Happy Mother’s Day!

I didn’t know what being a mother means until I became a mother myself. When my daughter was born prematurely and had to be in the NICU for three weeks, my mother called me from China and told me to take care of myself. “You need to be happy, healthy and strong for your newborn and your family,” she said.

Now I’m a mother of two children. Whenever I feel stressed, frustrated or exhausted, I think of my mother. How she raised five children on a remote state-run farm, where she, as a biologist, had to endure family tragedy, physical labor as well as political persecution. How she made clothes and shoes for my brothers and me after a long day of work, and how she brightened our shabby apartment with beautiful songs on her four-string lute (月琴), which she had played since a young age.

Later my mother returned to the city to be a librarian. In the evenings, when my brothers and I were doing homework, she would teach herself English. “If you keep learning, you will never grow old,” she once said to me. After retirement, she took up Chinese water-and-ink painting (水墨画) and, with passion and devotion, transformed herself into an artist. She still paints several hours every day.

My mother has taught me about industriousness, integrity, perseverance, and most importantly, love. The love of who you are. The love of learning. The love of life. Thank you, Mama.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Featured image: “Mom and Me,” Maya Cedergren, 8

You’re not a fish, how do you know a fish’s happiness?

Two weeks ago, my kids had their spring break and our family went to Cancun together as the kids love the beach and snorkeling. We visited Chichen Itza, swam in a cenote, toured Isla Mujeres in a golf cart, drove a speedboat and snorkeled, and the kids swam with dolphins. We had a great time. Though we skipped the Sea World when we were in San Diego last summer as a protest against their whale shows, this time, my husband and I let the kids swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery because they “really, really wanted to.”

The ticket girl tried to persuade me to participate in the program too, but I told her that on principle I don’t like intelligent animals such as dolphins being kept in captivity and used for entertainment. She assured me that the program was very educational and meant to teach people about dolphins. Then she smiled and said, “These dolphins are born in the facility and they’re very happy here.”

I refrained from the urge of asking her, “You’re not one of the dolphins, how did you know that they’re happy?” A question inspired by the famous debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi that took place more than two thousand years ago. My kids were jumping up and down, excited, and my husband was busy paying for the vouchers of our lunch buffet at the facility. I didn’t want to appear to be unkind.

And there was always a tiny tiny possibility that she would ask back, “You’re not one of the dolphins either, how do you know that they’re not happy?”

Rhetoric aside and dolphins aside, the debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi contains one big philosophical wisdom on life. Whenever I feel the temptation to judge someone harshly, I make myself remember the debate about a fish’s happiness. When Trump won the elections, I was shocked and baffled. So I read and listened to a lot of stories and arguments of his supporters. I’m still baffled but I feel I have a better understanding of the matter.

After all life is not about confrontation, but about conversations.

As for the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery in Cancun, maybe they’re happy there. But I’m pretty sure that they would be much happier in the open ocean, being with their own kind, blowing bubble rings and riding waves.


The debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi

莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出遊從容,是魚樂也。」惠子曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣。」莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『汝安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我知之濠上也。」

     Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing the Hao River by the dam.
Zhuangzi said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.”
Huizi replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?”
Zhuangzi said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?”
Huizi argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!”
Zhuangzi said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy.
“I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”

(Based on translation by Thomas Merton, The Way of Zhuang Tzu, New Directions Books, 1965)

Featured image: Cancun

Stendhal’s tombstone, “He lived, wrote, and loved.”

Lately, I’ve received quite a few monthly newsletters from writers, and most of them offered writing tips. While I’m happy for their accomplishments, regret that I cannot attend their book events at a cool place somewhere far from where I live, and feel disappointed with myself because I’ve been working on the same book on and off for six years and am still not done with it, I’m a bit suspicious about those writing tips. I almost feel those writers (sorry, no offense here) were obliged to offer advice so as to make their newsletters read less like an advertisement, and of course, to engage with their potential readers. (I know I’m probably digging my own grave here as I may send out such a newsletter someday myself.)

Maybe it’s because that I’ve never enrolled in an MFA program and have rarely attended any writing classes (one exception was a week-long Macondo workshop with Sandra Cisneros in San Antonio, where I later returned to lead a workshop myself), and I live in the heart of Silicon Valley where imagination runs wild when it comes to technology, I tend to question that if there’re really rules when it comes to writing, especially fiction writing.

Every writer writes differently. That’s how I think. The only rule is that there’re no rules.

If there’s really ONE rule, then it’s the one perfectly captured by the inscription on the French writer Stendhal’s tombstone, “He lived, wrote, and loved.”

And I shall add that reading is a writer’s best blessing.

Featured image: “February Flowers” in Hungarian (a cover more subdued, and in my opinion, more interesting, than its American counterpart.)

Drive-in Theaters in the States vs movie-going in 80s China

My neighbors recently took their five children to a drive-in in San Jose to watch the movie, “Sing.” I asked them how they liked it and they said it was great. I suggested to my husband that we go there with our kids as I’d  never been to a drive-in theater and always had a romantic idea about it. But my husband was not keen on the idea as he thought it would be hard to watch a movie in such a place. He and I would probably fall asleep in the car (we both could use more sleep, with the kids climbing up to our bed every night and sleeping with their limbs spread out)…not to mention that it was pretty cold at night these days. So in the end, we watched the movie in a small theater in Cupertino. It was fun and the kids loved the pig wearing a sparkly golden hoodie.

When I was little, still living on a state farm called Red Harbor, watching a movie was celebrated like a holiday. To this day, I have a vivid memory of it.

Red Harbor didn’t have a theater, so we watched movies on the Headquarters’ basketball court. Of course, there weren’t any seats there so you had to bring your own.

On the movie day, you could smell something like a war in the air. Though the movie wouldn’t start until seven or eight, by three the basketball court already saw its first batch of visitors—grandmas, grandpas, those who didn’t have to work or go to school. They brought with them wicker chairs, stools, straw mats, bamboo fans, thermos, mugs, tea pots, slippers, food and snacks, and of course, their tottering, whimpering grandchildren, occupying the center space facing the imagined movie screen. Seeing how well equipped they were, you’d think they might as well bring their beds.

These grandmas and grandpas didn’t take space just for themselves; they also marked territory for families and friends who had asked them to. So after they settled, you saw stools, mats, and other objects lying around, marking their borders.

By the time my friends and I got off school and ran to the court at four thirty, half the court had been taken. We hadn’t even gone home! When I said it “had been taken,” it was not that it was full of people, but full of stools, chairs, benches, mats and odd stuff such as pillows, a piece of clothing, even stacked bricks, all with a name attached; on the ground were all kinds of markings and writings in chalk or charcoal.

By six, most people had arrived. The basketball court was as crowded and noisy as a honeycomb full of bees. Some people were quarreling because of a border dispute, each surrounded and cheered on by bored bystanders.

As if to play up the drama, the vendors chanted in their local dialects.

“Twenty cents a bag! My sunflower seeds are crispy and tasty!”

“Plums, apricots, fresh dates! The yellow ones are very yellow, the red ones are very red. Come and try!”

“Honeydew! Golden-skinned honeydew! Don’t pay if it’s not sweet.”

“Tea eggs! Big tea eggs! Very big tea eggs!”

The movie didn’t arrive until eight, a delay that neither surprised nor saddened us. We watched a team of people set up the projector and secure the big canvas screen.

With a silver light tube illuminating the screen and the projector creaking, the movie started.

A breeze came and the screen fluttered.

Babies felt asleep against their mothers’ chests.

Grandmas and grandpas poured tea into their mugs and sipped it.

A dog barked but soon whimpered—someone had thrown a stone at it.

I felt asleep before the movie ended. When I woke up, I was on my father’s back, and we were on our way home.

Dry leaves crunched under our feet, sounding as if coming from the center of the earth.

High in the sky, millions of stars twinkled.

“Did you like the movie?” My father asked me when he saw that I was awake.

“Yes,” I mumbled, before plummeting back into a sweet dream.

(Do you know that more than 90% of drive-in theaters in the U.S. have disappeared?)

Featured image: Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen

Pajamas-wearing in Public in China–a battle between “appropriate” and “comfy”

Wearing pajamas in public has a long-standing tradition in Shanghai, famously penned by many Shanghainese writers such as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang). It’s part of the cityscape, people of all different ages and genders in pajamas with varied patterns and colors and fabrics eat or shop or bike or chat or get a haircut or dump garage or just relax under a tree. Pajamas can go with just about anything. Leather shoes and colorful socks, a sun-shading umbrella, a Louis Vuitton purse (knock-off or not), or mirrored aviator sunglasses. Sometimes, people wear pajamas outside because they only need to run a quick errand and don’t want to bother to change clothes; sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to wear them if they don’t need to go to work.

In my hometown Nanchang, you see pajamas wearers everywhere, too. Whenever I go back, I love the sight of them. It gives me a warm feeling. The government says that pajamas-wearing in public must go because it affects the city’s image. “The foreigners and tourists would look down on us if we wear pajamas outside,” a district community manager said when interviewed, echoing the government. As an effort to reduce the number of pajamas-wearers, special volunteer teams, so-called Wen Ming Zhao Zhuang Quan Dao Dui (Civilized Attire Persuasion Teams) patrol the streets and communities before and during important events and conferences, discouraging people from wearing pajamas in public.

Such patrolling reminds me of the Top Ten Campus Campaign when I was a college student in China. I wrote about it in “February Flowers.”

“I listened. It was a male voice: ‘…leaders from the Education Ministry. We welcome and look forward to their inspection. To make our university a first-rate university nationally and internationally, it’s critical to build a healthy and positive environment for our students. For a university student, it’s as important to achieve excellence in your major as it is to have the correct attitude towards life and the world. Studying science and arts should be combined with cultivating socialistic ideology…’

……

The inspector from the Education Ministry arrived a week later. By now not only was the lawn closed but a guard post had been set up at the main entrance–visitors had to register when they came in and sign out when they left. Street sweeping had increased from once to twice a day. The day before the inspectors arrived, the cleaners even came to West Five to wash the hallways and stairs with detergent. The Student Association checked the dorms frequently, so we had to keep our rooms tidy at all times. During the day we took down our mosquito nets and folded our blankets into a square, as soldiers do. We also bought a few bottles of air freshener to make the room smell better….A group of uniformed workers from the Security Department patrolled the campus and would stop students who were smoking, or wore makeup, or broke any of the other new rules. They would threaten to report these students to their departments…”

Sounds all too familiar.

Back to the pajamas-donning issue, I wonder if “the foreigners and tourists” really care; they actually might like seeing people in pajamas in the streets because it’s fun and unique.

(Featured image: street view, Nanchang.)

Do you start a book from the beginning or the middle?

My 8-year-old loves books and whenever we visit the library, she borrows a big pile of them, some thick as a brick. She’s quick at deciding what books to read. I asked her how she picks her reading list the other day and she replied, “I start with the middle of the book because that’s where action is. If I like what I’ve read, then I’ll get the book and read from the beginning.”

A lot of novels used to be written this way. First stage: you introduce your main character and his everyday life. Second stage: something happens to the main character and he has to do something about it. Last stage is about him overcoming challenges and achieving some kind of goal or solution.

These days, more and more novels seem to begin “in medias res,” a Latin phrase that means in the middle of the things. Something happens right away in the beginning, then you backtrack to offer explanation and background. I can see TV series and movies’ influence on such a trend, also that of social media consumption–people are so distracted and occupied that they have little patience these days. If something doesn’t grab their attention right away, then they move on to other things that are more appealing to them.

Some writers argue that the second approach is better because it hooks readers and makes them want to read more. There’s truth in it, but I think it’s more important to establish a strong voice in the beginning.

When you correspond with literary agents, if they’re interested in your pitch, they usually ask you to send the synopsis and a sample–often the beginning chapters. Sure, they want to see the promise of action and conflicts in these pages, but what they want to see the most is your ability to make them care about your main character and the story you’re about to unfold.

As a writer, you decide what beginning fits your story the best. There’s no right or wrong.

Different from my daughter, when I choose what books to read, I always start from the beginning pages. There’s so much you can discover about the writer and her style from even just the first page.

Featured image: street view in my hometown, Nanchang.

 

 

A Powerful Movie: Blind Mountain

A friend asked me to recommend some Chinese movies. I mentioned “In the Mood for Love,” “In the Heat of the Sun,” “Center Stage,” “Peacock,” and “Blind Mountain.” I once reviewed “Blind Mountain” for Ploughshares. Please see below the slightly revised version. It’s such a powerful movie that I still remember a lot of details.


Ploughshares magazine

When you tell people you are a writer, they often say that they’d love to read your books but just cannot find the time. “But,” they continue, “If they’re made into movies someday, I’ll check them out.”

Maybe it’s just a polite way to say, “I’m not interested in your books.” Or maybe busy people tend to watch movies rather than read books for entertainment or enlightenment. Once or twice I overheard people saying that movies and widely popular TV series might totally replace books. It doesn’t sound likely, in my opinion–at least not in our generation’s lifetime.

I like movies but if I must choose between a good movie and a good book, I usually pick the book (unless the director is a favorite). If I have already read a book and liked it, I usually don’t watch its movie adaptation: More often than not, the book is much better than the movie. Over the years I have re-read many books but I rarely watch the same movie twice. Blind Mountain, a Chinese movie directed by Li Yang, is an exception.

Blind Mountain is one of the saddest movies, also the best, I’ve seen in years. Bai Xuemei, a college graduate, is kidnapped and sold to a peasant in a remote village as a bride. Repeatedly beaten and raped, she tries to escape and refuses to give up even after she bears the man’s child. When hope finally arrives, she finds herself trapped in the idyllic mountain village and its corrupt social and legal system.

Though the cast’s only professional is the lead actress, Huang Lu, the overall acting is wonderful and entirely credible. The cinematographer, Lin Jong, also creates a stunning visual experience.

The story is disturbing. Being based on true events makes it even more so. It touches me profoundly not only because it is tragic but also because it reminds me of my roots, a country burdened with injustice and oppressive traditions, especially in the rural areas, despite its economic boom.

The movie’s ending is perfect, leaving a lot to imagine. When the movie was released in China in 2007, it had a different, more upbeat and ironic ending, in an attempt to satisfy the censors.

The West’s reaction has been mixed. The movie received a standing ovation at Cannes but some critics gave lukewarm comments. “There’s little emotional underpinning to the rote story,” one said. Rote? How many movies about human trafficking are made each year? I don’t think it’s many. Also, a story can never be called “rote” if it provides new perspectives and cultural substances, as Blind Mountain does. (When I read that comment, I somehow thought of what an American once said to me: “I’m familiar with Asian literature.” Later, I found out that all the Asian literature he had read were several novels by an American-born Chinese writer.)

And “little emotional underpinning”? I could not disagree more. The emotion in the movie runs so thick and deep that I could barely breathe normally while watching it. The villagers’ matter-of-fact and unsympathetic attitude towards Bai’s suffering sends out a powerful message. Could this critic’s negative feedback result from his personal preference for being explicit as opposed to being implicit, and melodramatic as opposed to realistic? I don’t know. But to me, real life is implicit, subtle and nuanced much of the time, often not explicit when one might wish it to be.

Featured image: Inside Guitar Showcase, a guitar store in my neighborhood.  I’ve been teaching myself guitar, thanks to Youtube, but finding time to practice is a challenge.

The Hen and Her Eggs – About balance, also who you are.

In my recent conversations with other writers, the topic of self marketing and promotion frequently came up. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve been published long enough to know how important it is for writers to be actively involved in marketing and selling their books even if they are signed by a Big 5 publisher.

There has been gazillions of articles about how writers and artists can embrace social media and establish an effective commutation channel with their followers or potential audience. I’ve read some and found them helpful. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for writers to put all their energy into marketing themselves. Your time and energy is limited, and your creativity needs to be nurtured. You’re respected because of your work, not because how well you can promote yourself.

It’s about balance. Also about who you are.

Here is something I wrote for Ploughshares years ago entitled “The Hen and Her Eggs.” Though the digital space is increasingly crowded in the past several years,  this piece is still very much relevant.


Ploughshares magazine

The Hen and Her Eggs 

An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.

Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than social media presences, traditional bookstores and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties.

When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.

Little- or lesser-known writers need publicity. So do well-known writers. It matters if your book sells or not and it’s certainly important for you to talk about it and to hear feedback–not to mention the satisfaction of contributing to world literature and inspiring others. In his 1992 interview with The Washington Post, novelist Don Delillo said, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times and I’m not even remotely in that category. But people want to believe this because it satisfies some romantic conception of what a dedicated writer is and how he ought to live. ‘I know you never do interviews.’ They say that to me all the time. ‘But here I am’ is my stock reply.”

Ideally, your publisher or publicist will arrange all the nice events for you. Ideally, Michiko Kakutani will eagerly write you a stellar review. And Ideally, Oprah’s Book Club will welcome you as their latest favorite. But in reality, you probably have to do a lot yourself to market your book. So is there a limit to self-promotion? I guess not. Do what you feel comfortable with. If you are like Capote, enjoy parties and talk shows (but don’t forget that he maintained a rigid writing schedule most of his life); if you are like William Trevor, you probably prefer gardening and afternoon tea to a reading at Shakespeare and Company. It’s your judgment. If your book sells because of your hard work in self-promotion, give yourself a big congratulation.

(Featured image: a noodle restaurant in a Beijing 胡同hutong.)

The murder of a Chinese student in the UK and “Parachute kids”

Several months ago, a 24-year-old Chinese female student named Xixi Bi was beaten to death by her British boyfriend, Jordan Matthews. The pathologist who did the postmortem examination found 41 injuries on her body. Before her death, Bi was studying for a master’s degree in international business management in the UK.

The court report said that while Bi was dating this boyfriend, she had been repeatedly beaten by him and he had been controlling and manipulative to her.

While mourning Bi’s tragic death, I cannot help but notice that she was merely 15 years old when she was sent to the UK to study. She was one of those “parachute kids,” a term used to describe underaged children who are sent to foreign countries to study without their parents being around.

In recent years, a growing number of Chinese youngsters have traveled far to the United States, the UK, Australia, and many other Western countries to study in college (undergraduate studies) and high schools.  About 1/3 of international students enrolled in the United States are now from China. A decade ago, fewer than 1000 Chinese students studied in secondary schools in the U.S., and now the number has surpassed 30,000.

As someone who traveled overseas to study, I feel for these young people. I was 23 when I left China for graduate studies at Stanford University. Though I had finished 4-year college in China and had even worked for three years after college, it was not an easy journey. I remember those days when I felt defeated because I didn’t understand what my professors were saying in the class. I remember those days when I stayed at the library until 3 or 4am to finish school projects and then biked back to my dorm to get several hours’ sleep. I remember those holidays when I was by myself, and the days when I was sick with no one to comfort me. One evening, I stayed at my dorm room and cried for quite a while because I missed home so much.

These parachute kids are not even 20, some as young as 13 or 14, and I doubt they’ve had any summer jobs or internship in China for them to gain worldly knowledge and experience. They’re alone, lonely, far from home, surrounded by people who speak a different language and value a different culture. How easy it must be for them to feel homesick and lost.

I don’t want to go deep into the analysis of this phenomenon of young Chinese students studying overseas here, though I intend to write more about it in my future posts, to answer questions such as 1) who are these students? Why do they study overseas? How do they deal with cultural clashes? What do they want to achieve in their new country? How do they influence local schools, culture, commerce, etc.? The list is long.

If Bi had her family close by she would most likely have turned to them for help before the tragedy happened. If she was older, more mature when she was first sent to the UK, she would most likely have handled things differently, being less tolerant to her boyfriend’s abusive behaviors, being more confident in seeking support. If she didn’t feel that she had to live up to her parents’ expectation and succeed in a foreign land, she might have chosen to return to China when her relationship with her boyfriend turned bitter. If her university provided more attention and counseling to international students…….

These are all speculations, of course. But I wonder if there isn’t truth in them.

A young, beautiful life has ended way too soon.

 

 

 

 

Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution

I have four older brothers and my oldest brother, Xiang, and I are eleven years apart in age. He belongs to the “’60s generation” (六十年代后)while I belong to the “’70s generation” (七十年代后). He has a vivid memory of the Cultural Revolution as a child and preteen, while I was still a dodder when Mao died. Sometimes he makes fun of our age difference, saying that he feels that he’s several decades older than I.

I like to hear Xiang talk about his childhood. In my latest novel, Song of the Daisies, I wrote about the kids in the ’60s China.


From “Song of the Daisies

(Narrated by Kai)

My parents lived for three years in a military compound in Anhui Province, my father on a temporary assignment. It was close to the countryside. In winter, on evenings when it snowed, I would take my sister Moli and the other kids in the compound, boys and girls, to catch sparrows; for kids like us, growing up in warm weather, snow was the best thing. It had become a tradition, like eating moon cakes on Mid-Autumn Festival or shooting fireworks and wearing new clothes on the Lunar New Year.

On snowy nights, after dinner, many kids from the same compound would come to our house uninvited, each carrying a flashlight and a broom. They adored me and if I were away they would go home reluctantly. They could certainly catch sparrows without my advice or help but they said that without me it just wasn’t the same.

On our way to the village plaza, forty-five minutes’ walk—where sparrows nested inside the straw stooks or under the eaves—I would tell stories, some as ancient as Pangu opening the sky with an ax and Nvwo creating humans with soil, mixing the mythical characters from different times and legends. Or Monkey King fighting Fire God Zhurong; Houyi, who shot ten suns to cool down an overheated earth, and legendary ruler Dayu curbing the deadly flood.

In earliest human history, I told Moli and the other kids, there were four worlds: the Barren, Beyond the Barren, Beyond the Ocean and the Unknown. And there were five countries: Gold in the West, Wood in the East, Water in the North, Fire in the South and Soil in the Center. I liked telling stories, moving my arms and legs to emulate the actions I was describing, changing the inflections of my voice to fit the characters and occasions. Moli once said that I was as intense as the New Year’s lion dancers.

The walk was long, especially when it was windy and snowing, and when none of us had proper shoes or clothes to stay dry and warm in the snow and mud. But we didn’t mind the cold and discomfort—all of us, girls as well as boys, had read many stories about ancient warriors who drink animals’ blood when thirsty and who wear no clothes year round, except a skirt of grass and tree bark, and we imagined that we were their offspring.

Time passed quickly as I told my stories. My mind strayed occasionally to the snowflakes, dancing gracefully, glittering in our flashlight beams like crystal moths, and I felt happy and jealous—happy that Moli was next to me, looking up at me with love and admiration, jealous because I wasn’t a carefree snowflake. Sometimes I would look up beyond the flashlight beams, for the snow to fall on my face. I would lick the snowflakes and smile.

Before we arrived at the plaza I would order everyone to switch off their flashlights and we would stand still for several minutes, surrounded by darkness and the snow falling on us and on the ground. “So we don’t stir the birds, right?” Moli once asked about this ritual. I nodded but the truth was that I wanted the darkness, I wanted the quiet. And I thought the silence could serve as a preordained memorial to the birds that were about to die.

In my experience sparrows are the most difficult of all birds to scare, especially when they are sleeping. Shine a flashlight into their eyes and instead of flying away they stay still, leaving their fate to you—you can even grab them and they’ll still be in a stupor. Their behavior made the killing easy.

I asked the other kids to pair up, one shining the flashlight, the other using the broom to hit the sparrows hiding inside the straw or under the eaves. As they did the killing I looked away and watched the snow. A small pile of bodies soon accumulated. If I didn’t stop the other kids the massacre would continue until no bird was left alive. But I had set the quota beforehand: four sparrows each, not including myself. Whatever I said was an order and even the greediest kids obeyed, fearing that disobedience would disqualify them from future participation.

We started a fire in a corner where the wind and snow couldn’t reach and after wrapping the sparrows in mud we skewered them with sticks and put them on the fire, chatting while waiting for them to cook. I always remember those moments, when fire turned our faces into golden apples and we talked about our wildest dreams without childish shyness and uncertainty: this girl wanted to be the first Chinese on the moon; that boy wanted to invent a robot that could play ping-pong; yet another boy wanted to become a patrol guard at Tiananmen Square.

They asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up. I said I would follow the Greatest Leader and do whatever he asked me to do. “What if he asked you to die for the country?” one boy asked. I replied that it would be my honor. Moli hugged me around my waist, lifting her small face to watch me with worry, mumbling that she didn’t want me to die ever.  I touched her head and comforted her. No, I would never die, never, never, I said to her.

The boys compared biceps to see whose was biggest and challenged each other to arm wrestling. I always let them beat me though I pretended to try my best—teeth bared, facial muscles tense. There was much laughter and cheering, our budding youth strengthened by the fire, the night, the camaraderie.

When we smelled the meat we took the sparrows from the fire and unwrapped the mud, which fell off with the feathers. There wasn’t much meat on them but sparrows were fattest in winter, their tiny chests bulging. Without salt or other ingredients Moli and the other kids enjoyed their small feast. They always invited me to eat but I said that I didn’t want to eat, and said, as I beat the ashes with a stick meditatively, that I didn’t like sparrow meat. I lied—I could feel my Adam’s apple bob as I swallowed the saliva filling my mouth. Who wouldn’t like sparrow meat, ten times more tender and juicy than chicken? I liked chicken and could eat a whole hen if one was available.

What bothered me was my participation in killing. But I couldn’t persuade myself not to kill the birds, either, because our Greatest Leader had said that they were harmful to agriculture and should be exterminated, along with mosquitoes, flies and rats. Who could argue with our Greatest Leader? So I chose partial compliance, a conditioned appeasement: kill the pests but not with my own hands; not kill too many; never eat them.