Atticus Lish
May 19, 2015 · 14 min read
Mrs. Pan’s husband, Song, fished in the ponds.

I tried to take the semi-paved road to town, but you could get run over by a vehicle, so I climbed up on the flood wall, the heba, and took the dirt path that ran along the top. The heba was a grassy manmade berm. In summer, the river would spread all the way out to the base of the embankment, inundating the mud fields. Peasants in conical straw hats would be visible working in the contaminated water, faded pants rolled up above the knees, walking behind water buffalo. In Asia, the fields are fertilized with human waste. During the flood season, the water covered the trees. In the winter, it withdrew, and you saw the thin, bare trees standing in the mud. I passed a concrete installation that controlled the flow of water through a pipe that ran beneath the embankment out into the farms. Graffiti on the steel door of the unmanned control room: Fuck somebody. Below were the houses of the people who lived out here. They had teepees of hay piled around their dwellings.

The undergrowth shook, and a man who had been fishing in the fields came out of the bracken wearing black rubber boots and carrying fish in a burlap sack. A woman carrying another sack and using a stick to walk followed him out of the tall grass. They waited for the bus I wasn’t taking. It came and picked them up and drove on ahead of me.

Ten minutes later, I saw a water buffalo, visible from a half mile away, lying across the top of the embankment, and went around it. The path had other obstructions, sometimes making it necessary to use the road. Children played on the berm, smashing firecrackers with bricks, setting the grass on fire. Across the road, the landscape began to look like an abandoned lot in Newark: weeds, raw earth, powerlines, piles of blackened bricks, some of them formed into shanties where people lived. Farther on, I passed an abandoned shipbuilding plant. The gate was red rust. Someone had written huge misshapen characters on it in chalk; they were unintelligible, the writing of an illiterate. Dogs circled in the roadway. In a ditch lay the body of a goat. Ahead was the bridge that connected the two small cities on opposite sides of the Yangtze. Its span resembled that of the Verrazano. Under the bridge, I saw construction pits. Tiny figures were shoveling dirt into baskets and carrying them up a bamboo scaffold. They were old people — old women, I realized, as I got closer — and they were bent under the weight of the baskets. They were slave-skinny. You couldn’t tell how old the women were — anywhere from 40 to 75. They were weathered like sailors.

A group of peasants, both men and women, was coming toward me along the embankment. They were carrying broken shovels and picks on their shoulders, and missing teeth. The men’s shirts were open, revealing lean bellies, all their ribs and musculature showing. They looked like poorly armed rebels. They didn’t smile when I talked to them in their language, because Mandarin, what the government called the “common language,” wasn’t their language after all. They spoke only the country dialect. “Down,” as in “to sit down,” was pronounced ha, not xia. They sat down to rest on the dead grass. I took it that this was their break from work. Some drank water. None of them was eating. They were waiting out their hunger before going back to work.

An hour later, I reached the city and did what I had come to do: buy groceries.

A security guard at the Wushang told me that he had helped suppress numerous village uprisings during his time as a member of the People’s Armed Police. We met because a pair of children had been begging me for money. The guard came over, and the children left. I remarked on the kids, the pity of it.

“You can’t feed them all,” he said.

Our designated trash pile was in the corner of a wall that separated the walk in front of our building from the athletic field and the outhouses. We tied up our trash in little red or black plastic shopping bags — the kind the Chinese use everywhere, from China to Chinatown — and left it downstairs in the pile. Sooner or later, a worker in a smock and nurse’s hat would come around in no special hurry and scoop the trash into her wheelbarrow. But before she came, the peasant women would come out of the fields and pick through our trash for recyclable materials.

They wore straw hats and carried shoulder poles, and some of them had tongs. They tended to be older women who had been weathered by substantial time outdoors. The New Zealander called them grannypickers. In the dawn, they’d come hurrying in through a break in the wall where the chickens got in and patrol across the athletic field.

They would tear open our garbage bags and expose the packages and wrappers of the things we ate, the evidence of our wealth. Our Western toilets could not take toilet paper, so we had to throw it out in the garbage. Wads of toilet paper, our fecal matter, along with our wives’ sanitary napkins, were mixed in with the trash they picked through and were strewn out over the sidewalk.

Pigs rooting in the trash on the road running by our school. Mrs. Pan collected recycling from trash piles like these. Incidentally, the pale brown cylindrical objects with uniform rows of holes punched in them are used coal bricks.

She stopped in her tracks, no doubt wondering what I wanted.

“How are you doing? You doing okay?”

“I’m working!” she said.

“Where do you go?”

“All around.” She pointed at all the concrete buildings and the entire countryside. She had no eyelashes, which gave her seamed face a naked, surprised look. Was she 65? She was obviously my senior. We pointed at ourselves and gave our names. She was surnamed Pan. As an honorific, I addressed her as “Pan Jie” or “Elder Sister Pan.” She called me “Mr. Guo.”

“Forget that. Call me Little Guo,” I said, not wanting her to look up to me.

“Are you married?”

“Yes. My wife’s up there.”

“It’s lunchtime. You better go upstairs and eat before the food gets cold.”

“What about you?”

“No, no. Go on upstairs.”

“That’s okay.”

“The food will be cold and won’t taste good.”

“Why don’t you eat?”

“No. I’m not eating. I’m working.”

“You’re very good,” I told her.

“No, I collect trash!” she said. “You’re good. Very good.”

“You are good,” I insisted.

We went back and forth like that, trying to put the other person on top. I got the impression this had never happened to her before. It must have been confusing in a nice way. I got a warm feeling seeing her get used to it. I did not see anyone watching us except for some boys on the basketball court. Finally, we had a good laugh.

After class, we changed into jeans and sweatshirts and put on our wool hats and down jackets and took the bus to the city, a 20-minute ride. It let us off at an open area where the road widened without bound and you could have driven anywhere, in any direction. We crossed to the riverbank and boarded a barge that took us across the Yangtze.

The interior of the barge was blue. There were a lot of passengers, some with bicycles they had ridden across the sand. We were the only foreigners, and we took each other’s pictures at the rail with the wind blowing on us and the gray waves behind our shoulders.

When we docked, we climbed up a pair of wet planks that the crew tossed down between the deck and the pier. They bent beneath us but didn’t break. We were in another city, called Ezhou. The sidewalks were narrow and cobbled. A truck roared by, and we pressed ourselves to the wall. There were live geese in the back in cages.

Another view of the ponds. Taken from near Mrs. Pan’s house.

After walking around for an hour or so — we found the post office, a darkened shopping center, a fast food joint, an alley where two smiling men had set up an awe-inspiring display of screws, threaded bolts, washers, nuts, and other pieces of hardware of intricately varied sizes and gauges — we went into a restaurant where they served fish. The other patrons were dining loudly and spitting the bones onto the plastic tablecloths and smoking cigarettes. Halfway through our meal, we felt something happening behind us. Another party was entering: a gangster in a white tracksuit and sunglasses and his retinue. Tables were moved for them. Two women wearing miniskirts, fishnet stockings, lingerie, high heels, and tribal hairdos attended him. Their hair and heels made them as tall as he was. He spoke up at the ceiling, as if that was his true height, as if he saw himself up there. The entire restaurant listened when he talked. Someone lit his cigarette. “You see them?” Beth whispered. I nodded. All the women’s clothes were white, and the man’s sunglasses were gold.

In my classroom, I had picked up what appeared to be an exam paper from another class. Sitting on a concrete bench in the garden in front of our apartment building, I worked at deciphering what it said.

5. In the past, China was called “the sick man of Asia.” Before 1949, not one Chinese person’s name can be found among world-record-holding athletes.

A discussion topic? There didn’t seem to be an explicit question here. I wondered what class this was for. At the bottom of the page, it said, “Issued by the tuanshengwei bangongshi.” This meant the Office of the Provincial League Committee, the provincial committee of the Communist Youth League of China.

I looked up and saw David coming toward me.

“You always have your head in a book.”

“Just trying to learn.”

“I think when you go back to the United States, you will write for the New York Times.”

This idea had never occurred to me, but I told David I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t both write for the New York Times someday.

“You are laughing at me,” he said.

I saw a group of students assisting one of their classmates climbing up a ladder. He held one end of a red banner, which he was attaching to a wire. His glasses and white short-sleeved shirt and neat haircut gave him an Eisenhower-era look. I stopped to read the banner’s slogan. It said:

I later learned that these students belonged to the Communist Youth League. No one ever discussed the league’s existence with me, but it figured prominently in school life. I began to see signs of it, such as that exam sheet mentioning the sick man of Asia. A kid in my class would be doing some special assignment whose importance overrode anything I was teaching; I’d find out that it related to political study. A boy or girl would jump up and address the others more peremptorily than I’d ever spoken to them, in a manner that exacted obedience, giving them orders in a military command voice.

The kids took political indoctrination classes. These were on the class schedule: Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, Socialist Thought Construction, and so on. I found their course books in the library. They spoke of “healthy thinking.” I passed by such a class when it was in session and considered barging in and asking if I could listen in. A man was lecturing, and I could tell it was a dogma class; I heard key words such as “socialist thought.” The students listened in utter silence, of a kind I’d never achieved in my classrooms on my best day. I saw clearly that it wasn’t the kind of class you could audit as an outsider. You had to either believe or leave. For the students, such classes were required.

By digging around on the school’s website, I’ve been able to learn a little more. The Chinese home page, under the heading “important school news,” mentions that the manager of the school-enterprise partnership department at Volvo has visited the school. Under the heading “school announcements” are bidding notices for electrical generators, 3-D printer/scanners, programmable motor controllers, livestock veterinary training equipment, and an apartment with running water and natural gas facilities. But when you click on the “student management” tab, you are routed to another page that gives you two further options: “Communist Youth League online” and “Red Spirit Garden.”

The Red Spirit Garden page is a shrine to the Communist Party. It shows a landscape of mountains and blooming trees pictured through a misty overlay of a deep cranberry red. It is meant to inspire ardor. It has a radically different feeling from the other content on the website — something more solemn and ecstatic. A poem rendered in brush calligraphy speaks of “a multitude of 10,000 with one heart, closely following the party, frugal and brave, not resting until victory is achieved.” The page contains headings such as Red Stories, Red Footprints, Red Battles, Red Martyrs, and Red Movies and Music, where you can buy vintage movies about the revolution, such as The Story of the Scout Who Crossed the River.

On “Communist Youth League online,” the look is much more consistent with the school’s home page, only the dominant colors are crimson and gold. The league’s emblem, a motif involving a red-gold flag, twinkles at the top of the page: There are sparkles, like those that appear on teeth or floors in ads for Colgate or Mr. Clean. It’s Communism as Disneyland. The page contains a lot of dense content. A typical item: “Provincial League Committee member Deputy Secretary Zhang Shu visits our school to inspect and guide the Communist Youth League.” Another: “Music ignites youth; songs ring out in the future.” A picture in the center of the screen changes, in slide-show mode, every few seconds. Each image shows the school’s assembly hall, with different groups performing on stage. In one, a row of youths stand holding huge red flags emblazoned with hearts and the words “volunteer spirit.” A banner overhead announces the “2012 Communist Youth League Meeting for Carrying on the Volunteer Spirit of Lei Feng.” Communist propagandists defined Lei Feng, a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, as a revolutionary hero. He was meant to embody the revolutionary values of self-sacrifice, volunteerism, and simplicity, the virtues of a peasant-guerilla. Mao’s fighters, the ones who fought the Japanese and the Kuomintang, were people who looked like Mrs. Pan and her husband, Song, and up until Mao’s death, these peasants-workers-soldiers were lionized as heroes in the People’s Republic of China.

Lower down on the page, another series of photos shows Youth League students doing volunteer work. They stand on a bleak roadside wearing red baseball caps and watching one of the school leaders, a portly man in a black suit and dress shoes, digging a shovel in the gray dirt. The caption says “tree-planting activity.” I’m positive I recognize him from our banquets, but I don’t know his name or what position he holds in the school or the Communist Party. His cheeks are distinctively pockmarked.

The students in uniform and lined up for military training on the playing field. This happened only at specific times during the school year. By their bearing, I think the trainers were actual military personnel, who visited the school.

The school has a principal and a party secretary. This suggests a kind of shared leadership between civilians and members of the party. The party extends its fingers down through the school’s administrative hierarchy to the grassroots level in the classroom, in which some kids are members of the Youth League. This model probably applies to all kinds of entities throughout China, from hospitals to fruit-juice factories. I imagine the party as a network penetrating Chinese society. Since that society has turned toward making money, the party is in position to absorb the profits. Joining the Communist Party, like joining the Teamsters, can be a key route to a good job, the kind where a lot of money washes over you and some of it sticks to you. This may explain why there was such an overlap between wealth and party membership in our experience. For China’s business class, party membership may be something like belonging to the right church or golf club.

It may take a certain amount of mental flexibility to be a Chinese Communist now that the entire country is pursuing capitalism. Your individual goals are power and wealth, yet you belong to a party that was brought into being by China’s most powerless and impoverished citizens. The party no longer wants political ideology to interfere with market efficiency. Like the American businessperson who goes to church on Sunday, the Chinese Communist knows there’s a time and place for dogma; certain ideas have to be intoned, at assemblies, in party literature. Then they are put away so that business can be gotten down to. On the class schedule, business administration follows Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Communist thought has no real relationship to the actual business of governing China. Theorists and propagandists have to explain why the Communist Party’s decisions are justified by Communist dogma, when in fact those decisions are justified by sound economic theory of the kind taught at Harvard. It has been observed that the Communist Party is no longer Communist in anything but name; it is simply China’s ruling party. The key basis whereby the party justifies its rule is that it is making life better for ordinary Chinese people. Here is an echo of an old Confucian idea, that subordinates obey their superior, and in return, a superior looks after his subordinates as a benevolent father looks after children.

That night for dinner, I took a 10-kilo bag of pork-and-chive dumplings out of the icebox and cooked them all, there seeming to be no reason to conserve since they had cost so little. Beth thought it would be impossible for us to finish them, but she was wrong. I ate two bowls of dumplings with Golden Bridge soy sauce while she talked about her classes.

One of her students, a female, had made a special impression on Beth thanks to the young woman’s outspoken manner and the handbag and makeup kit she brought with her to class. Handbags and makeup kits were unusual accessories at our school. This student didn’t have a problem being noticed. Beth said she was given to delivering forceful, often entertaining, monologues in class. Today she had declared, “Money is God!”

“That’s a narrow view.”

“She said it to me like I need to get with the program.”

“She sounds obnoxious. Eat a dumpling.”

“I’m full.”

“Eat one more before I finish them all. Otherwise I’ll feel like I took your dinner.”

“That’s okay. Her English name is Mystical.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yup. She does her makeup in class.”

“You must hate her.”

“I don’t hate her. She’s got a personality. She’s difficult, but I have a way with my students. I don’t have trouble with them like you do.”

“I just like it when they behave.”

Beth raised an eyebrow and got up and cleared the table. The apartment was cold, and she was wearing a white knit sweater belted around her like a robe and other clothes underneath and one of her pointy knitted hats, which I felt made her look like a very attractive Mongol warrior.

“I think I overate,” I told her. “I’m going outside to run on the track, burn everything off.”

Photography by Beth Lish

Read Part I, Part III, Part IV, and Part V


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