Only after his son had found a job and settled down in Beijing did Mr. Na begin to feel at ease. He was already 42 years old when his son was born. An only child, Na Bin had recently graduated with a master’s degree and landed an intern position at the English-language China Story magazine. The boy carried Mr. Na’s pride and hopes. His wife would never have agreed to let their son stay in Beijing if she had been alive.
Na Bin told Mr. Na that interns normally worked for three months before being hired as permanent employees. Mr. Na had lost ten pounds from anxiety by the time his son finally became a full employee. He himself didn’t realize it, but his old pals at the teahouse gatherings joked with him.
“You’re awfully slim these days – missing somebody?”
“What’s on your mind, Na?”
“Finally tired of being alone?”
“You ought to get a new wife.”
“A thinner body means a longer life.” Mr. Na responded, his voice high and pleased.
“What’s got you so happy?”
“My son has found a permanent position!” Mr. Na announced with a smile. “He’s an editor at China Story magazine now!”
“Huh… China what?”
“Wait… What story?”
“It’s all in English letters.” Mr. Na explained.
“Would you look at Mr. Na’s kid… what potential!”
“Our own sons are such disappointments…”
These comments put Mr. Na in a good mood for quite some time.
“Mr. Na, when are you going to Beijing to see your son?”
“No rush, I’ll wait until he’s settled down…”
“The Bird’s Nest…”
“Stroll the Forbidden City, see the Great Wall!”
“Beijing… when will we have a chance to visit?!”
Mr. Na said nothing, but in his mind circled the very same question.
His son had mailed him a few copies of the China Story magazine after he was hired. Mr. Na had taught Chinese in elementary school before retirement and spoke no English, but he flipped through the magazines, trying to find his son’s name in pinyin. “Na… Bin… Na… Bin…” He couldn’t find it. He wanted to call his son and ask about it, but then decided it would be too expensive and changed his mind. He put on his reading glasses, found pen and paper and copied down his son’s address – he was certain it would be cheaper and also easier to express himself if he wrote a letter. The first letter he wrote to his son was very short, less than a hundred words, but it took him an hour to finish. This is what he wrote:
I received your magazines. You said on the phone that you have a permanent position now, but why didn’t I see your name in the magazine? I hope you’re not just telling your father stories. I’m quite well here at home, don’t worry about me. Take care of yourself out there, and cultivate good relationships with your boss and your colleagues. It’s getting colder now, so remember to dress warmly. Have you found an apartment to rent? Try not to get into arguments with others, and handle yourself with modesty and caution.
Ten days after the letter was sent, Na Bin called home.
“Dad, you can call me if you need to talk to me. You have a telephone at home, right?”
“Well… Okay… Do you really have a permanent position now? Is your boss satisfied with your performance?”
“Yes I do, really.”
“But in the magazine…”
“My name won’t appear in the magazine unless I do an interview or edit an article.”
“When will that happen?”
“Be sure to send me a copy. Don’t forget.”
“How about your apartment?”
“It’s taken care of.”
“I’m sharing one with a former classmate.”
“It’s cheaper that way.”
“How big is the apartment?”
“It’s a two-bedroom apartment, twenty-two hundred yuan a month. I took the smaller bedroom so I pay one thousand.”
“One thousand?” Mr. Na was shocked. His monthly pension was less than eleven hundred yuan.
“So… what’s your monthly salary now?”
“I got a raise after I became a full employee, so now it’s around three, four thousand.”
“Is that enough?”
“It’s okay. I don’t have many expenses…”
“Be careful out there…”
“And mind your health…”
“Dad, I know.”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Don’t use your business line for personal calls in the future… I’m hanging up.”
“I’m using my cell—”
The word “phone” was barely out of his mouth when Na Bin heard the dialtone. He looked at his cellphone, shook his head and put the letter on his desk away into a drawer. Meanwhile, sitting in his old house over a thousand miles away, Mr. Na took out an old family album. Gently stroking his late wife’s photo, he whispered: “My dear, junior’s job is secure… Don’t worry. He’s all grown-up now that he’s got a job… Wasn’t that what you always said? He’s sharing an apartment with his friend, two bedrooms and a living room… Good gracious, a thousand yuan per month… Beijing rents are too high. That would be a year’s rent here… My dear, I’m going to take a look at our savings account…” He opened the wardrobe, took out a bankbook from a small wooden chest, and read the numbers carefully: fifty-seven thousand yuan. Within the next six months he would add another three thousand yuan, to make it a round sixty. That would be his wedding gift to his son.
The next morning, Mr. Na went to the teahouse after breakfast. Halfway there he stopped and turned back home, his pace noticeably quicker. Once inside he tucked a copy of China Story into his bag, and his crow’s feet began to relax a bit. He had made a decision the night before, that wherever he went from then on he would always take a copy of the magazine with him – the was the only way that he could feel that his son was nearby, and that he himself was happy and at ease.
At the teahouse he took his usual seat at a table near the window. Taking out a napkin he wiped the table, and then wiped it again, his thin fingers almost trembling. Once the table was free of stains or dampness he carefully took out China Story, and lay it gently on the table – he took a childlike pleasure in the process.
“Hi Uncle Na, you’re looking tidy today.” A young waitress named Bai greeted him with a smile.
“Good morning… “ He replied.
“Shall I wipe the table for you?”
“Oh it’s clean. Quite clean.”
“What’s that magazine? China story.” She sounded out the English with enthusiasm. “In Chinese that means stories about China, right?” Bai poured a cup of warm water for him. It was traditional in all the local teahouses to give guests a drink of water to rinse their mouths before serving morning tea. Mr. Na gulped down a mouthful with a smile. Head cocked backward and eyes closed, he made a series of gurgling sound in his throat, the skin of his neck hanging loosely around his Adam’s apple as it moved up and down. After spitting the water into a teacup, he wiped his mouth with a napkin. “You’re right…” he said. Bai opened the magazine, shaking her head. “Oh… It’s all in English, I can’t understand this… I only know a few words.” She looked at Mr. Na with surprise, “Can you read it, Uncle Na?”
“I can’t read it either. The foreign language we were taught was Russian.” He hastily retrieved the magazine.
“Russian? Do you still remember it?”
Mr. Na stuck his tongue against his palate and made trilling and retroflex sounds.
“Say a few sentences in Russian, Uncle Na!” Bai said.
“I’ve forgotten everything… I was never very good at it, and now my tongue has become stiff.”
“Now I remember – your son works for this magazine, right?”
“Yep, China Story magazine!”
“That’s a grand title!”
“It’s the biggest English language magazine in China! It’s targeted exclusively at foreign readers!”
“My son could never have been hired there if he wasn’t a good student.” Narrowing his eyes, he added with a mixture of pride and uncertainty: “…could he?”
“The other day, after you left, they said you’re terribly fortunate. Your son is the only one in town with a graduate degree, and he now he works in Beijing, too… really amazing!” As she spoke, Bai went back to the counter. She took out the tin of tea leaves that Mr. Na had stored at the teahouse and spooned some into a teacup.
“Uncle Na, what’s your son’s name?”
“The bin from the word for ‘courteous’.”
“He’s probably got an English name, too.”
“An English name. Your son works for an English magazine, surely he would have an English name…”
“An English name?” Mr. Na blinked, “I’ll have to ask him about it…”
Bai brought over the teacup and a plate of roasted seeds, then went to take care of other patrons. Looking out of the window, Mr. Na murmured to himself: “English name… English name…” With that on his mind, he only took a couple sips of tea before hurrying back home. Once there, he skipped a trip to the toilet and fumbled his reading glasses on, then sat in front of the window, and began earnestly writing this letter to his son.
Last night I forgot to ask you something: now that you work at the magazine, have you got an English name? Folks here in town say that since you’re working for an English magazine, you must have an English name. I’d like to know what it is. I still feel more comfortable writing letters than making phone calls. With phone calls, all the things I want to say get tangled in my mind, and I don’t know which to start with. I am getting old, so my memory isn’t as clear as before. You must take good care of yourself out there. Always remember to lock your door when you leave for work, and lock your drawers too. Make sure you get three meals a day, don’t skip any. Cultivate good relationships with your boss and your colleagues. Also, send me some recent photos of you. All I’ve got at home are ones of you in college, I don’t have any from after you started working. I want to see you. I’m in good health, so don’t worry about me. I still drink a lot of tea. My old reading glasses are not strong enough anymore, so I am going to get a new pair soon.
After writing the word “Dad” he sat up and stretched with satisfaction. Then he leaned back against the couch and reread the letter from start to finish. He felt that he’d left something out, but couldn’t think of what it was. He stood and paced back and forth, and the old-fashioned TV set at home provided the clue. He waggled the pen in his hand and added this last sentence at the end of the letter:
I heard in the news that a cold front will hit Beijing within a week, and the temperature will drop five or six degrees. Remember to keep warm, if you’re careless you’ll catch a cold.
Slowly he folded the letter up and slipped it into the envelope. After putting a stamp on it, he sealed the envelope carefully with glue and put it in the worn black bag that had been with him for more than a decade.
Five days after receiving his father’s letter, Na Bin called home.
“Dad, did you receive the magazines yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“I sent them to you.”
“When was that?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Did that cold front hit Beijing?”
“You can never count on the weather forecast.”
“No big deal.”
“Oh, did you send me any pictures?”
“It’s too much work to get photos developed.”
“What’s too much work?”
“Everyone uses digital cameras now. Email’s most convenient…”
“Yes, I’m listening…”
“It’s easier to send photos by email.”
“You don’t have a computer… Never mind, I’ll develop some photos later.”
“Are you busy with work?”
“Then have them developed when you’re less busy.”
“I read in the news there was a major car accident on Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road. It sounded terrible!”
“Dad, was there anything else?”
“Be careful on the bus…”
“I got it. Was there anything else?”
“What do you do at work every day?”
“Thinking of topics, discussing the topics…”
“Basically just figuring out what stories about China foreigners might like to read…”
“Dad, is there anything else?”
“Let me think… That was pretty much it…”
“I am calling on my cell phone.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Okay… Go ahead.”
The moment he put the handset down Mr. Na realized that he had forgotten to ask about his son’s English name. He snatched up the handset again and repeated into it: “Hello… Hello… Hello”, but all he could hear was the dial tone. He stared at the handset, shook his head and slapped himself on the forehead. Soon he felt better though – he could ask about it the next time he wrote to his son.
It was a quarter past nine at night. One minute after hanging up the phone with his son Mr. Na opened up the old family album and began speaking to his wife: “My dear, Junior just called… he’s doing fine. I am feeling okay too… Don’t worry about me… Before you passed away, you said I should marry again if I found anyone suitable… A few days back some of the old boys joked with me about it… I know you were thinking of me… You were afraid that I might be lonely and that I couldn’t take care of myself… Well, I’m doing fine, don’t you worry over there… Junior’s staying in Beijing, I think he’s got a bright future… It’s better that he be there; I don’t have a lot of connections in town and he wouldn’t have many opportunities here at home… Once he’s settled down, I’d like to go to Beijing to see him… I’ve never had the chance to visit Beijing before, I never even dreamed that one day I would… But things are different now… My dear, I’ll bring along a photo of you when I go, so you can have a look at Beijing too: Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall… I’ll stop now, I’m getting sleepy…” Mr. Na sighed and closed his eyes, his hands touching the album gently, as they stroked his wife’s face and hands.
Mr. Na woke at dawn he next day. It was half an hour earlier than usual, because he planned to go to the post office early and pick up the magazine his son had sent. The town post office opened at nine o’clock. He sat on the edge of his bed, looked up and gazed at the clock on the wall: the hour hand was at seven, the minute hand at five.
Too early. Might as well go to the market and buy some local walnuts for his son. Walnuts nurtured the brain, and Junior had a job in Beijing now, as an editor and reporter, and that was taxing to the brain. Even before he’d bought the walnuts, Mr. Na could imagine his son’s look of ease after he’d eaten them.
“Walnuts… Going to buy walnuts for junior…” He couldn’t help speaking out loud. He happily closed and locked the door behind him, and repeated these words silently as he made his way to the morning fair. He took small quick steps as he hurried towards the fair – his upper body leaning forwards, neck straight, his legs scissoring faster and faster. It was not his usual pace, and his posture made him look a bit odd.
A couple of old acquaintances greeted him along the way, but he didn’t even notice, walking directly to the walnut vendors in the market place. The vendors raised their voices and hailed him. He noticed an old man of about his age quietly squatting on the ground next to a pile of walnuts, smoking a cigarette and gazing at him empty-eyed. Mr. Na had a hunch that the old man must be at the morning fair selling walnuts for his son or grandson; he made up his mind and walked towards him.
He trusted the quality of the old man’s walnuts and the accuracy of his scale. He bought five pounds of walnuts, then waved goodbye to the old man. He headed back the way he’d come, made a few turns, and entered the old street that led to the post office. Passing a breakfast stall he stopped and found a seat, ordering fried dough sticks, pickled vegetables and a bowl of plain porridge.
As he ate his breakfast his mind was still on the walnuts – actually, on his son’s look of happiness after eating the walnuts. He could even hear his son’s heartfelt praise: “Dad, these walnuts from home are really tasty! Send more next time!”
“Okay!” Mr. Na said aloud, to the consternation of the man sitting across from him. Smiling in embarrassment, Mr. Na pushed his own plate of pickled vegetables toward him.
An old lady carrying a bird cage approached. “Who wants a bird? A talking bird… Who wants a bird… “she said weakly, her eyes fixed on the dough sticks roiling in the oil. “A talking bird… Who wants a bird…”
No one paid her any attention. Mr. Na watched her for a moment, then put the money for his breakfast on the table, got up and quietly walked away. “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!…” Mr. Na heard the old woman’s bird shouting. He couldn’t help turning around. “A talking bird… Who wants a bird?…” The old lady said in a louder voice.
“How much do you want for it?” someone asked.
“Two hundred yuan,” said the old woman.
“What? That’s too expensive! Is it made of gold?!”
“Too expensive!” others chimed in.
“It’s a talking bird, it’s not expensive…” she said, putting the cage on the table, “How much will you give for it?”
“One hundred and fifty,” she said.
“My son raised this bird… he’ll be furious if I sell it for less.”
“The bird’s worth fifty at most!”
The old lady said nothing further, just put her head down and walked past Mr. Na. “If I sell it for less, my son will be furious,” She murmured to herself, walking unsteadily. Two hundred yuan. A bird that cost two hundred yuan – Mr. Na didn’t think it was worth it either. Watching the old lady disappear around the corner, Mr. Na moved on. When he rounded the corner himself, Mr. Na saw her sitting on the ground crying, “My son… My son…” He didn’t dare ask her what was wrong, and quickly walked away.
The post office doorkeeper unlocked the door and opened it a crack; Mr. Na hurried forward and helped him push it all the way open, then headed directly inside with a smile. A postman was loading newspapers and letters into the pouches hanging on either side of his bike. Mr. Na immediately caught sight of an envelope marked with the China Story logo. He ran up to the postman, bent over the bike, pointed to the magazine and said with a smile: “This magazine is mine.”
The postman knew Mr. Na. He said: “You’ve come to pick it up yourself?”
“My son sent it, I’m in a rush to read it!”
The postman handed the magazine to Mr. Na, then rode his bike out of the courtyard. Mr. Na wiped the dust from envelope with his cuff, then carefully put it into his bag, worried it might be creased. The first customer in the post office, he filled out an address form, put the bag of walnuts into a box, handed it to the person behind the counter, and breathed a sigh of relief.
Everything taken care of, there was nothing in his mind but his son’s magazine. He went to the teahouse, wiped the table clean, and solemnly took out the China Story. There was an old lady on the cover of the magazine, wearing a blue jacket and a white hat, surrounded by a large group of cats, one of which was sniffing her face. “Na Bin… Na Bin… Na Bin…” he recited as he paged through the magazine, looking for his son’s name in pinyin.
I’ve found it, I’ve found it!
Na Bin! There it was, Na Bin!
An article by his son! With his name printed at the top!
Mr. Na became slightly overexcited, his fingers trembling and his heart beating faster. He could not understand the title or contents of the article, but the accompanying photographs told Mr. Na that his son had written an article about a woman and a pack of cats. Since it was the cover story, it must be a good one! Mr. Na knew that much at least!
“Bai, bring me some tea please!” His voice was nearly breaking.
“Right away, Uncle Na!”
While Bai poured the tea Mr. Na covered the magazine with both hands, lest drops of water wet it. Bai smiled and said: “So, Uncle Na, did your son send you another copy of the magazine?”
“He’s on the cover! My son wrote the cover story!”
Bai put the teapot down, stretched out her hand and said: “Can I see it?”
“Don’t get it wet!”
“I promise I won’t.”
Mr. Na handed it over hesitantly, eyes fixed on Bai’s hands. Bai sighed with a smile, wiped her hands on her apron and showed him both sides, saying, “They’re clean, right Uncle Na?”
Mr. Na nodded.
“What did your son write about, Uncle Na?” Bai was staring at the cover.
“I think something to do with cats.”
“I can’t read this.”
“It’s for foreigners.”
“So what’s your son’s English name?”
“I forgot to ask.”
Their conversation was interrupted by inquiries from some old patrons sitting in the corner.
One of them said: “Mr. Na, you ignored me on the street this morning… What’s going on?”
“I was in a hurry,” Mr. Na explained with a laugh, “so I didn’t hear you…”
Another coughed ostentatiously, saying: “We need to respect the promising son’s father!”
A third one asked quietly: “Mr. Na, can you understand that magazine?”
“Ha ha…” Mr. Na only laughed in response.
“Show-off,” someone muttered. The voice was quiet but Mr. Na heard clearly. Though he continued to chuckle he felt uncomfortable. They’d all been friends for decades, was there any call for jealousy? Had he shown off too much? Looking at the magazine on the table, Mr. Na went very still.
Several bird chirps came in through the window, followed by a few words in a strange voice: “Hello… hello… hello… hello everyone…” It was the talking bird he’d seen that morning. A crowd had gathered around it to take a look. Depressed, the old lady had sat down, still holding the bird cage. “Who wants a bird? A talking bird… Anybody?” she asked idly. “A hundred and fifty and it’s yours. Not a penny less… A talking bird…”
Bai leaned against the window and asked the old lady: “Granny, can the bird speak English?”
The old lady turned and shot a glance at Bai, saying: “If you can, it can too!”
Bai curled her lip, muttering: “Boaster.”
“Hello… Hello…” the bird abruptly said in English – Mr. Na and Bai exchanged a disbelieving glance. “Did it just speak English?” he asked her, sticking his head out of the window. Bai nodded woodenly.
“How are you… How are you…” The bird continued in English.
Mr. Na craned his neck, blinking in surprise. “Bai, what did it say? What did it say?” Mr. Na asked curiously.
“’Hello’… it said ‘Hello’,” Bai said, eyes narrowed.
“Who wants a talking bird? Anyone want a…” the old woman glanced at Mr. Na and Bai, “…a bird that speaks English?”
“That bird’s awfully smart!” Bai shook her head.
“It knows plenty more! It’ll be a boon to whoever buys it!” the old lady insisted.
“Why do you want to sell such a good bird then?” an old man next to her asked.
“It’s my son’s bird… He’s not good for much besides breeding birds, but he’s good at that. But my daughter-in-law said that if he kept doing it she would divorce him. She went back to her parents’ house two days ago and said she wasn’t coming back until all the birds were gone. Well… as his mother I could only help him sell the birds. The two of them already have a hard enough time… My son’s not good for much besides breeding birds, and he’s been laid off. He can’t make anything with his birds, and he’ll give it up once they’re all out of sight. He’s not good for much, and neither am I…”
“That’s a mynah, right?” A bystander asked.
“That’s right, a male mynah, only two years old, in its prime.” Said the old woman.
Mr. Na heard everything she said. Feeling tempted, he quietly asked Bai: “One hundred and fifty… Do you think it’s worth it?”
“Sure it is. Uncle Na, do you like birds?”
“I feel sorry for the old woman.”
“Have you kept a bird before?”
Mr. Na shook his head.
“Granny, are these birds easy to care for?” Bai asked.
“Very easy. It eats millet soaked in water. Simple as that!”
Mr. Na made up his mind. He took one hundred and fifty yuan from his handbag, and held it in his hand.
-Translated by Eric Abrahamsen, first published on Pathlight, Issue01， 2011
About the Author
Publishing his annual story collections has garnered Jiang Yitan significant literary acclaim over the past five years. A decade ago it was his three full-length novels that he drew readers’ attention, but it is undeniably his recent career as a short story writer that has put him firmly in the spotlight. Focusing on contemporary urban life in China, Jiang shies away from popular tales of the glamorous cosmopolitan lifestyle and the clandestine love triangles of sophisticated city dwellers. Instead, his pen points toward family ties, the gap between the rich and poor, and, ultimately, the struggles facing urban residents and their hopes for the future.
Many believe he displays an exceptional ear for catching the female voice; his stories are always imbued with a certain femininity. It is often the range of his stories that leave the reader awestruck. Whether it is a lonely wife seeking a one-night stand after being inspired by a Clair Keegan story, a middle-aged family man desperately clinging to his dead mother’s memory by rearing her goat, or a comic book writer who lives his life through a series of imagined identities, Jiang’s work is forever moving you into new territory. In scope and style there are few modern short story tellers that can match Jiang’s success.
Grab a copy of our new issue to see a full interview with Jiang Yitan