You Touched Me

Translated from 《芳华》,严歌苓著,人民文学出版社,2017年。

I had thought I wouldn’t be able to recognize Liu Feng if I saw him again. He has looked forgettable since he was twenty. No matter how close you are to him, you will forget what he looks like as soon as you avert your eyes. It would be better if he were ugly since ugliness can be one’s trademark, and, if ugly enough, one can shock the world and become famous. But he is not ugly. On a ten-point attractiveness scale, he would score a five or maybe six if he was in his military uniform and hat, especially the uniform we wore for performing on stage, which was exquisitely cut and made of good fabric – a wool-synthetic blend which gave it a well-ironed appeal.

There’s nothing wrong about Liu Feng’s appearance, but something is wrong precisely because nothing is wrong. Despite the fact that we drilled on the same team, danced in the same studio, ate stir-fried slices of pork and mustard-root[1] at the same table, studied documents and gossiped in the same red building, or – in a word – no matter how intimate we once were and how we wasted our youth together (eight years of youth!), we could never remember what he looked like. But my eyes instantly pick him out of the sea of faces in Wangfujing Street.[2] And it’s the side of his face. I want to greet him but then think I’d better wait.

His name is Liu Feng. Thirty years ago we called him Lei You Feng. Translated literally, it means another Lei Feng. [3] To pronounce it, you slow the vowel of the Chinese pinyin,[4] L–i–u–Liu, starting from L, pausing for one tenth of a second, and finally landing on Liu. The pinyin for Liu Feng and Lei Feng differs only in one letter, so we jokingly called him Lei You Feng. We were not being sarcastic. Back then we women soldiers really admired men of virtue, so it was just good-natured teasing. That’s all.

Describing Liu Feng could also be like filling in a form. Face shape: round; eyebrow and eyes: thick eyebrow, single-layer eyelids; nose: round tip, straight bridge; skin: smooth, white. Try describing Lei Feng’s face, and you would find the same features applied to Liu Feng except that Liu Feng – who was 1.69-metres-tall – was ten centimetres taller than Lei Feng. We were the most attractive persons picked from all over the country to perform on stage. Lei Feng wouldn’t have been chosen; the dance line would have been broken at the point where he stood. Thirty years ago, everyone in the red building was of the genius-and-beauty military fashion. Not a single face or figure was ugly to look at.

The red building, once our barrack, was torn down last century and crushed under an extensive avenue. Also crushed were the traces Liu Feng left in the forty-eight rooms of various sizes: the walls and the ceilings he had fixed, the mouse holes he had obstructed, the door latches he had installed, the termite-damaged wooden floor tiles he had replaced . . .. The red building had aged. It was close to seventy and should have been condemned thirty years earlier, yet its slow decay was further slowed thanks to Liu Feng. With his masonry and carpentry, he handled this dilapidated three-storeyed building with great care as if holding a gigantic, cracked egg in his hands. Inadvertently, he turned us into “the stubborn nails” even before the term was first used.[5] We lived happily in this building for over ten years until it reached its final breaking point, and we cried out in unison : “Who will fetch Liu Feng?” When a whole wall cracked overnight or when a fan-sized clay chunk suddenly fell off the ceiling, we knew it was deteriorating quickly. Every time this happened, the only thing we could do was shout: “Fetch Liu Feng!”

I am here at Wangfujing to buy some books. A group of disabled youngsters are singing in front of the entrance of the Wangfujing Shopping Mall around a donation box. They sing wholeheartedly, but the audience rushes past them, and an occasional donor will shyly step out and quickly disappear back into the crowd after donating. Nowadays, people are embarrassed of public displays of kindness. I can’t bear to look at this anymore, and when I turn my eyes away, I see Liu Feng also standing in the crowd. He appears to be steadfast in the constant flow of audiences. It seems that he’s been there for a while. From the side, his once ordinary face has become more chiseled with the erosion of time.

I move a little to get a better look at Liu Feng from the front. He has a face that is unsusceptible to aging. He looks at least seven or eight years younger than his contemporaries. It was because of the “touch” incident that he was demoted to a soldier in the company. The year after his demotion, the sino-Vietnamese war broke out.

A tour bus pulls over at the crossroad by Chang’an Avenue[6] and drops off fifty or sixty western tourists. There’s a moment of commotion in the crowd, and when I manage to find my footing again, Liu Feng is no longer there. I leave the crowd and search for him at both ends of Wangfujing Street. He couldn’t disappear so quickly unless he meant to. I walk southward for a while and then northward. The street is full of strangers. Liu Feng must be hoping keep me a stranger as well.

 

Thirty years ago, our old red building still had dreams. Most of those dreams were beautiful and bold, too.

The red building’s second and third floor each had a long corridor over which extended a long stretch of eaves. If, in the evening, you were practising the clarinet or the violin in the third-floor corridor, looking beyond the eaves of the corridor downstairs and the small studio at the end, then further beyond the holly-lined path to the right side of the studio, you would at some point see a man carrying two big buckets. This man was Liu Feng. He carried the buckets for a boy living in the next lane. The boy was seventeen, orphaned, whom other kids of the lane called Brackets because when he stood at attention, his legs formed a perfect pair of brackets. They said they used Brackets’ two legs as the soccer goalpost, and the ball could get through without even touching it.

Brackets walked with a high stool. He moved the stool forward and used it as his support to walk a step further. With two legs of his own and four legs of the stool, he needed a quarter of an hour to walk two hundred metres. At the entrance to the lane, the tap was unlocked and water sold to lane residents every evening who waited in line to buy their water. When Brackets bought his share and carried it home, the six legs became really busy. He moved the buckets first then the stool and finally his own bracket-shaped legs only to see when he got home that the previously half-filled iron bucket held barely enough water to cover the bottom. Brackets had to do this because he made a living by selling hot water from an old stove in his home.

Liu Feng delivered two buckets of water from our yard to Brackets’ home every day. When interrogated by the officer, Liu Feng responded that water was free for the army to use anyway. The officer thought for a while and felt that Liu Feng was right. Everything the soldiers ate and wore came from the people for free, so why couldn’t our soldier treat one of them to two buckets of water?

One late summer evening we lazed in the outdoor corridor after supper. Liu Feng came and went in front of our bored eyes, carrying two big buckets of water filled so close to the top that they were on the verge of spilling, yet he was able to carry them without wasting a single drop. So full from eating, Gao Qiang, the trombonist, blew a low and long sound as if he were burping. He stared blankly at the short person carrying the buckets away with such light steps along the holly-lined path and sighed: “Why doesn’t he die of exhaustion? What’s his name?” The bassist beside him, Zeng Dasheng, answered, “L-i-u Feng.” Gao Qiang dragged out his words like the sound of his trombone: “Li-u-Feng – shit, that sounds exactly like Lei You Feng.”

That’s how Liu Feng got his nickname Lei You Feng.

The first time I saw Liu Feng in close quarters was shortly after he was transferred to our troupe. One day near the end of the lunch break, he was squatting there and hammering the floor. How should I describe the worn-out floor? If you jumped hard at one end of the room, a dish on the table at the other end would turn over or at least wobble. What he was hammering was a floor piece warped hopelessly out of shape.

The owner of this old courtyard had been a warlord ninety years ago. In the 1920s, the red building used as our barrack had two storeys and was inhabited by two concubines, one old and the other young. In the early 1930s, another younger concubine was married into this place, so the owner added one more storey on top of the second floor. When the September 18th incident broke out in the Northeast[7], marrying concubines remained trendy in the Southwest. Chengdu people always prioritized the sensual pleasures of life whatever situation they were in – even in danger. People who knew the story of the building could tell the barely noticeable difference between the two shades of red painted on the third floor and the first two floors. The red bricks extended from the red building out onto a paved way, over which a parallel stretch of blue-tile eaves supported by dark green wooden poles on both sides led all the way to a pavilion. Our small studio was constructed at the base of the pavilion. It thus had an odd shape, and was cold in winter and hot in summer. Further in the direction of the gate was our dining hall which used to be the concubines’ little theatre. Later the stage was torn down, and the place was transformed into a dance hall when Chengdu became the Great Rear Area at the time of the anti-Japanese war.[8] In this courtyard none of the rooms for the horsemen and the maids – old or young – was properly built, and when the Liberation Army peacefully liberated Sichuan, they were pretty rundown and were then torn down to build two lines of single rooms even sketchier than those for the old and young maids. The new inhabitants were the officers of the art troupe with their families. The newest building, built in the sixties, was our dance studio – also called the big rehearsal hall – which was no doubt a product of the government’s large-quantity-fast-speed-good-quality-low-cost policy.

It was just another ordinary noontime when we sat around the low tables after lunch, chatting over our empty bowls and boxes, male and female soldiers arguing over trivial matters and flirting with one another meaningfully or meaninglessly. No one showed interest in what Liu Feng was doing. I noticed him because he wore two different shoes: on his right foot was the black cloth shoe the army distributed to every soldier; on his left was a dirty white soft-soled dance shoe. I later learned he couldn’t spin with his left leg. His body tended to be lopsided whenever he attempted the movement, so he wore the dance shoe all the time to practise whenever he had a chance. After hammering, he stepped with his soft-soled shoe on the floor, then stomped it with the hard-soled shoe, hammered a few more times, and stood up. He straightened his body, and you couldn’t help feeling disappointed at his height. He was short yet appeared much bigger when sitting or squatting. When he stood, you would think to yourself, “He isn’t much taller!” The flaw lay in his legs: he didn’t have long legs. But long legs would be a burden for somersaulting, and he was selected into the art troupe from his original field army engineer battalion precisely because he performed amazing somersaults. Liu Feng had mastered the skill since he was a child. He had a hard life in childhood in a Bangzi opera troupe[9] in a poverty-stricken county of Shandong province. To quote Liu Feng, “Some people are so poor that they go round stark naked!” If he hadn’t been in the Bangzi opera troupe learning somersaulting, he would have had been a stark naked child as well.

I wasn’t officially associated with Liu Feng until half a year after his transfer. We followed the big army to the mountain area in the northwest of Sichuan and camped there for seven days undergoing military training. These seven days were the only opportunity of the year for us to play at being real soldiers. The customary drill of shooting and grenade-throwing happened during this period. Playing a real soldier’s role for us was like playing games. We could avoid dance practices, enjoy shooting to the full, have hardtack snacks, and get into real fighting and wrestling while practising sentry attacks. Before the shooting training started, Vice Director Jian of the military training department needed two guards at the edge of the range to keep the locals out so that they wouldn’t become the live targets of their brotherly soldiers’ blind bullets. Liu Feng and I were chosen. Liu Feng volunteered. He came from the field army and had done plenty of shooting, so he would rather spare the fun for others. I was collectively chosen because my shooting rarely won any points. My bullet never hit the target, and they were afraid of me dragging down the total score of the team.

I was one month short of thirteen in that midwinter of 1972. I stood up tall, my skinny body measuring 1.61-metres-tall and weighing 38 kilos, to establish between soldiers and civilians a Great Wall in northwestern Sichuan. Intense gunfire lasted from one to four in the afternoon, during which time I changed from standing guard to hopping guard. In these three hours, I had to hop like I learned to do in dance class to protect my feet from frostbite. A line of targets was set up in a field of yams that had already been harvested, the darkened vines spreading like a broken fishnet. I was wearing our dance instructor Teacher Yang’s big watch and looked at it every three or five minutes as I hopped. I learned that loneliness, exhaustion, and severe cold could turn five minutes into a whole lifetime.

The gunfire ceased at five past four. The shooting was supposed to stop at exactly four o’clock. A chubby vole ran across my feet. I watched it and soon found a round, smooth hole under the field ridge. I wanted to see what was inside, so I lay prostrate and looked into the hole, but could see nothing through the high-powered binoculars I was required to use for the safety of the field. I then used a twig to poke inside while meowing like a cat, wondering if voles viewed cats as enemies like we viewed Capitalists. Then I heard a bang of a gunshot, the bullet whistling past the elm treetop over my head. Wasn’t the shooting training finished? Another gunshot went off barely half a minute later. Before I could make sense of the situation, somebody hauled me up from the ground. Turning round, I saw a pale face, its cheeks burning red and mouth puffing steam. This face looked familiar, but also strange at such close range. He said, exploding in anger: “What the hell are you doing here? Didn’t you see a peasant coming into the training field?” His Shandong accent gave him away: he was Liu Feng, the other sentry guard, now supporting a hunchbacked old woman on his other arm. Obviously, the old woman had slipped into the training field while I was harassing the vole. She seemed hurt. She moaned and collapsed on Liu Feng’s arm, her eyes disappearing into the back of her head. Liu Feng cried out, “Granny! Granny!” I was so terrified that I fainted. My next image just a moment later was Liu Feng running before me, carrying the old woman, and shouting, “So irresponsible! So obsessed with fun! Not like a soldier at all! . . .” A Red Cross flag was flying on the opposite hill. Liu Feng carried the old woman to the field ambulance. I followed behind, running and falling and running, tears all over my cheeks. Were they because of my falls, fear, or Liu Feng’s criticism? Now in hindsight I’d say it was all three.

Liu Feng and I brought the old woman into the rescue tent and were immediately surrounded by doctors and nurses who were the field rescue team for the role-play. Liu Feng and I waited for bad news outside the quilted cotton door curtain. After a while, Liu Feng was tired of standing. He squatted down, raised his face, and asked, “A teenager?” I murmured “thirteen” in a voice as quiet as a mosquito’s hum. He talked no more. I noticed a patch on the back of his collar, a long strip with tiny stitches barely visible. The curtain finally opened, and the military doctor of the rescue team called us in for a look. Liu Feng and I looked at each other: “Claiming the dead body?” Trembling, Liu Feng asked where the bullet hit. The doctor said it hit nowhere. He had spent half an hour examining the old woman only to find her in excellent shape. She hadn’t even taken any medication for killing roundworms, let alone aspirin. She must have fainted out of hunger or fear of gunfire.

We craned our heads in and saw the old woman holding a military fruit can and spooning two big chunks of pineapple into her mouth. Liu Feng nudged me, and we hurried into the tent. Liu Feng was all saluting and apologizing, and the old woman, chewing and slurping loudly, was too preoccupied with calming her nerves to pay any attention to us.

The rescue nurse whispered that we were lucky. If she had been shot, all her family would have feasted on the art troupe’s military supplies instead of eating their own yams.

Things became clearer after we returned to camp. Zeng Dasheng, the bassist, had wagered with someone that he would score three tens successively with his left-over bullets. Everyone had finished shooting except Zeng Dasheng who still lay there, aiming with the last two bullets in his semi-automatic rifle. He pointed it for three minutes without shooting, then – from the Vice Chief of the military training section standing behind – borrowed a handkerchief to cover one eye, and went back to perfecting his aim. Some teased that it would be unfair to Chief’s cute handkerchief if he missed a shot worth ten. Another said sarcastically that to score a perfect ten with that much concentration was not necessary – the shot was bound to score eleven! Zeng Dasheng jumped up to fight these hecklers before he started aiming again for a third time. By that time, seven minutes had gone by. That’s when I left my post chasing a vole, assuming that the training was over.

We had yam rice, yam with green onion stir-fry, and yam steamed with salted pork belly slices[10] for supper that day. It was said that the place yielded nothing but yams. The old woman slipped across the shooting range cordon in order to dig one more time in the harvested yam field, hoping to glean some small tubers or broken halves left behind. One of us realized this and said: after all this, Lei You Feng rescued not a good peasant but a sneaky one who stole the commune’s yams! Another followed: a sneak who frauded us out of a full meal of canned sugary pineapple reserved for senior officers at the camp only. Then another said: the song about brotherly love between the soldiers and the people resembling the love between fish and water didn’t apply to sneaky people, right? Lao Tangshan from the drama team added: Lei You Feng was wrong to call her Granny. She is no granny at all. The clinic department reporter said that Granny came for free condoms the other day. We all roared with Ha Ha Ha, for Lei You Feng had mistaken the role of Lei Feng and had rescued the wrong person . . .

Liu Feng squatted there, holding an extra-large tea mug from which he was chopsticking yam rice into his mouth. After everyone else had finished, he spoke up: “What’s the point of calling people progressive or backward? Aren’t they all just ordinary people? Do backward people deserve Lao Zeng’s ten-point shot?[11] And who isn’t backward? You try living in the countryside like they do, being hungry for a whole winter – and then see how backward you are, and whether you’ll steal the commune’s yams.”

I slyly moved closer to him. I wanted to say thank you, but then thought the sneak was the one who should thank him. Liu Feng looked at his large tea mug and said, “The yams here are really different – feels like eating chestnuts. You Little Tassel! Always fool around on the shooting range! Granny almost missed out on such yummy yams tonight!”

 

 

[1]菜脑壳炒肉片 in Chinese, a popular everyday dish of Sichuan cuisine. All footnotes here are added by the translator unless otherwise noted.

[2] A famous commercial street in Beijing lined with shopping malls, bookstores, restaurants and hotels.

[3] Lei Feng (1940-1962), 雷锋 in Chinese, was a famous People’s Liberation Army soldier. After his death, Chairman Mao Zedong launched a propaganda campaign with the slogan — “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng.” Lei Feng then became a nationwide role model of selflessness, modesty and service.

[4] Pinyin is the official Romanization of the Chinese language. It is used to mark the pronunciation and the tone of a Chinese character.

[5] “The stubborn nails” – 钉子户 in Chinese – refer to those who refuse to move to the new residential area in the process of gentrification in contemporary China.

[6] Beijing’s central avenue beside which Tiananmen Square is located.

[7] Also called the “Mukden Incident,” the start of the Japanese invasion of China on September 18th, 1931.

[8] The Great Rear Area” refers to southwest China — Sichuan province in particular — which offered the supplies that supported the anti-Japanese war.

[9] Bangzi opera is a kind of local Chinese opera popular in Hebei, Henan, Shandong, and northern Anhui province.

[10] Kou Rou, 扣肉in Chinese, is stewed pork belly slices called Shao Bai (烧白) in Sichuan cuisine.

[11] “Lao” plus the last name is an intimate way of addressing a person in a Chinese context.  Lao Zeng refers to Zeng Dasheng.

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