the child and the dinner to attend to. Is she deliberately trying to create a tiring atmosphere at home? So he responds: "Let it pass, will you? Say it's my fault. Just half a kilo of bean curd after all. If the worst comes to the worst, we'll have our dinner without it tonight. I'll be careful in future."
If he says this much and no more, the matter will be dropped. It's a pity that he can't contain his resentment and adds: "Is half a kilo of bean curd worth raising to a higer plane of principle and going on and on? How much does bean curd cost? Last time you accidentally dropped and broke a thermos flask worth seven or eight yuan. Did anyone ever blame you for that?"
Upon his mentioning the thermos flask, his wife becomes angry again: "At every turn you have to mention that thermos flask. But was I to blame? The thermos wasn't set down properly. Anyone could have broken it merely by touching it. Let's talk about the vase instead of the thermos. What happened to the vase last month? It was perfectly all right on top of the wardrobe. You had to break it while doing the cleaning. How come you reprove me?"
The next moment, she is face to face with him, tears in her eyes, her chest heaving up and down and her face very pale. Judging by experience, her pale face indicates a disagreeable day at work. Her office, like Young Lin's, seldom makes people happy. But are we ever justified in bringing our unhappy feelings back from work and releasing them at home?
He wants to continue remonstrating with her about the vase. But if it continues like this, they'll find themselves in a vicious circle with many plates and dishes and the like involved. In the end, his wife would throw the bag of bad bean curd at his head. The childminder, used to the couple's quarrel, is calmly trimming her nails as if nothing is happening. Her attitude further arouses the couple's anger. Young Lin has written the case off as hopeless and is ready to act recklessly. Fortunately, just at this moment someone knocks at the door and they both shut their mouths. The wife hurriedly dries the tears on her face while he manages to suppress his fury. The childminder opens the door and finds it is the old man who is in charge of reading the water meter.
The elderly inspector is lame. He comes to do his job once a month. Because he walks with a limp, it's not easy for him to climb the stairs. He arrives at each household his face streaming with sweat and has to gasp for a while to regain his breath before reading the meter. The elderly man is enthusiastic about his work. Sometimes he pays extra visits to see, he explains, whether the meters are working properly. Today is the date for a regular check. Young Lin and his wife suppress their rage for the time being and ask the childminder to go with the elderly man to read the meter. After having done his job, the old man doesn't take his leave. Without being asked, he sits down on the edge of their bed. This makes Young Lin feel nervous, for whenever the old man sits down, he will invariably brag about his experiences when young. According to him, he once fed horses for a certain high-ranking leader, now dead. Young Lin was quite interested the first time he heard this and asked for more details. Could anybody imagine that this crippled man had any contact with a big leader in his youth? But after having heard the same story time and again, Young Lin becomes impatient. You're still a meter reader, despite your horse-feeding experience. What's the use of it all, bragging about the big leader when he's already dead? But you mustn't displease him just because he is a meter reader. If offended, he is capable of cutting off the running water for all the households on that stairway. The spanner to turn off the water supply is right in his hand. You have to listen to his horse-feeding experience because of this spanner in his hand. But today, he truly hates a repetition of the story. Why should you sit down without being invited when we are being mad at each other! Can't you feel the tension? So he keeps a straight face, stays where he is instead of going over to greet him as usual.
The elderly meter reader, however, doesn't take the hint. He has taken a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. Right away the room is filled with the smell of tobacco. Young Lin is certain the meter reader is going to indulge in his talk about horses. But this time he has guessed wrong. Instead, the elderly man announces, with a serious expression on his face, that he is going to talk business. He proclaims that according to a report, certain residents in apartments on this stairway are stealing water by deliberately not turning the tap off properly at night so as to catch the drops in a bucket. The dripping cannot be metered and water collected this way is dishonest, isn't it? This practice can't go on. If everybody does the same, how can the waterworks handle it?
This makes Young Lin and his wife blush and then turn pale. They feel ashamed that last week they stole water that way. His wife heard about this method from a casual chat in her office and asked the childminder to try it out. Then Young Lin frowned upon it thinking it was too petty. A ton of water costs only several cents. It wasn't worth it. Besides, the noise of dripping water made sleeping with an easy conscience impossible. Two days later they stopped. But how did the old man get to know about it? Who reported them? Young Lin and his wife immediately suspect their neighbours opposite, a fat couple. The woman claims to look like an Indian and often puts a red dot between her eyebrows. The couple have a child about the same age as the Lins. The two children often play together and fight, too. Young Lin's wife and the "Indian" woman are polite to each other on the surface but actually they don't get along very well. Nevertheless, the childminders of the respective families are on very good terms even though they are not from the same province. They often put their heads together to discuss how to deal with their employers. The two must have gossiped about them so the "Indian" woman learnt that the Lins had collected dripping water twice and reported them to the old man. What he says must have come from this source. How can one bear such a matter being talked about openly? How can the Lins show their faces in public if they admit to having done such a shameful thing? So Young Lin hastens over and declares with a stern countenance that he has no idea whether any resident on their stairway is stealing water or not. His family, anyway, has not done such a thing. Poor as they are, they are people of moral integrity. His wife also comes up and remarks that whoever reported it must be the person who does it, for otherwise how would they know such a trick. It's a case of a thief crying "stop thief," isn't it? The old man flicks the ash off his cigarette and says:
"OK. That's all this time. Whether it's true or not, let the matter rest. We should make sure it'll not happen again."
Then he stands up, assumes a generous posture and limps away, leaving Young Lin and his wife feeling embarrassed. The intervention of this case makes the sour bean curd incident appear less important. Young Lin feels his wife is to blame. How could a university graduate become so vulgar? For two buckets of water which hardly costs anything, she has been disgraced by a sharp reproof. His wife feels quite ashamed herself and finds it difficult to go on complaining about the bean curd incident. Glancing at him angrily, she goes to the kitchen to prepare dinner. The incident has brought peace to his family just when it was on the brink of war. Young Lin is somewhat grateful to the old man for this.
Dinner tonight includes stir-fried string beans, stir-fried bean-shoots, a small plate of sausage and a bowl of mixed stew leftover from yesterday. The sausage is mainly for the child, the other three for Young Lin, his wife and the childminder. But the childminder does not eat leftovers which, she once said, gave her diarrhoea. Young Lin's wife had a quarrel with her over this. It seems you are an aristocrat. I eat leftovers myself yet I'm the employer. How come that you can't for fear of diarrhoea? What fine food did you eat in the countryside before? Upon this, the childminder made a tearful scene. She threatened to go on strike or leave. Only after Young Lin had mediated between the two was the childminder persuaded to stay. Using this to her advantage, the childminder will not even touch leftovers. The couple finish off the leftovers before they start on the newly cooked dishes. The child is very naughty during the meal, trying to get hold of things. His wife suspects that she is catching a cold for she seems to have a runny nose. At last, at nearly 8:30, the dinner is finished. As a routine, the childminder now has to wash up, Young Lin to bath the child and his wife to go to bed. Her unit is farther away than his, she has to get up earlier. So of course she should go to bed earlier. But tonight she doesn't go to bed early or wash her feet either. She just sits on the bed, deep in thought. Whenever his wife has something on her mind like this, Young Lin feels scared, not knowing what new topic she will bring up. She is not too bad this time. After a while, she carelessly washes her feet and goes to bed without saying anything. Although usually she nags nonstop, fortunately once in bed she stops nagging and is asleep and snoring in three minutes, faster than a child. Young Lin was very unhappy with this when they were newly married a few years ago. How could she do this? He once asked her: "How come that you fall asleep in almost no time? If you go on like this, I won't be able to bear it!" His wife explained with embarrassment:
"After a day's work I'm tired as a pig. How can I stay awake for long?"
Later they had a child. Life became more and more complicated. They were busy moving again and again; busy going to and from work; busy with food and drinks; busy caring for both the child and adults in the family. They were tired with all the work and Young Lin's wife gradually became garrulous. It was then that he found his wife's sleeping habits an advantage, something he could look forward to when they were at odds with each other. The internal war would stop when her head touched a pillow. Young Lin realizes that there aren't absolute merits or demerits in the world. They can transform themselves into their opposites.
His wife is asleep, so are the child and the childminder. All three of them are lightly snoring. Young Lin checks the electrical and water devices and then he too goes to bed. In the past he had the habit of reading a book or a newspaper before going to sleep. More often than not, he would even get up and take some notes. But now, being through with all his chores, he is already fighting to keep his eyes open. So the idea of reading and note-taking is dropped. He'd better go to bed as early as possible for he will need to get up and queue for bean curd early. This reminds him of that half a kilo of spoiled bean curd. He suddenly remembers it's still in the hall, untouched. That's something that might spark off a major incident. If his wife sees it tomorrow morning, a new quarrel might start. So he gets out of bed, makes for the hall, turns on the light and disposes of the spoiled bean curd.
Young Lin's wife is called Little Li. Before she got married she was a quiet girl with delicate features. Although short, she appeared tiny and exquisite, arousing tenderness and affection. She didn't talk much then and although she didn't dress fashionably she was very clean and had very long hair. She was introduced to Young Lin by a classmate and they fell in love. She was rather shy when she met people. One felt relaxed and peaceful in her presence. There was even an aura of poetry about her. It was then that Young Lin started to pay attention to the way he talked and his personal hygiene. It was quite beyond his imagination that several years later, this quiet girl with the poetic quality would become a nagging housewife who did not do her hair and had learnt how to steal drips of water at night. They were both university students devoted to their work. They had both exerted themselves, worked by lamplight, had noble ambitions then. They never thought about their bosses at work, nor about social institutions and organizations of whatever size. It was beyond their imagination that several years later, they would so quickly drown in stereotyped crowds just like everybody else. All you can do is to buy bean curd, go to work and back, eat, sleep, do the washing, see to the childminder and attend to your child. In the evening you don't want even to touch a book. All those grand plans and great aspirations! Those careers and ideals! What a load of rubbish! That's only for the young and naive to dream about. Isn't everybody else drifting along aimlessly too? And yet, they get through their days all the same? Even if you cherish great expectations and lofty ideals, so what? "Where are the historical figures with great accomplishments? In deserted graves hidden under the sand!" By the end of one's life, who will still be alive to know you and appraise you? So Young Lin is perfectly content sometimes. He'd suffered physically and mentally at work, but it had made him mature. Now he can handle different situations with ease. So long as you are patient enough to wait without behaving rashly or perversely, you'll sooner or later get what others have got. Take housing, for example. His family once shared a flat with others, then moved to the slum in Ox Street. Because the place was due to be demolished they moved again to temporary accommodation. Now they have got a one-room flat. At first the Lins did not have a refrigerator or a colour TV while other families did, which made him feel ashamed. They saved up and now they have also bought those things. They do not have wall units or a sound system, not yet. But is there an end to material desires? Be patient and you'll find yourself in a communist society. What makes you impatient are trifles like spoiled bean curd. In the past, a happy life with a good wife and children and a cosy home was considered a peasant ideal. But what else should you strive for if not for a happy family with a wife and children? And that's not easy to achieve either. Your wife has changed. Your child is still too young and you're always carrying the burden of work on your shoulders. Can you guarantee a cosy home for every single day? People often complain about their work being too complicated and difficult, as if a cosy home with a wife and child is any easier! Your great aspirations of the past can be excused on the grounds of immaturity, for you didn't understand the development of social patterns in today's world. A thousand-li journey starts with the first step. Young Lin, you should start your journey by seeing to the spoiled bean curd! As usual, he gets up at six the next morning and queues for bean curd in front of the state grocery. His wife has also woken up, staring at the ceiling with wide-open eyes. Going to sleep quickly restores her clear-thinking. Unlike Young Lin, whose head remains dull for half an hour after waking up, she needs only five minutes to be wide awake and to pick up her train of thought from before going to sleep. This is both good and bad. If they are at odds with each other, she will immediately carry on with the quarrel from the day before. He feels a little anxious when he sees his wife staring as she did before going to sleep last night. He can't think what his wife is brewing up. She doesn't speak to him when he gets up, which makes him feel better. He hurriedly brushes his teeth, washes his face and tries to steal quietly out of the room taking a plastic bag with him. Just as he puts out his hand to open the door, his wife says from the bed,
"Don't buy bean curd today!" So his wife won't let go. She wants to carry on with yesterday's bean curd incident. He feels a fury rising in his heart. The spoiled bean curd has been thrown away and a night has passed. Why go on quibbling about it? He protests:
"How can half a kilo of spoiled bean curd make you want never to buy any more again? I'll put it in the fridge today, won't that do? How many years do you need to keep on about it?"
With a shake of her hand, his wife says, "I'm not thinking about the spoiled bean curd. I've been thinking all night, I can't stay in my work unit any longer. I must change my job. Talk to me about it! You can't be so indifferent to my problems!"
So she is not referring to the spoiled bean curd. He feels relieved. But a job transfer is no less vexing and even more complicated than the bean curd incident. To be honest, her place of work is not so bad. As a university graduate, she sits in an office, sorting documents and writing reports. In her spare time she drinks tea and reads the newspaper. But she used to be so straightforward. Just like Young Lin when he was first assigned to his job, she wasn't experienced in handling the various relationships at work and the consequences lingered on. Although she realized her mistakes and corrected them later, the effects still revealed themselves from time to time and small clashes seemed inevitable. Unhappy at work, back home she would nag Young Lin about her transfer. He had tried to persuade her using himself as an example. He told her that once she overcame her weaknesses of being too naive and insensitive, she'd get used to working there; there was really no need to transfer because everywhere you worked was the same; and besides, it was not at all easy to achieve her wish. Who would employ you, he said, we are both powerless and don't have the necessary information or connections? But his wife said he was ineffective, unable to do anything to save his wife from the depths of despair. I couldn't help you outside, he argued, but have tried to from the inside. Can't explanation be counted as help? His wife was convinced. Having aired her grievances by nagging at him, she went on working at the same place without raising the idea of a transfer. If things had continued like this, she would have got used to it and the annoying problem of changing her job would have disappeared. But the Lins have moved several times, farther and farther away from her place of work. She was very pleased at each of the moves as their living conditions became better. At last, she said, we have our own place in Beijing too. She spent most of her spare time decorating it: she decided how to hang the curtains; how to arrange the furniture; where to put the fridge and the TV set; and what else they needed to buy. Most of her worries then were about things like that. When the room was nearly finished, she became dissatisfied once again. She was unhappy that they lived too far from her workplace. Her office didn't run a shuttle bus on this route, so she had to catch the crowded public buses to and from work. A round trip would take her three to four hours. She got up at six in the morning and came back at eight in the evening, accompanied by stars and the moon at both ends, day after day, and the buses were always jam-packed. She felt she couldn't stand it any longer and simply must get a transfer. Seeing his wife utterly exhausted after work each day, Young Lin also realized this was something different from just being unhappy at work. Such unhappiness could be endured and overcome but it was not possible to shorten the distance. She must be transferred to somewhere nearer home. But having made up their minds to do it, the couple found themselves facing insurmountable difficulties, for it was not up to them to decide whether to make the transfer or not.Like a blind cat groping for mice, they tried several places which, without exception, and with no room for discussion, refused to consider them. They were most disheartened. He said,
"Enough. No more running around. It's just wasted effort. Put up with it. Some other people in Beijing live even farther away from where they work! Don't just count the kilometres you travel, think of the women weavers! They stand working the whole day long while you work over tea and newspapers. Are you still dissatisfied?"
His wife flared up:
"You are incapable of solving the problem, so you just ask me to put up with it. Of course you can put up with riding in the shuttle bus every day. Can't you understand what it means spending four hours in a crowded bus every day? I must be transferred. Otherwise I won't go to work tomorrow. You go and earn enough money to support the family! "
Just as she threatened, she didn't go to work the next day. Young Lin was truly worried. The worries forced him to make good use of his brains and finally he came up with a solution. He discovered that the head of personnel at an office in Qiansanmen was a former classmate of Old Zhang, the deputy bureau director of Young Lin's office. Young Lin had once helped Old Zhang to move house, sparing no effort. So Old Zhang thought well of him. After being caught in flagrante delicto with Mrs Qiao, Old Zhang had tucked his tail between his legs, so to speak, and showed special concern for his subordinates and would spare no effort to help them whenever it was needed. So Young Lin felt Old Zhang would not refuse if he asked for help. If Old Zhang would provide a recommendation, the Qiansanmen office might be a solution. It was also a long way from the Lins' residence—a single trip by public bus took two hours. But there was an underground railway connecting the two places. Forty minutes on a fast underground train was sufficient. Besides, it is not as crowded as a public bus. Sometimes seats are available. He told his wife about his idea. She was pleased. She agreed and urged him to talk to Old Zhang. He went to Old Zhang, told him about his wife's difficulties and about the place in Qiansanmen. Knowing that his old leader had some good connections there, he said, he'd come to ask him for help. As expected, Old Zhang readily agreed:
"Very well, her office is very far away. She should transfer!" He added: "I don't know the Qiansanmen unit personally. But the comrade in charge of personnel affairs there is an old classmate of mine. I'll write to him. Go and see whether he can arrange the transfer. "
Plucking up his courage, Young Lin said,
"It might be better if you called him as well."
Stroking his big head, Old Zhang laughed and then rapped Young Lin on the head:
"The youth now are much shrewder than we were when young! All right. I'll make a phone call for you. "
Old Zhang made the call and wrote the letter. Lin was as overjoyed as if it were an imperial edict. So was his wife when she saw the letter. He took it to the head at the Qiansanmen unit and it really worked. Having gone through the letter the head said,
"Old Zhang is my old classmate. Both of us were very keen athletes in our university days. "
Leaning over the head's desk, Young Lin anxiously continued the theme:
"Old Zhang loves physical exercise even now. "
The head glanced at him and suddenly mentioned the recent incident concerning Old Zhang. He asked for details. Young Lin found himself in an awkward situation. It was not proper for him to say anything, nor was it proper not to. He just selected the main details and said that Old Zhang had just sat talking with Mrs Qiao in his office. It hadn't got further than that. Everything else was pure rumour. Laughing, the head remarked:
"Old Zhang, he's still a bit of a Romeo!"
Finally, the subject of the transfer came up. Put in an excellent mood, the head said:
"OK. OK. Old Zhang's affairs are as good as my own. Let me find out which office is short of staff. "
Wasn't that as good as a promise? Young Lin returned home and told his wife. She instantly embraced him and covered his face with kisses. They had an enjoyable evening. If they had simply waited, the transfer would have been assured. Young Lin's wife could go to work on the underground every day. But they overreached themselves and became victims of their own cleverness. While the head of personnel affairs was making efforts to help them, the couple continued to feel anxious. The wife discovered that the husband of an acquaintance also worked in the same unit and was an office head as well. She discussed this with Young Lin and suggested that they ask him for help, too. The efforts of one person in charge of personnel affairs might not be sufficient. Young Lin didn't think carefully about the suggestion. Yes, one more person meant more effort. He felt there was no harm in it at all. So they went ahead. Who would have thought the head of personnel affairs would stop making further efforts as soon as he learnt about this? The next time Young Lin went to see him, he said coldly,
"Haven't you also asked so-and-so? Let him try!"
Now Young Lin was really anxious. He realized that a fundamental strategic mistake had been made. Just the same as getting ahead in a work unit, you've got to rely on only one head when asking people for help. Only then will this person make a genuine effort to assist. No one will if you seek help from more than one, for it shows you have many connections and you are too clever. They might think: Why ask me for help since you've already asked somebody else? It could actually arouse the resentment of the people involved. Instead of assisting you, they might become more of a hindrance than a help. "Let's see whether you can succeed by relying on others rather than me!" When Young Lin and his wife realized the truth, it was already too late. At first they blamed each other. Then they both tried to work out a remedy. What could they do now? All Young Lin could do was to ask Old Zhang to call his old classmate again. But Old Zhang is not Young Lin's blood brother. It is not appropriate for him to keep on troubling the deputy head of the bureau. So, the transfer problem remains in the air. As time goes by, Young Lin lets the matter drop temporarily, busy as he is with other matters. But his wife doesn't. She sits there brooding over it alone. The day after the spoiled bean curd incident, she sat by the bed thinking without washing her feet. It was just this matter that she had been thinking about. Getting up early in the morning, she raises the issue again. At first Young Lin suspects his wife wants him to go and see Old Zhang. He doesn't feel like going again. So he says:
"We made a mess of things. What is the use of me going to Old Zhang all the time?"
His wife responds: "I'm not asking you to see Old Zhang this time but to go to the head of personnel affairs at Qiansanmen."
Young Lin is even less inclined to see the head than to see Old Zhang. He replies:
"He was pretty cool towards me after we asked your friend's husband for help. How can I have the face to ask him again. It wouldn't be much use even if I did!"
"Why wouldn't it? I've thought about it. Don't just blame my friend's husband. That's not the problem—it's the fact that we haven't tried hard enough. In order to get something done just talking won't do. I think we should give him something. Flies like blood nowadays. Will he really try to help without our giving him anything? We have to bleed a little!"
Young Lin says: "I've only seen him a few times, I scarcely know him. I don't even know where he lives. How can we give him things?"
His wife flares up: "From the way you talk about my problem I can tell you are indifferent! What did you give Mrs Qiao when you tried to join the Party? You know how hard up we were at the time. We didn't even have enough money for the child's milk. But still I agreed to your giving her something. Now when it is for my sake, you try to find all sorts of excuses to refuse. Why?"
Her face turns pale. Seeing how serious and angry she's becoming, Young Lin hastens to say:
"Well, well. We'll do it! We'll see what use it'll be!"
That's the end of the conversation. The couple go to work as usual. After coming back from work in the evening, they hurry through their dinner, tell the childminder to take good care of the child and then go to the home of the head of the Qiansanmen unit to give him something. Once they've decided on this, they find it hard to decide what to give. After half an hour strolling around a store, they still can't make up their minds. A small gift is not suitable, while a big one is too expensive. Finally Young Lin's wife sees a piece of handicraft. It's a glass case with several flowers, birds and fish inside, artistic and tasteful at a price of a little over forty yuan. It suits their purpose. But upon further discussion, they decide against it. Would a head of personnel affairs appreciate flowers and birds? It would be bad if he assumed the handicraft was a cheap article worth just ten or so yuan. So they continue with their search. Young Lin's eyes light up when they reach the food and cold drinks counter. He declares:
"I've got it!"
His wife asks,
He shows her the piled-up boxes of Coca Cola with a sign which reads: "Big sale: 1.9 yuan per can." The normal price is 3.5 yuan per can. Coca Cola would make a good gift. At the present price, a case of twenty-four cans will cost just over forty yuan. It looks bulky, and is generous and practical as well. The head will love it. But why have they been reduced? His wife says,
"Can it be they are past their sell-by date? If so, they're no good."
They ask the shop assistant. They are not out of date. Strange. It seems that the cans of Coke are waiting there to be presented as a gift. Young Lin says,
"It looks as if we are in luck today, and the matter will be settled successfully. "
His wife perks up and pays for a box right away.
Carrying the box on his shoulder, they catch a bus to deliver the gift. It's 8:30 in the evening when they arrive at the building where the head lives. The timing is perfect. No sooner have they started to climb the stairs than someone is coming down. It's none other than the head. Young Lin hastens to greet him. The head is startled at first. Seeing that it is Young Lin, he smiles at them and says,
"It's you." He is more polite now at the door of his home than in his office.
Young Lin says,
"Uncle Wang, this is my wife. Old Zhang said it was all right for us to trouble you once more about her transfer. "
The head answers,
"I know. As for the transfer, it's OK. with me. The question is whether an office in the unit is willing to accept new staff or not. If you can find an office, just ask them to come to me. Then the matter will be settled. I have something to attend to tonight and the car is waiting outside. Excuse me for not being able to receive you at home."
Their hearts sink at these words. Isn't this as bad as being refused? Only when the head has already left the building does Young Lin remember the box of Coca Cola weighing down on his shoulder. He hastily calls out towards the gate:
"Uncle Wang, I've brought a box of drinks for you."
Laughing the head responds from outside:
"I've got enough drinks. Take them home for yourselves. "
With these words, the car starts up and races away, leaving the couple in the corridor feeling terribly awkward. It's a long time before they feel better. Young Lin throws the box onto the steps:
"Damn it! Even gifts are not accepted!"
He turns to blame his wife:
"I said no and you insisted. Just see how bad it makes us look. "
His wife murmurs repeatedly:
"How could he be so awful! How could he be so mean!"
The two of them make their way home with the box of drinks. The gift has been rejected and their hearts ache over the money spent on it. Wasn't it crazy to pay over forty yuan for a box of Coca Cola to take home! What should they do with it? Send it back to the store? Edible goods are non-refundable after purchase. Drink it? How can they shut themselves up and drink Coke? The wife is clever. Two days later, she opens up the box and after that she often gives the child a can to drink outside. Before this, they didn't buy any drinks, or good-quality hairtail fish. Their child is poorly dressed and they are well-known in the neighbourhood for being hard-up. They did buy hairtail fish once. It was cheap because it was a bit off. The smell seeped into the corridor and the "Indian" woman gossiped about it. Their little girl drinking a can of Coke will be good publicity. It's consoling to think that the box of Coke has some use. But the transfer issue remains a problem which still weighs heavily in their hearts.
The Lins have guests today. Young Lin knows it as soon as he walks down the corridor after work, for their door is wide open and the coughing of people from his hometown can be heard. Sure enough, as he steps through the door he sees two of them sitting on the bed in the inner room. They are burnt black from the sun and blue veins stand out on their foreheads. A few canvas bags with the late Chairman Mao's quotations printed on them lie at their feet. The two are smoking and coughing away. The floor is covered with ash and phlegm which they drop and spit about without hesitation. Irritated by the smoke, his little daughter is also coughing and running around in the smoke. Until now, Young Lin has been in a good mood. The newly assigned head of office, Old Guan, though usually very serious in appearance, is actually not a man of ill will. In the discussion about seasonal awards, he decided to give Young Lin a first-grade award. That means an extra fifty yuan. Fifty yuan isn't much, but it's better than nothing. Young Lin can give his wife some happy moments with it. As he hurried home he hadn't expected to see two folks from his hometown instead of his wife. His good mood disappears in an instant, like a fire put out by a bucket of cold water. He should have felt happy to see his own folks. It would be nice just to sit together talking about the old days after so many years of separation. But they come so often that he can't feel happy or want to talk about the past with them. On the contrary, these visits have become a burden. The guests should be entertained, shouldn't they? It would cost at least several dozens kuai each time. The family budget can't stand such frequent visits. Besides, these guests are different from old classmates and friends who will excuse you if they are not properly looked after. Although they are burned black with blue veins standing out on their foreheads, although they are from the countryside, the guests are very particular about courtesy.If not satisfactorily received, they'll be displeased and, say things against you when they go back home. According to them, if you live in Beijing, you are naturally obliged to entertain them. They don't understand that in Beijing Young Lin has the lowest economic status, one of those who have to queue for bean curd each morning. He cooks two more dishes for the meal just because guests have to be entertained. Seeing how they sometimes put on airs, Young Lin can't help feeling annoyed and amused simultaneously. What do you eat back home in the countryside? It would have been easier for him to handle if a meal is all that has to be provided. More often than not, the guests assign him different tasks to do after the meal, such as getting hold of goods and materials, securing chemical fertilizers, buying trucks, going to court and buying train tickets for their departure. Where is he to go to acquire the ability to fulfil all these tasks? He can't get his wife transferred to another work unit or even get his gift accepted. How can he possibly help others with a lawsuit or purchase of a truck? To get a train ticket, he has to queue at the Beijing railway station just like everybody does.
Being concerned at first about saving face, he felt they would look down on him if he told them that he wasn't able to help them with any of those things, so he agreed to have a try. But more often than not, he tried to no avail. Although his former classmates had been assigned to work in different units, they were mere newcomers, far from a position in which they might exercise power. How could he possibly succeed? In the end losing face was unavoidable. Later he became wiser and learned to say "No, I can't do it!" It would make people look down upon him. It's true. But they would do so anyway, sooner or later. Allowing himself to be looked down upon sooner would save him a lot of trouble. Nevertheless, they keep on coming in a steady stream. A meal is the minimum he must provide.
What makes the matter more complicated is that Young Lin's wife has an urban background. Relations in cities are much simpler than in the countryside and very few guests from her side visit them. By contrast, visitors from his side come all the time and they always stay for meals. What also makes Young Lin feel embarrassed is that being from the countryside, they don't pay attention to their manners. They flick cigarette ash and spit indiscriminately. To be fair, his wife can be counted as a liberal regarding these matters. In the beginning she kept silent. When the number of visitors grew and receiving them became more routine she felt she couldn't bear it. Later when they had guests again, she would assume an unhappy expression and wouldn't buy food or cook. He blamed his wife for not showing due respect for his feelings, but at the same time he also felt that his wife had good reason to be unhappy. He himself would have been the same if he was in his wife's shoes. So he blamed the guests for not bringing credit to his hometown, which consequently made people despise him, too. His hometown is like a big tail which the guests constantly raise to expose his shame and to serve as a reminder to people that he is from the countryside. The "Indian" woman, their neighbour opposite, once remarked: "Look at the countrified Lin family. It's full of rustics. " Young Lin's wife later got to hear the remark and was really upset by it. So he is in constant fear of more visitors from his hometown, especially when he leaves work for home each day. Sometimes he is at home, and he hears an accent other than a Beijing one which puts him on tenterhooks, and he rushes to the balcony to find out whether "the accent" is approaching his stairway. Only after he has confirmed that it isn't can he breathe. Although he doesn't want visitors from his hometown, he does wish that some would come from his wife's side. If any should come, he appears unusually warm toward them so as to offset the constant visits from his own side and make his wife feel psychologically balanced. But few of his wife's relatives come to visit and he always has a guilty conscience. His parents didn't understand Young Lin's feelings about the visitors. They felt that they could flaunt their son being in Beijing and would say: "My son's in Beijing. Go and ask him for help." Young Lin found it hard for him to be cold toward these visitors. After a long stretch of frequent visits, he realized that the warmer he was, the more visitors he had. He learned his lesson and ceased to be warm any more, which made the folks from home feel slighted and displeased. Back home, they would accuse him of having forgotten his origins. If they think he has forgotten them, well, he has forgotten them. What's there in his origins worth yearning for? He wrote to his parents telling them that he was very busy and hard up, too. He asked them not to parade him and his home in front of people. When he had finished writing the letter, he showed it to his wife. But she didn't show any gratitude. Spitting at the floor, she said:
"If I had known that your family was like that, I wouldn't have married you!"
Young Lin flared up. Pointing at his wife, he shouted:
"I explained to you my family background. You said you didn't mind. Why do you talk as if I've cheated you!"
Despite their quarrels, visitors arrive as usual. Because they will come despite anything, his wife gradually gets used to them. Once she does, the visits become second nature to her. She reveals no more than an unhappy face. Young Lin is satisfied and conscientious: to a meal for his guests, he adds nothing but two popular dishes, one of them fish or chicken, and no alcohol. If they are displeased, so be it. It's better that than an unhappy wife.
However, this time Young Lin feels he simply can't add just two dishes for today's guests. One of them is old and the other young. At first he did not recognize them and asked which village they were from. On hearing the old man's voice, he knew him at once as his primary school teacher. His surname is Du. Young Lin studied with him for five years. He taught mathematics and Chinese. One winter, being a mischievous boy, Young Lin stole out of the classroom during a self-study period to play on the ice. The ice broke and he fell into the water. After he was rescued, the teacher didn't scold him. Instead, he quickly took off Young Lin's wet clothes and wrapped him in his own padded coat. The good teacher is now in his home after more than ten years' separation. Young Lin cannot help feeling excited. He walks over to shake hands with him: "Teacher!"
Seeing how pleased he is, the teacher becomes pleased too. Holding his hand, he said: "Young Lin! I wouldn't recognize you if I met you in the street. "
He hastily introduces the young man as his son.
After the excitement has died down, Young Lin asks his teacher what they've come to Beijing for. The answer makes him worry. His teacher has been suffering from pulmonary emphysema. The hospital in their hometown is a low level one and cannot tell for certain whether his disease has degenerated into lung cancer. Of all his students, Young Lin has turned out the best in terms of where he is working, Beijing. And so, accompanied by his son, he has come to Young Lin for help to recommend a hospital that will diagnose his disease. If it is cancer, he'd better stay in hospital for treatment.If it's pulmonary emphysema, he hopes to have an operation. Thinking hard, Young Lin says: "Let's take time to discuss it. Let's take time to discuss it. "
But he cannot think of a suitable hospital. At this moment the door opens. His wife has come back from work. Looking at his watch, he sees it's already 7:30. Seeing his wife, he worries again. Closely watching his wife's expression, he introduces the two parties to each other. Of course his wife doesn't look pleased at seeing the guests and the room full of smoke and spit. She merely nods her head and goes to the kitchen. A moment later, a quarrel is heard. His wife is blaming the childminder. It's already 7:30 pm. Why has nothing been prepared for the child? Young Lin knows the blame is meant for his ears. He is to blame for his carelessness. Engaged in conversation with his teacher, he forgot to ask the childminder to cook for the child first. Young Lin, his wife, the childminder, the child plus the two guests, there are six of them for dinner. But the dinner is nowhere near ready. So he asks his teacher to sit for a while and then goes to the kitchen to explain to his wife. First of all, he takes out the fifty yuan awarded by his work unit as a present for her. Then he explains that he really can do nothing about it. Unlike other visitors, this is his former primary school teacher. Just cook a meal for them and that is all. His wife knocks the five notes out of his hand and says:
"Damn it! Who hasn't got a teacher! How can I take care of a teacher when my child is waiting for a meal!"
Pulling at her, he says: "Lower your voice. They'll hear you!"
She raises her voice even more: "Let them hear it! Guests come almost every day. I'm not running a hotel. I can't stand it any longer if it goes on like this!" Then she leans against the edge of the sink and bursts into tears.
Young Lin is in a towering rage. But it's no use flying off the handle now. His guests are still waiting in the inner room, he has to go back and keep his teacher company. Evidently the teacher has heard their quarrelling. After all his teacher is a cultured man, unlike the other folks from hometown who put on airs if not properly entertained. He immediately declares loudly: "Don't bother, Young Lin. We've had our dinner already. We are staying in an underground hotel in Jinsong. We just wanted to see you and bring you some local products. We must leave after this cup of tea. We'll miss the bus if we stay late!"
He zips open a canvas bag and lets his son take two big tins of sesame oil to the kitchen.
Young Lin feels this is even harder to bear. He is sure his teacher hasn't had dinner yet. What he just said is deliberately for his wife's ears for fear that Young Lin will feel awkward. Maybe the two tins of sesame oil have worked or his wife has found her conscience again. Anyway, she cooks for them and has done well: Four dishes, one of which, fried shrimp meat, is usually meant for their child. They finish the meal and Young Lin sees his teacher and the son off. On the way the teacher keeps saying:
"I have troubled you with my visit. I didn't plan to come but my wife kept persuading me so I came."
He cannot help feeling sad when he sees his teacher's grey hair, halting steps and the wrinkles in his face full of dust. He didn't give his teacher time to wash his face. He says:
"Teacher, you are ill. You need to come to Beijing for treatment. Let me first look for a cheap hotel for you to stay and tomorrow I'll go and look for a hospital."
The old man stops him with his hand:
"Don't bother about me. I've got another way." He takes off his cap and produces a slip of paper. "I was afraid that I wouldn't find you so I went to Section Chief Li of the County Education Bureau. A former classmate of his is head of department of a big work unit. Look! He has written a letter for me! This man is such a high-ranking cadre. I'm sure he'll be able to help me!"
On hearing this, Young Lin doesn't insist. For if he tries, he can't be sure of finding a good hospital, and he may only waste his teacher's time. Better let them go and ask the head of department for help. So he sees his teacher off on a public bus and says goodbye. The bus drives away with his teacher still waving to him in the distance, all smiles, even when he is lurching backwards and forwards from the sudden stops and starts. Tears well up in Young Lin's eyes. His teacher smiled at him just as he did when he was in the primary school. After the bus is out of sight, he walks back home alone. He now feels weighed down as if a mountain is resting on his back. With every step he is at a risk of being crushed.
The next morning, Young Lin reads the newspaper in his office and sees a memorial article for a great leader who passed away many years ago. The article elaborates on how much this leader respected his teachers and concerned himself with education. He once sent for two of the teachers who had taught him in his early youth, the only two who were still alive, arranged for them to stay in the best place in Beijing and showed them around the whole city. Young Lin thinks highly of the late leader. But now when he reads the article, he can't hold back his curses:
"Who doesn't want to respect one's teachers and show concern for education! I would love to let my teachers stay in the best place and show them around Beijing, too. Do I have the power to do so?"
He throws the newspaper into a dustbin.
The child falls ill. She has a running nose and a cough. The wife says: "Your teacher had pulmonary emphysema when he visited us. Perhaps he's given it to our child."
Young Lin also worries a lot whenever the girl falls ill. Her illness makes a great difference to the family. When she is ill, one of them at least, either him or his wife, has to ask for leave to stay at home and look after her. The childminder alone is not good enough over such a period. But on hearing his wife wildly blaming his teacher, his indignation is greatly aroused. As a punishment after his teacher left, Young Lin didn't talk to her for two days, because she had hurt his feelings by embarrassing him in his teacher's presence. For that meal you prepared, my teacher paid two big tins of sesame oil weighing about five kilos. At the free market in Beijing sesame oil is sold at eight yuan per half kilo. Five kilo means over eighty yuan. Was your meal worth that much? When she uses the sesame oil his wife also looks ashamed for a few days. She too feels she went too far. Now that the child is sick, she wants to take it out on her husband and retaliate using his teacher as a pretext. Young Lin is not polite to her. He says:
"Better check the child's illness first. What if it's not pulmonary emphysema? Isn't it immoral to blame a person without any proof?"
So the two of them ask for leave and take the child to hospital. It's no simple matter to have a diagnosis done. Basically, one thing is needed: money. For a child to see a doctor these days, twenty to thirty yuan is the minimum cost, including unnecessary medical tests and prescriptions. Young Lin feels that life is bearable if people in other occupations become dishonest, but unbearable if doctors are dishonest, too. Once his child had a runny tummy, going to the hospital cost him seventy-five yuan. It's true. Annoyed and amused at the same time, his wife asked him while shaking her both hands:
"Is the excrement worth seventy-five yuan?"
Each time they take the child to hospital, they feel they have been cheated.
But there is no alternative, they have to go. Take the present situation for example. On their way to the hospital, the child's temperature has gone up. The couple forget to accuse each other, forget that they are going to be cheated again. All their attention is on the child and they hurry to catch a bus to the hospital.
A check shows that it is nothing but a cold. Yet they are informed at the cash desk of the hospital pharmacy that the charge for the prescription is 45.58 yuan. Shaking the prescription, his wife says:
"Look. Got ripped off again. Shall we pay for the medicine or not?"
He does not reply. Just now he was anxious that for some unknown reason the child was running a high fever. He was not sure whether it was contracted from his teacher. Now the diagnosis reveals that it is just a cold. He feels relieved. At the same time he begins to feel indignant again with his wife. You said that it was because my teacher had an infectious disease. Hasn't the diagnosis proved that it's a cold? He wants to have the matter out with her before tackling the question of having been ripped off or not. Seeing the crowd of people queuing at the pharmacy and lots more coming and going, he feels this is not the right place to discuss things. That's why he didn't reply. Full of resentment he just says to her:
"Don't come if you are afraid of being ripped off. Who asked you to come and forced you to pay for the medicine?"
His wife picks up the child at once: "If that's what you think, I won't take the medicine!" She starts to walk away.
She acts rashly when she feels wronged and Young Lin is worried. He knows what his wife is like. If she heads in one direction, not even the most strenuous effort will be able to turn her around. How will they treat the child without medicine when they're back home? So he hurries after her and blocks her way, saying:
"Why? Come on! When it comes to such a matter, you can't act this way. Give the prescription to me."
But this time his wife is not acting out of a grudge. She looks at him and declares:
"We won't buy the medicine. Isn't it just a cold? There is still some leftover from the medicine I got from my work unit the last time I caught a cold. The child can take some of that. The prescription will probably just be Cefalexin tablets, Chinese medicine to be taken with boiling water, antipyretic pills and the like. That's all you'll get even though you spend more money."
Young Lin retorts: "Your medicine is for adults. For children there should be something different."
His wife assures him: "There's nothing different. You give a child a smaller dose. Leave it to me. I can cure her within three days and save the forty-five yuan. When the medicine is finished, I'll ask my unit for more."
Young Lin feels that what his wife has said is reasonable. He feels the child's forehead and finds the temperature has dropped, but he doesn't know whether it is because of the sleep she has just had or because of the hospital smell. Her eyes are bright again. She points at the Hami melons on a stall opposite the hospital and asks for some. Now that the case is less serious, Young Lin thinks it's alright to give his wife's idea a go. So they leave the hospital and buy the child a piece of Hami melon. After eating it, she is even more active and gets down to play with her father. She has even stopped coughing. He is happy, so is his wife.
Now that they are happy, they relax. Young Lin won't take his wife's remark about his teacher's disease seriously any more. It was just a thoughtless grumble when she was too worried to keep her temper. Now he has straightened out his thinking. The child's illness is not serious and his wife's bright idea has saved forty-five yuan on medicine. Isn't that as good as earning forty-five yuan for nothing? The thought makes them even more cheerful. Young Lin feels like giving his wife a treat. As they pass through the street full of stalls selling snacks, he turns to her:
"You like stir-fried liver, don't you? Why not have a bowl?"
His wife tut-tuts, saying: "One yuan fifty a bowl just for fun. It's not worth it."
He immediately takes one yuan fifty out of his pocket and hands it over to the vendor: "A bowl of stir-fried liver, please."
His wife glances at him with embarrassment, then sits down to eat it. The way she eats the stuff shows she really loves it. She even puts into her mouth the two pieces which the child spits out when she finds them too hard to chew. She insists that Young Lin has a taste of the soup. He isn't too keen, to him it looks like a bowl of muck. But his wife keeps offering it in gentle, soft voices and with eyes full of tenderness as she had been before they got married, so he has to take a mouthful. In a hot, coriander-flavoured soup, it tastes delicious. When his wife asks him what he thinks, he answers that it is nice. She glances at him affectionately. He didn't expect a bowl of fried liver could make them relive the tender feelings of the past. The feelings are kept till the evening. The child is not seriously ill so she plays by herself after her mother has given her some medicine. By the evening, she stops coughing and sleeps soundly. When the snoring of the childminder is heard from the outer room, Young Lin and his wife are both filled with passion. It is just as good as when they were newly married. Afterwards, caressing each other, they have a chat about the cause of their child's illness. The wife freely admits in her anxiety she wronged his teacher today. He replies, "We are to blame for not having taken good care of the little thing so that the quilt was kicked aside and left off all night." His wife says that it is not the points. There is only one person to blame. His heart misses a beat and asks who she is referring to. His wife points toward the hall, the outer room—she means the childminder. Then she recounts the childminder's faults: She's too concerned with what she can get out of us, she takes no initiative in doing the chores, and dawdles over her work, she's always visiting the childminders' dormitories and tells everyone our family secrets, she doesn't even have any feelings toward the child. She lets her play alone with water while she takes a nap or watches TV when we are working. How can our daughter avoid catching a cold? His wife says she is determined to dismiss the childminder by September when the child can start going to nursery.
The next morning Young Lin feels their feelings about the childminder were right. As usual, his wife goes off early to work while he goes to queue for bean curd. He should have gone to work after that but because it is drizzling and not so many people came to buy bean curd, it doesn't take as long today. Glancing at his watch, he finds that he still has some time to spare. Concerned about the child's illness, he goes back home again to have a look but discovers that childminder is busy cooking for herself. The bed hasn't been made, the child's breakfast hasn't been prepared and she hasn't had her medicine. The nanny has let the child play with a basin of water with which she washed her face. Early that morning, Young Lin and his wife just ate some food leftover from the day before. They added some hot water and washed it down with pickled vegetable. It is all right for the childminder to cook porridge since she doesn't eat leftovers. But instead, she is cooking fine noodles in the small wok which is meant for cooking the child's meals. A delicious smell greets him as he enters the room. She has put coriander, dried bean curd and an egg in the noodle soup. Seeing Young Lin return unexpectedly, she hurriedly tries to hide the egg under the noodles with her chopsticks. However, he has already seen it. He feels himself bristling with anger. Isn't she trying to fool us by secretly cooking nice meals for herself while neglecting the child? Things are not easy for you, neither are they for us. We are wrong to blame you for everything, that's true, but you don't merit the slightest respect, understanding or sympathy if you yourself are not in the least conscientious. But he does not censure the childminder. Usually, catching her red-handed would be a handy opportunity to criticize her to her face. It would give him the great satisfaction of revenge. But the childminder is just like that. You cannot be sure that she won't take it out on the child after you go. How could he bear to let the child suffer because of his action? So he just furiously seizes the basin of water which the child is playing with and pours it into the lavatory bowl. The child's nose is running again. Because the water has been taken away, she rocks herself on the floor and cries. He doesn't take any notice of that. He goes off to work, slamming the door behind him. As he hurries down the stairs, he curses to himself: "Damn you! I'll make sure you're gone by September!"
Back home from work that evening, he finds the child's cold seems to have worsened. Her nose is blocked and she keeps coughing. Her temperature has also risen. He knows that it all has to do with the childminder's mischief today. But he doesn't dare to tell his wife. If he does, a mighty uproar will be inevitable. His wife, however, looks happy. She doesn't even care that the child's illness has worsened. He doesn't know why. She is sitting on the edge of the bed, deep in thought. There must be some good news for her to have such an expression. Peering into the kitchen, he is not surprised to see his wife has brought home some sausage. That is not all, either. There is a bottle of "Yanjing" brand beer, no doubt for him. He loved beer when he was single. After they got married, he gradually stopped. Why drink it at the cost of over one yuan a bottle? Granted that money is not to be worried about, but who would be in the mood to drink it? Ignorant of his wife's thoughts today, Young Lin goes into the inner room and asks: "Hey, what's happened to you today?"
His wife just chuckles at him.
"What are you giggling for? Tell me."
His wife answers: "Well, Young Lin, let me tell you.
The problem about my work is solved!"
He is taken aback. "What? Solved? Did you go to the unit in Qiansanmen again? Has the head of personnel agreed?"
His wife shakes her head.
He asks again: "Have you found another unit to go to?"
His wife shakes her head again.
He can't help feeling disappointed: "Then what's been solved?"
His wife replies: "I'll stay in this unit."
Young Lin asks: "Why? Have you developed some feelings towards the unit? Aren't you worried about the overcrowded buses any more?"
The wife says, "Feelings are out of the question but soon I won't have to catch the public bus. The head of our unit announced that a shuttle bus will run past here from September onwards. So you see, I can get to the unit by the shuttle bus in forty minutes, and it won't be necessary to catch the overcrowded public buses. It will be the unit's special bus with seats available during the trip. Isn't it even better than going to Qiansanmen on the crowded underground? Young Lin, I have sorted myself out. If the shuttle bus runs this route in September, I won't try to get a transfer. It is true that my present unit is not good, with lots of complicated relationships; but who can be sure that relations at Qiansanmen are good? Just look at the head of personnel there! You've convinced me: 'All crows are black.' I will stick to my unit as long as the shuttle bus runs. I'll just drift along, turning a blind eye to things. So I can say that my work problem is solved, can't I?"
At his wife's explanation, Young Lin is also happy. It has been a major family issue which they have constantly worried about and often been at odds. Now at long last it is settled. Although the solution is actually based on a lack of solution, his wife's mind will be set at rest and she'll no longer worry about it. The causes of her agitation will be removed, which in turn will ensure there are no more conflicts about it at home. The problem has been solved so easily in such a simple way, it seems. Relying on themselves, Young Lin and his wife have asked for favours and presented gifts only to find themselves repeatedly being foiled at every turn. In the end, a shuttle bus dispatched by the unit solves everything easily. Young Lin, like his wife, is cheerful:
"That's great. Since the problem no longer exists you won't stir up trouble for me in the future, will you?"
His wife replies: "Yes, it no longer exists." Then she pretends to rebuke him: "Who has been stirring up trouble but you? How can you blame me when you can't even find a solution yourself? Didn't I solve it all by myself in the end? Let's just wait for September."
Young Lin agrees: "That's right. You've solved it yourself.
Let's just look forward to September."
They are all in a good mood. The child's illness is under control. They have beer at dinner. After the child and the childminder have gone to sleep, they enjoy themselves once more, again full of passion. Afterwards, they both feel embarrassed. They did it yesterday and today too. It's been a long time since they did it so frequently. Then, caressing each other they chat again about September. September is really a lucky month, the wife's work problem will be solved, and the child will be able to go to a nursery, so the childminder can go saving the family a large sum of money. They look forward to the future, to the happy days September will bring them, and they discuss what they'll spend the money they save on. Then the wife raises doubts as to whether they should let the child stay at home another year before going to nursery because she'll still be too young. In this case they should keep the childminder on till next year. Recalling the childminder's ill-doing this morning, Young Lin exclaims: "No! It must be this year, for the child's sake. Get rid of her as soon as possible."
The wife has not been on good terms with the nanny. Hearing Young Lin's words, the wife is quite glad and gives Young Lin a kiss. Then she falls asleep soon.
It is September now. Two events are expected to take place in September. First, the shuttle bus starts running, and second, the child will begin nursery and so the childminder will be dismissed. The first is smoothly realized. On September 1, the route is served with a regular bus from the unit. At once, Young Lin's wife is much more relaxed. She no longer needs to go to work so early in the morning. In the past, she had to get up at six, otherwise she would be late for work. Now, she can sleep an extra hour and get up at seven. By 7:20 she is washed and dressed and can get on the shuttle bus at the gate without hurrying. There are seats on the bus, so she is not so tired. She can also get home earlier. Before, she came back by the light of the moon. But now, she finishes at five in the afternoon and is home by 5:40. She can have a rest before preparing dinner. At first she had been happy about the shuttle bus because she thought it showed the concern of her work unit's head for his staff, but later she found out this was not the case. Rather than kind concern, the reason was that a sister-in-law of the head had recently moved to the district and he had been pressurized by his wife to arrange a shuttle bus for her sister's convenience. When she heard this, Young Lin's wife was disheartened. She felt the value of the shuttle bus service had fallen and her happiness had been based on wrong assumptions. Returning home, she told her husband about it. He also felt awkward and rather humiliated—but not as humiliated as he had felt by the refusal of the personnel department head at Qiansanmen. So he tries to soothe his wife: "At all events, you can enjoy the shuttle bus, which is good. Don't worry about the cause of it, be it good or bad."
His wife grumbles: "At first I thought every commuter had an equal right to the shuttle bus and it showed that our head cared for us. Who would have believed it was because of his sister-in-law? I'll have to think of her every time I use the bus, won't I?"
He answers: "There's no way out! It's clear—you wouldn't have been able to enjoy the bus without that sister-in-law!"
His wife says: "I feel awkward, like a second-class citizen, when riding that bus."
He reproaches her: "You are still as naive as when you first graduated from university; What do you mean by second-class citizen? It's not that bad. Let me just ask you this: Isn't it better than a crowded public bus, even if it is associated with the head's sister-in-law?"
His wife admits: "Well, it is."
He continues: "Besides, it is not just you benefiting from this special relationship. Let me ask you again: Isn't the shuttle bus full of people every day?"
His wife answers: "Oh yes, it's always full. It's no credit to any of us!"
He rejoins: "No one else seems to be as principled as you are. Very well, then, you can go by public transport. Also, didn't you once try to curry favour for a job transfer? You were even stopped from entering the corridor with the present you were trying to bribe people with."
His wife counters: "I just want to have a little grumble, but you've kept babbling on. I suppose what you've just said is true. Under these circumstances, what use is strength of character? No damn use at all so I'll simply enjoy the shuttle bus each day without thinking more about it."
Young Lin claps his hands: "That's it!" His wife then starts being happy.
But the second event is not as smooth. Finding a nursery for their child is not easy. There is no nursery in Young Lin's work unit, and while there is one at his wife's place of work, it is too far from home for a small child to travel each day. So they must find one closer. There are quite a few nurseries around—one of them is run by another work unit, one by the district government, one by a street committee, one by a neighbourhood committee and a private nursery run by several old women. The best is run by the work unit, for it has qualified pre-school teachers on the staff. The others are poorly-run. They lead the children in files along the streets and that is all. The worst is the one run by the old women who got together to earn money as their main motive. The child's eduction is an issue which concerns the next generation, so Young Lin's wife regards it as even more important than her own job transfer. She pressurizes him to apply to the nursery run by the other work unit, adding that the second choice should be the one run by the district government. The rest will not be taken into consideration at all.
At first, Young Lin underestimated the difficulties. He thought it would be easy to find a nursery for the child—she needs only to stay there for two years before leaving for primary school—not a big problem. But he had learned from his past experience of making rash promises and later being nagged at by his wife when he failed to realise them. So he just said:
"Let me go and talk it over with the people concerned. I'm not in any leading position. Who knows whether they'll take any notice of me. You can't make too many rigid conditions on the place we want to send her to!"
Their neighbour opposite, the "Indian" woman, also has a child about the same age as theirs, and Young Lin's wife hears that they have found a place for their child, in just the one they wanted, the one run by the other work unit. In the light of this, his wife says to him: "Why can't I make conditions? I have to! That nursery is the only one we want. Their child will go to that one, so ours must go there as well. Don't bother with the nursery run by the district government."
Thus the job of getting his daughter into nursery school falls to Young Lin, and he finds it more difficult than arranging his wife's job transfer. First of all he investigates the situation. The nursery of the other unit is really well-run, winning municipal awards for years. Some leading members of the district government send their grandchildren to this nursery even though their own nursery has spaces. This work unit nursery, however, imposes strict limits on admission numbers. Without powerful influence it would be impossible to get a child into it. The admission forms are in the hands of the nursery principal. No form will be released unless written instructions are issued by the head of a bureau or an even higher authority of the unit. Young Lin racks his brains trying to remember any of his former classmates in Beijing who has some influence with this unit, but cannot think of one.
A man will try anything when he is desperate. Failing to find anyone who can help him, he suddenly thinks of the old man who repairs bicycles at their gate. Young Lin is a frequent customer there. He always addresses the old man as "Grandpa" and the two of them are very close. When he has no money on him, he can have his bike repaired first and pay for it later. During a casual chat Young Lin has learned that the old man's daughter works as a nurse in a nearby nursery. Could that be the one run by the other work unit? Thinking of this possibility, he becomes excited. He gets on his bicycle, and goes off to the bicycle repairman right away. If the daughter is working in that nursery, she can provide an opening by giving him some inside information, even though she is just an ordinary nurse. The old man is very warm-hearted and straightforward. After Young Lin's explanation, he makes promises on behalf of his daughter, saying that all he needs to do is to ask and it will be done,for sure. However the nursery his daughter works for is not the one run by the other unit, but by the neighbourhood committee. Young Lin feels disheartened. He reports the situation to his wife when she returns home. She first blames him for not having useful connections, and then suggests: "Let's prepare a generous gift costing about seventy or eighty yuan for the nursery principal and see whether that works or not. How does the 'Indian' child opposite get admitted? The father doesn't appear to have any special ability, so they must have given gifts!"
Shaking his hand, Young Lin says: "We haven't even met the principal yet. We know nothing about her. How can we offer her anything? Have you forgotten our humiliation when we tried to give a present to the head in charge of personnel?"
His wife flares up: "You haven't any influence; you can't give gifts. What can you do?"
Young Lin replies: "We can use the nursery where the bicycle repairman's daughter works. Let it go at that! What does education mean to a three-year-old child? Shaoshan was a poor village, but it produced the late Chairman Mao! It is the child herself that really matters!"
His wife gets more angry and says that he can't be so irresponsible towards their child. If the child stays with the repairman's daughter, she would only know how to repair bikes when she grows up. "Young Lin, you have not even met the principal yet. How can you be so sure that our child will not be admitted?" Those words encourage him and he plucks up courage and decides to go to see the principal immediately, with no intermediate person and without taking any gift. He plans to explain his difficulty to the principal and see if he can win the principal's sympathy. On his way, Young Lin tries to comfort himself: in China things are complicated. A total stranger may get things done without any gift. Even if you have some influence or acquaintances, sometimes the things may get complicated. People might feel envious of others and the things turn out to be unsussessful. What's the matter with a stranger? Chances are a stranger may feel sympathetic to you. Isn't there any kind person in the world? Perhaps here you can meet one. However, he realizes his thoughts are all too naive when he meets the principal.
The principal is an elderly woman, over fifty years old. She is kind, but her reply is a clear-cut refusal. This nursery does not take in any children outside the work unit, she says. They do not even have enough places for the unit's children. Will the unit's employees keep quiet if they admit children outside the unit? But, she adds, there may be exceptions. The nursery is going to have capital construction but has not got a quota. If he can help them acquire one, his child can be admitted.
This makes him lose heart. He cannot even cope with his own problems, so how can he help with getting capital construction quotas? Crestfallen, he returns to report to his wife and unexpectedly finds a great disturbance at home. Trouble of another kind has broken out. The childminder has learned about their efforts to find a nursery for their child, which means she will lose her job. She blames them for not letting her know in advance. So to gain the upper hand, she decides to leave immediately. Young Lin's wife thinks she is unreasonable. "The chile is mine. Why do I have to tell you whether she is going to nursery or not? Are you not being vengeful by leaving before we find a place?" The two of them start a quarrel, and Young Lin's wife demands the childminder's immediate departure. Not prepared to humble herself either, the childminder starts packing at once. When he gets home, she is about to leave. As his efforts to find a good nursery have not gone smoothly, they can't cope if the childminder leaves right now. He tries to persuade her to stay. His wife stops him:
"Let her go! I'll see whether the sky will fall down just because she goes away!"
He has no choice, but his daughter loves her childminder and when she sees her leaving, the girl rolls on the floor crying. The childminder also loves her charge so she hurries over to give her a cuddle before she leaves. Once she is gone, his wife begins to cry. She feels conscience-stricken as the childminder has taken care of the child for over two years. She asks him to hurry to the balcony and throw down another month's salary for her.
The childminder's absence throws the Lins' home into confusion. No nursery has been found and the couple now have to ask for leave and look after their daughter in turn. Young Lin's wife blames the childminder for having caused so much trouble and her husband for being incapable of finding a nursery. He argues:
"They want a capital construction quota in exchange. The head of my office might not be able to get it, let alone me."
He adds: "I don't think we should make matters worse. I admit I'm incapable. If our daughter can't go to that nursery, we will have to let her go to the one where the bicycle repairman's daughter works. After all, lots of children are there."
Faced with the situation, his wife starts to relent a little. They cannot go on asking for leave for long. The next day, the husband and wife visit the nursery where the bicycle repairman's daughter works. Their first impression is not bad, although it can not compare with the one run by the unit, but it is clean. Dozens of children play in the rooms and there is a piano in it. It is far away from busy roads as well. Seeing his wife is silent afterwards, Young Lin knows she has basically agreed and he feels relieved.
Once home they put together the equipment the child needs to take to her nursery—clothing, pillows, bowls, spoon, cup, handkerchiefs—as if they are sending their daughter on an expedition. His wife sheds tears again:
"Your parents are incapable, so you have to go to the neighbourhood nursery. From now on, you will have to take care of yourself the best you can!"
The child is then given a medical check-up and is ready to go the next day when there comes a surprise turn of events—their daughter can go to the unit's nursery! Of course it is not due to the efforts of Young Lin. It is the "Indian" woman's husband who unexpectedly helps them. There is a knock at the door in the evening, and he is standing there. They do not know what work he is actually doing. All they know is that he dresses up in a smart suit with a tie every day and rides a motorbike to work. The "Indian" family is comfortably-off, and their flat is well furnished, whereas the Lins are quite hard-up in comparison and their flat is dingy, so they are diffident and have little contact. Only Young Lin's wife and the "Indian" woman are coldly polite to each other. The sudden visit of the husband arouses the Lins' suspicion. What has he come for? The visitor, however, is quite affable and says: "I hear you are having difficulties in finding a place for your child. Is that so?"
Young Lin feels his face go red. This man has made him feel inadequate. So he hums and haws. The man continues:
"I have a spare placement which you can use to get your child into the unit's nursery. I obtained two originally: one for my child and the other for my elder sister's. But she has decided not to use it. If you don't mind, I can let you have this placement. We are neighbours after all!"
Young Lin and his wife feel pleasantly surprised. There seems to be no malice in the expression of the 'Indian' woman's husband. So Young Lin's wife exclaims excitedly:
"That is wonderful! Thank you so much. We've tried hard to get our daughter into that nursery but failed. We are about to get her into the neighbourhood nursery."
Young Lin feels ashamed: he wasn't able to do it, but another man could. Surely he will be looked down on for this. So he does not appear as pleased as his wife. The "Indian" woman's husband is aware of his feelings and adds considerately:
"I could not find a way to solve the problem at first. It so happens that the father of one of my colleagues is the head of that unit. I asked for a favour through him and was given these placements. That's the way things are done these days!"
Young Lin feels better. The "Indian" woman is a trouble-maker but her husband seems a gentleman. He offers a cigarette to his guest. The cigarettes are not a good brand, and also a bit old and dry. But the guest appears unconcerned and smokes it with aplomb.
Their daughter can now go to the nursery they wanted.
Their minds are at rest. The relations between the Lins and the "Indian" woman's family become much more friendly and the two children go to the nursery together. But several days later, Young Lin's wife looks gloomy again. When asked what is the matter she answers:
"We've been taken in! We shouldn't have let our child go to that nursery!"
"How? And why not?" he asks.
His wife replies: "It seems on the surface, the 'Indian' family helped us out; but I have noticed something not quite right. They are helping themselves rather than us. Their child found it hard to go to the nursery, wailing and whining. So they helped us so that our daughter should keep theirs company. The two used to play together so they certainly find going to the nursery easy if they can go together now. I've also found out that there isn't an elder sister! We are so incapable that even our child is taken advantage of. I benefit from the shuttle bus because of that sister-in-law. Who would have thought our child gets a place in the nursery because she is needed to accompany another child!"
After this, she starts sobbing. A chill goes down Young Lin's back. Damn it! The "Indian" family are scoundrels after all. But it isn't something that can be said openly. He feels slightly dirty like a piece of garbage, yet even after consoling his wife, he knows his child will still go to the nursery tomorrow with the other child. But after all, he admits to himself, it is better to stay as a companion in a good nursery than to play about in a poor one. It is the same with the shuttle bus: better to enjoy it even knowing that the benefit is brought by the sister-in-law than to catch an over-crowded public bus. In the evening, after his wife and child have gone to sleep, he sheds tears of remorse for the first time. In the dark, he even slaps himself in the face:
"Why are you a good-for-nothing? Can't you be more capable?"
But his slap is not very hard, in case his wife wakes up.
There is a bumper harvest in Chinese cabbages this year.
Standing in a long line of locals, his breath is white as it hits the cold air. Young Lin is waiting to buy cabbages to store for the winter. Everyone is holding a card. Some people are wearing cotton-padded hats. During the wait, people begin talking to each other. A middle-aged man in front of Lin offers him a cigarette. Whenever it is time to store up cabbages for winter, he always feels tense. He sees others take cabbages on bicycles, tricycles or in big baskets, dropping loose leaves behind them. He feels worried: the cabbages will be gone before he gets any and his family will go without in winter. When squeezing into the crowd, he feels that he has been cheated year after year. With dozens of cheap cabbages, you have to waste time arranging them, airing them, turning them around, bringing them in and stacking them up. When aired, several layers of leaves come off and the Lins begrudge eating them so early in the season. Instead they buy more for instant consumption; when the Lins are willing to eat the stored cabbages, they've become dry and withered, like small sticks. Peeling the dry leaves off, all that is left are tiny cabbage hearts. Sometimes they get frostbitten and smell sour when cooked. Every spring, looking at the leftovers, Young Lin and his wife vow not to store any more cabbages next autumn. But when they see others buying up loads of government subsidized cabbages, they feel that they will lose out. Young Lin thinks the worry of it all isn't worth the years of psychological stress over cheap cabbages. So this autumn, he has made up his mind not to store any more. His wife feels the same, pointing out that it isn't such a bargain when you take into account the lost and dried layers of leaves. For three days they resist the temptation but on the fourth, he puts on his padded hat and joins the queue to buy cheap cabbages again. Not because he is weak-willed but because there is a glut of cabbages in Beijing this year, employees have been called upon to buy "Patriotic cabbages" and their work units will reimburse them. So they will buy as much as they can be reimbursed for. If not, they will miss the free offer. The limit is 150 kilos in Young Lin's unit and 100 kilos in his wife's. Therefore the couple decide to buy 250 kilos, which is even more than the amount they used to get in the past years. Young Lin has borrowed a tricycle cart from Old He, the deputy office head. He says:
"I decided not to store up any cabbages this year but who would have thought the unit will reimburse us? Thus we are forced into a quandary again!"
He is buying cabbages because they will be free rather than because he wants them, so while standing in line, Young Lin feels resentful. He heaves a sigh, kicks a cabbage and passively watches the trade going on in front. But soon he is no longer passive. The cabbages are free, people are afraid the stocks will run out before their turn comes. He can't help becoming keyed up. He rolls up the padded flaps of his hat to expose his ears.
The 250 kilos of cabbages is carried home and soon the house is filled with the smell. He is in a bad mood but his wife is happy because they are free. Young Lin imagines the end result: it will eventually go down to seventy to eighty small sticks. The thought of the high stack of cabbages throughout the winter makes him lose his appetite. But his wife is cheerful so he becomes cheerful, too. And there is a relaxed atmosphere in the home.
The next day, six people from Young Lin's hometown visit them. He feels nervous and his wife's face changes colour, too. But the six guests do not stay for a meal. They are going to the Northeast on a business trip, they say, and they will only stay for a little while. He is relieved and his wife's face regains her normal colour. She gives them a very warm send-off, which satisfies everyone.
This day, Young Lin knocks off early and goes to a food market. He buys first a pile of capsicums and then exchanges some grain coupons for some eggs. Now they no longer have to feed the childminder they can spare some of the coupons to exchange for eggs. He is about to leave for home when he sees a food cart selling Anhui pressed salted ducks. There is a big queue. He goes to have a look and discovers the ducks are too expensive at over four yuan half a kilo but the gizzards and liver are cheap at three yuan half a kilo. His daughter is fond of those so he decides to buy. There are two people selling. One man with an Anhui accent is chopping up the ducks and the other who looks like the boss is collecting the money. When Young Lin is handing over his money to the boss, their eyes meet and they cry out:
"Young Li Bai!"
One drops the duck gizzards while the other drops the money. They hug each other laughing.
They are former classmates. They were good friends at university. Both liked composing poems so they joined the university's literary society. At that time they were full of ambition and creative drive. "Young Li Bai" was conscientious and talented. On average he wrote three poems a day and some were published in newspapers and magazines. He had a free and easy style. That was why he was nicknamed "Young Li Bai." Li Bai was a famous Tang Dynasty poet. Many girl students ran after him but on graduation, they dispersed like mist and smoke, and like Young Lin, he was assigned to a government office. Later, bored with office work, he resigned and went to work in a company. How comes that he is selling ducks now? Seeing Young Lin, he stops selling to have a chat with him, leaving his business to the man from Anhui who is chopping up the ducks. They light up cigarettes. Young Lin asks:
"Weren't you working in a company? How come you are now selling ducks?"
Smiling, Young Li Bai answers: "Damn! The company went bankrupt. I became self-employed and started selling ducks. It's not bad doing this, similar to running a private company. You earn almost one hundred yuan a day!"
Young Lin is taken aback. "Are you still writing poems?"
Young Li Bai spits on the ground: "Rubbish! Those I wrote in college were naive. What is poetry? It is coquettish nonsense!If I kept on writing them, I would certainly go hungry! Are you married?"
Young Lin replies: "My child is already three!"
Clapping his hands, Young Li Bai exclaims:
"See? You should not have asked about my poems! I have seen through the way the world works. It's more comfortable to drift along with the crowds without wild fantasies, or the desire to stand out among your fellows, not to think too much about anything. What do you say?"
Young Lin feels the same, so he nods his head. He asks:
"Have you any children?"
Young Li Bai stretches out three fingers. Young Lin is shocked:
"Don't you practise birth control?"
Young Li Bai smiles: "I had three marriages and three divorces. I've just got married again. From each of the three marriages I had one child, and none of my ex-wives took the children when we got divorced. So I'm saddled with three! What if I don't sell ducks? I have five mouths to feed at home!"
Young Lin smiles too. Young Li Bai is true to his name. Though no longer writing poems, he has the same free and easy manner. It is getting dark when he suddenly slaps Young Lin on the back:
"I've got it!"
Young Lin is startled: "You've got what?"
"I have to go out of Beijing for about ten days—to buy some ducks wholesale. But there won't be anyone here to take the money. I've been worried about finding someone suitable. Why don't you come after work and help me out?"
Young Lin shakes his head: "No, no, I need to go to work. And besides, I don't know how to sell ducks!"
Little Li Bai answers: "I know, you're worried about losing face. You are still naive and inexperienced. Who cares about face-saving anywhere these days? With it you look poor and affected; without it you enjoy wealth and glory. Are you the only one aloof and superior? Judging by your clothes and expression, you are still the same shambling Young Lin you always were. Come and help me collect money for ten days, I'll pay you twenty yuan a day!"
After that, he gives a big duck to Young Lin and pushes him away.
In a happy mood, he returns home with the duck. His wife, however, is not very happy about him coming back so late as the child was not picked up on time. She is even angry when she sees the big duck. She cries out: "Since when have you become so high and mighty that you can buy such a big duck?"
He gives her a glare and throws the duck onto the dining table.
"This is a present!"
"Are you some sort of an official now that anyone should offer you a gift?"
He tells her about the chance encounter at the food market and how Young Li Bai has asked him to help sell ducks. Surprisingly, his wife is glad. She says persuasively:
"It will not hold up your work in any way. Two hours per day at twenty yuan—that's even better than waiting on customers in a foreign restaurant! Why not take it! Start tomorrow, I'll pick up the child. You go and sell ducks."
Lying down on the bed with his hands supporting his head, he says:
"I can manage it but I feel I will lose face selling ducks!"
His wife replies: "Don't bother about saving face. With it you have been hard up for all these years. Why should you be afraid of losing it now? You're not looking for a wife and I don't mind!"
The next day after work, Young Lin goes to sit behind the food-cart collecting money. At first he feels embarrassed. When he puts on a white apron, he dares not look up at his customers in case he sees acquaintances. As soon as he gets home, he takes a shower to wash off the smell of duck. Two days later, however, getting two tenners each day, he no longer worries about looking up, or needs to shower afterwards. He has got used to it all. He likens it to the experience of a prostitute. The first time she sleeps with a patron is always frightening and embarrassing, but as time goes on, she will become more hardened, whoever the customer may be. Now he thinks duck-selling is not too bad even on a long-term basis. This way he can earn an extra 600 yuan a month. In a year's time, he will be well-off. It is a pity that Young Li Bai is away for only ten days and he cannot carry on when he returns. It would be better if he came across Young Li Bai earlier!
On the ninth day, Young Lin meets another acquaintance. On the whole, he doesn't mind seeing people who know him. But this one is an exception. He is the head of the office, Old Guan. He lives in another district, so naturally he doesn't shop in this food market. Old Guan's eyes open wide as he sees one of his staff behind the duck cart, and Young Lin feels ill at ease. The next day Young Lin is prepared to be sent for by Old Guan. Sure enough, Old Guan asks to "have a special word" with him. By now he doesn't feel afraid in the slightest. Everyone is drifting along in today's society. What's wrong with my earning some pocket money by selling ducks after working hours? Life is certainly more enjoyable with more money. During these nine days he has earned 180 yuan with which he has bought a long overcoat for his wife and a big. Hami melon as a treat for his daughter. It gives so much pleasure. Face and Old Guan's criticism is really nothing compared to the pleasure. Having been in the work unit for so many years, Young Lin is not as naive and honest as when he was first assigned to it. He has learned to mingle the truth with falsehood—they can be twisted round. It seems those who tell lies get promotion and more pay while those who tell the truth don't get on and suffer. So when Old Guan asks him for an explanation for yesterday, Young Lin puts on an air of innocence. With a smile he explains that the duck seller is his former classmate, and as a joke, he put on his apron and sat there crying "duck." It was just for fun. He wouldn't disgrace his work unit by selling ducks. Old Guan is convinced. He says, "That's just what I thought! How can a dignified government staff member reduce himself to duck selling! Since that is the case, let's put an end to it. Make sure you don't play jokes like that again!"
Young Lin agrees, and as his head of office leaves he spits on the ground: "Why shouldn't I 'lower myself' and sell ducks? I have been selling ducks for nine days! It's too bad that today is the last time. If I had the chance, I would do it permanently."
It is a pity that Young Li Bai returns from his trip on time. this afternoon
Young Lin has to say good-bye to the food cart. Young Li Bai gives him the last twenty yuan owing and tells him to come for free ducks whenever he wants. Young Li Bai promises that if he has to go away again, he will ask him to help. This time Young Lin does not feel embarrassed at all. "Just let me know whenever you need me!" he replies loudly.
The Lins' daughter has been at the nursery for three months. Young Lin and his wife are busier at home after the childminder has gone. They wash up; mop the floor, and do the laundry. They have to take the child to nursery in the morning and be on time to collect her in the evening. Yet despite more housework, they feel relaxed because there is no one at home during the day except themselves and their little girl. They are a proper family without a childminder whom they had to pay over a hundred yuan a month. Nursery fees still leave them fifty to sixty yuan extra. They are much better-off. Young Lin's wife can spend more on food. Now and then she buys sausages; even a roast chicken occasionally. They both agree it is much better to be without a childminder, and remind each other of the disadvantages when she was there. Gradually they feel it a bit petty to talk about her while they are eating roast chicken. They agree not to talk about her, and soon she is rarely mentioned.
Though their daughter is going to a good nursery, it annoys Young Lin and his wife that it is through the good offices of the "Indian" family, who wanted a companion to go with their daughter. It makes them feel unhappy every morning when they send their child to the nursery and every evening when they pick her up. They frequently meet the "Indian" woman or her husband, and are polite but afterwards they feel ashamed and uncomfortable. Their daughter is still too young to understand, so she walks hand in hand with the "Indian" woman's child and they get on well together. But everything has to adapt and later they regard the whole situation matter-of-factly. They weigh the alternatives and come to the conclusion that as long as their child is happy, it doesn't matter whether she goes as a companion or not. It's almost the same as selling ducks. He may lose some face and he has been censured by his boss, but two hundred yuan is not to be sneezed at. Sometimes they still feel angry at the motives of the "Indian" family. But they just curse inwardly:
"I don't owe you anything even though you helped us!"
The child has to adapt, too. She refused to go to nursery on the first few days, crying bitterly when taken there, and crying when she was picked up. She was too young to understand but it needed time for her to get used to her new environment and if the parents were firm, she would surely settle down. Once she got to know the teachers and other children she didn't cry anymore. Young Lin sometimes feels sad for such a little child having no other choice but to adapt. But he realizes it doesn't do to keep her under his wing all the time. When she grows up she will have bigger obstacles to overcome. With that consoling thought he does not take the sadness too much to heart.
The World Cup soccer is now on. Young Lin was very fond of watching soccer several years ago. It was exciting and exhilarating. He could name all the world famous soccer players then. At that time, he concluded that watching World Cup soccer was the main purpose in life. It is held only every four years and how many four years can a man have? But when he got married and was working he lost interest. However expertly the footballers played, they didn't solve any of his practical problems: housing, child care, coal briquettes, childminder and guests from his hometown. He has been turning a deaf ear to the bustling outside world. But now that the child is in nursery and he is a bit more relaxed he can't help wanting to watch the soccer match in the evening when he learns that it is a final. Live transmission is at midnight so he plans to ask his wife to let him watch. To put her in a good mood, he picks up the child after work, and busies himself with the chores. Seeing his unusual behaviour, his wife asks him the reason and he tells her sheepishly. He did not expect his wife to react as unreasonably as she used to, but her mind isn't completely at rest yet. Casting her apron onto the table she shouts:
"You want to watch soccer at midnight when we are out of briquettes? Obviously you are not tired enough! If you can make Maradona bring briquettes for us, then you can watch!"
Disappointed, he shakes his hand:
"Enough. Enough. Forget it. I won't watch. I'll go and buy briquettes tomorrow!"
He stops doing the chores and sits lost in thought in front of the bed, just as his wife sometimes does when she has had a bad day at work. He cannot sleep that night. His wife wakes up and finds him lying there with open eyes. Frightened, she says:
"Go ahead if you really want to watch it, but just make sure you buy briquettes tomorrow."
By now, he has lost all interest and does not feel at all grateful. He replies bitterly,
"Have I said I want to watch it? You don't let me think about anything even when I'm not watching soccer!"
He asks for a half-day's leave the next morning to carry briquettes home, and goes back to work in the afternoon. When the newly assigned university graduate comes over to ask him about the final, Young Lin angrily replies:
"Damn the soccer! What's there to watch? I never watch soccer!"
Then he starts looking through the newspapers. The university graduate is started. In the evening, his wife finds him in low spirits. The briquettes have been brought home, and feeling she has been unfair to him, she tries to do all the housework, takes care of the child and tries to cheer him up. This makes him feel contrite and he feels better.
They are about to have dinner when the lame water meter inspector comes. It is not the date for checking meters but as he has come you cannot say no. They stop their meal while he checks the meter. Apart from the spanner to turn the water supply off, the old man has a big bag on his back which appears rather heavy. His face is dripping with sweat from the weight. Seeing the big bag, Young Lin is wondering what the old man is up to. As expected, after he checks the meter he sits on the bed. Young Lin waits; is he going to talk about his horse-feeding experience when young or the water stealing event? But the old man does not mention either of those. With a smile he says:
"Young Lin, I have a favour to ask you."
Young Lin is taken aback. "Grandpa, what are you talking about? I am the one who is always asking you for favours. How can you ask me instead?"
The old man says: "I'm serious. Aren't you working in a certain office under a certain bureau of a certain ministry?"
Young Lin nods his head.
The old man continues: "Is there a certain report for approval held in your office from a certain county of a certain district in a certain province?"
Young Lin dimly remembers there is such a report, which has been pigeonholed by a young woman colleague called Little Peng. It is delayed because Little Peng has been too busy learning qigong in Ritan Park. So he answers: "It seems to me there is such a report."
Clapping his hands, the old man says: "That's right! This county of this district in this province is my native place. They are extremely anxious about this report. Both the county magistrate and the Party secretary have come to see me for a solution!"
Young Lin is again taken aback: the county magistrate and Party secretary coming to Beijing in person to ask a water meter inspector for help? Recalling that the old man once fed horses when he was young for an important person, he realized it is reasonable.
The old man goes on: "What solution can I get? I asked them to find out which office under which bureau has got the report and they did. It so happens that the office is no other than the one you are working in. We are acquaintances so I've come to you for a favour. Do you think it can be done?"
Young Lin has been in the office for about six years so he knows the ins and outs of the routines. This could be done easily. If he goes and has a word with Little Peng tomorrow, the report can be processed as quickly as she puts lipstick on. It could be difficult though if she is practising qigong and you have disturbed her, or she is in a bad mood. She can pick out many mistakes, list many state regulations and enumerate many reasons why the report cannot be ratified. In the end, you will be convinced the report has defects, not because of any other reason. The report could be executed tomorrow if Young Lin helps. If he doesn't, it will be shelved for ages. It all depends on whether Young Lin is willing to help or not. This lame old man is not just an ordinary man; he is the man in charge of their water meter and he will have to help him. Young Lin today, however, is no longer the Young Lin he used to be. He is now mature. If such a thing happened in the past, he would have readily promised help. That shows a person's naivety. Now he doesn't commit himself right away. If you say at first "can't" and "hard" but finally the job is done, people will feel indebted. If you give a ready promise but for whatever reason you fail to fulfil it, people will blame you. So, leaning against the stacked quilts with his head resting on his hands, Young Lin says:
"It's not that easy! True, there is such a report in the office. But I was told there are many mistakes in it. It can't be processed right away."
The lame old man once fed horses for an important man. But now he has come down in the world and become the water meter inspector, unable to see what is the meaning behind Little Lin's words. He smiles ingratiatingly.
"It's not easy, you're right. I told the county magistrate and the Party secretary that Beijing is different from local places. There are strict regulations for things here. But please try to help!"
By now, Young Lin's wife understands what the old man means. She says, "Grandpa, all he knows is how to steal water. How is he able to help you with such an important matter?"
Looking very much embarrassed, the old man says:
"It was all a mistake. A real misunderstanding, truly. I am to blame for listening to others. How much does a ton of running water cost and who would have stolen water like that?"
He hurries to zip open the big bag and takes from it a big cardboard box:
"This gift is a token of regard from the people of my county. Please accept it!"
Then he limps away giving Young Lin a wink as he leaves. As soon as he is gone, his wife comments:
"It seems that our life is going to take a turn!"
"Why?" he asks.
Pointing at the cardboard box, she answers:
"Look, we are beginning to receive gifts."
They open the box and are flabbergasted to find a small-sized microwave oven, which must have cost seven to eight hundred yuan on the market.
Young Lin says, "This is not right. If the gift was a mere doll we could accept it. How can we accept a gift worth seven to eight hundred yuan? I'll send it back tomorrow!"
His wife feels the same. Both of them are weighed down with worry while having dinner. Later in the evening his wife suddenly asks: "Is it easy to have that report approved?"
He answers: "Very easy. If I see Little Peng tomorrow, it can be done immediately."
She claps her hands: "If so, I'll keep this microwave oven!"
Young Lin still feels uneasy: "Is it right? Isn't this what they call using public office for private gain? To help pass a report and get a microwave for it? Besides, we'll give a handle to the old man if we keep it!"
His wife replies: "If you settle the matter for him, what handle can he have? What do you mean—using public office for private gain? Others are engaged in thousands upon thousands yuan of profiteering and still reach high positions! A microwave is nothing!"
He thinks for a while and agrees, saying nothing more. His wife immediately plugs in the microwave and roasts some sweet potatoes. Several minutes later, the room is filled with a pleasant aroma of sweet potatoes. The potatoes are piping hot, and brown. Each of the family has a piece. Young Lin's wife happily remarks that a microwave is very useful. Apart from sweet potatoes, it can bake cakes, buns, chickens and ducks. He also enjoys the sweet potato. He has learnt from this experience. It seems as if there are ways to improve one's living standards. All one needs to do is to be more active. He and his wife spend a pleasant evening and his wife is very passionate indeed. Not watching the soccer match yesterday evening is of little importance.
The next day, he sees Little Peng. The report is processed as they chat.
Two weeks later, their daughter suddenly begins to cry again about going to nursery. Previously, she had been happy to go, hopping and skipping on her way. But for the past two days she has behaved strangely. She complains of a tummy ache and is constipated. Yet she excretes nothing in toilet. After making her go to nursery she doesn't cry anymore but looks scared and in a daze. Her parents are frightened. They wonder if she is being bullied or the teacher doesn't like her, or whether her self-esteem has been hurt by being severely punished and so question her but she answers there is nothing wrong.
They find out from other children's parents. It is their fault. They have been negligent about the New Year. All the other children's parents gave gifts, big or small, to the nursery teachers, except them, and their child has suffered the consequences. His wife blames Young Lin:
"Look at this! You can't even remember New Year's Day when your child is going to a nursery. The teachers must have taken us as stingy and poor!"
He admits: "We've been careless. When our gift was refused before, it made us wary of doing it again even when we ought to have done!"
They discuss what to present as a late offering. It is hard to decide. A New Year's card or a calendar is too slight. A blanket or clothes are too expensive and they might not be acceptable.
"Shall we ask the child?" says Young Lin.
His wife answers: "Why ask her? She knows nothing about this!"
He calls the child over and asks her whether she knows what kind of gifts other children have given the teachers. She answers:
He is surprised: "Charcoal? Why charcoal? Why did they give the teachers charcoal?"
He asks his wife to find out the next day. Indeed, the child has told the truth. Many parents gave charcoal as gifts to the teachers before New Year's Day. The reason being it is winter and in winter instant boiled mutton is popular among Beijing people. So charcoal is given to put in the braziers.
"That's easy. They gave charcoal so we'll do the same!" Young Lin says.
But charcoal is out of stock in Beijing now. Young Lin is worried. He thinks they ought to buy something other than charcoal, as others have given it, theirs would be unwanted. Better give something else. But the child has remembered "charcoal, " and when she wakes up in the morning, the first thing she says is:
"Dad, have you bought charcoal for my teacher?"
A three-year-old child is so obstinate. He feels it annoying and amusing at the same time. Patting the bed, he promises:
"Is it just charcoal? I'm looking all over the city and I promise I'll get it!"
He finds it in a small hide-away store in a Beijing suburb, rather expensive but he's glad he has got it after all. His wife takes the gift to the nursery. The next day, the child is back to normal and is again willing to go to the nursery. When she is happy, the whole family is happy too. That evening, Young Lin's wife has half a chicken roasting in the microwave and gives him a bottle of beer. Drinking it, he feels a little dizzy, as though he were growing bigger. He tells his wife that worldly matters are in fact very simple. Once you are clear about the way to go and follow it closely, your life will flow comfortably like water. Comfort will reign over the world, the same warmth and cold throughout the globe. Seeing that he is now drunk, his wife gives him a stare and snatches the beer out of his hand. With no more to drink, his head is already muddled and he falls into a deep sleep. He has a dream — that he is sleeping under a heap of chicken feathers with many people's scurf beneath. They are soft and comforting. In his happiness, he feels one year seems to pass as a day. Then he sees a huge crowd of people slowly drifting forward and then turning into lines of ants begging for rain. When he wakes it is dawn. Shaking his head he tries to remember his dreams but they are very vague now. His wife also wakes up. Seeing the stupid look on his face, she urges him to go and buy bean curd. He is sober-minded now, shrugs off the dream and goes to queue for bean curd before going to work. In the office, he receives a letter from the son of his primary school teacher who once came to Beijing for medical treatment. It says that three months after the Beijing trip, his father passed away. Before his death, he asked his son to write to Young Lin to thank him for the hospitality he showed him. The letter makes him sad throughout the day. When he was ill he came to Young Lin's place but he did not help him find a hospital or let him wash his face, yet this teacher once took off his own padded coat to wrap him in when he fell through a hole in the ice when he was a child. At the end of a miserable day, in the shuttle bus going home, he suddenly remembers that his stack of cabbages is getting too warm. He ought to take them apart when he gets home. The thought of his teacher is thus pushed out of his mind. The dead is already dead and there is no use thinking about him; the living had better think of cabbages first. Young Lin also says to himself that he will be well-content if his wife roasts some more chicken and gives him another bottle of beer.
Translated by Ma Aiying