Chasing the Moon

Stories by Akiko Sugimoto

Possed by the Magic of Kanji
Witch in Training
Landscapes of Stone
Going North
Mao at Baiyunguan
My 1997
Guizi and Ahn
Three Chinese Stories

Chasing the Moon (2)

By Sugimoto Akiko


A version of this story appeared in
The East, 41(2), July/August 2005, pages 32-35

I had to learn Mandarin before I could study at Beijing University. And so I enrolled as a language student at the Central University for Nationalities (CUN).

China officially recognizes 56 different ethnic groups in its national population, including the majority Han people, who speak various dialects of "Hanyu" (Han language). The country's official language, called "putonghua" (ordinary speech), is a standardized form of Hanyu based on Beijing speech or "Mandarin".

CUN is the principle institution of higher learning for the most promising national minorities, who come from all over China to polish their Mandarin and study ethnology and other subjects in the humanities and arts but also science and engineering. The college also admits some Han students who want to study ethnology, and some foreign students like me who need to learn Mandarin. After graduating, minority students return to their villages, where many become civil servant pipelines between their communities and the central government.

Students of Bai, Miao, Hakka, Hainan, Mongol (Menggu), Uygur (Weiwuer), Korean (Chaoxian), Tibetan (Xizang), and many other descents gather at CUN from all quarters of China. The campus is a beehive of ethnic events from Mongolian sumo to Uygur dance. Many Beijing streets are lined with tall zelkovas, but planted within the CUN campus are shorter grape trees from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in western China where many Uygur live. The site of students resting under them, their vines rustling in a breeze, seemed very "ethnic" to me.

I joined the badminton club at CUN. The head of the club was a student from the island of Hainan in the extreme south of China. The assistant head was a youth from the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in the far north.

The assistant head had red hair, ash eyes, and legs bowed from riding horses most of his life. His friends were always teasing him about his appearance, and his face would screw up in laughter. He didn't like to study, and his dream, when he graduated, was to buy a motorcycle instead of a horse. The head of the badminton club had the short stature and friendly face of the Hainan people and was always smiling. He was proud of the taste of his village's pineapples, which sounded delicious just from the way he bragged about them.

The head of the club was a super serious young man. On a shelf in his dorm room was a set of Selected Writings of Mao Zedong. Like a Shinto godshelf in Japan, the shelf with the Mao books was higher. You could search every college in Beijing and never find a student as serious as he was. The funny thing was, he and the assistant head were roommates. They liked not only badminton but Chinese chess. Both were very tenacious players, and their games went very slowly. After every move, progress would stop as both made a commotion about, and put all their energy into, trying to read each other's strategy.

I was introduced to a Korean girl by someone who suggested I exchange language lessons with her. Though Hongmei was already very good in Japanese, I managed to learn some Korean. My real teacher in China, though, was Xiaoqing, who was Hongmei's roommate.

Xiaoqing met me for the first time while I was visiting Hongmei in their room. Many Chinese dorm rooms have two bunk beds on each side of a narrow aisle, and two desks by the window, which the eight occupants must share. So when I went to see Hongmei, Xiaoqing would also be waiting for me, and she would call me by my Chinese name, "Mingzi, Mingzi . . ." She wanted to take me to different places and otherwise help me. Hongmei was a great friend and we got along fine, but gradually I found myself going to see Xiaoqing. Xiaoqing would laugh at the smallest of things, and just being around her was very relaxing.

As I got to know Xiaoqing, I realized she had a complex. Her roommates and most other students around her had been selected from the brightest Korean, Tibetan, and other national minorities, whereas she was a Han national from Fujian provence. So she was a majority attending a university for minorities, and people had the impression that majorities could get into the college even if they were not that bright.

Xiaoqing's native tongue was Mandarin, of course, but her accent was so strongly Fujian that some people warned me to be careful not to pick up her "strange" putonghua. In fact, Xiaoqing's speech was often hard for me to understand.

But Xiaoqing and I got along very well. We agreed on which student cafeterias served the most delicious chicken wings. We both liked movies, and several times a week we'd link arms and go off to the nearest theater to see some. Movies in China are often triple billers, and you may not know what you will see until they start. Typically, though, one would be a foreign film, another would be from Hong Kong, and the third would be a mainland production. To us, though, they were all interesting, and we'd exchange opinions about them on our way back to campus.

So Xiaoqing and I became good friends, to the point that we spent a lot of time together off campus. We'd go together to make phone calls or just walk around. Here and there we'd spot students of various nationalities just hanging out or waiting for their dates. One day I saw a Uygur girl, who I had once seen somewhere before, at the campus gate. She had long, glossy, black hair and the whitest skin and red lips and blue eyes, just like Snow White. As I gazed at her again, Xiaoqing immediately giggled and, tightening her grip on my arm, said, "Let's wait until her date comes."

In time Xiaoqing told me about her own love life, which consisted of one-way affairs in which she made all the effort. Once, rather late at night, she tapped on the window of my dorm and I stuck my head out to see what was wrong. She said her boyfriend had a cold, and she wondered if I would loan her my American-made sandwich grill so she could make him a grilled sandwich.

I had bought the grill because the bread in China was not very good. I would put something between two slices, squeeze them together, and grill the sandwich for about three minutes. When loaning Xiaoqing the grill, I told her to be sure not to leave it plugged in, and she left with it, very pleased. The next time we met, she reported that everything went perfectly. She still hasn't returned the grill.

As for her boyfriend, Xiaoqing said he was a temperamental, easily depressed type. I said I'd like to meet him but she said no. I could peek from a distance, though, so one day she pointed him out at the bicycle rack. When I asked why I couldn't meet him, she said "Well, actually, he's Manchu (Man), and his grandmother was killed by Japanese, so he said he doesn't want to meet you."

I was shocked and must have looked it, for Xiaoqing said, "What do you mean. I've heard stories like that in my village, too, but my family and I don't think that way . . ." and laughed.

To relieve her complex, Xiaoqing threw herself into English studies like the other students. At the library, she copied TOEFL reference books that made me lose interest just looking at them, and little by little she made progress.

Xiaoqing and I set up headquarters and studied together in empty classrooms. At dorms you couldn't get anything done, surrounded by friends, so most students would study in classrooms until lights out. Xiaoqing was hung up on "just the two of us" studying together, and if anyone else came in "our" room, she'd shout at them and they'd leave.

When Xiaoqing was feeling good, she'd produce some frozen jaozi from somewhere, boil water on a small burner, and make a pot of dumplings. Frozen dumplings are sold in many varieties at almost any shop in China and the competition is fierce, and Xiaoqing was forever busy comparing them to see which were the most delicious.

For some reason I didn't feel like eating the doughy wraps, and when I split the belly of a jaozi, to eat only the stuffing, Xiaoqing's face turned suddenly serious and she said, "Mingzi, dumplings are a very auspicious food in China. They symbolize a healthy baby growing in its mothers womb . . ." Playing the mentor role, which she rarely did, she admonished me never to eat that way again.

Xiaoqing stayed in touch with me after I returned to Japan. She'd call and talk, mostly about her one-way romances. "It's because I'm fat," she'd sigh. "Mingzi, what should I do?" She'd go on and on, then suddenly say "My card's run out. Talk to you latter, okay?" She'd buy an international telephone card and call from a public phone. I worried because it would cost her about 10,000 yen each time she called.

The hard-studying Xiaoqing eventually finished graduate school, returned to Fujian, and become an attorney. Once she called and asked if I remembered a certain Mongolian student, a classmate and good friend of hers. She said he'd become a policeman and was looking for a bride. She giggled just like she had when I knew her in Beijing. She was calling me from her office, so I didn't worry about the costs, but then she got a cell phone and called my cell.

One day she sent me some email saying "My diet was successful" and attached a photograph. I saw a very different Xiaoqing. She had slimmed down, let her hair grow, and made herself up quite nicely. Then she called and said, "Don't you think I'm beautiful now? I'm using Shiseido products, you know." I said "You're beautiful!" several times, and every time she giggled.

This spring Xiaoqing called and reported, in a cheerful, bouncy voice I'd never heard before, that she was getting married. Her groom was a man from her hometown who had studied in Japan for three years.

In China, during New Year's, people attach red papers with the character "fu" () upside down at the entrances of their homes. "Upside-down fortune" is "daofu" (|), a play on "daofu" (), the "coming fortune" people hope for during the new year. Firecrackers are prohibited in big cities like Beijing, but in rural Fujian province, where Xiaoqing lives, people like to shoot off strings of bangers at the gates of their homes to celebrate. The streets are filled with dancing red dragons, the high and low notes of a two-string lute called an erhu (), and shouts of "Xinnian hao" (VND) or "Happy New Year!" I imagined Xiaoqing in the midst of all this, being royally congratulated in a cardinal red wedding dress.

I didn't know what to say. I had known, from her calls, she had liked him. She had worried about him while he was in Japan. She'd sent him tea and, through friends, various other things. I would say "Why don't you come to Japan to see him?" But she'd sigh and tell me how difficult it was for Chinese to get a visa and practically impossible if you were from Fujian. Besides, she'd add, he'd told her he saw her only as a friend. Now they were getting married.

Xiaoqing put her fiance on the phone and I talked with him. He listened to me congratulate him and wish him happiness. Then I began to tell me how much Xiaoqing meant to him, and as I was talking, I realized just how much Xiaoqing and I had in common.

Both of us were extremely romantic, and were very fond of stories about beautiful things and people. I recalled the foreign and Chinese classic and modern love stories she kept on the shelves she'd attached to her bed in the dorm at CUN. She'd read one, sigh, and write me beautiful poems that read like love letters.

Her poems were filled with "eternity" and "love" and "tears" in Chinese. Her one-way feelings were expressed in lines like "I'll be praying for your happiness even from a distance." I was happy to get them and read them very seriously. She wrote them believing I could appreciate the rhythms and rhymes of Chinese, and I was very proud to have them. I often expressed my feelings about these poems, and whenever I critiqued them, her face would redden and she'd giggle, while nodding her head in delight. Then she'd sigh, "Mingzi, maybe we shouldn't get too tight, cuz my accent might rub off on you."

Remembering this, I choked up as I told her future husband, "She's a truly earnest and gentle person." It didn't matter that I was Japanese and she was Chinese. As a woman, she had taught me the virtues of being single-minded and earnest.

(Translated by William Wetherall)

Sugimoto Akiko has had an interest in literature since childhood. She studied philosophy at Beijing University in China, and graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, where she studied comparative religion, psychology, and Asian studies. She hopes to continue writing, with a sense of humor and romance, about the lights and shadows of human experience. The writer Inoue Yasushi ( 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.