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From the days I lived with both of my parents I remember best the ceiling. It was a ceiling made of tinfoil. At night, when there was moonlight, the tinfoil became silver waves. I lay underneath it between my mother and father, with the rhythm of rain flowing out of the moving waves. It was years later that I learned we had mice running above the ceiling at night.
We were living in a bungalow, a few minutes’ walk from where my parents worked. They had just graduated from college with degrees in metallurgical machinery. If there’s one thing in which their generation is luckier than mine, it’s that back then, the government still assigned jobs to college graduates. So my parents, who came from different parts of the country, moved together to the suburbs of Nanjing to work at a state iron and steel company.
Our bungalow had two rooms. In the bedroom, which was also the living room, there was a bed, a TV set, and a black leather couch. Outside the bedroom was the dining room and kitchen, with a table placed on one end and a stove and a concrete sink on the other. There was no bathroom in the house. During the day, we went to a public bathroom nearby. At night we used a chamber pot. One of our main jobs in the morning was carrying it to the public bathroom and bringing it back clean. Later my father knocked down one of the walls of the outer room and opened up a small space for quick showers. It looked like a square cave.
We lived in a neighborhood called Fifth Village. It was a compound of dorm buildings and linked bungalows rented to the factory’s workers. In the first house of our row lived a girl in the sixth grade, a good student who played the piano all the time. Next to us was another girl older than me. She often came to my house to play with me after school, and her father scolded her for wasting time. He would punish her by making her kneel on the floor, my mother said.
I hung out most with a girl my age. She had fancy dresses like her mother and would walk outside on winter days in a miniskirt. We spent many afternoons on the lane in front of the bungalows. One of the things we did was put a piece of paper on a parked motorcycle and scribble on it as if we could write like an adult.
Across the street from the houses stood a high wall. On the other side of it lay the factory. It was big and blue, with a large pipe winding in the air to connect the separate plants. At 7 a.m., the workers, also covered in blue, came riding their motorcycles. When I grew older, my mother liked to tell me that she was always the first to arrive at the workplace, and my father one of the last, with a half-eaten steamed bun in hand.
By arriving early my mother moved up. Soon, she started to speak English on the phone. All the neighbors said, “Your mama can talk to laowai!” Sometimes she came home late. My father put me to sleep early so that he could go to hang out with his friends. I remember asking him not to leave, while he was pacing near the bed. “I’ll wait,” he said, “for you to fall asleep.” I said to him again, “Don’t leave.” I closed my eyes and waited for him to leave, pretending to be asleep. I waited, waited until the door was finally shut. I opened my eyes and burst into a howl of tears, free to celebrate fear.
For the rest of the night, whenever I sensed the sound of the key turning, I held my breath. There was no one. The last time I heard something, my mother came in, carrying a new blonde doll that she said one of her colleagues had given me as a gift.
For a while we were planning to move to Sixth Village, a better neighborhood farther away from the factory. My parents said they had bought an apartment with a loft on the fifth floor, the top floor. I always fancied houses with a staircase, and I said I wanted to build one with a slide between the two floors. My parents agreed.
But we never moved. Once, I didn’t see my mother for a few days. Then my father took me to the city on the other side of the Yangtze River. There we stayed with her in a hotel room at the top of a high building.
Mama was working in the city now. Mama moved beyond the blue.
I followed my mother around as the Italian steel company she worked for transferred her to Shanghai and Beijing. My father stayed at the bungalow. The only thing I remember of the new cities was their kindergartens, where I spent days and nights when my mother went on her business trips. I learned to tie my shoes and read the clock. In the late afternoon, while other children waited for their parents watching TV cartoons, I watched the big clock at the entrance. When the short and long hands formed a line, mama would come to pick me up.
Sometimes she didn’t, and sometimes she did. The last time she picked me up, I left with her for the airport. She sent me to her hometown in Hunan, where I would spend the next few years with my maternal grandparents.
My mother’s hometown is another small city centered around a steel factory. My grandparents moved there from the countryside when the Communist Party launched a nationwide industrialization movement during the Great Leap Forward. My grandma became a factory worker and my grandpa, having been a county leader and an active member of the Party, was elected as chairman of the labor union. At little expense they bought one of the government-subsidized apartments in a neighborhood on a hill, among other earliest workers of the factory.
A few minutes’ walk from the hill was the Big Market, where my grandma did her grocery shopping every day. In the morning, farmers scattered along the streets, with their vegetables and animals laid on the ground. I sometimes accompanied her. We made our way through the newly slaughtered pigs and blood-tainted puddles, surrounded by the sounds of women bargaining, hens clucking, knives chopping ribs, motorcycles honking, and loudspeakers hawking goods in half-dialect and half-Mandarin.
My grandpa stayed at home watching television all day. He would repeatedly watch the same shows for years, to the extent that everyone else in the family knew what scene was coming next. Once in a while, he’d doze off in front of the screen and my cousin would slip the remote control out of his hand. He would then wake up with a start and demand it back, arguing that it was just the best part.
Among his favorite shows were the ones about the Red Army’s revolution. Seeing the soldiers marching across the snow-capped mountains and eating tree bark and leather belts, even for the tenth time, he couldn’t hold back his emotions. My cousin and I would glance at the old man — his nose red, mouth puckered, under the worn-out cap his eyes quickly blinked away the tears — and we’d exchange a look and snicker.
While our grandma fed us good food, our grandpa introduced us to stories. He woke my cousin and me up at midnight so that we could watch our favorite shows together. He loved to tell us how the rat beat the cat and made it into the zodiac, how he once scared off a tiger when coming down a mountain, and how he and his fellow villagers saved an American pilot during the war. His stories were lighthearted and heroic, and he had a way of making the real unreal and the unreal real. I could never tell whether what he said had actually happened.
As I grew older, I asked him for more real stories. He would tell me some funny incidents that happened in his village, but soon his attention would return to the television. Once, after my probing, he mentioned that his father died from not having enough salt to eat. He changed the topic before his eyes had a chance to blink.
I spent most days with my cousin. Three years younger than me, he was my closest companion. Like my parents, his parents were often somewhere else, but instead of working, our aunt said, they were somewhere else having fun. My cousin was a shy boy. In the face of the adults’ harsh criticism, he stayed silent until tears dropped down his face. I thought I was the one that understood him.
My cousin and I liked to play on the balcony during our lunch break. To get there we had to cross our grandpa’s bedroom as he was taking a nap. In order to keep quiet, we walked with shoes in hand, pretending to be trudging across a marshland. But our grandpa’s thundering snore would suddenly turn into a whistle and we’d burst out giggling as he woke up and shouted in his rural accent, “I will throw you little devils out of the window!”
At night, we slept with our grandma, who would play cards at the neighbors’ till 11 p.m. My cousin and I went to sleep earlier. We squeezed into half of the bed to leave enough room for her. Under the gently swirling ceiling fan, my cousin lay on his back and I lay on my side, continually whispering questions into his ear so that he could stay awake with me until our grandma got back. Still, I would soon hear his breaths grow deeper and steadier and I, alone, listened for the turning of Grandma’s key.
Then one day during lunch, my mother called. She often called to ask about her parents and daughter, but this time, she said she had bought an apartment on the twenty-sixth floor of a building in Shanghai.
“The twenty-sixth floor?” My cousin and I repeated the number back and forth at the lunch table. It was beyond our conception.
At the end of that school year, my grandparents took my cousin and me to Shanghai. I didn’t seem to know what was happening until weeks later, when my mother and I saw them off at the train station. They waved from inside the train while we stood on the platform. The train whistled and I screamed, a moment that my grandpa said haunted him for days.
Since I was born, I’d had many babysitters, but it wasn’t until I moved with my mother to Shanghai that I saw babysitters form part of the street scene. In Shanghai, people call them ayi, which means aunt in standard Chinese. On a street outside an apartment compound, one could easily find a row of shops — a noodle stand, a 7-Eleven, a housing agency, and next door, a group of women chatting outside in front of a board that said, “ayi.”
Our new home in Shanghai was downtown. The neighborhood was not nearly as luxurious as some others, such as the Oriental Manhattan we admired during our after-dinner walks, but we also had an ayi center. The ayis were mostly migrant workers from nearby provinces. For a time, we hired one of them. She cleaned our apartment and made dinner so that as soon as my mother came home from work we could eat. When she went on a business trip, the woman stayed overnight, sleeping on the couch in our living room.
But her work wasn’t satisfactory. My mother let her go and found other helpers: a housewife living in the next building, the aunt of one of my classmates, or the maintenance guy’s relative who worked at the neighborhood trash center. None of them stayed for long.
Then one of my mother’s elder cousins came. She grew up in the same village in Hunan as my grandparents, though more recently she had left her farmland to work at a sock factory in Guangdong. My grandma, her aunt, called her to ask if she would come help my mother out, and she agreed. The day she arrived, my mother and I met with her outside the subway station in the city center. Among the skyscrapers, the woman emerged from the underground tunnel, carrying two big sacks. She had a ponytail and a dark face full of freckles.
For the next five or six years she lived with us. As she was my mother’s cousin, and my aunt, I called her Ayi. Ayi prepared me breakfast, did the chores, and carefully jotted down our expenses on one of my old notebooks.
My mother called her “Sister,” but when she talked about her in front of me, she called her “your Ayi.” “Your Ayi is a bit lazy,” she said. Or, “Your Ayi doesn’t know how to cook.” At the dinner table we three sat together. There were times when Ayi said something and my mother responded without lifting her head.
Ayi slept on the small bed that used to be mine, while I shared the big one with my mother. On the days my mother was not home, I slept with Ayi on her small bed. Throughout the years she used the same old cotton quilt. It was soft. Before I closed my eyes, I would ask her, “Will you wait for me to fall asleep?” She said yes, and I would soon fall asleep.
Sometimes I slept with her even when my mother was there. Those were the nights I had annoyed her. I might have said something wrong at dinner. She stayed for a moment before she whisked everything from the table and went into the kitchen. The house quieted. The dishes clattered. I sat still and waited for her shouts to break the silence.
She shouted that I treated her like a slave. A slave, an idiot, who was supposed to suffer. I was a useless Barbie doll, a hypocrite, a selfish moaner who enjoyed seeing her work like a dog. When I was younger, I cowered in the corner for fear of her fist. She refrained from beating me, but the words she snapped out jabbed like a needle, fast and nonstop. I covered my head, sobbing breathlessly, my eyes locked on her screaming face as it shed painful tears.
But in a day or so, one of us would apologize. My mother would then draw me into her arms, both of us again in tears. The few times my grandma witnessed our fights, when she visited us, she would comfort me by saying that no matter what a mother does, she wants the best for her child.
“It is difficult for your mother,” Ayi said, when there were only the two of us at dinner. We had a few long talks. I talked about my friends and she talked about her sons and husband. I told her that I thought my father, who lived apart from us, no longer cared for my mother. “But they will always care for you,” she said.
I thought Ayi was more than an ayi to us and we were more than her employer. But then there were the days when I came home from school and found her sitting on the floor watching television. She said nothing and responded to me briefly without turning her eyes away from the TV screen.
“Why do you look so bored?” I asked.
“Because I am bored,” she said.
Sometimes, as if she hadn’t said enough, she added that she felt like she was in prison and couldn’t wait to go home. Her words upset me, but I asked her, “Would these complaints help at all?” Then I left her to go study.
Once when we were talking in my room, I was so infuriated by a similar response that I picked up a pencil and threw it at her. It hit her in the eye. She cried. The woman, over 50 years old, cried in front of me. I walked to my desk and left her crying on my small bed.
It was her fault, I said to myself. It was the fault of her boredom. I hated her boredom. I hated it so much that I could not bear the utterance of it in my apartment, the cage on the twenty-sixth floor that had trapped her for years.
I was freed from the cage when I went abroad to study. In a few years, I covered three continents. An inclination to move seemed to have been instilled in me.
But I was also pulled by the urge to move back. I never missed a chance to go home. By home, I mean my grandparents’ home in Hunan. It remained a constant in my life, never changing but merely aging, the clanking of its iron door saying that Grandma was back and lunch would be ready soon.
My cousin had grown up. He rarely came home except to sleep. Once, by courtesy of his friend, he invited me out with his buddies. His motorcycle roared across the road and stopped at a bar. There we talked, after many years. He told me that he had another breakup, that his teacher helped them cheat on the exam. A lighter spun in his hand, and his lips, as red as when he was a kid, let out a curl of smoke.
His parents had divorced and our grandparents brought him up, with consistent financial support from my mother. At the dinner table, our grandma asked him about school. He kept eating with his mouth shut. Our grandpa took a sip of his rice wine, his eyes fixed on the TV screen.
My home in Shanghai also remained, though for years my mother talked about moving to a better place. Coming home one summer, I found our apartment had been renovated. The old furniture was gone, and my childhood collections were put away in a newly created storage space along with the other clutter.
I asked my mother if she would still move. She asked why I asked. I said I was just curious. She said she’d move if an opportunity came up. When I was younger, I attempted to voice my hope by saying that I’d rather we stay. I worried about what might be lost during the moving process. Nothing could be lost, she said, as she would pack everything in a box. My worries irritated her. She yelled at my selfish tears.
At last, when I most recently returned to Shanghai, my mother decided to move. After touring around the city for a day, she signed a contract. The new apartment is nicer but smaller, right next to an abandoned construction site and with a poorly-tended courtyard. I was not in favor, but she had made up her mind. It was one of the few affordable places that fell inside the city’s inner ring. She could see the long-term profit.
I told her I’d not move with her this time. If I stayed at the old place, she wouldn’t be able to rent it out as she had planned. “Pay me the rent if you want to stay,” she said. I knew that she knew that it was not about the money, but I said OK.
Once I dreamed about descending from space. As I quickly approached the earth, contours of land and sea surfaced, including the rooster-shaped China where I was heading. I found myself sitting on a chair, the chair on a piece of cloud. Nothing tied me to the chair or tied the chair to the cloud. With any small step I took I would fall off, but somehow, I didn’t. Behind me were two women. They sat on their own chairs while sharing my piece of cloud.
Just then, an explosion occurred in the lower part of the rooster. It left a big hole there that devoured half of the territory. It happened in a blink of an eye. Colors of life turned into black. I located Shanghai — it was far enough to the east that it fell right outside the edge of the hole. It was left intact.
When I finally landed, I walked into a house. It was more like a cave than a house, poorly lit and with a roof barely taller than me. I walked through a narrow pathway, along with my mother and grandma. They must have been the women who were travelling with me.
The confusion about why we didn’t fall from the sky remained. I turned back to ask my mother, “How come we didn’t fall?” She made a face to suggest that this was a stupid question and that I should have figured it out myself. I wondered if gravity had saved me. She again refused to provide clarity.
A feeling of frustration and anger rose in me. How could she assume I knew what she knew? How could she despise me for not knowing? My lingering fear was scorned. It was trampled under her feet. I screamed at my mother. I took one of her arms and pinched it as hard as I could.
The whole time she just stayed still and looked at me. She said nothing, as if this was not unexpected. She let her arm be in my hand, and I didn’t let it go until all the anger accumulated in my chest passed through my arm to hers. It was finally out of me.
I sat down, and my grandma came to sit by my side. She held my shoulder and looked at me with those kind, almost naïve eyes. I don’t remember her words, but her eyes said: whatever a mother does, she wants the best for her child.
Zhang Yashu is a writer from Shanghai. She studied English in the U.S., Spanish in Uruguay, and linguistics at Cambridge. As a memory hoarder, she finds creative nonfiction the best container of her love for people, places, and prosody. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The World, and Sixth Tone, among others.
(Header image: Chris Gorgio/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)