Xue rails against China’s gender inequality, as a daughter born under the one-child policy.
|Image generated with OpenAI
Not far from Granny Huang’s home, where Xue stayed, was a brook called Plum Blossom. Flowing down a little valley between two mountains, it made a clear and sweet sound, splashing down on the rocks. The water was as blue as captured by Xue’s favorite artist Lin Fengmian’s painting of blue flowers.
In the day, while children swam, played, and splashed water at each other, Xue amused herself along the edge of the brook. She had been there several times, surrounded by children, yet she never met a teenage girl or woman. In her class as a volunteer teacher in the village, she noticed that many girls had heat rash, but when asked how they dealt with it, they told her that they merely soaked towels in the water and patted themselves.
Women and girls showed up along the river only in the late evening. Whenever Xue passed the river, she could see women and girls of various ages – some of them incredibly young – squatting along the riverbank in a row, chatting and washing clothes.
When a man returned from a hard day’s work in the fields, dripping with sweat, he would go to the stream to wash himself. But the women, wearing muddy and dirty canvas clothes and gloves, would have to fetch and tote water home to take a bath.
“Why don’t they go to the brook?” Xue asked Granny Huang as she carried a bucket and followed Granny Huang to her vegetable garden.
Xue was slim, with thick eyebrows, large black eyes. She had long, fine black hair, often pulled back in a ponytail. She looked healthy with a slight wheat color to her skin. A pair of small dimples were evenly distributed on both sides of the cheeks. The dimples made her cute.
“It’s the way it is,” replied Granny Huang. She was in her seventies. Her head was covered with gray hair, the forehead and the corners of the eyes seamed with wrinkles.
Granny Huang, with a rake at hand, turned over half of the vegetable field. Then, just like drawing a grid, she divided the overturned vegetable fields into small pieces, dug holes about 10mm deep, vertically placed vegetable shoots into the holes, and placed soil around roots.
“I don’t believe girls should get punished for swimming in the brook.” As Xue said this, there emerged stubbornness and resolution hidden deep in her eyes. She used a wooden spoon to water the plants.
Granny Huang shook her head. She bowed, with a stick in her hand, and hobbled along to the other half of the vegetable field, which was covered in lush green vegetation. Rows of cabbages and leeks vigorously grew, and cucumbers climbed straight up along the fence. Corianders shook their small heads in the wind, sending forth fragrance.
Then Xue learned the story of Granny Huang’s childhood friend Meimei. She had gone for a swim in her underclothes on a scorching summer night. A forest guard passed by and saw her. The next day Meimei was found dead; she had hanged herself. And she and then the rest of the villagers learned from the guard what had happened.
“Meimei was a good girl but died with a reputation as a slut,” Granny Huang sighed. She knew it was a long, long time ago, but she simply couldn’t stop picturing Meimei and them splashing around in the stream as little girls. Yet once they reached the age of puberty, they were forbidden to swim in the brook. Otherwise, they would be regarded as being disreputable and even unmarriageable. Meimei should have been more cautious.
“Always the same.”
“No, it is not. It’s a different era now.”
“Not unless you are a man,” said Granny Huang. Her left hand pummeled her back as she coughed.
A flock of geese nearby cackled and gaggled. However, the voice of her mother, whispering in Xue’s ear, blotted out the sounds.
When I was pregnant, I dreamt of a wild horse galloping across the field that heralded the birth of a son. Then I had you…
Her mother’s words left in Xue a lingering doubt that she was born to be lesser than men. The one-child policy meant that her father would not have a son to carry on his family name. So, he divorced her mother, remarried, and had a son. Feeling betrayed by her father, her mother commanded Xue to be strong and independent. Xue did not disappoint her mother – she aced her studies, excelled in extracurricular activities, won various medals. In her fights with the notions that men were superior to women, she became a doer, a warrior, and a wild horse. She defied every girls-won’t-make-it notion. She scored higher in science subjects than boys, and she established Half the Sky in college, an organization that raised education funds for rural girls, and to establish equality between boys and girls. She almost proved that a daughter was as good as a son. Almost. Whenever she brought home a medal, her mother sighed:
If only you were a boy…
That summer, Xue’s college roommate Yan came to Li Village with other four girls of Half the Sky, to teach in the local school as volunteers and to encourage girls to pursue their academic interests.
Born in a well-off family in a seashore city in Southern China, Yan had never experienced poverty. As the only child in the family, Yan was used to nurture and adoration. As planned by her parents, she would attend a privileged college, have a decent job, get married, have a child (preferably a son), and take care of the family. Yet after college, for the first time in her life, she was not so sure about her future.
As a little girl, Yan had learned from her mother to watch her father closely so as to hit on what he liked. Her father didn’t want her to play too many video games, so she stopped it; her father believed good girls should not go out at night, so she stayed home; her father thought as a student she should focus on study and not puppy love, so she studied hard and stayed away from boys. When Xue noticed Yan’s watchful expression around authority or men, she told her, “We probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of us if we could know how seldom they do.”
Could she not care what others thought of her? She dared not be herself. She tried not to be a “good girl,” yet this label, like a chain, locked her body and soul, making her afraid to try and make mistakes, to question, to take risks.
She thought she would decline Xue’s invitation to volunteer in a village, but the night before the trip, she called her mother.
“Fighting for the equality of women? Nonsense! Ensuring equal rights for both men and women was made a national policy. Come home and work in your father’s company,” snapped her mother. “Your future has already been decided for you. No need to think about it.”
Yan would have obeyed her mother, but this time, something made her say “no.” Where did the rebellious idea come from? Perhaps the seed was planted in her heart the night when she was in high school, and her father criticized her for being a nerd after he talked with her head teacher for two hours. “Don’t always stay indoors and study. You barely have friends. Your teachers all worry that you are too nerdy.” His voice was full of reproach. The seed sprouted later during the Spring Festival, when her uncle visited them. She greeted her uncle as usual and poured tea for him. Although her uncle smiled at her in a friendly way, before she left the living room, he said to her father, “Yan studies so hard that she has become a bookworm. Social skills are vital in modern society. Ask her to go out more often.” She wanted to yell at them that she was not a good girl or an inflexible bookworm. Yet accustomed to obedience, she dared not. She did not want to be ill-bred, to shame her parents. Still the “rebel” seed took root and grew.
She was shocked the first day she arrived at the village. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the village had become a world of its own due to traffic blockage. The quiet, narrow valleys in between were sprinkled with mud farmhouses and a few newer brick and cement dwellings, paid for by remittances sent from villagers working in the cities. Almost every family raised livestock. The sheds for chickens, ducks, and pigs were next to the house. These animals defecated everywhere. On sunny days, the air was thick with a pungent stench, while on rainy days, feces flowed. Even though some villagers had built a concrete path in front of their homes, they still had to worry about stepping on excrement when they went out on a rainy day. Yan knew that was one primary reason Xue chose to reside with Granny Huang whose cottage was far away from the village. Xue invited her to stay at Granny Huang’s house, but she dared not. She couldn’t stand the smell either, but she didn’t want the villagers to dislike her as they told her that Granny Huang was reclusive and ill-boding.
As China implemented its reform and opening, the outside world had changed with each passing day. However, Li Village was enclosed in a glass shield, captured in a parallel time and space. Regardless of how the outside world changed, it remained basically unchanged.
One afternoon Yan and other members of their group met Xue on the playground of the primary school. Xue told them her plan to persuade girls to go to the brook. As always, Yan was alarmed by Xue’s boldness.
The fierce sun shone overhead. They sat on the dirt in the leafy shade of a litchi tree with dense foliage. In the dense heat, cicadas buzzed. In front of them was a wall painted with “Give Better and Fewer Births, Make Contributions to the Country.”
Like other rural areas, walking in Li Village, you could see all kinds of eye-catching wall paintings. A slogan was a mirror of the times, a history “standing” on the wall. In 1982, family planning was identified as a state policy. Shibboleths such as “One Child One Couple,” had been relentlessly advertised for a long time. Rural wall catchwords also centered on economic construction, like “Science and Technology are the Primary Productive Force” and “Develop Economy, Ensure Supply.”
The next day they gathered the village girls in a classroom. At the end of the classroom was a poster “Physical and Aesthetic Education,” yet Yan was told that due to a lack of teachers, students seldom had music and P.E. class. Through the classroom windows, she spotted “Report Violation of Family Planning, Reward 100 Yuan,” on the outside wall. All of these gave Yan the feeling that she had crossed time and space and landed in an alien place. She paused to collect her thoughts before listening to Xue.
“Times have changed, and we need to abandon old notions,” said Xue. She stood at the platform of the small classroom, taking out a paper napkin to mop her perspiring forehead. Rivulets of sweat streamed down her cheeks, and perspiration clotted her hair.
“I love to swim in the stream,” Hua, a twelve-year-old said. She was a saucy tomboy who liked climbing trees, playing slingshots, and from time to time got into fights with a boy or two. She fanned herself with a textbook, her dress saturated with sweat. Yet a book fan was quite useless.
“I once played in the brook, but my grandma slapped me and warned that she would break my legs if I did it again.” Then she hushed for fear of being heard, “However, I secretly go to the river late at night with a friend or two. We can go there, just not get caught.”
“Girls should be allowed to go at day,” said Xue. She sounded a little impatient. The classroom was very hot. The sun burned straight through the transparent panes, scorching the air. In the steaming classroom, the four electric fans on top of the classroom were twisting and turning, but the little air from the fans could not relieve the heat that enveloped the classroom. Perhaps the hot weather also agitated Xue, Yan pondered as she observed Xue putting down the drenched paper napkin and drank from her water bottle.
“If we all play in the brook, the adults will not punish us, right, Sufen?” Hua asked, giving Sufen a nudge.
Sufen hardly ever spoke. It seemed like she buried all her thoughts in her heart and would only share some with the clouds when she occasionally looked up at the sky, lost in thought.
“It’s a shame to be seen half-naked by men,” Sufen whispered when they all stared at her.
“It’s not,” Hua said.
Sufen lowered her head, “My mother would beat me, even if we all play in the brook.” She tried to hide her face by letting her hair down, but Yan still spotted the bruise and swelling.
Yan looked at the girls. It unsettled her to know they were not valued here, and beating children was the norm. Yet what’s more disturbing was that girls got beaten more often than boys. Parents punished their daughters for the misdeeds of their sons. Women and girls here just endured it silently, taking it as their due for not being male.
Growing up, she had heard something about her relatives taking extreme measures to have sons, and some even giving advice to her parents. But she had never been permitted to learn the whole story, and she didn’t place much credence in it. Coming here, however, she learned that many villagers ran away to hide in deep mountains or other places to have sons. Now she knew that, despite the one-child policy, these girls all came from large families with several siblings. Most of them would drop out and work in a factory to support the family. All their salaries would go to their mothers, who would save it up to build a house for their brothers. When they turned twenty, their parents would find a matchmaker to marry them off if they did not have a boyfriend then. The dowry was generally six months to a year’s wages.
If we were born here, I could be Sufen and Xue, maybe Hua. As the thought crossed her mind, something akin to a deep sense of helplessness swept over Yan. She was struck by how much disillusionment there was. At that instant, she understood why Xue fought so hard to help girls. She clenched her fists, just like Xue always did, as if she had all her last hope and strength in it, and if she let go, there was nothing left. She realized that Xue resolved to make a change, like a drowning person holding on to the last piece of driftwood. But could Xue make it? She doubted it.
Like other rural areas in the Chaoshan region of China, this village had a very strong clansman concept. Many village heads were at the same time patriarchs. It was not the law that maintained social order but the traditional code of conduct. For the local people, family rules and customs were the law. It was the village head Mr. Li’s work to ensure the well-being of the villagers.
Mr. Li was born to a family of farmers. Like many villagers, he dreamed about getting rid of poverty. After he finished junior middle school, he joined the many young and middle-aged villagers that flooded the cities. Uneducated, unskilled, he took any work he could find – working in the factory, going to the construction site to carry bricks and bags, or helping carry goods at the grocery market. Frustrated in his ambition and lack of formal training, Mr. Li returned to the village. After many years’ hard work, he was finally elected village head. Now in his early forties, he was full of enthusiasm for work, taking action to increase the villagers’ income.
Mr. Li had heard about the recent circulating rumors about the newcomers. When Xue entered his office in the ancestral hall, he saw a young girl with dark, long straight hair and proud, strong features. They shook hands. He could tell she felt equal to him. It was good for women to be independent, but he was annoyed that they were inclined to question men and traditions.
They sat down on the solid wood sofa. On the table was a bamboo tea tray with water tank.
“I am grateful that you take time from your busy schedule to meet me today.” When Xue spoke, she sounded like spring water, trickling.
“I should thank you for bringing donations to our village.” Mr. Li’s voice was loud, clear and assured.
Xue said, “I am glad that we can help. As you know, every year, Half the Sky brings 30,000 yuan to support local education. Without these funds, Xiwang Primary School would collapse. We want to further improve the school’s teaching facility, but people will only increase donations if we can prove that Half the Sky indeed brings improvements in women’s education and income.”
Mr. Li was annoyed by the perception of Xue’s meaning. He poured boiled water over the teapot and small teacups and rinsed them. And then he put Tieguanyin tea leaves into the teapot. Then he remarked, “Girls’ net enrollment rate surpassed that of boys last year.”
Xue came straight to the point, “That’s true. The mission of Half the Sky is to ensure that all girls enjoy the same rights as boys. It’s hot here. Girls and women should have the right to relieve summer heat in the brook.”
“No rules forbid them to go to the brook. In the era of reform, people open up their minds and ideas. Girls are free to go. They simply don’t for their self-esteem.”
“Will you let your daughter go there?”
“She can go, but she won’t.”
“But will you encourage her, telling her it is okay to do that?”
“It’s not me who stops girls going. She is the one that has self-respect.”
“Exactly! Why does going to the brook during the day mean having no sense of honor? That’s the invisible shackle that has restrained girls for so many years. We need to encourage them to take the first step, a rule to support them to go there.”
He poured tea into the teacup before Xue. He looked slowly up and then looked at her eyes, a smile no longer on his face. “You’re pretty free with some of the rules, but maybe you’ll kindly keep an eye upon the rest.”
“I’m proud of being true to who I am, even if that means I must break with the norm.”
He raised his voice. “You can’t change the villagers’ mind in a short time.”
“But step by step, it is achievable. I know you put the villagers’ welfare first. So do I. Half the Sky plans to work with several organizations to provide small loans for women to start businesses. We can discuss it.”
He was riddled with an overwhelming inner conflict: on the one hand, he had seen the outside world and welcomed Xue’s funds to help develop the village; on the other, he was afraid that his approval would set off a chain reaction and break tradition.
In his ambivalence, Mr. Li was well aware that the villagers needed these donations and loans to make ends meet. He could not refuse Xue’s request. And then he ridiculed his concern. Xue was like a pebble dropped into a pool; even though it would set in motion of ripples, the pool would calm, the mud would settle, clearing the water. Even if girls went to the brook with Xue, everything would return to its original state after she left.
Jianyi, one of the village men, played cards with his friends under a large century-old banyan tree when Mr. Li gathered everyone. Many of Jianyi’s poker friends were like him. They had worked in the city, but life was so harsh and work so overwhelming that they returned home. Every day, they idled about and did no decent work while their wives did all the chores and even most of the farm work.
Like most villages in south China, Li Village locals believed the banyan tree god guarded them. The banyan tree had a tall and burly body, lush branches and leaves, and viewed from a distance, it looked like a towering green umbrella. It was where the daily markets were held, open-air movies were shown at festivals and celebrations, and places for important meetings.
Soon villagers filled the steps under the tree.
Something’s up, Jianyi thought, as it was not common for Mr. Li to have unplanned meetings during the day.
Mr. Li announced that, bounded by the wooden bridge across the brook, the upper half was the territory of the men while the lower part would be a swimming pool for women. His voice boomed across the village.
This announcement caused quite a stir. A well-preserved septuagenarian stood out and scolded, “Ridiculous! This will distinctly lead to immorality.” He was a man of great worth and respectability in the village. In spite of all his efforts, he could not refrain from uttering a deep groan, which, however, was lost amid the noisy tumult of the crowd.
“I don’t know why Mr. Li made this announcement. Of course, girls are free to go to the brook. I even welcome them,” a young man, Jianyi’s poker buddy, chuckled and spoke.
“The feudal era is over. New China, new social customs. We keep pace with times! This rule is unnecessary,” another poker player, sitting next to Jianyi, exclaimed.
Inspired, Jianyi stood up and clapped. He blurted out, “Would girls wear swimming suits, why not no clothes at all?” His friends laughed heartily and spouted all sorts of nonsense.
Jianyi noticed that Xue’s eyes turned to him. She looked him dead in the eyes and said, “Please tell me what answer you expect, and why you think it is appropriate to ask this question.”
“It’s just a joke.”
“I don’t get it. Please explain it to me.”
He was offended by Xue’s impertinence. At home, one word out of turn, and he would hit his children, beat his wife, or take it out on them by a violent tongue-lashing.
Blue veins throbbed on his forehead and stood out like cords under the yellow skin. Blood rushed to his face. He walked directly towards where Xue was standing, struggling to contain his rage. His eyes flashed over Xue, and she saw the challenge at his lips.
“You, always hold your head high,” said Jianyi with an ugly sneer. “Afraid that others wouldn’t notice you are flat-chested?”
Some villager men exploded into laughter, like it was a harmless joke. He was satisfied and expected Xue to blush.
However, she smiled and said, as sweetly as possible, yet loud enough for everyone to hear, “At least it’s more than what’s in your pants.”
The crowd roared and clapped. It took all of Jianyi’s self-control to grip his flooding rage.
“Be quiet,” Mr. Li exclaimed, with a voice that rose over them, high, majestic and solemn. As soon as the turmoil had partially subsided, he resumed his speech in a somewhat graver voice. “We’re about to enter the new millennium. We have to remold our world outlook, since times are different. Remember that women are equal to men. I want everyone to abide by the new rule. Offenders are liable to fines of up to 800 yuan.”
Like it or not, the villagers had to obey the rule. Jianyi remained standing in front of Xue glaring. He would teach her a lesson.
Xue walked along the road to Granny Huang’s house, smiling and proud. The road petered out into a dirt track. In the distance, Xue saw the low, shabby old house, situated around a spacious void. Smoke curled up from behind the house. It looked like a dancing white damask, climbing slowly up the roof and silently enveloping it. In front of the house was the small vegetable garden.
Xue approached the house. As it aged, the earthen walls turned mottled. In the middle, there was a special laundry patio; the kitchen was on the left-hand side, and the living room was on the right-hand side. The living room was quite humble with only an old TV set, a table, and some chairs. It also contained a curtained-off room, which included a wooden bed where Granny Huang slept and a makeshift cot for Xue.
The day was closing in, but Granny Huang did not turn on the light, for it was not yet quite dark. Granny Huang took a handful of wood from the yard and walked slowly back to boil the water. She was at the kitchen stove, ready to serve dinner. Xue helped set the table. Then they sat down and got ready to eat.
The late afternoon light refracted through the panels of the door, forming tiny flecks of light on the walls and on the floor, in which the dust danced up and down.
“I heard the big news today. You did wrong. You shouldn’t do unpopular things. The villagers will resent you. You can get hurt.” Granny Huang reached over with her chopsticks to refill Xue’s bowl with chicken.
“I do the right thing. I can protect myself.”
“You can’t. Even Lao Huang couldn’t. It got him killed.” Granny Huang, paused in the act of putting rice into her mouth with chopsticks, said sadly, “He could have been a respected doctor, but he chose to be a family planning executor. Once he led a team to tear down the house of the family who violated the one-child policy, and he found a home-made bomb buried under the table. The villagers resented him and wanted him dead. I was terrified and begged him to quit. You know what he told me? He said that controlling population growth could contribute to the country’s development. If he listened to me, he wouldn’t have demolished the houses of the villagers, and he wouldn’t have been badly injured by the falling masonry. He could still have been alive.”
“What happened to your husband was an accident. The falling masonry could have hit anyone.”
“No. It’s retribution. If he chose another work, I wouldn’t have had to get a tubal ligation. We could run away like other families. I might have had a son taking care of me now. But look at me, husband dead, only daughter married far away. I am all alone.”
Granny Huang put down the chopsticks, and said, “People said he had it coming. They said he killed so many babies, and God punished him. He was not a bad man. He was softhearted. Each time he tore down a house of the family who violated the one-child policy, he would leave them a shed to keep out wind and rain. They would have to move in with draught animals, but at least they had a place to live. Ten years as family planning executor, the villagers were glad he died…”
She gave a long sigh.
“Remember, don’t do unpopular things. It brings bad luck.”
Then she picked up chopsticks, put chicken in Xue’s rice bowl, and said, “Have some chicken.”
Xue put the chicken in her mouth slowly, still looking down, chewing while she thought. Then she said after swallowing, “Lao Huang was a responsible man. He was just doing his work. He did nothing wrong. And you did nothing wrong, either.”
After Xue spoke, she had a sudden image of Granny Huang walking around the village without being greeted by anyone. She felt as if time had been frozen. Because of the family planning work, Lao Huang had offended his fellow villagers. His grain ration field was trampled flat overnight, chickens killed in large numbers, Granny Huang was verbally abused by villagers, and their daughter was beaten by students at school… These stories played out in slow motion in Xue’s mind, nibbling away at her sanity.
Granny Huang already paid her price. Her home was far from the village, and she still lived in an earthen house. After Lao Huang passed away, Granny Huang had been used to living alone for so many years.
“Be careful. Jianyi is not good people. I heard he threated you.”
“Don’t worry, Granny Huang. I can take care of myself. This tofu is very delicious. Have some.” She put tofu in Granny Huang’s rice bowl.
The next day, Xue, followed by several of the braver girls, went to the brook. She sat on a big rock and dangled her feet with the current. The stream sparkled in the afterglow of the sunset. Xue scooped up some water with her hands and took a big mouthful. A sweet taste melted into her mouth.
Yan swam four or five strokes and climbed onto the rock where Xue sat. Her gaze rested briefly on other members of Half the Sky, the villager girls, the brook and the road towards the village.
“Why are you so edgy? Are you embarrassed that you wear little in public?” asked Xue, half-jokingly. She squeezed her hand.
Yan warned Xue, “I have a very bad feeling about this. We should be careful.” Before Xue could reply, they heard a shriek from the girls.
Out of nowhere, a dark and tall man, like an orangutan, swaggered into the girls’ swimming pool, naked. Girls panicked, running out of the water, covering their faces with their hands. Jianyi burst out into a wild fit of laughter.
Xue fixed her eyes on the insulter. Her eyes darkened, flickered for a moment, and turned black, and then flashed with unstoppable fury.
The end of a woman’s struggle is always grisly.
Her mother’s words echoed her ears.
In the reading of the myths and history, Xue noticed that women’s futile struggles were everywhere. The same pattern was also repeated in Xue and her mother’s life. One day when Xue was ten years old, she rushed home crying after her teacher appointed a boy to be the class monitor even though she got the highest votes. “Boy makes a better monitor,” said her teacher. Xue’s mother sighed and told her, “We all have a destiny that is born to be irreversible, and everyone is compelled to succumb to its dominance.”
When Xue was young, she was often confused by her mother’s paradoxical attitude. Xue’s mother was of the acquiescent rather than the militant type. Even though the patriarchal oppression on women brought her suffering, she accepted it with almost fatalistic resignation, for she was used to giving in. Yet deep in her heart, she wanted Xue to fight against this notion. She commanded Xue to fight back. However, she kept reminding Xue that she could do nothing about it.
No, Mother, we were not destined to be pessimists and should never capitulate.
Jianyi’s fits of laughter slapped Xue back to reality.
No action now, no change in the future.
She drew a deep breath to steady herself. Then she sprang to her feet, and jumped down from the rock. “Leave now, or you will go away with bruises,” she said through clenched teeth. She swung her right leg in a semicircle towards Jianyi. He hurried back a few steps, narrowly avoided the kick.
The incident happened too fast. The girls sat there motionless, as if spellbound. Xue’s rage intimidated the orangutan and broke the spell. A girl from Half the Sky threw him a bath towel, looking away, and said, “There is nothing to see. Cover it up.”
Yan looked at Jianyi’s fierce eyes. She knew she should do something. She said, “Public nudity is offensive to decency. You will get administrative detention of up to ten days.” She turned quickly away when she caught his eye.
“Try me.” There was a strange smile on his face, forced and tight; his mouth opened to show sharp yellow teeth, and his thin black face darkened. He wrapped the towel loosely around his waist.
Xue weighed less than fifty kilos. Although she had practiced jiujitsu for years, she was conscious that the lighter the weight, the weaker the fight and power. It was hard to beat Jianyi with stand-up skills unless she hit him on the most dangerous spots with much force.
She dashed behind Jianyi.
Before Jianyi could appreciate being held tightly from behind by a pretty girl, he realized that her right arm encircled his neck and his trachea was at the crook of her elbow; her left hand was placed behind his head. Then, inch by inch, she tightened.
A heavy, sour smell crept up on her, threatening to drown her, and the slimy touch of Jianyi reminded her of the squishy slug she had touched out of curiosity as a little girl. She never felt this close to nausea and vomiting before, not even when she took a boat and it rolled from side to side as the sea became rougher and many passengers began to look white about the gills. She forced herself to focus.
The next moment, Xue conserved her strength and put her face on Jianyi’s shoulder. In the eyes of others, they were intimate, like lovers. Her arms were around his neck, her face against his shoulder, her chest against his back, and her whole body almost wrapped around him. But anyone who knew about jiujitsu could see that this was a standard rear naked choke.
Jianyi felt himself suffocating.
“If I keep pushing, you’ll lose consciousness in a few seconds.” Xue’s voice was strangely sweet. Her mouth was close to his ear, and the voice, though very soft, was very cold.
His face turned a little blue; a blue vein rose out of his forehead and twitched. His mouth was dry, and he felt drumming in his temples.
He murmured, “Stop. Sorry.”
Yan stared intently, wanting to do something but rooted to the ground. She was mesmerized by Xue’s vigor and furry. All her life, she had catered to her parents’ expectations and never asked herself what she wanted. But Xue lived the way she was. She liked to play soccer, a boys’ sport in others’ eyes, but she played it happily. In the drama club when she found that none of the male members were masculine enough to play the male hero, she took on the role herself. Would Xue worry how others would judge or shame her for such “intimacy” with a half-naked married man in public? She probably would laugh off her worry. Xue was the opposite of Yan, her ideal self.
Xue’s action transfused her own courage into other girls, and Jianyi’s apology invigorated them.
“Get out of here. NOW!” The girls yelled at him.
Sweat rolled down his face.
“A good man does not fight a woman,” he said, pettishly.
And then he turned and swung himself away from the brook; his one hand gripped the towel, and the other hand was on his hips. He strode steadily as if he was a leader that went on a tour of inspection.
Girls broke into cheers as soon as he fled.
“Be careful. He may take revenge on you,” Yan said in a worried voice.
“No, he won’t. He is too cowardly and too proud to take any further action.” Of this, Xue was sure.
Granny Huang walked towards the river, followed by Xue, who carried a bucket full of their dirty clothes. The sun was setting, bathing the stream in a golden hue. Many village women were already washing clothes there.
When Xue first lived with Granny Huang, she insisted on helping her wash the clothes, but Granny Huang always refused, saying, “Nonsense. I can wash the clothes by myself even in winter when the river is freezing, let alone in summer.”
Once they reached the bank, some women paused and seemed to point and giggle. There was a low murmur among the crowd. The brook had an expectant air and Granny Huang caught whispered talk of “What is to become of her?”
“It’s good that you leave tomorrow. None of the gossip will follow you home.” Granny Huang ladled water into their bucket to soak the clothes.
“I never worry about the nudges and whispers of others, as long as I do the right thing.” She then gradually lathered the clothes with detergent. She rubbed the clothes with her hands, so that every garment became soapy. Then she and Granny Huang rubbed each piece over and over again.
“See the young mothers across the river? They are teaching their seven- or eight-year-old daughters how to wash clothes. This is how I learned to wash clothes. These girls will learn to wash clothes for themselves, wash clothes for the family, wash clothes for the future in-laws, and wash clothes for their future children. It is a cycle.” Then Granny Huang sighed and took a pajama top from the bucket and rubbed it.
“I heard that you had a fight,” Granny Huang said, staring at Xue with cloudy eyes. “Fight will solve the problem? You think girls can swim in the river now? Nothing will change after you leave. Girls will continue washing clothes here, not swimming. This is our life. This is how it is…”
Granny Huang’s eyes were gray, with that faded look of old age. However, Xue’s eyes were as clear as the cloudless autumn sky.
“Look, Granny Huang. See the girls over there? Do you hear their happy laughter?”
Granny Huang looked in the direction that Xue pointed and saw some girls splashing water at their friends while washing clothes.
“Granny Huang, I know how hard it is to change people’s established notions. I will continue to fight this uphill battle. Although I will not stay here, I have shown the girls the possibility of change and gleam of hope. Even after I leave, the brook will still echo with the happy laughter of the girls.” Then she paused and considered it for a while before she said it, “If Meimei lived today, she could have enjoyed the water.”
Xue’s clear voice sounded the same as Meimei’s. Granny Huang recalled that Meimei always invited her to join her secret swim late at night. Placing both hands on Granny Huang’s shoulders, Meimei said in a clear affectionate voice, “One day girls will swim in the brook freely. Believe me.”
Over half a century had passed without barely any change, but Xue’s arrival had brought a number of thin cracks to the old shackle.
“Hey, Xue! Granny Huang! Over here!” Yan waved at them across the brook. Granny Huang stared at her brilliant smile. Meimei’s smile came to her mind and it overlapped with Yan’s. For an instant, she saw Meimei stretch her arms in the blue wave, and push the water with her legs, leaving behind a string of spray. A smile burst out from Granny Huang’s wrinkled face.
The brook flowed leisurely, tinkling and playing its merry music. The water jumped among stones, turning out white spray, popping up a moving tune.