JULY 3rd 2017
(A translation of this piece, by Nyuk Fong Parker, can be found below.)
李老师给我印象最深的，是他总爱说一个英文词“雷日包”。第一次听老师说这个词是有同学上课迟到，李老师停下讲课，面无表情地看着那同学坐到位子上以后，问我们谁知道人身体上一共有多少根骨头。正当我们漫天乱数瞎猜时，他说了句“雷日包”。然后可能想到我们是学俄语班，解释说：英语非常形象。用英语说一个人懒，它不直接说你这个人懒，而是说这些骨头懒。英语“雷日包”就是懒骨头的意思。教会学校的老师都是用英语教学，谁迟到老师就叫他“雷日包。”我们大笑起来。以后一有同学迟到，我就望着李老师，等待他那句“雷日包”。可我从来不敢迟到，怕老师说我的骨头懒。其实我也不愿意迟到，喜欢听李老师说“相声”。 后来工作时接触到英语，我特地请教英语好的人“雷日包”怎么写。对方说，骨头是bone，懒骨头是中国人才有的俗语吧。我不甘心，最后还是在字典里查到了lazy bones，译为“懒人”。李老师是在告诫我们不要做懒人，是要让我们在人生的每一分钟里都不偷懒、不懈怠。
JUNE 30th 2017
Throughout the course of my education from primary to secondary school, two math teachers stand out in my memory. One of them was Mr Liu Kezhi, who began to teach us during our second year at middle school. The other was Mr Li Deyu, who taught us in our second year of high school. Mr Li had been Mr Liu’s teacher, but they had completely different teaching styles.
Mr Liu’s first day of teaching was the start of a new school year. My classmates and I had spent recess chatting. When the bell rang for the lesson to start, Mr Liu appeared at the classroom door. At that moment, we all guessed that he was the new math teacher. However, the bell had not yet stopped ringing, and the teacher had not come into the classroom, so we seized the opportunity to carry on talking. Suddenly, something dawned on us. One by one we fell silent. The bell had stopped ringing. Why had the teacher not said anything? Why hadn’t he come into the room? He was still standing in the doorway. I looked at him. He was watching us sternly. His eyes swept over us, row by row and one by one. Tall, slender, and dark, he was wearing a slightly faded navy-blue Chinese tunic suit. The math book in his hand was rolled into a small bat, which he was rubbing. As soon as silence had fallen, Mr. Liu finally walked in, not saying a word. He threw his book on the desk and said, “Let’s begin.” He did not mention his long wait outside the classroom. From then on, he was exactly the same every day, not changing his outfit, expression, look, or demeanour. I couldn’t remember when it started, but we changed. Whether the bell was ringing or not, when we saw Mr Liu at the door, we stopped talking straight away.
Mr. Liu had another distinctive feature. During class, he would never say anything that wasn’t related to math. When he opened his mouth, it was to talk about the lesson. He never looked at his text book. It always lay rolled up on the desk, and he took it away when class was over. He also never criticized a student by name. He had a special trick, pinching the chalk in his hand until it was as thin as a pill, and accurately shooting it in the direction of his target. If a student talked in class without permission or made inappropriate gestures, Mr Liu would stop the lesson, take a piece of chalk, and flick it at the student, then stare at the culprit without a word. He would only continue with the lesson when the errant student realised their mistake and corrected it. Once, my deskmate and I were playing with carbon ink. A piece of Mr Liu’s chalk landed squarely in the ink bottle. My friend and I were astonished at the accuracy of our teacher’s aim. As we watched the chalk bubbling in the ink, we couldn’t help but laugh. Mr Liu continued to stare at us. His sternness stopped our laughter. I closed the lid on the ink bottle tightly, but Mr Liu didn’t continue with the lesson. He was eyeing the ink bottle. We had no choice but to put it into the desk drawer. We never took it out again during class.
I was very fond of Mr Liu. I started to like him the first time he gave us homework. He asked us to complete it on math paper, folded in the middle, as if doing crafts. We were to use an angle ruler and a pair of compasses to draw on it or write questions, answers, laws, and theorems, as if we were writing a composition. It was fun. Thanks to Mr Liu, I discovered that math homework could be easy and enjoyable. I forgave him for his serious words and manner.
My deskmate liked to chat with teachers. I was never able to do this; I studied music and art outside of class, so I had to fit my homework in during class time. She often told me that Mr Liu was praising so-and-so for making great improvements, and said so-and-so had a talent for math but was not careful enough. I looked forward to a word of praise from Mr Liu, but it never came. He tended to compliment students who raised their hands for the first time in class. When I thought about that, I felt as if I had seen Mr Liu’s private smile.
I didn’t know Mr. Liu’s full name at secondary school. I was at the stage when I felt no need to know what teachers were called outside of class. Just calling him “Mr Liu” was enough; everyone would know I was referring to my math teacher.
Now that I think about it, learning math from Mr Liu enriched my life in major ways. I not only began liking the subject, but – more importantly – I learned the meaning of self-awareness, even though he never taught it directly. All he did was wait patiently, tenaciously, for us to develop it on our own.
Our math teacher at high school was Li Deyu. It was my deskmate who told me that he’d been Mr Liu’s teacher as well. This was some consolation; I still missed Mr Liu.
Mr Li was very different, both in his bearing and in the way he taught. He was a lot older than Mr Liu, and always wore a blue mandarin jacket – a rare sight in Beijing’s secondary schools during the 1970s. When Mr Li came into the classroom each day, he would open his textbook earnestly and turn to the lesson. He would then place a long wooden ruler on the desk to hold the page down. While he taught, he would turn the pages for an occasional look. When the class was noisy, he would use the ruler to rap the desk or black-board.
The fact that Mr Li had been Mr Liu’s teacher was also visible in one habit. Like his student, Mr Li would never target a student by name for criticism, no matter how big their mistake. But he never stopped talking. He liked to comment on everything that happened, talking about his childhood and the Christian School he had attended. He remarked upon everything he saw. He had a smooth intonation and casual expression, but never held back with a joke or a cutting riposte. For instance, he would suddenly stop in the middle of a lesson and tell us a lively anecdote about his younger days. Apparently, the reason he’d enjoyed festivals as a child was because he liked the peddlers who wove through the streets, calling out their wares while they beat their wave drums. He always looked forward to the sound of those drums. The wave drum is small and round, with two small balls tied to its side. As the peddler shook the drum, the sound rang out in a jagged rhythm.
As he told these tales, we would all listen, entranced. But Mr Li would change the subject abruptly, to teach us a lesson about classroom distractions. Students nowadays, he said, were always turning their heads to chat with their friends during lessons.
Each day, after Mr Li had reviewed our homework, he would describe plays he had attended during his childhood, bustling with the noise and excitement of the theatre. His favourite dramas had military themes. He had seen actors with poor technical skills who could not execute their moves well, messing up their face makeup with a sweep of their long sleeves, appearing more like clowns than martial artists. Mr Li compared this to our messy homework notebooks. It was always fun to listen to him in class; he always raised a laugh. I looked forward to math class as if waiting to watch a cross-talk show.
My strongest memory of Mr Li is his fondness for the English phrase “lazy bones.” The first time I heard him use it was when a student was late coming to class. Mr Li stopped the lesson and watched, expressionless, as the student took his seat. Then, he asked if any of us knew how many bones we had in our bodies. As we were guessing and counting, he uttered the words “lazy bones.” He knew we were learning Russian, so he started explaining that the English language was figurative as well. To describe someone as lazy in English, there was no need to say it directly; it was enough to say that his bones were lazy. He’d learned it at the Christian school he had attended. Lessons there were taught in English, and latecomers were always labelled “lazy bones”. We all laughed when he told us. From then on, whenever someone was late for class, I would look at Mr Li, waiting for him to say it. I didn’t dare to be late, partly because I was afraid of being called “lazy bones”, but mostly because I enjoyed his “cross-talk” so much.
Later, when I came into contact with English through my work, I asked a colleague to teach me how to write Mr Li’s pet phrase. My colleague was confused. She thought it came from a Chinese saying. I didn’t believe her, and finally found it in a dictionary. It was only then that I understood its true meaning: Mr Li had been cautioning us not to waste or neglect even a moment of our lives.
After I graduated from high school I never saw Mr Li again, and I never will – he has passed away now. However, about five or six years after I left school, I saw a picture of him in the Beijing Daily. A friend from secondary school called me, saying that a piece had been written about him. After he retired, he had volunteered his services to teach math to soldiers in the armed police force. I found a copy of the newspaper, and there was my Mr Li – his usual amiable self, still working, even in retirement. My friend and I talked about visiting him, but we never got around to it due to our busy schedules.
After another five or six years, I was studying overseas. Just before I came back to China I had a dream about a small art exhibition. Mr. Liu was there, wearing his usual solemn expression. He seemed to be narrating something, guiding me further into the exhibition hall. In the middle of the deepest part of the hall was Mr. Li. He was standing in front of a large portrait of himself, rattling off humorous, sparkling patter. The effect was different from his classroom discourse. His audience were not laughing. When I woke up, I realised I’d been dreaming in black and white. A thought struck me. I knew I had to visit Mr Li when I returned to China. A month after I got back, I called my old deskmate, who was now a math teacher. She told me that Mr Li had passed away from an illness two months earlier. I had lost my chance. I had neglected him, but what I’d wanted to tell him was this: I had never neglected a single moment of my life since leaving secondary school. That was the lesson he had taught me.
I have never forgotten Mr Liu and Mr Li. My respect for them has lasted throughout my life. One of them taught me to be aware of myself; the other taught me never to be lazy. They were brilliant teachers, but the education they gave me was more than mathematics. What they taught me will benefit me for life. It had nothing to do with numbers.
JUNE 27th 2017
I buy his new book, Killing Commendatore, and get on the bus. It’s written in his usual style but sentences seem slightly longer. Does he use more layered adjectives? Or there are more parallel nouns.
The bus I am on turns left. It should have been the right turn. The machine voice names an unfamiliar stop. I’ve been on this route since childhood. The bus passes a grey complex. It skips a hospital with two ambulances parked outside. The sign on the street corner reads The Town of Boat in the Bay. I have heard the name before. Like a cat watching an intruder, I was ready to jump off any minute.
Oh, I know. Murakami uses more metaphors than before. Rather elaborate metaphors. I did check the destination when I got on the bus. I wonder whether a wife goes missing as she normally is in the books he writes. The voice says the next bus stop will be my usual stop.
JUNE 2nd 2017
When I first heard of tomb sweeping day in China, I worried about my own ancestors. As a friend described the ritualistic way that Chinese people burned fake money and other paper goods to the dead, I imagined what this system might actually look like if it were true. If only China burned money from the dead, then my ancestors might be destitute. As a Christian family, we prayed instead of burning paper gold ingots, so this Tomb Sweeping Day, I decided to fix this mass inequity that might exist in the afterlife. At this moment, my grandparents might be working in some wealthy Chinese household in the afterlife, sweating the day away while their employers counted money burned by their relatives.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this move to monetize the afterlife, though. If anyone were going to create a financial system for the forever after, it would be China. After two years of living there, I have seen parents’ dedication towards earning money and creating a better future for their children. Today, though, I wanted to even the playing field and help my ancestors overcome their circumstances and give them some of the peace they deserved.
To accomplish this, I turned to my girlfriend, Melissa. As a native Chinese, she might be in a position to instruct me on the finer parts of sending money to the afterlife. She had once described the people in her village burning paper money to their ancestors along the river that ran through her small village in Hubei. She explained how their small mounds of a paper money, paper houses, and paper iPhones caught fire, and how the smoke rose farther and farther up in the sky until it collected in some kind of celestial inbox. She suggested the area around Dongbaoxing Road, not far from my apartment, because that area hosted a large crematorium, and of all the areas of Shanghai, that would be the most likely place to offer gifts to the dead.
As we walked, we tried to decide to whom we would burn gifts.
“My grandparents, of course,” I said. “Isn’t it bad luck to burn gifts to the living?”
She nodded seriously as if I had just stumbled onto some great truth, and I tried to not think about who I might want to curse by burning some money their way. If burning money to the dead might give them money, then maybe burning money to the living might take it away. I wasn’t sure how the check book of the universe worked, but the thought distracted me from the task of seriously sending gifts to my grandparents.
“You can send money to anyone dead,” she said. “What about someone famous? If they’re from America, then they could probably use the money.”
“Shakespeare?” I offered. “He might need a little something.”
“That’s one thick envelope,” she said.
As we boarded the subway towards the area near the crematorium, she tried to explain to me the way it all worked. First we would buy gifts and place them in a special envelope with the name of the recipient on the front with my name and the date in black marker. Then, we would draw a chalk circle on the ground, placing the gifts in the center, and then lighting them on fire. Everything had to burn completely. As the fire died down, I would light three sticks of incense, hold them in both of my hands, and bow towards the fire. After thinking good thoughts about the recipients of my gift, I would stick the incense in the ground near the burning site.
The entire ceremony sounded simple enough, but I felt unsure about enacting the process. With this ceremony, I walked on foreign territory. As I went through these motions, others would see me, judge me, question my sincerity as I tried to honor my ancestors with a foreign tongue. I also imagined Shakespeare’s face when he received all these gifts from some random American in China, two nations he barely knew. His lips fumbling over the slippery words.
“Do you think we should get Shakespeare something extra?” Melissa asked. “He’s one of your favorite authors. I feel like we should do something special.”
“Let’s burn an iPhone to him. Shakespeare would be an Apple user if her were alive today.”
I tried to imagine that as well, but as I imagined Shakespeare compiling a music list, downloading his favorite apps, and navigating the Internet on his iPhone, he felt less like Shakespeare to me. The Shakespeare I knew stood locked away in a time vault with a quill in one ink-dyed hand. “Let’s see,” I said.
We exited the subway, and I followed my girlfriend around while she politely asked people where we could find a store that sold the gifts for the dead. No one was sure where we could find such a place. At the grocery store, the clerk hinted at a place closer to the subway station. Near the subway station, she asked a pedicab driver who told us that it was near and for 10 RMB, about a dollar and a half, he could take us there. My girlfriend thanked him, and we kept walking. At the front of a nice apartment complex, a security guard told her that it could be found down the road past the grocery store.
Melissa turned and announced our direction with a smile. “I knew I could find this place.”
I followed after her with the umbrella and her ten pound purse that contained a laptop, back up umbrella, and the other uncountable things hidden within the folds of a woman’s purse. As my arm ached, I thought about how Shakespeare might appreciate her MacBook and a few other items as an offering, but I stayed silent. Without her help, I would never come close to completing this ritual. Alone in Shanghai, my language abilities kept me restricted to certain activities, and burning money for dead ancestors required speaking only in Chinese. In this ritual, the dead were mono-lingual, and I required her translation services.
The rain fell slowly as if the sky felt unsure about what it wanted to do, but a light rain meant a safer ground. Melissa explained how we couldn’t carry around the gifts to the dead into other people’s shops because having these gifts near someone living caused bad luck. These were items that were purchased and then immediately burned to avoid contaminating the land of the living.
We found the store a half-kilometer beyond the grocery store in a small shop with metal racks and stacks and stacks of paper money, silver and gold paper ingots, and paper gold bars that could be burned as an offering. Melissa explained the situation to the old man who ran the shop and who nodded gravely at her description of our intentions. The old man felt concerned about the likelihood that my gifts would reach my ancestors, but he dug around until he found a large, yellow envelope with a large seal on the front in Chinese. He explained to Melissa its importance who then translated his message to me.
“He says that this is a special long distance envelope,” she said. “It’s like DHL for the afterlife.”
I nodded as if I understood the difference between one envelope and another, but I needed this man to understand that I was serious about giving money to my ancestors. He suggested sending only American money and hard currency like gold because he wasn’t sure if the spirit world would react well to Chinese money flying towards American and British recipients. After glancing over all the paper goods, we selected several stacks of hundred dollar bills and a box of gold ingots, which we felt would be valuable in any context. No matter what the exchange rate, gold carried some value. As I looked at the fake Chinese money that held denominations in the thousands and millions, I wondered if inflation were a serious concern in heaven, and maybe money lost all value due to its inflation over time. In this society, something random like tin or rosewood might carry the value of precious materials, but I decided to leave the economics of the afterlife to the Chinese experts. I would send whatever they recommended.
In this case, the shopkeeper recommended several bundles of tissue paper as an accelerant because unfortunately, American paper money failed to burn as well as some other currencies, and the man did not want us staring at a fire that failed to get going. Even the gods fell victim to the basic laws of thermodynamics. We selected a large bundle of tissue paper and piled our goods on the closest table.
After writing Shakespeare’s name on one envelope and my grandparents’ names on the other, Melissa consulted with the guy where to burn our pile of gifts. He gave us directions to a place by the river just a block away, and we thanked him several times. He thanked us with a thick smile for our purchase and handed us a stick of chalk and a small bundle of incense.
I wanted to photograph the old man, standing there in the frame of his little concrete store with the crowded shelves of cursed gifts for the dead, but it didn’t feel right. Like much related to death, I felt like he should only be observed rather than recorded, as if death suffered from a life-long affliction of camera shyness.
A short walk later, we found ourselves on a little pedestrian path next to a river. Behind some bushes, small groups of people stood beside their own burning offerings. Melissa and I skirted past the first group of people who maintained five offering piles burning and found ourselves an empty stretch of sidewalk. The air hung thick with smoke, and our eyes burned while we juggled the bags of offerings, the umbrella, the heavy purse. Melissa took everything from me and handed me one bag of offerings and the chalk.
“Make our circles like theirs,” she suggested with a glance at the ground next to us. I looked at their circle, which looked more like a long over with two lines jutting out from one of the long sides. In this way, the oval never closed but stood open, and I was sure that had some sort of significance, but I did not know what it was.
The chalk kept breaking against the wet pavement, until I held a fragment of chalk less than a half an inch long. I used different fragments of chalk to finish my two circles, but after some effort, they were complete. Melissa suggested breaking the ingot box apart to use the lid as and boxes as bases for my offering, and I immediately liked the idea. I started on Shakespeare’s offering pile. I first layered several handfuls of tissue paper while trying to light the hundred dollar bills on fire. The entire process proved far harder than I imagined. With the rain dripping on my fire, the smoke of the other wet fires filling up our eyes, and the hundred dollar bills refusing to burn, several minutes passed before the small fire started going.
Melissa passed me a short length of plywood that she had found near someone else’s abandoned offering pile, and I used it to try and open up my fire a little and get all the layers of money to light up properly. After the fire started to burn, Melissa handed me the plastic bag of paper gold ingots, and I sprinkled those on sparingly, making sure each of them caught fire and burst into a strange green flame for a moment before succumbing to the heat. As the pile burned lower, I broke open the incense and grabbed three sticks. I lit them in the flames like Melissa instructed me, and I slowly bowed three times, trying to think of all the moments Shakespeare touched my life from England to Duke to Texas to Shanghai. He served as a drawstring that cinched up much of my past, and as I bowed for the third time, I thanked him as much as one can thank the dead. I did not say any words. Instead, I tried to feel thankful and hoped that the smoke would carry my sentiments beyond the clouds.
I planted the incense in the flowerbed near the offering site and started in on my grandparents’ pile. Melissa called my name, and I looked up. She was taking my picture, and I smiled in reaction.
“Don’t smile,” she said. “This isn’t a smiling time.”
My smiled faded, and I went back to focusing on the funeral pile. I repeated the process of offering up the paper gifts, and I only relaxed when I lit the incense. I bowed the first time, thinking about how long it had been since I had seen my grandparents. They died when I was still young and a lap grandchild that was passed from person to person like a puppy. I bowed a second time, trying to remember what they looked like, their faces buried in memories more than half a life ago. The thick grey eye brows of my grandfather that always looked like he was about to ask a question. The kind smile of my grandmother who always smiled like she had just finished baking something. I bowed a final time and focused on thanking them for making the man I was today. Despite their distance, I always felt like they surely maintained some hand in my life from the afterlife. Looking down on me from their position and shaping my will towards a man I would be proud to be. I planed the incense in the flowerbed and then poked the fire with my stick to try to ensure that it was completely burned through.
I joined Melissa under the umbrella. She couldn’t see due to the smoke. The smouldering remains of my offerings inside the smudged chalk circles still released little bursts of smoke, but for the most part they stood silent. We left the unburned incense and our plywood stick and tossed our garbage as we headed back to the subway. We passed other families waiting on the steps up to the street for a spot to open up next to the river. The bags containing their gifts to the dead hung from their hands. As I passed, they politely nodded. I nodded back. I did not smile.