During the Cultural Revolution, Li was exiled with her
mother to a rural collective in Hebei province. Her
father and daughter were forced to remain in the city
At the collective, Li adopted a stray German shepherd,
which she named Xiao Li or little Hazelnut for the
brownish nub on her belly that seemed a part of the
hazelnut shrubs at the periphery of the collective.
Li's assignment was to guard an unfinished damn, a
duty that would, she was told, prevent its sabotage by
Western subversives. Each day, she'd stand watch with
Xiao Li, imagining at mid afternoon serving her father
his favorite mint tea, its thin leaves barely stirred
by his whispering acceptance.
In November, a northern desert wind dried out the
pools of water that leaked through the walls of the
damn. The lines of hazelnut shrubs wilted in that
drought, and Li was sent with the others to gather
sheaves of wheat by the Bai He River. On her return to the collective, she found that Xiao
Li was gone. Li heard a rumor that the dog had been slaughtered by
a peasant family from a village a few kilometers away.
Her father recounted that, when she came back from her
three-year exile on her ninth birthday, Li was barely
recognizable, her skin scorched by her long days alone
guarding that dam.
Li and I experienced very little conflict at the
beginning of our relationship. "When a woman's in
love," Li said, "her man is the object of worship."
"Even if he is from the West," I replied. "Yes, as if
he were Mao himself. While awaiting your command, we
survey the collective water supply for a trace of a
missing invader, aware that we cannot stop him."
I do not recall the sources of our first friction.
What I do remember is her exquisite effort not to
touch me, even avoiding brushing my side while
finishing the dinner dishes. At first, I tried to
confront her right away, but my hunger for an
immediate solution merely pushed her away. I learned
to wait until she became ready, until the shrubs had
been picked clean. I did not sleep in our bed,
stretching out instead her panda quilt on the wooden
porch floor and watching a family of raccoons
desperately scour our landlord's garbage for their
When our daughter was born, I hoped that Li would
openly speak of her differences, and this did happen
to a certain extent, but this new openness also gave
voice to her anger, a voice that had gathered force in
the bones of the duplex that housed my daughter's
I no longer drifted apart from Li. She
sent me into exile until one day she suggested we buy a dog: "Good for Mei to
have some responsibility." Li found a web site about a
shelter that saved dogs from famines and gassings, and
we drove one hour to reach it.
A puppy, a mix of
German shepherd and greyhound, was hiding in the
corner of a cage. We brought it home, and though a
brown nut did not speckle her belly and we were half a
world away from the shrubs of Li's collective, she
became our Hazel. On her initial night with us, Hazel
whimpered in her metal crate, her rib cage shaking
with an overpowering fear. I brought out my blanket
and, after she had stopped crying, fell asleep by her
cage. The wind swept over a field outside our window,
buried our leaf-ridden yard beneath the weight of its
My wife pulled at my shirt in the morning, dragged
Hazel and me back to our king-size. Li stroked the
flooring's cold marks away from my forearms and face.
Hazel did the same with her paws and tongue, falling
asleep between us.
A Dragon Post
She drew on deception to keep our relationship alive. It
became a dragon breathing out my inside.
She met her first husband at Nankei University. It was
a first-tier school, and she had needed a high score
to get in. Acceptance there was an achievement for Li.
All the schools had been shut down when she was a
teenager on account of the Cultural Revolution. She
had to prep each night after working a nine-hour
shift, stitching on buttons at a fast clip.
Her work on the assembly line, she said, was the true
beginning of her education. She developed the skill to
find the button holes under dim light bulbs. A
bird-like strength grew in her fingertips.
Our first real honeymoon was when we visited her home
city, Tianjin, and she took me on a tour detailing her
life in the factory, her meeting Shin at the
university and how she came to pound on his family's
red lacquered door until her hands wore scars from the
"After each shift at the clothing assembly," she said, revisiting her nightly routine, "I came home to
a plate of rice wrappies prepared by her mother, the
stir fries bursting from their in-seams, a thermos of
tea fogging up the plated glass next to the sink.
Sometime past midnight, I’d wake up from my studies
hearing the snap of laundry from a neighbor's line,
becoming immersed in a downstairs quarrel recycled
from generations past.
"When I went to Nankai, it was only a crow's flight
from these deteriorating walls," she said, pointing
from the factory to Weijin Road at the heart of the
university. "I had become used to being alone, to
having books spread over my desktop. I was string-bean
thin, my breasts no more than small puffs of wheat,
and when a boy rang at the front desk of the
dormitory, it was almost always to see my roommate,
“She was unusual for a Chinese girl. She was not shy
in front of girls or boys. When Chen was not on a
date, she would spend her evenings in front of a large
mirror, adjusting her thin, pinkish bra, and gazing at
a scar above her left nipple turned up like a cat's
"When Shin, my first husband, rang the bell at the
front desk, I assumed that he was there to see Chen.
Shin was a rising star in the foreign lit department,
having already published a translation in a first-rank
literary journal. Chen asked if I could let him know
she needed half-hour prep. She had white cream on her
face, her breasts nearly out of her flowered bra. But
he said he had come to see me alone, and later when we
walked along the Hai He River -- neon petals growing
from its muddy bed -- he added that he thought I was far
the more interesting one. Whether he was just saying
that or really meant it, I fell head over heels in the
heart of my home city.
"How did he look?" I asked. "Well," she said. "My
first husband had smooth leathery skin that fit snugly
around his eyes, his only impurity two little strands
falling from the balls. Am I being too graphic?" she
"Not really," I said adjusting the clown's mask that
fit awkwardly over my face. "I assume you’ve also
found your second husband similar." "Of course," she
said with some hesitation, "But with you, it is a
personal preference. With him, it was shared by
others. As an American, you might find it difficult to
understand. I don't think his flat demeanor would be
looked at as sexy here. But in China, it was
considered an appealing way to survive.
"You fell head over heels in love," I said evenly.
"Yes," she smiled. "In your twenties, you can leap off
a cliff without much forethought. As you grow older,
you learn to stay within the accepted lines."
"What really took place?" I said. "He caught me with
another man," she smiled. I looked up surprised.
"Nothing really happened. He was a buddy from work who
had come over to my apartment to cry about his
girlfriend or wife or mother leaving him, I forget
which. Just when I went over to give him a friendly
hug, you probably guessed it. Shin walked in.
"He didn't yell or anything. Just looked at us like he
had been given tickets to a bad play and was deciding
whether he should stay. He left, went over to his
mother's apartment which I followed him to so that I
could tell him the true situation. He wouldn't let me
in even though I pounded on his family's red lacquered
door until my hands started to bleed. Shin's mother, a
little woman, maybe five foot taller but no more,
yelled from behind the dragon-door guard, "They are
all sluts, every one of them."
"What she was repeating was the popular prejudice in
China that a woman went into journalism so that she
could be alone professionally with a man. Once, a
colleague threatened me that, if I didn't have sex
with him, he would produce pictures of me naked in
bed. He took a chance that, as a female journalist,
there would be such pictures somewhere, and I would
have to submit.
"Do you think that Shin made that leap of faith? That
was why he left so quickly." "It may have been
already planted in the back of his mind, but he did
come back after a week or so, convinced perhaps that
there was more shame in divorce. He never got back his
trust in me though I tried repeatedly to let him see I
"Why did you have to ask for forgiveness?" I said. "He
should have asked yours."
"You're not Chinese. You could not possibly
understand. When my work-mate asked if he could visit
my home, I should have refused. Even if Shin had not
walked in, a neighbor could have seen him. Rumors
spread fast in my city. I was very selfish to let
another man visit our apartment.
"If only to be a sympathetic shoulder."
"Yes, even if that alone. I grew to accept my mistake,
and after a while, became used to his living in a
separate glass house. I would see Shin occasionally
when he visited our apartment to change for his late
afternoon tennis game. He'd leave with his racket in
hand. What made it so suspect was that he showered
before the match. He must have known but didn't care
it looked suspicious or wanted me to know out of some
sort desire for revenge. When my friends told me that
she was a young widow from highly connected family, I
felt better. I knew that she was a few rungs up the
ladder and would never lower herself to marry a person
of his background.
"I went back to my habits from the factory, burying
myself in my work, hardly speaking to my friends,
immersed in the wind that would crack the downtown
shades of the newsroom, a wind that would take out my
insides with its scent of invisible fire. I rose
professionally, was given my own column, called
'Letters to Ms. Wei, Wei,' where I gave advice to
young farm girls recently arrived in the city on
relationships with the opposite sex, a plum I felt I
had to let go when my husband got accepted to graduate
school in America, and I moved with him from Weijin
Road, determined to be reconciled.
"Each night, I waited for Shin to return from his
studies. As my mother had done for me, I prepared for
him a plate of rice wrappies, stir fry vegetables
bursting from their in-seams and a scorching hot
thermos of green tea to keep him awake. He stopped
coming home though, choosing to live at the graduate
lounge with his international friends on a diet of
danish and endless caffeine till he came back once early, laying out carefully
our savings, fourteen hundred and some odd change on
the kitchen table and asking whether I could go away
as soon as possible. I knew, without his saying so, he
had found an American woman worth his trust.
"I answered the first ad in the newspaper, a small
room in a house on Grant Street. You visited there
only a few months after we had separated. Do you
I remember. I visited her room on our second date. The
room was very small, the bed jammed against the door
knob so that we had to push our way in. On her night
table was a blurred photo of Shin and Li in matching
striped bathing suits on their honeymoon. She placed
its frame face down. Later she cried, she said,
"because I was gentle. He was so cruelly true." I wish
that I could have put my fist through that glass and
reached his stoic face.
I met Shin only once. He was an assistant prof at the
University of Indiana and was on campus, he said, to
meet with his adviser. I did not believe him. He had
tracked me down. He wanted to see what substance I was
made of. He asked me a few inconsequential questions:
where I was in my studies and what I thought of the
department. We shook hands. He left.
A few days later, Li and I saw Shin with his American
fiancée on Main Street in Northampton. She was
slightly smaller than Li was, her skin much paler, but
she did share Li's body type. She was string-bean
thin, her breasts puffs of wheat. She walked hand and
hand with Shin, mirroring his deliberate steps with
her own measured gait.
"Do you want to chase them down?" I asked Li. She
shook her head. We walked farther until we were out of
the light and could see them and not they us. She
kissed me with a passion I had not felt since when Li
cried after I penetrated her on our second date. A
fire burnt through my insides. But I had taken on
Shin's pure leathery skin and would not show her the
scars I had come by, pushing my hand through a dragon
The Tianjin Daily
Newspaper reporting was perfect for her character, she
once told me over a nice ripened bluefish, her
favorite dish. Li had that natural ability to cut
life to the bone, remove its skin and tissue, report
on the skeletal details: the who, what, and where?
"Do you miss newspaper writing?" I asked her while
teasing open my own bluefish, its spine glistening
against the bone china. "No, not much. I didn't look
forward to the biking and hated having to give my work
to the censors. I liked though," she smiled, "the
many course meals at the factory's expense. Now I
have to cook for you and Mei."
Li had worked the business page, her stories mostly
relating to local production achievements: a
twenty-percent rise in the output of the Otis elevator
factory or the heroic insistence of an assembly line
to meet a rush order deadline, but they all had to
pass what a reporter friend of hers, Mr. Ding, a thin,
pencil-stick of a man, had proudly named the praise
test. "Had to," Li whispered, forking open the skin
of her victim, "set store in the heart and humility of
the Chinese prol."
Mr. Jong, her editor at the Daily, a man with
bulging frog-like eyes and an obsessive appetite for
beef dumplings, did not care about how she reached
that heart, how she tore apart that skin, how she
entered its fluid chambers, only that the heart was
there, only that there would be no annoying calls from
the censors, no breaks disturbing his comfortable
ascent up the Daily masthead.
Li drove as much as 30 or 40 kilometers on assignments
with only a pad in her pocket and plastic poncho
clamped on the metal basket of her rusted blue bike:
"Once," she told me, "I drove for hours through a
rainstorm, hundreds of bicycles around me, pedestrians
coming out at me out of the blinding gray. Over time,
my knees became shot, and after two years of
disturbing Mr. Jong's dumpling meals with my
complaints, I was made an editor of my own page, though
of course not in his department."
She laughed, her gray streaks of hair bunching
together like spools of thread, and asked why I was at
all interested in her past." "It seems romantic," I
said, "To have been a journalist in the People's
Republic." "My boy," she leaned over the kitchen
table, her hand over my own, "I would spend the whole
morning on a bike, get a few numbers from the
secretary and walk round the factory grounds."
"But it was those many-coursed meals. We would go to
the fancy restaurants with the fish tanks jumbled in
the front window. I would browse each lit box until I
found my favorites: the fresh bluefish from the Hai
River, their lips pressing the glass, the lobsters
clustering together in the brine, their claws snapping
at my fingers, the waiter dipping a net into the fresh
water and with prongs, grabbing at the claws. I'd follow the
waiter right to the kitchen and watch the reddish
green tail of the lobster disappear into a vat of
steam, the onions simmering beneath the bluefish, the
chef's yelling at the waiter to retrieve his ready
order and tossing a greasy pan towards a sullen
dishwasher recently migrated from the countryside.
"And we had a feast: heaps of dumplings, lobster claws
arranged like trophies from a hunt, a blue fish on a
long thin silver plate, a slight pinkish coloring
around the vertebrate. It was an empty ritual of
course. The managers knew I could only print the good
news. But they felt the dinner was somehow a tangible
record of the exchange. I am from a place where you
expect to see the fish undressed from its full
ripening in a phosphorescent-lit tank to its final
emergence onto the bone china: its bluish skin and
"I was pampered like a queen during these business
lunches, but, by late afternoon, I was back plugging
away on my rusted bike through the rains that were a
regular part of the five o'clock rush, my poncho over
my long pleated skirt.
"I'd return to the office, give my article to Mr. Jong
who gave it the quick look over. After the story was
signed off at the daily, I'd bike another hour or so
through the crowded heart of the city, across the
bridge over the Hai River where the Red soldiers had
entered the city to end the Revolution, finally
arriving at the Ministry of Communications, and on the
seventh or eight floors, I'd be waiting in line for a
time like would be done in the States to renew a
driver's license, trying to summon the taste of that
bluefish and lobster, trying to recall those oils
mixed on my plate like the colors of peacocks decked
out in their summer plumes.
"A woman in a plain smock motioned me into her office
with the back of her hand. 'Here, Comrade Sung,' I
whispered obediently. Though she was barely literate,
she'd carefully scrutinize each syllable of my story,
sprinkling in a random change in the language,
crossing off the occasional comma. 'With these,'
Comrade Sung did not even look up, sending me off with
the quick flick of her wrist.
"I'd travel back to the office across the Hai River
that Mao's soldiers had once marched across: where my
father had proudly waved a flag, the taste still
coating my tongue and I'd stop in front of the White
Moon, an out-of-the-way restaurant near the Daily
offices, watching a blue fish innocently circle the
tank, the lobsters piled high: a delicate redness.
"I was hungry, hungry for news, hungry to start the
next day, the next story where I would have the chance
to cut to the bone."
©2003 by Charles Lowe