Following a stream of people through a short curving passageway, we step into a brightly lit space. On our right are several rows of seats with red padding and back support. On our left sprawls a terraced floor like the one you’d see in a Chinese karaoke club, only a little bigger, built with tiles that resemble a starry night sky. It has three low steps leading to an LCD-screen wall roughly the size of the raised floor. The top edge of the wall is connected to a heart-shaped ring that circles around the entire floor like a floating crown, its jewelry being red lights attached in the center. What the wall displays can also show up there. Higher into the ceiling is a terrific abyss of steelwork designed with paths and rails for human access.

This is the Stage.

Where are we? What are we doing here? There are two ways to answer these questions: philosophical and unphilosophical. I shall begin with the latter.

Tonight, at one of the broadcaster’s studios in Beijing, we are filming “Set Your Way to Happiness,” a weekly China Central Television show in which the candidate, officially called “trustor” in the sense that happiness is a property to be trusted in one’s care, gets to show their talents and say words of appreciation to the “trustee(s),” people whom they feel most thankful for.

Six weeks earlier, going on the show didn’t seem to be a desirable option for me considering that I live in a country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, and that I always enjoy the life of a typical translator: quiet, modest, lurking behind the screen, and out of the spotlight. So I surprised myself when I got a phone call telling me that my application had been passed to the director for final review and, at the sight of one pair of small triangular eyes locked into mine with more pride than they could contain, I cried. I was a lot calmer two weeks later, when I learned that I had passed the final screening.

After that, a family discussion went like this:

“Don’t be nervous. Just tell your story.”

“I know, Dad, I wrote a script.”

“At the end of the show you must thank the government and the statesmanship.”

“Well, I can’t bring them onto the stage, can I? I can only bring you.” My voice quivered a little.

“You don’t need to thank me and your dad. We’ve done nothing to be thankful for, if not to be blamed for having you suffer.”

I could say no more.

***

The wall springs to life as music starts, displaying the name of the show with a rosy background. Then a door appears in the center. Out walk two hosts. More lights zigzag across the stage to welcome them. They are familiar figures. The older, male host is well known as Director Wang for his love of performance art, directing, and sharp wit. Older and more relaxed, he takes up a role of “Happiness Watcher” in the show. He doesn’t like to read scripts.

The female host named Guan Tong, on the contrary, looks alert and tense, almost as if she were about to give a lecture on politics. She puts on a gorgeous smile whenever she’s ready to face the camera. Very professional.

Both of them say “Set your way to happiness, sing out loud your love!” as they bend their backs slightly to take a step down onto the stage.

Thus, the show begins.

There are four trustors to be filmed. According to her plan, my director has decided to put me second in the row. I’d walk onto the stage alone, greet everyone in Chinese and English, and talk with the hosts before my “trustees” come to join us.

As I’m waiting for my turn in the dimly-lit area between audience and support staff, I keep myself busy reciting my introductory words under my breath. All I notice of the first candidate’s performance and interview is that he can sing falsetto and that he and his “trustees,” his wife and three children, walk off stage tear-stricken. It is a long interview. An hour must have passed.

After what seemed like only a breathless second, I find myself hearing Ms. Guan read my name, walking towards that pool of dazzling lights, and saying strange words in an alien voice. I stumble over the word “autonomous” because I forget where I should put the stress.

Under the spotlight, everything seems so painfully out of focus and in constant motion. A black shadow in the shape of a camera rolls back and forth along the front edge of the stage. Some shining dots around Ms. Guan’s eyes declare their proud existence while the others are shrinking to total nothingness at the slightest movement of a muscle. As quickly as I try to grab a train of thought, it slips away.

All is about to change when the door opens again. Out emerge the real protagonists of the show. One is a woman in her early sixties. She is of average build with square shoulders, a robust chest, and flat hips. If one of the cameras gives her an up-close shot, one can see that she has a narrow forehead and a broad jaw. A typical Asian-sized nose sits nicely between a pair of thin lips and little triangles that are her eyes. Her hair is grayish white and carefully done in a short perm. She waves at the audience, smiling as if she were receiving a great honor she thinks she doesn’t deserve.

Besides her is a bespectacled man with grayish, closely cropped hair. He’s about the same age and a little taller. An up-close view would reveal a watermelon seed of a face, with double fold eyelids, olive eyes, a flat nose, and a slightly protruding mouth. This time two little triangles are his nostrils. He looks as if he were having a hard time deciding whether to smile or not.

Something else comes into still, sharp focus as my parents sit down on the sofa between me and Director Wang in the interview area. I look sideways at the two all-too-familiar faces and discover that layers of chemical powders have failed to conceal, if not deepened, those all-too-familiar wrinkles. They are engravings of time which will never change once established. And they begin to reveal scenes at an empty spot right before my eyes, memories that no one can find the right words to tell, snippets of the past only I am entitled to revisit like Dickens’s ghost.

It was a quiet suburb covered in a thick blanket of snow. Tiny parts of white hexagons glistened in the last rays of the setting sun. A few rows of wide-spaced, two-story terraced houses lined up the street, facing a stretch of the wilderness that blended with the horizon. Down an alleyway at the end of the street-front row, a woman was ploughing through the snow. She was in her late twenties, average build, black permed hair, and wore a dark blue China Railway uniform. She had a broad jaw and little triangular eyes. What seemed most prominent of all about her was her big belly. She’d had an unusually long period of morning sickness, and the baby would be due exactly one month from now.

On each side of her stood a low clay-built wall, like the ones you often see in impoverished communities of Afghanistan. It was almost dark, but a wooden door was still visible at the end of each wall leading to a small yard. The woman turned to the left and put a basket of eggs on the snow. She fished out a key from under her belly, thrust it into the key hole of an unnecessary lock, and with a “click” pushed open the door to her yard.

It was an evenly flat surface of cream, occasionally disturbed by pieces of metal and wood here and there. At the farthest corner lay a shack. The woman sighed. Clumsily she trudged over to what appeared to be clumps of snow, bent down to grab hold of a shovel and a broom, and then set out to work. First the pathway to the shack where she would get coal to heat her home; then the entire yard. She was such a diligent spirit, strict with everything she thought should be done, even after a full day’s work as a train attendant.

Thousands of miles apart from her parents, she was also too modest to ask for anyone’s help when her husband was away on a business trip.

The next day, I was born.

***

In the doctor’s office, a young couple was waiting for their turn to have their child checked. The man held the baby in his arms like a piece of fragile art, but she was still whimpering and wriggling uncomfortably. How could she otherwise? Look at her. She craned the head at a peculiar angle, as if in excruciating pain. Her hands curled into little hammers, waving out of the swaddle in a sort of frantic way. Her eyes rolled in and out like those of a mentally affected patient who’s having electroshocks.

The father looked down at his child with a grim face. He could have been good-looking, with his olive-shaped eyes and flat nose, but his unkempt hair and beard made his face grimmer.

Finally, it was their turn. By a mere look at the baby, the doctor said, “Your child has cerebral palsy.” He pointed at her body and continued, ”Actually it’s quite severe. Her whole body is affected. She may not even be able to walk, smile or recognize you later in life. As far as I know, there is no effective treatment for patients like her.”

The couple walked out of the office. Same results again.

The woman couldn’t take it anymore. She leaned on her husband’s shoulders and began to sob. “Why us? Why my baby?”

The man kept silent.

“Our baby…what are we going to do with her?” She looked a little dazed.

The man shut his eyes tight. When he opened them again, it was with a look of determination.

“She’s our daughter. What are we going to do? Take her home and take good care of her, of course!” His voice vibrated with the same resolution.

His words became the final verdict of my life – and his as well.

***

The terraced house where the family lived was a typical brick-and-mortar building of the early 80s. It was collectively owned, which means that China Rail, or any other state-owned company, held the deeds in place of its worthy workers. Unlike today’s urban estate, the buildings were generously separated from one another offering space for households to store coal. Some built yards while the others simply made do with clay sheds.

The family lived on the ground floor. To visit them, you’d need to walk through an alleyway, pass the door to their yard, and step into a porch-like space with two doors facing each other. Their door is on your left.

The first thing you notice upon entering probably is a pale blue cupboard on the left. A little past that is a wooden-framed window through which you can glimpse the yard. At the farther opposite corner sits a coal-burning stove. Its lower part, as tall as your calf, is made of bricks and clay. The top is concave covered by three removable bands of steel. These hollow covers are used to control heat for cooking. A black pipe sticks out from one side of the stove and takes a 90-degree turn up through the adjacent wall to channel heat into the other rooms. If you turn around, you’ll face another wall to which a cement-built sink is attached on the ground. This wall separates the “fire room,” kitchen if translated into a modern term, and the restroom, which is a tiny enclosed space raised from the ground to prevent water leakage from the squat toilet.

Push open the door next to the stove, and you’ll see an 18m2 living room. There is no sofa, TV, or any other facilities you’d normally find in a Chinese home today. Again on your left is a window to the yard. Opposite is another window which is only a few feet away from the second-floor neighbor’s clay shack door. A blue Polyester curtain usually hangs over it to keep privacy. Below the window sill spreads a wood-panel bed big enough for at least three grown-ups.

On that bed sat a woman, with the baby girl in her lap. No older than one year of age, she still had little hammers for hands. Her feet were bent downward and crisscrossed similar to those of a ballet dancer, only more rigid and unnatural. From time to time her body twitched as though an electric current passed through her. When this happened, her head tilted sideways to make it look like she suddenly saw something that only she could see.

But the mother was oblivious to all these. She held the children’s magazine Good Baby in one hand and pointed at what was in there with the other, stopping here and there as she went. Her voice was not soft or sweet as what is generally expected of women. There was even a hard edge to it. But she tried to talk as slowly as possible, with some traces of an eastern accent. The baby, however, showed no sign of comprehension.

This went on for a while, and then the mother’s voice trailed away. And then the room fell into silence. The hands of a tiny clock on the wall behind her pointed to a quarter past nine. It was completely dark outside.

Just as the magazine began to slip down toward the cement floor, the child twitched violently in the mother’s lap. The woman gave a jolt. Then she resumed her position and continued to talk. Fifteen minutes to go before bed.

It must be out of her wildest dream that sixteen years later I could all by myself learn to speak a tongue that she could not understand.

***

Same room. Same furniture. But this time there is a man hunching over the bed, his arms down at 45 degrees to his body, and his hands in a swift, fluent motion like that when a cook makes a dough. Sometimes he pressed down with both his palms; the other times he just smoothed it out with his long fingers.

Lying on the bed was a strange-looking figure of a small child. She could be three years old, but then again she could be five. She was face up, but her head kept turning both ways as if she were refusing an invisible offer. Both her arms twisted in a tight knot and pinned themselves to her chest, her right hand clenched into a fist, and her left thumb was curving toward the back of her hand in an uncomfortable way. Her legs seemed much less peculiar, but her right foot always pointed the wrong way.

Now the man sat down at the edge of the bed, placed the child’s legs upon his, and began to massage her ankles with the same dexterity. He looked at the tiny clock on the wall behind him. It was a quarter past nine. Fifteen minutes to go.

How much this private, self-taught practice could do, he had no idea. Nor could he expect at the time that I would begin to walk independently at age 12.

***

Something round glittered in the warm Autumn sun. It had the color of mutton fat, the texture of coarse crystal, and the smell of an April cornfield. You’d expect it to be a stone amulet, a silver bracelet, or a women’s corsage. But no, it was an exposed part of a Fuji apple.

As soon as the edge of a spoon touched it, a thousand tiny particles scattered away, sending waves of fragrance in the air. The spoon didn’t stop there. It continued scraping and scooping, turning and churning, until the fruit fibers became mushy, Then, fully loaded, it transported the pulp into the mouth of a young girl, whose teeth had grown too soft for the unchiseled apple.

At first, the apple sustained little change, only a few uneven lines. Half an hour later, the exposed part disappeared, leaving the other half shrouded by its skin. And the girl shook her head to yet another pulp delivery, which forced its way into her mouth anyway. Now, the half-peeled apple was carefully wrapped in cloth and put back in the closet, where it would wait for another feeding. Everything went with so much sacredness that a question whether someone else in the family should eat the remains of the apple would sound condescending and unnecessary.

It was a time when “The more we eat, the less our baby will get” was laid down as a core clause in an unequal treaty my parents dutifully enforced to ensure my nutrition (and my dietary enjoyment) at the expense of theirs’.

***

Another huge patch of dark clouds bore down on the new six-story, cement-cast building, contrasting the bright yellow and red colors of the latter. It rained harder. Looking out from her second-floor bedroom window, the woman heaved a sigh. She closed her eyes, squeezed them tight, and grimaced. She looked as if in unbearable pain or…perhaps in a deep, ominous thought?

A moment later, her face was relaxed, eyes open, but the frown was still there. Then she slowly turned from the supine position to the left side and slipped the right hand under the other armpit, supporting the left elbow which now served as a jack. Her first attempt to get up failed as soon as the jack collapsed under her body weight. She let out a yelp. And all went silent.

Minutes later, she tried again and succeeded. She was having one of her worse bouts of herniated disc pain.

Tentatively, she sat upright, with arms akimbo and feet dipped into plastic slippers. She padded out to the dining table, picked up a flask of water, and dragged herself across the living room. She stopped to adjust her body just before she stepped into the study.

It was the smallest room of this three-bedroom apartment. One side was a wall of books, most of which were published in the 60s and 70s. The other side was lined up with two desks displaying a hodgepodge of electronic devices, souvenirs, and English publications. A teenage girl was reading English at the smaller desk under the window. She looked up as her mother approached her with the flask.

With a seamless motion, the girl drank the water as the woman held the container for her at the right angle. Then the latter spoke in a dry voice, “We will die together.” She paused. “Don’t look at me like that. When I die, how otherwise will you survive with these very basic things that you can’t do? These books won’t save you.” The girl buried her head deeper into the book to hide her tears. Was it her or her mother’s hopelessness that made her cry? She looked confused.

Seventeen years later the mother lived to see that “these books” turned her daughter into a freelance translator and a member of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Linguists.

***

A round of applause from the remaining audience draws me back into reality. A little dazed, I hear Director Wang, to conclude, asking all three of us to stand up. It’s my time to give thanks.

Considering that I’m a lousy speaker, I wrote a little poem in both languages earlier. Here under the spotlight, all I have to do is recite its Chinese version while the big screen displays the English version:

I started my earliest days

Twisted and contorted

Beaten and tormented

In the iron grip of cerebral palsy

 

You came to my rescue

Strong as an anchor

Ready to conquer

In the face of life’s greatest adversity.

 

Now here on this stage

Mom and Dad

I thank you

For all you’ve forgone to make all I can be.

Then, under Director Wang’s instructions, I find myself in the arms of my mum AND my dad. The latter’s hug comes as a surprise because this reserved Chinese man would only cuddle his grown-up daughter in the direst circumstance. And he almost seems reluctant to let go. As soon as I am pulled into his chest, as I was countless times before I learned to walk on my own, I realize that my life is one worth living after all.

And I remember how, upon learning that my family was going to attend a national TV show, one of my American friends, a geophysicist, wrote his congratulations in a very special way.

Let me say, that in my opinion, your life reflects the spirit of China in an important way:  It has been a real struggle, like the Long March, obstacles like the civil war and economic disasters have been overcome and now, like the space rocket of the same name, China is soaring into the sky and has gone into orbit as the moral leader of the world.  

This comparison with my country’s achievements is overly flattering, but he went on to say, “[…E]very person must be given the best chance to develop to their full potential through love. 

That’s exactly what my parents bestowed upon me. Life is a stage for love. It encompasses the truest sentiments of humanity. It harbors compassion, commitment, and care. Most importantly, it glorifies human life by setting a way through impoverishment, turmoil, and fear.

Here on this stage, I know this is true for every one of us and for the country we live in.

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