We, Who Don’t Belong – A Translated Sample

s24605316Homeless Love is the English title given to this novel by Li Qian, published in 2013, by Zui Books, Shanghai. I would have preferred “We, Who Don’t Belong” as it reflects the Chinese title more closely. At a glance it seems to be purely a romance. The heroine, Ruan Cong, who grew up in the town of Nancheng in the south-western province of Yunnan, arrives in Shanghai, the city of dreams, to begin her university education. With a large permanent scar on her hand, Ruan Cong thinks little of her own appearance. She runs into the boy she secretly loves, Yao Lin Kai, only to find him courting the belle of the university, Chen Min Wen. Meanwhile she rejects the advances of Shi Sheng, who falls deeply for her.

There is of course, much more to the story, and ideas of home and belonging, or lack of, feature strongly. I don’t believe I am the only Chinese who has had to think long and hard about where I belong. Even before I came to Britain, the idea of inherited identity, and personal sense of belonging are a tricky one, especially as China struggles with its evaporating patriarchy.

The historical upheaval in the past two hundred years has not only resulted in a Chinese diaspora that is still growing, but also frequent movement of most of the domestic population. It is not unusual for a Chinese person to be born in one place, to grow up somewhere else, and to live thence in yet another place.

There have been history books and dramatizations of people’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution. However, the impact of this event reached far beyond the 50s and 60s generations. This novel gave me an interesting glimpse of how the lives of the post-80s generation, who are now in their 30s, have been affected by those of their parents’. It also looks at how the rapid urbanization of China has affected its people.

Extract 1

In our first extract, Ruan Cong’s mother sees her off to her university. They arrive at the train station in Shanghai.

My mother nudged the suitcase against my shins to hurry me. Contrary to my discomfort as the hot humid air clung to my body, she inhaled deeply, with an exaggerated expression as if her face was under a magnifying glass, she said: “still the same scent, after so many years.”

Perhaps this was the feeling of home, but I didn’t quite understand it. Many years later, I gradually came to realise that, perhaps I would never, in my whole life, be able to appreciate the precise meaning of this feeling. At the time, my eighteen year old self thought that it wouldn’t be long before I, like my mother, would feel deep in my bones, that feeling that Shanghai was my home.

 My mother was proud of being from Shanghai, and if she ever knew my impression of her, she would row for days. She would use her peculiar mixture of the Hu dialect[1], Mandarin and Nancheng dialect to contradict me: ”how can I not be from Shanghai? I grew up in Shanghai, I’m the typical Shanghainese, I’m old Shanghainese”.

Yes, “old Shanghainese”, this had been my mother’s unwavering definition of herself for the past few decades.

From my point of view, a Zhi Qing [2] who went to the border countryside as a teenager, stayed there, married, had a child and settled there for more than twenty years, can’t really be counted as Shanghainese.

Of course my mother had no idea what I was thinking, at that moment she was immersed, body and soul, in that “coming home” feeling of belonging. Actually, when I received that letter of entrance from Shanghai University, the happiest person was my mother, as if she was the one who was going to be spending four years studying in Shanghai. I wondered if, in her sleep that night, she dreamt she was eighteen again, receiving notice of her return to the city, of those momentous steps of boarding the train and returning to Shanghai with her companions, casting to the back of her head, without an instant’s delay, the memories of penury and drudgery that was the life of a rusticated youth, until many years later, when her hair has greyed, she would slowly dig out that period from the depths of her memory, like trails of old rust, to mull over whilst telling it to her grandchildren as a bedtime story.

 I never doubted my mother’s regret for the decision she had made  – whether she was obliged or completely willing, for she had suffered her regret for twenty years. If she didn’t regret it, she wouldn’t have kept warning me, again and again, for as long as I could remember: ”I’m Shanghainese you know, remember this, mummy is from Shanghai, and so are you.” Nor would she pin all her hopes on me from the moment I was old enough to go to school: “Cong Cong, you must study hard, so that when you grow up you can get into university in Shanghai, mummy is depending on you.”

No matter what the thing is, if one has been exhorted and entreated to do it thousands of times, by those one holds most dear, it becomes the brightest signal in one’s head, capable of affecting the whole direction of a child’s life –

I am from Shanghai, I must take mummy back to Shanghai.

At the age of eighteen, I got into my top choice university, or you could say my only choice (all my choices were universities in Shanghai), because mother said, this way, even if I didn’t get in this time, I wouldn’t be made to go to other places when I repeat my exams. Now, I was going to begin my university life in Shanghai, then I would stay in Shanghai to work, progress my career and start a family, become a real Shanghainese….

Actually, it wasn’t just my mother, even I didn’t have a single doubt about the direction of my path, I could not have imagined that the road that seemed so harmoniously integrated with all my desires could split into so many branches, and that each branch, could lead me so far from my original destination.

Extract 2

When she arrives at university, Ruan Cong finds herself running into three people from her childhood in Nancheng, Yao Lin Kai, the Boy Ruan Cong secretly loves;her acquaintance,  Shi Sheng; and Chen Min Wen, whom Ruan Cong hates, and is hated in return. Even though they all act as though they barely remember each other, Lin Kai invites them all to dinner.

“Hmph, friends?” Min Wen’s showed her dimples faintly, “That’s strange, we’re neither relatives, nor that close, nor even really acquainted, it took me ages to remember your name, how can you call us friends when, really, we’ve just met? Who are you to talk like this? I only came because I wanted to find out how you got hold of my number!”

Her tone and words diluted Lin Kai’s smile, but he still answered her question with sincerity: “After I arrived in Shanghai, I asked my father to get it. After all, our parents did all work in the same factory, even though some of them have left, contact details aren’t difficult to find”.

“You’re weird.” Min Wen placed her left hand on the table where she unconsciously began turning one of her untouched chopsticks, “You make such an effort, just to be friends with us? This doesn’t make sense. Not to me. What makes it worth me becoming friends with you?”

Lin Kai put his glass down, paused, then said: “ because we, the four of us,  are alike”.

“Really?” piled in Shi Sheng, who’d been silent until this point.

“First of all, we all have at least one parent who was a Zhi Qing from Shanghai, isn’t that right?” Lin Kai then pointed out with confidence, “ my dad, Ruan Cong’s mum and Shi Sheng’s, right? And both Min Wen’s parents are. Back then, they came from Shanghai to the Yunnan countryside, worked on the farm, and were then recruited to work in the same factory. By the time they were allowed to return to the city, some of them had married locals, some had families that were not doing so well, but they all stayed in Nancheng, and are still there.”

This time, to everyone’s surprise, Min Wen didn’t contradict Kai Lin, as if tacitly indicating her unwilling agreement.

“Secondly, we were all born in Nancheng, grew up there, and to some extent, we knew each other, or at least that each other existed. Thirdly, and most importantly, we’re now all in Shanghai, and all going to spend a long time here. Perhaps I’m a little superstitious, but I believe that “fate brings together those who are meant to meet[3]”. At this point, Lin Kai scratched his head shyly, “I just thought, we’ve got things in common and we’re all in the same city, wouldn’t it be good if we got together and looked out for each other?”

His entreating gaze moved each of us in turn, when our eyes met, I automatically responded to him: “I, I think Lin Kai’s right, after all we’ve all come from Nancheng to Shanghai, in the future we can all meet up and go do stuff together, right?” I desperately needed further support, and turned towards Shi Sheng, on my right.

He seemed to be a little distracted, and was staring at the table in front of him, in a daze until I turned to him, he started, gave me an awkward look, and replied vaguely: “About this…..uh.”

His whole lack of focus irritated me, and lowered my estimation of him further from my initial impression of his plain appearance. I swallowed my annimosity to Min Wen, and sought her consent: “what do you think, Min Wen?”

She was sitting with her side to me, and measuring me up in her peripheral vision, not even turning to face me, taking a very quick look back at Lin Kai, she said airily: “It’s such as shame you’re studying architecture, I think you’re wasting your verbal talent not studying law.”

She paused, straightened herself, like a leopard that has long been crouching low, waiting for the best opportunity to pounce and deliver the final blow, she switched from her earlier artful softness, to a clipped and brisk tone: “as you’ve made a list of points, I’ll play it your way – first of all, whether our parents shared the same experiences or not, that’s to do with them,  not us. And I know for a fact that although our parents were in the same factory, they had little to do with each other. Secondly, even though we were all born in Nancheng, the environment in which we grew up and our experiences are totally different. Take me for example, I came to Shanghai at the age of two, and was brought up by my grandmother. Apart from parents I hardly see, Nancheng means nothing to me. I’m not like you.”

At this point, Min Wen suddenly narrowed her eyes, and raised a corner of her mouth, I have always detected a hint of nonchalance behind her expressions. She continued with a faint smile: “You may find my words unpalatable, but it’s the truth. I grew up in Shanghai, my friends, classmates are all Shanghainese, I have no need whatsoever to make any new friends. So for me, this meal means nothing, let’s just say I came here for nothing. Thanks for your good intentions, Yao Lin Kai, but I don’t need them.”

She finished talking, and looked around ambiguously, as if sussing out the impact of her words.

I observed Lin Kai’s slight change of colour, having all one’s efforts rejected so ruthlessly, it would have been hard for anyone to remain unmoved. Although the well educated and civilized Lin Kai recovered very quickly, words came out of my mouth before I could stop them: “Chen Min Wen, how can you talk like this?”

She wasn’t expecting me to speak, and regarded me curiously: “oh, standing up for justice are you? So what if I talk like this, I’m speaking my mind, that’s all.”

Her glances felt like spikes, or maybe it was her polished beauty, despite her words and haughty tone, that felt like multiple tiny needles, pricking my freckled and coarse skinned face, making me want to lower my head, and hide my face under my long hair, this subconscious timidity angered me even more: “frankly, you think you’re great because you grew up in Shanghai and you’re from Shanghai, you look down on people from small towns like us? Why justify it with a pile of reasons, why don’t you just say it.”

“Ruan Cong, don’t – “ Kai Lin wanted to stop me from going on, but was interrupted by a female voice.

Min Wen was charged now, her smile became even more insinuating: “that’s not what I said. But if you feel like you’re from a small town – ” her eyes were shrewd as a cat’s, “then I’ll go with your way of thinking. Yes, going to a new place and rushing to find your hometown chums, is something of the small town mentality. Is it necessary? It’s not as if you’re abroad and can’t speak the language, everyone can converse in Mandarin, why do we need to look out for each other? I don’t want that kind of hassle, you should know, that Shanghai people have always swept the snow from their own doorstep[4].

Extract 3

Ruan Cong graduates, acquires an office job in Shanghai, even a Shanghai boyfriend, well on her way to realising her mother’s lifelong dream of becoming Shanghainese. Painfully, she attends the wedding of Yao Lin Kai, the man she secretly loves and then the “Man Yue”[5]. celebrations of his newborn. At the celebrations Ruan Cong diverts herself with the task of looking after Lin Kai’s father.

“Tomorrow,” He paused, his voice hoarse, “I’ll be going back”.

I was astonished: “Going back? Going back where?”

“Silly child.” He managed to squeeze out a tiny smile, “home, of course, to Nancheng.”

My ears rang, I couldn’t react straight away: “Uncle Yao, are you drunk? Aren’t you from Shanghai, like my mum? Haven’t you always wanted to return to Shanghai?”

“From Shanghai?” He glanced at me, though his eyes reflected the gorgeous neon lights all around us, his pupils were cloudy, he lifted his hand and pointed at the door on the terrace that led to the dining hall. “Everyone in there’s from Shanghai, born in Shanghai, raised in Shanghai, how many of them do you think considers an old man like me to be Shanghainese?”

I couldn’t say a word.

“When the rusticated youths returned to the cities, your Aunty Yao and I were just about to get married. Everyone who could return to their hometown did, some bastards were even prepared to leave behind children from local marriages. People who stayed in Nancheng, were either those whose backgrounds didn’t allow them to return to the cities, or those who couldn’t bear to leave their children behind. I chose to stay. Your Aunty Yao was too kind, she tearfully entreated me to split up with her and return to Shanghai without her. How could I abandon such a good soul? Both my parents had died during the years of the Cultural Revolution, I was all alone in the world, Nancheng was a new home. Later, the policies changed, children of the rusticated youths were allowed to return to the city, live in the city, and everyone started plotting and planning to send their children to the city. Everyone tried to convince me to send Lin Kai back, to get his hukou[6].. I just couldn’t understand how this tiny booklet could be more important than having one’s children by one’s side through the years. Is it worth scattering a family across the country, just so that someone would call you “Shang Hai Ren”?

Uncle Yao’s every sentence felt like a slap across my face.

“As you get old, life becomes a couple of bowls of rice, and a bed, whether you’re in the mountains, or cosmopolitan Shanghai. Had your Aunty Yao not passed away so soon, I would have spent my whole life in Nancheng. But my son’s settled in Shanghai now, he worries about me being alone in Nancheng, and keeps getting me to come to Shanghai. Alright then, I thought, it was my hometown after all, I’ll come back, he’s just become a dad, and he’s struggling, especially when the daughter-in-law’s health is so unpredictable….I should go and help him, I wanted to. But Cong, I just realised, that this hometown of mine, is no more……..”

“Cong, what do you think home means? Shouldn’t home be somewhere that immediately makes you think of boundless delicious foods, old friends to whom you’ve so much to say that when you meet up you forget to eat, streets where you can point out the corner you pissed in, the house you once stole some red chillis from, the place you had a fight with the local hoodlums, or the spot you once stole a kiss from the girl with the pretty braids? Home isn’t just a name, it’s a place that evokes a tumult of irrepressible, uncontainable multitude of tiny memories, at the mere mention of its name.

He became stirred, and his voice began to shake: “but now that I’m back, only to find the places that hold those memories,  demolished, or redeveloped, with big new buildings in their place, I have to ask the way wherever I go. And all the friends from my youth, haven’t seen them for dozens of years, some have disappeared, others have passed away, all gone. Is this Shanghai still a home?” Uncle Yao gazed into the waning lights in the distance, as if he were asking himself the question, “now, I no longer have family in Nancheng, and after coming to Shanghai, I don’t feel I could stay here either. Do you think then, that I belong anywhere?”

Translator: Xueting Christine Ni

Editor: Joseph Brant

[1] 沪语: The Shanghai dialect, “Hu” being another word for Shanghai

[2] 知青: literally educated youth, refers to secondary school students of varying ages from cities who were sent to the countryside during the late 1960s under the order of Chairman Mao to learn the ways of the farmers and labourers. In the late 1970s they were allowed back into cities, many returned, some settled in the country. Zhi Qing are often known as “rusticated youth”.

[3] 有缘千里来相会:Chinese proverb, literally “those who are fated to meet will travel thousands of li (Chinese unit of length = 500 metres)”

[4] 自扫门前雪: Chinese idiom meaning, mind one’s own business.

[5] 满月: Chinese version of baby shower that happens when the baby a month old
[6]户口: or “Hu Ji”, China’s household registration system that determines which city one lives in, a remnant of ancient administration

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