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Five Voices From Chengdu

CHINA has a way of drifting in and out of my mind, and I miss it most on evenings when everything is hushed and still, waiting for the sun, a glowing red ball, to sigh and slip on over the edge of the horizon. Almost every afternoon, I used to go to the river to buy a bag of sweet potato chips and sit on the cold stone steps wedged into the side of the riverbank. I would stay until dusk when the duckherder would call his ducks in from the sandbar where they had spent the day feeding. Even though it has been five years since I taught English at Sichuan University, Chengdu, the last major city before crossing the mountains into Tibet, is as close to me as yesterday.

Teaching English conversation to silent smiling students was no easy task, especially when there were 40 of them packed into the classroom. It was frustrating beyond words. Many of the students as it turned out were merely observers honing their comprehension skills by listening to my ``beautiful English,'' while others seemed content to pass the class time away studying my hazel eyes and reddish-blonde hair. Despite the impersonal class size, I spent much time with several of my students going to the zoo or the park. I often had dinner with them, and the holidays, both American and Chinese, were filled with invitations.

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The post-graduate class that I taught was different, however, because there were only five students. We could pull our desks into a circle to talk about literature, history, and how to order a hamburger in the United States. In class, they were rather formal and business-like, but outside, they poked fun at each other and at me. Discussions over minor historical points and literary interpretations often launched into heated debates that ended with rapid-fire Chinese and bright angry faces.

As time passed, their thoughts and hopes were confided in me, as well as sad bits and pieces of their lives during the Cultural Revolution when so many scholars were ridiculed, imprisoned, and often tortured mercilessly before ``re-education'' or senseless execution. It wasn't only the well-educated who were victims of the madness, many just out of high school were forcibly relocated to the countryside to work in the fields alongside the peasantry.

Recently, I came across some essays that these students had written in response to a paragraph by Vladimir Nabokov that I found in a yellowed grammar exercise book. The essays shed a light on Chinese students that is different from what we see on TV and read about today.

For their protection, I have chosen not to use my students' actual names and cannot give them due credit for their words; nevertheless, I am certain that they would want their words to be heard. I take absolutely no credit for their English abilities, and I have changed nothing so that you, too, can hear their voices. After knowing these persons and re-reading their essays, I now realize that it is I who was the student.

XIAO YI with her round, ruddy cheeks and bright open smile that poured through her eyes was the only woman in the class. I did not know that she was married until the autumn Moon Festival when the class had a party for me at her one-room apartment on campus. The guys had volunteered to cook and were out chopping vegetables in the communal kitchen down the hallway when Xiao Yi drew me over to a large map of the US tacked above her desk. ``Teacher Margie,'' she whispered, pointing to a city in northern California, ``This is where my husband stay now.''

``Your husband!'' I was shocked. She had never given any indication of being married; but suddenly, her sparkling furniture, delicate blue mosquito net draped over new fluffy bedding, and her expensive tea set were no longer in such confusing contrast with the dim concrete interior of her room. They had been married only one month before her husband left for the States, and it was her dream to join him in the spring after finishing her Ph.D. in Chinese Literature.

Her essay:

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``My Impression of Nabokov's Paragraph''

Nabokov's paragraph is so good that I read it five times. The paragraph tells us: ``Every single day of the year is given to the most happy one.'' Yes, that's truth. However, I prefer to say that every one can gain a most happy day in his life. It is important that one has a remarkable thing which brings the most happy to one, for instance, finishing a great work, great invention, master works, or getting love, so on. If one has these things, his most happy day maybe comes. Of cours (sic), it also need beautiful environment. One's emotion must affects his feeling of environment. The most happy one can pick up especially beautiful scene, to which others are used, and remember it forever. It is a mirracullous (sic) state that happy emotion and beautiful nature mix together. In one eyes, beauty can be increased with happy and happy also can be increased with beauty. In such a day, one can feel most happy. I have had a lot of happy days, but now I cann't (sic) know whether if ``the most happy day'' has happened.

ZHAO was the classic picture of an ascetic scholar. His narrow face, hunched shoulders, and perpetually sliding glasses were most suited for a musty world of old books and facts. At the time, he was about 40 years old and was working on his doctorate in Chinese history. Through connections, he arranged a private tour of the campus museum for the class. Zhao calmly carried me through history while relating facts about the first paper ever made, significant traits of armor and weaponry, and tidbits about art.

As a scholar, Zhao's lined face and tired eyes told not only of his hours spent reading, but also of the innumerable hardships that he had endured. Yet, he was a kind, soft-spoken gentleman who gave a book of poetry by Du Fu to me for a going-away present.

His essay:


Nabokov said: ``Every single day of the year is given to the most happy one ... no one can forsee...''

How well he said.

I never forget the first day of July in 1984. It was an exciting turning point of my life. That day belonged to me, because it was my birthday, and on that day I entered Sichuan University for my doctor's degree. What a piece of good fortune I had in belonging to it all. I thought of the sun so lovely, and the air so fresh, and the sky was so blue! This day was given to only one man; the most happy one; to me!

But an individual human existence should be like a river, and it should eventually become merged in the sea, and lost it (sic) individual Being. So I agree with Nabokov's words: ``No one can foresee which day will be his ... his day ... long past.''

LIKE Zhao, Shang was also about 40, but that is where the similarity ended. He was humorous, loud, and as the class leader, always managed to take charge and to dominate conversations, steering them to his interests which were Chinese poetry and folk tales. During the Moon Festival, he read a poem describing loneliness one feels when far away from home with only the silent moon for company. At the conclusion, there was silence before he gave a dramatic bow and handed the translation to me with both hands. It was written on rice paper with the corresponding Chinese characters delicately written on the left.

His essay:

``What is one's happy day? - My impression of Nabokov's paragraph.''

It seems to be very easy for anyone to answer this question: ``What date was your happy day?''

A little girl told me, ``My happy day was my birthday, I ate big cakes and candy on that day.''

``Yesterday was my happy day, because I saw a good film yesterday,'' a young man said.

``My happy day was that day on which my son came to see you from abroad,'' answered an old woman.

Are these days mentioned above really happy days? I'm afraid I don't think so. Strickly (sic) speaking, the girl, the young man, or the old woman, alike enjoyed only one kind of delight on that day, but that day wasn't the happy day.

What is one's happy day? If you have trodden along path of life, possessed some experience of life, and recognized society profoundly, perhaps one day, because of being deeply touched by some common things - smile on baby's face, a tree in full bloom, or a white cloud on the sky, you suddenly understand the meaning of life, the mystery of nature and the magnificence of universe. At this time, you will feel that your soul is awakening and eternal truth is bursting upon your mind. From then on, you will remember the special day forever. That day is just your happy day.

It is impossible for anyone to have a lot of happy days. A fortune's favorite may have one in a few years, someone has only one in his time, perhaps someone has none throughout his life. XU was a Chinese literature student who touched my heart the most. He always arrived first to set up the classroom, and he always cleaned up afterward. Like a schoolboy, he leaned precariously out the window to clap the chalk dust from the erasers. Extremely bashful, he trembled whenever called on in class. Out of class, he was more open and stood up to the intellectual bullying of his older classmates Zhang and Zhao. Although a couple of years apart, he and I shared the same birthdate. It has always haunted me that while I was preparing for university, he was wading in rice paddies, up to his knees in septic water; while I was going out on dates and complaining about my homework load, he was the young man in his essay.

His essay:

``My Happy Day''

There is a common saying in China that one only has two happy days, to be married and bears a son, in all of one's life. But the happiest day of mine was while I got the admission notice of Sichuan University.

As soon as graduated from high school, I was forced to go to the countryside and to be a peasant. In daytime, I worked on the farm; in night, there was no electric lamp in my thatched cottage. I had not any book to read and had not any chance to study. How I wanted to get a chance to study! How I wanted to go to university. After two years, I was allowed taking part in exam of university, and got admission notice of Sichuan University on February 26, 1978. That day is the turning point of my life. So I think, that day is the happiest day in my life.

WU was much younger, bright, and cocky. He was overly concerned with his appearance, and during class, rattled on about parties and his girlfriend. He had every intention of coming to the States to study. Consequently, it seemed as though he was more interested in how many TVs were in my home and what kind of cars we owned than in the class's scholarly discussions.

For Halloween, we foreigners held a party in the rec room above our dining hall, and Wu was one of the few older students who showed up, although quite a few of my freshmen did. He casually held his girlfriend's hand, which in prudish China is frowned upon, while introducing her, and danced and drank throughout the evening until our compound gates were closed at midnight. As he was leaving he said, ``I had a blast, Teacher Margie. Thank you.''

Wu did not seem to cherish Chinese history as did Zhao; he seemed too flippant, too happy-go-lucky to appreciate much of anything, and he did not emote the energy of so many other students when discussing China's future. I failed to see beneath his carefully woven facade. His essay is the essence of poetry and spirituality that is pervasive throughout China and Chinese culture.

His essay:

It was getting dark now. People began to put on their clothes, collect their things and, calling for each other, return home. ``Yes,'' I thought, ``it's the time for dinner.'' But still lying on the seashore, I felt unwilling to leave. The last piece of light rosy color in the west was fainting slowly. The sweet song of the waves was washing away all the noises gradually, and a gentle evening breeze was coming with the smell of the sea. The air was so fresh, the music of the nature so charming, the touch of the seawind so tender. And the dim feeble light was just suitable. Everything seemed ready to make me lose myself.

Lying there with eyes closed, back on the ground and arms and legs spreaded, I kept moveless. The evening wind fondled me gently to make my body soft to melt, to melt as a small piece of sandy beach with waves stroking again and again. I could not think anything now, the wings of the butterfly of my ever-flying thoughts were glued together. What I could do was feeling, feeling the world with all my feelings just like a little octopus feeling her world with all her feelers. ``Where goes my body? ... Who is me? ... Everything is nothing ... nothing is something ... nothing is nothing....''

That was my day. Because I lost myself that day, I became nothing that day. I had a chance to peep into that world on that very day.

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