Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com
In a previous post I mentioned the Western books I read as a child. A friend, after reading the post, asked me when I first watched American TV shows. (Here is a confession: I usually don’t watch TV series, but I love “Game of Thrones” and cannot wait for Season 7.)
That happened in the early eighties.
By then, China and the U.S. had established full diplomatic relations, after a strategic exchange referred as Ping-pong Diplomacy and the visit of President Nixon. Translated books from the U.S. and other Western countries poured into China. So, though to a lesser degree, did their TV programs and movies.
On our 14-inch black and white TV (it was made in Shanghai and the brand was “Gold Star”), we, joined by our neighbors, watched NBC’s “Man from Atlantis” and ABC’s “Garrison’s Gorillas.”
“Man from Atlantis” started the trend of wearing labaku（喇叭裤）, wide-legged pants, and hamajin （蛤蟆镜）, aviator sunglasses among the urban youth, making them the symbols of troublemakers. One of the young men in my mother’s work unit donned such attire and was often subjected to ridicule.
“Garrison’s Gorillas” swept through China like a tornado, a far cry from all the ‘educational’ movies and TV programs the Chinese were used to. It became a sensation.
When “Garrison’s Gorillas” was on, everyone was riveted to the screen and the streets were deserted. All the boys admired the Chief, played by Brendon Boone, and mimicked how he talked. They practiced knife throwing, the Chief’s signature specialty, with home-made daggers. Two of my brothers were the Chief’s loyal fans and did their dagger-throwing practice dutifully after school every day. The TV show had such a powerful impact on young people that the Chinese government later suspended it, fearing that it would corrupt the country.
In the following years, more American TV shows debuted in China, but nothing seemed as popular among children as “Garrison’s Gorillas.”
Several weeks ago I met several local writers, and as we were discussing the books that had made a big impression on us when we were children, I realized that I hadn’t read most of the books they mentioned. When I confessed, one writer said in disbelief, “Really? But these books are famous.”
No, I replied, not in China, not when I grew up. How many Americans have read Chinese classics? If I ask someone growing up in the U.S. if he or she has read or even heard about 《三国演义》 （Romance of the Three Kingdoms), the chance is that he or she has no clue.
But I did read many western books when I was a child, thanks to my father, who loved to read and had three tall shelves of books, half of them being foreign literature. He was the kind of person who would rather go hungry than not possess a good book.
I grew up on a state-run farm where my parents had lived since 1961. They had been sent there because my mother came from a so-called ‘capitalist family.’
During the Cultural Revolution both my parents endured persecution and punishment. For several years they lived in a cow shed. It was a real one, as my mother later told me, where she and my dad had to spend days removing cow dung before they could move in.
After the Cultural Revolution my parents assumed their previous jobs, my father a teacher, my mother a cotton agricultural scientist.
On the farm it was hot in the summer, the temperature often reaching 40 ͦ Celsius. Insects were abundant. On some nights, when staying indoors was unbearable, people took their bamboo beds outside, splashing water on them to cool them down, and slept there.
I loved those evenings, when the men played cards and chatted over tea and cigarettes, the women talked and laughed while busying themselves with sewing and knitting and the kids played tag and war games till exhaustion conquered them.
On those nights my father would read me Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Yes, there was a beautiful country far, far away where “water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, where there was a princess who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds.” Yes, the kids there were just like me, curious and nature-loving.
The day after my father read Little Ida’s Flowers to me I buried some rose pedals in a match box as Little Ida did in the story. As I covered the box with soil I thought how wonderful it would be if I could travel to Denmark to meet Little Ida and make friends with her.
When I was in the third or fourth grade I began to linger in front of my father’s bookshelves, standing on a rickety stool to look for books with attractive titles or cover art. I was particularly attracted to fairy tales from the ancient Rome and Greek, Aesop’s Fables, Great Expectations, The Three Musketeers, The Dancing Girl of Izu, Jane Eyre, Price and Prejudice, Leaves of Grass, Hemingway’s short stories.
Translated books from the West at that time typically contained a section called ‘Editor’s Comments.’ The section would say first why this book was good and must be read, then it would add that due to the author’s capitalistic or other inclinations, which constituted a disfavored background, the book had flaws and biases in its political and world views.
I would sit in a corner absorbing these books, ignoring new words and difficult passages, and sometime entire pages and chapters if they became too complicated or philosophical. The strange people and places in the books fascinated me—the people and places of England, America, France, Greece, Russia, Italy……
This was my early education of Western literature, and also my first contact with the world outside China.
I’m excited to share with you the news that “One World Two: Global Anthology of Short Stories” is just released! It includes one of my new short stories, “Nobody’s Talking About Falling in Love,” a tale about a female college student and an army sergeant in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. My inspiration comes from the one-month military training I experienced when I attended Sun Yat-Sen University (Zhongshan University) in Guangzhou.
According to the book’s publisher New Internationalist, the anthology “contains representative literature from all over the world, conveying the reader on thought-provoking journeys across continents, cultures and landscapes…(it) features established stars such as Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory), Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) and Aminatta Forna (The Hired Man) and authors who are steadily building a reputation such as Fan Wu, Ana Menéndez and Daniel Alarcon.”
World Literature Today says, “One World [Vol 1] captures a moment in history representing the changing and evolving world that we are in while reminding us of the enduring nature of the human condition.”
I’m reading the anthology right now and thoroughly enjoying it. I hope you’ll also find the book interesting and inspiring.
Also, I’d like to mention that all of my proceeds from this book will be donated to the International Red Cross. 🙂
This story is an online exclusive from Hyphen Magazine, an honorable mention at a short story contest. I wrote the first draft in one day, but spent several months editing it.
An 18-year-old man, who’s just been admitted to his dream university, is struck and killed in a hit-and-run. Several days later, his mother, still in the depths of mourning, receives a mysterious guest, a middle-aged woman who claims to be from her son’s dream university. What is this woman’s real identity? Why is she here?
The bus had just closed its doors when the boy arrived at the station. He ran towards the near-empty bus as it pulled away from the curb and shouted in his slightly husky and unsteady voice, “Open the door! Please open the door!” In the gusty wind, his voice sounded like laughter. Instead of stopping, the bus accelerated. The driver, a twenty-five-year old woman with a round face, permed long hair and white-washed jeans, didn’t look back until she was certain that the boy couldn’t catch up. The three passengers also looked back at the boy, only briefly. None spoke, though one, a retired middle-school teacher, frowned and sighed, before telling himself that it was unwise to interfere: he didn’t know the boy, after all, and he wanted to get home without delay. The driver smiled, oddly pleased by what she had done, considering it a small revenge on the uncaught thief who had stolen her wallet in a supermarket the night before. She hummed ‘Rats Love Rice,’ the year’s most popular song, and removed a wisp of stray hair from her face.
The boy rummaged his shirt and pants pockets: all he could find was a small pile of coins. For a moment he regretted that he had squandered more than two hundred yuan on beer and cigarettes at the bar—famous for its chic and its scantily-clad waitresses. How many of his classmates had showed up? Maybe twenty, maybe more. He had drunk alcohol and smoked for the first time. But the money had been well spent, hadn’t it? He’d had a great time and he’d deserved a party of his own, he assured himself. He had even danced with a girl in his class whom he always
liked but never dared ask out; with a bit alcohol, it had been somehow easier to approach her. He remembered her soft breasts pushing against his chest and her crisp laughter. He felt a surge of blood in his face. Since the day he had received the admittance letter from Qinghua University with a full scholarship, he had planned a celebration. Not a wild one, but one appropriate for adults; after all, he was now eighteen.
He decided to walk home, partly because he wanted to make up for the money he had spent, partly because he wanted to look sober when he saw his mother, who must be still awake, sitting in front of the TV, waiting for his return. He wished he could call her to tell her not to worry, and to tell her that he’d be home shortly, but they didn’t have a phone at home.
It was midnight. Other than several pedestrians the street was empty. He walked quickly on the sidewalk, almost jogging. Once he tripped on a watermelon rind and fell heavily. After he stood, he stared at the crescent moon between two half-built skyscrapers and imagined his future in Beijing, a city of nearly twenty million people. Would he get lost in this vast sea of humanity? What should he do on his first day there? Should he visit the Tiananmen or climb the Great Wall or just stroll around the campus to admire its grandeur and long history? He smiled innocently, slightly puzzled by the fact that he had never before ventured outside his hometown.
Familiar with this area, he took a short cut. The alley he was traversing had no sidewalk and was dark except for the moonlight—no house on either side had its lights on. The alley once had several streetlamps but no sooner had they been installed than they were broken by hooligans, the wires cut and sold to a dump yard to buy drugs. He didn’t mind darkness nor the uneven cobblestones. Despite the wind, he was perspiring, so he unbuttoned his shirt and bared his thin chest.
It was still another mile or so to home. He glanced at his watch by the moonlight and began to run, dreading that his mother would be so worried as to go out to look for him; she had done that once when he had forgotten time and stayed at a friend’s house too long.
He heard a car coming from behind, fast. For an instant he wondered why its lights were off. Dazed, he didn’t jump aside but looked back at the rapidly approaching object as if it were just a weightless shadow. What a nightmare, he thought, as it hit him, launching him into the air. He struck a lamppost and landed in the bushes against the wall.
The car, a blue Lexus, squealed to a stop and remained still for about ten seconds, the engine still running, the boy’s smashed body not far behind. No one came out from the houses nearby and no light came on. The two people in the car, the boy who was driving and the girl in the passenger seat, both smelling alcohol, exchanged a few words but didn’t get out. Then the girl said, Let’s go. The boy nodded silently, suppressing the fear on his face. He revved up the engine and the car took off like a frightened deer.
Someone sent me a joke on wechat. I have no idea who the author is but it’s brilliant. If you can understand this joke, you should congratulate yourself on your profound knowledge about today’s China, and your mastery of the Chinese language.
Here is my translation. To make it understandable to non Chinese, I offered explanations in italic.
Recently, CCTV (China Central Television) conducted a survey among varied groups and occupations, asking the question: “How do you pronounce the English word ‘China’?”
The result came back. All the answers ended with “na,” which means “where” in Chinese, yet all of them were different.
Poor people: Qianna? (Qian=money)
– Where is money?
Doctors: Qiena? (Qie=cut)
– Where to cut?)
Government officials: Quanna? (Quan=power)
– Where to gain power?
Single men: Qina (Qi=wife)
– Where to find a wife?
Rich people: Qiena (Qie=mistress)
– Where are my mistresses?
Lovers: Qingna (Qin=kiss)
– Where to kiss?
Robbers: Qiangna (Qiang=rob)
– Where can I rob?
Real Estate Developers: Quanna (Quan=encircle)
– where to seize more land?
Slum residents: Qianna (Qian = move)
– Where to move?
Local governments: Chaina (Chai = tear down)
– Where can we tear down more houses? ( * Local governments in China often rely on land sales to collect tax and stimulate economy.)
After a heated discussion, voters decided that local governments’s answer was most accurate. But The Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau ( Chengguan as they’re called in China) disagreed, and said their pronunciation – “Chuaina” (Chuai=kick) should be the winner. (* Chengguan is widely loathed for police brutality.)
More debate resumed. At this moment, The Central Discipline Inspection Commission chimed in with their own version: “Chana” (Cha=investigate). Hearing that, everyone quieted down as no one wanted to be the target of this bureau. ( * This bureau is responsible for investigating party members suspected of corruption and other misconducts.)
I have two children, aged 7 and 4. Both love books. Since they were babies, I’ve been making up stories to read to them.
Here is a story I wrote for them last year: “The Littlest’s Adventure-Another Bedtime Story”. My daughter Maya loved the story so much that she did several drawings for it. She said that she’d like to illustrate for the story someday when it became a real book. 🙂
The pig family, Pig Papa, Pig Mama, and their four piglets, live a happy life on a farm at a bend of a river. One day, the Littlest, the youngest of the piglets and the only girl, realizes that they’re going to be sent to a slaughterhouse. Despite her family’s objection, she plans her escape. Will she succeed? Will her family be on her side eventually? Here is a story of defying odds and overcoming obstacles, of love for freedom, and of what it means to be a family.
It was bedtime, but Maya didn’t want to sleep. It was raining heavily and she could hear thunders in the distance, roaring terrible roars, like an angry monster. Several times, lightning bolts pierced the sky, baring their shining teeth. Maya was scared but she didn’t want to tell her mama. Didn’t she turn six just last week?
“One more story, please,” Maya said to mama, who had already read her two stories. Mama was really quite tired, but she stroked Maya’s head and agreed to read one more story.
“What do you want to hear?” asked mama.
Maya thought for a moment and said, “Maybe a story about a pig?” She didn’t know why she wanted to hear a story about a pig. But it didn’t matter, did it? She was happy as long as mama was with her.
So mama began. Seeing Maya’s eager eyes, she knew that the story had to be a long one.
Once upon a time there was a farm at the bend of a river. On the other side of the river was a jungle thick with conifers, birch trees, ferns and all kinds of vines. It was so thick and dark that no one had ever explored it. The only road connecting the farm with the city was narrow and forever jammed with cars and motorcycles.
The farmer and his wife had many animals. Among them was a family of hogs: Pig Papa, Pig Mama, and their four piglets named, according to their weight, Little First, Little Second, Little Third, and Littlest. Littlest was the only girl piglet and was much smaller and thinner than her brothers.
The pig family lived in a pen with a chain link fence. Every morning, the farmer’s wife poured a bucket of leftover food into the pen. Every afternoon, she poured another bucket of leftovers into the pen. Though she and her husband ate good meat and fresh vegetables and fruit, the pigs could only have leftovers. Not just any leftovers, but the leftovers the other farm animals didn’t want.
The wife never washed the pigs or touched them or gave them an extra glance. She liked her dogs, cats, horses, cows, even her chickens, but she didn’t like the pigs. Whenever she fed them, she called them “dirty pigs” or “stupid pigs.” It had been her husband’s idea to raise pigs. If it had been up to her, she wouldn’t have had pigs in a million years. She didn’t like their smells, nor the noises they made when they ate, and she didn’t like looking at them either. The only good thing about the pigs was their meat. She couldn’t wait to have them slaughtered and sold.
Pig Papa and Pig Mama loved food and didn’t mind if it was leftovers or not. Nor did they mind the grim-faced farmer’s wife. Every day, they dug their snouts into the food before it barely landed on the ground. They slurped and grunted happily. “Come quickly, my sweet babies,” they called out to the piglets playing in the mud. “Come to enjoy the feast with papa and mama!” The piglets joined them and ate noisily. Together, the pig family sang
“We are one happy and proud pig family,
There’re six of us and we love each other dearly,
We eat leaves, roots, fruit, rotten or not
We have strong stomachs and good appetites
We don’t care what tomorrow is about
As long as we have enough to eat.”
They sang every time they ate until one day they noticed that Littlest wasn’t singing along. Littlest wasn’t even eating. She stood at a corner of the pen, looking sadly at her papa, mama and brothers. Her small eyes sparkled with tears. What was wrong? Today’s food was particularly delicious and there were even several rotten apples in it. Pig Mama ran to her beloved daughter and asked, “Did you fall? Did the horses tease you? Did the chicken keep you up last night? Did sand get in your eyes? Did the fence scratch your skin? Did a flea bite you? Did a bird poop on you?” Like every other mom in the world, she always asked too many questions.
Littlest shook her head and started to cry. Now Pig Papa and her three brothers came to her as well, because they all loved Littlest very much.
“What’s wrong?” They asked in unison.
“We will be sent to a slaughter house next month. All of us.” Littlest said, crying.
“Who told you that?” Pig Papa asked. He didn’t look surprised.
“Cat Bobby,” the Littlest replied. Unlike her parents and brothers, she liked to make friends with other farm animals.
“How did he know?” Pig Mama asked. She didn’t look surprised at the bad news either.
“He was sitting on the farmer’ wife’s lap when the farmer told his wife,” Littlest said, still crying.
“You can never trust Cat Bobby,” Little First said. He didn’t like the news, but he disliked Cat Bobby even more. Oh, that damned cat! He always had a shrewd smile on his face and he walked as if he were a prince. Only the kind and credulous Littlest would befriend him.
The other three piglets panicked and started to cry with Littlest. Life was so wonderful with sunshine, food, mud and family. No, they didn’t want to die.
Pig Papa cleared his throat loudly, which stopped Littlest and her three brothers from crying. When he cleared his throat, he always had something important to say.
“From the day we were born, your mama and I knew we’d be slaughtered someday,” Pig Papa said.
“Yes, we knew that,” Pig Mama chimed in. “All your grandparents died in a slaughter house. All your grand-grandparents died in a slaughter house, too. We’re raised to be killed, to be eaten. That’s the fate of pigs. You don’t fight your fate. You cannot, anyway.”
Seeing how scared the piglets looked, she felt she had to comfort them. “But see, our lives are really not that bad. We don’t need to work like the farmer and his wife or the horses. We don’t need to give away milk like the cows – milk comes from blood, don’t you know? We don’t need to lay eggs like the chickens. And we don’t need to please anyone with cheap tricks like the dogs and the cats. We get free food. We don’t pay mortgage or rent. All we do is eat, play and grow fat. Not a bad life, right?” Pleased with what she said, she laughed.
To cheer up the piglets even more, Pig Papa said, “You know what? Many scientists believe that we pigs are smarter than cats and dogs. Because we know what a good life is about. And kids, we still have a whole month to enjoy our lives. A famous American author once said…” Pig Papa paused to make sure the piglets were listening, then continued. “He once said that ‘Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.’” He smiled, proud of his sophistication. It hadn’t been a waste of time to read the newspaper scraps that the wind had blown into the pen.
“But we don’t want to be killed. We don’t want to be eaten. Let’s run away. Let’s start a new life somewhere else,” Littlest shouted. She had never spoken so loudly in her life.
“Run away? A new life?” Pig Mama chuckled, pitying her little daughter’s naivety. “We cannot live in the forest like wild boars. We don’t want that, either. You have to worry about food and lodging every second. Not to mention the threat from tigers, lions and wolves.”
“But at least we’ll be free,” Littlest argued. She couldn’t believe how timid her mama was. “How do we escape? Where do we go?” Her brothers asked in unison.
“We cannot swim across the river,” Little First said. “We cannot cross the jungle,” Little Second said. “We don’t have wings or fins,” Little Third said. “We cannot even get out of this pen,” Little First added.
“We can get out,” Littlest said. “There’s six of us. When the farmer and his wife are sleeping, we can cut the fence with our teeth. We can dig a big hole under it.”
“Then what, you silly girl?” Pig Papa said. He was getting impatient with his daughter. How could a sophisticated pig like him have such a stupid daughter? Thinking back, he recalled that Littlest had been always different from her siblings. She didn’t like to roll in the mud, she chewed her food with less vigor, she spent more time thinking than playing. Even her skin color was fairer, a sickly and unhealthy gray, several shades lighter than her brothers’. On rainy and stormy days, his other children hid behind him and their mama in the shed, but Littlest always wanted to be outside, staring at dark clouds and lightning as if they were some kind of toys.
“Listen, my dearest daughter, we can never cross the river and the jungle,” Pig Mama said. She didn’t have the heart to scold her only daughter. She thought about an uncle of hers, who drowned in the river years ago when trying to escape the farm. He was the strongest pig she had ever known.
“And we’ll be killed by cars as soon as we appear on the road,” Little First said, imagining the pain of being hit by a car and the big pool of blood from his body. He shivered. Of course, he didn’t want to be killed by a knife either, but that kind of death somehow seemed less horrifying to him. His father and mother were right: pigs’ fate was to be slaughtered and eaten, and from now on he’d better enjoy every day. Worry would only make you lose hair, lose weight, and most tragically, lose appetite. If a pig didn’t have an appetite, how could he still be a pig? He ran back to the food the farmer’s wife had dumped and began to eat molded bread vigorously. He was never a worrier. That was why he was the heaviest among the piglets.
Hearing Little First’s happy grunt, Little Second, Little Third, and their parents ran back to the food too. After all, they were starving from such a long discussion. Pigs might outsmart dogs and cats, but they weren’t made for long talks.
Littlest stood still, alone and lonely. But she’d made up her mind. No matter what, she would get out of here and never return. No, she didn’t have to accept her fate. There was no such a thing called fate. She was her own boss and she would prove that. ……
(End of the sample. The story is pretty long and filled with twists. If you want to know what happens to Littlest, please write to me and I’ll send you the rest of the story.)
Language is not merely a tool, but a mindset. To translate, in a way, is to rewrite — Fan Wu
I wrote poems and essays when I was in China, but I never tried fiction. After graduating from Stanford University with an MA in Mass Media Studies, I found employment at Yahoo!, an Internet company, working in editorial then in market research analysis. When I started to write in English in 2002, I was inspired by the short stories by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and William Trevor. I would work long hours in the office, and then go home to write. I had intended to write a short story as my first creative writing attempt in English, but the story kept growing and growing until three years later it became a 80k-word novel, FEBRUARY FLOWERS.
Since the day I decided to write creatively in English, I have been torn between my mother tongue and my adopted language. After my first book, FEBRUARY FLOWERS, was published in more than a dozen countries, I, fearing losing my ability to write in Chinese, translated the book into Chinese myself for my Chinese publisher. My fear was so strong that I wrote my second book, BEAUTIFUL AS YESTERDAY, in Chinese, and then translated it into English for its publication in the U.S., the UK, and some other countries.
To this day, I still translate my own writing between the two languages. That’s why Nobokov’s “Speak, Memory” is so dear to me as he describes wonderfully the excitement and the anxiety of living in two languages and two cultures.
In the book, Nabokov says, “For the present, final, edition of Speak, Memory, I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-English of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”
To me, language is not merely a tool, but a mindset. To translate, in a way, is to rewrite.
Excerpt from my second novel, BEAUTIFUL AS YESTERDAY, a story of mother-daughter relationship set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area.
“She sometimes wonders whether, if she had lived in the United States since she was little instead of coming here as an adult, she would still have so much attachment to China. It seems to her writers always identify more closely with the cultures where they were born and raised. Jewish writers write the best about Jews, and Asian-American writers tend to focus on Asian Americans’ lives, while black writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are masters in depicting the black experience. A famous writer whose name she has forgotten once said that literature is the extension of a keen nostalgia about one’s ancestors. Maybe it is true.
“Or is her problem the language? Which language to choose, Chinese or English? She remembers a story from Autumn Flows, written by Zhuangzi, the most renowned Chinese Taoist philosopher.
In the story, a person from the Yan Country admires how they people in the Zhao Country walk, so he travels there to imitate their walking. By the time he needs to rerun to his own country, he has forgotten how to walk like a Yan person; meanwhile, he cannot walk like a Zhao person, either. So he ends up crawling back to Yan.
In the back of her mind, Ingrid fears she no longer has a first language: she has lost intimacy with Chinese, yet she’s still learning English despite the fact that she speaks with only a slight accent and has begun to build her name in the business translation world. When she writes in English, especially creatively, she sees her limited; the words seem to be floating on the surface of the water, instead of being part of the water.”
I went to college in the 90s, one year after the Tiananmen Incident. At that time, it was mandatory for first-year college students to go through a military training provided by the army. I had thought about applying for Beijing University, but decided against it because the military training there lasted one whole year. I later chose Zhongshan University (Sun Yat-sen University) in Guangzhou, one of the most developed cities in China, where people tended to eschew politics, and started my campus life with a required one-month military training.
One of my recent short stories, “Nobody’s Talking About Falling in Love,” is inspired by that one-month experience of my life. A story about the friendship between an eighteen-year-old college student and a sergeant. It’s included in a well-reviewed anthology: “One World: A Second Global Anthology of Short Stories.”
Here is an excerpt from “Nobody’s Talking About Falling in Love.”
“The girl was tall and plump, a first-year college student . As required by her university, she and other first-year students had to complete a one-month military training program before school started, in which no other classes would be held except those on ideology and Party history.
It was the third day into training. Her grass-green army jacket – in the biggest size for female students – was tucked into a brown belt and pinched tight on her shoulders and chest. Her pants fitted at the waist but stopped an inch above her ankles. She was the first in her row, arranged from tallest to shortest. There were ten rows in total – all girls – on a campus basketball court, forming a square: Unit 8. In training, boys and girls were separated, boys in odd-numbered, girls even-numbered units. Boys from her class were in Unit 3 and trained at an outdoor stadium. At the end of the program the students would be graded according to performance. If they failed, they’d have to attend next year’s training with freshmen for that year and, later, might have trouble getting a diploma.
It was a hot summer day. The girl and her classmates sweated profusely under the scorching sun but dared not wipe their faces. She looked down and saw beads of sweat on her nose. No doubt she’d get tanned or even burned on her face and neck. A few days earlier she’d had her hair cut to the bottom of her ear lobes to meet army requirements, so it wasn’t long enough to protect her neck. Also, she’d gotten up too late this morning to apply sunblock. She raised her left shoulder slightly to scratch an itchy spot on her cheek, briefly easing her shoulders and bending her knees, but repositioned immediately into attention under a soldier’s gaze – on each corner of the square stood a fully uniformed soldier at attention.
Their sergeant was giving a speech. Tall and barrel-chested, he stood with his feet apart at shoulder-width, his hands behind his back, his army cap covering his forehead and shading half his face. He was said to be a model soldier and the toughest instructor.”
After graduating from high school, I left Nanchang for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, and studied at Sun Yat-Sen University, majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. It was in early nineties when China, in the wake of Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown, quickened the pace of “Reforming and Opening up”, especially in the southern Pearl River Delta region. Instead of immersing myself in the study of classic and contemporary Chinese literature, I spent most of my time reading translated literature from around the world. My favorite writers at that time included Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Brontës, Stefan Zweig, Yasunari Kawabata, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Marguerite Duras, and Albert Camus.
My first novel“February Flowers“ is a coming-of-age set on a university campus. When the book was published, I did a multiple-country book tour. During the tour, I was asked a lot what it was like to be a college student in China. Here’s an excerpt from the book. Though I didn’t give the University a name, its inspiration is my alma mater, Sun Yat-Sen University (Zhongshan University), located in Guangzhou.
The University sat alongside the Pearl River – a big compus, separated from the outside by a high brick wall. The main entrance looked over a long, wide road lined with tall palm trees. Between the trees, flowers blossomed all year round. At the end of the road was one of the university’s oldest buildings. It had a multilevel green tile roof, brick walls, and a copper-studded double door. It was now used as an auditorium, where admission and graduation ceremonies were held. These kind of old buildings could be seen everywhere on campus, some hidden by luxuriant trees. Most of them were office buildings, like the one occupied by the Admissions Bureau behind the Bell Tower.
The shabbiest buildings on campus were the undergraduate dorms. Most of them were white, rectangular, made of cement blocks. On each floor long, external hallways went straight from one end to the other with nothing in between. All the rooms were identical – a square open space with one double door and one window. The door and window trims were brownish and looked like they hadn’t been painted in years. In the middle of each floor was an eight-sink washroom and a bathroom with cold water only, so students had to go to the public bathhouse next to the canteen for a hot-water shower. The toilets were the squatting kind and some of the doors were missing. There was nothing interesting about these dorms, let along romantic. They were said to be styled after Russian steelworkers’ accommodations of the fifties. It was probably joke but I had no desire to investigate further.
West Five was one of these buildings. It didn’t become all female until two years before I came to university. From that time on male students were no longer allowed to enter the door and a high brick wall surrounded the whole building. The only entrance was through an iron gate that had a duty room built on one side of it. Two women in their sixties, both called Dama – meaning “old auntie” – took turns managing the duty room and the only phone in the building. The phone was connected to a speaker installed right above the doorframe of each dorm room. If someone asked for one of the girls, the Dama on duty would dial that girl’s room number and pass on the message.
Every day before dinner a crowd of guys would wait outside the duty room and keep the Dama busy dialing room numbers and passing on messages. The girls who were called would meet their boyfriends outside the duty room and disappear with them beyond the brick walls. Then, a few minutes before the gate was locked at 11pm every evening, another crowd would gather. After saying goodbye to their male escorts, the girls would go back to the dorm. The crowd would reach its peak on Friday and Saturday nights, when the queue extended well beyond the iron gate. Some of the guys clutched bunches of flowers, stuffed animals, or gift boxes. Doma’s voice would become hoarse and impatient, yelling room numbers and names in a never-ending stream. West Five would be transformed into a huge dressing room, with dolled-up girls swinging down the stairs, the air filled with a heady mix of perfume, lotions, and nail polish.”
If there’s anything I miss about China it’s this kind of neighborhood scene—chaotic, yet full of life – Fan Wu
My parents moved to Nanchang, my mother’s hometown, in mid-80s. My mother gave up her career as a biologist and became a librarian, while my father taught at a high school. Both retired, they still live in Nanchang.
After college I went to work in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone, now a major financial powerhouse with a population of 15 million. Here is how Old Hu, a fictional character in my latest book, “Song of The Daisies,” describes the city: “It (Shenzhen) was a fishing village not many years ago but now it’s as prosperous as Hong Kong…Yeah, they say it’s an Economic Special Zone, a perfect blend of socialist idealism and capitalist practicality but to me it’s just greed, nothing more.”
But for the 16-year-old heroine in my story “Jade,” Shenzhen is a dazzling world, a beautiful mirage, packed with skyscrapers and luxuriously decorated boutiques, where a special entry permit was required.
I lived on and off in Shenzhen for three years and had varied jobs.
Here is how Moli Yang, the protagonist in my new novel, “Song of The Daisies,” describes her hometown:
“Whatever renovation the city has done has only made it more crowded and messy. After getting out of the taxi—roadblocks prevent it from going further—I follow the map my cousin Weiming has drawn, traversing an old railroad, then a tunnel where unlicensed vendors occupy narrow walkways on both sides, selling batteries, foldable knives, knock-off purses and shoes, women’s underwear and stockings, toys, children’s books and rat and cockroach pesticides.
Beyond the tunnel is an alley full of small shops and restaurants where customers eat at outside tables. It is hot, over 35 degrees Celsius. When I reach the end of the alley I see a huge oak tree growing inside an occupied house. Beneath the tree activities thrive: squatting young people play poker, an old man carrying a radio sings a dirge-like Cantonese opera, people have their hair cut and ears cleaned for two yuan, a man applies sandpaper to a cracking wooden table, girls wearing red scarves jump ropes, several men play pool, a young woman sorts out a pile of vegetables while a grey rabbit munches on the rotten leaves she has discarded.
I can’t stop looking, as if I were in a theater. If there’s anything I miss about China it’s this kind of neighborhood scene—chaotic, yet full of life.”