Zhen Yi – Caged
“Be stern in the council-chamber, so that you may control the situation.” (Sun Zi, “The Art of War”, Chpt. 11, 64)
Even from here, three blocks away, I can feel the small shock waves from the school as the walls crash down. It’s one of the last buildings to be demolished, the chalk stained white washed walls in which I completed my schooling. Dust is dislodged in my room, it drifts in small currents towards the window. I have lived here, in my parent’s house, forever. I’m itching to leave. I want to fly away.
The door still has my name carved in it, Zhen Yi, from my school days. If you are a foreigner reading this, you say my name “Jen Ee”. My parents have already stuck the red double happy character paper cut out above my name even though the wedding is weeks away.
I feel the lightness of the bag leave my hand. It’s ready to be filled with memories from here. My finance, Sun, will come tonight after work to pick me up and we will spend our first night in the flat we rented across the city. This will all be an ‘open secret’ of course. Something everyone knows is happening, but no one talks about. We can’t officially start living together until our wedding night. He said he will borrow his cousin’s car, an old VW Santana that breaks down more often than it completes a trip, to rescue me from my parents.
My mother is trying to paper over her sadness about me going, and the avalanche of other things. She shoves food at me as I go back out into the living room. She has tea made in her chipped enamel cups. I say no to the food. It looks reheated and dead. She doesn’t seem to have the energy to cook fresh food each day now. She looks pale, too thin, like the part of her I know is wilting. She says she is glad the school is gone, she says it was old and mouldy. But her eyes betray a different feeling. There are no more shockwaves now.
My father is by the front window cleaning up glass, sweeping it up into an old red cracked dustpan. Someone smashed the front window last night, used a broken piece of concrete. The lights reflected from the glass buzz around him, flies around the dying. Last week they jammed pig shit in the guttering. The week before that they burnt my mother’s clothes. That was the last straw for her, that’s when she passed out for the first time.
The property company desperately want us gone, we are the last house left on site undemolished. My father has turned our house into a ‘nail house’. It’s a pun that refers to nails that are stuck in wood, and can’t be pulled out. My father is the nail. We have even been in the papers. Defiant photos of my father on the roof pelting attackers with rocks. He is our family’s greatest embarrassment. He has some old fashioned idea about this being “his home” but it’s just a sad sagging old building that needs tearing down. Some of our family friends have already moved into new flats across town, with air con and sealed windows. I had respect for him when I thought he was just hanging out for a better compensation package, but I despaired when he started ranting about “our rights”.
The tea burns my lip. I blow gently across the steaming surface of the liquid and watch my mother through the fog. She goes to the kitchen to wash up and I can see her from here. Her hands shake. I tell her to stop but she ignores me. My father does nothing, I can hear the sound of shattered glass scratching across the concrete floor like gnashing dragons teeth as he continues to sweep, lost in his own battle. I sigh and leave my tea as I head for the kitchen to stop my mother washing. I look at the clock, willing it forward. In a few hours Sun will rescue me from all this shit.
Lindon – Making luxury home future
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Sun Zi, Chpt. 3, 18)
How could I end up somewhere so grey, so cold, cocooned in concrete and smog at the end of the world? Then I close my eyes against an icy gust of wind and I see her nasty smile and that image tightens my stomach, brings the anger up into my throat. The end of a relationship haunts you in ways other things don’t; it hounds you through the beginnings of your new life. China seemed to be the best place to forget Julie’s face, a place far enough away, big enough to allow me to forget- where a bankrupt person can work off their debt.
I open my eyes. They don’t seem to understand my English and I don’t understand a thing; but they smile nonetheless, cigarette stained teeth and touched up carbon fibre black hair. It has started to snow, it settles on our coats like icing sugar on puff pastry. I look up at the small stage next to us constantly to see if we will begin soon, but there’s only a lonely microphone there now.
We are outside our office building in the city, my seventh day in China; seven days of semi-comprehensible ceremonies and planning meetings. We stomp around in hats and gloves and heavy coats trying to keep warm, but I am optimistic today- this is the official start of the project, start of what I hope will be actual work. I gaze up at a banner above the stage with the company name “Golden Dragon Property” printed across it; below that, “Making luxury home future first-class world in modern harmonious China” for all to see with its lost articles and persuasive impotence.
Finally, three beautiful girls in long red traditional dresses wobble up on stage in high heels and we are pointed at, the translator and I, to join them. We clamber up and stand to the right of the pretty girls and others file on stage to the left; one of them is the CEO. I’ve only seen his photograph in the city offices, above the front entrance, as a young man smoking cigarettes with Premier Zhang Ziming, the one-time head of the country. The image is blown up to garish proportions, maybe a metre wide- a totem of power. It arrests you as you walk in, presses you down, reminding you how powerful he is- the white man from over the ocean who smoked cigarettes with Zhang Zimin isn’t to be fucked with.
Suits move forward with more urgency to the ribbon, cigarettes hanging out the corner of their mouths; lazy precarious columns of ash jut out at angles and make grey smudges on the shoulders of their jackets. The CEO holds scissors up high, the metallic edge catches in the sunlight and he brings the scissors down like he’s slaughtering an animal, sacrificing to something. The ribbon falls to the ground with no cheers, just a crescendo of a band’s rhythm and some lukewarm clapping – classic corporate propaganda.
I thought this would all be so simple, come cheaply; but everything has its price.
Zhen – Model houses
“While heeding the profit of my counsel, avail yourself also of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary rules.”
(Sun Zi, Chpt. 1, 16)
It’s good to see Sun for a change. But why are we here? My bags are bulging with objects ready for our flat. But he has told me that can wait, that he wants to show me an ‘exciting development’ first. Our plan had been to buy our own apartment close to my parents in the city, to buy a place in an adjoining block of the new development. Instead we are here, on the edge of town, on the edge of civilization. Sun doesn’t listen.
More lines. Small kids play toys on the side, bored old people squat. They put down newspaper and sit on it. Above us a giant bill board is stretched out, it flaps softly in the wind. Two perfect looking people with digitally altered white teeth and no blemishes stand with an impossibly cute child. They live in the completed development in some indefinite future. It has made them happy, four walls and a roof. The woman’s breasts look like they have been stretched. Everyone around them smiles like they are in an American movie, and the sky is blue. Blue in blue, fluffy white clouds. We see blue sky like this two or three weeks a year. Perhaps that’s why they have the imported smiles.
Sun has bought snacks. He slides them out of his bag and starts cracking open nuts, throws the shells at his feet. He peels a small handful and offers them to me. He does it quickly, excitedly. I take one. It’s dry and flavourless. It gets stuck in my teeth and I spit the rest out.
He is looking through the leaflet, like everyone else. They flap in the breeze in people’s hands, some blow away down the line toward the street.
I don’t know what to say to him, he feels thousands of miles away, even as we touch. I’m thinking of my full bags at my parents place, bulging with the possibility of a new freedom with Sun.
“I like the north block…” Sun says, spitting some husks out onto the ground at his feet, “…there are some good floor plans still left.” He looks up the line. He knows that a lot depends on how quickly we get to the front of that line. Lots of what we like will be sold by the time we get there.
“They are better.” I throw in, irritated. I’m watching the leaflets blow into the street and my eyes follow one that gets picked up by a gust and drifts back into a farmer’s field next door. This development is in farmland, rising from a peasants village that’s being demolished. I scan the city on the horizon. Every side of this development is framed by wheat fields, a little rice. I can smell animals on the wind. Maybe pigs. No one seems to look into the farms, they all have their heads stuck in their brochures. They are all dreaming of high rise, the future not the present.
Sun speaks, excitement lacing the edges of his words “There will be a small shopping area built on the east side, and two more developments the other side.” He knows I’m wondering why we are here, he doesn’t want to answer the question.
I let the wind take my pamphlet, it flutters away, “This is not what we agreed. I don’t want to be a farmer.” He sighs, puts his arm around me. He is blushing at my very public directness, “We couldn’t get a place this size in the city.” He smiles more to the people around us than me. To cover his loss of face.
I nod, watching a farmer cycle out to a spot in a wheat field. It all looks the same to me but he must know of a spot, and he stops and gets something out of a bag. It looks to be a long tool of some kind. He starts to attack the earth.
“We are getting in at the right time…” He must be looking at me for a reply, I sense it in his silence. The knowing of lovers.
I say, “Yes, good time.”
He squints at me, “You seem to be thinking about something else. I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am.” I say, trying to keep my irritation from getting out.
“This is where our baby will be.” He says. I have small future snaps in my head of our life, but they seem to be fading. The colour is blurring. Wedding nerves.
I touch his leg, “Don’t you think it’s a little cold?” He rummages for a light jacket, drapes it on my shoulders. I let my shoulders slump under the jacket. I pick at the edges of a nail that has split.
I say, “I hate lines. You know that.” He examines my face not convinced.
The line starts to shorten. Sun draws some ideas on a couple of the plans, and we discuss what designs will be good. “That will be good for the baby…”, “That will be good for our parents…”, “We should focus on decorating like xxx here…”. I agree, seeing the good all these will do everyone.
A couple of families leave, frustrated with the line. Or perhaps they’ve heard the place they want has been sold? We are in the showroom now. Three large models are buried in a glass box like jewels made of foam. People in purple suits with laser pointers stand around looking bored, or hungry or both. They flash the light around, show what places are left. I hear a lot of talk about price. These are cheap places.
Sun elbows his way in closer to the model, starts matching the plans to the model. His eyes hunt the small doll-house-like windows. He turns around, he has taken a laser pointer and points for me, drags me closer and out of my daydream. “That would be good for us, the kids. Our parents would like the way it faces.”
I agree, “It would please everyone.” I have a fantasy, just for a moment like I’ve never had before. In this fantasy I back away while Sun is preoccupied and slip through the people and run.
I run through fields of wheat, disappearing to find my own potholed road after stealing the peasant’s bicycle.