The year 2013 was a fruitful one for 26-year-old Shanghaiese writer Zhang Yiwei (张怡微). Currently pursuing a doctorate in literature atthe National Chengchi University in Taiwan,she’s the first mainlander to win the TaipeiLiterature Award (First Prize in the essaycategory). She has also been the recipient ofthe Taiwan Times Literary Prize (First Prizein the short story category), and the NewWriter Prize from the Chinese LiteratureMedia Awards. Zhang made her debut as theFirst Prize winner of the sixth New ConceptComposition Competition in 2004 and since hasbeen regarded as one of the leading writers ofthe post-80s generation. Her published novelsincludes Woken From a Dream (《梦 · 醒》,2008), Next Stop,Xidan (《下一站西单》, 2010),The Night You Didn’t Know About (《你所不知道的夜晚》, 2012) and short story collectionssuch as Time,Please Wait (《时光，请等一等》,2010),andYouth’s Forbidden Games (《青春禁忌游戏》, 2006).
The first time I brought Zhuo Ran home was last year in February. I didn’t let my mother know beforehand, nor did I know how to tell her. One morning, I simply asked: “I’d like to bring a friend home in a day or two; could you manage to be back at noon?” My mother was kneeling on the floor, scraping and washing unscrupulously.
Without hesitation, she replied: “No, with the Spring Festival coming, I’m busy at the store.”
At that time, she was working in a private photo studio, helping with photo paper cutting, lighting, storekeeping, and cleaning. Ever since her early retirement, she redirected most of her energy to the studio, but I still haven’t found any tangible, deep connection between her and photography. She enjoys being photographed though, and has kept numerous self portraits from different periods and photographers. Some were taken by art fans in the factory’s labor union, some by young men in the neighboring workshop, some by distant relatives, and some by the backbone of the cultural and arts unit she became acquainted with during the Down to the Countryside Movement. She claims these photos were specially taken for me to look at in the future, so that I wouldn’t miss her too much if she passed away. However, it seems that such preparation had been going on for a long time—ever since she was a teenage girl.
Back then, there was no coloring technique; photos could only be printed the size of a fingernail. Still, she glued all these small pictures into a photo album one by one, marking the date, location, photographer, the clothes she wore, and their colors. But when I asked her about the whereabouts of the photographers, she muttered vague replies and seemed to be at a loss. But when it came to anecdotes of when the photos were taken, or how to strike a pose, she could be extremely talkative. Even though she can’t even turn on a digital camera—and is almost completely unaware of Photoshop—those images and experiences have become a significant part of her life.
She replied so resolutely that I didn’t want to throw her off the rhythm of her work, so I had to tell Zhuo Ran: “Perhaps you can come in the evening. My mother is too busy. I’m afraid we can only treat you to a plain meal.” Zhuo Ran acquiesced, simply replying that he would need to inform his parents that the plan to visit my house had changed from noon to evening. Sometimes I wished he would say more, but he never took that cue. A good conformist and follower, he is like a well-behaved, tongue-tied little boy.
“Oh, about the money, you have spoken to her?”
I couldn’t see Zhuo Ran’s expression over the phone, but my heart turned with complicated emotions—not a good feeling, nor even an extremely bad one.
“Qingqing, if you don’t have money, I could give you some. My mother will be comforted and gain face if your mother gives me some money. Then, maybe she will like you,” Zhuo Ran added.
I shouldn’t have been blamed for this issue. In fact, I had been looking for an opportunity to break it to my mother. But, for some reason, the words just stuck in my throat like a fish bone. In my family, my mother and I have only each other, but we are on two different planets, each following our own orbit. Only in rare moments do we share some warmth together. I don’t offer painstaking reports or converse deeply with her, nor do I ask her for advice. As such, she rarely asks after me. This seems different from Zhuo Ran’s family, or rather, any healthy family.
Actually, I had already dined twice with Zhuo Ran’s family, behind my mother’s back. His family exercises the straightforwardness found in typical Shanghaiese, blunt without pretense. But from start to finish, Zhuo Ran’s mother never said a word to me. His father appeared more amiable and asked about my family.
“Why not let Zhuo Ran visit?” His father asked.
“What’s the point?” I thought, but I said, “next time”.
“You know,” eying the chopsticks in my hand, his father continued, “even if your family lives in the slums, you should let Zhuo Ran visit.”
I then realized, in this family, next to each plate lay a pair of serving chopsticks.
“Who is this friend?” Mother asked me.
“My boyfriend,” I answered.
I was helping her clear away tableware when she blurted out the question, but froze upon my answer. She asked again: “Oh, then why is he coming? Marriage proposal?”
“Not exactly,” I laughed. “Actually, I am not sure why either. Just think of it as him casually hanging out with us.”
My mother took a long and meaningful look at me and jeered lightheartedly: “No wonder you haven’t been paying attention to me recently, turns out you are soon to be married!”
“No, not at all!” I swiftly denied. “Don’t talk gibberish—not this soon.”
“Soon is not bad, either way it’s a good thing.” She sidled up to the stove and gestured for me to clean up the table, seemingly not have taken my words seriously. I felt temporarily reassured. Zhuo Ran and I met in middle school. From a secret relationship at school to a public one later; from the endless confusion to the increased humdrum of daily trifles—all the grievances and melancholy—I never tried to share it all with my mother. Nor did I know how. But I did know that, regardless of my decisions, my mother would always respect me. She only wishes for my happiness.
“Qingqing, looks like it’s time to start preparations. But when your friend gets here, do you want to come in the store and have a picture taken? I can ask Uncle Lin to take a photo of you two together,” my mother said, as she came into the living room with a plate of apples.
“A wedding photo?” I asked playfully.
“No, of course not!” She said, immediately denying as I did earlier, “How could this kind of wedding photo be presentable? Your Uncle Lin’s workshop is tiny. We can’t have others looking down on you. But in truth, those studios with “Parisian” and “Milanese” in their names are not as good as your Uncle Lin’s. He still uses film, really brilliant; complicated technical stuff that truly captures the depth of people. You young people wouldn’t understand.”
I suddenly gathered my courage and asked: “Mom, could you prepare 2,000 kuai to give to Zhuo Ran?”
“What? Why?” She was startled.
To be honest, I didn’t know why either.
“Maybe he will be happy. It shows that you like him,” I answered with false composure.
“I haven’t even met him, how could I know if I like him or not. Didn’t you say that he is only coming to hang out?”
“Qingqing, what is going on? Tell your mother the truth,” My mother suddenly tensed up, which made me anxious..
“Are you having a…?” She closed in like Mei Shiping from Thunderstorm—ghastly.
“Nonsense! Of course not. If you don’t want to, so be it. It’s nothing serious. I knew you would say no. I actually don’t see the point either; giving him money is pointless. But I am in a difficult position, mom, I hate it too!” For some reason, with these words, I grew agitated. But I knew this agitation would end badly. So, I turned around and went into my room, cutting the conversation short. For an instant, I was almost overcome with the impulse to cry, but I soon calmed myself. What would be the point?
Luckily, she didn’t bother me the whole night. All went as before, each of us on our own planet with our own worries.
The next day, when I woke, there was an envelope on the table with 2,000 kuai; it was heavy in my hand. Underneath it lay a note with oddly written characters: “Mom has money.” It was neatly written—and heartbreaking. Actually, I have money; Zhuo Ran has money as well—a lot of money. But he insisted that this 2,000 yuan would have insurmountable significance to his mother. After some deliberation, I put the money back in mother’s drawer.
Zhuo Ran arrived at dusk, holding a paper bag labeled “Oriental Shopping Mall”. When I asked what it held, he answered: “Clothes my mom bought for your mother, a 3,000 kuai cashmere sweater—half off.”
“Anything for my dad? Or you just decided you wouldn’t bother.” I asked.
He looked ill at ease and at a loss for words. “I thought they were no longer together,” He said with a shaky voice.
“He’s still my dad and not dead,” I replied gruffly.
“Right, right, right. I will make up for it later. Please don’t be mad…I am visiting your home, you should be happy,” Zhuo Ran said in an attempt to appease.
I haven’t been happy for a long time, in fact; I constantly felt an invisible weight on my shoulders. When Zhuo Ran was busy looking around the house, I poured him a cup of hot water, wanting to turn on the air conditioner, but not enough to look for the remote. He coughed twice, and I pretended not to hear it. Faked fragility, a little coldness isn’t fatal. I really didn’t want to give him the special treatment, the money, or even heating. Watching him drinking water and shivering, I handed him a rubber hot-water bag: “This is what I use, very warm.”
“Thank you,” he said politely, looking at me timidly. I hadn’t seen him so cordial in a while. Such gratitude aroused my sympathy.
When my mother returned, Zhuo Ran and I went to the door to greet her together. This grand gesture gave her a start.
“Sit, sit, sit, go sit,” she blurted out without even looking at Zhuo Ran. Zhuo Ran was transfixed, and then smiled. I guess my mother was shy; after all, I’d never brought a boyfriend home before.
“There’s another guest coming, just in time to have meal together. I bought a lot of good things!” My mother said.
“Someone’s coming?” I thought to myself. Now, that’s rare.
“Who is it?” asked Zhuo Ran.
I had no idea either. Zhuo Ran walked around my house in light steps, leafing through my books absentmindedly. He also scrutinized our furniture and photos; most, of course, were displays of my mother’s youth. There’s not even one picture of me on display. Old family photos seemed to contain an extra person, we avoided carefully. In all the pictures my mother and I took together, I looked glum and dull while she looked in high spirits. Therefore only the images of her youth are on display in our house, with mine nowhere to be found.
My mother asked me to help wash the vegetables. After cleaning the green onions and slicing the ginger, I finally asked her who else was coming.
Mother said mysteriously: “This afternoon, a pigeon walked over to our photo studio door. It was thrilling. It stood resolutely in front of our door, and pondered for a long, long time. Taking two steps forward, then two steps back, then two steps forward, it finally walked into the shop in the end. I thought it must have been too exhausted to fly, so I grabbed it and tied its feet. Tonight, your Uncle Lin will come to kill it. It just so happened that you had a friend coming as well.” She said all this proudly, as if she had won a battle. The poor pigeon, with feet tied tight, was thrown into the water basin.
“I love pigeon meat,” Zhuo Ran chimed in. “Stewed pigeon tastes even better with some dried scallops, Chinese angelica, and dang shen (poor man’s ginseng)!”