Keep Running, Little Brother, by Lu Nei
Young Babylon, Poppy Toland's translation of Lu Nei's novel 少年巴比伦, was released by Amazon Crossing earlier this month. (In Summer 2012 it was selected as one of three Chinese titles for the And Other Stories Chinese reading group.)
Born in the 1980s, Lu Nei has described himself as “one of the least-educated young writers in China”. But with years of factory work under his belt to draw on as material, a sharp pen and a hilarious sense of humour, Lu Nei’s writing is fast and funny. His semi-autobiographical novel Young Babylon - already made into a movie, and dubbed China’s Catcher in the Rye - was selected as one of three Chinese titles for the And Other Stories Chinese reading group in 2012, and is now available in English, translated by Poppy Toland, published this month by Amazon Crossing.
This is a wry and affectionate take on growing up in a middle-class Shanghai family; the story of goofy, flat-footed Wu “Double Peaks” Shuangfeng, as told by his indie youth elder sister. To Wu Shuangyue, who spends the whole time going to underground gigs or buried in Internet cafés writing short stories, her younger brother, who still lives at home, seems forever “lost in Twatsville.” We hear of his inauspicious birth and awkward childhood, his half-baked years at college and hopeless internships. We get to meet his first real girlfriend, a hard-working outsider who carries her family’s financial well-being on her shoulders, and watch, exasperated, as the inevitable unfolds.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Pathlight magazine.
My little brother, Wu Shuangfeng, was born in 1984. The day he was born, Dad was doing overtime at the factory. Nan and Granddad were at home playing mahjong. The baby had shown up on the ultrasound as a girl, so Dad’s side of the family weren’t particularly bothered about the birth. They already had one girl, me, and having another would be a complete waste of our child quota; we wouldn’t be able to try again even if we wanted to. But when the baby was born it turned out to be a boy, and what’s more, he had pneumonia. When Grandpa, Mum’s father, called up to tell Dad the news, he threw down his electrician’s knife and rushed over to the hospital. He twisted his ankle jumping off the bus at Xujiahui, and by the time he arrived the baby was in intensive care and no one could see him.
So how did Shuangfeng become a boy? As a child it really puzzled me. I only really understood when I got to university. Ultrasound scans can be unreliable. The foetus sometimes keeps his little penis hidden, and so the doctor decides it’s a girl. Nowadays it’s against the law to do “non-medical checks” to determine the sex, but at some hospitals if you slip them a sweetener they’ll scan you on the sly. Sometimes, if it shows up as a girl, the parents will decide to have an abortion, but then it turns out to have been a boy all along.
This ambivalence around the birth would prove a sign that life for my brother wasn’t going to be easy. You see, Granddad Wu had wanted to have my brother aborted and Dad refused to take sides, but my mother’s side of the family was adamant we should keep the baby, which is the only reason he’s here at all.
As a baby, Shuangfeng was always ill. It was as if his resistance had been all but used up by that bout of pneumonia. He was constantly hooked to a drip in intensive care or being injected with antibiotics. He spent the first part of his life shielded from view behind a white curtain, but as he grew bigger we could see he had droopy eyelids, a raised-up upper lip permanently parted from the lower one, a dark complexion, and six toes on his left foot. As children we would sit on the steps outside East China Normal University’s staff dormitory and count our toes. I had ten but he had eleven, no matter how many times we counted. With his raised-up lip, he couldn’t keep saliva from dribbling out all over them. He was four at the time, and naïvely thought that everyone was born with eleven toes. “No, Shuangfeng: ten toes, not eleven,” I would tell him. He didn’t believe me, but when we went hand-in-hand to ask Granny, she mournfully pronounced: “Most people have ten toes, Shuangfeng. You have a birth defect.”
Grandpa was a professor at East China Normal University. He came up with my brother’s name. In Grandpa’s home village there was a river, the Twin Moon, and as I was born in February, the second month of the year, I was named “Twin Moon,” or Shuangyue, after the river. As it happened, there was also a mountain near the village called the “Twin Peaks.” Grandpa thought, as “Twin Moon” was such a good girl’s name, why not call the boy “Twin Peaks,” or Shuangfeng, after the mountain. This carefully thought out yet utterly foolish idea completely destroyed my brother. “Twin Peaks” – you might as well call him Camel or make some boob joke, and what with having a surname like Wu, a homophone for “nothing,” the possibilities for nicknames were endless. The fact is, the whole time I was growing up, I never heard his friends call him by his real name.
The whole family doted on my brother. As the only third-generation son and heir it was only natural. We weren’t badly off. Dad was promoted from electrician to workshop chief. Mum worked in a government department. We could afford whatever we wanted. Shuangfeng may have been the pet at home, but he was never taken out of the house. Mum and Dad always took me when they went on a work holiday, dressing it up as “Shuangfeng’s too young,” when in fact they thought he would be an embarrassment to them. When we looked back at our childhood, it turned out I’d been to most of China’s famous sites, whereas Shuangfeng had always stayed home with Granny and Grandpa for the holidays. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he would say. Even when Granny went out food shopping, if at all possible, she would take me rather than Shuangfeng.
You can’t run very fast with an extra toe, so when Shuangfeng was five he had an operation to remove it. My parents thought maybe he’d be able to run better, but as it turned out, he had flat feet as well so it didn’t make much difference. Growing up, I lost count of the times I saw other boys going after him. He would run for his life on those once eleven-toed and forever flat feet, tears and dribble flying. I’m five years older so I would charge over to stop them. Then one day, on my way home with some classmates, I saw a group of girls pushing him about. They were shrieking, pulling his hair, pinching his ears, and yanking at his school bag. Nine-year-old Shuangfeng sat on the ground in tears, trying to escape and screaming at them to stop. I took out my steel ruler and whacked the little demons over the head. They backed off.
This time it was my turn to be teased.
“Wu Shuangyue, is that your brother Wu Shuangfeng?”
“Come here, Wu Shuangfeng, and let me have a look at you.”
“Your kid brother’s really ugly.”
“How could you let yourself be bullied by girls?” I asked him.
“They ganged up on me,” he said, wiping away tears. I sighed, said goodbye to my friends and hauled him to his feet. On the way home he suddenly looked at me.
“Your friends know about me?” he asked.
“And they know my name is Wu Shuangfeng?”
I felt bad. I had made jokes about Shuangfeng to a few close friends, it was true. Even though they’d never met him, he was well-known because of that stupid name. Shuangfeng saw I wasn’t going to answer. Walking on he said suddenly: “I’ll get my own back when I’m older.” After a while, he said, “I’ll get my revenge on those girls.” To me he was the same old droopy-eyed, goofy-mouthed boy. He still had a tear in the corner of his eye. “I doubt you’ll ever get a girl looking like that,” I thought to myself. “Let alone get your revenge.”
My brother had a miserable childhood. Even in year five, he was still dribbling over his homework. The family was always scolding him: “Close your mouth, Shuangfeng!” Even the maid started doing it. I wouldn’t stand for that, so I accused her of stealing and got her dismissed. I wasn’t surprised he got low marks at school; he had no confidence in himself. The few times he did well, the teacher accused him of cheating, and Mum and Dad gave him a thrashing. He was lazy with his schoolwork and a cheat, they said. Nothing he said could persuade them otherwise. My brother cried bitterly. When he tried to explain, they assumed he was a liar, too. “I’m stuck whatever I do,” he told me. He was only twelve at the time.
That wasn’t the only traumatic experience of my brother’s life: in year two he was forced to undergo a circumcision at school. Some doctors came into class and examined all the boys, but it was only Shuangfeng whose foreskin they decided was too long. They took him to the clinic and sliced it off there and then. Smearing on some antiseptic, they told him not to drink fluids or pee, and then sent him back to class. Able to bear it at first, it soon hurt so much he couldn’t sit down. Then he got told off for crying. By the end he was clutching at his penis, and jumping up and down. At that point they called Mum to take him off their hands. Shuangfeng was still crying when we sat down for dinner. My dad got angry, the school had gone too far this time. Why wasn’t the head of the family informed? I asked Granny what a foreskin was as I ate my dinner.
“That’s not the sort of thing you should ask,” she mournfully replied. “Shuangyue, as far as I can tell, I think your brother has been gelded.”
I can’t help saying, at this point, that Granny had let her imagination run away with her. Though I was once convinced there was something wrong with my brother’s physiognomy, I learned at university that circumcision can be a good thing, but why be so brutal about it?
After finishing middle school, Shuangfeng wanted to go to catering college to become a chef. This wasn’t good enough for a learned family like ours. Grandpa owned a huge collection of books, could recite classical poems and write Ou-style calligraphy, how could he possibly tolerate his only grandson working in a restaurant? He was so put out, he hardly ate for days. He scolded Dad at mealtimes, until he lost his appetite as well. Then Dad turned on Shuangfeng. The dinner table became a battlefield. In the end Granny said mournfully: “Shuangfeng, you can’t close your mouth. What if you dribbled all over the food?”
“Granny, I don’t dribble anymore,” replied my brother, aggrieved, “haven’t you even noticed?”
It wasn’t entirely Granny’s fault. Shuangfeng still couldn’t close his mouth properly, so whether he was fifteen or twenty-four, the family were still likely to remind him to close it in a strict, or gentle, or absentminded way.
Anyhow, he went on to high school, where he focused all his energy on getting into university. A lot of people think the university entrance exam pass rate is high in Shanghai compared with other places. From my experience I would say that two thirds of pupils get channelled into vocational or technical colleges, so naturally they aren’t counted as part of the university entrance rate. Catering would have been a good option considering his lousy marks, but pushed into doing exams, he managed to get into some mediocre high school in Wuhui. Going to university still seemed highly unlikely, but for some reason his luck began to change. It was a kind of reprieve for him, even if, the first time round, he only got a measly 217 points in the entrance exam. The family was aghast; no one would give him a place at university, even if you paid them. But the following year he sat it again, finally finding temporary gratification in studying marketing at one of Shanghai’s third-rate universities.
I went to college in Shanghai, graduating from East China Normal University in ’98. The family wanted me to stay at home, but I insisted on living on campus. This had the effect of me, the good girl at home, rapidly degenerating into a punk rocker, charging all over the city to underground gigs, smoking and drinking, and generally cursing my head off. Anyone I liked was the dog’s bollocks; most people were twats. It was around ’98 that the Internet really got going. I began to spend my time writing short stories in Internet cafés, buried myself in chat rooms, and had online friends from all over the world. I started living with an indie youth from Beijing around that time. I had left innocent girlhood behind. Whenever I went home, and saw my brother’s gormless face, I couldn’t help thinking that we were slowly drifting apart. I was fearless and free, but he was lost in twatsville.
My brother got fat at high school. He was short-sighted and wore rusty wire-framed glasses. All the other boys had some sort of hobby, even if it was just watching cartoons. My brother was the perfect example of someone without a life. He didn’t like reading or sport; he didn’t even watch a lot of television. As someone born in the ’80s, he had no idea what New Concept Literature was, he didn’t know the difference between Adidas and Nike, and he’d never been to People’s Square on his own. I couldn’t see what pleasure he got from life at all, until one night, somewhere near Xin Cun, I saw someone collapsed on the ground, surrounded by a group of teenagers shouting: “Milk Tea! Milk Tea!” That was Shuangfeng’s nickname, but I didn’t believe it could be him. I went over, and it was him, passed out from drinking. I tried to lift him but he was too heavy so I ended up getting four of his mates to help carry him home. On the way back I berated them for drinking at their age. “Don’t look at us,” said one, “your brother just downed eighteen pints.” I was shocked. One of the girls who had come along pulled at my sleeve: “You won’t be too hard on him, will you? He’s not having a very good time of it.”
So what did Shuangfeng have to worry about? No one even told him off when he came to because Grandpa put on such an air of tolerance and understanding. After a long heart-to-heart with the family, Shuangfeng swore he would never drink again. A few days later, he was carried home again drunk as mud. After he had repeated this pattern a few times I realised that drinking was what my brother did for a hobby. I couldn’t really believe it: a boy of eighteen, a drinker? Surely that sort of thing only happened in novels.
After university I got a job at a fashion magazine. My punk days were over. I got myself some designer clothes and handbags, changed my image, and studied the season’s trends. That same year my brother started university, but because I had set such a bad example Mum and Dad didn’t allow him to live on campus. So life for him was no different than when he was at high school. He ate rice porridge in the morning, went off to college, and then biked home in the afternoon. One day he asked for my advice: how to escape from his own personal house arrest. I thought for a moment, and said. “How about joining a club, at least you’ll be able to stay out.” A couple of days later, he told me he’d been accepted by the college football team. Yet again, this confounded my expectations. He was fat and short-sighted, and he had calluses and flat feet. I just couldn’t imagine him sprinting around a field. I later learned that he’d given his new Samsung Anycall, worth about two thousand yuan, to the team captain, and bought himself a cheap second-hand Motorola with his pocket money. He’d also told the captain: “My sister’s interviewed such and such celebrity, maybe she could get you an autograph.” The captain was really into that particular celebrity, almost as much as he liked Samsung mobiles.
At last, I saw in my brother the potential for a social life. I went to see him play: Running around the dilapidated pitch were a crew of total misfits mucking about with a football. Shuangfeng was wearing the No. 7 Man United shirt I’d given him and his Nike football boots. His Levis were draped over the crossbar of his Giant ten-speed mountain bike. His Jeansport rucksack hung off the handlebars. He really stood out. A group of girls were hanging about watching the game. “No. 7 looks pretty cool,” said one of them.
“Here’s your chance for payback, Shuangfeng,” I thought to myself. “I hope revenge is sweet.”
It was a great time for Shuangfeng: he slimmed down and got all fit and muscly. I gave him some white designer glasses which disguised his droopy eyes, and even his goofy lip didn’t seem to be a problem. “People reckon I look like Milan Baros,” he told me.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Centre forward for the Czech national team. Plays for Liverpool,” he said.
By that time, I was living with my boyfriend and wasn’t at home very much. Mum told me that Shuangfeng was training like crazy. He could do more than a hundred press-ups and went running every morning. Though his flat feet meant he wasn’t very fast, his stamina was amazing. He could run for an hour at a stretch. He even seemed to have found a girlfriend. More importantly, no one hassled him if he got drunk every once in a while.
Then one evening having dinner at my parents, I heard a woman crying outside in the grounds and man’s voice shouting at her: “Shut your face! I’ll kill you if you don’t stop that noise.”
“Please, let me go! I’m begging you!” cried the woman.
I went onto the balcony to have a look. It was completely dark and I couldn’t make anything out. Then, loud and clear, I heard a slap. A woman screamed and burst into tears. It sounded like someone was being badly beaten. Calling the police would probably be too late so I called down:
“You violent bastard! The police are on their way.” Unfortunately the man had no fear of the police.
“I’ll come up there and kill you!” He called back.
Mum came over at that point and dragged me away saying: “What do you think you’re doing? It’s just that outsider beating up his wife, the one that’s just moved in. He’s drunk. He hits her every week.” Then I heard the sound of someone running up the stairs. The bastard was actually coming to get us. Someone kicked at the door. At this point I got scared.
My brother walked out of his room. He had just done fifty press-ups and still had fifty to go. Bare-chested, he pulled the front door open and hit the lowlife in the face. He screamed and fell from our door down a whole flight of stairs. Shuangfeng stretched his neck this way and that in a very cool manner and then turned to me: “Drunken bastard,” he said.
This was the first time in my entire life that I had seen my brother hit someone. Over the last twenty years I had seen him beaten up and blamed for things he didn’t do, time and time again. “Little brother, you can stand on your own two feet at last,” I thought, a trifle naïvely. At the same time I knew, you can’t protect yourself from everything life throws at you, even armed with a pair of sturdy fists.
My brother finally went public with his girlfriend.
She was a girl from Sichuan, in the year above him, called Lu Qinqin – acknowledged as one of the prettiest girls in college. I was pleased that Shuangfeng had found someone good-looking, but then he told me: “She doesn’t have a very good reputation. She’s had too many boyfriends.” Then he added, “and she comes from a poor family.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. You’re only going out on a few dates,” I said. Then I asked him how he managed to get her to go out with him.
“She used watch us play,” he said. “Everyone knew her. Then one day my mates from the team dared me to try and pick her up,” he said. “I stood at the college gates waiting for her. When she came out, I bought an ice pop, walked over, and said: ‘Hey, want one of these?’
‘Get you!’ she said.
‘I don’t mess about,’ I said. ‘I reckon that’s a good thing.’ Then she agreed to come out with me.”
“When you were at high school, there was that girl with the big eyes who was really into you,” I said.
“I chucked her.”
My blood ran cold remembering what he had said when he was small. Evidently he had been getting his own back for quite a while.
In ’84, before house prices in Shanghai shot up, Mum and Dad bought a new apartment and rented out the old one. When we moved into our new upmarket apartment, my brother brought Lu Qinqin over. She was rather quiet and very polite, a thin, pale girl, who I wouldn’t say was exactly pretty. I don’t know why, but she made me feel uneasy. She seemed burdened by a weight of anxiety which sat oddly on her youthful shoulders. Sichuan girls are often mature for their age and tend to be pretty astute, capable and hardworking. My brother was obviously no match for her. After only a couple of sentences I could see that she had him under her thumb. Mum, of course, could see it too, and as a possible future Shanghai mother-in-law, she was not likely to stand for it. She turned to me and said: “She’s not right for Shuangfeng.”
That year my dad had been promoted to the management team of a medium-sized state company and was flushed with his success. One evening after a few drinks at dinner Dad asked Lu Qinqin:
“Hey, Little Lu! What do you think of our apartment? Décor’s not bad, is it?”
It was obvious that he had had a bit too much to drink and was beginning to show off.
“It’s very nice, Mr. Wu,” said Lu Qinqin. “When I bring my mum and dad to Shanghai, I want us to live in an apartment just like this.”
“Shuangfeng has a lot of faults. Mostly he drinks too much,” said my dad. “You’ll have to keep an eye on him.”
By this time Mum was glaring at him. It was obvious why. My parents hadn’t officially acknowledged their relationship, but here was Dad talking as if they were already engaged. “Shuangfeng’s a good person,” she said. “But he needs someone to look out for him; he’s like a big kid.”
My mum rolled her eyes. I felt put out. Mum and I had always been very protective of Shuangfeng, and then along comes another woman who feels just the same towards him. Of course we were going to resent her.
Lu Qinqin often came to dinner at ours. Sometimes I was there, sometimes I wasn’t. I didn’t really know the specifics, but then one day my brother rushed over in a state of distress. “Mum and Dad don’t want me to see Lu Qinqin anymore!” I asked why. “They think she’s too poor,” he said, “and she’s an outsider, so she must be after our money.”
“So, we’ve got two apartments, big deal!” I scoffed. “That’s peanuts compared to some people.”
“That’s just what Mum and Dad said!” said my brother.
“What if Lu Qinqin is only after your money?” I asked him seriously.
“No way.” he said. “There are richer people out there.”
“Very few people marry for love alone,” I said. “Maybe the person she truly loves is completely penniless, and then there’s this mega-rich guy chasing her but she doesn’t like him at all, and so maybe you’re somewhere in between.”
“You’re only suspicious because she’s not from round here.”
What could I say? My brother was just twenty-two, only in his second year of university. At that age I was still making a nuisance of myself at gigs and staying up all night writing incomprehensible articles. He had always been quite immature for his age and had very little experience of the world. How could I expect him to understand something so complicated all at once.
Going out with someone is an expensive business. My brother had always been generous with his money. I helped him out at university so I knew he had no sense of economy. One month he blew more than a thousand yuan so Mum and Dad had to limit his spending money. They also wanted to remind him they could still tell him what to do. Then one day when he and Lu Qinqin had spent everything they had, she sighed. “We’re so poor!” she said. My brother was desolate. Going home by himself through People’s Square he saw a blood donation truck. “Right now I’d do anything,” he thought. He pushed inside and told the doctor to take two hundred millilitres but when he asked for the money the doctor looked at him as if he was mad and pointed to the slogan pasted on the truck. Bloody hell – “The gift of blood is a gift of life.”
When he got back to college my brother gave Lu Qinqin a carton of milk. “This is what I got for giving blood,” he said. “I thought they would give me money but it turned out to be a donation truck.”
“Nowhere gives you money for giving blood anymore,” Lu Qinqin told him. Then she said, “Shuangfeng, I will love you forever.”
The funny thing was, two weeks later the school organised a “Give Blood” campaign. My brother didn’t know how to explain and so let them take another two hundred millilitres. He nearly went cross-eyed. Luckily he was pretty healthy otherwise he might have ended up dead.
Lu Qinqin got a job as a personal assistant with the grand wage of one thousand, five hundred yuan per month. You’ll find girls like her all over Shanghai. My brother was in the year below her and had already started looking for work. The trouble was most people who did marketing had a gift for it; lousy subject or not. No one could possibly have any hope that Shuangfeng could sell stuff. My mum’s idea was to get him into my dad’s work-unit and that would be the end of it, but Dad had his reservations. For one, he was on the management team, and having a son in the same work-unit wasn’t always a good thing, and anyway he would probably retire soon. Once he left, they’d soon forget about him and where would that leave Shuangfeng?
“Let Shuangfeng find his own way. There’s nothing wrong with a few rejections.”
It was more like a wholesale free fall into nothing.
What I had worried about the most was about to happen. Shuangfeng had to get out there with his curriculum vitae and look for a job. There was no going back now. Whatever he went through at school was irrelevant; the world out there probably couldn’t even be bothered to pick on him before kicking him out the door. My boyfriend was the marketing manager for a foreign invested company so I asked him to come over and give my brother some interview practice. The two of them talked for an hour. Afterwards my boyfriend told me privately: “Your little brother doesn’t even know the 4Ps of marketing. He can’t even use PowerPoint. Who would ever give him a job? What did that shit college teach him anyway?” I sighed. “That shit college cost ten thousand a term.”
To begin, we needed to find him an internship. I got him a placement at a company where a friend of mine worked. There was no pay, but he got a box meal at lunchtime. He had a computer, but my brother had no interest in computers whatsoever, so after a while, sitting there was like sitting on a bent pin. It turned out to be a complete waste of time. My friend had known Shuangfeng for years so she ordered him around as if he were her little brother, sending him off to get snacks from the shop downstairs. He never did any real work. There was just this crazy crowd of women sending him out on errands to buy chewing gum or soft drinks or cigarettes. By the end they’d even got him to go and buy sanitary towels for them. If he got the wrong ones they’d send him back to exchange them. In the two months he was there he didn’t learn anything useful, but by the end of it he knew everything there was to know about sanitary towels: Unicharm, Carefree, everyday use, night use, with wings, ultra-thin, which girl used which kind, which brand was having a promotion, who usually had long periods and who had short ones. One day over dinner he told us all about it. My dad was livid. He gave me a piece of his mind and ordered Shuangfeng to hand in his notice.
My brother had no problem with buying sanitary towels – he wasn’t the least embarrassed about it – he was just a bit bored of being around all those women, so he stopped going. My friend called me: “Shuangfeng can’t just pick and choose, you know. If he carries on like this how will he ever get on?”
“Just think about it,” I said. “If he’d stayed on at your place he’d have been selling sanitary towels wholesale by now.”
“To be honest, the others only asked him to go on errands for my sake,” she said, “and of course he’s so cute and harmless. Most interns wouldn’t get such an easy time.”
After that my brother tried out at all sorts of companies, but no matter what he went for, an interview or an internship, he’d be back home after a couple of months. I helped him get through the door of the first few companies, but the longer it went on, the more I got annoyed with him. In the end I couldn’t be bothered to fix things up for him anymore. He could fend for himself for a while. He soon realised that being sent out for sanitary towels hadn’t been so bad after all. The family hadn’t expected much of him in the first place and that year they rapidly lost all hope.
“What do you really want to do?” I asked him one day. He thought for a bit: “I don’t want to be stuck in an office. I hate sitting in front of a computer.” I was flabbergasted. Note: Shanghai is full of recent graduates trying to get into one of those state-of-the-art office buildings. Getting a desk and a computer is like finding gold at the end of a rainbow. “It sounds like you should be an express courier or something,” was all I could think to say.
I had always thought Shuangfeng was pretty ordinary; he was fairly well-behaved and his intentions were good, I thought he would follow the crowd. I had no idea he was actually a bit of a maverick.
“I want to go to police college and become a police officer,” he said.
“Isn’t it hard to get into policing?” I said. “Don’t you have to have connections?”
“It’s not so bad in Shanghai. Our football captain got into police college completely on his own merit.” he replied.
I encouraged him to have a go. To be honest I didn’t take him seriously. Nothing seemed to go right for Shuangfeng. He only had to voice an idea for it to fall through. It was as if he suffered from some sort of curse.
Compared to my brother, Lu Qinqin was extremely driven. When she graduated she asked to live in our old apartment, but Mum and Dad refused. Their biggest concern was that it would affect the rental income, but it also reflected the fact that Mum and Dad had no intention of acknowledging her. This determined young woman from Sichuan was having such a hard time of it, renting a room with friends with a shared toilet and kitchen, but she did well at work and soon got a pay rise. That girl had vision. She had joined a yoga class whilst still at college, at a time when yoga was becoming popular in the city, and then she took a second job as a yoga instructor. Her wages rose to about eight thousand yuan, enough for a two bedroom flat in an old apartment building. Whenever she came to ours for dinner she was wearing H&M or I.T. I gave her a set of Yves Saint Laurent make-up. She obviously recognised the brand, as she thanked me several times.
Mum still hadn’t warmed to her. In private she said to me: “Such expensive make-up. Why give it to Qinqin? Spoiling her will only make her spend more of Shuangfeng’s money.”
I laughed and said: “You underestimate that girl. She’s far more capable than Shuangfeng. In a few years she’ll be standing on her own two feet.”
My mum sighed: “Once that happens she won’t look at your brother anymore.”
“You say that because you know your son isn’t up to much,” I said. “I don’t know what you have against her.”
“Well, she’s from a poor family and she has no roots here, nothing to fall back on. However much she earns it doesn’t mean a thing. As soon as a man with cash comes along, she’ll be off like a shot. I think she’s keeping her options open; there’s no way your brother can support someone like that.”
“You may be right,” I said. “Let’s wait and see.”
Life improved no end for my brother when Lu Qinqin got her own flat. He stopped going to work, got drunk, and slept all day round at hers. We all thought he was working at some company as an intern. It was only once he’d graduated that Dad thought to ask if he had been taken on properly. That’s when he told us: “I stopped working ages ago. I go to Lu Qinqin’s in the day.” My dad nearly had a heart attack. He blamed Lu Qinqin for leading his son astray.
“Dad, surely you should blame your son for his own failure,” I said. “Look, she’s got no choice, she has to work her guts out, do you really think she wants him lying about doing nothing?” I had just got myself a new boyfriend, an outsider who had come here to work. My mum, who had had enough, interrupted: “What is it with you two and these outsiders?”
“What’s so great about being from Shanghai anyway?” I said. “We’ll all leave here in a box eventually.”
“Why can’t you all just leave me alone?” shouted Shuangfeng.
I flew into a rage and wagged my finger at him. “You sit there drinking all day long. Haven’t you even noticed? You’ve turned into a complete fathead. You come from a good background. Kids a lot poorer than you are out there slogging their guts out and here you are, wasting your time doing press-ups, happy to live off your parents for the rest of your life. Loser!”
“I’ve lived in the shadow of this family all my life!” cried Shuangfeng.
Before I could lay into him, Dad jumped up, grabbed hold of a chair, and threw it at him, howling with rage. Shuangfeng tried to keep out of his way but he had nowhere to go. Dad had been a soldier in Tibet when he was young and even at fifty he could still pack a punch, but this was the first time he had ever hit Shuangfeng. Seeing my fifty-year-old dad resorting to his fists to teach Shuangfeng a lesson, I began to cry.
The next day Shuangfeng turned up for an interview with a swollen face. He was asked to leave as soon as he opened his mouth.
To be honest, I was well aware that the employment situation had been dire since the early eighties. Plenty of decent university graduates were unable to find work. If even computer geeks and people educated abroad had to fight for a job, what chance would my brother have? Shuangfeng’s only advantage was that he had a few apartments to rent out, bringing in an income more or less equal to an office worker’s salary, the so-called basic. Some people might work their whole lives to get what Shuangfeng already had when he started out. But did that even count for anything anymore? They were just apartments. The streets were full of fiercely ambitious young people focusing their energy on getting ahead. Do you really think that in twenty years’ time my brother would still be able boast that he had two apartments?
Lu Qinqin’s parents were coming to Shanghai. She had to work the day they arrived, so Shuangfeng asked me to drive him to the station to pick them up. He wanted to make a good impression. Chatting over dinner we learned that they were laid-off workers from Sichuan in considerable financial difficulties. In order to send their daughter to university, they had used up all their savings and were more than forty thousand yuan in debt. The old couple had ran a snack stall in the city centre but about a month ago it had been flattened by the city council, so they had no choice but to come to Shanghai and rely on their daughter to support them. Mr. Lu was a middle-aged man of few words. He hardly said a thing, just sat there drinking baijiu shots with my brother. Lu Qinqin’s mother liked to talk. She kept smiling at my brother as she chatted. She obviously really liked him. “Do you like Sichuan food, Little Wu?” she said. My brother nodded. “Well then, from now on your Auntie Lu will cook for you. You’re welcome to come over whenever you like. Don’t worry. Your Auntie Lu isn’t going to sit at home doing nothing. I’m going to look for a supermarket job straight away.”
“Mrs. Lu, please don’t talk like that.” I said quickly. “This is Lu Qinqin’s home. It has nothing to do with Shuangfeng. He has no right to ask anything of you.”
“But I like Shuangfeng,” she said. “He’s a good, kind boy. I wasn’t quite sure before I met him.” My brother and I forced a smile.
Lu Qinqin’s parents’ arrival in Shanghai coincided with Dad going abroad on business so they weren’t able to meet. My brother kept plotting this dinner, but Mum was continually on the alert to prevent it, because eating together would mean acknowledging the relationship between the two families. My brother had no choice but to trick Granny and Grandpa into meeting them. Grandpa was eighty. Older people don’t tend to suspect ulterior motives so getting them to go along was easy. Shuangfeng seized the opportunity, and announced that he intended to marry Lu Qinqin. This put Grandpa in a rather awkward position. “But, you’re only twenty-three,” he said.
“In the old days people got married at eighteen,” Shuangfeng said.
Grandpa rolled his eyes. “In the old days your parents decided who you married and it was arranged through a matchmaker. I think you should go home and discuss it with your mum and dad.” Yet again, what my brother had hoped was a foregone conclusion hadn’t gone to plan at all.
“You want to take a wife but you don’t even have a job, Shuangfeng. That sort of thing would be out of the question in the countryside, you know,” said Granny mournfully.
My brother started taking stuff from home over to Lu Qinqin’s apartment. At first it was just a camp bed that we didn’t use, and extra cups and pillows, but then he took all our cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. He even gave his bike to Mr. Lu, pretending to us that it had been stolen. One day my mum was making dinner and couldn’t find the cleaver. When she asked, it turned out Shuangfeng had taken that as well. “If I had that cleaver here I’d chop you up this instant!” spat my mother.
I saw how things were panning out. It was in the bag; Shuangfeng would soon be married. But he was the sort of person who could never quite see anything through.
He appeared a few days later, completely mortified. “Lu Qinqin is seeing someone else,” he said. I was surprised, though not that surprised – for his sake I acted astonished and asked him what had happened.
Lu Qinqin had been very secretive about it, he said. He hadn’t noticed anything at first. I must admit, given his emotional IQ, it was highly unlikely my brother would have noticed that something was going on. Lu Qinqin’s mum was the one who had told him. It seemed that she genuinely liked Shuangfeng and had let him know that lately there had been a man taking Lu Qinqin home after her yoga class. Maybe she had got to know him there. Distraught, Shuangfeng had rushed over to the yoga studio and laid in wait near the main door. Sure enough, he saw Lu Qinqin coming out with a man.
With the stuffing knocked out of him, my brother couldn’t summon the courage to confront them. Instead he biked home, told me what had happened, and then tore open the special edition Maotai that Dad had been saving for ten years and drank the whole lot. Still not drunk, he found the cooking wine, drank half the bottle, collapsed on the sofa, and fell asleep.
It was late. My mum had gone to bed much earlier and had no idea what was happening. I stood there for a while looking at his drunken form and thinking to myself: “When he wakes up he’s going to wreck the house.” I decided to go and see Lu Qinqin. Her mother opened the door. She guessed why I’d come as it was so late, and let me in, apologetically. Lu Qinqin was on the phone. I looked around the room and saw all the stuff from our house: our camp bed, our bedding, our calendar, our alarm clock, our slippers, and our kitchen cleaver. Lu Qinqin put the phone down, let her mother go back to bed, and made me a cup of tea. Then we discussed my brother.
“That guy, he’s just a friend,” said Lu Qinqin.
“Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t come over to accuse you,” I said. The man was a colleague from work, she explained, the manager of the marketing department. He did Taekwondo at the gym and when he noticed Lu Qinqin teaching yoga, he was intrigued and came over to chat. She didn’t want the company to know she had another job, so she had no choice but to go for a coffee with him a couple of times. When he asked to take her home, she found it difficult to refuse. Little by little they got to know one another. He was interested in her of course; it just wasn’t out in the open yet. “I don’t think I’ve behaved very well,” she said, finally.
“You can’t say that,” I said, “this sort of thing could happen to anyone. I just hope that one day, if you give up on my brother, you don’t hurt him too badly.”
“I like Shuangfeng so much,” she said, “but he’s just a big kid. I can’t rely on him for anything.”
“He’s tried very hard to prove he can contribute,” I sighed, looking at all the things he had taken from our house. Lu Qinqin shook her head and said: “This isn’t what I want. I’m under such a lot of pressure. It’s me who has to repay all the money my family owes. I hope that he has a future and will stop depending on his parents. Surely a girl can hope her man will do something with his life?”
She kept shaking her head. “I have never been able to rely on him,” she said. “Maybe he should find a girl from Shanghai, someone well-off, and then he’d have no worries for the rest of his life. He has always been such a child. But strangely enough, that’s what I love about him,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. I’m so confused.”
“So… well… what have you decided?” I asked her.
“Shuangfeng said he wants to try for police college,” she said. “I think I should wait until after his exam to decide.”
So that’s what held their relationship together. Lu Qinqin said she didn’t want anything to affect him emotionally before his exams but she also wanted to wait and see whether my brother was capable of turning himself around. After all, a police officer is similar in status to a civil servant. Being a policeman would be a brilliant future for someone like my brother. But with his lack of emotional intelligence, I had a hard time believing that he would be capable of catching any bad guys; I’d just be thankful if he didn’t harm any good guys.
“I’m definitely going to get into police college!” announced my brother.
He had made similar boasts before his high school exams, before his university entrance exams, and before his finals, but the results hadn’t been anything to write home about. My mum and dad were really happy about it though, thinking that this time, their son was going to do them proud. My dad announced: “If you get in I’ll bring out my ten year old special edition Maotai!”
That year the police college was taking on two hundred new recruits, more than ever before, but only this year’s university graduates could apply. That meant if my brother didn’t get in this time, he wouldn’t get another opportunity. The exam was made up of a written exam, a physical ability test, and an interview. All he had to do was train hard, and work hard at his studies. He shaved his head and he started wearing contact lenses. He got all muscly again, and when he came out with us my mates took quite a shine to him.
But he flunked it.
Apparently he had only concentrated on anaerobic exercise. Sure, you need muscle strength to do press-ups and pull-ups, but the exam was a test of stamina: a five hundred metre run. My brother knew this, but oddly he had neglected the running exercises, doing strength training instead.
His rainbow-coloured world turned monochrome. I hadn’t had high expectations for him, but still I had hoped for the best. Now I was certain that even this monochrome world would soon collapse. Lu Qinqin and Shuangfeng wouldn’t last much longer.
One day, during a quarrel about nothing, my brother roared: “Why don’t you just go off with that marketing manager of yours!” Lu Qinqin slapped him right there in the middle of the street, jumped into a taxi, and disappeared.
Shuangfeng had a group of slacker mates from his football days; simple-minded meatheads, the lot of them. They had a really stupid idea: text her, and say you have a new girlfriend. If she begs you to come back, that means she loves you. If she doesn’t, it means she’s gone off with the marketing manager. My brother, not having a clue about girls, did as he was told. She texted back later that day: “Let’s split up then.”
The day they broke up Lu Qinqin asked Shuangfeng to introduce her to his new girlfriend. My brother didn’t know how to get out of it, so he asked me to come along. The break-up took place in a tiny park beneath a system of flyovers. It was deserted. Cars and trucks whizzed past overhead. The leaves on the trees were covered in dust. Standing next to Lu Qinqin was a tall man in a track suit. He looked pretty ordinary but you could tell that he thought he was some kind of Johnny Depp. I asked my brother whether this was the marketing manager. He scratched his head. “I’ve forgotten what he looked like.”
Of course it was him.
“Why haven’t you brought your new girlfriend, Wu Shuangfeng?” asked Lu Qinqin.
“I haven’t got a new girlfriend,” replied my brother. “I was trying to trick you.” I couldn’t believe it. Was this really the time to admit such a thing?
Lu Qinqin gave him a despairing look. “Why are we here then?” she said.
“Let’s get things straight. You’re the one who went off with someone else,” said my brother.
“Shuangfeng, you’re beginning to sound really hateful now,” she said.
“So this is your new boyfriend,” my brother counter-attacked. “Not up to much, is he?” The new boyfriend gazed up at the cars on the overpass and smiled to himself.
“Let’s not hurt each other, Wu Shuangfeng,” said Lu Qinqin. “From now on, let’s pretend we never met.”
“Okay,” said my brother.
And so just like that he let her go. She and the boyfriend were already at the exit when Shuangfeng suddenly called out: “Hey you! Do you want a fight?”
Johnny Depp came back, looked at Lu Qinqin, then looked at me. “That’s not cool, man, there are ladies here,” he said languidly. I dismissed him with my hand: “Don’t mind me. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”
“I’ve no intention of fighting,” said the boyfriend. “Anyway, I thought you wanted to be a policeman? You won’t have much chance if you get arrested for fighting.”
“I didn’t pass,” said my brother. Once again, this was too much information. It was an idiotic thing to say.
“Come on mate, fighting never solves anything. You’ll realise that soon enough,” he said.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” I sneered. “You’re just not up to it.”
The boyfriend looked at me, unriled. He took hold of Lu Qinqin and walked off.
On the way home Shuangfeng said: “You were supposed to calm things down.”
“I was hoping he’d Taekwondo you to a pulp,” I said savagely.
That night Shuangfeng suddenly broke down. The entire household crawled out of bed to comfort him. The old people tried everything but it was no use, so in the end they rang and told me to come over. My brother said he wanted to talk to me alone. There was no soul searching; to my surprise he said: “I’m so cut up, Sis. The week before we broke up we had sex six times.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Six times?” I said.
“She held me tight, and said she wanted to be with me until the end.”
I sighed: “And you still didn’t suspect anything?”
“No,” said my brother.
After a while I couldn’t help saying: “Fuck me! Six times in a row? Did you take anything?”
“Why should I? I’m pretty fit,” said my brother.
“Bloody hell, that’s good going!” I exclaimed.
Lu Qinqin had lost her virginity to him, he said, and so he’d always thought she’d marry him, but it had all gone off-track, and he was hurting. “It doesn’t matter,” I consoled him. “It was your first time too, so you don’t owe each other anything.”
“That wasn’t my first time. I lost my virginity to that girl with the big eyes at high school.”
I nearly fainted with annoyance. “When was that?” I asked.
“In the summer holidays after the first year,” he said.
I did a quick calculation. I would have been in the second year of university. I had sex for the first time that year, and I’m five years older. The more I thought about it the more furious I got.
“You were too young to do that sort of thing, you little bugger! You deserve everything you get! Stupid idiot, cry your heart out!” I fumed.
After his split with Lu Qinqin, my brother’s football mates talked him into running a milk tea shop. They wanted something to do. One of them knew someone who ran a chain of milk tea shops, and he wanted to expand out of Shanghai. This lot were going buy the shop from him.
My brother talked to the family: my dad decided the boy would be irredeemably lost if he carried on as he was, so he agreed to plough in his hard-earned savings and make my brother the main stockholder. He invested eighty thousand yuan, and Shuangfeng took on a shop-front not quite a metre wide. The previous owner had left, and it was only when my brother and his mates were unloading stock that they realised he still owed the head office thirty thousand yuan in payment for goods. It was up to my brother to pay this back. My mum and dad were spitting blood again. He hadn’t even started and the shop was already losing money.
“Milk Tea” was my brother’s nickname, so now Milk Tea sold milk tea, and everyone thought that was great. I went over to have a look. The little shop was bright and bustling. It was opposite a bus stop so foot traffic wasn’t an issue. The milk tea my brother made tasted better than anything you could buy on the street. Watching him working skilfully behind the counter, taking payment and giving change, I felt a sliver of comfort at last. “Oh Shuangfeng, if only this could be the start of something good!” I said to myself. Having a look around as I drove home I discovered that within a strip of about a kilometre, there were at least ten other milk tea shops. My heart misgave me. Yet again, he was going to sink without trace.
Inevitably, the shop lost money. It lost about five thousand yuan every month. He worked very hard. He delivered tea in the pouring rain, falling off his bike and breaking it in the process. He manned the shop from nine in the morning until ten at night, and never compromised on the quality of ingredients, but in this competitive world it just wasn’t enough, even for a small taste of success. Maybe that’s just how it is on the street. Success has nothing to do with whether you work hard or not.
Around that time, trading stocks was on the rise. My mum missed out on the opportunity to invest as she had to give my brother five thousand a month. She’d had enough.
One day my brother was alone in the shop. Light from the sunset lit up the street, and Lu Qinqin appeared before him. “A milk tea please. No pearls,” she said. Then she recognised him. “You’re running a milk tea shop now, Wu Shuangfeng?” she asked. My brother nodded. He noticed she was wearing a purple anti-radiation dress.
“I’m pregnant,” said Lu Qinqin.
“Did you marry the marketing manager?” my brother asked.
“No, I married someone from Hong Kong,” she said. “I live nearby. I had no idea you were here.”
That day my brother took her home on the back of his bike. She didn’t live very far away. She could come over for milk tea often. When they were saying goodbye she said: “Shuangfeng, I knew you during the worst part of your life. It’s just not fair.” My brother didn’t speak. Hurt, she said: “You were the worst boyfriend I ever had but, remember this; I was the best girl you’ll ever know.” Confused, and sad, my brother watched as she walked slowly into her building. He rode back to the shop and thought for a while. Then he turned off the power, rolled down the metal door, and declared the tea shop bankrupt.
He never saw Lu Qinqin again.
My parents pulled some strings, and got my brother a logistics job in a loft complex. Compared to a lot of jobs, it wasn’t so bad. He didn’t have to sit in front of a computer, he just had to put up with the boss’s ugly face. There were a few girls after him, all from Shanghai. I asked him why he didn’t go out with one of them. “I want to wait until I get into police college,” he said. I was surprised. He still had a chance at being a policeman? The World Expo was just around the corner, he told me. This time they weren’t only recruiting that year’s graduates, but last year’s as well. There were a relatively large number of places. This was his only chance.
At the dinner table, Granny said, mournfully, “Close your mouth this time, Shuangfeng. You were rejected last time, you know, because you didn’t close your mouth.”
This time Shuangfeng prepared well for the exam. He gave up drinking, studied every day, did running and strength training, and even had an operation to fix his eyesight once and for all. No one in the family held out any hope, they just let him get on with it, but I could tell that my brother’s lousy luck was about to run its course.
He passed the physical exam, the theory exam, and the interview easily. Last of all came the running.When I went with him to the playing field where the test was held that day, he was nervous.
“There’s something I’d like to tell you,” I began. “I’ve just split up with my boyfriend.”
“If you go on like this you’ll end up on the shelf,” he replied, “you’re nearly thirty.”
“Look, if a talented girl like me still can’t find a husband, but you still have girls chasing after you even when you’ve messed up so badly, then nothing’s fair.”
“Bollocks,” said my brother, “it’s just that Shanghai boys are popular for some reason.”
He started to get ready and took out a pair of faded trainers.
“You never wear any of the trainers I give you,” I said.
“Lu Qinqin gave me these. I haven’t worn them since we split up, and I’m not going to wear them again,” he replied.
“Do your best,” I said. “If you lose, there won’t be another chance, unless you want to be a community support officer.”
“That won’t happen. I’m going to win it for you. Just you wait and see.”
As he walked to the starting line, he turned: “I really am going to win it for you.”
Fine rain fell from the sky. My brother was at the centre of the pack. He moved in and out of sight among the runners. The leader was a skinny boy, the perfect build for running, much better proportioned and lighter on his feet than my brother. Next to me were a middle-aged couple, who I guessed were his parents. They spoke with a rural Nanhui District accent. “Our Jianguo is going to win it this time!” they cried.
Shuangfeng didn’t have to win the race; he just had to be one of the first five in his heat, so basically he was going to get through. But it was police college and everyone wanted to win.
The boy from Nanhui ran like a deer in the fine rain, gradually leaving the rest behind. He looked great as he ran, even giving his parents a wave as he passed us. His face wet with rain, Shuangfeng didn’t glance my way at all.
About half-way through I noticed Shuangfeng was five metres behind the boy from Nanhui. The rest were trailing about half a circuit behind. He flashed past me, and I couldn’t help but call out: “Shuangfeng! Go for it!” The rain got heavier. “Win it for me, Shuangfeng!” I called after him.
I remembered him being chased and beaten by the other boys when he was small. I recalled the pain and the hurt. “So you think you can outrun it all, Shuangfeng.” I watched him pounding intently towards the finish line. I imagined him standing before me in police uniform. If only it had happened a year earlier.
In the final dash he was right behind the Nanhui boy. A second from the finish line, the boy from Nanhui shouted, “Hey Ma, I’m in!” to the middle-aged couple beside me, and in that second, my brother passed him.
I can no longer recall the look on his face.