There were ten or so Han kids in Kürti, and there was no Chinese school for them, so for a while they all ran loose in the village. The oldest was eight, the youngest only two or three, and the whole pack of them spent their days hollering up the street and hooting back down. They would run along, whooping, “Lady White! Here I come!”
Finally the oldest child, Gao Yong, started at the Kazakh primary school—there was nowhere else to go. Inside of two weeks, he was jabbering away with the Kazakh kids without stumbling at all, and he had earned himself a new name: Gaoyongbek. Lots of the Kazakh boys’ names ended in “bek”.
The youngest, who was called Stinky, was two and a half, and he had three older sisters, aged seven, five and a half, and four. The four of them would amble down the road, hand in hand, unmoved by the thunder of horn blasts from approaching drivers.
There were three kids in the Chen family. The oldest was named Chen One, the next Chen Two. The third was a girl, but Chen Three sounded too boyish, so they doubled up the word for three and called her Sansan. This trio liked to walk in single file with the one in front hoisting a little flag.
The two Liu kids were both seven, born on the same day, but they weren’t twins. Dani was adopted and older by a few hours, so they called her big sister. She was very pretty, tall and strong. The Lius’ own son was something else altogether. He was unappealing, short and scrawny, with a vacant look on his face. And he was a liar. He constantly whined: Dani hit me! Dani stole my cookies!
These two kids made the loudest racket. You could hear them a mile away, ka-ta-ka, ka-ta-ka… Kids go through a lot of shoes, so their father took to making theirs by hand. The soles were made out of two bits of wooden board, and the straps, rubber scrapped from a car tyre, were nailed on. They were simple and cheap, so it didn’t matter how many pairs they wore out. They called them “clip-clops”, which seemed pretty apt.
The Wang family had two daughters. The older was quieter, the younger more boisterous. When their dad smacked them, they would look at each other, howling, with bloody noses that dripped and dripped.
Next door, the Zengs had a little shop. Their girl was called Lingzi, she was seven, maybe eight years old. She spent all day manning the counter and had a mean head for figures. When there was nothing else to do, she would lean up against the windowsill, forlornly watching the pack of kids squealing and shrieking in the street, having a ball and looking for trouble. Sometimes she would stick her head out the window and shout after them, “I’m over here, Lady White! Over here!”
These kids were all the children of Han shopkeepers. Each family had their own store, but what they liked best was to go and buy stuff at someone else’s. Clutching sheaves of one-mao notes, the gang would make the rounds, and in the end perhaps buy nothing more than a one-mao lollipop, which they could have got at home anyway. The wholesale price was only two fen.
For some reason, Lingzi’s store was everyone’s favourite stop. It had nothing to do with friendship – as soon as they came in the door, they’d get into a shouting match with Lingzi, where whoever was the loudest won.
Lingzi didn’t miss much, but her mom was constantly checking up on her. As soon as she got home, her first question was about the day’s sales.
“What’d you just sell?”
“Fruit drops. One mao for five. They gave me two mao, so ten altogether.”
“Those ones –”
“Ai! Those are three for a mao.”
Lingzi was silent.
“Aiya! You’ve been selling everything at these made-up prices all day long. Who knows how much money you’ve lost, you little toerag! Who bought ‘em?”
“Dani and her brother.” Lingzi pointed, and sure enough, the two of them were still there, sucking their sweets, noses dripping onto the counter.
“Aish! Well, go and get ‘em back, then.”
“You guys heard my mom,” said Lingzi. “Those are three for a mao, not five. C’mon, you both owe me two back.”
The siblings eyed each other, then slowly fished two fruit drops out of their pockets and turned them over. They stayed slouched against the counter, still sucking away, debating in small voices whether to return the rest and get their money back. In the end, they gave up the idea. Mouths sucking and clip-clops clacking, they joined hands and walked away.
This piece was translated into English as part of the Chinese-English literary translation course organised by BCLT and the Foreign Languages Teaching and Research Press in the Yellow Mountains in September 2014. The translation is by Breanna Chia, Michael Day, Philip Hand, Lehyla Heward and Richard Silk, with workshop leader Andrea Lingenfelter, and the author Li Juan.