My Days as a Kept Woman

No. 22

Hi there:

I'd be remiss not to preface this piece by saying that this is a controversial perspective, although I'm also going to refrain from passing judgment or making casual generalizations.

This is simply Tiantian's story, as told by Tiantian to the podcast Story FM. The original podcast first aired on June 9.

On a side note, Story FM surpassed its 500-episode mark in mid-May. A belated congrats to founder Kou Aizhe and his team, who do such a phenomenal job maintaining both high output and quality.

Take care and see you soon.

ML


I Was a Kept Woman, But "Big Brother" Changed My Life

Narrator: Tiantian

Transcribed by Zhu Siwei

1.

My name is Tiantian. I'm 34 years old. I live in Xinjiang. I'm living the life I want to live.

I was born in an impoverished mountainous area where kids had to carry their own rice to school. I ate half a kilogram of rice each day and carried 2.5 kilograms per trip. The only thing we ate with our rice was homemade chili sauce.

In circumstances like this, most girls in my village quit school to work after completing junior high. Only boys were allowed to continue their education. I always maintained decent grades, but in the second semester of the third year of junior high, my mom said: "You can't take the senior high entrance exam. We need to save money for your younger brother."

I remember clearly the year was 2002. I was 15. I burst into tears, burying my head into my hands as I wept silently.

I felt disgruntled and furious. I knew Mom hid her cash under her pillow, so I stole 50 yuan and ran away without hesitation. I didn't say goodbye to anyone. All I had on me was the 50 yuan (US$8).

I took in the vast mountains as the rundown minibus I took stumbled over the county roads. The tears streamed non-stop.

I was at a loss when I arrived at the county seat. I had no idea where to go. I stood still at the bus station for a full 20 minutes. I ended up spending the night at an Internet cafe, where I had my first-ever bowl of instant noodles. How delicious it was!

No one wanted to hire me because I was just a girl. But I had finally left home. I was in a city for the first time and had my first glimpse of the outside world. So I wasn't scared, rather I felt relaxed and liberated.

I was still unemployed by Day Two. And the outside world was running out of patience. A second peaceful evening was not in store.

2.

On my second evening in the county seat, I became a magnet for job referrals when I walked the streets.

"Young sister, are you on your own? Do you need a job?"

Among these people was a man in his 40s who took me to his barbershop. I was quite confused as to why a row of women sat inside every barbershop. After washing hair for three days, I had my answer. Getting your hair washed was code for patronizing a sex worker.

When I figured out what was going on, the owner of the barbershop couldn't help asking me if I was willing to take customers. I refused. He didn't force the issue because I was a virgin. He wanted to wait for the right price. Even though the owner was in no hurry, I was terrified, being a live-in employee. Every day there were customers who showed interest in me. I was worried I'd be dispatched to a dark room soon.

During my time at the barbershop, I became close with one of the other girls. She was gorgeous and had pale skin. She also took customers. But she told me that she didn't want to continue in that line of work and invited me to escape to Dongguan with her. She said she could lend me cash to cover my train fare.

We set off that same evening. The barbershop was located 2 kilometers from the train station. Because I had no luggage, I pretended to go for a walk and headed straight to the train station. My colleague later showed up with her luggage. Everything went smoothly.

I felt very lucky at the time. If I had been working for an extremely shady barbershop, perhaps I would have been trafficked already.

In retrospect, there was a reason why things went so smoothly.

3.

After a 30-plus journey on hard seats, we arrived in Dongguan. My friend took me to her friend's place. I trusted her, so I didn't ask too many questions. But when we got to her friend's home, things didn't feel right at all. There were so many men and women and the floor was covered in mattresses. It was a mess.

If I mention Dongguan these days, everyone is clear about the connotations. Back then, I was clueless about what was unfolding before me.

At that point, my friend told me: "These are all my friends, so don't even think about leaving. Even if you tried, you wouldn't manage to escape."

I was indeed trapped.

My hosts enthusiastically treated me to a meal. When they heard I had never tried bubble tea, they served me a cup. I passed out after a few sips.

When I woke up, I had no idea what time it was. My first sensation was pain in my lower abdomen. It was that time of the month. Then I noticed a needle mark on my arm. Mired in fear and panic, I discovered a young man sitting next to me. To this day I don't know his name. He was my handler.

After regaining my composure, I carefully felt if anything else was off in my body. Luckily, I felt fine except for nausea and weak limbs.

My period had saved me.

Because I still hadn't recovered fully, I thought the next stop was the hospital when the young man carried me on his back. Instead, he took me to a motel, where he handed me 100 yuan and parted with the warning, "Don't go back there again."

And then he left.

Why did he help me? How was he going to account for my disappearance? Did he pity me? Or was he in the same boat? I've always wanted to track him down and get answers to these questions. If he hadn't rescued me, I can't imagine how the rest of my life would have evolved.

But sometimes you cross paths with people in a fleeting moment and never see them again.

4.

I was terrified that the people I had escaped from would track me down, so I decided to leave after working at the motel where I lived briefly. When I left, the owner gave me 500 yuan.

Armed with that bit of cash, I returned to the city near my hometown. I felt so stupid, having run away from home without an iota of real-life experience. But I still refused to go home. I got a job at a restaurant. That's where I met another person who changed my destiny.

I called him "Big Brother." Big Brother was about 30. Clean-cut and well-groomed, he was in good physical shape. He looked like a boss. On the day we met, he was eating at our restaurant with a group. I was their server and took their order. I like to smile, the thinking being that smiling brings good luck. Indeed, I drew Big Brother's attention that day. Wearing a serious expression, he asked me: "You're so young. Why aren't you in school?"

Typically, when a customer took an interest in me, he'd flirt a little. But Big Brother asked me if I wanted a different job.

"And which company do you happen to run? Do you want to hire me?" I responded in a joking tone.

"Not a problem," he said, before handing me his business card. "Just look me up if you want to switch jobs."

I studied his card. Wow, a real-estate company! By that point I had been working for some time, so I knew the property industry was a booming sector. Not wanting to spend the rest of my life working in a restaurant, I showed up at Big Brother's company a few days later.

When I first got there, all I could handle was odd jobs. But I always tried to be upbeat and pro-active, which probably caught Big Brother's eye. Out of the blue, he asked me one day: "Do you want to continue your studies? If you do, I can pay for your tuition."

Shocked and moved, I froze. I took the next day off to research schools. Eventually, I decided on a private secondary school in the county seat. Tuition cost about 2,000 yuan a semester.

Big Brother transferred me 5,000 yuan and told me: "Just focus on your studies. Don't come to work anymore."

5.

Because I switched schools, my old school and parents were notified. But after I made clear my reasons for running away, my parents felt guilty and let me continue my schooling in the county seat.

Out of gratitude, I got in touch with Big Brother regularly to give him updates. I also visited him during vacations. When we became comfortable with each other, we ate out together and chatted frequently. Sometimes he resembled a parent. On other occasions, the nature of our relationship was fuzzy.

All men are drawn to physical beauty. All men have desire.

On the day of my 16th birthday, Big Brother booked a private room at the best hotel in town and invited a few of his employees. Without a hint of embarrassment, he introduced me by saying: "This is a student I support financially. Get to know her a bit."

Because Big Brother rarely brought female company to meals, his employees surmised we had a special relationship. They teased: "This sister is so young. How could you?"

Big Brother just smiled in return.

But the evening wasn't limited to teasing. Both Big Brother and I drank that night. Using that as a pretext, his employees got us a room at the hotel.

In fact, I was extremely shy the entire night, avoiding eye contact with Big Brother. I admired him, so when he propositioned me, I was at a loss. Was it love, or plain vanity? In any case, I was certain I didn't want to refuse.

After sex, I was overcome by disbelief. I stood by the window and gazed at the night sky. Was it just a drunken fling? Maybe he'll apologize when he wakes up and say this was a mistake.

But the next day Big Brother didn't say a single thing. All he did was a give me a hug, a big hug.

(Translator's note: The age of consent in China is 14.)

6.

After that night, the dynamics of our relationship changed. Big Brother used to be quite strict. After we became a couple, I behaved more impulsively. For example, I skipped all my weekend evening self-study sessions and spent the time with him instead.

He was a solid writer, so he reviewed my essays. During my monthly break, I'd show him my homework. Sometimes he would wake me in the middle of the night to decipher handwriting he couldn't read.

He also attended parent-teacher conferences. He was both a lover and a parent at the same time.

In fact, the unusual nature of our relationship had puzzled me at one point. It was, after all, not the type of romantic relationship I had envisioned. But after all that I had been through, I felt it was incumbent on me to value any level of concern directed my way.

Not to mention Big Brother was romantic in his own adult way, not limited to showering me with gifts of jewelry and clothing. He was very mature, never giving me the silent treatment. When I threw a fit and slept on the sofa, he would always move me back to our bed after I fell asleep.

He offered to give me two apartment units, but I refused. I didn't want material benefit to compromise the purity of our relationship.

In senior high, I only had four days off a month. He always spent those four days with me, until I started university. He picked a fancy school for me and had me major in golf resort management, in the hope that I would join his business eventually.

But maturity also meant being cold and calculating. I wanted to have a child when I was in university, but he didn't think the timing was right. He also didn't want to get married.

I was open to not getting married. My thinking was simple. I just wanted to be with him. My plans for the future revolved around him. I thought we were going to be together forever. We agreed to have a kid when I graduated from university.

Unfortunately, that day never arrived.

7.

On Oct. 2, 2008, Big Brother got a call summoning him to the offices of the local city government.

Before he set off, he told me to head home and promised to pick me up in two days. We had a habit of hugging every time we parted. That day was no exception. It turned out to be the last time we embraced as lovers.

He didn't show up two days later. My calls to him didn’t go through. I knew he was in trouble. Big Brother had told me that his phone was being tapped by the authorities because he had raised funds illegally. It's just that I never thought the situation was that serious.

I called all his friends. All I could find out was that Big Brother had been arrested. No one was willing to tell me where he was, how he was doing or what was in store for him.

I could only track him down on my own.

I had to find Big Brother. He had left without saying anything, without saying goodbye. How could I take a separation like that?

If not for Big Brother, perhaps I'd still be stuck working at a small restaurant. He was my rock. Now the rock was gone, I was in a state of utter panic. Locating him was also a form of closure.

All I wanted to know was how he was faring. I didn't expect anything else.

8.

I considered taking a leave of absence from school to track down Big Brother, but he always viewed my studies as a priority. He expected me to finish, so I decided to carry on. But that also meant I had to shoulder the expensive tuition myself and that I could only confine my search to weekends and long holidays.

My first stop was the local prison where he was arrested, but that led me nowhere. Indeed, how could a case of this complexity be handled locally?

Operating in a foreign city posed an even bigger challenge. It was fishing for a needle in a haystack. I started with cities in our province, making the rounds in surrounding cities first. In two years, I covered nearly all the cities in our province, to no avail.

On a day in 2010, a friend who was helping me finally let it slip that Big Brother might be in City A.

I set off for City A immediately. I was overcome by emotion during the journey. Once I got off the highway, I hailed a motorbike for hire and asked the driver to take me to the local prison. He responded: "There are two prisons in town. Which one?" In a trembling voice, I said: "Just pick one!"

When we arrived at the first prison, I approached the first staff member I saw and asked if Big Brother was being held there.

"And you are?" the man asked.

"A friend," I responded, after pondering my answer.

Lo and behold, the man I approached happened to be the warden. He was perfectly clear on who was being held there. He asked me to wait in a meeting room. I knew then I was in play.

The room was surrounded by glass and windows covered by metal bars. I had imagined our reunion countless times in the years leading to that meeting, but for it to actually happen in that environment was unsettling.

As my thoughts wandered, Big Brother appeared.

9.

Big Brother was stunned when he laid eyes on me. It looked like his jaw was about to drop. I could sense tears forming in his eyes.

"How could it possibly be you?" he exclaimed.

Never his wildest imagination did he think that I could track him down on my own. As for me, I was speechless as tears rained down my face.

Big Brother broke the silence. "How have you been?" he asked.

"You probably know my latest. I spent ages looking for you. Your friends wouldn't tell me anything. Didn't they update you on my situation? Why did you keep your whereabouts a secret?" I said.

"I always upheld such an image of success in front of you. I didn't want you to see me in the doldrums. Now that I'm in prison, I'm in no position to help you. If we stay together, it will jeopardize your future." For the first time, I saw a vulnerable side to Big Brother.

I had so many questions. How could Big Brother bear leaving me on my own? Why did he cut me off so abruptly?

But prison was hardly the setting for a heart-to-heart. Our reunion ended quickly. Many questions were left unanswered.

Regardless of how he assessed my abilities, I had survived. The fact is both of us had changed a lot in two years.

In prison, Big Brother nursed a belly. He never used to wear casual shoes. Yet he donned a pair when we met again.

I also learned to be independent. I completed my studies on my own and managed to find Big Brother.

Still, it was extremely difficult to tackle these tasks independently. The economic pressure was immense. In my toughest moment, I leaned on a new boyfriend. He's a businessman I met on our campus golf course. He was also the one who helped fund my education and my search for Big Brother.

That's why I avoided the questions I had for Big Brother on subsequent visits. The more pressing issue for me was whether to choose the past or the future.

10.

I started to visit Big Brother regularly. After about four visits, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. I told him everything.

He thought it would be great if I could be with my boyfriend in the long run.

I asked Big Brother: "Do you want to pick up where we left off? One word from you and I'll wait."

Big Brother didn't address the question directly. "The fact that you are willing to visit me when I'm down and out—that's more precious than romance," he said.

His answer was obvious.

In fact, that was for the better. I finally had full closure to the dilemma that had been nagging me constantly.

Further down the road, we faced more trials. Time flew.

My boyfriend and I got married. When Big Brother was released in 2012, he also started his own family. Our families socialized frequently and got along well.

Gradually, I built my own career. But soon I realized all the material wealth I accumulated didn't provide the life I wanted.

In 2018, I ran away again. I returned to my home village to start a bed and breakfast.

People have asked if Big Brother and I would have had a future together had I waited. I never think about it that way. Whatever happened happened for a reason. I accept it all with open arms. After going through so much, I have few attachments.

The human heart operates in strange ways. I ran away from my rural village and now I'm back. My heart has returned to its starting point. That gives me a peace of mind.

So I now run a bed and breakfast in rural Xinjiang. Big Brother has promised to visit. He also wants to enjoy the peace and quiet.

After all these years, we are still like family.

The Selfless "Rodman"

No. 21

Hi there:

In this issue we feature Zhuo Xilin's sensitive profile of Zhang Baoyun, a Chongqing mover known for his good deeds. Among other kind acts, Zhang pays tuition for 23 needy students through his backbreaking work as a "rodman." These legendary workers negotiate Chongqing's mountainous terrain while carrying goods attached to a bamboo rod hanging over their shoulders.

Zhuo's story was first published in Chinese by We Are People With Stories on May 24.

Chinese-literate readers who are also WeChat users interested in learning more about WAPWS (我们是有故事的人) can scan the QR code at the bottom of this email.

Take care and see you soon.

ML


The Mover Who Funds 23 Needy Students with His Trusty Rod

By Zhuo Xilin

Edited by Meteor Shower

The mountainous geography of Chongqing has given rise to a unique form of manual labor—delivery by bamboo rod. The workers who carry goods by suspending them from rods thrust over their shoulders are known as the "rod army." One such laborer is Zhang Baoyun. Zhang ran away to Chongqing at age 15 and has been working as a "rodman" for 24 years. Yet a significant chunk of Zhang's earnings go toward paying tuition for 23 underprivileged children. The most recent addition to Zhang's beneficiaries has been on the list for nearly eight years.

Three years ago, when Zhang's father passed away in the wee hours, he was still at work, so he could wire sufficient funds to the children he supported the next day.

Now his late father's younger brother is sick with uremia and in dire need of a kidney transplant. A friend suggested Zhang launch a donation drive using the crowdfunding website Shuidi. As of April 22, he had only raised 180 yuan because he hasn't submitted enough information. Others have advised Zhang work within his means and avoid stretching himself thin, that he take better care of himself.

"Kindness is a form of self-love," Zhang says. He called his uncle recently to tell him not to worry and that he would figure something out.

All Zhang can do is work even harder, fueled by the thought of his 23 kids and his uncle's kidney transplant.

1.

After crossing the street in the Jiaochangkou area and making your way down meandering Kaixuan Road, you hit West Jiefang Road. Walk westward another 500 meters along Jiefang Road and you reach Nanji Gate. Zhang Baoyun's home is located not far beyond the gate.

The crucial linkage that is Kaixuan Road is actually equipped with an elevator that connects the two different altitudes. Most people choose to take the elevator for speed and convenience. Zhang barely uses it. He thinks the 1-yuan (15 U.S. cents) fee is a waste of money.

Zhang doesn't know how to use the GPS function on his phone to send his coordinates. Before our first meeting, I ended up wandering for 2 hours in the vicinity of the monument marking China's victory in the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese War. I couldn't understand his repeated directions over the phone even though we spoke the same dialect. It felt as if forcing myself into his world required going through a long, unlit corridor.

I finally spotted him in front of a cigarette shop by Shibati Agricultural Market. He shouted from across the street, one hand leaning on his trusty rod and the other holding aloft a white plastic bag.

Only when I approached did I notice two pieces of bread sticking out of his pocket. Zhang said it was his lunch. I glanced at my phone. It was almost 4 p.m.

Zhang said he would show me his place. En route, he was stopped by an acquaintance who was hawking laundry detergent at 1 yuan a bottle. Someone forced a bottle on him. After a tussle, he insisted on paying the boss' wife electronically on his phone.

As we continued our journey shuttling through the alley, Zhang turned around to yell: "Remember to accept the payment!"

It was about 20 degrees Celsius in Chongqing that day. Zhang was wearing a thick brown leather jacket covered in cracks. Perhaps due to excess weight, the jacket's pockets were torn. Zhang wore a pair of blue canvas shoes, sockless. The shoes seemed slightly too big. He dragged his feet as he walked, even slipping on one occasion when he turned his head. His body appeared a bit lopsided.

Zhang rents a room at a hotel on West Jiefang Road. The approximately 10-square meter space costs 800 yuan a month. That's his biggest expense apart from tuition for his 23 kids.

The room doesn't come with the standard amenities of a hotel room. It isn't equipped with a bathroom nor bed linen. An old yellow bed lined one of the walls. A tea table occupied the other side of the room. A desk that went with the tea table was placed near the entrance. The faded surface of the desk and the dilapidated bed suggested these were relics from a prior century or second-hand items the hotel's owner had picked up.

The smell of mold permeated the room. The source was the water seeping through the walls and worn patches. The lack of windows didn't help. Aprils in Chongqing aren't that hot, yet Zhang's bed was covered with a rattan mat, which stood in stark contrast to his thick leather jacket. Two packs of medicine for indigestion were casually tossed onto the desk. The personal items offered no insight to Zhang's temperature preference, although they provided clues about his current predicament.

"Have a seat, have a seat," Zhang said as he pulled out a stool from underneath the table in the crowded hotel lobby. He wiped the stool with two pieces of tissue paper he pulled out of a box on the table while he was at it. After wiping my stool, Zhang planted himself on a stool by the corner of the room. It felt as if the entire room needed a proper wipedown to rid it of dust and the stink of sweat. Perhaps Zhang was the source of the smell.

Zhang was starving and proceeded to stuff the two pieces of bread in his mouth. "Give me a second, sister. Let me down some lunch first."

Zhang's gaping mouth was stuffed with dry bread. He struggled to swallow. With a point of a finger, the hotel owner handed Zhang a bottle of jasmine honey tea from the fridge. Not a single word was uttered. It seemed like a familiar routine.

"The bread doesn't get stuck between my teeth because I'm missing front teeth," Zhang said, breaking into laughter as I looked on with a puzzled expression.

Indeed, Zhang was missing a few teeth—the two front teeth that should have been situated under the center of his upper lip. Whenever he opens his mouth, the gap is glaring, a valve for his breath. He said he lost his front teeth during a late-night run a few years ago. "It was two steel bars. I wasn't paying attention. They knocked off my front teeth in a single blow," he told me.

The 3-yuan serving of bread and 2-dollar bottle of tea constituted Zhang's lunch. After lunch, he pulled up an image on his phone and stuck it in my face. "Look, this is my ID card. I'm a good person."

Zhang always tells people he's a good person. Yet when he's asked for evidence, he usually clams up, throws his rod on his shoulder and walks off. But a few years ago, Zhang was actually caught red-handed, so to speak. Since then, his neighbors have dubbed him "the kind muscleman." (Muscleman is another term of affection for the rodmen.)

When the incident is mentioned, Zhang is less evasive, unlike when talk shifts to the students he funds. The event drew quite a bit of attention in the vicinity of the war monument.

"Not sure what the big fuss is. All I did was take a young woman who was drunk to the hospital," he said. To this day Zhang is baffled as to why a simple deed sparked so many interview requests.

It's hard for him to fathom the way things evolved. He's still wondering why none of the many onlookers that night lent a helping hand.

The onlookers had their considerations.

Zhang still remembers the day vividly. It was 2 a.m. on Sept. 19. He had just finished a delivery to the Qixinggang area and gotten paid. The payment, which covered a few days of work, was for his kids' tuition. When he returned to Jiaochangkou and passed the nightclub Smug World, he noticed a young woman collapsed on a table at a fast food restaurant next to a bar.

At that time, Smug World was a landmark in Chongqing's nightlife. Zhang likes hanging out nearby in the evening. "Sometimes I can pick up the odd job," he said. The young woman was in her 20s. The sleeveless gauzy red and black dress she wore barely clung to her body. She was slumped on a seat near the restaurant entrance, motionless. A group of curious pedestrians stood nearby gossiping about the woman. A single glance and Zhang concluded the young woman was drunk and unconscious.

"A young woman that drunk—if a person with bad intentions comes across her, then she's in big trouble," Zhang said as he swung his rod over one shoulder and lifted the young woman over another.

The sequence of events was filmed and posted online. The attached keywords "drunk woman," "rod army" and "just after midnight" sent the video viral overnight.

Trolls who weren't in the know pounced, tossing out all sorts of conjecture and speculation. Yet the video only captured the first part of the evening.

This is how the second part of the evening unfolded. Zhang carried the woman about 300 meters to a traffic police post in Jiaochangkou. A police officer hailed a taxi, which transported Zhang and the young woman to the Second Affiliated Hospital of Chongqing Medical University.

The young woman was still passed out when she arrived at the hospital. Unsure how to proceed, Zhang handed over the 594 yuan he had made to the doctor and asked him to start an IV drip. After giving his instructions, Zhang left the hospital, returning to the entrance to Smug World.

After clarification from the traffic police, Zhang's name was cleared. And three days after he took the drunken woman to the hospital, Zhang enjoyed his first taste of fame.

Local journalists swarmed to Zhang, hoping to unearth more material about him, and that's when the term "the kind muscleman" was coined in news coverage.

2.

Zhang Baoyun is hardly a newcomer when it comes to good deeds. After stuffing the two pieces of bread down his throat, Zhang was about to take a sip of his tea when a young man wearing a backpack entered. He was holding a box filled with pens.

Noticing that I was taking notes, he blurted: "Sister, how about a box if pens? There are 30 in total. Only 29 yuan."

When I lifted my head, the youngster was scratching his head with his free hand. His eyes were wandering, uncertain where to focus their attention.

"I'll take a box then." As I was about to pull out my phone to pay, Zhang pulled out a wad of cash from his pocket and handed the boy three 10-yuan bills.

"Here you go, here you go. Keep the change. You must be a university student." Zhang got up to see the young man out, gently guiding him to the door while shielding him with his body, so I couldn't pay.

Thus Zhang spent 30 yuan on 30 pens for me. He insisted that I didn't pay him back. After retuning to his stool, Zhang pulled out the rest of his cash from a concealed pocket in his jacket and started counting. "Look, I made 174 yuan during the day today. Muscleman’s got cash," stressing the last to two words.

But the fact is Zhang is short on cash, extremely. He is paying for the tuition of 23 children. He started out with 80 yuan per kid a month and went up to 300 per child in the past few years. The total bill each month comes out to 6,900 yuan.

The monthly subsidy isn't paid in one lump sum. Zhang wires the children cash thrice a month—on the 8th, the 15th and the 25th. He doesn't remember how long he has been making the payments. All he remembers is that he's been funding his newest beneficiary for nearly eight years.

Zhang's first foray into charity came in the form of a one-time donation of several hundred yuan to students in impoverished mountainous regions, made through the Chongqing NGO Luye Volunteers. He eventually became a regular donor.

Zhang's beneficiaries—five children from Chongqing, 10 from Qu County in Sichuan Province and another eight from Qinghai Province—mean the world to him and also pose the greatest financial burden. When he's tight on cash, he borrows and repays the loan with his earnings the next month.

"Time flies. The five kids I've funded the longest are about to graduate from university," Zhang said softly while staring outside.

"But I still have to take care of my uncle," Zhang said after turning his attention back to me. If felt like he had just gotten back from a long walk. He got up absentmindedly, his eyes puffy, as if fresh from a night's slumber.

Zhang said he's very close to his uncle. After his parents passed away, his uncle became the bedrock of the family, he said, even though the bedrock wasn't always solid.

Sick with uremia and out of options, his life in the balance, Zhang Guowen had no choice but to call his nephew to ask for a loan. Zhang Guowen was too ill to farm, so the government put him on welfare. He has his wife couldn't bear children and had adopted a child who was only 9.

"Isn't there anyone else he can turn to?" I couldn't help but blurt. Zhang Baoyun lifted his head and paused before responding: "I'm his only relative working in a major city."

The phrases "big city" and "only relative" made for a lethal blade thrust against Zhang's neck. In his mind, he was Zhang Guoli's last glimmer of hope, being the competent one, the only relative making his living in a city.

After finding about his situation, Old Huang, the owner of the hotel where Zhang lived, suggested Zhang give Shuidi a try. Despite completing the arduous vetting process and opening an account successfully, Zhang had only raised 180 yuan by April 22 because he couldn't provide sufficient medical documentation about Zhang's condition.

Zhang never figured out exactly how the crowdfunding website works. His day-to-day life involves endless hard labor. He is mostly clueless about the latest innovations.

Even his current 2,000-yuan smartphone is a gift from a fan from Shanghai. The fan had even promised to serve as Zhang's agent and turn him into a celebrity. Zhang asked him if fame meant he could fund more children. But the fan bolted after a few days, saying Zhang's work was too much hardship.

Zhang has endured a difficult life. To this day, he struggles to put food on the table. Twenty-six years ago, 13-year-old Zhang ran away from his rural village because his family was poor. Zhang describes this period as his "taking" phase. He took food from restaurants, took money and took things. He became such a frequent "taker" he crossed paths with Officer Zhang, captain of the criminal division in Sichuan's Qu County. Officer Zhang couldn't bear seeing a teenager living on the streets, so he set Zhang Baoyun up in a folding cot in front of his house. Officer Zhang fed him leftovers and even hooked him up with a gig selling flowers.

"I sold flowers in a place where there were singing performances. They sold quickly," Zhang said in an emotional voice, as if recalling his glory days.

Shortly into his career as a flower seller, Zhang brought home a 2-year-old baby girl he found in the streets. "She was wrapped in a plastic bag, revealing her upper torso. It was covered in insect bites."

A youngster who just turned 14 and a 2-year-old abandoned baby were hardly a good match. He ended paying a snack shop owner he knew well 20 yuan a day to take care of the baby, so he was free to continue selling flowers. About a week later, an old woman who heard about the baby took her home. Only then was Zhang home free.

Then Zhang started watching a TV series called The Rod Army of the Mountain City. That's when he found his purpose in life. Just like that, a rolled mat in tow, Zhang went to Chongqing to become a rodman.

And so 24 years went by. Zhang says he planted his roots in the area surrounding the war monument. Despite moving about a dozen times, Zhang has spent the past 24 years giving his all to attach himself to the heart of the mothership.

3.

I asked Zhang why he kept funding all these kids for nothing in return. He responded instantly: "Because someone offered me a meal when I was living on the streets.

A short pause followed. Zhang looked at me and added: "I also feel I let my parents down." Because of his sudden fame in 2012, Zhang went back to his hometown on the sixth day of the Lunar New Year in early 2013. It was his first visit since leaving at age 13.

"They thought I was dead and didn't have the money to look for me." Zhang was reluctant to spend too much time at home because his fellow villagers thought he had hit the jackpot. Aware of the actual story  Zhang's father borrowed 1,000 yuan and told him to head back to Chongqing ASAP.

His next trip home came when his mother died. "A myocardial infarction. She was only 63. She never got to enjoy life for a single day." After his mother's death, Zhang moved his father to Chongqing to live with him. He said he didn't want to be unfilial.

To accommodate his father, Zhang rented a larger room on the second floor of the hotel across the street from Shibati Agricultural Market. The streets in the immediate vicinity became the range of Zhang's movement. Most of the residents are on friendly terms with him. Zhang pre-ordered meals from the restaurant downstairs from the hotel. The owner summoned Zhang's dad when it was time for a meal. Zhang never showed up to eat with his dad. The routine lasted about three years.

Zhang wasn't home when his father died. The medical examiner told him that the time of death was between 2 and 3 a.m. During that period, Zhang was working odd jobs at a noodle restaurant near the war monument. A wire payment to five of his kids was due the next day and he was still short on cash.

After finishing at the noodle shop, Zhang handled shipments for another restaurant. It was already morning when he got back to his hotel. The owner of the noodle restaurant downstairs told Zhang there was no sign of his father. Typically, at around 7 a.m., the old man would be retrieving abandoned veggies near the entrance to the agricultural market.

"Oh no, he must be sick." Zhang dropped his rod and scrambled to his hotel room. It was the first time in 24 years that he chucked the tool of his trade.

Zhang was too late. When he stormed through the rickety wooden door to their room, his father lay prone on the wooden bed they shared. That became the location where Zhang's father took his last breath.

Zhang said he froze for at least a minute before approaching the bed.

"His body was stiff and he had bitten off his tongue." The final image of Zhang's father became engraved in his head.

Zhang's father had died of an epileptic fit. Zhang also remembers the aftermath of the death clearly. Police officers moved the body to a funeral home in Nan'an District for cremation. That night, Zhang went to sleep in the bed where his father died clutching the box that held his father's remains.

Zhang's expression went vacant, as if exhausted from recollecting an event that was both extremely happy and painful. He was too shy to cry, but his eyes were tinted red. After regaining his composure, he got up quickly, saying he needed to find more work, and that he'd treat me to a hotpot dinner that evening.

As soon as he stepped out of the hotel, someone offered him work as a mover. Zhang snapped back to reality instantly, dashing off as he flashed the gap in his front teeth.

As I observed Zhang at work, the owner of a neighboring cigarette shop furtively pointed me in the direction of the hotel where Zhang's father died. The hotel was still operating under same name as it did three years ago, or seven years ago for that matter. Nothing had changed.

The owner also told me that Zhang was a great guy. She said he borrowed from her occasionally, the sum ranging from 300 to 500 yuan, yet he always repaid the loan when he said he would. The owner didn't know why Zhang needed the loans. Zhang never volunteered and the owner never asked.

The owner of the cigarette shop and Zhang's other neighbors also know that a few years ago Zhang helped a teenager who ran away from home. He also helped pay for the medical expenses of a homeless women who had just given birth. The bottom line is that everyone said Zhang is a great person who's kind to everyone but himself.

When he reached Kaixuan Road, Zhang pulled out his cash and paid for the elevator proficiently. The whole process didn't take more than 10 seconds. After Zhang paid, he grinned at me. "I'm too tired to walk. I want to take the elevator too," he said.

The elevator was convenient indeed. In 5 minutes, Zhang stood in the middle of the embankment near Smug World. I'm not sure if he was simply canvassing or showing me around, but he covered every floor several times. Almost everyone knew him. Many asked: "Have you had dinner yet, muscleman? If not, just pull up a chair."

"Look, most people are kind," Zhang said as he pulled out his phone. "Not matter how bad the bad guy, he also has a kind side to him. If we think about kindness more often, everything will get better."

After the comment, Zhang gave his older sister a call. He did all the talking. The conversation revolved around his uncle. His sister didn't respond, only muttering that she was busy before hanging up. After being hung up on, Zhang appeared to be at a loss briefly.

Without thinking I pulled out my phone and transferred 200 yuan to Zhang via WeChat. He also whipped out his phone to return the payment. Zhang only held off when I told him I would stop looking him up if he refused the gift. After accepting the payment, Zhang transferred the 200 yuan to a relative. Then he made a video call to one of Zhang Guowen's roommates and had his uncle thank me in person. The elder Zhang said thank you five times.

4.

Zhang Baoyun insisted on treating me to a hotpot dinner that night. He only gave up after I told him to save the money for his uncle. I suggested treating him to a snack, but he refused. Instead, he entered a neighboring hotpot restaurant and emerged with a bowl of egg fried rice.

"Courtesy of the owner. I can come for a serving anytime," he said. As he delivered big portions of rice to his mouth, he complained of fatigue. He said he was going take a nap after dinner before his 3 a.m. gig unloading veggies at the wet market.

The 3 to 5 a.m. job has been Zhang's most consistent work of late. The income generated accounted for a big chunk of his kids' tuition.

"You see, I'm not lonely at all. These are my friends," Zhang said, one hand carrying the ceramic bowl that contained what was left of dinner, the other pointing to several young men approaching on a downward escalator. Donning identical suits, the young men headed toward a restaurant as they chuckled among themselves. They never turned their heads, apparently oblivious to the waving Zhang. Perhaps they didn't know each other at all.

The cold shoulder didn't bother Zhang. He finished his meal, lifted his head and turned around.

"My uncle can pay for his dialysis tomorrow," Zhang said with a smile that revealed his missing tooth, as he took in the crowds exiting the glamorous backdrop of Smug World.

The "Sugar" Rush That Got Me Through Cancer

No. 20

Hi there:

I hope this email finds you and your loved ones well, both mentally and physically.

Up to this point, Gushi has spotlighted the lives of ordinary people and their daily struggles. To switch things up, here's the story of a dog—and its therapeutic effect on two young women weathering turbulent times.

The source material was first published in Chinese by The Story Plan on March 22.

Enjoy and see you soon.

ML


The Golden Retriever That Helped Two Friends Through Cancer, Divorce

By Jin Shian

Edited by Pu Moshi

1.

July 2012. I was spending a bit of time at home after undergoing surgery for intestinal cancer, ahead of my first course of chemo. I was mainly homebound during that period except for the occasional post-dinner stroll, which entailed walking back and forth on the only pedestrian path inside the staff quarters compound where my family lived. On one such occasion, a person and a dog suddenly burst through a nearby door and planted themselves in front of me.

I was so startled I shivered. Judging from the person's looks, I quickly concluded she was Ji Xiaoyang, a childhood friend who lived in the same compound. Our parents being colleagues, both of us had buttressed ourselves here before venturing afar like growing branches when we came of age. I moved to Guangzhou for work, while Ji Xiaoyang moved to a new home in Wuhan after getting married. We had barely seen each other in years, despite my annual trips back for Lunar New Year.

As a youngster, Xiaoyang had a round face and round eyes while boasting natural yellowish curls. Her face and her body had since expanded significantly. What gave me the chills was the golden dog seemed restless. It had its long, red tongue out, blowing hot air toward my knees, while its two front legs shuffled, kicking up dust. The posture suggested a pounce was imminent.

In an attempt to comfort the dog, Ji Xiaoyang bent over to fondle his head, also assuring me: "Don't be afraid. She's a golden retriever. Her name is Sugar. She belongs to Auntie Liu. She's barely a year old. You can touch her."

I nodded, although staying put. Making up for a frozen expression with an enthusiastic tone, I said: "Hey Xiaoyang! Long time no see." My dad had just mentioned her during dinner. She showed up out of the blue two days ago, all sorts of luggage in tow, suggesting a long stay.

The nosier of our neighbors who were always on the lookout speculated she was dealing with marital issues.

Ji Xiaoyang invited me to walk Sugar with her along the Wuchang waterfront. In a housing complex whose demographics were quickly aging, it had been some time since I came across a contemporary.

I agreed spontaneously. July meant we were approaching the height of summer in Wuhan and days were getting longer. The dusk sky was still bright while muggy hot air circulated. Only Sugar danced without a single worry, her four limbs still somewhat wobbly. Sugar's leash was constantly taut, as was Xiaoyang's hand, which sent the short curls behind her ear flying. I also developed a slight sweat for the first time in a while.

Xiaoyang yelled Sugar's name periodically, to no avail, struggling to keep pace with the golden. In between pants, she said: "Good thing I'm the one holding the leash. If it were you, you'd be flying." After surgery, I weighed a meager 82 kilograms. A recent eating binge sent Xiaoyang's weight soaring to about 130 kilograms.

We had nothing left to talk about, so Xiaoyang gave me the lowdown on Sugar.

She was adopted the Christmas prior. Xiaoyang's family and Auntie Liu had a mahjong date. Sugar rolled over to Xiaoyang's feet, then clad in furry UGG slippers. The two similarly sized and colored clumps merged into one. Xiaoyang picked Sugar up. Her toasty ball of a body resembled a hand warmer.

From then on the two were inseparable. Sugar also picked up on Xiaoyang's scent. Whenever my childhood friend visited, she wagged her tail vigorously.

I took all this in absent-mindedly, volunteering the occasional nod and "uh huh."

Xiaoyang added tentatively: "Goldens are often used as therapy dogs. You can play with her. She's quite smart and has the intelligence of a 6-year-old."

We stopped before a zebra crossing, waiting for the light to change. A neighboring woman squealed and darted aside on discovering a dog by her feet. At that point, Ji Xiaoyang was waving her hands to show me how tiny Sugar was when he first arrived. Sugar's butt sat on the edge of the crossing. Spooked by the squeal, her ears flopped. As I took in her current size, I thought to myself, "Pity you aren't as cute as you used to be."

2.

It's only a 15-minute walk from home to the waterfront. The coast was quite crowded when we got there. Some stood, while others splashed their feet with river water to cool down. Another group was swimming.

The waterfront has drawn a steady stream of visitors since early summer. It dawned on me during that particular visit that the area also attracted a large number and wide range of dogs. A Samoyed sauntered by to give Sugar a sniff before going about its own business. A teddy leapt, raising its front legs in a belligerent gesture and letting out two half-hearted barks, only to be removed by its owner. A Husky circled Sugar, quickly intertwining their two leashes. Ji Xiaoyang and the Husky's owner proceeded to untangle. Xiaoyang then whispered to me: "You can see how Sugar is the best-behaved dog in comparison."

"Such is the power of parental pride," I thought to myself.

We sat on the steps of the pier under Yangtze River Bridge. The wind was fierce but warm, mixed with the fishy smell of the river water.

Neither Ji Xiaoyang nor I spoke. We squinted our eyes, consumed by our own thoughts. I gazed at the horizon and the swimmers bobbing up and down and felt the sweat on my back consolidate into individual droplets that dripped downward. It felt as if the tension in my chest was gradually easing. Sugar took two steps down, which landed her feet in the water. She took in the white foam created by the lapping waves and the gentle force of the tide.

A middle-aged man walking another golden retriever approached, asking: "Hey, how old is your golden?" His golden was bigger and had thicker limbs. That's when I realized what Ji Xiaoyang meant when she said Sugar was just a puppy. A picture of aggression, the other golden sported darkish hair and two deep creases between his brows.

Xiaoyang told the man Sugar was less than a year old. That seemed to hit a button, prompting a roar of a laugh that rocked the man's shoulders. "It looks too tame," the man said. Any adjective supplemented by "too" just doesn't sound nice. Xiaoyang and I exchanged glances and stood up in unison.

The man jerked his leash, which sent the bigger golden pouncing on top of Sugar in a predatory position. Ji Xiaoyang tugged her leash, hoping to extricate Sugar, but she was pinned hard to the ground.

The middle-aged man seemed like he got a real kick out of the scene.

I screamed and yelled at the man: "What the hell are you doing? Didn't we tell you she's still a puppy?" My voice startled others in the vicinity and drew curious glances. A few concerned (or nosy) onlookers slowly approached. The man spat, narrowly missing my face, and blurted: "What are you doing scaring the shit out of me?" He then jolted his leash with the force of a whip. Only then did the older golden dismount and stumble away from Sugar.

We headed home with Sugar with a new sense of urgency, taking a direct route and sticking to brightly lit paths. Sugar wagged her tail in a carefree but unsteady gait. Ji Xiaoyang lectured her: "You can't let others take advantage of you, do you hear me? You're not even fully grown. What if you get pregnant?" She then turned her attention to me. "How about that? You barely spoke during the entire walk. Who knew you could be so fierce?"

I was still quite unsettled, but I managed to respond that I was quiet because I was sick.

Ji Xiaoyang seemed to be caught off guard. She clutched me arm and said: "Sugar will protect you. When I first started walking her, I was fearless because I felt she's a worldly dog."

The comment was problematic on so many levels, but I didn't want to say a thing.

3.

At that point, I still didn't see the wits in Sugar.

But she did seem to have an extremely acute sense of smell.

One morning, she picked up the scent of the takeout my dad had just bought—a steaming bowl of dried noodles. Sugar followed him from the slope by the main entrance to our compound all the way to our building. My dad was forced to lift the takeout above his head, which prompted Sugar to leap. Ignoring the matter of comprehension, my dad repeated: "It's not for you. No!"

She was also able to smell discarded watermelon skin through the plastic of garbage bags. She'd lean against the garbage can, stretch her head and remove the plastic bag before diving into its contents. Then she'd munch away, making for a crunchy, watery sound. Ji Xiaoyang would scold: "Filthy dog! You're gonna get sick!" The warning fell on deaf ears. Soon Sugar discovered what a treasure trove trash cans were and sifting through them became her main pastime.

Our compound being mainly populated by the elderly, Sugar's behavior drew complaints. Auntie Liu defended Sugar by saying she was a good dog who hadn't bitten anyone. She was just a bit lively by nature.

One day, Auntie Qiu in Block 4 tripped over Sugar and took a nasty fall as she left her apartment. Sugar had parked herself in front of Auntie Qiu's door. Neighbors who hung out in the building's reception room carried her over and urged her to get a rabies shot. They also called Auntie Liu and told her to remove the "troublemaker."

Auntie Qiu rolled up her pants, which revealed a red bruise by one of her ankles. "I'm fine. It's not a bite. I don't need a shot," she said. The crowd then directed its anger at Auntie Liu, who had just arrived, saying Sugar posed a safety risk to the entire elderly population in the compound. They threatened to kick Sugar out unless she was kept on a leash at all times.

Thus Sugar's leash was permanently tied to the tree by the bicycle shed. Passing sparrows would spark instinctive pursuit—only Sugar would quickly find her leash tugging away at the neck. All she could do was shuffle her front legs in the air and whimper in defeat. The meanest opponent was our security guard's cat, named Little Kitty Chen. She loved toying with Sugar to begin with. After Sugar was tied to the tree, she became downright reckless. She'd crouch by Sugar quietly, scratch quickly, then scramble up the tree before Sugar could react.

Gradually, Sugar seemed to be able to figure out who liked her and who didn't.

When I passed by, she would wag her tail. Whenever I approached, she would get up and snuggle my feet. When I offered her a hand and said "handshake," she would oblige. When I switched hands and said, "other paw," she'd follow suit. Sometimes I'd leave her an empty water bottle as a makeshift toy. She'd chew it until it was completely disfigured. But few people bothered to spend time with her. Most of her time was spent lying by her lonesome self under the tree, tongue stuck out, as she gazed at passersby.

The waterfront walk became a routine for Sugar, Xiaoyang and I. Every time we left the metal gate to our compound, Sugar would leap wildly, howl to the sky and dash in a snake pattern. Ji Xiaoyang would struggle to rein her in, call her a lunatic and break into a smile. I was also in better shape by then and could manage a brisk trot.

We'd walk along the waterfront from Wuhan Shipyard to Zhonghua Road, then turn back when we reached the Simenkou area. Sometimes Xiaoyang and I would chat. On other occasions we walked silently side-by-side while taking in Sugar's exaggerated pants.

4.

During one of our walks, Ji Xiaoyang told me her current marital status was "pre-divorce." She said she never mentioned it before because she didn't want to answer follow-up questions.

She continued: "You can also save the questions. Let me give you the basics. The bottom line is my husband hooked up with a divorcee a few years older than him during a business trip to Changsha. She even has a kid. Before I left home, I vandalized all the furniture I bought. Not like I can take it with me. He owns the apartment. It has nothing to do with me. When he gets back, we just need to handle the paperwork, then it's a done deal."

Even though the revelation came as no surprise, I still marveled: "You guys did such a great job keeping it a secret. No matter how neighbors probed, your mom's lips were sealed. Every time I saw your mom she had a smile on her face, as if she didn't have a care in the world."

Ji Xiaoyang was unimpressed. "That's her front for outsiders. She keeps nagging at me at home, saying how she thought he was a dubious character at the outset."

I told her not to hold her emotions in—even though that was my common practice—because it was bad for her health. Ji Xiaoyang leaned against a railing, her hair disheveled by the breeze. She lifted her head and said clearly in the Wuhan dialect: "On a night just like this after I found out, I stormed out of our apartment and wandered the streets in tears. I ended up spending the night at a 24-hour KFC outlet."

Then her tone shifted dramatically. "Still, I think about the good times. It was during a summer like this, on a mosquito-filled night, that he urged me to use repellant and refused it for himself. He said he wanted to use himself as bait. Now I think we were indeed good together. It wasn't as bad as my mom makes it out to be."

Taking in Xiaoyang's silhouette, it struck me how philosophical my childhood friend had become. Relationships have an expiry date, as does everything else in the world. When the time comes repairs are inevitable.

The peaceful days went by in a flash. Soon it was time for my first session of chemo at the hospital. Beds were in tight supply. I ended up on an extra bed placed in the corridor. During the day, I'd be feverish and throwing up so intensely it tore at my freshly healed surgical wounds. At night, I had to cope with the moaning of patients, the chitchat between visiting relatives, all sorts of beeping from various medical devices and the sound of the bell going off at the nurses' station. I struggled to fall asleep. When I did, it felt like a coma that left me light-headed when I woke up.

Going to the toilet meant an extended trek through the long corridor to the public bathroom at the other end. There was bound to be a soiled toilet opening that disgusted me.

Still, I enjoyed squatting and admiring the night sky beyond the toilet window that eluded me from my bed. Even on a pitch black and starless night, I took comfort in the fact that it was the same night sky I adored from our walks along the Wuchang waterfront. It reminded me that the outside world was still a pleasure. It was worth enduring the pain for.

Ji Xiaoyang came to visit, bringing a copy of the fashion magazine Rayli and a bag of Lay's potato chips.

My dad accepted the gifts with a skeptical look. "As for these..." I knew what he left unsaid—that they were unhealthy items. But the objects being gifts, he stuck them in my bedside drawer after twitching his mouth briefly. In fact, I had requested those two items specifically by WeChat.

Ji Xiaoyang said Sugar had been grounded recently, landing her in a similar situation mine. I thought Sugar got into trouble again.

Ji Xiaoyang shook her head. Her family had gotten into an argument with Auntie Liu.

Xiaoyang had been more social of late in the hope of finding a new partner. Between my absence and her barista classes at Starbucks and badminton dates, no one was available to walk Sugar anymore.

Auntie Liu alleged: "You never follow through. When you need Sugar, she's the center of your attention. When you don't, you cast her aside." Xiaoyang's mom responded: "She's not our dog, after all. Despite the fact Xiaoyang is a bit of a cleanliness freak, my daughter has been picking up Sugar's poop, bathing her and removing ticks from her fur without a single complaint. Meanwhile, you're just busy playing mahjong." Auntie Liu said: "Fine, she's off-limits to you from now on." And she proceeded to keep Sugar at home the entire day.

Sugar could only resort to nudging the curtains that shielded Auntie Liu's apartment with her muzzle and peeking through the tinted windows. Ji Xiaoyang would wave at her furtively if she happened to walk by. Sugar would bark and jump up and down, her head bobbing up and down behind the window in what resembled a plea for help.

Ji Xiaoyang hadn't calmed down enough to make peace with Auntie Liu, but I couldn't wait much longer. "I'll be discharged in two days. I'll rescue Sugar as soon as I get home."

The prospect invigorated me instantly. I got up, grabbed my phone and launched the 58.com app, which has a pet matching function. I started searching for good-looking and even-tempered friends for Sugar. Ideally their owners were young women who lived close to us. Ji Xiaoyang hovered nearby, commenting on the dogs as if she were judging a beauty pageant. "The eyes aren't round enough." "This one's too old. They won't get along."

We also started planning a birthday party for Sugar. We resolved to order her a doggie birthday cake and dress her in a red collar and a birthday hat as we sang her Happy Birthday.

Before we knew it, Ji Xiaoyang blurted: "Hey, you finished your drip!" I turned my head to confirm, then asked Xiaoyang to have a nurse swap in a fresh drip. It was the first time I hadn't paid attention to the speed of my drip. I was too preoccupied with thoughts of Sugar. I felt an immense responsibility. There was much to do after I left the hospital.

5.

We actually ended up meeting up with a few other dogs on the Wuchang waterfront.

The pretext of a play date for Sugar afforded us the indulgence of a brief party. We even gave Sugar a bath so she would look more presentable.

But the gathering didn't go smoothly. Still smelling of fresh shampoo, Sugar cowered in the presence of bigger dogs. She only felt comfortable hanging out with smaller dogs like a Pomeranian. But the Pomeranian kept barking at her and even nibbled her ears.

Eventually, Sugar decided to stay close to us.

Ji Xiaoyang lamented Sugar's lack of enthusiasm like an aging mother eager to marry off her daughter. "Oh well. I guess Sugar won't be able to find her own match. We'll have to set her up."

But my take was that Sugar resembled me in personality. She was a bit lazy and enjoyed her peace and quiet. It's not that she isn't curious about the world. There's a bit of curiosity—but the slightest discomfort sent her packing.

Even though she was tied to a leash, Sugar started to take on the persona of a watchdog. She was bound to bark when she spotted a new delivery person or another stranger in the compound.

Still, she remained her silly old self. Every time I returned from a weeklong session of chemo, my parents and I would be carrying a few pieces of luggage, which contained my clothes, toiletries and medical records. Sugar would always welcome us with a leap, a friendly bark and a wagging tail. But my reading of the gesture was that she was wondering if we had any food for her. Despite Sugar's insatiable appetite, at a juncture when time seemed frozen and the summer heat was unbearable, seeing her gave me an instant bolt of energy.

6.

Toward the end of my chemo, my dad's range of concerns kept expanding, from my recovery to my career, marriage and future prospects in general. Probably influenced by others, he kept correcting my habits whatever I was doing—eating, sleeping, reading or using my phone—as if all my routines were wrong. During one argument, I stomped my feet and fumed: "Did you have me just so you could torture me?"

If I were in my teens, I might have reacted by breaking things or running away, but alas, I wasn't. I staggered out of the apartment, even wondering which household supplies we were short on. I think we're running out of toilet paper. Still, the tears and snot flowed and I sniffed away, not having any tissue paper on me. I stepped aside and discreetly wiped my eyes and nose with my sleeves.

At this point, Ji Xiaoyang kept an increasingly busy schedule. I barely saw her.

I was reduced to early evening walks with Sugar to avoid the tension at home. No one bothered to look at me in the dimly lit streets. Sugar swam cautiously near the waterfront, immersing herself in flickering waves that resembled sparkling scales. Unlike more adventurous dogs, Sugar never swam to the heart of the river, also constantly swiveling her head to check on my location.

Just a tad bit cool, November marks the most comfortable weather Wuhan has to offer. On an early evening that November, Xiaoyang and I shared tea and watermelon seeds in the compound's reception room. Sugar knelt next to me. Oblivious to decorum, she kept cozying up to me while a long drool formed.

I fed her a bone that our security guard had left behind from a finished meal. Sugar seemed content. She stopped chewing after a while and laid down by my feet, grunting like a piglet. Suddenly, she weaved through the smaller metal gate within our main gate and started howling. We followed and saw Sugar circling a tall, skinny man. The man froze, maintaining an erect posture. Ji Xiaoyang stepped aside, an embarrassed look on her face, before attempting to pull Sugar back by collaring her neck. A crowd took in the scene with curious gazes.

After Ji Xiaoyang went back to her apartment, the crowd convened. First, someone confirmed the man wasn't Xiaoyang husband. The man who showed up at the compound to pick up his bride wasn't this tall. Another opined that Xiaoyang must have divorced by then, having spent more than four months at home.

Auntie Liu pointed at me and said: "She must know." I waved frantically. In the interest of friendship, I refused to state the obvious. Auntie Liu responded with a knowing glance and said: "Xiaoyang is quick to move on, just like a typical Wuhan girl."

There were indeed signs that the quick-moving Xiaoyang was falling in love again. After the episode, she told me: "Did you see that? Sugar likes him." I said politely that I couldn't tell, adding: "Maybe Sugar rushed toward him to protect you." A frustrated Xiaoyang grabbed Sugar and lifted her by circling her beneath her front legs. "Check out his gaze. She makes her preferences crystal clear," she said. I could see Sugar's face clearly, although I thought to myself while her eyes could be described as perfectly round, clear and watery, coupled with her teeth-baring muzzle, silliness is what came to mind.

I promised Xiaoyang I'd pay attention the next time Sugar and her boyfriend interacted.

The man visited frequently. Sometimes they took Sugar with them on dates, which perhaps served as a catalyst.

In private, Ji Xiaoyang always wanted a second opinion. "Give me your thoughts on his character," she said. I gave her my undivided attention.

Xiaoyang continued in a serious tone: "When Sugar cries, he wipes her tears, but the wiping extends to her mouth. She ends up eating her own eye wax. He doesn't seem very meticulous. Also, Sugar refused to budge when we passed the barbecue stalls on Hubu Alley. She just knelt there. So he went to a convenience store and bought her a ham sausage. He insisted the barbecue stands aren't clean. Is that being fussy? Will he be difficult to live with?"

I was angered by the line of questioning. "Are you flaunting your happiness?"

Ji Xiaoyang blushed. "But I'm talking about how he behaves toward Sugar, not me!"

7.

After completing chemo, I rested for another two months.

In April 2013, I returned to work in Guangzhou.

Before I left, I put on a confident and carefree act for family and friends, telling them I had a disciplined and full life in Guangzhou. There was no point in twiddling my thumbs at home. The truth was I felt like an ill-prepared soldier drafted into battle. I was worried about being a burden and being looked down on.

I told Ji Xiaoyang: "I'm looking forward to good news from you." Ji Xiaoyang responded: "Focus on yourself first. Let me know if you need anything. He and I are taking a cautious approach because we are both divorced."

Two months later, I got word they registered their marriage.

Ji Xiaoyang's original plan was to have Sugar wear a giant red flower made of silk and join the wedding party, but Xiaoyang's mom vetoed the idea, warning that Sugar would lose control at the wedding. Plus no hotel would let her in. So Xiaoyang had to pass.

Still, Xiaoyang borrowed Sugar for a day to show her their new apartment. After another period, Auntie Liu moved to a new apartment building equipped with elevators near Fruit Lake.

Xiaoyang, Sugar and I crossed paths most fleetingly in our old compound before slowly going our separate ways. But Xiaoyang and I always felt that Sugar was a rock during our toughest and most helpless days.

Last year, Auntie Liu moved back to her old apartment and ended up staying for good.

I was home for the National Day break in early October. The security guard said Sugar rarely ventures out these days. At 8 years old, she was an old dog.

Xiaoyang and I visited Sugar in Auntie Liu's apartment. She was lying sullenly in a corner of the living room, her face slender and fur heavily gray. She stayed put at first, but when we called her name, a grunt grew into a howl as she lifted her head and trotted to us.

It had been seven years, but she still remembered us. My heart swelled, creating a sensation I hadn't felt in a long time.

Torn and Tired: the Angst of Crossing the Class Divide

No. 19

Hi there:

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.

ML


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.

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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."

6.

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.

Ending

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.

The Pain of Living with a Rare Disease

No. 18

Hi there:

I hope everyone is physically and mentally healthy.

This story is quite self-explanatory, so I'll let it speak for itself. The source material is a podcast first aired by Story FM on Jan. 15.

Take care and see you soon.

ML


Living with a Rare Illness: I'm Terrified People Think I'm a Freak

Transcribed by Li Shimeng, Zhang Shiyi and Zhu Siwei

Xiao Xi’s summer survival kit for psoriasis. Courtesy Story FM.

Xiao Xi, 36, psoriasis

1.

My name is Xiao Xi. I'm a native of Beijing who now lives in Sydney, Australia. I'm 36.

I was diagnosed with psoriasis the summer after I turned 9. The trigger was straightforward. I took a fall that summer and the wound never healed. One day I realized I was covered with red spots. Initially, they were sporadic, but the spots connected into rashes and then the rashes into large rashes.

My condition gradually got so severe it was impossible to ignore. Mom and Dad took me to see the doctor. The doctor said it was psoriasis, also known as "silver flake disease" in Chinese. (That's because white flakes fall off affected areas of the skin.)

The disease seemed to come out of nowhere. All I did was stumble and suddenly my immune system decided to attack me. To this day the exact cause of psoriasis is unclear.

I was only 9 at the time, so I didn't really care. I just thought it was gross. I had no idea the extent to which the disease would impact my life. Before school started, I told my best friend that I took a fall and came down with psoriasis. I only told her. Little did I expect her to report my disease to our school.

As it turns out, my entire world shifted on the first day of school.

I still remember vividly how my classmates dashed away the moment I set foot in the classroom, as if they had seen a ghost. When I approached my desk, my neighbors instantly pulled away their desks and chairs. In less than a second, with a loud swoosh, my immediate vicinity was vacated. After school, my classmates tossed pebbles at me on the way home. My backpack and yellow cap were snatched and tossed around. There were plenty of other types of intimidation and bullying.

My teachers ended up banning me from school. School officials got in touch with my parents asking them to produce a doctor's note that my psoriasis wasn't contagious as a condition for lifting the ban. This was the 1990s, before psoriasis had entered the limelight.

Back then all I could do was stomach the discrimination in silence. The school I attended was a prestigious primary school. With school officials behaving the way they did, I couldn't count on the support of my teachers.

Also, my parents are very traditional parents, respectful of authority. They deferred to my teachers on every single issue, uninclined to argue with them or raise the smallest objection. So my parents couldn't help me either.

Inevitably, I developed low self-esteem at school. I didn't do anything wrong, but I had to keep a low profile.

Somehow I survived primary school and moved onto junior high. I could finally start afresh at a place where no one knew about my history of psoriasis. On the odd occasion my junior high classmates would ask me about the rashes on my arms and hands, I would say it was a seafood allergy. I used one lie to cover another so I could get by.

It's not that I set out to lie. It's just that my primary school experience taught me that if I told the truth, the entire world would conspire against me. That's why I hid in my shell and kept my condition a secret. At the same time, deep down I prayed my body would heal soon.

2.

In the process of seeking a cure, I sought out regular hospitals, to no avail, so I also tried some rather alternative remedies.

One was sleep therapy. I'd wake up bright and early and rush to the military hospital that was offering the treatment with my mom. The doctor would feed me a pill that knocked me out instantly. By the time I woke up it was evening. I felt extremely drowsy and had to use my mom as a human crutch. I never figured out the logic behind the treatment. All I knew was I'd head over to the hospital once a week and crash for a full day. That was all the treatment entailed.

Another treatment involved a type of mushroom of unknown origin. Supposedly it was a total cure. I have no idea where my mom heard about it. In any event, she bought the story and took a convoluted journey by train, bus and tricycle to a remote town, where she splurged on a bag of these mushrooms. I ended up passing on them because they tasted horrible. My mom ate all of them.

I also tried a form of electric shock therapy. Somehow my dad got his hands on a device that connected to a power supply on one end and a round gadget on the other. Sparks flew from the round implement. You were supposed to press the round part on areas of the skin affected by psoriasis. I was zapped by a loud bolt of electricity each time. Of course that treatment never got me anywhere either.

All in all, I tried all sorts of weird treatments, to the extent that I think the agony of the treatments exceeded the pain of the psoriasis itself.

3.

At age 17, I left Beijing to attend high school in New Zealand. The reasoning behind the move was twofold. First, my grades weren't great. Another major factor is my mom didn't think I could land a Chinese husband.

She felt that my tan skin and psoriasis didn't fit mainstream Chinese standards of female beauty that prefer paleness, plus she was influenced by the western TV shows she watched. My mom thought a foreign man was more likely to accept me, that I could marry a foreigner. But I had no interest in foreign men, so my mom's thinking dealt me a major blow.

My early days in New Zealand were great because it amounted to a fresh start. But soon the familiar treatment resumed. My classmates avoided lining up with me in PE class and bullied me by shoving me around.

Luckily, a transfer student in our grade came to the rescue. She unexpectedly stood up for me in PE class. She fumed to my bullies: "Cut it out!" Then she dragged me to her side and said: "Come stand with me."

I stared at her, thinking that she was an absolute angel. Because I had been treated that way all along, I was numb to being pushed around. In my mind that was reasonable. Never did it occur to me to resist.

4.

Later on I graduated from secondary school in New Zealand and moved to Australia to continue my studies and to work. A single encounter in Australia helped me come out of my shell.

I was at work that day. I was wearing short sleeves and happened to have a minor rash on my arm. A colleague passed by and exclaimed. I was very nervous. What to do? He saw my arm. I've been busted.

Unexpectedly, my colleague turned around and returned after a while with a tube of Australian papaw ointment. He grabbed my arm, squeezed some cream out of the tube and applied it to my rash. He rubbed the rash carefully. He said: "Your skin is a bit dry here. This will help keep it moist."

I froze, as if struck my lightning. This was unreal—someone was actually willing to use his hand to touch an area of my skin affected by psoriasis. Even my parents weren't carefree enough to do so. I went blank. My colleague said: "You can give the ointment a try. You can find it at any supermarket." Then he left.

That small gesture became a turning point in my life. On that day it dawned on me that psoriasis was something that could be tolerated by others. Looking back, I feel genuinely grateful to my colleague, even though I've never been able to tell him.

From that point onward, when people asked me about the rashes on my arm, I tried not to lie. I told them flat-out that it was psoriasis. Soon I realized that psoriasis is quite common in Australia. When I ran into fellow patients, they would offer their know-how from dealing with the disease. Being open about my psoriasis actually became a way to quickly break the ice with a stranger.

Gradually, I stopped living in trepidation of psoriasis. Sometimes I would even track down good friends from China and tell them the truth. I'd say I always had psoriasis but concealed it at the time. When they found out, they didn't overreact.

5.

One of the reasons I left China is because my mom didn't think I could meet a Chinese man who would accept my psoriasis. The comment became engraved in my brain, leading to extreme sadness and low self-esteem.

The fact is, the year I turned 23, I met a Chinese man I fancied when I was working at a hotel in Australia. But because I worried that he would frown on my psoriasis, I rebuffed his initial courtship. What I didn't expect is that he didn't mind at all when I told him the truth. We've been married for several years now.

In retrospect, as much as psoriasis might bring a lifetime of physical pain, the most important thing is to be at peace with it—as opposed to trying hard to cure it.

What I want to tell parents is that if their kids have a difficult illness, first they must be mentally strong. My parents always planned for the worst-case scenario. They were incapable of confronting the issue front-on. They felt the world had collapsed and were worried I wouldn't be able to marry or find a job. They constantly passed on that kind of anxiety to me.

If they could have viewed psoriasis with the right perspective and supported me emotionally, then the only suffering I would have borne was the physical presence of the disease alone. Given my personality, I think I would have coped fine.

I read a book called Survival of the Sickest recently. The author argues that while the human gene never replicates perfectly and flaws are bound to surface, it is precisely these imperfect genes that are critical to the survival of the human race during important junctures and major catastrophes.

The book mentions psoriasis and says that the genetic makeup of psoriasis patients is slightly different than that of an average person. So, even though I am sick, when I consider the fact that the gene that causes psoriasis may help mankind survive in certain circumstances, I feel much better.

My usual birthday wish when I was a kid was I would recover from psoriasis, but now I don't care. I can finally reserve my birthday gift for world peace. How great is that?

Xiao Wu, hypospadias

1.

My name is Xiao Wu. I was born with a congenital condition called hypospadias. It is only found in newborn baby boys.

What the condition basically entails is the malformation of the external male sex organ. In a normal male, the opening of the urethra is located at the top of the penis. Mine is at the bottom. The effect is that I can't piss standing. When I do I piss my pants.

The biggest cost of this condition is psychological instead of physical.

My parents were very sensitive. They avoided letting me go to the bathroom with others since I was a kid. In primary school, I was caught stooping over the toilet opening on one or two occasions, which prompted questions. I didn't think it was a big deal at the time, even saying: "I'm different from you guys." It seemed to be a ploy to draw attention. I ended up confiding my condition to a few close friends, then word spread.

Eventually both my male and female classmates made fun of me, coming up with all sorts of nicknames. They accused me of not being a man. "If you're a man, then take off your pants," they would say.

Everyone started distancing from me, as if I had an infectious disease.

Before my condition was made public, I was positive, smart and a good student. After the fact, I felt I became a different person. The more I wanted friends, the fewer I got, so I resorted to using gimmicks to draw attention. For example, I would splash puddles toward female classmates on rainy days. I made weird noises in class and made a fool of myself—anything that earned a cheap laugh. The trend persisted until junior high. It felt very painful.

That's why I genuinely need to thank my parents and a few people I later befriended. They gave me real affection. I also need to thank one of my teachers who said something very moving when I was accepted by no one. Once I turned in my homework late and had to deliver it straight to the faculty office. On my arrival, my teacher deliberately announced: "This is my star pupil." The fact is I was a horrible math student at the time. I didn't even want to go to school because it was so painful. That teacher gave me the courage to stay in school. If it weren't for these people, I would have given up on myself a long time ago.

2.

Back to my condition. Hypospadias is not extremely rare—it is detected in one in every 200 baby boys. The recovery rate is high for newborns. Most patients recover after surgery. But when I was born, local hospitals in my hometown weren't that medically advanced. As a result, I ended up having to undergo several surgeries.

I had surgery when I was born, but the surgeon was inexperienced and removed what he considered excess material. A doctor I met down the road said the part removed could actually be used to construct a healthy urethra.

When I was 10 I had another operation. It was successful, but issues arose in post-op recovery. I had to piss often, but that made it hard to keep the surgical wound dry and sterile, which was crucial to healing. Eventually another opening emerged at the bottom of my penis.

About a year later I finally fixed the problem by being operated on by the top surgeon in the country for that specific procedure at the time.

After the surgery, I thought I could reclaim the right to use a urinal like a normal man. Yet it turns out I couldn't. The mental block was too big. It was impossible for me to piss when others were around. When I stood before the urinal, not so much as a drop discharged.

Also, I have to admit my private part looks a bit short. My parents had even asked the surgeon about possible lengthening after my final operation. Eventually we passed because I was too young at the time.

Even though my condition has been fixed, it still makes for an emotional wound, a secret I can't come to terms with.

In university, there were several occasions when I had the chance to become more physically intimate with my girlfriend. Yet I always bolted at the last minute, leaving my girlfriend dumbfounded. I don't have a girlfriend right now, but I like to lie that I do or shrug off introductions. I have no desire right now, nor do I want to be in a relationship. I just think I'm incapable of supplying the qualities a woman needs.

I do wonder about the day I do get married. What should when my wife finds out about my mental block—or to put it bluntly, my impotence?

Mushroom, 25, seborrhoea

A blurred portrait of Mushroom shortly after she shaved her head when she graduated from high school. Courtesy Story FM.

1.

My nickname is Mushroom. I'm 25 years old. I've been suffering from seborrhoea for about a dozen years now.

In junior high, white spots surfaced by the roots of my hair. At first I thought it was dandruff, but when the white matter fell off each piece would come with one or two strands of hair. Only later did I learn my hair follicles had contracted into tiny balls.

I was terrified. I would wrap the hair that fell off in paper napkins and stick them in my drawer. That didn't help, but it created a mild sense of security.

2.

At that point I had just started losing hair, so it wasn't very obvious. When I mentioned the hair loss to classmates, they would say: "Oh, I have the same problem. I have hair issues too."

I thought they had no idea what I was going through.

I'd bring up the hair loss with Mom too. The thing is my mom is a very impatient person. She thought it was normal, just the result of academic pressure and predicted the hair would grow back. When I kept raising the matter, she got fed up.

One day I was mulling over my hair loss again after school, just vegetating on the sofa. She couldn't take it. She grabbed the first thing in sight—it happened to be a string chord, the type you use to fasten objects at the back of a motorbike—and mock strangled me.

She said: "Stop moping around all the time! Look at the people who are blind, deaf, mute or without limbs. Aren't they faring just fine? Who are you to be depressed all the time?"

I was traumatized. From that day onward, I started hiding my emotions. I never complained about my hair to her again.

3.

In senior high, the hair loss became increasingly obvious. When I used to tie my hair into a ponytail, the thickness was the size of a coin. Gradually it shrank to the size of my pinky finger. I started keeping my hair short.

In senior high, a girl I was on decent terms with started calling me by the nickname of "Hairless Gu." I was very sensitive about my hair then and felt hurt every time I heard the nickname. I resolved to get treated at a hospital that summer.

My mom took me to a hospital in Nanjing. The doctor told me I had seborrhoea. The main symptom was the contraction of my hair follicles. The condition started at the top of my scalp and spread in all directions, leading to soft and yellowish hair and a greasy scalp.

The doctor prescribed medication and recommended treatment by "plum blossom needles."

4.

"Plum blossom needles" refers to a toothbrush-like instrument filled with needles. The treatment entails tapping the scalp with the implement until it bleeds—which supposedly refreshes one's collaterals—then smearing the scalp with fresh ginger.

That summer I had my scalp tapped every day. The "toothbrush" couldn't be removed until the needles were lodged into the scalp. They were tainted with blood afterward. The process was excruciatingly painful. When the raw ginger was applied, my scalp burned, but that actually excited me. The more it hurt, the more effective the treatment, so my logic went.

In the second year of senior high, I also visited a branch of Zhangguang 101, a company that specialized in treating hair loss. I had medication applied to my scalp daily. When classes started, I brought the medication to use at school, where I was a boarding student.

Every night after lights out at 11 a.m., while everyone else slept, I sat up in my bed and applied the medication in the dark. I did a mess of a job due to the lack of light and a mirror. The next morning my hair would look like a bad mousse job—stiff and appalling.

One morning a few classmates spotted my weird hairdo en route to the classroom and asked about to. Panicking, I mumbled an excuse. After that, I stopped using the medication at school.

The Zhangguang 101 branch near my house eventually went out of business. I proceeded to try a slew of different treatments, including the Bawang brand of shampoo and all sorts of hair growth products. Unfortunately, none of them made a big difference.

5.

After finishing my university entrance exams, I wanted to resolve my troubles once and for all. I decided to shave my head.

It was a fair day. A classmate kept me company as I visited an old-school barbershop in a side alley. The shop was empty. The barber was an elderly man. He asked me why I wanted to shave my head. I removed my hat and he understood instantly.

He did a very thorough job, shaving my entire scalp with a razor blade. When I got home, my parents were stunned.

When I started university, many people looked up to me, thinking it was cool and brave for a woman to shave her head. The fact is I was still very sensitive about my haircut, donning a hat or a wig every time I went out.

I lived in a dorm with a shared shower facility. I was terrified of being seen bald. During freshman year, I would shower alone in an off-campus bathroom. When I grew some hair, I stocked up on bubble flasks. I'd generate a bit of foam before gently massaging my hair, in the hope of preserving that precious little patch.

During my short hair phase, I bought a few thick hair bands to conceal my hairline cracks. During volleyball class one day, I was struck in the head, which sent my hair band flying.

I was reduced to a dizzy state. I felt as if everyone had discovered my secret. Before I could gauge the reaction, I scrambled to retrieve my hair band, put it on and made a beeline for the toilet.

6.

It's hard for the people around me to empathize. Some people wonder if I'm not mentally tough enough. Someone once said: "Look at Prince William! He's loaded and he's balding too. Cheer up!"

As far as I'm concerned, as a girl, my hair is genuinely a major issue.

Hair loss also makes me worry about my marriage prospects. Back when I had a boyfriend, I confided in him about my hair. He said: "I don't mind. When I make enough money, I'll pay for a hair transplant."

Yet we ended up breaking up.

I've suffered for so many years because of my hair loss since my student days. The next step it to come to peace with it.

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