Where Did I Lose You?, by Fan Xiaoqing
Fan Xiaoqing is Chair of the Jiangsu Writers Association and is known especially for her beautiful descriptions of life in the little lanes of Suzhou. Another story of hers, Ying Yang Alley, was published in the Read Paper Republic 2015-2016 series here.
I found “Where did I lose you?” in a collection of contemporary short stories that I bought during one of my stays in China. I decided to translate it because I thought that it gave a rather unusual insight into life in modern China and that its gentle satire would particularly appeal to the English reader.
A different translation of “Where Did I Lose You?” appeared in the Merwin Asia short story collection Irina's Hat (2013).
Wang You had long forgotten when it was that he was first given somebody’s name card. Nor had he the faintest recollection of the occasion, whose card it was, their job title, what the person looked like or even whether it was a man or a woman. Try as hard as he might to remember, it was no use.
When he asked people of an older generation if they could recall when name cards first became popular, no-one could say for certain. Some said the late 1980s, others a bit earlier, others a bit later.
But all this is beside the point. The fact is, once there were no such things, but the moment they caught on, they spread incredibly fast. Suddenly the sky seemed to rain name cards.
Nowadays even nannies have cards printed, to hand to potential employers. I even know of a con-man who keeps a store of them to distribute to passers-by, in which he offers to teach them the tricks of the trade. I hear that nursery school children exchange them too.
Like when you’re out walking, you see a street-sweeper in his worn-out working clothes. You know immediately from his appearance that he’s from the countryside. But while he’s sweeping, out comes his mobile and in a moment he’s squatting on the ground making a phone call. This is now a common sight. In the same way you now accept anyone pulling out a name card as part of the routine. As a result, the pavements are covered with cards, like fallen leaves. If you accidentally tread on one, you feel a bit guilty, but then you accidentally tread on another. Treading on someone’s name card is like treading on their name - it’s almost a personal insult. But it’s hard to avoid, with so many of them littering the pavements. Apart from being a vital ingredient in China’s economic development, for some people the handing-out of a name card has meant a lucky break, set them on the road to riches or maybe marked the beginning of a great romance. Even the pokiest print shop can launch the career of dozens of small business owners.
After name cards took off in a big way, name card holders soon followed. These look rather like photo albums and come in a variety of sizes and styles: large, small, thick, thin, fancy or plain. They usually have an attractive cover and inside a set of plastic pockets - smaller than those in photo albums - of just the right dimensions for a name card, that is, about 9 x 5 1/2 cm. If you’re given a name card of a different design by someone (an individualist, in other words), it won’t fit your holder. It will either be too big or too long or made of another material, such as bamboo strips, cloth or reed. Then you’ve got a problem. However, such cards (and such people) are in the minority. Most settle for the standard 9 x 5 1/2 cm job, and any minor variations, such as calligraphic instead of printed characters, a background design, plain name and phone number with no job title, different-coloured paper (light green, pink or sky-blue, perhaps) won’t affect the basic format. All these alternative versions will fit into your holder which, when opened, does indeed rather resemble a photo album. And, just as perusing old photos will remind you of the time and place they were taken, so opening your name card holder can start to trigger memories.
As your eyes alight on a succession of names, you will be reminded of past meetings, some interesting, some less so, some pleasant, some not so pleasant, some useful, some totally fruitless, but all part of life’s rich tapestry. However, if it all happened too long ago or your memory is not so good, some of them will be difficult to pin down accurately or will just be a hazy memory, while others may have gone out of your mind completely. You’ll think ‘Who was he?’ or ‘Where did I get that card?’ or even ‘How could I possibly have met him?’ For example, what are a nuclear weapons manufacturer and a tea-egg salesman doing exchanging cards? But there’s no denying it when the cards are in your holder. Some people without the slightest connection with your professional or personal life can appear in your name card holder. Try as you might, you can’t come up with a rational explanation and the fact that they’re there in your holder is a silent accusation that you’ve forgotten all about them.
In fact, Wang You had forgotten about quite a number. He had lost the very first card he had ever been given. But there was still the first card in his collection of holders. Wang You’s holders were arranged systematically and in each one the cards were stored according to the date on which he had received them. This particular card was in the first pocket of the first page of his first holder. The man’s name was Du Zhongtian. He certainly had nothing to do with anything that Wang You was involved in now. Wang You had met him only that once and thereafter there had been no further contact. But Wang You had kept his card. So there must have been something distinguishing him from those whose cards he had thrown away. When he had an idle moment, Wang You would take out his many holders and flip through the cards in chronological order, and there, heading them all, was always Du Zhongtian.
Wang You would sometimes feel tempted to dial the phone number on the card and see who answered. Was it likely, though, that this Du Zhongtian was still on the same number after all these years? Certainly not. The city had changed its phone numbers twice since, first from six to seven digits and then from seven to eight-digit numbers. On the other hand, the adding of an extra digit was always done according to a rule. For example, when the first change was made to seven-digit numbers, they just added a 5 before all existing numbers. The second time, they added a 7. So, Wang You supposed, if he put 75 in front of Du Zhongtian’s old number, he might get through. All the same, he never did dial the number, for fear of making a fool of himself.
Actually, there was a reason why he had kept Du’s card. One day many years before, Wang You had been eating at a restaurant with a party of people. As is normal at such gatherings, the first thing they did after sitting down was to exchange name cards. This was the established convention even then, and failure to observe it before eating would make people feel uncomfortable, as they wouldn’t know why they were there or who was sitting next or opposite to them at table. The atmosphere would be constrained as if something vital was missing, even cold and unfriendly, and the guests wouldn’t enjoy themselves. But once cards are exchanged and they know who everyone is, the party can get going. The guests know how to address their neighbours by their proper title and can start getting down to business. There will, of course, most likely be someone without a card, in which case his neighbour always says ‘Never mind, but here’s mine anyway’, while the other one is quick to apologise, saying he has just run out of cards, but he’ll bring one next time. Actually, this is only a manner of speaking, as there may never be a next time.
At such meals nowadays many of the guests have no idea why they are there. Some will have been dragged along just to make up the numbers. The hardened drinkers will be there to liven up the party. Those with some status in society will be there to add a touch of class to the occasion. There will also be the one who just comes to pay the bill or who attends on behalf of someone else otherwise engaged. The people at such banquets therefore often have almost nothing to do with each other and their presence at the same event is something of an anomaly.
Like the time Wang You had occasion to invite a Communist Party boss to a meal at a restaurant. He was a very busy man, but he at last said yes, and both the restaurant and the room were his choosing. When Wang You got to the restaurant and went to the room, he saw that the Party boss had not yet arrived but there was already a table-full of people, all strangers to one another, their only thing in common being that they all knew the Party boss. At first, everyone felt embarrassed, until he turned up, looked around the table, smiled and said, ‘I’m the only one here today who knows who you all are’, and so introduced everyone to each other. At which all the guests got up from their seats, started exchanging cards, and the atmosphere immediately relaxed. They all knew the truth was that the Party boss was too busy to meet them individually and so had brought together a whole lot of people who had never met each other before. The meal could well have been torture for all concerned. Instead, it proved a great success, with quite a few leaving in a fair state of intoxication.
By the way, some people you meet at such parties are so vague that, even after a considerable intake of wine and the usual exchange of civilities and mutual compliments, you’re none the wiser as to who they are.
In these cases it’s always a good idea to exchange cards; then at least you know who you’re sitting next to. There are not many people who don’t have cards, and only a few will have run out of theirs. There may be the oddball who, when everyone else is handing out theirs, says he doesn’t hold with name cards or, if he has them, won’t give them out. People will usually overlook this eccentricity or say something in mitigation, like ‘Celebrities don’t need cards.’
But to return to the occasion in question. Once Wang You had been given the others’ cards, the party could begin in earnest. Things went with a swing, with everyone drinking and chatting away and with a good chance of sorting out the issues that were the main reason for organising the banquet. When it was all over, everyone said their goodbyes, some already treating their fellows as if they were old friends. Having eaten and drunk their fill, they all filed out, some in front, others behind, with Wang You in the middle. He hadn’t gone far before he noticed something white flutter down onto the ground, apparently thrown away by one of those in front of him. He picked it up. It was a name card on which was printed ‘Du Zhongtian’ and had evidently been given out by someone at the party.
Wang You had also been given Du’s card, which he now had in his trouser pocket. Wang You said, ‘Oh!’ and someone came up from behind to have a look. This must have been Du Zhongtian himself, for when he saw it was his own name card that Wang You had picked up, he looked rather put out and muttered something. Wang You blushed and quickly pushed forward to the man ahead of him and handed him the card, saying, ‘I think you dropped something.’ The man turned his head towards Wang You and Du Zhongtian and, though it would have been too dark to make them out properly, said he hadn’t dropped it, but thrown it away, as he had so many cards it wasn’t worth keeping them all. This apparent snub evidently upset Du and Wang You hastily said to the man, could he have forgotten that this was Du Zhongtian? However, the other failed to take the hint, but instead said, who was Du Zhongtian? Ashen-faced, Du said it was him and, at that, snatched the card from Wang You’s hand, tore it up, tossed the pieces into the air, and the name card floated down in fragments like so many snowflakes. Before the last piece had reached the ground, Du Zhongtian had vanished into the night, leaving behind the impression of a very angry man.
Wang You stood there puzzled. He expected the man who had thrown away Du’s card to look suitably abashed. But no, he just said nonchalantly and with a smile ‘Oh, that was Du Zhongtian, was it? I don’t see why he should be so annoyed. What would be the use in keeping his card?’ And, as if he felt he still hadn’t made his point, he clapped Wang You on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t you see, old boy? Suppose I kept the card and put it in my card holder at home. I’d come across it after, let’s say, six months and be sure to throw it out. So why bother with it in the first place? Might as well get rid of it straightaway.’ Wang You looked at the pieces scattered on the ground and felt quite unhappy, as if he was the one who had been rude to Du Zhongtian and had thrown his card away. Not that Wang You had never in his life thrown away someone’s name card, but he would never have done so in their presence. He would have taken it home, put it in a drawer and, when after a while the drawer had got too full and nothing more could be squeezed in, he would have had a clear-out and disposed of any unwanted cards. But ever since that evening when Du Zhongtian had torn up his own card and made such a public exhibition of his anger, Wang You had never been able to throw away anyone’s card.
He placed Du Zhongtian’s in the first pocket of the first page of his holder and thereafter kept all the cards anyone ever gave him, finding a place for them in one of his dozen or so tightly-packed holders.
Occasionally he would leaf through his store of cards. This usually happened when so many odds and ends had accumulated in his study that he had to do something about it. As he was tidying up he would, of course, glance at the many cards he had kept over the years. In the early days he was still able to remember some of the people concerned and how he had met them. But as his collection continued to expand, his memory of who these people were and what they did began to fade. Once he noticed a card which said, ‘Techno Frontiers, General Agent’. Wang You couldn’t for the life of him recall what Techno-frontiers was or even what General Agent might mean. After racking his brains, he thought it must have something to do with science. But as he was only editor of a house magazine at a local records office, how on earth could he have met the General Agent of Techno-Frontiers? Try as hard as he could to remember, his mind was a blank. He felt that his memory was packed to capacity, but what he needed to remember eluded him. Name cards have their uses, but they can also cause a lot of unnecessary bother.
Like that time Wang You met a man at some function or other and handed him his card. Thereafter he got a call from the man on his mobile almost every day. He was seeking guidance on a historical novel he was writing. He’d only just embarked on the novel, he said, and wanted Wang You to look at what he’d written so far and say whether he thought it was worthwhile carrying on. Wang You conscientiously read through a few pages of the manuscript. But before he had time to give an opinion, another instalment arrived, and then a third and fourth in rapid succession. Although the author was only supposed to have started the novel, it already ran to several hundred pages and moreover showed the man to have not a shred of literary talent. Wang You would have liked to have severed relations with the man there and then. But he would not be put off. Wang You stored his phone number in his mobile, so that it would display when the man rang and Wang You could avoid answering. But the man was canny and evidently realised what Wang You was up to -- he would simply call from another phone. Thus Wang You fell into the trap. This battle of wits continued for nearly six months until Wang You could stand it no longer. He told him, ‘Mr Li, I’m not the editor of a publishing house. I’m in no position to help you.’ To which Li replied that he wasn’t asking for help. He only wanted Wang You to take an interest in what he was doing. He’d been made redundant from his job. He loved history and loved writing. Maybe Wang You didn’t appreciate his situation. If so, he’d be happy to explain further ....
By now Wang You’s head was spinning. And it was at this point that a colleague of his came over to his desk, accompanied by an elderly lady. The colleague tapped on his desk and said, ‘Penny for your thoughts, Wang You?’ Only then did he become aware that the elderly lady was standing there smiling at him. Wang You made an effort to smile back. ‘Are you Wang You?’ she said. ‘Yes,’ he said.
Because of the nature of his work Wang You often had dealings with amateur historians, especially elderly enthusiasts. They would sometimes tum up of their own accord, with their reminiscences of the city. As old people tend to be rather garrulous, once they start talking there’s no stopping them. But actually this was exactly what Wang You needed, for amid their ramblings there might be a precious nugget of lost history. However, this old lady, when he told her he was Wang You, did not launch straight into what she had come about, but instead looked him up and down as if she didn’t believe him and said doubtfully, ‘You really are Wang You?’ He assured her he was. She shook her head slightly. Whether this meant that she didn’t accept he was Wang You or Wang You was not the person she wanted was unclear. His colleagues standing by laughed and one of them said, ‘Wang You, she suspects you’re not the genuine article. You’d better show her your ID.’ The old lady’s eyes slowly shifted from his hand to his pocket, as if she really was expecting him to produce his ID. But when Wang You said irritably, what good was an ID, that could just as well be a fake, she laughed and said, ‘All right, I believe you. You are the real Wang You and I’ve found you.’
Wang You said, ‘I don’t think I know you. How come you seem to know me?’ She said, ‘You may not know me, but there is someone I’m sure you do know – Xu Youhong. You know him, don’t you? I’m his wife.’ She could see that Wang You was still in the dark. So she said, ‘Wang You, why don’t you say something? Are you sure you’re Wang You?’ ‘Of course, I am,’ he said. ‘But I don’t recall anyone by the name of Xu Youhong. Who is he?’ ‘You may not remember him,’ she said. ‘But he remembers you. He has your name card. That’s how I found you.’ Wang You thought hard, but still could not bring to mind anyone of that name. So he had to say he was really sorry, he gave out a lot of cards and couldn’t always recollect who to. ‘If you really were Wang You,’ she said, ‘you would definitely remember Xu Xu Youhong. Anyway, why not come to my house sometime when you’re free?’ Wang You eyed her uncertainly, but she had already handed him a name card, adding, ‘You can come whenever you like. I’m always in.’ And with that she left, leaning on her walking stick.
Wang You stared blankly at the card in his hand, while his colleagues joked, ‘Wang You, you already have one mother-in-law. And now here comes another to size you up!’ Wang You then saw the card the elderly lady had given him was her husband Xu Youhong’s card. It just gave his name with no title or indication of his job, no business name or address. But his home address was given in full plus his phone number. Wang You felt there was something odd about the whole affair. Still, he automatically put the card in his desk drawer and for the time being forgot about it.
The following weekend he stayed at home. But there was something at the back of his mind that made him uneasy and unable to relax, and he realised it was the thought of Xu Youhong’s card that was nagging him. He began to regret that he had been so free in handing out his own name cards. He had no idea when this Xu Youhong had got his card or what he wanted from him now. And why hadn’t he come himself, instead of getting his wife to come? He searched his memory over and over again but could find no clue to this conundrum. In the end he made up his mind he must go to the man’s house. At least that should clear up the mystery. After all, it was only a seventy- or eighty year-old lady. Even if she was an eccentric, she wouldn’t eat him.
So that Sunday afternoon Wang You first called in at the office and retrieved the name card from his desk drawer and, checking the address on the card, went in search of the elderly lady’s house. When he got there, he knocked on the door. It seemed she was on the look-out, for she opened the door almost immediately and greeting him with a smile said, ‘Wang You, I knew you would come.’
Once inside he noticed the photo of an old man (evidently now deceased) on the wall and the elderly lady said, ‘That’s Xu Youhong. He’s been dead these past six months.’ Wang You looked more closely at the photo, but was still unable to decide whether or not he had known the man. Nor could he recall any circumstances in which he might have given him his name card. He said to the elderly lady,‘I’m afraid I’ve got a dreadful memory and I give my card to so many people. I could try phoning around. Perhaps someone else will remember.’ She smiled and pointed to her home telephone,, ‘You can use that.’ Wang You phoned friends, relations and colleagues, but found no-one who had known Xu Youhong. They also found his question a bit strange, and some asked why he wanted to know and what his connection was with this Xu Youhong. One of them said, wasn’t Xu Youhong something to do with the stock exchange? In the end, all this fruitless questioning left him thoroughly demoralised. He decided to have one last go, but this time made no attempt to go into details and simply said the name Xu Youhong. The person answering said straightaway, ‘Xu Youhong? Of course I know him. You do mean Xu Youhong?’ Wang You almost jumped with excitement and gabbled, ‘Yes, I do mean him. Did you know him?’ ‘What do you mean “did”? We’re right now enjoying a game of mah-jong together. Do you want to speak to him?’ This took Wang You completely off guard, and he just said, ‘No, it must be a mistake. Xu Youhong died six months ago.’ His friend at the other end shouted, ‘What are you talking about? Are you trying to kill off my old friend Xu Youhong?’
Wang You hung up and looked helplessly at the elderly lady, shaking his head, while she nodded and said with a sigh, ‘People nowadays are so forgetful.’ She turned to the photo on the wall and said, ‘Youhong, the others may not remember you, but at long last here is someone who does and he has come to see you.’ She opened a cupboard and took out a small, thin name card holder, saying, ‘Wang You, my husband didn’t leave behind many cards, only these few, but yours is among them.’
Wang You took the holder and there, sure enough, was his card in one of the pockets. He looked again carefully. The card must have been quite a recent addition, as it gave as his job title ‘Chief Editor’, and he’d only been appointed to that position six months before. Had he already forgotten something that had happened such a short time ago? He had no idea when or where he had given Xu Youhong his card.
The elderly lady said that, before he died, Xu Youhong had given her his name card holder and told her that all the people in it were good friends of his and, when anything happened to him, she should get in touch with them if she was in any kind of trouble. He had thrown away the card of anyone who was not a proper friend. But anyone whose card was there would be sure to help. However, after Xu had died, she had phoned each one in tum, but no-one remembered him. A few said the name was vaguely familiar, but as soon as they asked if she could give them a bit more to go on and they learned that he had died, they could no longer remember anything about him. She told Wang You that she knew he didn’t entirely believe her, so she suggested he try phoning again, picking a name at random from the card holder, to see whether anyone would come if they still remembered Xu Youhong. Wang You felt that this was getting ridiculous. He couldn’t go phoning up complete strangers. And what right had he to interfere and interrogate them as to whether or not they had known Xu Youhong? With a sigh of resignation the elderly lady said all right, but if he didn’t try or all of his enquiries ended in a blank, then no-one would come. Then she told him to sit down and thanked him for coming and for paying his respects to the dead man’s photo, which she said would be a comfort to his soul in heaven. Wang You absent-mindedly turned again to the photo. Xu Youhong was smiling gently at him as if he really was pleased. Wang You felt he ought to explain that he had never actually known him, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.
The elderly lady began talking about her husband, saying that he often used to mention Wang You. She told a story of how once Wang You had imbibed a large quantity of beer and urgently needed to relieve himself, but couldn’t make out which toilet was which and so had sneaked into the ladies’. Fortunately, Xu was going in after him and, when he saw Wang was there, hastily blocked the entrance and told any woman who tried to enter that the toilet was out of order. Then, when Wang You came out having sobered up a little, he took Xu Youhong to task, asking him why he was standing in the doorway of the ladies’ and was he trying to have a peep.
Wang You could no more recall this incident than he could Xu Youhong the man. But he didn’t let on nor did he offer any further explanation. He just let the lady go on talking. He would even, if she mentioned a particular occasion, try and supply a few extra details. For example, she recounted how Wang You had once been invited to a wedding, but had gone to the wrong place, ending up at the celebrations of another couple. It so happened that Xu was among the guests at this other wedding, so Wang You assumed that he was at the right one, sat down, partook of the food and drink and, even when the time came for everyone to leave, still hadn’t realised his mistake. Wang You burst in, ‘That’s right. Later, when the friend who had invited me asked me why I hadn’t come after I had accepted the invitation, I felt a bit uncomfortable and said, ‘No, I was there. There were just too many people and I didn’t manage to get to you. But I gave my wedding present to your nephew.’ My friend said, ‘Come off it! You weren’t there.’ I said, ‘But Xu Youhong can vouch for me. We were sitting at the same table.’ My friend said, ‘And who’s Xu Youhong when he’s at home? I don’t know anyone of that name. Why would I ask him to my nephew’s wedding?’ We went on arguing till at last it dawned on me that I had been at the wrong function. Xu had been at another wedding.’ The elderly lady went into fits of laughter at this and said, ‘Yes, yes. My husband told me all about it.’
The more Wang You contributed, the more he enjoyed assuming this new role and now he imagined he could remember everything down to the last particular. However, in his eagerness to add corroborative and picturesque details, he sometimes went a bit too far. The lady showed him another card in the holder. The man in question was the manager of a karaoke bar. She said the man had insisted on giving Xu Youhong his card at their first meeting. Xu hadn’t wanted to take it, but then the man got annoyed. ‘My husband was a kindly man,’ she said, ‘and when he saw the man was upset, he quickly took the card. He came back and told me the man was a decent chap.’ Wang You could see that the elderly lady was relishing this story and couldn’t resist the temptation of adding a touch of spice to the tale himself. So he said, ‘Yes, I remember. I was there at the time. We were both singing with the man, and I never knew your husband had such a good voice, especially at his age. And what wonderful breath control! He stole the show. He sang the whole evening, one song after another. In fact, so much so that he made himself hoarse. Did you notice when he got home?’ The lady at first said nothing, but after a while looked at Wang You and said, ‘Wang You, are you sure you’ve got it right? My husband had a terrible voice. He couldn’t sing in tune and never went to karaoke. How could he have sung himself hoarse in a karaoke bar?’ Wang You hastily retracted and said, ‘Yes, of course. I must have been thinking of someone else and got the two mixed up.’ The lady smiled and said, ‘You see, you youngsters haven’t got as good memories as us old folk.’
Wang You was still at a loss as to why she had asked him there. Surely it couldn’t be just to invent these fictions about things that had never happened or talk all this nonsense in front of a photo of the dead husband in order to bring solace to his soul in the afterlife. He mumbled something inconsequential and at last felt he should ask the lady whether anyone still owed Xu Youhong any money or was she in any other difficulty. She said no, no-one owed anyone anything. He then said, ‘Then I’m not sure why you ....’ With a gesture of the hand she cut him short. ‘Thank you, Wang You,’ she said. ‘Thank you for coming here and talking to me so much about my husband. Actually, I know that everything you’ve said you made up and has nothing to do with him.’
This took Wang You completely by surprise. She went on, ‘In fact, all I told you about my husband I made up too. You never knew him and he never knew you.’ Still puzzled, Wang You pointed to Xu Youhong’s name card holder and said, ‘But how did he get hold of my name card?’ She said, ‘Oh, name cards don’t mean a thing. They must be one of the most pointless inventions, don’t you think?’ That evening, after Wang You had left Xu Youhong’s house, he hadn’t gone far when he noticed a name card on the ground, apparently thrown away by someone. He had already passed it, but he stopped, retraced his steps, bent down, picked up the card and put it in his pocket. Just as he was doing this, it suddenly occurred to him that this must have been how his own card came to be in Youhong Xu’s holder. His wife must have picked it up. Wang You took the card home with him and carefully put it in his holder. When his wife saw him doing this, she said, ‘Have you met someone new?’ He just smiled, but said nothing.
So a stranger had now come into his home, even become part of it and, who knows, Wang You might one day remember him. His name was Qian Yong – a common enough name. You could probably find thousands of them if you looked on the Internet.