~ Inspired by True Events in Guilin, China ~
The twelve-year-old girl woke eager for the new day. In bed she sat straight and stretched her arms wide over her head while through the windows she saw the hills of Guilin tower over the city as though they were giant elephants marching the girl to a land far, far away.
Today was the day, she knew, she would be one of five students chosen to go to America. The girl placed a hand on the warming glass of the window and said quietly to herself, to the giant elephants outside the city, and to the silent Universe all around her,
‘Take me away from here. Take me to strange islands, to other lands, and drop me safely in places that lie eastward, where the sun also rises.’
The girl’s name was Yu and she laughed at herself, a strong Aries, for allowing room for such sentimentality to creep in on an otherwise wonderful start to a beautiful morning in China.
She rubbed her eyes clear of sleepers and for some strange reason an image of a scarlet Ibis flew across the blurry slate of her mind and she considered the bright red bird an omen of good tidings to come as she hopped from bed and readied herself for school.
Now peddling fast on her racing bike—one of a kind in this Chinese hometown of hers—Yu bent forward, her backpack snug tight behind her, her hands gripping the handling bars as she maneuvered around uniformed students eyeing Yu closely with a bitter-sweet taste in their mouths of a jealousy buttered with awe—much the way these same students would do when Yu would sing to an audience of young boys for two hours atop a roundabout most Saturday evenings as her father walked round and round telling everyone that this was his daughter performing.
Yu laughed at the thought and as she cycled to school, she remembered how she had awakened that morning with the faintest recollection of a dream and the dream came pouring forth from her subconscious—a dream where she had been alone on an island, her knees folded in her arms as she sat on the sand of the beach waiting for a ship, any ship to come. But no ship ever came. And just at the point of tears a hand, a male hand, came bursting up out of the soft sand beside her and it belonged—she believed because of the strange hair—to a foreign man. So Yu with all her might began pulling the man—American, she now assured herself—up! up! and up until his bare chest rose upward and outward and she kissed the man, did not stop kissing the man, all over his bearded face, until she knew that she had saved him and he her; and when the tears broke free, Yu woke from the dream feeling refreshed and deeply in love, but for the likes of her she could no longer remember the American man’s face—other than that it had possessed a beard. She cycled harder in hopes of getting to school sooner to tell her best friend Lin of the dream and of her very first kiss with a man.
And so Yu rode fast and paid no more attention to her peers than a passing cloud does to a mountain. In that instant she flung her arms out to her side, closed her eyes tight, leaned her head back and trusted her knees, as she often did, to guide the bike down the street. She smelled Gui Hua, which were native flowers that reminded Yu of fat baby-fingers in a shade of pure sunshine, and these fragrant flowers she had so often placed inside glass jars of honey to enhance the flavor for her mother. Yu breathed in deeply, opened her eyes to an unusually empty street and believed nothing could ever get in the way of her dreams.
When Yu reached school, Lin was waiting for her. Lin and Yu had been best friends before either one of the girls could remember, and although Lin exhibited timidity like a turtle, often waiting for Yu off to the side of the other schoolgirls, Lin admired Yu for her courage and audacity to be sweet and naughty, innocent and fierce all at the same time, especially when Yu had teased Yuan Chao, who was a chubby boy two years their junior.
Lin liked to laugh when Yu made Yuan Chao squat on all fours and gallop around the schoolyard with Yu riding proudly on his back. Yu would slap Yuan Chao on the butt with one hand and the other swinging high over her head while she shouted over and over again,
‘On fat boy! On! Hi-ho, we are going!’
Yu skidded her racing bike to a halt a foot shy from Lin, who clutched her books to her flat chest.
‘What’s so funny?’ Lin asked Yu, who had an unorthodox fire burning in her eyes and a grin Lin only saw on children during the Chinese Lunar New Year when they received lucky money in the traditional red envelopes with gold, portent lettering.
‘When the lucky get going,’ replied Yu, locking her bike to her usual spot, ‘the going gets lucky.’
‘Is today the day?’ asked Lin, knowing well that it was.
Every student in the Foreign Language Middle School knew the honor and the privilege that would be bestowed on the five special students chosen for the American exchange program, and Lin—much like everyone else in the school—knew that her best friend Yu was at the top of a very short list, and even the school’s headmaster, Feng Jiao, knew the same.
When Yu and Lin made it to the front entrance of the school, none other than Headmaster Feng Jiao was waiting for them with her arms crossed and what looked to be like her normal scolding attitude.
‘Come with me, Yu,’ the Headmaster said. ‘We must talk alone.’
Yu politely nodded and wished Lin a very good day and then followed the Headmaster to the stairwell and then up to the school’s rooftop where they could speak in private.
‘Do you know why we are here?’ the Headmaster asked as she walked with Yu to the edge of the roof where they could look out over the school grounds and the city of Guilin.
‘I do not,’ Yu replied. She played with the strap that hung from her backpack. Yu could see the hills like giant elephants and could sense something big was coming for her. And in the sky far, far away she noticed a tiny red object and then thought nothing more of it as the Headmaster began to speak in her dry, shrill voice as if she were addressing a congress of parents.
‘It is about the school trip,’ the Headmaster said. ‘As you know, since you are a very bright and young student, you may have already guessed that you will not be chosen to represent the school or to represent China.’
Yu remained silent and felt her knees become weak. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to scream and fight and beat the holy hell out of Headmaster Feng Jiao. But in the end Yu knew she could do nothing. She could say nothing that would change the Headmaster’s decision. Once the Headmaster or the Party made the decision, it was made—regardless of how corrupt or narrow sighted it may seem to others. Yu nodded her head and listened to the Headmaster explain her reasoning,
‘Difficult decisions are made all the time and we know it must be difficult for you to hear this now, but in time you will understand. You are doing this for China, for the Motherland. We simply cannot allow an American student to visit Guilin and stay with your family. We must provide the best and make a strong impact on the Americans. We must show them how successful the Chinese people are today. We cannot have them stay with less accommodating families. This will only inconvenience the American who would stay with your parents while you were staying with the American’s family. This has nothing to do with your talents and abilities. This has to do with China.’
It was the word ‘China’ that stung Yu the most and here the Headmaster paused and Yu did believe that the older woman was half-imagining her own wasted childhood during the Cultural Revolution and later in the years spent during Gaige Kaifang, ‘Reform and Opening’.
The other half might have been the Headmaster trying to make sense of her own twisted logic. Either way, Headmaster Feng Jiao looked out over the Foreign Language Middle School and as many dictators have done over time immemorial, fooling themselves with a crazed vision, the Headmaster convinced herself this was the best decision for all involved and she finished by telling Yu,
‘Someone else will take your place on the trip and you should be happy for her. Your generosity is for China. It is for the Motherland. In time you will find another way to go to America. You are young. You are smart. And you have many wonderful years ahead of you. I know some day you will understand.’
Yu slumped to the ground against the ledge wall on the graveled rooftop. The tears came and she sobbed. She couldn’t listen to any more. She placed her head down into her arms that rested on her knees and she cried.
Headmaster Feng Jiao stood over Yu for a minute or so and offered no consolation. The Headmaster offered nothing more than her final words,
‘Do not be late to class.’
And the Headmaster turned and walked away, leaving Yu all alone on the roof.
Yu sat for a time and cried. When the tears dried, she thought to herself about how strong she was and how she could overcome any obstacle set in her way. She hoped one day she would be able to overcome the evil housed in the body of Headmaster Feng Jiao.
Over the years Yu had struggled and survived, and at times thrived. Indeed she was a strong girl. After all, had she not snacked on Fancy-smell biscuits for twelve hours during a train journey with her father? And at the destination of that same trip had she not been pushed through the carriage window and into her father’s waiting arms because of the standing crowd inside the train? Had she not done that, all of these things? And even more? She had. But she also knew her life would never be the same again. She had wanted to go to America and now she was not going.
Decades later after the episode on Yu’s school rooftop that would alter her life ever after, she recalled—now on an airplane heading into New York City—of a simpler time when she and her American husband walked hand-in-hand along Li River running through the heart of Guilin, and how as she stopped for a moment to look at a white bridge crossing the river, her husband had said with a bit of hope tinged by enough grief and sorrow,
‘Things do not shine as brightly as they did in childhood, do they?’
Yu knew that they did but she remained silent, because she knew enough to know that childhood, especially her childhood, would remain fierce and alive in such sweet beautiful memories that only her children could ever possibly know.
And one such memory—she had told no one after all these years —was when Headmaster Feng Jiao had left Yu on the rooftop alone to recover from the devastation that would reshape the young girl’s life for many years to come.
Yu had stopped crying long enough to look up and see far away in the great blue sky a strange object slowly floating closer to her. After a minute or so, Yu was no longer crying but her face remained wet as she watched how a silly, little ball came into view and she was quite certain the red balloon headed in a direction meant only for her, regardless of how impossible that might have sounded—for does not one see balloons fly away but rarely see one coming down after a long journey?
Yu watched and watched, laughter at the verge of spilling out, how the balloon swayed and moved with a current of wind over the giant elephants; never did the balloon once alter its course down toward the rooftop where she alone waited.
And Yu thought the red balloon odd as it descended closer, and closer, and closer until finally the balloon landed in her outstretched hands.