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Short stories

First English Class

Ming was over the moon when he began to attend senior high school in New Rivermouth, the county seat of Songzi. For him, this school transfer meant nothing less than a dream come true. After years of hardships as a foster child in Lotus Village, he was finally able not only to live together with his parents but also to enjoy his life in a big town, where he could see a movie in a roofed theatre anytime he wanted, keep his shoes and clothes dry and clean on a rainy day, have enough food on the table, and even borrow a book to read in a room illuminated by electric lights instead of an oil lamp. To his greatest joy, he learned that he was actually an urban resident by birth, a demographic identity that would put him in a much more advantageous position when he graduated than anyone with a rural hukou [household registration].

However, the great pride he felt about his true urban identity was soon overwhelmed by an increasingly strong sense of inferiority. By the end of his first week at his new school, he had found himself to be far less than a real town boy than he’d expected. For one thing, his hairstyle or, rather, his ostensible absence of a hairstyle, made him a constant laughingstock among other boys who had never lived in the country. No less noticeable was his clothing. Unlike his new peers who customarily got their own new clothes on every Chinese New Year’s eve, Ming always wore second-hand clothes that were never really fitting at all. Once a classmate made fun of him in front of a group of girls after finding his only decent clothe to be a pair of trousers made from a darkly dyed Japanese fertilizer bag. As his village accent readily betrayed him as a xiangbalao [country cousin or Arcadian youth], he had to keep his mouth zipped all the time to avoid being mocked in a good-natured or ill-willed manner each time he had to speak. All such embarrassing experiences made him feel deeply hurt.

To add insult to injury, the teacher ridiculed him because he sounded “like a stupid frog” when he asked Ming to stand up and read after him in his first English class. While every other student managed to spell a word correctly when asked to do the job on the blackboard, he was the only one who didn’t know how to write a single alphabet letter, which was simply too curly for him to draw than a square Chinese character.

But this was not his fault. Back in Lotus Flower Village, he’d not even heard of anyone learning a foreign language, not to mention English, the official language known to be used by such imperialist countries as Britain and America that every student was taught to hate during the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976]. But in Songzi Junior High School, the very best of its kind in the whole county, English was introduced to students in their first year. By the time Ming left his village for Songzi in the early spring of 1972, he’d been more than two years behind in the learning process for this outlandish subject. But the teacher gave him no chance to do the explanation, and all his classmates took it for granted that he had a similar background in English.

As soon as the class was over, Ming began to try his best to catch up. Not knowing a single word in the textbook, which was a mimeographed copy of some twenty pages of teaching notes handwritten by the teacher, the very first kind in the two-thousand-year long history of the county, Ming thought of approaching the teacher for help, but on second thought he gave up this idea, not merely because he didn’t like the way the teacher had derided him, but because at the time the instructor belonged to “stinking intellectuals,” an anti-Party rightist to be avoided by any sensible Red Guard.

After doing much thinking and eventually deciding to give up the course, Ming had a negotiation with the  English subject representative. “From now on, I’ll take care of your marks for math, physics and chem, but you’ll look after mine for English!”

“It’s a deal!” said the  representative excitedly.

So, each time he completed a math, physics or chem test, Ming would leave the classroom right away and, by removing a loose brick in the back wall from the outside, pushed in his correct answers for the test to the English representative, who would copy as many answers as he wanted before passing them on to Ming’s best pal Jian. In exchange, the representative would do the same for any English test. As a result of this secret arrangement, all his close friends, including Ming himself, got the marks they needed for different subjects without any outsider knowing the truth throughout senior high school, though cheating was all the rage in those days.

Given his frog-like voice and his country-oriented memory, Ming never bothered about English again back then, much less thought of challenging himself two decades later, first by pursuing a Canadian PhD in English, and then by becoming the world’s most published poet from post-Mao China.

Zhangjiajie, 2007
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Changming Yuan

Yuan Changming grew up in an isolated village, started to learn the English alphabet in Shanghai at age 19, and published monographs on translation… More »

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