First, my thoughts are with readers living in locations still locking horns with the COVID pandemic, especially those in India. Congrats also to those based in parts of the world that are finally turning the corner.
This issue's selection comes courtesy of Cai Moyan, a young man who works in Changsha's legal sector. In a soul-searching essay packed with rich anecdotes, Cai reflects on his zigzag journey from rural Hunan to white-collar comfort in the provincial capital, which included a short stint as a bricklayer. Cai's piece was first published by The Livings on March 29.
Take care and see you soon.
Bridging Town and Country: A Memoir of My Two Lives in Changsha
By Cai Moyan
Edited by Shen Yanni
Shoppers walk along Huang Xing Road pedestrian strip in downtown Changsha on Oct. 17, 2018. Credit: Sumeth Anu.
Early summer, 2005. At the request of my mother, I quit senior high to become a bricklayer's apprentice in Changsha.
At that point, I had never been to a big city. All I knew from TV was that Changsha was an entertainment capital, a popular destination for celebrities. There were also the locations that showed up in textbooks: Orange Island, Xiang River, Yuelu Mountain and Aiwan Pavilion.
I consoled myself on the bus ride in. Dropping out of school isn't such a big deal. You're about to enter the world-at-large. Just work hard and make a name for yourself. That was a bitter and cruel line for a teenager to swallow. A fellow passenger, a middle-aged man, moaned that he ventured to Changsha for work every year and yet never managed to save any money. He had no idea what he was doing. At least he was able-bodied and could handle hard labor. By contrast, I was short and skinny, green and I had a limp in one of my legs.
But having chosen my path, what else was there to say? Tucked away in the red woven pouch that hung over my shoulder was a putty knife, a bricklaying trowel, a claying knife, a metal mud slab, a plumb line and masonry string.
When the bus pulled into Changsha South station, I was overcome with disappointment. I was besieged by hot air that left me drenched in no time. Taking in my surroundings, all I could see was low-rises and a row of dirty and messy restaurants. I was soon surrounded by a crowd of sign-toting touts.
This was my first time encountering such a scene. I told every single tout in a friendly tone: "My bricklaying master told me to take the No. 7 bus and count the stations until I get to the Luqiao Group stop." Realizing I was neither interested in a meal nor a ride, the touts quickly turned around and cursed "country bumpkin" in the Changsha dialect under their breath—except at the time I didn't understand the term.
There were plenty of things I didn't know. After locating the stop for No. 7 and boarding the bus, I noticed a sign that said "no tickets sold" plastered on an aluminum box inside the driver's cab. My understanding was that city buses didn't sell tickets and were thus free.
I was the first person to board the bus and took a seat in the last row. The first batch of passengers followed. I noticed a woman pressing her handbag against a railing by the cab, which generated a beeping sound, before finding a seat. That confirmed to me no tickets were required.
After the bus set off, my eyes were glued to the scenery. I wanted to take in Changsha in its entirety—only to be interrupted by the voice of the bus driver on the loudspeaker. He yelled in the Changsha dialect: "Drop your change, drop your change! The kid in the last row who hasn't paid, drop your change now!"
I didn't understand the Changsha dialect, so when my fellow passengers looked at me, I was under the impression that they, too, were startled by the voice of the driver. I nodded and smiled in return. After a while, a young woman ran to the front of the bus and generated another beep. Only then did the commotion die down.
A few days later, my master explained that "no tickets sold" means that you need to deposit your own change. "Even drinking water comes with a price tag in the city," he said. "The people who use public transit cards are urbanites. Workers like us just need to drop change."
Only then did it dawn on me that the young woman paid my way with her public transit card. Thus was born my first goal in Changsha. I wanted to get my own public transit card. I wanted to be an urbanite.
The construction site was located at a university on Xiangzhang Road.
The makeshift dorm was a shed that my fellow workers built on a discreet spot on campus. The main structure consisted of metal beams and asbestos tiles made for a roof. The structure was then covered with tarp. That was it. The shed stank. My bed was a thick composite plastic bed. It provided no ventilation and trapped water. I spent 10 yuan (US$1.6) on a rattan mat. There was no need for a comforter. Every morning I woke up to pouring sweat, the mat stuck to my back and a body covered in mosquito bites. Meals were also served in the shed. Each meal cost 6 yuan. The food was average. My fellow workers used leftover containers for a popular brand of blood replenishment drink mix made from donkey hide as rice bowls as they grumbled about being underfed. We used a public water tap by the shed to shower.
The dorm was co-ed. Women and married couples were separated by curtains. At night, beds creaked loudly. I mock coughed in protest. My fellow workers said: "Kid, save it. Who doesn't want to be respectable? But who's willing to turn over one's hard-earned cash to a motel?"
A row of small motels was located directly across the street. They typically charged 30 yuan a night and a separate air conditioner fee by the hour. My female colleagues weren't shy about giving the motels a try, with one declaring: "Definitely heading over there when we get paid. It must feel good to do the deed in air conditioning."
At that time I was getting paid 30 yuan a day. I thought to myself I probably wasn't willing to splurge on a motel if I was married. Lunch and dinner combined cost 12 yuan and I typically spent at least another 2 yuan on steamed buns for breakfast. That way I only saved 16 yuan a day.
Another quick calculation and I quickly concluded I didn't want to settle down in the city. A public transit card cost 100 yuan, which included a 17 yuan deposit and 83 yuan in credit. I had to bust my ass for six days to afford one. Any leftover credit wasn't refundable. Paying bus fare with loose change was more of a bargain.
My master also advised against a public transit card. "You must accept your status as a rural migrant worker. As young as you might be, you are still a rural migrant worker," he said.
I remember being reduced to a state of utter panic and breaking into a cold sweat as I kept giving myself a mental pep talk. I know my mathematical functions cold, placed in a physics competition and my chemistry teacher adores me. I'm also well-read in the ancient and contemporary texts from both China and abroad. How come I'm a rural migrant worker?
I refused to accept the identity that had suddenly been thrust on me. I was worried my future was bleak if I became trapped in it. But after thoroughly analyzing the matter, I realized that the stellar grades I had once been so proud of had no bearing on my predicament. If I didn't accept my identity as a rural migrant worker, I would end up dying of hunger on the streets of Changsha.
My assignment was to build a grape trellis with my master.
The trellis' square pillars were to be made of brick, so I had to learn how to make a brick wall. A total novice, I was inevitably clumsy, which prompted angry tirades from my master. "You blind son of a bitch" was a common refrain. He also casually tore down brick walls I had painstakingly constructed after a quick glance. "If you pass your apprenticeship, then Changsha will stop seeing high rises," he'd say.
In his eyes, diligence wasn't enough. You also had to be "nimble." "Setting grids, ensuring right angles and using a water level is technical work. If what I sell is hard labor I wouldn't need a cripple," he said. Master made a point of striking where it hurt the most. I injured one of my legs when I was 12 and left it untreated because I couldn't afford medical care. But I was in no position to confront my master because I couldn't make a living without learning a craft first.
Master wasn't a serious person by nature. He loved kidding around with other workers, especially the women. He had a wicked mouth that didn't seem to stop until it offended. Initially I was baffled why he always put on a stern face when he saw me. Only on one occasion when the fingers on my left hand were extremely rough from constantly handling bricks did I realize he genuinely cared about me.
That time Master threw a tantrum and started cursing himself. "You cheap son of a bitch. Why didn't you buy gloves for your apprentice, or at least wrap his fingers with a bit of bandage? His hands are tender." It was heartwarming to hear, although I still ended up crying because Master made me take a break. I could withstand tongue lashings and injured fingers—but not a work stoppage. Half a day off meant half a day less of pay. That was painful to anyone who worked on a construction site. If I took half a day off, minus expenses, I could only make 1 yuan. If I had to take another day off, that meant bleeding 14 yuan. I wasn't afraid of physical exhaustion. I was afraid of being out of work.
During lunch break, I hid under a piece of tarp near the dorm. I didn't want to eat because it meant losing money. The auntie who worked in our canteen made a point of stopping by the dorm to ask: "Where's the kid?" I overheard Master respond: "He's resting. You can't work with injured fingers. He's quite talented. Of all the apprentices I've taken on, he's the only one who can build a wall on his third day. He's too good for a construction site, but I can't seem to make him leave, so I want to treat him well. Serve him a meal all the same and put it on my tab."
Even as everyone else was shooting the breeze over lunch, Master kept heaping praise on me. "He's a tiger on the prowl. Even if he stays on a construction site, he's going to stand out."
I breathed a sigh of relief on learning that Master didn't think I was total rubbish. Only later did I find out that Master typically has his apprentices running errands for at least half a year before passing on technical know-how. With me, he started doing so on my second day.
From that point onward, Master also stopped scolding me. He also ran interference when other workers wanted to pass on odd jobs to me, saying I was a master-in-training unfit for minor tasks.
Initially, I avoided the label of "rural migrant worker." I hated swearing, nor did I want to loaf around like them. I was always thinking of ways to distinguish myself, trying to maintain some false air of superiority. Eventually I realized I was the useless one on a construction site, wielding neither a craft nor physical prowess. A mentally handicapped colleague made more a day than I did.
The ups and downs of life help one accept his or her own place. I, too, finally felt that I had assimilated into this community.
The workers responsible for hard labor on the construction site typically had spouse and kids in tow. "Aiya, playing in the mud is filthy and tiring. This glamorous city has nothing to do with us at all. Who doesn't want easy work? But where does the money come from? That's reality for you," they would grumble.
My oldest colleague was Uncle Xiang. He was 60. Whenever he had time off you could find him lying on his dorm bed. The other workers joked he enjoyed playing corpse. Uncle Xiang knew what he was doing. "I can't waste my energy on other stuff. I need to cover my daughter's university tuition," he'd say. Uncle Xiang used to be an idle drifter, but he became a different person after adopting an abandoned child he found in the garbage dump by a construction site.
The other middle-aged workers basically drank every day to drown away their exhaustion. On the rare occasion they had some energy left, they patronized cheap sex workers in obscure alleys. Each transaction cost about 30 or 40 yuan, subject to bargaining.
The sex workers looked down on us too, dubbing us "yellow shoes" after the canvas shoes we typically wore to work. That didn't offend the workers in the least. "Who cares what they call us if they can charge less? Even 'girly shoes' would do," they said.
I used to think that sex workers were bad people. But when I met them in real life, I found it hard to despise them. They were simply doing the best in their circumstances. When that phone call came from home seeking financial help, they were pillars of strength. "I'll just work harder then. I'll think of something," they would say.
To be honest, that was quite a difficult period for me. I couldn't help wondering if the life I was living was my future—an endless routine of physical labor; armed with a paycheck, pretending to stroll through back alleys while ducking into hourly motels furtively. That life seemed utterly mundane.
Even though I ate and lived on a university campus, it was clear I was a rural migrant worker. Although I was close to the students in age, I wore tattered clothing and was constantly covered in dirt, not to mention my dark tan. Campus security could tell instantly I was with the coolies and not a student.
Once in a while I'd pull out a book to read, which only aggravated my sorrow. Once someone tapped me on the back when I was reading on the construction site. It was a young woman. She said she had noticed me for some time. "You're so young. How come you're doing hard labor at our school? Here's some sunblock," she said. I felt so lowly I couldn't even muster the courage to accept the sunblock.
The young woman stuffed the bottle into my hands, which were covered in warts and blisters. I blurted: "Aren't you afraid of us rural migrant workers?"
"My younger brother is also working on a construction site like you," she said as tears appeared to flicker in her eyes.
The young woman tracked me down for several days straight. She treated me to the student cafeteria, led me on a tour of a street filled with snack stands and told me ghost stories. She said the size of the student population was about 20,000. She majored in funeral services and management. "I used to be afraid of ghosts—until Mom got into a major traffic accident. She was completely disfigured," she said.
But before I could hear her story in detail, the young woman went on summer vacation. She gave me her number the last time she stopped by. I stuck the piece of paper in my chest pocket. When I removed it after work, it was already damp from my sweat. A mere touch and it broke into pieces.
Eventually, Master and I moved onto another project. I was beside myself when we were packing, lingering on the soccer field and going blank. Naturally, I wanted to hold onto those good memories. I craved friendship. I also wanted to say a proper goodbye to the kind young woman.
Uncle Xiang caught on to my sadness and offered a few words to advice, which seemed to apply to everyone in our crew. "The sweat you shed as a construction worker is never-ending. And it never amounts to anything—not a single drop—except cold, hard cash. Apart from that, nothing on site belongs to you."
After completing several projects, I got the message on my own. A life constantly on the move doesn't allow the luxury of emotion. "You think you have an emotional attachment to the house you built, but even if you die here, the owner can easily get rid of your body with a bit of cash," my colleagues said.
I know my fellow my workers didn't want to fall into the illusion that they had any ownership in the houses they built. Sometimes I would take a few minutes to admire a wall I had just built. It reminded me of how I used to make toy houses out of mud as a kid. I'd also make a couple and friends for the houses—only they would collapse quickly.
The wall before me could withstand wind and rain, which gave me a sense of satisfaction. I'm sure others in my shoes shared the same feelings, only to have their bubbles burst. "You don't own the bricks, nor the wall, nor the house. Don't confer too much meaning in things."
I could have told my co-workers: "I own the technical skill and I own my emotions." But there would be no point. Once you get used this nomadic lifestyle, you don't allow sorrow to creep in. All you can do is grip our brick axes tightly. The axes are what we lean on, just like woven pouches and yellow canvas shoes are integral to our identity.
After several months in Changsha, I still hadn't been anywhere else besides our construction site.
When I was a kid, I'd admire the planes that I vaguely spotted flying over the fields in my hometown. I always wanted to see them up close. So I took advantage of a rainy day in Changsha to ask Uncle Xiang to take me plane watching. Uncle Xiang had once said he was a worldly man who had connections that could get us into the Changsha airport.
Huanghua Airport was located several dozen kilometers from our construction site. It ended up taking us 2 hours by bus to get to the closest station. We stood the entire way. It took another meandering 20 or 30 minutes or so on foot to reach the main terminal. Then the ever-so-confident Uncle Xiang turned timid, stuttering as he asked an airport staffer who passed by: "Could you kindly tell us where we can get tickets to the viewing gallery? I know they cost more than train tickets, but I've got enough cash."
After a while, Uncle Xiang returned, fuming: "What kind of bloody airport is this? They've gotten rid of viewing gallery tickets. I even snuck in once."
I grabbed Uncle Xiang's hand and told him to forget about it. But just as we got ready to board our returning bus, a plane that had just taken off hovered over our heads. Uncle Xiang was as excited as a little kid. "I've finally laid eyes on an airplane. I'm going to tell my daughter they have huge bellies and rocket into the clouds. Truly amazing!" he said.
On the ride home, Uncle Xiang kept mumbling to himself. "I'm definitely going to make my daughter study a lot. Only if you're successful can you avoid being called crazy. I'm old and useless now."
My final construction site was situated near Helong Stadium, across the street from Baihua Job Market, a permanent recruitment center. By then I could build a brick wall independently, which made me a master of sorts. The other masters were paid 50 yuan a day but I was less efficient, so I was paid 38 yuan. I was in charge of building partitions in an office building. I also ate and lived in the unfinished structure.
My foreman assigned me a helper who was a year older than me. Because I was a master, he asked me to call him Xiao (Junior) Zhou.
Xiao Zhou dropped out of school of his own volition. He worked alongside his mother. Xiao Zhou's mother had a booming voice. Every time she washed her hair the entire building could hear her bellow: "Washing your hair is so expensive. All you can afford is a drop of shampoo each time. It's so diluted when it trickles through your hands."
Every time she saw me she would put her son down. "Master Cai is about the same age as you are. I hear he completed his apprenticeship in just over three months. He must make a lot of money. You better work hard. I don't have any money to hand over when you get married," she'd say. Xiao Zhou's father was a gambling addict who disappeared after divorcing Xiao Zhou's mother. Xiao Zhou was honest about his situation. "Why else would you toil on a construction site? You must come from a poor family."
Xiao Zhou constantly wondered if he should take a factory job instead. He always used to say: "Factories burn your youth. While learning a trade is hard work, you earn more in the long run. I promised my girlfriend I would work hard and become an established native Changsha dude."
It took just a few days on the job for Xiao Zhou to pick up the basics of Changsha dialect. Eventually he decided to speak only his half-assed brand of Changsha dialect. I used to tag along when he visited the phone booths in the back alleys of Yangtian Lake district to make calls. Time seemed to tick faster in those booths that used wooden boards as partitions. Xiao Zhou used to time his calls with the utmost precision. "You have to hang up at 58 seconds. Otherwise you might as well talk for another minute."
We struggled to fit in in that bustling part of town. The roasted whole chickens that cost 5 yuan each, the rice and meat dishes with extra sauce, fried rice with an extra egg—they were all huge sources of envy. The streets were also equipped with karaoke booths that charged 3 yuan for a song. We all wanted to vent—but 3 yuan for 5 minutes just didn't seem like a good deal. Back then our favorite destination was the Xinyijia Supermarket in Houjiatang district. The air conditioning was always on full blast and it was neat and clean. Our construction site was always dusty. We yearned for a change of setting, if only for an hour or two.
Before each of our trips, Xiao Zhou's mother would repeatedly warn him not to buy anything. "Supermarkets are bloody expensive. If you absolutely have to buy something, I know a good mom-and-pop store."
There were actually quite a few famous landmarks near my last construction site.
There was the Ferris wheel that claimed to be Asia's biggest. It sparkled in full glory every night. Xiao Zhou wanted to take his girlfriend on a ride, but he couldn't swing a discount even when he asked in Changsha dialect.
The destination I wanted to check out the most was Tian Han Theater, so named after the famous Chinese playwright. The 1930s Zhou Xuan hit The Wandering Songstress, whose lyrics Tian Han penned, was one of my paternal grandfather's favorite songs. Grandfather said he staged one of Tian Han's plays with his classmates back in his university days. And there I was, too lowly to even ask about tickets at Tian Han Theater.
Neighboring Gujing Park was open to the public for free though. I loved treading barefoot on its cobblestone paths, which served as a foot massage after long days. The water from the park's Baisha Well was also free. All you needed was your own bottle. I have loved well water since I was a kid, for its sweet, natural taste.
Xiao Zhou was no fan of well water, but he splurged 5 yuan a pack on the local Baisha brand of cigarettes. "You can't separate well water from a country bumpkin. I don't even bother with mineral water that costs 1.5 yuan a bottle. I only settle for liquor and iced tea. Baisha cigarettes are a sign of class," he said.
As far as we were concerned, Helong Stadium was the center of action when it hosted major pop concerts.
Xiao Zhou and I, as well as all our younger colleagues, were inevitably affected by the atmosphere and found ourselves living vicariously.
The most memorable occasion was when Hong Kong rock band Beyond and their Chinese counterpart Black Panther held a joint concert. On the day of the concert, my co-workers and I insisted on no overtime. We cleaned ourselves up, changed into our most presentable dress shirts and combed our hair meticulously. "We can't get looked down on," we told ourselves. The fact is we didn't have concert tickets. We had to settle for staking out a spot in the public square by the stadium.
When the music started, I lamented: "If only Dou Wei were here and Wong Ka-kui were still alive, this would have been the perfect evening even if we didn't have tickets." (Translator's note: Dou and Wong were the front men of Black Panther and Beyond respectively. Dou left the band in 1991 and Wong died of an accident in 1993.)
My colleagues didn't know who Dou Wei was, nor were they aware of the iconic 1994 concert in Hong Kong he took part in alongside fellow rock musicians He Yong and Zhang Chu. They were just afraid of being out of step with the latest trends. Attending a pop concert was fashionable. They wanted to be respected.
When the intro for the Black Panther hit Nowhere to Hide played, someone inside the stadium yelled: "Let me see your hands in the air!"
My colleagues and I lifted our arms and shouted in return: "Can you see them?"
We remained in our spot until well after the concert ended and the crowd had dispersed. Nobody wanted to return their dusty existence. But even people who don't have the luxury of choosing their lives envision the energy to fight their destinies. At least we could indulge ourselves in this commotion that actually had nothing to do with us at all.
The most indulgent thing I did during that period was vote by SMS in the Super Girl TV singing contest, which was the rage in China and being filmed in Changsha. I voted for contestant Ji Minjia.
I didn't even own a cell phone at the time. I had to pay my foreman to vote on my behalf. He asked me why I didn't for a favored contender. I said I couldn't bear seeing Ji being challenged to duels by other contestants all the time.
The older workers weren't impressed. They said: "What a waste of money. Don't take part in trends that you have no business following. The pop concerts you fancy drive up prices for mineral water and the peanuts and watermelon seeds we snack on while drinking liquor. Plus the concerts are so much noise we can't fall asleep at night and don't have energy the next day." What they left unsaid was that they themselves preferred to spend their money on viewing rooms that showed pirated VCDs or DVDs.
Yet I did indeed end up passing on future concerts. Instead, I hawked fluorescent neon batons before shows and solicited passengers on my foreman's electric bike after the show. I couldn't reveal my true intentions when I asked to borrow the bike. Sometimes I said I needed to visit a relative. When I ran out of excuses, I said I wanted to check out a red-light district, returning the bike with a pack of betel nuts. That greased the wheels the next time I had to borrow the bike.
On occasion I would make the equivalent of several days' pay in one night. But even as my savings accumulated, I was still stingy with my cash. At that point, my reserves had already formed a thick wad that I hid in my canvas shoes, but I was reluctant to buy a second-hand electric fan.
It was too hot to sleep one night Xiao Zhou and I went for stroll along West Laodong Road. About half an hour later we reached the banks of Xiang River. This was a spot I always wanted to visit but never got around to.
The river breeze was infinitely satisfying. We were ecstatic at the sight of rows of benches. Drinking fountains and public toilets were found every 200 or 300 meters. We collapsed on the benches. It was our biggest pleasure since we started living on construction sites.
A middle-aged woman yelled nearby: "Boats for hire! Boat rides anyone?" The price tag being more than 5 yuan, we naturally didn't bother. At around midnight, we were even patted down by pickpockets. I didn't bother to open my eyes, only mumbling to them that a few meal tickets were of no use to them.
I didn't worry much about my personal safety on construction sites. Sometimes I even thought if lo and behold, something happened to me, that would put me out of my misery.
Back then oversight of construction sites was a bit of a mess. You even had to pay for your own safety helmet. One colleague didn't want to splurge and he ended up being killed instantly after being struck in the head by falling debris. He was actually incredibly careful. His son attended university locally, just across the street at Central South University. "I need to work hard. Dad does physical labor. Son needs to study hard," his son used to say. My late colleague triple-checked every time he climbed a scaffolding. Considering that elevators on construction sites were prone to collapsing, he always used the stairs when his destination was 10 stories or below. He always said: "My son is still a kid. I have no choice but to bust my ass. At least one generation has got to be successful."
Surviving a major accident means good luck down the road, so the Chinese saying goes. I had my close call too.
One day Xiao Zhou and I were going about our business when we heard a huge bang. The metal hook of a tower crane had landed nearby. The hook, which probably weighed some 200 or 300 kilograms, had created a crater on the sidewalk. Had we been a pace or two faster, we would have been dead.
The accident drew shocked spectators who said we lucked out. Soon reporters arrived and approached us for interviews. Xiao Zhou and I looked at each other with blank expressions. "Time to get to work," I muttered.
Xiao Zhou went silent for a long time before finally blurting: "Hand me a smoke."
By September, evenings started to cool down, although days remained blistering hot. If I hadn't run into the uniformed students of prestigious Yali High School, I would have bought into my life as a rural migrant worker. I plunged into a state of panic and bought a mock exam paper at a newspaper stand.
The reason I held onto my cash as tightly as I did is deep down I felt I should continue my studies. I wasn't afraid of hardship—only of running out of hope. I always felt my purpose in life wasn't simply to make a living. With or without me, buildings would rise. I didn't want to lead a nomadic life anymore.
On one occasion, Xiao Zhou asked me to check out Baihua Job Market with him. "I think I'm a worthy talent too," he said.
The two of us finally splurged, forking over the 20-yuan entrance fee, only to be held back by a security guard. We weren't equipped with resumes, as easy as it was to print out a piece of paper. And we didn't know how to lie back then. "We've only worked construction jobs. We work just across the street," we said.
"You should take up position at the Xichang Street Temp Market and wait for someone to pick you. Or stand under a footbridge with a sign around your neck listing your manual skills," the security guard said with utmost disdain. In his eyes, we were trespassing and he needed to hold fort.
I finally returned to school in December, in time to study for my university entrance exams in June. Shortly after I left, I heard from a former colleague that Xiao Zhou ended up staying in Changsha—only to be arrested for forging a large number of meal tickets. "That kid is quite street-wise. He spoke decent Changsha dialect and was smoking local Furongwang cigarettes in a matter of months," the co-worker said.
Meanwhile, Changsha started to turn me off. I felt I couldn't make the cut there. I never ended up getting my public transit card during my stint as a bricklayer. But after my exam scores came out, I applied to schools in Changsha—because I fell in love. This time I arrived in town with proper credentials. I was armed with an official letter of admission.
The first thing I did after getting off the bus in Changsha was buy a public transit card. I was also assigned to a campus dorm. I finally seemed to feel some semblance of belonging.
The few months I spent working construction felt much longer—it was as if I had endured half a century of hardship. When I got my student ID, it struck me that youth was still on my side. Even though my hands were completely chewed up, a childish face still stared me in the mirror.
My girlfriend was an English major at a foreign languages university. In her company, I scaled Yuelu Mountain for the first time. Back then, Meixi Lake didn't exist. She yelled at the then-abandoned plot at the foot of the mountain: "I'm going to be spending a long time with this boy."
We loved walking back and forth on Orange Island Bridge. The river water flickered amid a gentle breeze. My girlfriend loved to sing, her favorite being the Rene Liu hit Do You Know Or Not: "Were the day's clouds in the know / Thus we treaded so gently / So as not to interrupt / The brief time we were destined to share."
I told her I had once sought refuge on the benches that lined Xiang River. She fondled them and said: "Thank you for taking in my man." I grabbed her and we hugged and kissed under the fireworks. A woman's lips are oh so sweet, so sweet that if she kissed the surface of Xiang River it would instantly turn into dessert.
We took the same part-time positions handing out flyers and selling Chinese-English dictionaries. When we worked late and missed our dorm curfew, we sat on the lawn and chatted through the night. In fact, cheap motels that charged just 25 yuan a night could be found in the back alleys across the street from campus. But we'd always talk until sunrise and exchange silly smiles when we passed the motels, saying we'd try them next time.
When we were free, we enjoyed window shopping along the Huang Xing Road pedestrian strip. She favored the Dai Mei hotpot chain and always sampled the stinky tofu and pickled radish on Taiping Street. When we went clothes shopping at Jinmandi, I bargained more aggressively than my former colleagues did.
I was under the impression that we were just one step away from spending our lives together.
My girlfriend was older than me and graduated before I did. When she left, I felt like a junior partner. "Give me some time, OK? I need to settle down in Changsha first," she'd tell me over the phone. That was her line, but I sensed she was holding back in our conversations. Eventually, she stopped answering my calls, saying stoically she had missed them and forgot to call back.
I've always been someone who knows how to read between the lines. She didn't have to spell things out. A cold shoulder and I knew I was on my own again.
After that, Changsha felt like it had no place for me. I couldn't locate the back alleys near Yangtian Lake anymore. Xinyijia Supermarket went out of business and the public phone booths we used to use disappeared. Mountains were leveled and new buildings sprouted. But I related to them the same way as my former co-workers did—when a new apartment complex went on sale, it had no bearing on our lives.
It dawned on me I wasn't faring much better than I used to. As proficiently as I spoke Changsha dialect, no matter how many public transit cards I accumulated, I still felt without a home. Attending university put me in an even more awkward position. I couldn't even go home anymore. People in my hometown only respect material wealth and tend to speak sarcastically of intellectuals.
To gain a foothold in Changsha, I studied for all sorts of diplomas and went to graduate school. Any free time was filled with part-time work. I worked at my grad school adviser's law firm and taught at tutorial schools on weekends. When the law firm ran out of active cases, I handed out flyers at hospitals, did promotional work, ran errands at courthouses and even tutored the children of our clients. I got a taste of both human kindness and cruelty. I kept performing tasks that seemed unbefitting an intellectual.
When my former colleagues found out, they joked: "We always thought you would end up the most successful of our batch. You might as well have stuck with building brick walls." I wasn't offended. As dashing a figure I cut in a suit, I always considered myself another rural migrant worker.
People keep telling me in recent years that I should have bought an apartment earlier. Real-estate prices in Changsha have always been comparatively reasonable. It's funny they mention it. My co-workers and I knew it was time to buy 15 years ago. Back then a downtown flat cost about 5,000 or 6,000 yuan per square meter. In the suburbs, the price dropped to as low as 2,000 yuan per square meter. Everyone knew that property prices were going to rise, but so what? What did that understanding mean to us, people who made 16 yuan a day?
Fearing that this city would throw me out, I was constantly on the move, always juggling three jobs. Until one day I realized I could afford many of the things on sale. Only then did I pause, take in my surroundings tentatively and let it sink in I no longer lived on a construction site.
Further down the road I bought an apartment and a car. I don't recall getting too emotional when I received the keys.
On a routine afternoon, I walked into my bedroom utterly exhausted. The dozen or so years I spent toiling in this city had taken their toll. I thought to myself never again would I move to a new city for another person, nor would I leave my hometown for love. It takes so much time and effort for duckweed to plant its roots firmly.
Life is like building a wall, as is maintaining a relationship. Both are painstakingly built, brick by brick. If you stick to it, you end up with a wall. When a relationship accumulates a certain amount of history, it becomes a home. I now have a roof over my head, but a home remains a luxury. Still, compared to the drifting existence of my former co-workers, I'm doing OK.
My bricklaying master passed away. Uncle Xiang struggled to raise his daughter into a young woman—only to be falsely accused of human smuggling and narrowly escaped prison time. The married couple who occupied the bed next to mine divorced. My female colleague ended up checking into an air-conditioned motel room with another man.
None of them got a good look at Changsha, but who's to blame? Who cares? I just assume they returned to their respective hometowns, where there is no discrimination or threat of eviction.
The times may be churning or dead quiet, but one thing is certain—they are always moving forward. A generation perishes, replaced by another generation. After a cycle of renewal and replenishment, a city is refurbished.
The water of Xiang River flows north, the water in Baisha Well is still sweet and the camphor trees lining the streets remain fragrant. The gingkos are still spectacular in the fall, the maple leaves surrounding Aiwan Pavilion are bright red, fireworks erupt over Orange Island Bridge and Huang Xing Road remains bustling. This city is still the same city, congested and dominated by transactions. The most accomplished people have but one life to live and the lowliest must live their lives to the fullest too.