The Hubei Boys
BY CHRISTINA QIU
The boys in Hubei, China are stick straight and sticky. They’re golden and they glisten. Shirts off, bentdown knees, mudsquished toes, in the rice paddy, haw and hoe, stop and roll. Stretch your back, sun in your face, sing a yawn, and back to work. Squish hoe stop stretch, squish hoe stop stretch. Mother calls at noon. Skip in the sunlight with overlapping hands. Little break, small nap, back to the rice, and squish hoe stop stretch squish hoe stop stretch, till the sun goes down, squish hoe stop stretch.
Come back when the day’s dark as eel and watch the shadowy silhouettes made by the moon. The littlest one – it swaggers, up and down, right again. His name’s Young, like money, and he lives in the richest house in the whole crying village. One with a nice cement roof and a toilet right next to the house, and he’s so lucky, his grandma gives him money every year for his birthday, and he gets new clothes for New Year’s, and his dad owns a hill, a hill that’s bright and beautiful and looks like stars with smashed potatoes. But he’s still gotta work in the field, or else his old grandma’s going to fuck him up. He’ll be gone next year. Next year, he’s going to school, which is around two miles down his dad’s hill and across a distance like the paddy.
He’s gonna hate the rice paddy boys, like they all do, but for now, he’s just eight, so he’ll be fine. Just dig along, rhythm of life, poor little Young, he’s gonna come back all hot shot and forget that he even knew us.
Little Young has a hard time making friends in school, because he’s so little and he’s golden and he’s sticky like the rice paddy boys. The other boys from other places in Wuhan are top collared and pale, with nice pencils and rice on leaves every day for lunch. They like to make fun of his shoes because they’re too big and plink along the pavement. They tease his hair, because it’s long and shaggy and stands up all on its own. Even if you sit on it, it won’t go down.
But it doesn’t matter now, cause it’s spring. God, if you haven’t seen spring in Hubei, in the little village where Young lives, on top of his daddy’s hill, you haven’t seen spring. The boys tease Young because he can’t seem to get his math all right and six times seven always happens to equal eleven, but it doesn’t matter, because once school ends and the teacher’s done talking, he’s gonna run and see spring. That’s when the purple wildflowers start blooming and dot the hill like moldy coins on chains, and when the air smells like the warmest girl’s eyes in the world, and when the lake, the one right across the knotty road with the rice paddy, shines the bluest green or the greenest blue. That’s spring, the way the air feels and the way the boys sing when they’re squishing and hoeing and stopping and stretching, and those lazy afternoons, when the dirt feels more comfortable than the bed, when you can see mountains. Just mountains and clouds and blue and sweet-smelling grass and pointed toes and buddy’s sweat and flower beds – that’s spring in Young’s little village in Hubei.
Young swings his bag on the table, and his little sister, with a pointy mouth and dreamy eyes, about six, is daydreaming. When he yells, I’m leaving, she opens her eyes startled and he rushes out the door. She’s six, but she can’t stop dreaming about falling in love. That’s what she says when he asks her. Meimei, what are you dreaming about? Just a boy, or just a prince, or just a kiss. Something silly like that. Something girly like that.
He runs to the rice paddy; he’s kicked his shoes off somewhere along the way and it doesn’t matter now, but look. The paddy’s empty. There are some baskets floating on the water and some rice midpicked, but all the rice paddy boys are gone. There’s silence before the trees start to giggle, one by one, all giggling and talking, and Young kicks off, follows the voices, and there, in the greenest blue or bluest green lake, are all the boys in their glistening glory.
“Come on, Young. Jump inside.” Young dips his big toe in the water and watches it ripple. He doesn’t know how to swim. “Come on, we’ll teach you simple. Come on. Jump in.” It’s Jing, the handsomest tallest tightest boy in the whole world. He’s got semi-smile dimples and golden arms. “Come on, baby boy, jump in, you can do it.”
And Young looks into his eyes and jumps the whole way in, fully submerged, shirt and all, and he goes up for spring, but he can’t breathe, no, there’s hands all over his head and shoulders and jackets, and he can’t breathe so much that he’s opened his eyes, and all he can see are bubbles and blue, and he can’t breathe, and everything’s silent. He kicks and shoves and tries to get himself up, but noooo, they push him way down into the sand, and he can’t do anything, but he swears he’s going to die.
Pressure up, and he breathes, out in the air, and it’s spring again. With the bluest green and the greenest blue, and he shakes his legs and arms like crazy, breathing and sputtering and breathing. All the boys splash water on him, laughing and giggling like bubbles. Jing says, “Guess what, buddy? You’re swimming.”
Young kicks his way back to shore and huddles up in a ball and won’t come out of it, even when Jing, with his shadowy lashes, tugs at his foot and the Zhou twins splash more water on him and the sun goes down. He stays in a ball until the other boys carry him home. Fuck it Young. Stupid crybaby. You’re breaking my back, but he won’t go in the water.
Wei is a boy in Young’s class. He’s medium sized and stocky, with the smallest eyes and the raspiest voice in the world. He writes poetry on the desks during math class, and sometimes,Young peeks over, because he likes the swaying way that Wei writes. It breathes like the trees and the open doored rain.
Wei hates math. Teacher Wang asks all the boys to take out their homework and he goes and collects it, but when he comes to Young’s desk and Wei’s poetry, there’s nothing there. Splat, just wood, and they have to sit in the front of the class, while the teacher circles around them with a ruler.
“Why didn’t you do your math homework?”
“I was busy writing.”
“That’s no excuse. Math is around three fourths of the college entrance exam. What do you aspire to be?”
“A farmer.” Giggles. Wei’s told Young about being a farmer before. Wei’s gonna be a billionaire, raising all the pigs and sheep and goats for the members of his village. He’s going to give away goats for little boys to keep as pets.
Teacher Wang smiles and shakes his head like he can’t believe it. “A farmer. A farmer.”
“How can two hardworking parents like yours produce such a dumbass like you? You know how a farmer works? You ever want to leave this place? Or do you wanna be a farmer? You know how hard your parents work to send you to school?”
“Dumbass, and you still want to be a farmer? Dumb. Do your math homework.” Fifteen spankings to the ass. Young’s turn.
“What’s your excuse?”
“My mother needed help in the rice paddy.”
“That’s no excuse. What do you want to do?”
“Pass the college entrance exam.”
“How are you going to do it?”
“Do my math homework.”
Young gets five spankings to the ass. Teacher Wang lectures them all. “If you ever want to get out of this place, if you ever feel like you want to do something with your life, then by God, do your math homework.” Next day is the same, and the day after, and pretty soon, it’s been ten times, and Wei whispers over to Yang, nonchalant and raspy, I’m gonna be a farmer, and when I farm, there’s not gonna be any math involved.
Young is now thirteen, and Young is in love. Her name is Liang, and she is light, like the birds in the sky. Light Liang, like summertime lightning with skinny legs like birds and flies. The uncle’s favorite, with a mouth that tastes like the sweetest dumpling and juiciest flowers. Last time, when he went to visit the rice paddy boys, he waved hi, and she waved hi, and her with her bare feet made his heart flutter, so he spent the whole conversation staring at her feet because they were so pearly and beautiful.
It’s a nice hot fall day when Young comes home from his first day of school, and right on the hill his father owns, are two figures, and Young scotches around them, until he sees it’s Liang and Jing, girl and boy, light and drowned, kissing kissing kissing as if their tongues were aching. They’re so loud they can’t hear him and he lumps away.
Jing laughs and says, “Finders keepers losers weepers. You love her when you can keep her.”
Young can’t keep her, not when all of a sudden she’s tight around the waist, and she becomes so tight that Jing starts to worry, and yes, Jing’s the father, and they have to marry. Plink plunk the wedding starts and Jing is the man, Liang is the wife, and Young can’t take it, he runs out. Plink plunk the wedding starts, and Jing didn’t even love her, it was all an accident. Plink plunk the wedding starts plink plunk, and Young’s crying. Plink plink plunk plunk, the wedding starts and Young’s got tears, same old plink plunk.
It’s the end of the ceremony, and Young’s still outside. Jing comes out with all his wedding handsomeness, and he lies down next to Young.
“Hey buddy.” No answer. “You know what you have that I don’t?”
“What?” He asks that ‘cause he’s innocent, and he thinks Jing will give him permission.
“You have school. You can go to college and university, in this big city, with people from all over China, with – ”
“ – with girls from Guiyang, for God’s sakes. They’re poor but they’re hot, you know. Ha. Get yourself a Guiyang girl. Study hard and get yourself a Guiyang girl in a nice city like Beijing.”
Jing clucks his tongue. “Hey Young. You can get girls from all over the world, with your fucking school, but Liang, she’s all I can get.” He stands up, dusts himself off. “Well tonight’s a big night. Man and wife. We’ll have fun.” And he walks off.
A Guiyang girl, a southern girl. It takes him a while to think, but he does see it, in the stars perhaps, when he stares out. A beautiful girl, something crystalline, with big minority eyes and pale features. He runs home.
Wei still dreams of farming. Jing still fucks his wife. The Zhou twins still squish hoe stop stretch. The boys still swim in the lake and teach youngsters to be afraid of the water. Wei still writes his poetry. Jing still has a son. The Zhou twins still flirt with village girls. The boys still get their rice paddy baskets.
But where’s Young?
Young’s still in school, studying something. Chemistry or some sort. In fact, he’s studying so hard his teacher is looking at him cross eyed, and the sun is setting. Finally, his teacher clears his throat and says, “Hey, if you keep studying this hard, you’ll do something great.”
Young grunts in reply. Teacher Wang sighs. “You boys might not know it now, especially your buddy Wei, but there are things greater than village life. Trust me, I used to believe everything about life was on the rice paddy and farming. Trust me, I did. And I’d skip school and all, but now, here I am, old, and I realize, there are crazy things outside this bubble. I wish I was a part of it.”
Young looks up, Teacher Wang looks down. All eye to eye. Grins and nods. Sometimes it’s just eye to eye, nod to nod, face to face. Sometimes there are no words involved.
No one wants to go home. Sometimes Young wishes he could bury his face in the chemistry or the math and not have to think about Liang and Jing and the golden boys, because it all becomes so dreary. He can lean now, slow. He can trace numbers with his toe, and when he tries, he can even see the stars and the sky. They go somewhere, like the Yellow River during the festival, they feed into some bigger place, they erode. Sometimes, with his mind to heavy with information, he looks up at recites. There are billions of galaxies in the universe. Einstein’s photoelectric effect, atoms, we, emit electrons. We keep the positive inside. Descartes’s Rule of Signs and the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra. He recites everything, book as a pillow under his head, to the stars who will hear, who will deliver.
Teacher Wang Teacher Wang! All this, I get it! he cries, when he wakes up from sleep. I get this! I get this! His heart beats so fast. Do you understand? he asks to his cold, small bedroom wall. Tears streaming down his face, and he says, I get it.
Day before college entrance exams. A conversation between Wei and Young:
“You ready?” Young asks.
“With the math?”
“Don’t need it.”
He trots away. Wei’s a funny kid. Young sleeps deep under the stars tonight. The rice paddy boys pass him by and each step on his forehead for good luck. Head deep in the earth, facing the sky, and the test comes and goes.
“How’d you do with math?”
Wei presses his fingers to his temples. “Okay. Yeah. Okay.” Then he sighs, says something soft that Young doesn’t comprehend, but it sounds like, “Yeah, yeah this is the end.”
Maybe it is ten years down the line. Maybe it is twenty. It’s all a conglomerated blue now; all mushed together like the taste of summer sun with wilted wind. It’s a while, and Young can glide his hand across a world map and touch five places he’s been too. God, the world’s huge. You wouldn’t have guessed by the size of your sidewalk, but yes, God, the world’s huge.
You can’t see what’s going on. All you can see is a silhouette and another, on New York walls. All you can taste is a feeling, peppering in. The woman has peppered hair, and the man, why, it’s Young. Old now. You can’t hear much. The future’s a blur, but what you do hear is something like this:
– something bigger, don’t you think? After this, something bigger.
A giggle, slow, and then, a sigh.
Yes. Like dreams.