The Phoenix

The Phoenix

Originally published in On the Premises, July 2010.

 

Guojie’s oldest sister, Guohua, had gotten up an hour before to make breakfast for the family and to prepare his lunch. By the time she gently woke him, the boy’s parents and his other two older sisters had all tiptoed out of the one bedroom they all slept in, ate, and quietly left for the fields so that Guojie could sleep a little longer.

He ate quickly. There was an egg and a cup of milk. He was the only one allowed these “brain foods.”

“Study hard,” Guohua said to him, as she handed over his school satchel, filled with his books and a lunch made from fresh steamed mantou and pickled mustard. She smiled at him in the starlight before sunrise. “Remember that you are a phoenix.”

There were no chairs in the classroom at Shantoucun. Each child was expected to bring his own seat. Every morning, ten-year old Li Guojie had to make a decision: to walk the five kilometers to school with the heavy three-legged footstool made of red jujube wood (and to carry it back at the end of the day if he didn’t want it to be stolen), or to go to school without it and stand through six hours of lessons.

Today, he opted to leave the footstool behind. He wanted to enjoy the light walk to school, though he knew that he would pay for it later in class. But Guohua’s words echoed in his mind. Even without the footstool, he felt he was carrying a heavy weight.

Years ago, his father had gone away to Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, to work in the construction boom and send money home. But his leg was broken in an accident and never healed properly. Now there was no choice but for the father to limp to the fields everyday with his wife and three daughters to try to eke out a living while grain prices fell year after year as the city folk bought rice imported from America.

There was only one hope for the family: Guojie had to go to college to get a good-paying job in the cities. His sisters needed dowries and his parents needed support.

#

When Guojie was born, the entire family had gone to pray at the Daoist temple on the other side of the mountain, two hours away by donkey cart. His father paid the old priest with the last of their savings for a good fortune for the boy.

The old priest wrote down Guojie’s hour of birth on a slip of paper and burned it in a brazier. He prayed, chanted, and danced, while two apprentices helped him carry his magical staff and compass. As he danced, a bamboo divination slip fell out of the bundle of identical slips tied to his waist. The old priest stopped and handed the slip to Guojie’s father.

“The Life of a Phoenix.” Guojie’s father read the characters slowly. But he had gone to school for only a few years when he was a boy, and he could not recognize all the characters on the slip.

The spirits will let me understand what I am supposed to understand, he thought. He skipped over the unknown characters and read only those that he knew: “From mountains to big cities. Golden. Dazzling. Prosperity. Happiness!”

The family could hardly contain their joy. “You are a phoenix!” The little girls danced around the baby boy and sang.

“A fortune is not a prediction of the future,” the old priest said. “It merely tells you what is possible if you strive hard. Toil is ever the fate of the poor.”

The family nodded, but they gazed lovingly on their baby boy. If he studied very hard, he would carry them all.

#

Guojie stood at his desk — a posture that had the advantage of keeping him awake — while the teacher tried to stuff knowledge into his brain. He was fast becoming a collection of the most random facts the world had ever assembled.

In the rural hinterlands of Gansu Province, thousands of miles from China’s coastal metropolises, schools made do with what they had. The textbooks were old. The math problems, for example, were drafted during the Cultural Revolution and featured word problems about pig iron.

A donation from some kind Americans through a charity had allowed the purchase of a set of books on modern knowledge, and the teacher, free of the influence of modern educational theories, proceeded to make the students memorize them. After memorizing rainfall figures in the Amazon and the special products of each of the Mid-Atlantic states of America, Guojie spent the rest of the morning memorizing sample programs written in Microsoft Visual Basic. It did not matter that no one in class, including the teacher, had ever used a computer.

What chance did children like Guojie have, when the children of the cities have cram schools, teachers with real degrees, literate parents, classrooms with chairs, and other wonders? Every year, fewer students from the rural hinterlands made it into college in China.

But the Li family’s faith in the power of education to fulfill Guojie’s destiny was unshakable, and the boy persevered.

#

Guojie’s grades qualified him for the county middle school. This meant that he had to leave home and live in a dorm at the county seat with other children whose homes were also in remote villages. The children cooked their own meals, and Guojie volunteered his steel washbasin to be used as a communal wok, a sacrifice that everyone cheered.

One night, while Guojie and his friends stir-fried some bean sprouts with tofu in the schoolyard, chatting and laughing all the while, an American couple carrying huge backpacks passed by. The children and the couple stopped and stared at each other. The children’s faces were covered in soot from the coal fire used for cooking, and their clothes were patchy and dirty.

“That is really sad,” the American woman said.

The man frowned at the coal stoves. “That’s a lot of CO2.” They took out cameras to take pictures of the children and their dinner.

“They don’t smile,” said the woman. “Why don’t they smile? In Vietnam they smile.”

Guojie could not understand their language, but the American couple, even though they were sweaty and dirty from hiking all day, radiated such a sense of confident, superior sophistication that Guojie instinctively felt ashamed. He had glimpsed the wider world, and its pity and disapproval needed no translation. 

#

“Education is the only path out of poverty,” Guojie read in his textbook. “It opens you to a new world.”

Guojie’s test scores were good enough to get him into one of the better high schools in the provincial capital, where the teachers had real degrees and there were a few computers. He finally learned what Microsoft Visual Basic was. He found that he had a talent for math and programming — perhaps those early feats of memorization had some benefit after all. He observed his city classmates carefully and took the bus across the city to buy similar-looking clothes from used-clothing peddlers. He learned to imitate their accent, to sit the way they did, to eat without making too much noise or licking the bowl.

Boarding at the high school also meant that he could go home only for the major holidays. This was fine with him, since going home made him anxious. He was growing used to the way he spoke and sat and ate in the city, and felt out of place at home. He could no longer imagine a life laboring in the fields or the factories along the coast. Looking at his sisters and parents through his new eyes, he was embarrassed by their lack of refinement, and ashamed of his embarrassment. It was easier not to go home.

He felt like the fish with legs in the diagrams illustrating evolution. The water was no longer the place for him, but he did not yet know how to climb fully onto land. College was now not merely a dream, but the only path forward, and he studied out of a sense of desperation. He did not know what he would do if he were to fail at gaokao, the college entrance examination. He needed college. He had to become the phoenix.

The more he learned, the fewer choices he felt he had.

#

His parents held a great feast: Guojie was the first boy to go to college — and the University in Beijing! — in the whole county. It was as if he had taken first place on the Imperial Examinations in the days before the Republic. Guojie tried to enjoy the feast, but he could not. Everything around him — the wrinkles on his oldest sister’s face (a girl her age in the cities had the benefit of face cream imported from Korea and Japan), the broken shingles that they had no money to replace, the debts carefully recorded in ledgers hidden at the bottom of the drawer in his parents’ cabinet, under a pile of shirts and pants thin as muslin from repeated washing — reminded him of how much his family had sacrificed. He did not get into college, they did.

He left home for the train to Beijing as soon as he could, as though he were fleeing some disease.

He walked through the campus of the University, and looked around in amazement. In the basement of the new library, the computer lab awed him: hundreds of bright, white carrels with gleaming monitors, the soft hum of the air conditioning and the click-clack of keyboards providing the background music for a dream. Had he made it? If he simply kept on doing what he had done to get this far, would he get his degree and get that mythical job, the secure perch from which he would lift up his family?

College life was nothing like how he had envisioned it. The students, almost all from the big cities, had studied all their lives for the college entrance examination. But now that they were in, they decided that they could just coast through and pick up their diplomas at the end. So they spent most of their time debating philosophy, going to nightclubs and karaoke bars, and pairing up. To Guojie, they seemed like an entirely different species.

His roommate, a Shanghainese, held a party in their room for some of his Shanghai friends. Guojie sipped beer as he listened to them. They discussed bands in underground clubs and American books. They talked about avant-garde sculptors and ski trips in Europe and Japan. They talked about piano lessons and cram schools they had gone to together. They talked about freedom. They talked and laughed about sex, lots of sex.

Nobody mentioned a family of six sleeping in the same bed, sisters that needed dowries, crippled fathers and aging mothers weighed down by a mountain of debt incurred to send their son on a desperate gamble. Guojie had nothing to add to their conversation, and their talk began to irritate him.

“You are from the countryside, right?” A girl asked.

Guojie nodded. “Poorest county in Gansu.”

Other students from the countryside who had made it this far lied about where they were from and disguised their accents. Sometimes Guojie did the same thing. But now Guojie was drunk and his accent slipped. Also, he no longer wanted to feel like he belonged with his roommate’s friends.

“You are so lucky,” the girl said.

Guojie looked at her.

“Look at us and our lives of privilege, far away from the noble simplicity of the peasants and their daily toil. Our parents, blinded by their pursuit of vulgar, material success, don’t understand our ideals and our modern yearnings, and so we become cynical. But you and your family still live a life of authenticity that we can only dream of.”

One of the boys made a rude sound. Guojie remembered that the boy had boasted that he preferred to only read books in English. “Don’t be an idiot and romanticize poverty. Being poor does not make you noble. It just keeps your horizons close and your spirits mean — I don’t mean you, Guojie, since you’re obviously an exception to have made it here — but the poor are simply pawns for those who want to use them, like a certain political party in our strange country.”

Guojie imagined this girl, with her permed hair and white teeth, her Japanese perfume and American jeans, trying to experience the noble virtues of a bowl of dirty drinking water in Shantoucun. He imagined this boy, with his smooth hands and his easy certainty, looking over and judging the bent figures of his parents and sisters in the fields with contempt. He wanted to laugh, and then he sat on his hands so that he would not give in to the urge to punch the boy as hard as he could.

#

Guojie’s major was computer engineering, a path supposed to lead to employment with the foreign firms that were setting up offices in China. They offered the best pay and the best benefits.

Doggedly, he continued to work hard, not out of an innate interest in the subject, but to seek the peace of being completely absorbed in a programming challenge. During those moments, he could temporarily forget his family and their faith in his fortune. It was a stupid superstition, he knew, but they had all invested too much to stop believing now.

He worked hard because, unlike his classmates, if he did not have the best grades or win the competitions, he could not count on an uncle or a family friend to make the right calls with the right people to open up doors. If he wanted to be the phoenix, all he could count on was himself.

#

He met Mingli in the computer lab one night. She was trying to access some pictures posted by a friend who had married an American and settled in California. The site was overseas and blocked and all she got was an error message.

He glanced at her as he walked by her workstation. She had wide eyes (no glasses — rare among the women who made it to the University), a small nose, straight, long black hair that draped down past her shoulders. Her eyebrows were furrowed in disappointment. He did not think she was extraordinarily beautiful.

She looked up, caught his eye, and he stopped. She shrugged and smiled. Something in her smile reminded him of the fragrance of huaishu flowers: sweet, unassuming, fresh.

He sat down next to her and showed her how to get around the net filters. Together, they looked at the pictures of her friend and her new baby. Then he asked her if she was hungry, and if so, perhaps she wanted to get some sweet dumplings with him from the vendors along the street just outside the campus.

Mingli’s father was a professor of history while her mother used to be a stage actress. She had a younger sister still in middle school. When she was younger, her father had been a visiting scholar in America, and she had spent three years overseas. She majored in economics. “Have you been to North Carolina?” she asked. “Scuba diving there is incredible.”

From a certain angle, her life seemed like the lives of the girls who were his roommate’s friends. But because she did not act as though their different childhoods and experiences had any moral implications or deeper meanings and because she did not pretend to be troubled by her privileged life (which was really just a way to boast), Guojie felt at ease with her. She was very beautiful, he decided.

As they shared a bowl of sweet dumplings, he told her about a favorite memory from his childhood in Shantoucun. In early summer, clusters of white flowers, like strands of firecrackers, hung heavy on the boughs of the huaishu, the pagoda trees that lined the road home from school. Often, Guojie climbed these trees to pick the flowers, which made a nice snack. They tasted sweet and cool, and their light fragrance refreshed him. After eating them, he would have the strength to carry the heavy footstool back home to his family, patiently waiting at home.

“Lovely,” Mingli said. “I never did that as a kid. The huaishu here in the city are far too polluted for anyone to dare eat the flowers.”

Beijing offered many opportunities for dates for a couple without money. They went to art exhibits, unregistered music clubs, showings of banned movies in abandoned warehouses in the suburbs — the windows taped over with black paper and everyone huddled in the dark, hearts thumping, ready to bolt and scatter to the winds at the first sign of the authorities. They went to wine tastings and hitched rides from wealthy friends who had cars so that they could go on picnics far away from the polluted air of Beijing. Most of these were activities that Guojie had had no interest in before meeting Mingli, indulgences that he had thought belonged only to frivolous people like his roommate. But it was different with Mingli. He enjoyed doing these things with her, hearing her talk about what they were seeing and hearing. The world, filtered through her senses, took on new colors and filled with new sounds for him. For the first time, Guojie began to think that words like “philosophy” and “ideal” and “aesthetics” meant something, and were not just empty chatter that belonged to those who had no responsibility.

He was afraid to ask her what she saw in him. Once, while he was walking her home, she said, “I like hearing you talk about your family. You’re different from the other boys. You’re a grownup.” He repeated her words to himself like a mantra on the way back to his room. 

He no longer thought about his family each day, and sometimes he felt guilty about that. He comforted himself by thinking that he would have to refocus on his family soon enough, when he graduated. The time he spent with Mingli was something like a vacation, a break from reality, a time when he could smoke cigarettes and think about the word “freedom” as a promise and a right, not a fantastic luxury.

#

For the Lunar New Year break, he asked Mingli to go home with him. It wasn’t until she said yes that he realized that he’d been holding his breath. He was happier at that moment even than when he received the letter from Intel earlier that month, offering him a job at their gleaming new research facility.

They squeezed their way onto the train, packed so tight that eight people sat in seats meant for four, and the aisles were as full of bodies as the subway trains during rush hour. They were participating in the legendary chunyun, the most massive annual migration of humanity in the history of the world, as hundreds of millions — migrant workers, students, businessmen — all over China went home for the biggest holiday of the year. She told him she’d never taken a train ride in conditions like this, but she only smiled at him when he looked at her anxiously. They sat on their suitcases in the middle of the aisle, and she fell asleep leaning against him, her head on his shoulder.

After the twenty-hour train ride, they rode a bus for another two hours before transferring to a donkey cart that would carry them for the final hour’s journey over the circuitous mountain paths that led to Shantoucun. Mingli treated the trip as an adventure. “This is more comfortable than the time I rode a donkey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” she said, laughing. The driver of the donkey cart glanced back at her, startled at her Beijing accent and her loud laugh, like a girl in a TV drama.

Listening to Mingli as they neared his home, Guojie felt, for the first time, that he really had accomplished what his family wanted. He had gone to college and now found a job that paid well. He had gone out into the world and brought back to the mountains this beautiful, sophisticated woman from Beijing, this woman who had lived in America, who read the Wall Street Journal in English each morning, and whose skin was smooth like pearls and smelled like orchids. He wanted to show her off.

His parents and sisters tearfully welcomed him. They fussed over him and asked him an endless series of questions without waiting for his answers. They brought out plates heaped high with food to cover the table.

But they didn’t know what to do with Mingli. She wasn’t married to Guojie, so she had no status in the family. The idea of a “girlfriend” and the rules around it were understood in the cities, but this was Shantoucun. Awkwardly, the family set a place for her at the table, next to Guojie, and everyone spoke carefully until eventually the conversation died.

He saw that Mingli was trying but failing to connect with his sisters and parents. She was like a tropical bird that had been brought to visit a family of penguins in Antarctica. His journey from Shantoucun to Beijing had taken a decade, and Mingli was making the reverse trip in a single day.

Guojie realized that his family was afraid of embarrassing themselves or him in front of her, and they resented him for it.

The happiness that had accompanied him on the donkey cart just a few hours ago dissipated. He felt like a stranger in his own home, but unlike Mingli, he had no excuse.

#

They were married in a small ceremony attended only by her parents and sister. Weddings in Beijing were generally expensive, gaudy, and confusing. There were many things about them that annoyed him, like the way so many couples preferred a church wedding when they weren’t Christian and the many unspoken rules that dictated the amount that must be spent on the banquet. But most of all, he did not want himself or his family to be the center of attention. He did not want to hear what might be whispered as people stared at a family of peasants, the family of the ugly duckling who somehow pretended to be a phoenix and managed to land a princess.

He was glad that Mingli didn’t see the need for a lavish wedding. They didn’t have time for a honeymoon either, as he had to start working right away.

“We’ll save up for a really grand trip,” Mingli said. “Let’s go to Australia, and we’ll go diving in the Great Barrier Reef. It’ll be much more fun than a noisy banquet with people we don’t know.”

He nodded. He was pleased by the fact that the money would be saved. But the idea of spending it on a trip was ridiculous. He needed to save money for much more important things. Vacation was over. It was time for real life.

A letter arrived from home. His parents wrote about the need to pay off the school debts. That was the only explicit request for money. They also wrote about the beautiful houses that other children in the village had built for their parents, about his sisters’ wedding plans, about distant relatives who had shown up to congratulate them on Guojie’s new job and fancy wife, and who told tales of their own money troubles.

Guojie read through the letter, and each hint felt to him like another weight added to his back. His shoulders sagged as he calculated how much money it would take to satisfy these hints, and he shuddered with fear and weariness.

He explained to Mingli about the need to save, about the hints in his parents’ letter. “We have responsibilities,” he said.

Mingli was silent for a while, and then nodded. “This is what I love about you,” she said.

He looked at Mingli’s beautiful, trusting face, and he felt guilty. For a minute he considered pretending to have not understood the hints in his parents’ letter. Then he was overwhelmed by another wave of guilt — he thought about the thin figures of his parents and sisters, as they tiptoed in the pre-dawn semi-darkness so that he could sleep a few minutes longer.

He sent the money home, but he didn’t feel as happy as he’d expected to feel from doing this act, long dreamed of as it was.

More letters arrived from home.

#

It was Lunar New Year again.

“How about we do something different this year?” Mingli said. “Just us.”

For a moment he did not know how to answer her. After a while he said, “We have to go home.”

“I know you miss them,” Mingli said. “I was thinking that we can go visit them later. But we can—”

He interrupted her, “We have to go home.”

The way he said home frightened her.

“We have to be with family on New Year’s,” he added.

“I am your family,” Mingli said.

Guojie turned away so that he would not have to look at her. “Don’t be selfish.”

Mingli looked at the profile of her husband, at his hunched-over shoulders, at the lines along his clenched jaw, daring her to say no.

“Will we ever do something just for ourselves?” she asked. “Don’t you think they’d want you to be free?”

Guojie did not say anything. He walked out of the apartment, closing the door gently behind him.

She looked around the living room, as if seeing it for the first time. She looked at it through her husband’s eyes: the plain furniture, the Spartan walls, her husband’s small wardrobe that he refused to let her expand.

For her husband, she now understood, home was not a space between the two of them, a pocket of quiet warmth. The apartment she stood in was nothing more than a temporary shelter for the affair he was having with her. Home was Shantoucun, the house with mud walls and the people living in his memories. What she had once taken as signs of thrift and a dedication to simplicity in life were evidence that he had never put his heart into this place, into this life that she had thought they were building together. He did not live here so much as he sojourned.

She thought about the way her husband could be so sensitive when anyone commented about his accent or joked about his table manners. He was terribly ashamed of his peasant family and yet so fiercely protective of them. Though they were thousands of miles away and she was right here, his family would always be closer to his heart. What she had taken for his maturity and his sense of responsibility was in fact a kind of deep selfishness. The very thing that attracted him to her also locked her out.

Mingli got up and threw the travel brochures she held in her hands into the trash. She’d meant to discuss with him about the delayed honeymoon abroad. But she understood, now, there would never be such a trip.

#

Guojie sat under the huaishu by the side of the road. He had asked the donkey cart driver to drop him off here, saying that he wanted to walk the rest of the way home.

He thought about how to tell his family about the divorce. How could he explain? They wouldn’t understand.

“You are a good man,” she had said to him in the end. “But all your love has been used up.”

Love? Obligation. Duty. Responsibility. Guilt. Maybe adding them all together got you the same thing. He was a phoenix, and he had fulfilled his destiny.

He sat by the side of the road, long after the sun set, long after the moon rose.

#

The Life of a Phoenix: Though it is born in far-flung mountains, the Phoenix is drawn to the great metropolises and urbane centers of sophistication. It is thus never at home anywhere. Although its golden plumage dazzles the eye, the bird’s delicate wings cannot carry a heavy load. While seeing it is said to be the sign of a prosperous age, it ever hungers for happiness for itself. The Phoenix thinks always of others, and in that selflessness, it loses its way.

Divination slip