Cultural Revolution by James Roth
She has a peasant's face, the kind Mao would have wanted to see on a CCP poster during the Cultural Revolution: It's pleasantly round. Her cheeks have no high, affluent cheekbones, indicating wealth and aristocratic breeding. No. Her face, its roundness, gives one the impression that she's from peasant stock, perhaps a village in Hunan province, far up a remote valley that is only reachable by footpath. The village is a cluster of crumbling, mud-splattered homes. The roofs leak. At a communal well, old women who chew betel nut and have no teeth often gather to drink tea and gossip about a girl in a village in another valley (a village they have never been to), who has left home to work in Shanghai. They're sure a boy is involved. A girl who isn't pregnant would have no reason to leave the village until she's married.
Back in the sixties, when the rice paddies in this village shined with black spring mud, young women, their heads covered with scarves or straw hats--the peasant girls Mao would have favored--were calf-deep in the mud, stooped over, planting rice seedlings. They all had blissful CCP smiles. This girl with the round peasant face might have been in the black mud back then, working cooperatively alongside these CCP poster girls for the good of the country, but in modern China she has her own ideas about her future. The Cultural Revolution was long, long ago; she has only heard stories of it, handed down to her by uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and fathers, stories of their friends who died of despair or disease at the hands of Red Guards waving Mao's Little Red Book in one hand while holding shackles in the other.
She lost her virginity when she was seventeen to a married cousin with a son who lives in the same village. Virginity had been a burden to her, and once she was free of it she felt she was in command of her future. She becomes eager to explore that world outside of her village. The married cousin was the easiest way out. She leaves the village after meeting a man on WeChat who lives in Shanghai. He's married, but she doesn't care if he is. She's not interested in marriage. She only wants to put that village behind her. The man puts her up in a modern flat in the Luwan District, the former French Concession. People in the building keep to themselves, don't ask questions. She quickly adjusts to this and no longer wants to return to her village, even on the Chinese New Year. She only sleeps with her lover nine or ten times a month. Maybe they have dinner out but always go to a hotel. He doesn't want to be seen with her in the flat, which is just fine with her. She has a lot of free time. She reads the Moments on WeChat of celebrities, watches movies, occasionally goes to a bar at one of the better hotels and meets a man and sleeps with him to earn some extra spending money. Some of the men are Western. They are kind, interested in her, and pay her well. She meets some other girls, too, who are the mistresses of rich Chinese men. She and the other girls sometimes talk about their lives, compare lovers. They all know that they can't go on living like this forever, but while they're young it's a good life, theirs. One night her lover tells her he doesn't want to use a condom anymore. She knows why, too. When he's drunk he tells her what she had suspected: that he wants a son. He has a daughter by his wife, but he needs a son to carry on his family name. The one-child policy won't allow him to have another child by his wife. He begins to weep, begging her for a son. She thinks he's weak and foolish. She does become pregnant but has a secret abortion and leaves him when she meets a man in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton who lives in Shenzhen. He is an executive at a software company there. She's had enough of life in Shanghai.
This man, too, sets her up in a flat in one of the better areas of Shenzhen, the Nanshan district. Her flat is similar to the one she had in Shanghai, one bedroom, a living room, kitchen, bath, terrace. She's gotten used to this kind of life, private with pleasing surroundings, where people don't greet each other when they pass in the hallway or ride the elevator together. From the terrace, where she sits from time to time at night drinking French Wine, Pinot Noir, she looks across Shenzhen Bay to the mountains of Hong Kong. She can't see the city, only the mountains of the New Territories. On a weekday she and a friend, whom she has met on WeChat (a girl from a village in Hubei province) venture into Hong Kong for a shopping spree. They buy lotions and creams and shampoos, soaps and perfumes that aren't for sale in Shenzhen. The girl from Hubei buys a lot of expensive makeup. But this peasant-faced girl doesn't wear makeup. She's known even before losing her virginity that her face, which is out of place on her slender neck and rakishly thin body, is what draws men to her; and she's learned over the past few years that it's her eyes that cast the spell. She keeps her lips clasped when she smiles. Men are never quite sure what's on her mind.
In Shenzhen, too, she sleeps with men other than her lover to make some extra money. She begins to prefer Westerners, because she can't speak much English, and they can't speak much Chinese. The conversations are more direct and honest. They communicate using the translate function on WeChat. They are often looking into their phones rather than the other's eyes. She likes it this way. There's freedom in it. One day the software executive, after sex, tells her that his wife is going to divorce him. He weeps. Too many men are weak, she thinks. She resents his weakness. She thinks of her village and where she's come from while he's weeping. She's known what it's like to face a nothing future, and this man has never experienced this. One night when he's drunk he asks her to marry him. She demurs. He won't give up and sends her message after message on WeChat, at first as many as fifteen, then later fifty, and when the number hits a few hundred she blocks him. He stops paying the rent on her flat. She had expected and prepared for this.
With the money she's saved she rents a room in the Longgang District. It's dark and smelly, and the view out the solitary kitchen window is of a paint factory wall. Men and women who work in the factory come and go in their blue company uniforms. Many speak in a Hunan dialect. She begins to feel that her life is returning to that nothing life she had in her village. She sometimes regrets she didn't marry the man she blocked. She considers unblocking him and getting in touch but resits. One day she's had enough of her self-pity and decides to take control of her future. She makes a plan. She continues to go to the best hotels in Shenzhen and meet men and sleep with them, to make enough money to feel that she has the means to escape that dark room, but she doesn't know what kind of escape she'll pull off quite yet. This worries her from time to time. For the first time in her life she has trouble sleeping. She becomes fearful of aging. One evening at the Shangri La she meets a man from Germany who has come to Shenzhen to buy children's toys. He works for a German toy store. They spend ten days together. He takes her to lunch and dinner. The restaurants are always expensive ones. They communicate by using WeChat. He makes jokes, tells her she's beautiful. She thinks he makes her feel happy from time to time, but she isn't quite sure. She smiles, but her smile remains puzzling. She doesn't want him to know how he makes her feel, that she has never been happy with a man. This troubles her a little, but she accepts it. One afternoon he takes her to a building near the Hong Kong border where there are optometrists, tailors, and vendors who sell cheap electronics, and shops that have fake designer bags and Rolex watches. He buys several dozen fake Rolex watches to take back to his friends in Germany as souvenirs. She comes up with an idea to have a future for herself. She tells him that she could work as his agent in Shenzhen, to negotiate the terms for glasses, men's suits, women's dresses, children's toys, and fake watches, anything he wants.
Within a year she has made enough money as his agent to move out of that dark room facing the paint factory wall. She rents a small flat in the Yintian district. It has a kitchen, bedroom, and a terrace. There's a view of the Minsk, an old Russian aircraft carrier, now a tourist attraction, in the harbor. From time to time men whom she has connected with through the German man come to Shenzhen on business. Some ask her to sleep with her. If the men make her smile, she does. It's satisfying for her to sleep with the men she wants to. Some of them give her money, though she doesn't ask for it. She takes the money. Not only does she need it, but to refuse it, she feels, would be rude. She's not having sex for money. That was another life.
Her business grows. She takes English lessons at the Open University, learns to write emails in English, to communicate with men, and now a few women, who come to Shenzhen, looking for products to buy and import back to their countries. She has clients from all over the world. One day an American man comes to Shenzhen who works for a company that makes drones. He's there to negotiate a price for the motors for his company's drones. She acts as his interpreter. They go to several companies, searching for the best deals. He's married, has three children, lives in some city in California. He's almost twice her age, nearing sixty. They have lunches and dinners together. She wonders why he doesn't ask her to sleep with him. They get along well. He's witty. She makes her smile naturally. Now and then she breaks into laughter, rare for her.
At the end of the week, late on a Friday, when they are sharing a taxi back to his hotel, she is the one who propositions him. She hadn't planned to do this. It just seemed to be the natural thing to do, suggest they spend the night together. He looks at her and thinks for a moment, and she is nervous. She has never felt this way with a man before, unsure of herself. He puts a hand on one of her thighs. He tells her that he'd like that. They spend the night in his hotel room. There's more talk than sex. In the morning she feels that she has slept well. They spend the next day at the Mission Hills Golf Club. He talks to her about golf. She has never given golf much thought until this day. But he is so passionate about the game that she becomes interested in it. For the rest of his time in Shenzhen they sleep together, and when he leaves she feels she might cry but stays in control of herself, as she's always managed to do.
They stay in touch, using WeChat, sending messages to each other several times a day. They tell the other good morning and good night. She continues to sleep with other men, only because she needs them from time to time to satisfy herself. Several months pass before the man from California says he can meet her again. He wants to attend a conference on maritime security in Singapore. They meet in Bali and stay at a resort that has cottages on the beach and a restaurant near a shimmering blue pool. They spend more time sitting in beach chairs in the shade of palm trees, looking out across the Bali Sea talking about their lives than swimming or going on tours of the island. As their time together shortens to a few days, they talk more and more about their futures, how to come to terms with these long separations, hoping that they'll arrive at a solution, but they don't and she, after returning to Shenzhen, starts to post anonymous Moments on a fake WeChat account, writing about her relationship with this man. Her Moments attract thousands of readers. Within a few months, her posts are some of the most popular on WeChat. She meets the man every few months, posts Moments about her affair with him, and reads her followers' advice on what to do, but all these solutions seem foolish or beyond her grasp and, well, it's the feeling that she's a celebrity that is important to her, if but as an anonymous one.
After a while, she stops receiving texts from him. She thinks that maybe his wife has found out about them and forced him to delete her as a contact. She likes to think that she can forget about him, but even after a week or so she hasn't, and she wonders why he hasn't contacted her. It isn't like him to be like that. He would have at least said goodbye, it's over, my wife found out, something like that, and then she could move on with her life, and so she starts to wonder how she can find out what, if anything, has happened and uses her VPN to bypass the Great Fire Wall to do a Google search and track him down. It doesn't take her long to find out that he had died in a forest fire in a town called Paradise. He died with his wife. His house was turned to ash. She has difficulty understanding how this could happen, that a forest fire would catch the two of them while they are in their house and burn them to death, but she has to accept it and does.
About two weeks later she receives a text from someone in her village in Hunan, who tells her that her father has died. At first, she doesn't think much about the text. People die every day. Her lover died a horrible death. Her father was old and, well, death comes to old people. It's the suddenness of death that frightens her, the way her lover died, so unexpectedly, the way people die in car accidents or slowly die before their time from a disease they had been carrying around with them for years, perhaps since they were born. Their death was predetermined when they were born, these people with certain diseases, she thinks, and she wonders if she has a disease that will show itself before her time. She begins to wonder how her father died, and this begins to affect her work; she can't concentrate on making connections between foreign buyers and Chinese suppliers. And so to put an end to this and get her business back on track she decides to return to her hometown.
In a way, her village has changed a great deal. There are new, modern homes where traditional brick and mud ones had been, and many people have cars. The road to her village is, to her surprise, paved and maintained. In another way, her village hasn't changed at all. The people there are suspicious of strangers, even her, who wear designer clothes and have expensive shoes and wristwatches. The cousin whom she used to rid herself of her virginity has three children, in violation of the one-child policy, but up here, in a village in a remote valley, no one from the central government is likely to check on him, or others, on how many children they have. The doctor at the local clinic, who visits from time to time, and the nurse, don't have any interest in how many children a family has, because they, too, have as many as they like, or are willing to accept bribes. It's that kind of place, her village, which is still stuck in the past in spite of the modern homes and the cars and the new road. And then, there's her mother, who tells her she's heard she's a prostitute.
Her father's corpse is laid out in an ornate red coffin trimmed with gold leaf. She can't even recognize him, to her surprise, the mortician has done such a poor job, maybe using photos of him as a young man to give him a degree of never-known affluence and dignity. But she never remembered him as a young man. He had a hard life as a farmer and his wrinkled, leathry face showed it. But it doesn't matter, all that thinking of her father. Or that her mother accuses her of being a prostitute. She says goodbye to her father, to her mother, who really has become unrecognizable, too, shriveled up like a raisin. She hires a university student from the village to drive her to Changsha, where she catches a flight back to Shenzhen, and feels, as soon as she starts to walk through the new terminal building, that she is home. That little muddy village in Hunan has nothing to do with her.
That evening she opens a bottle of South African Pinot Noir and drinks it on the balcony of her flat while eating cabbage and shrimp dumplings. As she drinks the wine, she looks out across Shenzhen Bay at Hong Kong and contemplates her life and wonders if she will ever share it with a man as so many other Chinese women do. She's an outcast and she knows it. After a few more glasses of wine, she realizes that she has always been an outcast. She drinks more wine. The sun sets and she opens another bottle and drinks and continues to think about her life and concludes that other women wish they lived a life as free as hers. They are the ones who are entangled in unhappy marriages, tied down with the educational expense of a child. She drinks. A few stars appear. The waters of the bay are dark. She sees the lights of a ferry as it crosses the bay from Shenzhen on its way to the Hong Kong airport. Seeing the ferry gives her the idea of going on a vacation somewhere alone, a country she hasn't been to, in Europe, possibly even Japan, because it's so contrary for her, and other Chinese, to go to the country that is so despised by many Chinese but not her. Japanese design and its culture have always fascinated her, and knowing that many Chinese hate Japan makes it a particularly appealing country to visit. She knows it has many specialty shops where she can buy electronics she has only read about, austere, elegant jewelry, and the latest rice cookers that will probably never be available in China. Perhaps she'll buy an expensive watch, a pearl necklace. She's fine with her decision, going to Japan alone. She no longer needs a man. She drinks some more wine. Yes, she'll go to Japan, stay in a fine hotel, the Keio Plaza in Shinjuku, shop on the Ginza and write about her experiences on WeChat, to make other women envious of the life she leads.
James Roth lives in Zimbabwe and parts of the American southeast where snow is rare, if it falls at all. He writes fiction and nonfiction in most genres but leans toward noirish stories and creative nonfiction. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming in, “Close to the Bone,” “Fleas on the Dog,” “The Bombay Review,” “Mystery Tribune,” "Crimeucompia: It's Always Raining in Noir City," and the "Careless Love" edition, and “Verdad.” He has a novel which is set in Meiji era Japan coming out in late 2022. Before coming to Zimbabwe, he lived and taught in Japan and China. He likes to say he was "Made in Japan." His parents lived there during the occupation, but he was born in an Army hospital in the U.S., to his lasting regret, and that of his mother as well.
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