translated by Michelle Deeter
My first job out of college was at a car dealership. I took the job very seriously, but the more I applied myself, the more I was forced to do the grunt work. Besides actually selling cars, my duties included washing them, taking out the rubbish, shouldering the blame for other people’s mistakes, and listening to the boss’s lectures. It wasn’t always this way—when I was still in college, I was stubborn as hell. If my professor dared shout at me, I would turn and leave (unless it was a compulsory class). I would wait until the next term to take that class and I would stand tall. But, for some reason, all that confidence evaporated when I started at the dealership.
When my parents realised I couldn’t cope with all the bullying I faced at work, they hatched a plan to spend 300,000 yuan and get me a job. They wanted to make me a warden in some prison in the middle of nowhere so I definitely wouldn’t get bullied. I say ‘hatched a plan’ because getting the job required some scheming. My dad calculated how long it would be before their ‘investment’ paid off. He told me it would take about five years and after that I could just kick back and enjoy the benefits of working for the government. The most important thing was that nobody would yell at me; I would be the one bossing inmates around. But then my family decided to set up a coal plant and they poured all their savings into that. Not only did they spend the money that was supposed to help get me a job, they also put me on the list of coal plant employees.
Even though I hated working at the dealership, I waited until I finished my probation period before quitting. All my friends thought it was a strange decision. They would have understood me taking abuse from a girl, but not for a job. Where was the payoff?
“If you’re so unhappy, you should spare yourself the misery,” they said. But I wagged my finger, saying, “You don’t get it. I pass probation to show them I can. Then I quit to show them I won’t. It’s not that I can’t handle the work; it’s that they’re a bunch of idiots and I don’t want to be their slave anymore.”
I left that job with my head held high. As I stepped outside, I loosened my tie and looked towards the horizon. The sun was so bright it made me squint. My phone rang in my pocket. I took it out—it was Qianqian.
I frowned at the screen.
I remember my third year of high school very clearly: I was seventeen going on eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood. I was about to take the nerve-racking college entrance exam. Yet the only thing I cared about was getting a girlfriend. There was no way I was leaving school without getting some experience. It was kind of ironic that I didn’t have a girlfriend because I was known as the love guru in my class. I had managed to build up quite a reputation, even though I’d never actually been involved with the fairer sex myself. Let me explain. I grew up in Beijing, and when my classmates from the backwater villages of the northwest heard my snooty accent, it mostly made them want to smack me ‘round the head. They were singing a different tune when the TV show Fen dou took China by storm. Everyone was instantaneously influenced by the main characters’ Beijing accents. I took full advantage of my glib tongue—wait, no, silver tongue—to the point where all the guys said I was their close friend and all the girls trusted me with their secrets. Naturally I became the matchmaker for classmates who were attracted to each other but nervous about starting their first relationship. Nokia was all the rage back then and everyone with a boyfriend or girlfriend was texting them. Meanwhile, the losers in our class played Snake. I was known for my wit, so I was constantly asked by friends to send text messages to girls.
We had a saying about the girls from the four biggest high schools in my town: No. 4 girls are hot, No. 2 girls are not, No. 5 are ugly ducks, and Fenglun girls are big as trucks! If someone from No. 2 wanted to get with a girl from No. 4, the first thing to do was to start texting her. But most guys were so uncool—they didn’t really know how to strike up a conversation and some even asked embarrassing personal questions. Finally, they begged me to help out, so I texted the girls for them. We would chat and chat and by the time I gave the phone back to its owner, the uncool guy would be able to meet his potential girlfriend. I spent so much time texting girls that I eventually found myself in a situation. As they say, if you always walk by a river, you’ll eventually get your shoes wet. I don’t mean to say that I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I just chatted and chatted until I fell for the girl myself.
When you get right down to it, the most important factor in the texting game is timing. Typically, I could get a girl to open up to me after texting back and forth for two classes or so. But Qianqian was different. I still remember the first text I sent her. It was during one of the extra classes we had over winter break. I asked her if students from No. 4 High School normally took classes during winter break and she said yes. Then she asked me who I was.
What’s in a name? I answered. You’re a rose stuck in boot camp, and I’m stuck in boot camp…She liked her literature. That meant she was a fan of Anni Baobei, Haruki Murakami, and Shunji Iwai. There was something else special about her. Every time she replied to one of my messages, my phone would buzz six or seven times. Her text messages were so long that they would be split into parts. She was drafting novels on her Nokia, as if she hadn’t grasped the concept of a text message. I had to cram just to keep up with her—I spent hours reading up so I could use good quotes in my texts. I wanted to make every sentence strike a chord and fit perfectly in our conversation. Our relationship progressed day by day. Our texts grew longer and longer. I was quick-witted and she was well-read. I made her laugh and she made me cry. Finally, she said she was wanted to meet, and sooner rather than later. I said it wasn’t too late yet, we were both still young.
So we decided to meet in person. In 2008, on the last day of our winter break classes, Xi’an had the biggest snow storm in fifty years. We moved beyond our world of phones and walked towards each other, surrounded by snowflakes. She smiled shyly at me, and I supressed an urge to run and hide.
“Sorry it took us so long to meet,” she said. The words of her text had a voice, and she sounded just like she did in my imagination. I was just texting her for a friend and I never expected to fall for her myself.
I didn’t tell her that—not then, anyway. “I’m just glad you came,” I said. Our meeting reminded me of an ancient Chinese poem and I was thrilled to be able to share it with her. Thinking of how valuable this meeting was to me, I said, “In this moment gold wind and jade dew meet with more ecstasy than any human world encounter.”
Finally, I had got myself a high school girlfriend, just before turning eighteen.
Qianqian and I were terrible students, which made perfect sense. The gifted students were studying diligently so they would be accepted into Tsinghua or Peking University. They didn’t have time to send lengthy text messages back and forth. We both got bad results on our college entrance exams. Neither of us thought our futures would amount to much, so we both decided to apply to the technical college in Xi’an and see what happened. Over the next three years we had little fights and big fights, calm days and stormy days. Sometimes we tortured each other and sometimes we were good to each other. Three years of laughter and tears came and went and before we knew it, we were graduating.
I hesitated before taking her call.
“I heard you quit your job.”
“How did you find out? I just quit five seconds ago—I’m still standing outside the dealership!”
“You shared it on WeChat, silly, all your friends know about it! Why did you quit; didn’t you just finish probation? Why didn’t you tell me about this beforehand?”
I scratched my head. Shit, I was a complete idiot.
“We need to talk,” I said finally.
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Wei Tianyi is an author and editor who grew up in Shaanxi province. His novels include Jingzi Fengbao (Mirrors and Storms) and Wo huainian de shi nashi de ziji (I miss my old self). He edited the screenplays for Wo ai maoxing ren (Catman) and Zhenhun Jie (Rakshasa Street). He lives in Beijing.
Michelle Deeter translates from Chinese into English. She is the Chartered Institute of Linguists and teaches translation and interpreting at Newcastle upon Tyne. She lives in Manchester.