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 (8)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Guizi and Ahn

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 42(2), July/August 2006, pages 35-39

I met many Japanese and Korean students in China while at Beijing University from 1996 to 2000. Some became such good friends that we got together for lunch and on weekends.

Among my closer friends was a Japanese girl everyone called Guizi, the Chinese pronunciation of her name. It used to be a term of respect for the pampered son of a noble family. Now it means any overindulged child.

I often think of Guizi and wonder how she is doing. We haven't exchanged letters for a couple of years. Sometime after she returned to Japan, she wrote that she was at a "facility" in Nagano prefecture, which abounds with nature. She said she was pursuing a self-sustaining life cultivating organic vegetables.

Doing this was good for her illness, she said. "My father put me here," she wrote in her familiar rounded hand. I imagined her working in the middle of a field raising organic vegetables. I got the impression she was emotionally stable, which eased my mind. Yet I also wondered how long she would continue.

It was Guizi who taught me the expression "jiritsu shinkei shitchosho", an imbalance of the autonomic nerves, or autonomic dystonia (ataxia). The syndrome is associated with symptoms that range from stiff shoulders, lower back pain, headaches, vertigo, flushes, eczema, and sensitivity to cold, to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and anorexia. At times she had them all.

Yet I envied her. Perhaps this is why my memories of her are so deep. She had a father and a mother who would instantly, as though magically, place her in a "setting" in which she would be comfortable. I pictured her father as a sensitive person who had noticed something very unique about her.

"I went to see 'Cats' in London," she once told me. "When I said I wanted to see it, my dad sent me tickets. For the musical and a round-trip flight." I was dumbstruck. It is things like this that I suddenly remember in the middle of my life today.

Leading an organic life in the middle of nature seemed a very advanced way of balancing one's body and soul. Guizi had a deep appreciation for nature. She once told me that Cape Sukai (Sukai misaki) in Hokkaido was beautiful. The sounds were beautiful, she said. So the cape is one of the places I will surely visit should I ever go to Hokkaido.

In China, Guizi lived in an apartment near Beijing University. The owner was an elderly Chinese woman. She reminded me of an female official in a movie set in one of the dynasties. Her room had the feel of an older, pre-revolutionary China. She would be sitting it it, listening to a Beijing opera on the radio while doing needlework. Then seeing Guizi, she would pull at her sleeves, bend at the waist, and call "Guizi . . . ."

It was against regulations for foreign students to live outside the university dorms among Chinese. Guizi, though, got around such rules, apparently through her fathers connections. The off-campus apartment was rented in the name of a Chinese, and she treated the landlady as a maid.

The apartment was stuffed with a 30-inch TV, telephone with message machine, fax, audio equipment, refrigerator, washing machine, study desk, a clothes closet, and a three-piece set of plain-wood furniture including a bed -- all shipped from Kobe on a China steamer. Such things were not seen in ordinary Chinese homes at the time. This caused Guizi to be on the lookout for the police when she came and went.

"If someone from the Public Security Bureau sets foot in here, how am I going to explain that I'm not living here?" she said.

Guizi always gave the landlady more food money than she spent. The landlady kept what was left, and her ear to the ground. Now and then she would warn Guizi. "Next month the police will be making their rounds of this neighborhood."

I have to admit I admired Guizi's ability to live so dangerously. I had heard rumors of how much she would be fined if caught. I wouldn't have been able to sleep a night at her place. But I loved visiting. Whenever she invited me, I went with the anticipation of eating some of the landlady's exceptionally delicious dishes, like vegetable (sucai) stir fries, pot stickers, and wheat flour noodles with an egg and sweet sauce.

One of our classmates was a Korean named Ahn. She was clearly different from other female Korean students, who were apt to run around with a fixed set of Korean friends. After the matriculation ceremony in the Department of Literature for the class of 1996, all the foreign students assembled and were given a tour of Beijing University's large campus by the departmental head. I do not have any memories of Guizi then. She may not have come yet. But my first impressions of Ahn are still very vivid.

Ahn's name meant peace and tranquility, and her face was always bright and lucid, like moonlight. Her black hair was a bit long in front and tied in a ponytail. I could see her shoulder blades, she stood so erect. She wore a baggy man's white shirt and boots.

The professor walked slowly, explaining everything. "This pond is called Weiminghu ("Unnamed Lake"). This is the room where you will be studying. This is the Number 5 Tower, the entrance to the department grounds."

We all stayed together, on his heels, as he walked and talked. Except Ahn, who was going around and around us on a bicycle. She would go ahead of the pack a bit, then turn around and come back, listen to what the professor had to say, then pedal on ahead, then return again. She kept doing this until, unable to stand it any longer, the professor said, "Why don't you get off your bike and walk with us?"

Ahn looked down, seemingly bashful, and then, as if the day were too bright, squinted at the professor and said, "I'm afraid someone will steal my bike." Then beaming one of the nicest smiles I've ever seen, she laughed.

Few Korean students roomed with Japanese students or otherwise associated with them. Ahn was different in this respect. I rarely saw her talking with Korean students. This struck me as odd. From the first day of our Chinese class, by which time Guizi had arrived, Ahn and Guizi sat next to each other in the very front row, and they often exchanged notes.

On one of the floors of the dorm where I lived was a peculiar food shop run by an old Chinese lady of Korean descent. Guizi and Ahn often ate lunch there and I sometimes joined them. Guizi always ordered a meat sauce spaghetti. The meat sauce tasted like ketchup and had only chopped onions in it. She drank either cola or a sweet coconut juice.

Ahn usually ordered a kimchi fried rice. When she had no appetite she had only a sort of bean soup. The kimchi fried rice came with a raw egg on top. Ahn would always screw up her face and carefully fork it off before eating.

Guizi and Ahn were about three years older than me. Guizi was short and a bit plump. Ahn was tall, slender, and had prominent cheeks. I would gaze at them both. When eating with them, I would order the meat sauce spaghetti one time and the kimchi fried rice the next.

One day, while eating, Guizi told me a bit about her life. She was 23 and an only child. Her parents had divorced. Her father lived in Osaka, her mother in Tokyo. She had inherited her mother's autonomic imbalance, and since childhood she had been afflicted by outbreaks of a serious and untreatable atopic dermatitis here and there on her body.

There were more things in the world than not, beginning with milk and eggs, that Guizi couldn't eat. Some things she simply had to eat for their nutrition. She had learned to view her atopia -- the skin that peeled when she scratched her palms, her red swollen wrists, among other signs of her condition -- as something she would probably have to live with the rest of her life.

Guizi's father, a professor, traveled to symposia all over the world. He gave her all the money she needed for tuition and living expenses. Her mother liked going out, as Guizi did. She rarely contacted Guizi except to send her lots of Calorie Mate from Japan.

Her father had many acquaintances in China. It was he who decided she should study at Beijing University, and he who arranged for a home tutor to teach her Chinese. Guizi herself was interested in antiques and collected Galle artglass and Wedgewood ceramics among other very expensive things.

She was telling me all this, in a casual low voice, averting her eyes, speaking quickly in Japanese, when suddenly her voice sweetened and she called Ahn's name in Chinese.

"Ahn, Ahn . . . Ahn's so poor," she repeated in Chinese.

"Ahn's the youngest of ten kids in a fishing family that lives on a coast in the very south Korea. She's got lots of brothers. She finished college but wanted to study more so came here. She doesn't have any money but she's healthy. She's so healthy."

While Guizi was talking I looked at Ahn. She was looking down, apparently embarrassed, but she laughed.

"You graduated from a university in Korea?" I said in Chinese. "That's great."

Ahn stretched her neck and insisted she hadn't studied very much. I asked her why she came to Beijing. In college, she said, she had heard of an old book in China by someone with a name like hers. Again, bashfully tilting her head, she laughed. Something called "Vegetable root tales" (Caigentan), she said. When I said it sounded like a cookbook, she immediately leaned forward, assured me it was a real book, a collection of wisdom from the Ming dynasty in fact, then brought her hand to her mouth, which had opened to spill out laughter.

Ahn's lips, though she wore no lipstick, were naturally red and distinct against her yellowish skin, and framed by the beautiful contours of her face. Her lower lip had a bit more flesh, giving her mouth a pouty look. Her eyes weren't that large, but her eyebrows were well balanced, not too thin, clear cut, and brownish. Her mannish white blouse was very becoming.

I was struck by Ahn's attractiveness, and Guizi caught me gazing at her uncommon face.

"Don't you think Ahn's cute?" she said. "She's also got a great personality."

Guizi picked up the check, and as she stood up she whispered to me that she paid for Ahn's food. Not just that day, but always. Guizi, it turned, paid over half of Ahn's living expenses in Beijing, out of her own pocket.

Practically every weekend the two of them would taxi to town and go shopping. They would go to the San Li Tun area, with its many embassies, imported food shops, and fashionable cafes and bars.

Cafe Blue made massive baked cheesecakes, the most delicious in Beijing. I once went there with Guizi and Ahn, and we ordered coffee and cake, imagining we were the children of the families of embassy officials. While sipping our coffee and savoring the texture of the creamy richness of the cake with our tongues, we watched people and listened to a blonde white mother with two small children haggle in broken Chinese with a sidewalk vendor over the price of a rattan chair.

After the coffee and cake we went to the most expensive department store in Beijing. Seeing a silver necklace with an orange stone, imported from France, Guizi began to dance.

"That'd look great on Ahn," she said, then to Ahn, "Try it on."

Ann shyly accepted the pendant from the clerk, fastened it behind her neck, opened her blouse a bit at the throat, studied herself in the mirror, and smiled at Guizi.

"See? It's does look good on you," Guizi said.

Ahn returned the pendant to the clerk, and looking at Guizi she opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Guizi told the clerk she'd take it and was pulling bills from her pocket as she rushed toward the register.

Later, spotting an orange Skeleton watch in the G-Shock section, Guizi said to Ahn, "Hey, this would go well with the pendant. You don't have a watch, right? So we'll get this too." While taking out more money.

Ahn protested that she didn't really need it. I agreed that the orange looked good on Ahn but didn't say anything. In the end Guizi also bought her the watch.

After eating our fill of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, we headed back to the dorm in the highest-class taxi, which charged two yuan a kilometer. That was the only time I witnessed what Guizi and Ahn did on weekends. Guizi paid for everything. Her excuse for squandering money on Ahn was "Because she's keeping me company."

Because she played around so much, Guizi fell behind in her studies. Eventually she stopped coming to lectures. One day I asked Ahn what had happened to her. Ahn said she had called but couldn't get through. She had also gone to her apartment, but there was no response from the door.

A couple of weeks after this, the head of the literature department said he was worried about Guizi. He asked me to go see her and report back to him. That evening I went to her apartment.

The landlady appeared. She spoke with a heavy Beijing accent, and I couldn't get everything she said, but I gathered that Guizi had shut herself up in her apartment. Now and then she went out at night. She had been asleep whenever the landlady had gone in. It appeared she turned her days and nights around.

"I thought she was a serious student, so I did all her cooking and all, but now this. I really ought to tell the police."

If the landlady was angry, I was worried. "Before you do that, please let me see her."

The landlady let me in to the apartment. Guizi was sleeping on her stomach on a futon on the floor beside her bed. She looked three times heavier than when I had last seen her. The floor around her was awash with cola and other drink cans.

In her hand, on the end of a cable that ran to the television, was a game controller. By the tv were piles of games. Hundreds of games. Guizi was sleeping in a sea of game software. I was aware she liked games. She had told me there were several places in Beijing where she could get the latest software very cheap.

Her message machine was full. There was a fax from someone in Japan, apparently a friend. The sender had drawn a number of comic characters. The last was an animal with a balloon that addressed Guizi by name and said, "How arrre you ?!"

I was at a loss what to do. I knew she would not want anyone to see her like this. Yet she clearly needed help. And I thought it would better be me than Ahn.

I told the landlady we best contact her father. I began cleaning up the apartment and she helped me. "Guizi, what happened to you?" she muttered again and again, then began to cry.

I could see the red swollen wrist of Guizi's hand, the one that gripped the controller. By her bed was a box of uneaten Calorie Mate. All the taut strings inside her had snapped. Something like this had probably happened before. I had the sunken feeling there was nothing more I could do for her than call her father.

He came to Beijing immediately. He arranged for a leave of absence from school. When Guizi seemed a little better, she asked if she could practice her violin at my dorm. When she came, I opened the small white-framed window of my room, but she closed it, saying the sound would be better that way.

I sat on my bed and watched her tune the strings as she stood by the window. Her hair looked orange and soft in the sunlight. It was clear she had started going to a beauty saloon again. I recalled how fussy she had been, when she first came, about finding a shampoo and rinse that left her hair soft.

Against the window, Guizi appeared to lost much of the weight she'd gained. After bowing each string until the sound was right, she started playing. The walls and window reverberated every note. My body began resonating. The entire room had become the source of a musical wave that broke through the ferroconcrete and glass and flowed out into the garden. I didn't know the piece, but I knew it was beautiful.

We were joined by the Malaysian and Indonesian students in the room next door. Before she had finished, half a dozen students had come to hear her play. Their applause must have been heard all over Beijing.

Guizi put her violin back in its case.

"My mom's obsessed," she muttered. "She said I was a gifted child, they'd spent all this money to cultivate my ear for music, and there was no way I was going to quit. It was all my fault she couldn't get on the plane without sleeping pills."

Guizi said she would be away from school for half a year. In the meantime would I please look after Ahn? It had been a while since I'd heard the sweet, bubbly voice in which she spoke Ahn's name.

"Meow," she said, waving goodbye like a cat as she left. The red swelling about her wrist had largely abated.

No sooner than Guizi had returned to Japan that she got bored. She wrote Ahn a letter in which she invited her to Japan that spring. Guizi spent a month showing Ahn Okinawa, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hokkaido. Hearing Ahn didn't have money to go to Korea, she gave her enough to go back to her hometown by the sea on the southernmost tip of the peninsula. When she learned that Ahn had never been to Seoul, she bought two tickets, spent a week there with her, and even treated her friends in Seoul.

One day Guizi called me in Beijing from Osaka.

"Ahn's Korean is heavily accented," she giggled. "People in Seoul can barely understand her."

The new term began. Ahn showed up in a very grown-up coat with a turned-up collar that fluttered in the breeze. She had bobbed her hair and dyed it red.

"How come you don't wear make-up, ear rings, dumpy jeans, and a backpack like other Korean girls?" I asked.

She said she hated running around doing the same thing everyone else did. This is what I liked most about Ahn. I could easily understand Guizi's feelings about her. But I couldn't look after her economically the way Guizi had. I couldn't take her out on weekends and treat her to meals.

It was just Ahn and I in the cafeteria eating kimchi fried rice.

"How do you say kitten in Korean?" I asked.

"Koyangi," she replied.

"What?" I said, already smiling.


From her mouth it sounded so cute I couldn't contain my laughter.

"What's wrong?" she said.

"Koyagi's a baby goat in Japanese."

She laughed too.

"Hey, would you teach me Korean? I'd pay you something."

Ahn, looking bashful as always, pursed her lips.

"My Korean's not very good," she said at length, avoiding my eyes and smiling. "Besides, there's a bit of a recession in Korea, and I may have to return for a while."

"Guizi will surely be back next year," I said.

"I'll probably have to take a leave of absence myself until then," she said, narrowing her eyes.

Many years have passed and I'm back in Japan. All I have from those days is the G-Shock watch Guizi insisted on buying me, when she bought one for herself, on the one and only "weekend date" just the two of us had without Ahn. She chose one of the larger men's models. I got a woman's model with an angel design. I keep it by the sink in the bathroom. This morning I noticed the battery had run down. I'll have to replace it again. I was very happy when she bought it for me. I felt as though I was Ahn. Ordinarily I would have refused, but that day I found myself very meekly accepting Guizi's generosity.

When I was in Beijing, half of me was Guizi, the other half Ahn. One moment I would be the supporter, the next the supported. Yet I feel I understand Guizi better than Ahn.

At times the switch between my two moods would break and I'd panic. I'd become jelly and want someone's help. I'd wander around as though nothing was wrong and plop down on a chair somewhere and sit there with a plastic-like grace.

I was attending an American university in Tokyo when Guizi's last letter came. I was terribly busy writing a report, too caught up in my own life to reply. As for Ahn, she's somewhere in Korea, possibly thinking of Guizi and maybe of me.

(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.