Chinese Lesson by Megan Lee
Winner of the Central Coast Writer’s Contest, Fiction
Naomi Levinger killed the shrieking alarm clock and lay back on the cotton wad mattress. Eyes opened. Wall calendar. Xing-qi wu. Friday.
She dreaded going to class on Fridays. Closing her eyes again, she lay in bed for a few minutes listening to the queer hiss of bamboo outside the window of her dorm, a room she shared with a Finnish girl who spoke little English, meditated at 4:00 a.m., and shaved her head twice a week. They talked when necessary, but could communicate only in Chinese.
Naomi wished she were home. She missed the rustle of a thousand maple leaves outside her bedroom window in Broad Ripple, a suburb of Indianapolis. Mom would be downstairs brewing espresso, and the roastiness of the scent would rouse her for the day. But then, she remembered that it wasn’t morning in Indiana; she had to get up in China while her parents were going to bed on the other side of the world. She turned over and groaned.
Xing-qi wu. Friday. The day of execution.
Xing-qi wu. The final dawn. Old Huang snores. How can he sleep? He is a beast squandering his breaths and not caring. For him, does it matter? He is old. But I am too young to die. I simply obeyed and did what he told me to do. I was his accountant. He even called me “nephew” and promised to make me a rich man. He fattened himself on bribes while I kept double books. “Everybody does it,” the old weasel said. Such confidence! Such words of assurance!
My father struggled all his life. My mother needed medicine. What choice did I have? Arrested at nigh, torn from my wife and the esteem of my son, who now stoop under the reproach of our name. My life is over too soon. It streams out to meet the sea. And now, will Old Huang’s assurances save us? His promise is a torn fishnet.
When Naomi woke up the second time she had overslept by three hours and missed her first two classes. She kicked off the quilt, pulled on the heap of denims she had stepped out of at 2:00 a.m. the night before, and bolted downstairs to the lobby of the foreign students’ dorm. Breakfast was a serpentine twist of deep-fried dough and a carton of soy milk that she gulped as she scaled the eighty-two uphill steps to her 10:20 Chinese grammar class at Xiamen University. Her meager meal would stave off hunger for an hour until lunchtime, when she could pamper her stomach at MacDonald’s.
Xing-qi wu. The last hours. Soon I will not be here. The dawn is a she-demon of purple and orange. The door opens and the warden’s black shadow towers before us. “Wake and eat,” the shadow says. He puts the tray on the floor. Its metallic scrape wakes Old Huang. The shadow slips behind the closing door, leaving a meal. Tea and bread. Old Huang sits up and opens his wrinkled goat eyes that ask no questions.
“Weimin.” He calls my name, but I do not reply. “Weimin, bring the tea here.”
I turn my face to hide sudden tears. Old Huang’s arm is around my shoulders. He hands me bread and tea.
“Take this. Drink tea and eat,” he orders in his gruff office voice. I do what I am told. The tea tastes like the dirt in which it was grown. The bread softens on my tongue, and I absorb its qi. Old Huang walks to the far corner of the cell, turns his back, and pisses through the grate.
A roach appears from its hole to steal a breadcrumb. I raise my foot to crush it, but relent and allow it to escape. The creature darts past Old Huang and disappears under the damp grate.
My ears fill with the sound of footsteps in the corridor. Outside the door, men speak with voices of living people. But each word of mine loses its anchor to meaning before it is formed in my mouth. The footsteps pass by our cell without stopping, and I breathe out relief.
My mind swims toward the memory of my mother’s eyes that pursued me as a child through the rooms of our house and the lanes of our village. Her seed-black eyes, sharpened by the pain of loving, uncovered and admonished my every deviance. She withered as I grew to manhood. When the canker devoured her, she slipped away without revealing her secret. She did not instruct me how to die.
Naomi raced to the third floor corridor of the Overseas Education Building where she was doing a year of language study as the lone student sent by Butler University’s East Asian Department. Her late arrival created a welcome distraction for the eleven pairs of eyes that watched her shimmy off her backpack and slip into the space between the chair and the desk that were both bolted to a cement floor. Teacher Wang greeted her cheerily from the lectern with a Zao-an, Na-ou-mi (Good morning, Naomi), and then turned to chalk a line of Chinese characters on a blackboard.
"This is bi review," Teacher Wang sing-songed in Mandarin as she pointed to the exercise on the board. To Naomi, the Chinese character for the word bi looked like the profile of two men sitting in a row, each with a hand and a foot sticking out in front. "Bi is two-piece thing-compare word," the teacher continued. "Every-piece student use bi sentence for two-piece thing compare." The grammar of bi as a comparison word was difficult for Naomi because she had skipped the second semester of Chinese I, and jumped to the intermediate level. She was struggling. She shot a grateful look toward Teacher Wang who called on other students first so she could "save face."
Of the four professors she endured every week, Naomi liked Teacher Wang best. Her other instructors seemed nailed to their wooden lecterns and spoke in four-toned monologues aimed at the ceiling. Teacher Wang was young and enthusiastic, and knew how to engage the interest of her western students.
"De-ge-li-se (Douglas), begin," Teacher Wang said, slicing up his name like a ginger root.
"Sheng huo yi nian bi yi nian hao," intoned Douglas effortlessly. Standing six and a half feet tall, this fun-and-beer loving Canadian swayed like a jack-in-the-box over the tiny desk. Naomi managed to interpret his sentence literally as, "Level daily-life one year compare one year good,” and then extracted the English equivalent as, “The standard of living is getting better year by year.” She recalled reading this phrase in her Student Handbook.
"Hen hao, De-ge-li-se (Very good, Douglas)!" Teacher Wang said, and her eyes sparkled. Next, she turned to Mrs. Park, a slender, high-cheeked Korean, and said, "Use bi sentence, please."
Mrs. Park, who Naomi estimated was thirty years old, sat at the adjacent desk. Because of their age difference and Mrs. Park’s shyness, Naomi had spoken with her only once. "Ni-de bu ke-yi bi wo-de (Yours not can be compared to mine),” Mrs. Park answered without looking up.
"Bu shi, bu shi (not correct, not correct)," Teacher Wang said gently, and then corrected the sentence. "Ni-de bu ke he wo-de bi (Yours not can with mine compare)."
Mrs. Park repeated the sentence correctly with her eyes lowered and added, “Lao-shi, xie-xie nin (Teacher, thank you).”
Naomi scratched a few characters in her notebook to come up with a similar sentence construction. She tried, "Your food not can with my food compare," then she scratched out "your" and "mine" and wrote the characters for "Chinese" and "American" in their places. She heard the teacher ask, “Next student?”
"Ren-min-bi he mei-yuan bi-jiao hao (Chinese yuan and American dollar rate-of-exchange is getting better)," answered Rembrandt Soo, a sullen Indonesian student of Chinese ancestry, one of many at the university. His parents sent him to China to keep him out of the rising ethnic turmoil in Jakarta. He already spoke Chinese well, and this was a rare appearance for him to attend an early morning class. Naomi often saw him on the street accompanied by interchangeable young women in leather mini-skirts from the rank of prostitutes who serviced Xiamen’s transient population of Taiwanese businessmen, Chinese tourists and foreigners.
As she waited her turn, Naomi looked out through the row of windows on the opposite side of the room at clipped lawns, red-tiled roofs, and stone walls that insulated the campus from the world outside.
"Rembrandt, very good!” Teacher Wang said. She thrust out her chin in the Chinese manner of pointing and asked another student, “And you, Jia-zhen?”
Jorge Nunes, an acupuncture student from Brazil, started to answer, but his syllable was sliced off by a shrill of sirens from the road outside the wall. Naomi winced at the sound. She remembered the first time this happened four Fridays ago. It had happened every Friday since then.
The door opens and I shrink from the invading glare. The warden steps in and his shadow darkens the floor. “Stand up. Come out.” I do as I am told and give my arm to this shadow that leads me outside where the odors of diesel and spring flowers scent the air.
The truck waits, growling like a tiger. “Step up,” the shadow says. Old Huang goes first. He raises one bony leg, but stumbles. A soldier lifts and pitches him onto the floor of the open truck. I climb in. The old man crawls forward and squats with his curved back in my face. I open my mouth to curse him, but stop. All words between us are absurd.
The shadow-man bends over us, pulls our legs forward and binds our ankles to the floor with iron bands. Old Huang groans. “I am not a bad man,” he calls to me without turning his head. “It’s true that I took from some, but I helped others. Weimin, you understand, don’t you? I am the same as other men. But I am very unlucky. Very, very unlucky.” His words are pebbles falling through chinks in the floorboards. I say nothing.
The engine growls. The wheels spin and spit up dust behind us. Stripes of black painted wood alternate with yellow stripes of sun as I look out from this tiger’s belly. “My guanxi is not good,” Old Huang continues. “No connections to save me from shouldering everyone’s guilt. I carry it all on my back.”
He laughs, but not unkindly. “You went to college. Did that help you? -- A former peasant with no connections? Tell me, what has changed?”
I thought that education and hard work were all I needed to succeed instead of our ancient reliance on connections. Was I so presumptuous to believe that the new China was free of its burden of history? I imagine a turning wheel. It rotates but has no forward motion, and I understand that progress is a lie. “Nothing has changed,” my voice answers him. The siren calls out our shame to the city. I look up at the ocean of air overhead and my words are swept away by the wind.
The first time Naomi heard the sirens was in April. She recalled that Teacher Wang had sprinted to the window and pressed her nose and hands to the glass as a child would do.
"What's going on?" Rembrandt asked. The class waited as the teacher’s eyes followed a row of police cars and army trucks snaking their way around the perimeter road. She turned halfway to the students and pointed with her chin toward the noisy procession.
Naomi became lost in the rush of syllables that all sounded similar as the teacher's standard Beijing pronunciation slipped into the soft hissing accent of the southern Min region. She heard the word qi in the high tone, and tried to guess which of the many qi words would fit the context of her teacher's excited expression. “Does that qi mean ‘seven’or ‘strange’?” she wondered, and quickly consulted her dictionary. “Or maybe the qi that means ‘relatives’ or ‘maple’?”
She caught another combination of syllables, xing chang. “Xing means ‘star’ and chang means ‘field,’” she thought. “No, the tone of Teacher Wang's xing is a rising tone, so it couldn't mean star, it’s got to mean something else.”
She could not understand. Twisting in her chair, she asked, "Hey, Doug, what's up?" Douglas looked at her, but he did not reply.
Naomi turned to Mrs. Park at the next table. Her eyes were closed and her hands were pressed against the desktop in a clench of white knuckles. Naomi wondered if she was praying. Jorge fidgeted with his pencil. Rembrandt Soo stood up, walked to the window, and stared out.
A few of Teacher Wang’s phrases drew pictures in Naomi’s mind. "Huai ren (Bad people) … hun duo ren-min-bi (a lot of money) ... Zhong ren (the Chinese people)..."
Mrs. Park reached out to touch Naomi’s hand. Naomi was alarmed when she saw tears in the woman's eyes, and her stomach twisted around the lump of oily dough in her stomach. "Prisoners," Mrs. Park whispered to her. "Soldiers shoot them at execution field."
"Is the field near here?" Naomi asked, linking the phrase xing chang to "execution field," not "star field."
"Teacher Wang say outside wall of university. Near Music Department."
"What is their crime?"
"It is government anti-corruption campaign. These crim… criminals, yes? They deceive Chinese people.” Then Naomi remembered that another meaning for qi was “to deceive.” Mrs. Park continued. “Steal much money from Chinese peo- Soldiers shoot them." Naomi stared at the teacher’s smile.
Between the slats of the truck, I see people rush by with shopping bags. Some turn along the sidewalk to stare through the boards of the truck before they pass away. “Robbers! Damn swindlers!” a dofu-seller jeers from the seat of his bicycle. His legs pump the wheels forward but the bicycle swiftly retreats behind me. The university buildings swell and ebb like waves. Many chilly nights as a student I stood outside these same buildings under the lamplight reading while gnats swirled around my head. My head, oh, my head! These memories are in my skull. They will shatter when the lead hits!
The corner approaches and brusquely swerves aside, revealing a parade of trees along the final mile of the beach. Old Huang turns his face to the west where the sea touches our shore. “Ma Tzu rides the waves,” he says. “Perhaps she will see us and have mercy.” Old fool. In seven years, when have I ever heard him speak of the gods? Fear breeds superstition in those condemned. How quickly his faith matures! – Like mushrooms after a storm.
He was a national cadre in our city! I admired him. I obeyed him, and like everyone else, I feared him. He had the power to squeeze money from the rich and the poor! He squeezed them like palm nuts for oil. Now his whimpers are sand in my teeth: “Ma Tzu! Goddess, have mercy! Have mercy!” Superstition serves him well in his old age. But I am young when fortune forsakes me.
The row of trees march away; the bus depot approaches. The restaurant door bangs and gapes like a toothless mouth. The old cook, a friend from my student days, steps outside. Two schoolgirls sitting behind the table peer at me over receding cups of tea. A cluster of village houses rise into view. In front of one house is a foreign woman with fire-red hair. She stares into my eyes until she also shrinks and disappears. Now there are only blue stripes of ocean water coloring the spaces between the wooden slats.
"One bullet to the head,” said Douglas. “When the family comes to collect the body for burial, they will be asked to pay for the bullet.”
Mrs. Park added, “Lao-shi is counting trucks now. Five trucks. She say, ‘Everyone now come to window.’”
The class obeyed and joined Teacher Wang and Rembrandt at the windows. From the third floor on the hill, the view along the road was unobstructed. Naomi looked down into the open back of one of the army trucks as it crawled along the winding road. She saw two men sitting on the floor of the truck. Their ankles were chained down with iron bands. As the road curved toward them, Naomi caught a glimpse of their faces. The younger man’s eyes stared wildly through the wooden slats at a man shouting at him from the seat of a bicycle. The older prisoner sat with his mouth open. His eyes were expressionless. Naomi remembered passing an abattoir near the marketplace recently and seeing a similar look on the face of a goat being led inside.
Under the floorboards I hear a crunch of gravel. The wheels stop. There are footsteps and men with living voices behind me. I turn my head and a flash of sun blinds me. Feet trample the floorboards and I hear the sound of metal scraping metal. My legs are free and kick under me as I am dragged from the tiger’s belly. I tell them, “I do not want to get down!” How absurd are the sound of my words. They disperse in the laughing wind.
A voice I know cuts the sky. “Ah-Wei! My son! My son!” In the mass of madly swirling faces I find the mirror of my face. His eyes hold me with their black terror. To ease his pain, I raise my head and give my arm to the shadow that leads me through the crowd; through the odors of sweat and salt breezes.
“Step up,” the shadow says. I do what I am told, and trail Old Huang as he mounts the platform with bare feet. His shirt sags with sweat and red dust.
A soldier moves between us. He ties our hands and legs to posts. On our necks he hangs signboards that read, “Corruption.” I dare not look at the Old Huang. I eye those lucky ones in the crowd who smile at their own good fortune. They are still living men.
A captain, whose voice is clear and high-pitched, reads the story of our crimes to the open-mouthed crowd. “These men conspired together against our great nation. They are two of the ringleaders of the corruption that has plagued our city. They have swindled hundreds of thousands of yuan from the Chinese people….” We are told to confess. “I am not a bad man,” Old Huang mumbles with bowed head. “I am the same as every man here.”
When the living men mock his words, I raise my head and shout, “Do you not realize that a man facing death speaks only truth!”
My father’s eyes find me and hold me. I have no more words to say. Only a memory reels through my head: one day at the university I played table tennis with a monk who told me, “There is no ‘I’ in the universe.” I wonder how he knew this, and I wonder if it is true, and I try to imagine where the “I” goes. Does it swirl into the invisible ether when the bullet hits?
The voices stop. A young soldier confronts me. His cheeks are badly pockmarked and his breath smells of maotai . He lifts the blindfold and knots it across my eyes. A voice inside my head begs, “Too tight! The knot, please loosen the knot.” My head, oh, my head! What is the captain yelling? I must try to loosen the blindfold. Why is the captain shouting with his high-pitched voice? I push the knot up against the post until the mask shifts. My pain is eased and I breathe out with relief.
I do not understand. Is the blindfold taken away? Am I safe? Did the soldiers only mean to frighten me? The sun is too bright after the blackness and my head is spinning. Perhaps I fainted. I hear my father’s voice rise over the crowd. As I look again into the mirror of his face, his eyes become glass, and I peer through them toward the sea. The ropes that bound my arms and legs fall away and I run from the voices of living men. I escape to the west where the sky meets our shore. The ocean swells to meet me with her arms outstretched. White herons embroider her robe of azure silk. As sea spray they rise from the billows of her skirt and encircle the head of this goddess whose tears drop like flowers. Enfolded in her blue-robed arms I hear the chimes of our laughter blend with the wind.
"Shi-yi dian zhong (Eleven o’clock)…” Teacher Wang explained to the class, flushing like a child on carnival day. Now Naomi understood each word the teacher said. "Suo-yo de (Every)… xing-qi-wu (Friday)!"