By Eric Abrahamsen, published
My previous post on niubi was actually prompted by a bit of reading I’ve been doing: Feng Tang’s 十八岁给我一个姑娘 (which I persist in calling Given a Girl at Age 18, though I think he prefers ‘Chick’). Here’s the first couple pages of the book, which I held on to until after I’d posted on niubi, as a kind of fig leaf for the brazen cop-out at the end of the third paragraph below. Yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I can’t help it.
Long before I moved into this building, I’d heard Old Lecher Kong Jianguo talk about Zhu Shang’s mother. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo said that she was his one true passion. The first time I met Zhu Shang I made a decision: I would do everything I could to spend the rest of my life with her.
When you’re only eighteen years old you’ve got no sense of time. ‘The rest of your life’ so often means forever.
“You’re still young, you don’t understand. But this is important; this is very important. Just think, when you’ve gotten to my age you’re going to ask yourself: During my life, from the time when I was small, did I ever meet a girl like that? One who had a face, a body, or a style that made you instantly hard, that made you determined to have her? And then… no matter if they cut your thing off, no matter if they chop it up, no matter if they haul you off and throw you in the slammer. A girl like that is your one true passion. Take the people on the street here. Only one in a thousand will ever think to ask themselves that question. Of a thousand who ask the question, only one will answer in the affirmative. Of a thousand who answer in the affirmative, only one will finally succeed. And that one person, after he succeeds, will suddenly feel that it was all a god-damned waste of time. But still – you’ve got to search, you’ve got to strive. That’s willpower. That’s idealism. That’s niubi.”
Old Lecher Kong Jianguo and I had the above conversation on a spring afternoon. We were leaning against a big scholar tree, the cicada buzz rising and falling, reminding us that time still crawled on. Cooler air moved over us occasionally but still the sun was brutal, crashing onto the barren ground in waves and kicking up the parched dust. Green-fleshed caterpillars called ‘hanged ghosts’ had spun long threads from the chewed-up tree leaves and hung there, their meaty bodies twisting in the breeze. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo had just woken from a nap. He was bare-chested, still brawny but with a burgeoning gut and a deep belly button. The slanting knife-scar on his face showed pale and kindly. His ‘Most Excellent Brand’ army pants were secured with a leather belt which bore four worn holes, chronicling the expansion of his belly like growth rings: the innermost hole was from a summer years ago, the next from a winter years ago, the next from last winter, and the outermost marked the present state of affairs. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo took all his noon naps laying on his left side, and the bamboo sleeping mat had left clear prints on the left side of his body and thin strips of bamboo stuck to his skin. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo’s hair was a complete mess. After he’d said his piece he lit a Great Qianmen cigarette and took a long drag, wrinkling his brow.
My father said he’d attended a private school when he was young. They made him memorize the Three Character Classic, the Hundred Surnames, the Thousand Masters’ Poems, the Four Books and the Five Classics as if they were force-feeding a goose. He memorized them all, and didn’t understand a word. It wasn’t until he was much older that he began to recall them and gradually arrived at some realizations, like a cow chewing its cud from the day before. My father was very pleased with himself when he was writing reports at his work unit, and was able to sneak in a few phrases like “To think how all antiquity, has floated down the stream and gone!”. His female colleagues under twenty-five and over fifty all thought he was very literary and learned.
I didn’t understand a word of what Old Lecher Kong Jianguo said to me. I had also just awoken from a nap, and was only thinking of how to pass the long hours before dinnertime. I thought Old Lecher Kong Jianguo was being uncharacteristically solemn. Just say what you mean, what’s with the rhetorical questions, the parallelism, the earnestness? He sounded like a language teacher. Sure, I knew what it was like to have an itch, or something I was desperate to do: for instance having to pee so bad I ran down the street on my tippy-toes looking for a toilet, or when I was five years old and yearning for the sachima biscuits on top of the wardrobe, or when it was my fifteenth birthday and I wanted a pair of white leather high-top Nike basketball shoes with a blue swoop on them.
It’s only thinking about it now that I get the shivers: if it weren’t for my private schooling with Kong Jianguo, my one true passions might never have been anything more than a toilet when I needed to go, sachima biscuits, or a pair of leather high-top Nikes.