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6 A Stranger To Myself

Time is an artist. I am a stone rubbing: the lineaments of a range of peaks, of the caves of a grotto. Before I came into this world, the picture was already complete. As I slowly proceed along the watercourse of this segment of time, I discover my place in it. I see that the picture itself is a piece of history, a depiction of the life of all women.

Summertime, with its long, long days, is my favorite season. It is not like winter, with the skies darkening so early in the day and the wind wailing outside the windows, filling your mind with all kinds of frightening tales.

Though the summer heat was scorching, it was shady and pleasant in the house. But the main thing was that for the whole summer season I didn't have to wear anything but a cotton top and a short skirt. My arms (the Misses Don't) and my legs (the Misses Do) were bare, so I had lots of chances to talk with them.

I discovered that they grew very quickly in summer, especially over the long summer holidays. When I awakened from my long afternoon nap each day, I could see that my languid, lazy misses Do and Don't, which looked like the long, slithery cold noodles we often ate in summer, had again grown a bit. I didn't like being in the sun because it made me feel dizzy, so whenever I was out, I would try to keep in the shade. As a result, my misses Do and Don't were pale as coral, with a winding tracery of blue veins under their translucent skin that made me think of the rivers marked on the big map of China on the back of our door. Every day after my afternoon nap I would have a long conversation with my misses Don't and Do.

Mother said that when summer came I grew as fast as the nettles in our courtyard.

Thus, with the passage of several summers, I was almost as tall as my mother.

The Wanjiao Primary School I attended had become an integrated ten-year primary and middle school, called the Wanjiao Key School. Entering this middle school, I remained one of Mr. Ti's students.

After the incident with the nude pictures, Mr. Ti remained hostile toward me, finding fault with me and rebuking me at every turn. As I grew taller, Mr. Ti was getting shorter, in my eyes, but his arrogance toward me was becoming more and more pronounced.

I could see that a number of my female classmates who had formed a circle around Mr. Ti were completely infatuated with him. Their eyes glued to him, they sat straight as pencils through his language and literature classes. After class they crowded around him with invented questions. They even imitated the way he tossed his hair, and would use pieces of chalk to mimic the way he flicked his cigarette butts out the window. Because I knew he didn't like me, naturally I kept as far away from him as possible.

It can happen in any class that someone will become the center around whom others gather, usually one of the teachers or one of the student leaders. Students will follow and attempt to ingratiate themselves with such a person for their own security and convenience, so they will not be ignored or rejected. But I don't like this kind of behavior. If I can't say what I want to say, then at the very least, I would rather be isolated and alone.

Once during class break, when a number of the girls were chattering as usual around Mr. Ti, in order to avoid the awkwardness of being marked a stranger or outsider, I bent over my desk, working on an assignment.

I chanced to raise my head to look directly into Mr. Ti's eyes as he stared out over the circle of little chatterboxes who were pinning him in on all sides. His gaze shot through me like an icy, burning jolt of electricity. I immediately looked down, to stare at the misshapen characters in my calligraphy exercise book. With their humped shoulders and drooping heads in their little square frames, they were a mess.

His voice rang out, "Ni Niuniu, you know it's against the rules to do your assignments during class break. Go to my office!"

Out of the corner of my eye I could see his huge, shadowlike frame suddenly towering over my desk.

I didn't dare raise my head to look at him. I knew that my face would flush crimson again if I did, because it already felt like it was on fire. I swallowed hard, trying to suppress the urge to hiccup brought on by the sudden tension.

I had no idea why he always had to shout at me, why he couldn't talk to me calmly and quietly. With my head still down, I looked at my pale, tightly clenched fingers as they methodically smoothed the creases out of a balled-up scrap of paper, then violently tore it to shreds as if it were Ti's hateful skin.

I eventually stayed my busy hands, then followed him reluctantly to his office.

Of course, I missed the next class, as I spent the entire time listening to his scolding. I refused to look at him, defiantly keeping my face turned away from him, while he repeatedly took me by either the shoulder or the arm to make me look at his stern face. When he ran out of things to say for a moment, he would stare at my face or my breasts, his eyes transfixed and blazing with fury, as if I were some sort of monster. I don't know what was different about me that so unsettled him.

He stared at me and also forced me to stare at him. He sat rigidly in a chair in front of the office desk and I stood on his right, near the latticed window. When I cast my eyes down I found that I was looking at the top of his head. I saw that his hair was naturally curly, dark chestnut in color, and pushed into a disheveled mess on the top of his head. Perhaps as a result of his sweating in the hot weather, it was very damp, as if he had just washed it, with a slightly salty smell, and it exuded an irrepressible vitality. A shaft of sunlight slanting in through the window fell upon his head in such a way that this curly mass of hair looked very much like a luxuriant bird's nest in a tropical rain forest.

When he eventually noticed that I was staring at his hair, he got up uneasily. Involuntarily he started running his hands through his hair and nervously shrugging his shoulders, as if the clothes he was wearing were uncomfortable.

From the expression in his eyes, I could tell that my staring at him like this left him bewildered, but, in fact, it was my intention to make him feel that way, in just the same way that his stare bewildered me.

Ti was definitely an unusual man.

Of course, at that time I had no way of knowing that the hostility in an overly proud man often stems from an arrogance of which he himself is unaware. The extent of his vilification of and indignation toward a person can in fact be in direct proportion to his attraction to and love for that person. In the same way, a man's ardor or importuning in the chase frequently stems from a deep-seated hostility, not from love.

There are a great many such contradictory and violent men, who cannot be gotten through to.

Through primary and middle school there was always a deep rift between me and those around me. At that time, our primary school grades and classes had graduated "all in one pot" into middle school. I should have been familiar with every face, but all through school I was like a newcomer. Never able to become part of the group, I had to learn to bear the feelings of rejection by strangers. But the other girls, with their hair done in braids or cut short, joined in the fun without any problems. For them, the school was their playground and their heaven, but not for me.

The pleasure of becoming part of a group is something that seems forever beyond me.

I remember very clearly the wood-grain patterns of the pale brown desks and chairs in the school, the rasping scratch of inferior chalk scraping on the blackboard, and my seat on the left side of the third row of desks from the window; and more than anything else, I remember every single humiliating incident that I endured. But I have very few memories of what went on among the students as a whole or among the little groups they formed.

Only many years later, when I read Maria Kuncewiczowa's The Stranger, did I begin to understand that you do not necessarily have to come from a strange place to be a stranger. It is only when you yourself feel like a stranger that you become one. Similarly, when you yourself feel that you are no longer a stranger, you cease to be one. This, of course, is only one way of looking at it. Another way that I look at it is that when you reach the point where you clearly understand everything going on around you, then nothing will be strange to you, and you will no longer feel like a stranger.

Thus, when I was a student, my classmates and I were strangers to one another despite our familiarity.

In fact, this phenomenon of estrangement in familiarity was to accompany me for many years to come.

In the house, in the scorching heat of summer, I usually wore just a long and very loose cotton top that reached past my bottom like a dress, so that much of my body was bare. As a result, I had plenty of opportunity to observe the physical changes I was going through. Stirred by the way Mr. Ti glared at my face and chest, I spent long periods examining myself in the mirror. To my surprise, I discovered that there really were some changes. The first thing I noticed was my breasts, which I felt were suddenly becoming round and full. After watching them for a number of days, I thought it seemed like there were lumps of dough rising in them, making them swell more every day. I also felt a faint pain there that I had never felt before.

This discovery made me feel very strange.

Just at this time Mrs. Ge, the neighbor in front of us, developed breast cancer. Some people said that she had discovered a hard lump when she was washing herself. Others said that her husband had first found it on a wet night when the mugginess and the pervasive sound of the rain wouldn't let him sleep. With nothing else to do, he started gently caressing his wife and eventually felt the irregularity. After that, she was taken to the hospital, given a number of tests, and eventually diagnosed as having cancer.

I heard my mother say that she had already undergone massive surgery, with the doctor cutting out both her breasts as if they were nothing more than persimmons on a tree, as well as most of the associated lymph glands in her armpits. And that in the oppressive summer heat, the intense pain and feeling of suffocation experienced by this woman, with her breasts removed and her bosom, flat as a cutting board, bound in bloody gauze, stemmed from mental as much as from physical pressures.

Mother also said that even though Ge was going through this suffering, she would die fairly soon anyway, because the cancer cells had already spread, though she herself did not know this.

Lying on my little bed in my room that night, I was deeply frightened by the indistinct sounds of Mrs. Ge's moaning coming from the front of the courtyard. The rustling of the trembling leaves, which sounded like it was right beside me, seemed to be responding to her cries. Filled with dread, I put my hand on my chest and started exploring.

And sure enough, I found a hard little lump just under the nipple of one of my newly developing breasts. Moving to the other one, I found a similar little lump. With this, I was overwhelmed with fear.

I tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep, imagining that, like the lady next door, I was about to die.

According to Mother, dying was a total destruction of life. There is no other kind of leaving that carries us as far away; there is no other kind of renunciation that is as final; there is no other kind of forsaking of relatives and friends that is as thoroughgoing. Death is the irreversible termination of life.

Lying on my bed, I felt like I had been forced to don long, brocade burial robes, which try as I might I could not take off. I stared through the window at a night sky that was as clear as a limpid blue pool, while my heart sent blasts of tropical heat and arctic cold racing through my veins. I didn't want to renounce anything; I didn't want to forsake my mother, nor Widow Ho, whom I liked so much. Why would I want to die? Of course, being able to get away from Mr. Ti and my father was the one thing that made death attractive to me. But still, I didn't want to die.

I didn't dare go into my parents' room to wake them, so I lay there alone, a victim of my mind's wild imaginings.

Hearing about death was like listening to some ear-piercing musical instrument, the sound as shrill as glass or as hard as metal. With one click of the latch, the door would be shut, and I would be forsaken by the world around me.

At that moment, my corpse dropped abruptly out of the darkness onto the bed beside me and lay next to me as cold as ice. I rolled away from her and looked at her huge eye sockets in the obscuring darkness, but those despairing eyes refused to look at me. Her lips moved ceaselessly, but she refused to talk to me. She was sneezing repeatedly, but the sound was very strange. Her sneezes sounded like those of our former dog, Sophia Loren.

After a while she got so restless that she got up from the bed and started pacing back and forth in the room, like a shadow moving along a wall. Her intangible image flickered waveringly with no apparent left or right or front or back, seeming to move in a space of infinite dimensions. Whatever she wanted to see, she could see.

After strolling about the room alone for some time, my corpse came up to me. Suddenly she smiled and asked how I was. She said that she didn't like graves, that she liked to wander through cedar forests. For some reason, I wanted to reach out and touch her bosom to see if she was still breathing, but when I did so I discovered that she did not have breasts. I was filled with terror, but at the same time couldn't bring myself to ignore or abandon her

Only when the sky began to lighten did I finally drop off into a fitful sleep.

In the morning, Mother was astonished when she came in to get me up and saw how pale and distraught I was. She couldn't understand how such a change could take place in just one night.

Putting her hand on my forehead, she asked, "Niuniu, are you sick?"

I said, "Mama, is the lady next door going to die?"

This perplexed Mother even more. She had no idea what had happened.

I said, "Mama, I'm going to die too. I've got cancer too." Then I started to cry, my tears gushing down like a midsummer deluge.

Mother started examining my breasts, and indeed found what seemed to be a hard little lump. I pulled back, saying, "It hurts."

In disbelief, Mother said, "Who ever heard of a child having breast cancer?" But even as she said it she started to look upset.

That morning I didn't go to school as usual, because Mother took me to the hospital.

At that time there were no physiology classes in school, so we were not like today's adolescents who learn about the sexual development and maturity of, and differences between, males and females in their regular sex education classes. Although I was almost the same height as my mother, my awareness and knowledge of sexuality were abysmal. My mother refused to accept that I was growing up and continued to treat me as a child.

In the obstetrics ward at the hospital, most of the women coming and going were expectant mothers with stomachs swollen like drums. One woman about to give birth was stretched out face upward on a high, hard bed. Her bare stomach looked like a huge white drum that had been pumped so full of gas that it was ready to burst. A middle-aged male doctor was pressing here and there all over her stomach as he asked her questions. I was waiting off to one side, terribly afraid that her stomach would split from the pressure of his hand.

When it was my turn, Mother took great pains to explain my condition to him.

He had a very thin face, wide-set eyes, and a very offhand manner. His thin face made his large mouth look huge, which only served to make his disapproval more obvious.

I was too bashful to undo my blouse in front of a strange man, but since he asked me to, I did so. Very casually, but with meticulous thoroughness, he felt my breasts; then he laughed at my mother as if mocking her and said, "There's nothing wrong with her. She's entering puberty."

My mother said, "But she says she has some pain."

A bit impatiently, the doctor said, "You're a woman, surely you've gone through puberty yourself. This is quite normal."

After that, perhaps realizing how he had behaved, he asked in a friendly tone, "How old is she?"

Mother told him.

He replied, "She's noticeably thin for a girl her age. You should make sure she eats more nutritiously."

The examination for my "illness" over, both Mother and I heaved a sigh of relief as we left the antiseptic-laden air of the hospital.

In the little shop at the hospital entrance, in an instant response to the doctor's admonition, Mother bought me a bottle of yogurt and a ham sausage to make sure I ate more nutritiously, as if I would start getting fat the moment I ate them.

I was eating all the way home.

As I walked, images of Widow Ho's pale breasts, like a pair of plump peaches, hovered vaguely in my mind.

| A Private Life | 7 Yi Qiu