I have received a scholarship for English Independent Study at Shandong University in the far city of Jinan. In 1949, Chairman Mao declared such scholarships to encourage literacy among our people. My grandmother worshiped Mao. She had his picture on all the walls of our little farmhouse. Even out back she had his photo above the hole in the ground my father dug for our necessity. Occasionally, I found flyspecks on his cheeks. I brushed them off when I helped Grandmother to the outhouse. She had difficulty walking. Her feet were once bound, which was the custom in her youth. And even though Mao declared that women should unbind their feet, Grandmother’s toes never healed properly. She waddled about like ducks in our pond, slipping easily on the muck. I heard her cry for help, her shrill voice pleading for me to come. From then on, I did not allow her to go to the outhouse alone.
Grandmother encouraged me to apply for this scholarship, even though it meant I could no longer care for her. “To learn English is necessary for the young. For me, it does not matter. My brain is weak. But for you, dear Emily, the world is ripe as those persimmons waiting to be peeled.”
And so I went, leaving the farm I loved so well, the greenhouse where we raised plump tomatoes, and cucumbers long as my arm, fertilized with droppings from chickens that fluttered about our yard. I travelled on an overnight sleeper. The benches felt hard as stone, six passengers to a compartment, men and women together. Being the youngest and the most limber, they assigned me the top bunk. As I was wearing a skirt, I did not prefer this. Men on lower bunks took advantage of their position, ogling me when I climbed above them. Embarrassed by this, I did not leave my bunk all night, even though I wanted to relieve myself in that dingy toilet at the far end of the train.
In the shrouded morning, we pulled into an unlit station. I lay in my bunk until all the men left, even though they kept offering to help me climb down. I hoped someone from the University would greet me, but no one came. It was very early; the amenities were not open. A lone attendant in blue uniform straggled about with her bamboo broom, collecting cigarette butts littered on the floor, her mouth covered by a white cotton mask, her hands in plastic gloves. I felt as if an unwashed blanket had smothered me, replacing the pure air I breathed at home. My heart ached for home, the cackling chickens, the touch of my grandmother. Even the scolding voices of my parents would have been welcome.
My clothes and hair were rumpled from a sleepless night. Men snored so loudly they even outdid the roaring train. I had never been on a train before. Trains frightened me, even though Grandmother assured me there was nothing to be scared of. “Trains in China are safe. They will not fly off the tracks as they do in America.” I tried to control my fear. I would not disgrace Grandmother.
I untied the scarf she had given me as a farewell present and secured it around my mouth to ward off infection. Buses waited outside the station to multiple destinations, but none seemed to be going to Shandong, to the West Campus. The University had many campuses that specialized in particular areas of study. Finally, a slender boy on a rusty bicycle sensed my confusion and offered to take me there. “It’s my business.” He strapped my belongings on back. “It’s not legal, but legal jobs are hard to come by. I invent my own.”
A skilled rider, he weaved between cars and buses, carts filled with carrots, cauliflower, huge purple eggplants. and tiny yellow squash. Occasionally, he swiped a squash, passing it to me to slip in his basket, promising to share the booty if I did not report him. “I will never report you. You are the first friend I have made in Jinan.”
He gave me a half smile. I could see that one canine was missing, that he tried to conceal it by never smiling fully. In the countryside, dental care was difficult to come by. One must travel many miles to a clinic. I heard such care would be easier to obtain in the city, but perhaps that was just propaganda to lure peasants to the towns for temporary employment on new construction sites.
“I call myself Michael,” he hollered as he caught the tail end of a bus. When the bus came to a stop, the driver descended upon him with curses and threats. But Michael pleaded, “I must get this girl to a clinic. She’s very sick.”
The driver relented. “Be careful. Police are strict in Jinan. They might impound your bicycle.” His passengers began to hoot at the delay, so he stomped aboard and drove on amidst the cheering clang of lunch pails.
“Why do you call yourself Michael?” I coughed over the fumes of the departing bus.
“Michael Jackson’s cool.” He pushed his bike from the curb. “Even when he’s hot he’s still cool. I want to be like him.”
“I heard he used the whitening potion they sell in the market.”
“I’ve tried that stuff. It doesn’t work for me, but that’s all right. I’m cool in spirit.”
I wish I could be cool, I thought, when we hit a puddle left over from the recent rains. It spattered my flip-flops and dirtied my toes. I resembled a migrant worker from my village rather than a student. I felt grateful Grandmother had hidden my new white running shoes inside my clothes roll rather than letting me wear them as I had wished. “You must look smart on campus,” she said. “Dirty shoes will make you look stupid.”
The buildings were huge in Jinan, almost touching the sky. Some leaned to the side. I feared they would fall upon us. Workers teetered on ladders, pounding and drilling until my ears ached. “Does this go on all day?”
“It never stops. Even by torchlight it continues.”
“How do you stand it?”
“You must try to get used to it, even to love it. It’s a sign of prosperity. Soon, we’ll be number one.”
“My grandmother says the same. She says that time is coming.”
“Just read the news, watch the TV. China’s on the rise.”
“We do not have the television on my farm.”
“Then how did your grandmother know all this?”
“My father talks to the tradesmen when he sells our vegetables in the city. He brings back old newspapers. I read them to my grandmother. Her eyes do not work well, but she still knows many things.”
“We’re here.” He swerved the bike to avoid the guards waiting at the University gate. They were busy directing traffic in and out of the sprawling campus. On an adjacent field, students played soccer and volleyball amidst cheers from fans crowding walkways. I could hardly wait to be part of that excitement.
“Wait here.” The guard held Michael’s handlebars. He could not pass.
“She’s a new student,” he said. “I’m taking her to her dorm.”
“Which dorm you in, Miss?” He peered down at my feet with suspicion.
“I am a scholarship student.” I dragged my certificate from my satchel, where it lay buried beneath the books I brought from home, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in Chinese, several novels by the Bronte sisters, particularly Emily, my favorite, and the Nancy Drew mysteries I had read as a child. Simple English helped me to master the language.
“Scholarship students are across street, behind clinic.” He inspected my certificate and waved it back to me, unimpressed.
“Behind the clinic? Why am I not on this campus with the other students?”
“University regulations. Scholarship students not regular students.”
“What do you mean?’
“They separate group. If you scholarship student, you never be University student.”
“I do not believe that.”
“You find out.”
Michael careened into honking cars.
“Careful.” I grabbed the handlebars. An auto screeched its brakes.
“They never wait.” Michael rang his bell. “You have to be a tiger.”
Feeling a twinge inside, I hugged the crossbar, knees shaking. We cycled into the clinic’s courtyard. Freshmen students in khaki uniforms paraded like real soldiers. How I would love to be one of them. How I would cherish such a uniform, even if it meant I must march everyday. I would be a true student then, able to afford my tuition, not a hanger-on, a scholarship student from the farm, too poor to afford the University. Being poor in new China seemed a disgrace.
Michael unstrapped my roll and helped me tie it on my back. “I’ll carry your books for you.” He reached for my satchel.
“I can do it.”
“It would please me, Emily.” He locked his bike among other bikes, paint peeling, tires threadbare.
“How did you know my name?”
“I guessed. All that Emily Bronte in your satchel. It was either Emily or Nancy. I knew it couldn’t be Shakespeare.”
“You are right. I will never be that smart.”
“I like that name, Emily. It’s cool.
“As cool as Michael?”
He danced to the back of the clinic while the freshmen applauded. I followed him to a dirty courtyard strewn with broken cement, lunch wrappers, and beer cans. In the midst of debris stood an isolated building. Air conditioners fronted the windows, increasing the cacophony of the clinic. Clotheslines with girls’ panties and pajamas clung to the sides of the collapsing structure.
When we reached the door, he handed me my books. “Good luck in your studies. And don’t pay any attention to that gate guard. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about.”
“Thank you.” I pulled some yuan from my satchel, but he hurried off.
Suddenly, he turned, “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Maybe…” A thread of hope filled me. I remembered Grandmother sewing the very dress I wore. I would not let her down.
A heavy rain began to pelt me. I rushed inside to protect my books. Moisture would surely destroy their tattered pages. I had purchased them at a bookstall during one of my infrequent trips to the city with my father where, after a good harvest, I would help him sell vegetables. Returning late, I read by flashlight. Our electricity was sometimes out after a storm, but more often my father chose to cut the power. He was saving money against the next harvest that might fail. He needed to put something aside.
I had not relieved myself for some hours. In desperation, I searched for the nearest toilet. Finally, in an alcove, I saw the sign, W.C. The stench was almost unbearable, but there was no alternative. I squatted above the hole, my feet straddling the sides.
I wanted to clean myself, but there was no water or paper in the cubicle or in the sink outside, a common hand washing area for men and women. Only an old rag hung on a hook, a reminder that at one time the faucet worked.
The hallway was lined with rooms bearing numbers. Boys were on the first two floors, girls on the third and fourth. On the main campus, they had separate buildings. Boys waved, strummed guitars, called to me as I passed. I hurried to the third floor, searching the corridor for room 313.
In the center of the corridor, a large kitchen held a huge water filter and some burners for cooking. Mops and brooms leaned in a corner beside plastic garbage sacks. Empty coke cans escaped an opening. A few peels of onion and garlic littered the counters amidst grains of rice and scraps of steamed bread. My stomach grumbled. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. As I reached for a bite of bread, I heard a voice behind me and turned. A chubby girl stood there with hair as black as mine and glasses so thick that I hardly saw her eyes. She held out her hand.
“You must be Emily. They told me you would be our sixth roommate.”
“You are Willow, the one who wrote to me?”
“Don’t laugh. My parents hoped I’d grow willowy as Jinan’s special tree. It never happened.”
She flung my roll over her shoulder. “Our room is beside the staircase. It’s noisy. Metal doors make a big bang at night. But you get used to it.”
She opened our room. Six bunks adorned the gray walls, one on top of the other. “Since you’re last to arrive, you get the top bunk next to an air conditioner. You can use your clothes as a pillow. No closet, only those hooks on the wall.”
The room seemed to swell. I thought I must be getting a head cold. I longed for our farm, the cerulean sky afloat with clouds so dense they could be snow cones at the fair.
“Bathroom’s down the hall. We take turns for showers. Hot water’s only a brief period morning and night.” She inspected my toes.
My stomach growled so loud it embarrassed me, but I could not control it.
“You must be hungry. Come, I’ll take you to the cafeteria. It’s on the main campus. Lunch is almost over, but there should be something left.”
She locked our door. “You have to be careful. Theft is rampant.”
We clomped our way down an echoing staircase. There was no way one could sneak out of here. We crossed the courtyard. Students played volleyball amidst rubbish. Then we were into traffic. Willow grabbed my hand, dragging me between honking autos and colliding bicycles.
“You have to be a tiger,” she chanted. We jostled our way onto the campus.
A thick yellow pall hung over the University. It seemed difficult to discriminate between statues and people. Ghostlike buildings hovered between bare trees. Nearing the cafeteria, bright banners emerged from the pall, flying like signals from another world. Students mobbed tables to sign for fall activities.
“Have you signed?” I asked Willow. She did not answer, so I repeated my question.
“Scholarship students can’t join in campus activities, but you get used to it.” Her glasses fogged. I had the feeling Willow would never get used to it and neither would I.
“Cafeteria’s on four levels.” She pushed aside the plastic streamers that deterred insects from entering. “The most expensive food is at top. We’ll eat on first level.”
The only items left were rice and steamed bread with a few dishes of pickled cabbage. “It’s a limited menu down here, but it’s cheap. You don’t have your food card yet so I’ll treat.”
“I wish to repay you.” I offered some yuan.
Willow pushed them away. “It’s my pleasure today. Tomorrow it’ll be yours.”
We laughed, carrying steamed bread to a table only partially cleared. Chicken bones mixed with slops of vegetable soup and tea. It was late. Workers were eating lunch, paying no attention to debris. “Is it always this messy?”
“You get used to it.” Willow flipped a chicken bone to the floor.
Pulling apart the huge white glob of steamed bread, I stuffed it in my mouth the way Willow did. At this time of day, at home we would be sitting together for our midday lunch of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, steamed squash and baby carrots, with big bowls of fried rice topped with bits of egg and chicken. How I longed for my mother’s cooking.
“Would you like to visit the student market?” she asked, while we chewed the last bits of bread.
We left the cafeteria to workers, who shouted to each other above clattering pots and pans.
The student market was cramped, shelves bursting with everything from Adidas to apples. “I‘ll leave you here.” Willow dropped some oranges into her basket. The clerk weighed them, carefully placing the fruit in a plastic sack and marking the price. Willow waved on her way to the cash register. “I must attend English corner. Can you find your way back?”
“No problem.” My stomach churned at the thought of crossing traffic without Willow.
“Well, then, I’ll let you explore, but don’t be late. Your roommates are cooking dinner tonight. Tomorrow it’ll be our turn.”
A sense of panic engulfed me among the rows of Lay’s potato chips, Hershey bars, and Snyder’s pretzels. Most items were imported from America. Suddenly, I heard a clear American voice on the other side of the aisle. How I wished to speak American like the actors I had seen on television when my father took me to the city.
I peeked between boxes of Quaker Oats and Cheerios, Rice Cakes and Fruit Loops. “May I join you?” I whispered, afraid the tall blonde teacher would say no. She already had a circle of students trying to imitate her accent.
“Of course.” She smiled, pushing a strand of hair behind a dangling earring. I rushed to the other side of the aisle before she changed her mind.
“What dorm are you in?” She fingered a pretty lavender package of sour plums.
I thought of lying, of pretending I was a regular student, for fear she might dismiss me if she knew the truth. But I must learn to be a tiger. I breathed in hard, then heard myself say, “I live in the Scholarship Dorm, behind the clinic.”
“Oh.” She opened the package, her fingernails long and delicate, pink as the lotus on our lake. Someday, I will have nails like that, I thought.
“You must be very smart to have a scholarship.” she said. And seeing the other students turn their backs to me, she offered me a plum.
About the Author
Elaine Barnard has traveled extensively. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary journals, such as Lowestoft Chronicle, Anak Sastra, Mandala, Diverse Voices, Apple Valley, and many others. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net. She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Currently, she is at work on a collection of her short travel stories.