For June, we present to you an original short story by Mai Wang, about a young Chinese woman living in post-Cultural Revolution Beijing. She spends most of her marriage living apart from her husband, first in separate apartments, then in separate continents. She relishes her independence and her known world, but all of that threatens to change when her husband asks her to join him in America.
— Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor
Zhao Yan and her husband Li Fei had been married for four years, eight months, and ten days when he decided to move overseas. By then, they had already lived apart for three years, eleven months, and seven days, exactly the length of time since their daughter Jin Jin was born. They were separated by choice, but they told everyone it was a matter of circumstance. It simply wasn’t practical for Zhao Yan to remain in their studio on the grounds of Tsinghua University, where Li Fei taught Marxist philosophy to aspiring engineers. Not when the daily bicycle commute to her job inspecting calligraphy scrolls at the Ministry of Culture took an hour and a half each way. They had debated for months prior to their decision to lead largely separate lives, and everyone who asked about the arrangement came to accept their rationale. Even for couples living apart, raising a child was like a ballroom dance: it required constant coordination to ensure you didn’t step on your partner’s feet.
In the days before the baby was due to arrive, Zhao Yan hailed numerous rickshaws to move her belongings to her parents’ high-rise apartment outside Third Ring Road. Her mother and father had moved there after the government demolished their old home in a hutong near Tiananmen Square to make room for a municipal office building. The new unit was located on the twelfth floor of a building with a temperamental elevator, but it was only twenty minutes away from Zhao Yan’s office near Liulichang, the ancient antiques trading hub.
On her last trip from the studio, Zhao Yan felt an immense sense of relief, though the bulk of her stomach and her overstuffed bags made it difficult to walk as she approached the rickshaw driver, who spat on the ground and lit a cigarette as he waited. Zhao Yan was not surprised that he did not offer to help her—lately, all men reminded her of her husband. Li Fei was busy delivering a lecture, and she was glad he wasn’t there to infuriate her with his idleness.
Suddenly, Zhao Yan remembered the small cedar wood box under the bed where she stored her most important possessions: her Beijing residency permit, her marriage license, and the 24-karat gold wedding ring she never wore. Her husband had inherited the ring from his mother, whose family had owned land before the Cultural Revolution. The thick band was too wide for Zhao Yan’s ring finger. She had never managed to shake the feeling it did not truly belong to her, but now she decided to go back and fetch the box that contained it. She wanted to erase all signs of the cramped life she had shared with her husband. As she saw it, Li Fei had the better end of the deal: he would have time during the week to write the obscure articles she had never read. She was the one who would shoulder the main responsibility for their child.
Zhao Yan was carrying the box outside when a sharp pain stopped her. She dropped the box, and its contents spilled onto the unpaved path. The gold ring gleamed against the hard-packed dirt, riddled with countless footprints. As the pain eased, Zhao Yan was struck by the thought that it had never looked so out of place, a relic from a brighter era. She picked it up just before another burst of pain caused her to break into a sweat, and the driver rushed her over to the maternity ward of the campus hospital.
The next sixteen hours, nine minutes, and thirty-three seconds were the worst of Zhao Yan’s life, even counting the two years she spent in a rural labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. By the time the nurses placed her newborn daughter in her arms, she could no longer endure her private agony. She summoned all her strength to cradle the crying infant as the nurses called Li Fei into the delivery room.
“It’s a girl,” one of the nurses announced before she shut the curtain that divided Zhao Yan’s bed from the others in the communal delivery room.
Li Fei looked crestfallen. Zhao Yan knew that he had always hoped for a son. With the one-child policy in effect, there was no hope of fulfilling that dream now unless they wanted to pay a hefty fine for a second offspring and risk punishment. She could see him calculating the risk: Would it be worth it to try again, given the fifty-fifty odds of failing?
Nothing would appease him for the time being, she realized, but she was secretly overjoyed to have a daughter. She decided to be diplomatic.
“The baby needs a name. Do you want to choose it?” she asked.
The newborn stopped crying long enough to gaze at her, as if fascinated by the prospect of being assigned a name.
Li Fei stared at both of them for a long time. “I can’t think of anything,” he finally mumbled. “You’re the one who reads those ancient poems at work. You pick out a character.”
Zhao Yan struggled to recall all the famous words she had encountered. For the past five years, she had spent six days a week examining calligraphy scrolls, separating genuine antiques from forged copies. But all the old texts escaped her now, and the only image that surfaced in her mind was the gold wedding ring gleaming in the dirt. She decided to name her daughter Li Jin and call her Jin Jin. The character meant gold. It was a common word, but she liked its auspicious meaning, which heralded a lifetime of riches for her family.
As soon as the hospital discharged her, Zhao Yan took Jin Jin to her parents’ apartment. Their new home was a welcome change. Li Fei’s studio, which was always crowded with his unwashed teacups and half-read books, already seemed like a distant memory. The bedroom she now occupied with Jin Jin was bare, and Zhao Yan pasted old calendar pages on the concrete walls. Golden dragons and smiling infants hovered above days, months, and years that had already passed, though Zhao Yan was often afflicted with the sense that time was moving backwards. Living with her parents made her feel as if she had never married. Only Jin Jin’s presence served to remind her that the future she had envisioned as a girl had already arrived, though it was different from anything she had imagined. Zhao Yan found it difficult to keep track of the passing time, so she hung up a new calendar and began circling each day with a pencil. It was an empty gesture, but she found it reassuring.
Soon Zhao Yan returned to her job. From Monday morning until Saturday afternoon, she rarely thought of her husband. It was only on Saturday nights, when Li Fei invaded the apartment after a long bicycle ride, that Zhao Yan remembered that the three of them were supposed to be a family.
Whenever Li Fei slept over, the wooden plank bed Zhao Yan and Jin Jin normally occupied alone felt narrow and crowded. Zhao Yan always slept in the middle. She curved her body into the shape of a dried shrimp to protect Jin Jin, who was tucked against the wall. Li Fei snored continuously and kept Zhao Yan awake. As the night progressed, her thoughts often drifted to the early days before their marriage, when she had found his knowledge and calm manner attractive. He had a woman’s delicate bone structure, and reminded her of a porcelain cup that could easily shatter. He was proud to be dating a woman with government connections, and secretly she enjoyed feeling superior to him. Her salary was higher than his, and after a few months she bought him a new Flying Pigeon bicycle. But his gratefulness soon faded, and he began making more and more demands that were phrased as requests. Looking back, she suspected her open-handed nature first drew him to her. Their marriage had not been arranged, yet it was money, not love, that had ultimately bound them together. The only valuable thing he had ever given her was the wedding ring she kept hidden under her new bed, where it remained unseen.
One night, as Zhao Yan lay awake counting the minutes and seconds, the muted pressure of Li Fei’s arm reached her through the thin cotton padding of her blanket. She opened her eyes and found that he had thrown off his blanket. Before she could protest, he tried to embrace her. She winced and pulled away.
“Please,” he whispered. “I want a son.”
“No,” she said. “We can’t wake Jin Jin.”
That settled the matter. Zhao Yan knew she could not risk getting pregnant again. She had learned to accept the limitations placed on her life. One child was enough for her. It was easy to obey her country’s laws when they matched her own desires.
Jin Jin’s first word was Ma, and by the time she turned one she had learned to regard her father with indifference. She would only allow him to hold her for a few minutes before she grew restless and searched the room for her mother. Li Fei would frown as he dangled Jin Jin over his shoulder like a sack of rice. He was becoming more distant and troubled with each visit. Zhao Yan knew something was wrong, but he volunteered no information, and she did not want to disturb the fragile peace between them.
Months passed before Li Fei finally told her that one of his students had reported him to the university authorities. He had been denounced for challenging Marxist thought and promoting liberal Western ideas. Other students had supported and defended him, but he had been forced to take a leave of absence and stop lecturing midway through the semester.
Zhao Yan was angered by her husband’s confession. She had always assumed he was too smart to deviate from the Party line. When had he become so foolish and outspoken? Suddenly he seemed like a stranger, but she kept her thoughts to herself. She only told him to keep quiet. Though he nodded, she no longer trusted him to follow her advice. He had fooled her in the past, and perhaps he was fooling her again.
Li Fei was still barred from teaching when the pro-democracy protests erupted in Tiananmen Square. Zhao Yan learned that many of his students were involved, but he was vague about their roles, as if even she could turn out to be an informant. She was relieved when he revealed that he was not directly involved in the campaign. It was a tragedy that so many young people were dying for the sake of abstract ideals, but she did not ask him if he knew anyone among the victims. She herself had always been a pragmatist. Everyday life was too cluttered, too demanding, to leave any room for politics.
Just as she predicted, the government soon cleared the square, and the regular flow of life resumed. Zhao Yan was promoted to a senior position at work. Her husband still maintained a loyal following of students among those who had evaded death and arrest, and they petitioned to clear his name. Their efforts finally succeeded, and he returned to the classroom. Things were going well again, so Zhao Yan was shocked when Li Fei revealed that he had been accepted into a doctoral program in America. The school was located in the city of Miami in the state of Florida. None of those names meant anything to Zhao Yan.
“But you’re already a professor,” she protested. “I don’t know why you want to go back to school.”
“It’s the only way we can leave the country,” he said. “I’ve been planning this ever since what happened in Tiananmen Square.”
Zhao Yan gathered that he was serious. He had been silent about the upheaval since the government’s crackdown. It was as if both of them had agreed to pretend it had never happened.
“I don’t think moving abroad is a good idea,” she said. “We belong here.” As a child, she had learned to think of America as the land of evil capitalists.
“Times have changed,” Li Fei said flatly. “The American university will even pay me a small stipend for rent and food every month.” He paused for a minute and stared at her. “Don’t only think of yourself. Think of Jin Jin. Don’t you want her to know what freedom means?”
“Freedom is just a word,” Zhao Yan insisted. “Who cares what it is as long as our bellies are full?”
She continued arguing with him, but his suggestion triggered a wave of doubts inside of her. What if he was right after all? Would their daughter truly taste freedom if they left China? Still, she wasn’t sure if they could survive so far from home.
Li Fei finally told her to stop worrying. “Once I’m settled, you and Jin Jin can join me.”
Zhao Yan realized he had already made his decision.
“But what will I do in America?” she said. “I don’t think they need many Chinese calligraphy experts.”
Li Fei shrugged. “You’ll find some kind of job, I’m sure. Think of how much money you’ll be able to send to your parents.”
He did not heed any of her other objections. Instead, he planned a celebratory dinner party at the university and pressed her to attend along with Jin Jin. That night, Li Fei gathered together his favorite male students. After exchanging polite greetings, the men ignored Zhao Yan, as if her presence was nothing more than a tolerable intrusion. Once they downed glasses of sorghum wine, they expressed envy that Li Fei was escaping the confines of China. They joked he would become a businessman who used dollar bills to wipe his nose. “Don’t forget about us humble peasants,” they said as they ate ravenously. Zhao Yan forced a smile as she fed Jin Jin a few small bites. She herself had no appetite.
Five months, two weeks, and eleven days later, Zhao Yan visited the studio to help Li Fei prepare for his departure. As they sorted out his meager possessions, he overcame his habitual silence and described the large houses and new cars in America. The more he talked, the more Zhao Yan realized she did not entirely blame him for wanting to leave. Beijing was a city of small apartments and old bicycles. Still, any good husband would have consulted his wife before deciding to move abroad. The two of them hardly spoke anymore—it was as if they were already living on separate continents.
Zhao Yan continued to mark the passing time on her calendar, only now she felt she was being pulled towards a future she could hardly envision. At least Li Fei had chosen an auspicious day to fly: the eighth of August, the repeating digits harbingers of great prosperity. That morning, Zhao Yan and Jin Jin accompanied him to the airport. As Zhao Yan bid him a safe journey, Li Fei tried to pick up Jin Jin, who refused to release her mother’s hand. As he disappeared through the gate, America receded again in Zhao Yan’s mind until it was nothing more than a collection of whispered tales, as it had always been.
On the trip back from the airport, Zhao Yan was filled with an unexpected giddiness, though she was careful not to savor it too much. Long ago, she had learned that feeling joy was like eating a salted duck egg: the first bite was delectable, but soon the taste became repetitive, and the pleasure faded until it was gone.
Li Fei’s absence hardly changed the rhythm of Zhao Yan’s days, but late at night, she often wondered what he was doing. Beijing was ahead of Miami by thirteen hours, and it was strange to think that he was technically living in her past. She gathered from their weekly long-distance calls that he enjoyed the fresh milk and hot showers that were freely available in America. Even the most prosperous among the ordinary citizens in Beijing still drank diluted milk that came frozen in plastic bags, and everyone heated buckets of water to take baths. As she covertly listened from her office line, he raved about the convenience of American life using the private telephone his roommate had installed, a luxury Zhao Yan could scarcely imagine. She marveled at the existence of a country where every person could enjoy uninterrupted privacy. Yet she told herself that she would also be happy to remain in China, where the pleasures and annoyances of daily life never surprised her.
Another year passed before Li Fei finally announced that he had found a cheap apartment to rent on his own. He commanded Zhao Yan to apply for visas. She could hardly process the news. In her mind, she had deferred her departure to an indefinite point in the future.
“Maybe we shouldn’t join you in America until you graduate and find a good job,” she suggested.
“Nonsense,” Li Fei said. “I’m tired of living alone. Besides, I want Jin Jin to attend school here.” He hung up before she could protest.
Zhao Yan had no choice but to prepare for her departure. As the date neared, she struggled to figure out what to discard and what to pack. She would need to fit everything into a battered brown suitcase. She spent months packing and re-packing her belongings before she finally settled on two piles. Into the suitcase went her Japanese alarm clock, a Chinese-English dictionary, and hand-knit sweaters for Jin Jin to grow into as the years passed. Out came her collection of classic Chinese novels, the red handkerchiefs her mother had insisted she carry for good luck, and the dried mountain herbs her father had given her to cure future ailments. Soon her wedding ring was the only thing that still remained to be sorted. Zhao Yan was troubled by its inconvenient size. If she wanted to keep it safe, she would have to wear it on the airplane. Everyone who saw her would assume she was already a rich woman.
When the day of the scheduled flight arrived, Zhao Yan slipped the wedding ring onto her thumb, hoping it would not call too much attention to itself. She woke Jin Jin and picked up the heavy brown suitcase before she walked out of their bedroom for the last time. Her parents were waiting by the front door, trying to contain their sadness.
“Call us as soon as you land,” her mother said. Her father only nodded.
The elevator was broken that morning. Zhao Yan and Jin Jin climbed down twelve flights of stairs and emerged into the pre-dawn light. Zhao Yan wanted to linger and be comforted by her familiar surroundings, but soon the bus arrived, and she didn’t have time to take a careful look around before they boarded.
As they neared the airport, Jin Jin pointed to a plane ascending in the sky.
“What’s that, Mama?” she said.
“That’s an airplane,” Zhao Yan said. “It’s like a big bird. We’re going to ride inside of one.”
“Why are we doing that?”
“To join your father,” Zhao Yan said.
Jin Jin stared at her. “But when are we going home?”
A year ago, her daughter had been too young to truly understand what was going on. Now she was full of questions Zhao Yan didn’t know how to answer.
The airport was full of strangers, and Zhao Yan grew terrified of losing Jin Jin as they navigated the endless terminal. By the time they took their assigned seats on the plane, Zhao Yan was no longer sure she should have agreed to follow her husband. The thought of flying inside a man-built machine unnerved her. To calm down, she rotated the ring around and around her thumb. For the first time, its bulk was reassuring. If they were short on money, she could find a way to sell it in America.
As the plane ascended into the air, Zhao Yan realized that flying was the closest she and Jin Jin would ever come to time travel. Down below, people were locked into their local rhythms, but up here they could chase the sun as it rose in country after country. If they stayed on the plane forever, they would never have to see darkness again.
A jolt of turbulence interrupted her thoughts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing some unexpected rough air,” a voice announced over the intercom. “Please fasten your seat belts.” The voice repeated the message in English. The foreign syllables were crisp, summoning images of apples and school bells.
Their seats shook as the plane dipped and rose in mid-air. Zhao Yan tried to stay calm as Jin Jin grabbed her arm.
“Mama, what’s going on?”
Before she could answer, Jin Jin leaned over and vomited on her. When Jin Jin saw the mess she had made, she started to cry, and Zhao Yan hushed her.
Zhao Yan waited until the plane’s trajectory smoothed out again before she stood and walked down the aisle. She drew stares from the other passengers and ignored them. Inside the bathroom, she took off her wedding ring and rinsed it carefully before placing it on the edge of the sink and wiping off the front of her shirt and pants.
It was only after she had returned to her seat and soothed Jin Jin, who was still sniffling, that she remembered she had left the ring behind.
Zhao Yan rushed back to the aisle. A long line of passengers, mostly Chinese with a few foreigners mixed in, had gathered outside the bathroom.
“Excuse me,” she said loudly. “I left something in there.”
“You have to wait like everyone else,” a Chinese man said as he blocked the path in front of her.
Zhao Yan found herself unable to speak. The wedding ring filled her thoughts, and she debated her chances of recovering it. A person with a kind heart would give it to a stewardess, but most people were too greedy to do good. As the passengers exited the bathroom one by one, Zhao Yan scanned their fingers to see if anyone was wearing the ring. No one jumped out as the thief.
When it was finally her turn to use the bathroom again, Zhao Yan rushed in and closed the door frantically behind her. As she feared, the ring was no longer perched on the edge of the sink, but she tried to calm herself. She got down on her knees and crawled across the sticky beige floor, but she found nothing. Finally, she reached into the trashcan under the sink and searched through the pile of damp tissues. She didn’t feel anything hard and circular.
Someone knocked, but she didn’t answer.
“Miss, are you all right in there?” a voice asked through the door.
“Yes, yes,” Zhao Yan said. She stood and washed her hands again. When she glanced at the mirror above the sink, she noticed that two lines of tears had wet her cheeks. She willed herself to stop crying before she opened the door.
Zhao Yan hurried over the nearest stewardess and explained her dilemma, but the woman said that all she could do was make an announcement. Zhao Yan pushed past her and walked through the aisle, stopping to stare at each row of passengers. If necessary, she would inspect everyone and their luggage.
“Has anyone seen a ring?” Zhao Yan asked as she marched back and forth. She wished she could translate her words into English.
No one acknowledged her. Many people remained asleep. A few foreign men were reading magazines, and some Chinese couples were playing cards.
She was not ready to give up. She refused to believe she had lived her whole life in a city of millions, only to be robbed the first time she rode an airplane with a few hundred other passengers.
As Zhao Yan paced up and down the aisle for the third time, the stewardess approached her and asked her to sit down.
She reluctantly obeyed the stewardess’s instructions. As she slid back into her seat, Jin Jin tugged on her shirt.
“Mama, I’m hungry.”
“I don’t have any food,” Zhao Yan said. She yanked her shirt away, but she felt guilty that she had nothing to offer her daughter.
For the next ten hours, twenty-seven minutes, and eleven seconds, Zhao Yan alternated between hope and despair as Jin Jin slept peacefully. More than anything, Zhao Yan wanted to feel a tap on her shoulder and see the stewardess holding the ring. But as the flight progressed, she began to suspect it was gone. What would Li Fei say if he found out she had lost their only valuable? He would never let her forget her mistake. She tried to think of excuses, but she was confronted by the indisputable fact of her own carelessness.
By the time the plane finally touched down in Miami, Zhao Yan was wishing the flight would never end. Jin Jin woke as the passengers broke out into scattered applause. Zhao Yan could barely summon the energy to pick up her daughter and join the others as they filed off the plane.
Zhao Yan found the stewardess standing by the door and asked what she should do about her lost ring. The stewardess shrugged and offered to help her report her missing property but added that it was unlikely she would recover it.
Zhao Yan shook her head. “Forget it,” she said. Jin Jin tugged at her arm restlessly, and Zhao Yan set her on the ground. They crossed over the threshold of the plane and walked through a long hallway lit by the brightest lights Zhao Yan had ever seen. They nearly blinded her, and Zhao Yan thought they were an ominous sign.
Zhao Yan spotted Li Fei in the arrivals area before he saw her. In the past year, his gray hairs had crept up his temples and multiplied to cover his whole head. He was dressed in a Western-style collared shirt and pants, but he was too thin to resemble the businessman he was trying to become. In one hand, he was carrying a bouquet of pink flowers wrapped in a clear plastic cone, and he waved a white stuffed bear with the other. Zhao Yan grew annoyed at him for making these extravagant purchases. Here, he was just a poor student trying to show off.
Li Fei was daydreaming, and he only recognized them when they were standing right in front of him. After exchanging greetings, he smiled broadly and presented the bouquet to her. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t bring herself to embrace him in front of so many strangers. Instead, she handed the suitcase.
Zhao Yan looked down and realized that Jin Jin was hiding behind her legs. She pushed her daughter towards him.
“Say hello to your father,” she said.
Jin Jin stared up at her mother silently.
“Forget it,” Li Fei said. He tried to give his daughter the stuffed bear, but she shook her head and refused to take it.
“She’s tired,” Zhao Yan explained. She wondered if Jin Jin still recognized her father.
“I didn’t realize you would bring so little,” Li Fei said as he lifted the suitcase.
She shrugged. “We brought ourselves. Isn’t that enough?” She tried to sound carefree, but her voice came out hoarse and thin. She couldn’t stop thinking of the ring she had lost.
Li Fei turned and guided them towards the exit.
Just then, a foreigner brushed past Zhao Yan, bumping into her shoulder. She thought she recognized the woman from her flight. The foreigner was wearing a ring, and Zhao Yan looked at it carefully as the woman walked away. Gold was gold everywhere, and the longer she stared at it, the more certain she grew that the woman was wearing her ring.
“Wait here for a minute,” she told Li Fei. Jin Jin tried to grab her hand, but for once she refused to take it.
“Where are you going?” Li Fei shouted at her, but she ignored him as she followed the foreigner, who was walking away in a hurry. Zhao Yan started to run. People were staring at her, but she paid them no attention as she laid her hand on the woman’s shoulder.
The foreigner turned around and said something in English.
Zhao Yan pointed to the ring. It was broad and polished to a dull gleam, just as she remembered.
“That’s mine!” she said. The foreigner frowned, looking bewildered. Zhao Yan repeated herself in a louder voice. The woman took a few steps back and glared at her. Zhao Yan realized the woman had not understood her meaning, but she could not think of any other way to explain herself.
She rushed forward and grabbed the woman’s wrist. She tried to force the ring off her finger, but the woman yanked her hand away and shouted. Zhao Yan lunged towards her and tried again. She was determined not to let the woman flee. Her life seemed to depend on her ability to take back the ring that rightfully belonged to her.
Suddenly, a police officer stepped in front of the woman, blocking Zhao Yan and speaking sharply in English.
She froze. The officer crossed his arms and stood his ground. Zhao Yan did not dare challenge him. She looked at the ring again. Now the gold looked shinier than she remembered. Had she made a mistake?
The woman and the officer consulted each other. Time had never passed so slowly for Zhao Yan before. She counted each agonizing second that went by, and she was relieved when Li Fei finally appeared by her side. He smiled at the police officer and the woman and spoke to them in thickly accented English. Even Zhao Yan could tell that they could barely understand him. After a lengthy exchange, both the woman and the police officer walked away.
When they were gone, Li Fei turned to her. “What were you thinking?” he hissed. “Did you leave your brain behind in China?”
Zhao Yan had forgotten how his words could cut through her.
“I thought that woman stole from me,” she began to explain, but she stopped talking when she saw Jin Jin standing there, peeking out from behind Li Fei’s legs. Zhao Yan was ashamed to realize that her daughter had seen everything. She did not want Jin Jin to mistake her for a common criminal.
Li Fei scowled. “Never mind,” he said, though she knew he would remember the embarrassment she had caused him for ages. He reached for the suitcase and marched towards a pair of glass doors that slid open and closed on their own. Zhao Yan wondered if everything in America would appear so effortless. She lifted Jin Jin off the floor and trailed after her husband. She would tell him about the lost ring later. Or perhaps she would never mention it at all. As she stepped through the automatic doors and into the sunshine of the parking lot, she breathed in the sour scent of her daughter’s hair and felt a familiar ache in her arms.
Minh Nguyen is a writer, illustrator, and organizer of exhibitions currently living in Seattle, WA. Find her work at www.minhrootloop.com.