Atticus Lish
May 22, 2015 · 19 min read
The wet muddy terrain further up the road towards Mrs. Pan’s house. At several places, smoke is coming from some kind of smoldering fire, but what’s burning? I don’t know: maybe sod or grass. The villagers set these fires, but I don’t know why.

We reported back to school for the beginning of the fall semester on the last day of August. It would remain hot, and we would continue to use our mosquito net, through October. Even though it was the fall semester, the good first half of it felt like summer. We wore our frozen hand towels on our heads and sat below the AC unit while sunlight flooded through our yellow curtains.

Our time on the road had taught us two things about Nanhu Street. One was that much better places were to be found in China. Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Urumqi, Kashgar, and Yili were all more attractive and exciting locations. The second was that much of China is just like Nanhu Street. By living here, we had learned about the entire country. One might think of it as Rochester as opposed to New York City, and like Rochester, it was much more like the rest of the country. Nanhu Street was real China.

The Chinese themselves were not in love with Nanhu Street. Most of them called it a “small place” (xiao difang), which meant it was backward. Those who could would leave it, and what we discovered on the road that summer was that the people who could leave it held positions in the Communist Party. On airplanes and in good hotels, we crossed paths with groups of men in white shirts and black suits, carrying zippered men’s purses. Sometimes we saw them loaded into air-conditioned buses, a conveyance we rarely took. They went to tourist locations like Heaven Lake outside Urumqi, and we saw them on the way to Yili taking pictures of the Kazaks and their lovely horses in a dark-green valley. Membership in the Communist Party provided opportunities for travel and luxury.

After returning to school, I resumed my friendship with Mrs. Pan, who seemed not to bear us any ill will over our having left for the summer without saying goodbye. Of course she hadn’t gone anywhere attractive or exciting. She’d been here with the pigs that ate from the trash piles and the aggressive mosquitoes, living on the edge of the steaming irrigation ponds.

Pork was a staple of our diet. Here’s where it comes from.

That fall, she asked if I would tutor her daughter in English. It was the only thing she ever asked me for, and I was quick to say yes. But it shocked me to learn that Song Lin was a student at our school. This seemed impossible given Mrs. Pan’s impoverishment, and she had to assure me it was true. My wife, who since her return to the United States has worked in student financial aid, says that Asian parents are champion savers. I don’t know how Mrs. Pan was able to send her daughter to school. I never found out whether Song Lin received financial aid.

We held her lesson in my apartment during the hour-and-a-half midday rest period, when there were no classes scheduled. She would enter the Foreign Affairs Building and come upstairs on her own and ring our doorbell. This was something her mother had never done and would never do, despite my repeated invitation. I couldn’t prevail upon Mrs. Pan to enter our building under any circumstances. I wondered if this was because she would have had to pass by the office downstairs. Was she afraid of people like David? Or was she afraid of what other people would say if they saw her? Or was she uncomfortable with us?

Whatever the case, Song Lin showed no qualms about calling on us.

I looked for any sign that she was undernourished and saw none. She brought a friend, who attended her lessons with her. They both spoke more normative Mandarin than Mrs. Pan, and I had few problems communicating with either of them. I learned that Song Lin was studying civil engineering and that her classes met on the other side of campus.

I wondered if there was a connection between this and the fact that I tended to see her mother on this side of the campus. Did her mother try to avoid her, to avoid embarrassing her in front of her friends? I never learned how hard things might have been for Song Lin because of who her mother was. This was a Communist campus, and, in theory, at least, there should have been no shame attached to one’s being poor. But in the group photos on the school’s website, I had seen on many of the children’s faces the rigid expressions of poor people who expect to be insulted and are already preparing to defend their self-respect.

During the fall, I increased my efforts to control my classes. I told Beth, I’m not going to let them get away with anything. I recalled that in Boston, before leaving for China, a Chinese grad student with whom I’d discussed our upcoming trip had told me, “The Chinese are not ready for democracy.” This, I concluded, was true. The disorder of Chinese life swept everything else away except martial law. My students and I worked at unrelenting cross-purposes. Every class felt like an uphill march against a steady gale.

They had trouble with everything but “Howyadoin?” I noticed that instead of pronouncing it the way we do, how-yuh-doin, they looked at how the word was written and hit the ya as hard as they could: how-yaaa-doin! When I listened carefully, I realized they had turned the entire expression into a Chinese word. How was hao, the Chinese word for “good”; ya they were transliterating using the character Ya (亚), meaning “Asia”; and doin’ was turning into dun, a character with several disparate meanings, including “a brief pause” and “to arrange.”

They were much less willing to learn the other expressions, such as “What’s crackin’?” which didn’t employ sounds from the Chinese palette of sounds.

Beth reported that she was getting along very well with her class. She did things they wanted to do.

One day, she took 30 kids to the cafeteria to make dumplings. I went along to take pictures. I took a tour of the kitchen and saw the walk-in cold room. Nothing was there except some potatoes on the floor. I photographed a kitchen worker wearing a white smock and hat, holding an empty pot. I took several snaps of Beth and all the kids at a stainless-steel food service table, rolling out a sheet of dough, their hands caked in flour. In the pictures, you can see what the event meant to them. A starved-looking boy who looks imploded by a lifetime of hunger is having a mock cleaver-fight with Beth. She is physically bigger than he is. Happiness is glowing through the thin bones of his skull.

Another girl in the photographs appears to be the princess of the class. She is wearing a white jacket and, for some reason, a tiara, and the photos show her gazing at her own dumplings as she is molding them. Her focus creates a center of attention to which other kids are drawn. Another Mystical, she doesn’t look at anyone else, including Beth.

There are no pictures of the dumpling banquet that followed. I left before that and went back to our apartment and watched TV.

Beth came home an hour later and closed the door behind her. When I told her she was sweating, she tried to answer and made a noise and covered her mouth and went into the bathroom and threw up dumplings. It turned out that she had felt obliged to show her enthusiasm by eating a lot of them.

She threw up again, filling the toilet bowl with shredded pork and yellow gastric juice and bits of green that looked black. I was aghast for her.

“No, I’m fine,” she said. She got up and washed her face and flushed the toilet. She told me that she had had to do it, there was no other way, it had been expected of her, and that she was fine.

When we left China, we arranged that we would stay in touch with Mrs. Pan and her family through her daughter Song Lin, the only member of the family who, I think, had the literacy and familiarity with digital technology to be comfortable using email.

This wasn’t the ideal solution for me since Mrs. Pan was the one I wanted to know, the person I felt true affection for. But I imagine that this arrangement was what Mrs. Pan wanted — that she wanted to transfer her friendship with me and whatever advantage might come from it to her daughter.

Compelled to be Song Lin’s pen pal, I learned about her. She addressed me and Beth as “uncle” and “aunt.” Life remained hard for both her and her parents. In the earliest email, in 2007, she said her parents talked about us every day. Later that year, she was living alone in the megalopolis of Wuhan, making between 600 and 1,000 RMB (roughly $80 to $120) per month “collecting information for a company” (unclear what “information” or what kind of company). She rented living quarters for 120 RMB (roughly $15) a month.

Meanwhile, she said her parents had started working for the school as sanitation workers. They were now, I gathered, the official smock-wearing workers who collected refuse using wheelbarrows instead of the freelancing “grannypickers” who sorted through it, collecting recyclables with baskets and shoulder poles. Though it presumably represented a more secure income source, their new job involved long hours; they got up very early and returned home very late (qizao tanhei).

In future emails, Song Lin would indicate that her parents were overworked and underpaid in this new position, and that the school was a stingy (ou’men) and essentially exploitative employer. It forced her parents to take on an area of responsibility — the entire north campus — that was too big for them. The two of them were exhausted. Her parents eventually decided they couldn’t take the pace of work, so they quit one of their jobs and held a single job, which they took turns doing, thus claiming only a single salary.

Song Lin touchingly expressed concern for her parents and her desire to help them, declaring that she wished she were “a magician” so she could “create money” for them so that they wouldn’t have to work so hard. Her concern for them was a steady theme in every email, and she spoke in idealistic terms about working hard for the sake of changing her parents’ lives: “This can be done, and it will be done … I must learn to find comfort in hard work.”

A live poultry market on a back street in Huanggang. Concerned about avian flu, I tried to avoid approaching too closely. I may have been overly cautious. The locals appear unconcerned.

She was not the only one worried for her mom and dad. I was too. I sent money a few times — a total of at least $600. Song Lin was my point of contact for these wire transfers. She sent me the bank details and was the one who confirmed receipt of the funds.

My impression was that she dutifully informed her parents about the donations. She did not seem likely to do anything underhanded. Often, she conveyed her mother’s statements of gratitude and concern: “This is awkward for us. This is hard for you too. We’re grateful….” However, at the same time, knowing how stoic, frugal, and self-sacrificing Mrs. Pan was, I imagined she didn’t allow any of my donations to be spent on herself. She must have saved or invested them in her daughter in some way. On some level, this was unsatisfactory, for childish, irrational reasons. You give someone something, and they have a right to use the gift as they choose. But Mrs. Pan was the one I felt the greatest desire to assist, not Song Lin.

Eventually, in 2009, Song Lin reported that she was back in Huanggang working at a construction company, doing design work, using her degree from the school. She had gotten engaged to Liu Degang, who was from a nearby city, Huangshi. In April 2009, she got married, and in May she reported that she was pregnant. She would have to start calling Beth and me “great-aunt” and “great-uncle” (jiulaolao and jiulaoye).

I took this as the excuse that I had probably been looking for from the start to break contact. There were too many unknown players involved to keep sending donations. The situation had migrated too far from the one that had initially engaged my sympathy — the vision of Mrs. Pan going through our waste looking for recycling.

By breaking off with Song Lin, I’ve broken contact with her family. The last I heard, in 2009, Mrs. Pan was 60 and “fatter” since she had been resting from her job. It’s been nearly six years since then; she’d be 66 now. It’s been a decade since I saw Mrs. Pan in person.

Inside Mrs. Pan’s home. Through holes in the bricks of her wall (not pictured here; a different wall), I could see her chickens in the next room.

Late in the year, when the weather had turned cold again, we were summoned without warning to a banquet. We were sitting in our apartment after class and heard David calling us from the stairwell. He was angry that we were not ready. I didn’t know what we were supposed to be ready for. It turned out there was a banquet, which we had to attend, and it was beginning immediately. David had told the New Zealanders, who had been tasked with telling us. They never gave us the message; I suspected they withheld it deliberately, as relations were not good between us. (The primary medium of exchange between the New Zealanders and us consisted of petty slights.)

We started scrambling to get ready. The leaders could not be kept waiting, due to issues of face. The order of arrival was important, as I’ve explained. David could not wait for us. He was in a state of agitation and ran ahead through the courtyard to catch up with the New Zealander and his wife, who had cologned themselves hours ago and were sauntering in the orange light of sundown toward the cafeteria right on cue to pay homage to the party secretary and his cronies, this minute pulling up in their black car. We were to follow as fast as we were able. David would apologize for us. Beth was saying, “Jesus Christ, I’m so stressed out,” pulling up her stockings.

We ran downstairs and found a man waiting for us. I vaguely recognized him. He worked for the party men as a driver or a kind of minion, perhaps. I believe he was married to one of the history teachers. Evidently, David had instructed him to bring us to the banquet. He was six feet tall and wore a belted KGB-style leather coat.

When he saw us, he flicked his hand at us, ordering us to follow him, and strode toward the cafeteria. Beth broke into a jog behind him. It distressed me to see this man compelling my wife to run. I controlled my pace, trying to establish that we would not be forced to run.

“Hey!” she waved, “Mr. Guo!”

The instant she spoke to me, the man turned on her. He raised his arm as if he were going to strike an animal. Mrs. Pan jumped away from him. He hissed, “Scat! Scat! Scat!” I was positive he was going to hit her.

“That’s my friend!” I shouted.

He glared over his shoulder at me, his hand still raised. A look of intense contempt took over his face, as if he had finally seen what I truly was and found me stupid and repellant. He turned on his heel and stalked off.

I stopped to speak with Mrs. Pan. “I’m sorry about that asshole.” I was angry and wanted to figure out what had happened here. “We have to go to this banquet,” I said. The wrongness of my complaining to her about a banquet hit me, and I stopped talking. I looked back, and the man was almost to the cafeteria. Mrs. Pan told me to go on. She appeared to understand. Beth was standing alone in the courtyard, waiting for me on tenterhooks. We could have stopped right there and boycotted the affair, but we followed him to the banquet.

I complained about how Mrs. Pan was being treated to someone I thought would be sympathetic — an ordinary guy, I thought — not a party member, but a gym teacher at the school named Mr. Liu. He was smoking a cigarette, wearing a tracksuit, standing outside while his male students played basketball on the two adjoining concrete courts.

“Can you believe someone treating another human being this way?” I asked him.

I didn’t know who I was talking to at the time, and I remember being surprised by the answer he gave me. But it all made sense later when David instructed me that, on Liu’s behalf, I would draft an English abstract for a paper he had written on the subject of coaching theory. The paper would be published in the school’s academic journal, a standard careerist logrolling exercise. In other words, Liu was just as much invested in the way things worked as anyone else.

“Well,” he had told me, squinting at the November sun, “you’ve got to understand, ren shi you jibiede — people have levels.”

We taped plastic bags on our boots and went out to where Mrs. Pan lived in the Farms. The paddy fields are squares of water, like windowpanes, and extended as far as I could see. We walked on a mud ridge out to her shack — a maopifang. The shack was divided in two, one half for people, the other a chicken coop. Through holes in the walls, you could see the chickens pecking around.

She led a rustic life: Mrs. Pan’s chickens; timber; what I presume must be her boat; a net in the foreground, likely for fishing.

Her daughter led us out there. Along the way, she called to her dad, Song, who climbed out of a pond where he had been struggling with other men to haul up fish that were being farmed there. He slogged after us in his rubber boots and met us at the shack. It was another gray day.

In the doorway, we found Mrs. Pan squatting by her coal fire, boiling a soup for us. She jumped up when we came along. She lived in conditions that were reminiscent of a hobo camp in America. She was wearing a mackinaw-patterned jacket over a pink sweater and slacks — the same way homeless people sometimes wear formal clothes that they have found. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail like Willie Nelson. Beth gave her a hug.

We took pictures of our surroundings. Lines were rigged all around the house, tent poles, cut lumber leaned against the bricks. Sheets of plastic hung up, drying. The powerline traveled by the roof. A skiff sat in the water, which reflected the white-gray sky. Beams and pipes stuck out of the brick walls. Damp smoke rose up out of somewhere and drifted. Contraptions were rigged up from driftwood and plastic and clothes.

There’s a picture of Beth wearing a gray double-breasted jacket, pink fingerless gloves, a white scarf, jeans with the cuffs rolled up, and muddy leather clogs, standing on the mud pathway edged by brown weeds, smiling, making the peace sign, and another of her leaning down to put her arm around Song Lin. Song Lin, who also wears a knitted scarf and jeans and a knee-length yellow ocher coat, stands with her feet apart, keeping her balance in the mud. There are cabbages extending down into the water.

Another picture shows the house and a small cultivated plot that must belong to them. The plot is partly surrounded by plastic sheeting secured to bamboo poles stuck in the ground. I have my arm around Song Lin in the foreground. Her head comes up to my jaw. Song, her father, was a short man. He stood with me in the doorway of his house, and Beth photographed us. He’s wearing a black watch cap and fisherman’s boots. The sparse black hair of his mustache and his tan skin makes him look Mexican. His lip is scabbed.

We took a group photo: Mrs. Pan, Song Lin, me, and Song, who seems to be leaning away from me as I try to embrace him, though this could have been because of the Ironman bag, which is still hitched over my shoulder, for no reason I can recall. (Maybe it was for transporting presents, bringing books or clothes for Song Lin. I’m not sure.) Song Lin appears very cold. She is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and has changed into a silver coat. Her mother stands at her side, one hand on her daughter’s arm.

We sat in little chairs by the fire while mother and daughter tended the soup. Song ate by himself, then disappeared. We found out he had gone back to work. Mrs. Pan’s daughter tore the top off a plastic package of little cured anchovy-like fish, which we chewed on. She played with the dog, a small black mutt with a curly tail. The coal burned in a brazier, a kind of shallow bowl, like an upside-down hat with a brim, resting in a crude wooden frame, and we warmed our hands over it. A pile of oranges rested on a chair nearby. A 2006 calendar was open on the wall. It was January; our contracts were up, and we were soon to leave.

Female villagers hauling wood. The two boys on the right are students from our school, heading — almost certainly — to an Internet bar. I count the signs for four Internet bars in this picture. The going rate for an hour on a computer (generally to play video games or chat) was one yuan.

When the soup was ready, we drank it out of Styrofoam cups. It was a milky broth that tasted like fish. Red dates floated in it. No one ate but Beth and me. In a photograph of the table, there are two paper cups of soup — one in my hand, one left unattended by the photographer, Beth — and two bottles of Nutri Express, a dairy-based beverage. These bottles were full, not empties for recycling, and I was drinking from one of them. In the center of the table is an aluminum pot full of the chicken Mrs. Pan had promised us. In another view are four new dishes on the table in addition to the chicken and our soup cups. The short, battered table would be too small to accommodate another dish.

I took a picture of Beth standing between Mrs. Pan and her daughter. Now Mrs. Pan has her hand on Beth’s arm in the same way she held her daughter’s arm earlier. Song Lin appears to be clinching her fist in distress, but maybe it’s the cold. Beth, the adopted girl, is smiling, but I wonder if she was attempting to restrain some other emotion. In the pictures of her and them, they seem physically connected — same facial structure, height, hair, body plan. High foreheads, full cheeks. Her clothing fits with theirs: the scarf, fingerless gloves, jeans. It is the end of Beth’s time in China. This image of the three Asian women together seems to say that tribe is everything, that economic and linguistic differences don’t matter next to blood.

Mrs. Pan appears to stare into the distance or the future. She appears disconnected from the present. She doesn’t try to gaze into the camera lens the way we all learn to do. This gaze, as if she is looking on something of historic magnitude that is coming for her, reminds me of icons of the revolution.

The next morning, Beth and I woke up while it was still dark. We dressed, collected our bags, passports, and plane tickets, and went downstairs. David was in the cement hall under the bare bulb, wearing his dark suit and a black down vest. He took back our apartment key from us. The car that was going to take us to Wuhan was waiting in the courtyard. He didn’t try to carry our bags this time. I packed our bags in the trunk, and the driver shut the lid. David had some last-minute paperwork to do in the office. Dawn wasn’t coming for another 10 minutes, and there was no one out except us.

It was night-black, and everything was silent. Though the school was out of session and the students were gone, the campus wasn’t deserted. Faculty members were asleep behind some of the windows that overlooked the courtyard. But they were a small detachment left behind after the main force had left.

I saw three figures coming across the athletic field. Mrs. Pan appeared, followed by Song Lin and Song, in his fishing boots. He was carrying an armload of red cartridges connected by fuses, like bandoliers of linked machine gun bullets.

Beth and I said goodbye to them. We hadn’t known to expect them. They must have gotten up at four. “Have a safe trip!” Song Lin cried. I shook Song’s callused hand. Mrs. Pan waved us back toward the car, and Song started unrolling his munitions. The driver said, “What’s this?” Song Lin put her fingers in her ears. David was just coming outside with his forms.

Song dragged on his cigarette and made it glow and bent over a fuse. He lit the firecrackers, and they started exploding. Flashes of flame went off. The explosions banged one on top of the other in the concrete enclosure. They were deafening. They went right through the walls and into the rooms where people were sleeping. And the volleying never ceased. He had brought an armory with him. The earsplitting cannonade kept on without letting up, and the smoke it generated rose in a white curtain between us. In the jumping flashes, I’d see the shadows of Mrs. Pan and her husband.

David had gotten into the car and shut his door, and through the body of the car the firecrackers were so loud it was still impossible to hear anything. The driver must have gotten David’s attention by shouting, and David must have told him to go. The car started moving while the bombardment went on.

The cloud of smoke had risen as high as the top of the Foreign Affairs Building. Red paper and ash were snowing down on our windshield. The flashes and reports kept popping behind us. We heard them as we drove away. They went ripping and booming, exploded red paper and ash floating down, flashes of flame, reports caroming off the concrete courtyard. The exploding went on a long time. It was the last thing we heard before we left that place.

Photography by Beth Lish
Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV


Wish you were there

Atticus Lish

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The novel Preparation for the Next Life is in stores now. Published by Tyrant Books (@nytyrant). (This account is run by @nytyrant.)



Wish you were there