HOME­COM­ING QUEEN

网红还乡

The World of Chinese - - NEWS - - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓

《网红还乡》

They say home is where, when you go, they have to take you in. But as Zhu Xiao'ao, now a wealthy in­ter­net celebrity, dis­cov­ers when she is in­vited back to give a speech at her old uni­ver­sity, there are some places, and some peo­ple, you can never go back to

It was a week­day in late Septem­ber. Through the win­dow, the sky was clear with few clouds, like an ov­eren­hanced desk­top back­ground. The car drove smoothly, making a faint vi­bra­tion that gave one the com­fort­able feel­ing like a swad­dled baby, or nestling in a lover’s arms. It was a good time for a nap, but Zhu Xiao’ao wasn’t tired.

She sat in the back of the car, the matcha latte in her hand down to its foamy dredges, with a mildly bit­ter fla­vor left. From the pas­sen­ger’s seat, her as­sis­tant He Meili took the cup from her and put it in the rub­bish bag. This girl, in her early 20s, had signed on just two months ago. She had bright eyes, ex­celled at both of­fice work and out­reach, and was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally calm for her age. Come Oc­to­ber, Zhu planned to make her full-time.

She’d just got­ten her hands on 30 mil­lion RMB in cap­i­tal, and would have a lot of plan­ning to do, but for the time be­ing, she didn’t want to think about it. The trees on the sides of the road were mostly poplars, and be­tween them lay cows, sheep, and peo­ple. Most of the land­scape was green, but apart from the oc­ca­sional torch tree that lit the scene up like fire, the col­ors were fad­ing now. This pas­toral scene didn’t seem much dif­fer­ent from 20 years be­fore, prov­ing that it’s not things that change, but peo­ple. Zhu was quite happy, as if on va­ca­tion, but it had be­come a habit to muse.

She’d grad­u­ated from the uni­ver­sity 12 years ago, but hadn’t been back since. Ev­ery New Year she vis­ited her par­ents, but though their apart­ment com­plex was only a click or two away from the cam­pus, she never thought of go­ing back. Why go back? For what? She didn’t un­der­stand those who went to class re­unions, and never deigned to do them her­self. Uni­ver­sity was just a way-sta­tion in life, no need to look back af­ter you passed it.

But un­ex­pected things hap­pen. A few days ago, Yang Qin, a for­mer class­mate who had stayed on to teach at the uni­ver­sity, learned that “Cherry Maruko-chan,” the in­ter­net celebrity

1 with tens of mil­lions of fans, who’d just pub­lished a book, was the same Zhu Xiao’ao. She’d spread the word on Wechat, and af­ter con­firm­ing the truth, got the dean to in­vite Zhu Xiao’ao to give a lec­ture and book­sign­ing. At first, Zhu re­fused: Did a teach­ing uni­ver­sity in a small countylevel city think it had the cre­den­tials to in­vite her? A num­ber of big-name schools had tried and she’d po­litely re­fused them all, say­ing she had no time. Could com­ing back lower her sta­tus? How would the out­side world see this? Even though the school had up­graded to be­come a satel­lite cam­pus of a pro­vin­cial uni­ver­sity, it still didn’t de­serve her time.

She’d been a cut above her for­mer class­mates for a long time, like fish in dif­fer­ent ponds. Zhu was quite sure there wouldn’t be any­thing she’d ever need from them, and they’d have noth­ing to bond over. She even avoided her relatives if she could help it; she’d rather be thought a fail­ure than lend a hand, whether it was emo­tional sup­port, money, or help with work.

Yet in the end she ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion. She was no longer just an in­ter­net celebrity; she was a busi­ness­woman, with a com­pany and cul­tural pro­file, who couldn’t do just what­ever she wanted any­more. There were dozens of liveli­hoods de­pend­ing on her con­tin­ued suc­cess. Her man­age­ment team said she should go—there was noth­ing to lose, and it’d look bad to refuse: Ne­ti­zens were apt to be right­eous. If a cru­sad­ing blog­ger or trou­ble­maker wanted to ac­cuse her of for­get­ting her roots, this would be the op­por­tu­nity.

Noth­ing to lose, though? Get­ting

SHE'D BEEN A CUT ABOVE HER FOR­MER CLASS­MATES FOR A LONG TIME, LIKE FISH IN DIF­FER­ENT PONDS

there and back would waste a day at least, and she was busy, with a whole suite of more im­por­tant en­gage­ments lined up. Still, it was im­por­tant to look like a woman of the peo­ple, so she had He Meili set up a date with Yang Qin.

There weren’t many cars on the road, so they were off the ex­press­way and onto the coun­try road af­ter just over an hour, but here they had to slow down—not only for speed cam­eras, but also be­cause of traf­fic. Peo­ple here didn’t know how to fol­low reg­u­la­tions. Or maybe they did, but no­body cared, and the po­lice couldn’t go around ar­rest­ing ev­ery­one.

There was a com­mo­tion in front of the county’s sole KFC: Peo­ple dressed in clash­ing styles, some rais­ing Chi­nese flags and chant­ing, oth­ers dis­play­ing typ­i­cal red ban­ners with white char­ac­ters. “Op­pose Amer­ica, Ja­pan, Korea, and the Philip­pines! Love and re­spect China! When you eat KFC, you eat Amer­i­can rub­bish and dis­re­spect your an­ces­tors!” The crowd ig­nored Driver Chen’s re­peated horn blasts, only grudg­ingly making way when the car was about to hit them. “I didn’t know your home­town was so pa­tri­otic, boss,” Chen quipped.

Zhu thought it was ridicu­lous too, but wasn’t sur­prised. Just like the old days, she thought with dis­dain. “It’s good that we’re driv­ing a Ger­man­made Audi, and not a Ja­panese or Amer­i­can car,” He Meili fretted. “Or they’d turn their spears to­wards us when we honked at them.”

It made Zhu think of the ath­letic fes­ti­val dur­ing her sec­ond year at uni­ver­sity. She’d won the 100-me­ter race the pre­vi­ous year, and signed up again, not for honor, but be­cause there was a prize of 200 RMB for first place. That would al­low her to eat for at least three months with­out hav­ing to ask her fam­ily for money, or buy some clothes. Un­for­tu­nately, she got her pe­riod the day of the race, but the lure of money trumped bi­ol­ogy. Not want­ing to let down her class­mates or pro­fes­sor, she per­se­vered and came in fifth. No one said any­thing, but they acted no­tice­ably colder, and some said, be­hind her back, that she hadn’t given it her all, pur­posely los­ing face for the class. This was her first taste of the fick­le­ness of the masses, and af­ter that she hardly did any ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

It had just turned 11:30 when they ar­rived at the cam­pus, and Yang Qin, who’d been at the gate for a while, em­braced Zhu upon see­ing her. She was al­most like a fan­girl meet­ing her idol, squeal­ing: “Oh, it’s like you’ve aged in re­verse, I’m al­ready a mother, and you’re still like a young girl!” She smelled of years spent hang­ing around wood, paint, and books. “Oh, you know, I’m just pre­tend­ing to be young,” Zhu replied in­dif­fer­ently. “I want to be a mother too, but haven’t found any­one to be the fa­ther.”

Yang told Chen where to park, and took Zhu and He into the school’s can­teen. “Oh, you’re prob­a­bly spoiled for choice,” she said with­out envy. “Guys must be fall­ing all over them­selves, left and right.” Zhu smiled dis­tract­edly. The cam­pus hadn’t changed much in a decade. “Feel­ing nos­tal­gic?” Yang asked. “It’s like we were go­ing to class here just yes­ter­day. “Uh, yeah,” Zhu replied, care­ful not to say any­thing un­to­ward.

When she’d been a stu­dent, Zhu usu­ally didn’t buy a full meal, opt­ing in­stead for the vegetable-stuffed buns, three for a kuai, orz buy­ing left­over dishes at half price for din­ner. She’d never been in the can­teen’s pri­vate rooms, used by students from rich fam­i­lies or the prin­ci­pal’s guests; she hardly even dared to looked at them di­rectly. She’d never thought that more than a decade later she’d be in­side one, and as she looked around, felt a slight tinge of pride. She’d been ex­posed to all man­ner of fancy for­eign food, so this bit of spe­cial treat­ment was noth­ing new. The only dish that made her nos­tal­gic was the vine­gar­soaked noo­dles made out of bean flour, a lo­cal spe­cialty. When they’d grad­u­ated, Qian Wei­wen had taken her to a noo­dle house and or­dered them. She re­mem­bered the in­ci­dent clearly, be­cause a piece of chive had stuck to her teeth, and she couldn’t loosen it no mat­ter how hard she tried. In the end, she had to bare her teeth to let Qian scrape it off.

Af­ter eat­ing, they went to Yang Qin’s dor­mi­tory, where there was a bed. Yang asked her if she wanted to rest, but Zhu said she was fine. Yang in­formed her that the talk would be­gin at 1:30, and there’d be her speech, which should be un­der an hour, and then 30 min­utes of Q&A, fol­lowed by the sign­ing: “The whole thing shouldn’t take much more than two hours; you could be back in Bei­jing be­fore dark.” As Zhu ab­sent­mind­edly agreed with the plan, Yang handed her an en­ve­lope: the ap­pear­ance fee.

“No, it’s fine,” said Zhu, re­fus­ing. “It’s my alma mater, it’s only right for me to come back—plus I’m pro­mot­ing my book. There’s no need for me to take the money.”

“It’s from the uni­ver­sity, you might as well take it,” Yang per­sisted.

Judg­ing from the thick­ness of the

“IT'S GOOD THAT WE'RE DRIV­ING A GER­MAN CAR AND NOT A JA­PANESE OR AMER­I­CAN ONE,” HE MEILI FRETTED. “OR THEY'D TURN THEIR SPEARS TO­WARDS US WHEN WE HONKED”

en­ve­lope, it couldn’t have been more than 2,000 RMB. Zhu con­tin­ued to refuse it. Yang pre­tended to be an­gry. “Oh, so it’s too lit­tle for you? Plus, the di­rec­tor asked me to give it to you, so let me do my job.”

Put this way, Zhu couldn’t re­ally refuse, so she passed the en­ve­lope to He Meili.

“We’ve still got half an hour,” Yang said, glanc­ing at the time. “Let’s walk around cam­pus, and then go to the au­di­to­rium.” “You’re the boss,” said Zhu. By the time they had walked two laps around the uni­ver­sity’s run­ning track, Yang had vol­un­teered every­thing she knew about their old class­mates, but still hadn’t men­tioned Qian Wei­wen. He’d been miss­ing from their Wechat group as well: Zhu had opened ev­ery­one’s pro­file pic­ture one by one, and, it quickly tran­spired that 12 class­mates were miss­ing, Qian in­cluded. Their home num­bers were all out of ser­vice; there was no way to track them down, ex­cept visit their last ad­dress.

Zhu and Qian were from the same home­town, although she’d lived in the vil­lage and he in town. They went to the same mid­dle school, but not the same class, and didn’t speak much. But three peo­ple in their class had got­ten into the uni­ver­sity—zhu, Qian, and Jia Sul­ing. Ev­ery Fri­day af­ter classes ended the three of them would ride their bikes home, and ride back to cam­pus on Sun­day af­ter­noon. They met in front of Qian Wei­wen’s house, and if they had to wait for any­one he’d in­vite the other in­side to re­lax for a while. Zhu couldn’t re­mem­ber how she’d got­ten to­gether with Qian; nei­ther specif­i­cally made a move, but their re­la­tion­ship started some­how. Jia Sul­ing had dark skin and looked older than her age, though she had big doe eyes. Still, any­one who had a choice would pick Zhu—that much she still be­lieved.

“Looks like you’re the most suc­cess­ful of our class,” Yang was wrap­ping up. “The oth­ers are teach­ing, or work­ing for other peo­ple. At the last re­union ev­ery­one seems to have got­ten fat, like life had made them pre­ma­turely mid­dle-aged.”

Zhu was pulled back to re­al­ity. “There’s no point com­par­ing your­self with oth­ers,” she replied. “Do what you want to do. It’s most im­por­tant that you’re sat­is­fied with where you are in life.” This was more or less like the same kind of self-help Chicken Soup for the Soul bullshit that had made her fa­mous. It of­fered noth­ing of sub­stance, but was com­fort­ing; it helped un­suc­cess­ful peo­ple feel like they had hope.

“So you say, but see­ing you, I feel like I’ve ac­com­plished noth­ing,” said Yang. “Women should be more self­ish, rather than spend­ing all their en­ergy on hus­bands and chil­dren. My hus­band works at the tax ad­min­is­tra­tion, so he’s busy ev­ery day. Be­sides my job, I have to do the laun­dry, cook­ing, and take care of my kid. A few years ago we paid off our mort­gage, but now we’re about to take out an­other and buy a two-bed­room place, as we’re afraid prices will keep ris­ing. It’s al­most as stress­ful liv­ing here as in a big city!”

Yang was hum­ble-brag­ging, Zhu re­al­ized, but that was fine; she didn’t mind let­ting Yang in­dulge her van­ity. She tried to in­ject some envy into her re­ply: “Oh, it would be so great to have a hus­band and a child. All I do is work all day, just go­ing to this and that event, so busy I some­times wish I could have a few more of me to spread the work­load; I hardly even made it here!”

“Gotta find a hus­band,” Yang Qin said hap­pily. “Even pow­er­ful women need a man. Still, the sin­gle guys I know aren’t great—def­i­nitely not up to your stan­dards.”

Zhu ca­su­ally tucked her hair back be­hind her ear, re­veal­ing a ruby stud that shone like lake wa­ter rip­pling un­der a breeze. “You think I don’t want to get mar­ried?” she smiled. “There’s guys that are in­ter­ested, but I can never tell if they like me, or my money.”

Yang Qin didn’t know how to re­spond to this; she had a hus­band, but not the money to be bur­dened with this kind of prob­lem. Em­bar­rassed, she said, “Well, you’re bet­ter at read­ing peo­ple than I am. I don’t have that kind of skill. At the end of the day, all you need is some­one who’s thought­ful, some­one who un­der­stands your emo­tions.”

Was Yang show­ing off again? Zhu read be­tween the lines. She made a point of sound­ing ex­as­per­ated: “Of course—those things are the bare min­i­mum! Other than that, let’s not even talk ‘hand­some,’ just as long as he looks all right, and we can com­mu­ni­cate, and he makes me happy, and you know, we’re com­pat­i­ble in bed, that’s perfect.” She imag­ined Yang and her hus­band might not have had a sex life in a long time: If not, why did she look so dried up, like a rag that hadn’t been used in years?

IT WAS THE SAME KIND OF SELF-HELP BULLSHIT THAT HAD MADE HER FA­MOUS. IT OF­FERED NOTH­ING OF SUB­STANCE, BUT WAS COM­FORT­ING; IT HELPED UN­SUC­CESS­FUL PEO­PLE FEEL LIKE THEY HAD HOPE

“It’s bet­ter in the big city; no mat­ter how high your stan­dards, you can find what you’re look­ing for,” Yang, seem­ingly ad­mit­ting de­feat, was bring­ing the topic to a hasty close. For­tu­nately, they’d ar­rived at the mul­ti­me­dia build­ing.

The au­di­to­rium had been built just be­fore Zhu grad­u­ated, and she’d only been to a few events there. Now there were no­tices at the en­trance about her, with a very yup­pie-ish head­shot, an in­tro­duc­tion to her book, and a short bi­og­ra­phy. En­ter­ing the au­di­to­rium, she looked to­ward the end of the hall­way, and stood still for a few sec­onds. A mem­ory had struck her like a bolt from the blue, as if a cloud had just un­cov­ered the moon.

It was just be­fore grad­u­a­tion, and along with the fra­grance of flowers, a mild scent of part­ing grief was in the air. For those about to leave, all the rules and pro­ce­dures of the uni­ver­sity seemed mean­ing­less. Af­ter light­sout, Qian and Zhu stole across the dark­ened cam­pus to the mul­ti­me­dia build­ing, hold­ing hands all the way to the top of the au­di­to­rium. The big, round moon looked like it be­longed to the story of Runtu in the Wa­ter­melon Patch2. The moon­light spilled into the hall­way, form­ing a sil­ver rec­tan­gle, in which the shadow of the two lovers lay close to­gether.

She asked him what he planned to do af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Their county was no longer al­lo­cat­ing jobs to grad­u­ates, mean­ing they could ex­pect sub­sti­tute gigs at best. Be­ing a teacher wasn’t what Zhu wanted, but her fam­ily wanted her to find a job as quickly as pos­si­ble, not only to ease their fi­nan­cial bur­den but also to save up for her dowry. They wouldn’t for­give her if there was an open­ing and she didn’t take it. This wasn’t the first time she’d asked Qian about his plans, but ev­ery time he’d given some half-baked an­swer about go­ing with the flow, or even joked that go­ing back to the farm wasn’t off the ta­ble. This time, she hoped he’d be earnest. She looked at the fine hairs on his face, which made him look young and ten­der un­der the moon­light. Some­thing al­most ma­ter­nal welled up in her heart.

“You know, I can’t leave my fam­ily,” he said af­ter a slight hes­i­ta­tion. “They need me.” Qian’s mother was an in­valid, and his fa­ther worked at a con­crete fac­tory to sup­port the whole fam­ily. But she tried to con­vince him oth­er­wise: “All the more rea­son to go out into the world, and af­ter you make a for­tune, you can bring your par­ents to Bei­jing and get her cured.”

“It’s not that easy to make a for­tune,” Qian com­plained. “And even if I did, my mother might be dead by then.” His tone was de­feated, which an­gered Zhu. “You’re young, you’re full of en­ergy. Why act like a tired old man? If you don’t try to make it hap­pen, you’re go­ing to re­gret it.” “You can go,” he of­fered. “Then what about us?” she asked. He didn’t say any­thing, loos­en­ing his arms around her like string be­ing un­tied from a pack­age. She pushed him roughly, turned, and ran away, hear­ing her own foot­steps like an an­gry ghost in pur­suit.

Be­fore the lec­ture, the di­rec­tor gave a brief in­tro­duc­tion of Zhu’s ac­com­plish­ments, call­ing her the pride of the uni­ver­sity and adding, in vague and generic terms, how wonderful a stu­dent she had been. They smiled at each other. She knew he had no mem­ory of her what­so­ever; even her class­mates and pro­fes­sors had seen her as a non-en­tity. She ac­com­plished noth­ing in those days and came from an av­er­age fam­ily, with par­ents who had nei­ther wealth nor ti­tle. She had no spe­cial tal­ents, didn’t par­tic­i­pate in stu­dent groups, never won any prizes, wasn’t even a stu­dent cadre. None of this mat­tered now that she was stand­ing here.

The turnout was good; al­most no empty seats. Zhu was used to this kind of venue, and the speech was her stan­dard one, mod­i­fied slightly to suit the day’s au­di­ence: How she went from be­ing a white-col­lar worker to a celebrity, just dwelling on the dif­fi­cul­ties enough to cast her ac­com­plish­ments in a bet­ter light .

Zhu Xiao’ao re­ally did go to Bei­jing af­ter grad­u­a­tion, but spent every­thing she had in just a few days and, job­less, had no choice but to re­turn home with her tail be­tween her legs. But as luck would have it, a web start-up head­quar­tered in Bei­jing had set up of­fices in her county to save money. Zhu got Qian, who hadn’t found a job, to go work there with her. If the com­pany had stuck around, maybe they would have stayed to­gether. In­stead, it ex­panded un­til the boss closed the county of­fice, and se­lected his most hard-work­ing, tal­ented em­ploy­ees to take to Bei­jing. They were both picked, but Qian didn’t go, and this time she didn’t beg. He could stay if he wanted, there was no point in forc­ing him, the wishy-washy bas­tard.

Zhu left all this out of her speech, which be­gan with her re­turn to Bei­jing, jump­ing be­tween web-re­lated

SHE IMAG­INED YANG AND HER HUS­BAND MIGHT NOT HAVE HAD A SEX LIFE IN A LONG TIME: IF NOT, WHY DID SHE LOOK SO DRIED UP, LIKE A RAG THAT HADN'T BEEN USED IN YEARS?

jobs. When Wechat per­sonal brands be­came pop­u­lar, Zhu wrote some self-help pablum which gained her a few fans. Af­ter that, she opened her own pub­lic Wechat ac­count, posted the same kind of lovey-dovey stuff ev­ery day: hu­mor­ous, cheeky, sen­si­tive, emo­tional pieces pro­mot­ing per­sonal in­de­pen­dence. Her fans were mostly aged 16 and 28, from first and sec­ond-tier cities, girls seek­ing self­im­prove­ment and self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion: the “eter­nal 17.” Her Wechat ac­count alone had more a mil­lion fol­low­ers, and soon a monthly ad rev­enue to match. She was ap­proached to write books; brands sud­denly wanted her as a spokesper­son. She’d re­cently shot a sub­way ad for a mo­bile phone game for a seven-fig­ure fee. Af­ter that, Zhu told the students, she opened her own com­pany and raised 30 mil­lion in cap­i­tal. With both fame and for­tune, her dream had come true.

The Q&A ses­sion got off to a rather dry start, with ques­tions on her ca­reer and var­i­ous points raised in her speech. Zhu han­dled these deftly, but then a boy wear­ing glasses stood up, laughed awk­wardly, and said, “Miss Zhu, may I in­quire about some­thing per­sonal?”

“Of course,” she said. This wasn’t a rare oc­cur­rence and she had a prac­ticed re­sponse. “I think you might be sur­prised to find I can han­dle it.” “Are you sin­gle?” “No.” “Are you mar­ried, then?” “No—you still have a chance.” There was some laugh­ter and she felt Yang Qin’s eyes sting­ing her like a mos­quito. She said ear­lier she was look­ing for some­one, and now she claimed she wasn’t sin­gle? She hoped Yang would un­der­stand that she was just play­ing along. The boy’s ques­tion had opened the flood­gates and now some girl was ask­ing if love and mar­riage were more im­por­tant than a ca­reer.

“Both are very im­por­tant. If you are in love, you should give the re­la­tion­ship a shot, and if it lasts, get mar­ried,” Zhu spoke with con­fi­dence and fer­vor. “If not, then con­cen­trate on your job and see where things go. Most peo­ple can make both hap­pen.” How many boyfriends was it nor­mal to have, the girl per­sisted. Zhu kept her voice light: “If you end up with your first love hap­pily ever af­ter, you’ve saved your­self the pain of many breakups. And peo­ple with too much dat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence may be­come jaded with the con­cept of ‘love.’ But if you’re the kind of girl who is go­ing to cry, flail around, and try to hang your­self af­ter a breakup, then just get mar­ried as soon as pos­si­ble.”

She thought of all the men she’d been with over the years. Her long­est re­la­tion­ship was right be­fore she was fa­mous. She was build­ing her ca­reer and didn’t think it was the right time. Not long af­ter, he mar­ried some­one he’d known for only two months. Then came a pro­ces­sion of suc­cess­ful men, some a decade or more older than her, oth­ers cute boys in their 20s. Peo­ple didn’t wait for each other, though, and she had a hard time fall­ing in love. All the back and forth made her sick of play­ing the game. The heart of the girl she once was now only lived in her writ­ing.

Af­ter the sign­ing, and the self­ies, when the students had fi­nally left, the huge au­di­to­rium looked like a grave­yard, the seat­backs stick­ing up like tomb­stones. Ev­ery time an event like this was over, she felt re­lief as well as loss. The ex­cite­ment was ad­dic­tive, af­ter all. Some for­mer pro­fes­sors had bought her book and made chitchat; one his­tory pro­fes­sor wanted tips on new me­dia for her new ad agency.

Now the dean ap­proached, and it seemed he’d been wait­ing a while. He sug­gested they have din­ner to­gether, and he would ar­range a ho­tel. He was far more hos­pitable than be­fore. When he men­tioned her po­ten­tial in­vest­ment in the uni­ver­sity, she could see what he was think­ing. Be­fore, she was just some writer with a few fans on­line; only af­ter her ad­dress did he re­al­ize she was a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire. But it was too late for that. No­body had shown up to see her at lunch, and no­body had paid at­ten­tion when it mat­tered.

“I’m sorry, but I re­ally can’t. I have other en­gage­ments tonight in Bei­jing,” Zhu smiled po­litely as she de­clined. “You’re quite in de­mand!” the dean re­marked, ob­vi­ously dis­ap­pointed. “Well, in the fu­ture, please come around if you’ve got time; our gate is al­ways open for you.”

“Next time, send a car,” she said, only half-jok­ing. The di­rec­tor’s face tensed be­fore he laughed it off: “No prob­lem!” He and Yang ac­com­pa­nied her to the gate and, just as she was about to get in the car, Yang hugged her again and whis­pered, as if shar­ing a juicy se­cret, “I hear Qian Wei­wen is still at his old home.”

At the in­ter­sec­tion, the car had to turn right. Zhu, who’d sat silently un­til then, sud­denly barked: “Turn left.” Chen didn’t un­der­stand, but didn’t ask ques­tions. “Sure, but I don’t know the way.”

“I’ll tell you. If we go west, we can still get on the ex­press­way, and it’s closer than go­ing east,” Zhu said.

“IF YOU'RE THE KIND OF GIRL WHO IS GO­ING TO CRY, FLAIL AROUND, AND TRY TO HANG YOUR­SELF AF­TER A BREAKUP, THEN JUST GET MAR­RIED AS SOON AS POS­SI­BLE”

There was a pause, and He Meili asked ten­ta­tively: “Did you want to see your old home?”

Zhu had some­times men­tioned her birth­place, a beau­ti­ful but iso­lated vil­lage by the Blue Spring River to the west, where the roads had only been paved a cou­ple of years pre­vi­ously. Be­fore that, the dirt paths turned to mud when­ever it rained. Out­siders couldn’t get in, and in­sid­ers couldn’t get out. In the old days when she came home, the driv­ers at the sta­tion would refuse to take her, say­ing the road was too rough. Af­ter three years in Bei­jing, she’d used all her sav­ings to put a down pay­ment on a mod­ern three-bed­room house in this county, and moved her par­ents there so that she wouldn’t have to go to the vil­lage any­more; that was now “home.”

Zhu nod­ded slowly. Even she wasn’t sure why she had made Chen change di­rec­tion, but Yang’s com­ments had planted a seed in her mind. Maybe af­ter all these years she was afraid to find out what was go­ing on with Qian. Maybe that’s why she moved her fam­ily, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about run­ning into him, or hear­ing news of him. Maybe the rea­son she’d be­come ob­sessed with earn­ing money was so she could show him, that he could one day see all she’d achieved and how happy she was—not like that day she’d boarded the slow train to Bei­jing, watch­ing the in­dif­fer­ent look in his eyes, the sil­hou­ette of his back dis­ap­pear­ing on the plat­form.

The road was clear, and af­ter 20 min­utes they’d al­ready passed through three towns. Linxi town lay only a lit­tle way ahead, where Qian Wei­wen still lived, if Yang’s in­for­ma­tion was cor­rect. What did he do for a liv­ing? Prob­a­bly not teach­ing; most of their class­mates hadn’t stayed in the pro­fes­sion long. Jia Sul­ing had been one of them, then joined the lo­cal porce­lain boom, be­com­ing an ac­coun­tant at one of the fac­to­ries. But, like the small coalmines in Shanxi, the porce­lain boom was short-lived, and soon only two or three strug­gling fac­to­ries re­mained. But Qian was too straight­laced to go into busi­ness, didn’t have it in him to cheat his way to the top in a place like this. Maybe he worked at the con­crete plant like his fa­ther. Zhu was seized with the painful thought of her for­mer lover, rough­ened, buck­ling un­der the weight of heavy bags of ce­ment.

By now they’d ar­rived at the main road through Linxi. Zhu told Chen to slow down, so she could see the town clearly. The place had ac­tu­ally changed a bit, with the dark-tiled houses resur­faced, even a few new two-story build­ings. There were more stores than be­fore, with tacky signs like “Come Again Dumpling Shop,” “A-jun’s Hair Sa­lon,” all closed. The street was de­serted like Bei­jing at mid­night, every­thing look­ing smaller than she re­mem­bered; even the road seemed shorter. Though they drove at a crawl, they were al­ready near the far west­ern end of the road when Zhu or­dered Chen to stop.

She low­ered the win­dow, and a bit­ingly cold wind blew dust into the ve­hi­cle. She sniffed but couldn’t sneeze. The air was as dry as she re­mem­bered. “Is this where you grew up?” He Meili asked. “It’s not what I pic­tured.” “Well, it wasn’t al­ways like this,” re­sponded Zhu. She won­dered if it would be too much to ac­tu­ally drive to Qian’s street: If she ran into him, would it look like she was look­ing for him? How would he re­act?

Just when she’d de­cided to aban­don the idea, He said: “I need to use the toi­let…my stom­ach doesn’t feel good.”

Across the street was a brick build­ing, an out­house that prob­a­bly be­longed to the nearby cloth­ing fac­tory, with “Man” and “Woman” daubed on its con­crete wall. Zhu got out to wait, and looked across at a small store where a girl of 7 or 8 was play­ing with a bal­loon on a string. Zhu re­mem­bered a ped­dler’s mar­ket be­hind the shop. On the fourth and ninth of each lu­nar month, it was packed with peo­ple sell­ing fruit, veg­eta­bles, fish, meat, and ev­ery­day es­sen­tials. She’d gone one time with Qian, and he’d bought her a pair of red leather shoes—ac­tu­ally, they were pleather.

A fa­mil­iar sil­hou­ette sud­denly crossed her view. Though stock­ier than be­fore, dressed dif­fer­ently from how she re­mem­bered, she in­stantly saw it was Qian Wei­wen. He stopped his e-bike in front of the store, and walked in car­ry­ing a large braided sack.

The lit­tle girl let go of the bal­loon, let­ting it fly away as she made a bee­line af­ter Qian, yelling, “Daddy!” Af­ter a short while, Qian emerged, daugh­ter in arms, as they went chas­ing af­ter the bal­loon. Zhu’s eyes were hot, but she couldn’t walk over, could only stand there and stare. When Qian turned in her di­rec­tion, she turned around, and when she turned back a woman was just com­ing out the store. The woman got on the e-bike and it beeped twice. “Mama!” cried the girl, as Qian picked her and placed her on the back seat. The bike drove to­wards Zhu, head­ing north. As the woman’s

PEO­PLE DIDN'T WAIT FOR EACH OTHER, THOUGH, AND ALL THE BACK AND FORTH MADE HER SICK OF THE GAME. THE HEART OF THE GIRL SHE ONCE WAS NOW ONLY LIVED IN HER WRIT­ING

face flashed be­fore her, Zhu al­most cried out—wasn’t that Jia Sul­ing?

Darker—plumper—her doe eyes no longer quite so dewy. But she had mar­ried Qian Wei­wen, and they had a child.

He Meili was fin­ished, and Chen was now pour­ing out bot­tled wa­ter to wash her hands be­side the road, but Zhu Xiao’ao was still un­able to move, eyes fixed upon the small store. Qian looked over at her, and she felt like she was on fire. Then his eyes swept past like a pair of head­lights, and he re­turned to the store.

Re­al­iz­ing Qian’ gaze had been fol­low­ing his wife and daugh­ter, Zhu dove into the car, voice trem­bling slightly as she prac­ti­cally or­dered Chen to drive.

They were back on the ex­press­way within a quar­ter of an hour. Grad­u­ally, some color came back to Zhu’s pa­pery com­plex­ion. The sun set bril­liantly red as the car drove on, every­thing soaked in a layer of orange. She looked into the rear-view mir­ror, at the road that stretched be­hind them like shed skin.

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