“Doudou! Wake up quickly!”
Awakened by a rude push, Chen Yuanming was stunned for a moment before realizing that someone had called his nickname. The cold wind poured in through the open doorway. He shivered and then got up from the bed.
He quickly pulled on his dry long johns, a thick woolen overcoat and then turned to look around. The small round table had been brought into the middle of the room and several bowls were placed on it. The rice congee was so thin that you could almost see your reflection in it. There were only about 3 or 4 pieces of pickled radish and vegetables remaining. A man was slurping on a bowl of congee and munching on a steamed bun while sitting at the table. When he noticed Chen Yuanming’s gaze, he glared and yelled, “Why are you in a daze! Go wash your face and come eat!”
“Come on.” The woman beside Chen Yuanming also nudged his side and then placed a boiled egg on the table, “wait for the egg to cool and then eat.”
Without saying a word, Chen Yuanming picked up a towel and walked towards the door. After exiting the door, he turned right and at the end of the corridor was the public bath and toilet. At this time, the morning toilet rush hour had passed so without much effort he completed his morning hygiene routine. He twisted open the rusty faucet and poured a handful of water on his face.
The water was terribly cold in winter and there were traces of ice on the dark water pipes. Clearly, overnight, the pipes had frozen over again but he did not know which neighbor had fixed it. Although he had washed his face for just a few seconds his hands had become flushed with redness and the frostbite on the back of his hand and on his little finger began to tingle and itch.
In the long and narrow corridor next to bathroom the lingering smell of firewood mixed with the scent of meals hit him in the face. Every household in the corridor was noisy.
This was the employee dormitory of L city’s largest state-owned enterprise, a bearing factory. There were eight apartments on the first floor in this three-story dormitory building. Each morning was a chaotic scene. In the past, he had lived in this place for 21 years and was familiar with everything here.
But now … he wrung the towel fiercely, wiped his hands that were already frozen and raised his head… But now, he was only 15 years old.
“Is washing your face so difficult? Do you want to be late again?”
When he entered the room, he was smashed in the face with a lot of yelling. Chen Yuanming silently put down the towel and sat down at the table. A steamed bun was stuffed into his hand.
“Hurry up, it’s half past six!” Two hands peeled off the egg shell, and threw the tender white boiled egg into the congee with a small splash. “Don’t be lethargic all day, Is it not almost time for your final exams?”
“There is still one more week.” While gnawing on the bun, the savory floury taste stimulated his taste buds. The steamed buns at home always had this taste. Using chopsticks to pick at the eggs in his bowl, Chen Yuanming suddenly felt that his eyes were stinging. “Mom, don’t cook eggs anymore, I’m fine …”
“What are you talking about?” The woman picked up a few empty bowls neatly and soaked them in a pot. “Our house can still afford it.”
This time the man didn’t say anything. He just let out a cold hum, strode outside and closed the door with a loud bang. Chen Yuanming’s chopsticks paused for a moment then he picked a piece of radish and ate it with the congee.
Observing the father and son who were still in a Cold War, Wang Juan couldn’t help sighing, she donned her jacket and bag, and then said goodbye to her son, “I’m going to work, you have to finish eating and go to school. Remember to lock the door when you leave.”
Chewing vigorously, Chen Yuanming nodded. As the door closed it kept out the noise from outside. Students arrived at school at 6:45am and the entire factory started work at 7:00am. These two points of the day were doomed to be hurried and chaotic. The jingle of bicycles, the roars of children yelling and parents screaming resounded in the narrow corridor, year after year, day after day.
Accompanied by these sounds, Chen Yuanming finished his breakfast, placed his empty bowl in the pot, lifted his bag and went out. The dawn in January was long and as such it was still dark outside. The cold wind scratched across his face like a knife and his overcoat could not stop the bitter chill. He sucked in a breath through his nose, plunged his hands into his pockets and walked quickly towards the school.
After a few days of confusion, his memories had become clearer like a mirror wiped clean of dust. From his house to school was a slow, downhill dirt road with uneven potholes and when it rained it was nearly impossible to wipe your shoes clean of mud.
There were no street lights on the entire section of the road. In his early years, some corn and vegetables were planted on the roadside but these were later completely squeezed out by the expansion of private homes. In addition, some thoughtless people had also directly discarded garbage on the sides of the road and thus the alleys had a rancid smell all year round.
This dirt road had complex road conditions which Chen Yuanming navigated without trouble. This was nothing. It was all too familiar. From elementary school to junior high school, every day at 2 o’clock, he had made this 15-minute walk down the slope. At the corner of the slope, adjacent to the No.5 primary school, was the factory’s No.3 middle school. In these two schools, he had spent his whole youth.
As a large-scale state-owned enterprise, in its early years, the population of in-service employees and family members at the bearing factory in L City was more than 100,000. The factory had more than a dozen employee dormitory areas and was well equipped with schools, hospitals, clubs, bathhouses, and other ancillary facilities.
The No. 3 middle school he studied at was a well-known key middle school. Following the implementation of the 9-year compulsory education system and the district-based school selection system, cross-regional students who could afford the high tuition had become a big presence in the school.
But this development had become the first shadow of Chen Yuanming’s childhood.
As he stepped through the school gate, the bell of the first class was already ringing. Chen Yuanming did not speed up. He just glanced at the teacher’s office on the second floor and then turned to go upstairs. Junior 3, class one was next to the corridor, at the western end of the third floor of the new teaching building. When the classroom door was opened dozens of eyes shot at him in unison.
Curiosity, contempt, surprise, indifference … Young teenagers were far from capable of concealing their feelings and their attitude was glaring. Chen Yuanming’s face was blank and without even raising his eyelids he went straight to the empty seat in the seventh row and sat down. The girl seated at the same table slightly inclined her body away and seemed to want to distance herself from him a little.
Pushing his schoolbag into the drawer, he pulled out a pen and paper. Chen Yuanming glanced at the little girl beside him who was looking at him disdainfully. What was her name again, Wang Xi? Wang Ting? He could not remember. Not to mention that his head was in weird place now, even when he didn’t think he was going crazy he had no contact with these students.
As soon as he was seated, the crisp sound of high heels rang out in the corridor and a middle-aged woman entered the classroom. High-heeled leather shoes, a black ankle-length wool skirt, and a red short down jacket were considered fashionable attire in the early 1990s but her facial expression had ruined the entire ensemble. Her long hair was pulled high behind her head, and under the silver frame of her glasses lay a pair of sharp and thinly-slanted eyes. A sneer hung on the corner of her mouth and reflected the arrogance that was contained in her body.
The class monitor in the second row stood up and said. “Stand up!”
The sound of moving tables and chairs echoed suddenly and the entire class stood up.
This was the chorus of the neat and loud, standard pre-class ceremony. The woman standing on the podium nodded her head in a reserved manner, “Hello class.”
There was another echo of rustling table and chairs but this time it was quiet and fast. The class teacher Han Qian was a well-known Nazi-like control freak in the school. In this era when teachers decided everything no one dared to challenge her authority.
When the classroom was quiet again, Teacher Han looked at the quail-like students underneath the podium. She swept the back row with squinted eyes and said primly, “The final exam is coming soon. I won’t talk nonsense about what you should be doing but some people are like rat excrement in a pot. If they don’t want to learn, they should get out of the classroom. They muddle through the day, late to arrive, early to leave, fighting and making trouble. They have turned the class into a mess. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to go to high school. It’s not that important. No one is forcing you. Just don’t hold others back!”
A few glances secretly swept over Chen Yuanming. He did not respond and opened the English textbook in front of him.
Teacher Han snorted and threw her lesson plan on the desk. “Now to check your homework. Recite the text of the last lesson, Chen Yuanming!”
With his name being called, Chen Yuanming stood up.
This classroom was not that big. Each row had nine seats and there were a total of seven and a half rows. Sixty-five people had been stuffed into the class as though they were planting potatoes.
Over the past two years, because of the poor conditions in his home, Chen Yuanming’s height had fallen a little behind the average level of the class. In the past his school work was not bad and he could get good grades but now he was standing at the back of the classroom and was seated next to those at the tail-end of the class.
Clenching his fists, Chen Yuanming stared blankly at the teacher on the podium.
“Why? Can’t you recite it? You spend all your energy fighting and sleeping …” Teacher Han opened her mouth and attempted to reprimand him but was suddenly interrupted by a sentence in English. The teenager began to recite the last lesson, his pronunciation was not particularly standard and his recitation was not fast but there was no error or omission in the content, word by word, clear and loud, as though mocking her for groundlessly scolding him.
The classroom was suddenly silent. Teacher Han’s face turned blue, and she glared at the boy who was standing at the end of the classroom. The text had only a few hundred words and soon came to an end. After his recitation, Chen Yuanming didn’t sit down immediately but pointed at a student in the front row.
“I’ve finished reciting it. But shouldn’t the other people in the fight also be treated equally, Teacher Han?”
Several people nestled in the front row suddenly buried their heads in their textbooks. Keeping silent like a Cicada in winter. The corner of Teacher Han’s mouth twitched and she yelled, “Sit down! Start the class!”
After a short while the sound of books being flipped burst out. Chen Yuanming flashed a self-deprecating smile and sat back down. The wound on his head was still throbbing in pain and he smoothed the curled corner of the book with his hand.
In the past two days he had received stitches on his head. It had been chaotic and the extra happenings since then had changed him. Now the junior high school textbooks were ridiculously simple for him. Any subject, including his worst subject, English were very easy. At the same time, the change didn’t stop there and even the questions that had puzzled and pained him in past finally had answers.
Chen Yuanming raised his head and looked towards the front of the classroom. On the left and right side of the first three rows, were the daughter of the factory manager, the son of the city leader and the top students who had received full marks in science and technology. These people shared the top seats. The middle rows were the regular teachers’ children and the ordinary highly-prized students, who had high performances. The last two rows were for the stubborn and hopeless students. These students had transferred to the school using money and their connections but their schoolwork and personalities were a mess.
In this particular small society, there were only four categories of people: The rich, the powerful, those with connections and those who studied to excel. Because he did not fall into any of these categories he was nothing more than a rooster who had broken into a monkey’s cage by mistake.
What a simple answer. But in his original disturbed memory, his younger self had never understood this. In his family, the education he had received from an early age was not enough for him to uncover this secret that everyone knew well. His parents regarded the teacher’s words as a golden law. They would beat, scold and reprimand him and were deeply disappointed by his “naughtiness” … …
A neat reading voice entered his ears. Chen Yuanming lowered his head and looked at his frostbitten hands on the desk. Suddenly, his fear and confusion over the past few days disappeared, and turned into something completely different. He began to accept the older, capable, but dead self in his mind. If this was a chance to return and start over again, why not try it?
Chen Yuanming laughed silently and clenched his fist.