Whenever I hear someone speaking my dialect, I think how people in small towns are cut back like trees, until the only things they value are status and money. When people chase their ideals into their thirties, forties or fifties they become something ridiculous, like a deranged chicken. Lots of people are passionate about one thing or another in their youth; then one day they snap out of it and realize it’s not too late to cast themselves into the swamp of petty small-town values. Eight years ago, when I left my comfortable post in the county and took a job in the city, I always knew people back home thought I was an idiot, but today was the first time someone said it to my face. Thankfully, I don’t have to prove myself to them.
I got out of there solely by virtue of brass balls and dumb luck. My colleague and fellow malcontent, Zhou Qiyuan, got into grad school, aced his English exams, and published dozens of academic papers. He died of nose cancer last year, still in our hometown. He had done everything right, and was ready to leave; his work unit made sure his family was well cared for.
Those of us who leave – small-town cops, village teachers, barefoot doctors – all have a pathetic sense of grandeur. We idolize Napoleon, greatness born of humble beginnings. The others, settling into provincial backwaters where the local bookstore doesn’t carry a single Western classic, find their own little pleasures to pursue, like Director Han of the “Diary-gate” scandal. I once saw a sex tape of a bureau official with some girl from his office. It was the look of genuine happiness on her face in the man’s pudgy embrace that said it all. That’s how it is. We imagine that a nubile young woman couldn’t possibly join in spirit and flesh with an official old enough to be her father. We forget that money and status can be a powerful lubricant.
In A Ding’s neglected novel, The Scavengers, the hero falls in love with the daughter of a powerful official. It was not accommodation, tolerance, or surrender, there was nothing half-hearted about it. It was a total and obliterating love. His depiction was so precise it moved me. Before I left, I too fell stupidly in love with a girl whose pedigree would have changed my family’s fortunes. I kept trying to hold her hand, as if to seal our relationship. A moment of encouragement from her would leave me sleepless for nights. Then she invited me to a party with a number of other young men. We looked at each other, realizing we were all rivals for her affection, and bristled with animosity. Later, when I read Lu Yao’s Ordinary World, the book rang false for me. I couldn’t bring myself to believe in a fairy-tale love between a coal miner and a mayor’s daughter. Lu Yao was just indulging in fantasy – a sick fantasy. A country boy can love, but it’s a twisted love. He’s not gazing into your eyes, he’s gazing into his own future.
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 Agnes Khoo, Jonathan Rechtmann and Austin Woerner, with workshop leader Eric Abrahamsen, and the author A Yi.