My Half of the Sky


The Next Set of Tiles

Some fathers always smile and want to hear about your life.  Not mine.  He had his reasons–which went deeper than me ripping away his manhood or severing his connection to the earth.  That day, though, as I stood in line for the telephone, I imagined a smile on his face.  I envisioned him calling out to Mother.  I thought about him buying a bottle of maotai as a celebration, as if he'd just won an important Mahjong game.

Three people waited ahead of me to use the public phone at the post office.  A woman with short orange hair and a vermilion jacket tap-tapped her high heels on the cement floor.  A businessman in a tailored suit lifted his jacket and checked his pager.  The man on the phone, a young man with long hair that fell below his ears, was missing his forearm.  He used his stump like a hand, scratching at his dirty yellow T-shirt.  Had the man been in an accident?  Been born that way?  Was he a burden on his family? 

My birth was a handicap for our family.  Sure, our late leader Mao Tse Tung had said:  "Women hold up half the sky."  But that just wasn't so.  A girl leaves the house to marry into another family.  She doesn't pass her family name to her children.  She doesn't care for her parents forever–giving them money when they can no longer work, leading their casket to the other side of the River of Sleep, visiting their gravesites twice a year with spirit money, good foods and love.  A man does all these things.  Even an armless man who talked too long on the phone.  I looked away. 

Summer's lingering light, which filtered in the long, dusty windows, made it seem as if we had more time than we did.  No matter the quality of light, the post office closed in ten minutes.  And I had to call Father. 

In the corner, a clerk wearing black plastic sleeves over her jacket counted out wrinkled yuan notes and put rubber bands around each pile, readying her cash drawer for closing.  At the next counter, another clerk hurried an old woman with a curved back through the process of filling out the eight forms necessary to send a package.  A guard with a green army jacket and cloth cap stood at the door, letting customers out, and arguing with any who wanted to enter.

Our society, our customs, have a history of almost five thousand years.  Longer than Mao's declaration of equality.  If a male isn't born into the house, life is no longer eternal.  Once, after too many cups of rice wine, Father lifted his bleary red eyes to me and said, "My contact with the earth will soon die." At least, today, Father would be proud.  Graduation from Hua Xia University neared.  Counselor Zhang had just assigned my teaching position.  I had a proper job.  I only wanted for Father's favor.

Hammering noises from across the street filled the small postal building.  A tall weathered sign said that the building in progress was an American-style coffee shop.  Perhaps to cater to foreigners who came to study at the University.  I had never tasted the foreign drink.  In fact, I didn't know many coffee drinkers.  The sign also read that construction should have finished in December of 1993–six months ago.  Everyone was running late.

The man with the missing arm dropped the phone in disgust.  The businessman stepped up and grabbed the receiver.  When the orange aunty moved forward, the scent of her expensive perfume stayed behind.  I glanced at my watch.  Four minutes till closing.

Was her orange hair a new fashion?  How much money did it cost to color hair?  I had already received several red packets containing auspicious denominations of money from relatives, congratulating me on my graduation and wishing me good luck in the future.  I smoothed my hand over my long dark locks, imagining how rich I'd feel with that color in my hair, as if 100 yuan notes dripped across my shoulders. 

Orange hair?  What was I thinking? I needed to speak to Father.  Perhaps I should run down the block to the phone kiosk.  They charged more than the post office, more than I could afford.  But this was important. 

Father had never been totally in favor of me pursuing my studies.  I had pleaded with him every moment he was sober and not contemplating his next game.  "A waste of precious money," he'd say.  Or, "All that time taken from your youth–and for what?  You can find a job here."  What would he say now that I was an elementary-school teacher? 

An elementary-school teacher with a job.  Father would be pleased to hear I hadn't wasted my four years in Xiamen.  I would use some of my congratulations money to make this happy phone call.  Hearing the approval in his voice  would be worth every fen.  I turned to go find a phone kiosk.

A construction worker stood at the door arguing with the guard.  The worker was dust-covered, a bamboo helmet hanging from his arm.  He held a packet of food and gestured toward the phone with his plastic spoon.  Grains of rice flew through the air.  No wonder the American-style coffee shop took so long.  All the workers took off early to get snacks and talk on the phone.

The guard let the lazy worker in.  I jumped back to my place in line.  Perhaps my watch was fast. 

The worker rushed up and pushed me from behind, nudging me with his bamboo helmet, as if shoving me could make the businessman get off the phone sooner.  The businessman talked on.  Pacing back and forth, as if he were in his own private office. 

A successful businessman like him.  That's what every family wanted.  I was lucky though.  Many mothers gave up their girls for adoption.  I may have put an end to Father's everlasting life, may have been the reason people called him "eunuch," but Mother had held tight to me.

The successful man finished his call and hung up.  Orange Aunty click-clicked forward and picked up the receiver.  The worker behind nudged me again until my nose touched the top of Auntie's head.  Stiff colored strands of hair tickled.  Expensive perfume became my air.  I inhaled deeply.  Better to have successful Orange Aunty go before me than Impatient Construction Worker.  Mother would think it a good omen.

"The post office is closing," Construction Worker said and pushed again. He put on the bamboo helmet, such a flimsy helmet meant to protect his skull and brain.  He tapped his dust-covered fingers on the chest of his ripped T-shirt.  "I need to use the phone."

Orange Aunty turned to him as if to say, "What a coincidence."  She even had double folds on her eyelids.  Double folds, like westerners had, were a sign of beauty.  Single folds, like mine, a sign of intelligence.  As a child, I had wanted double folds, even though waipo, Mother's mother, said I was beautiful despite my single folds. Mei Ling, my best friend in university, and I often talked about getting an operation to have our folds fixed.  The procedure cost big money.  Orange hair, red finger nails, even double folds on her eyes.  Yes, this woman could hold up half the sky.  Certainly she was a good omen.

"Today's my son's birthday," Construction Worker said through a mouthful of rice.  "I need to call home."

How could he reveal his personal desires?  Like a child.  A spoiled child. To me, a stranger.

"He's five today," the man whispered, his brown eyes probably envisioning the boy eating a hard-boiled egg as a celebration, the yellow insides dribbling down the boy's chin.  "I haven't spoken to him since the Lunar New Year."

Why did I have to hear this?  So he was a migrant worker, far from his province.  Did I have to allow him to make his call first?  I had news, too.  I had a chance to make Father smile, to be proud.  Today, I could hold up half the sky, just like Orange Aunty.

When Orange Aunty click-clicked away from the desk, Construction Worker pushed in front of me and reached out for the phone.  But I grabbed the receiver first.  The man swore in a dialect I didn't understand.  Too bad for him.

The warm black receiver smelled of perfume.  Well, I wouldn't linger.  The homesick father might get to make his call too.  I let out a deep breath, waiting for the operator to connect me to Zi Mei. 

Zi Mei owned the small store on the corner next to our house.  She and her dull-witted son sold rice and cigarettes, soy powder and candies.  She also owned one of three phones in the village.  She let us use her phone.  For a small fee, of course.

The phone rang and rang, the sound hollow and far away.  Was Zi Mei selling a pack of Long March cigarettes or a bag of White Rabbit candies?  Chatting? 

"Post office is closing," the guard called, taking off his cap and rapping the material against the palm of his hand for emphasis.

Construction Worker swore again.  He tossed his empty rice packet on the ground at my feet and stomped out the door.  He probably didn't have extra money to use the phone kiosk.  Well, neither did I really.  

Finally Zi Mei picked up. She sounded out of breath.   Her son Don Don did his best to help with the shop.  But he had his bad days when he would get lost in the way the afternoon light filtered through the branches of the peach trees or the way a spider dangled from the roof of the shop.  Perhaps he wasn't even there today. I hoped such was the case.

"It's me," I said.  "Li Hui."

"You got a teaching assignment," she said.

Perhaps the confidence in my voice gave it away.  Then again, Zi Mei had a way of finding things out.  She was always the first in the village to know anything.  I imagined her short hair pasted to the sides of her head.  Her eyes sparkling.

"I need to talk to Father," I said.  

"Don Don," she called out.  "Go get Li Hui's father."

I cringed, sitting on the edge of the chair next to the phone. My legs bounced up and down.  I hoped Don Don would remember his task today.

"Yes, I know Li Hui is still at college," Zi Mei shouted out so loud, I had to pull the receiver away from my head.  "Yes, she's a nice girl.  No, you don't need to zip your jacket first."

Oh, Gods.  At this rate, the post office would close before Don Don returned with Father.  Outside the post office I spotted the Impatient Construction Worker shuffling along the sidewalk towards his work site. He had his hands stuffed deep in his pockets, his head down.  Perhaps I should have let him call his son. Then again, maybe his local phone system was no more efficient than ours. 

"So, tell me about the job," Zi Mei said.

I sighed. I felt as though I'd held my breath four years to say the words. I explained the details to Zi Mei,  feeling important at having an educated job.  I could tell she was making mental calculations.  Was the job worth the place they were sending me?  Her lack of commentary said she wasn't as excited as I.  But perhaps she didn't know.  Anyway, all I cared was that Father was pleased.  Not our local gossip.  Even if she was a successful businesswoman. 

"Li Hui's got a job," Zi Mei called out.

Ah, wonderful.  Don Don hadn't gotten lost in his own world.  Father must be close. 

I imagined Father walking unsteadily, tossing his cigarette into the street, and grabbing the phone.  By this hour, he'd surely started on his rice wine.  Now I'd give him reason to drink another cup. 

"What's the news?"  He breathed heavily into the phone.

Drilling started up across the street, so loud my insides vibrated.  Had disappointed Construction Worker taken up a drill to show his anger?  How would Father ever hear me? 

"I'll earn three hundred yuan per month teaching first grade," I shouted, adding Counselor Zhang's words.  "Just what the college trained me to do."

I held the receiver tight to my right ear and plugged the other ear with my fingers to block out the sound of the drill.  I wanted to hear Father's words of happiness.

"Where?"  Father shouted back, his tone full of hope.  "Beijing?"

"Not Beijing," I said, those two small words using up all the breath in my lungs. 

Beijing and Shanghai had the most prestigious reputations.  These cities had good economies, good food, good schools, good everything.  To live in such a place would bring honor on our family for generations to come. 

"Well, where?" he shouted, as if we'd been tricked.  As if just because I was one of two people in our village to go to university, just because I was in the top ten percent of my class, I could choose the best job.

"Counselor Zhang said I'll be showing Mother China how grateful I am," I said, the receiver growing heavy in my hands.  My words sounded as meaningful as flowers on a manure paddy.

The drilling across the road ceased.  Yet my insides still vibrated.  How could I have thought Father would be pleased? 

"Where?"  Father cleared his throat and spat.

"Xin Jiang," Zi Mei sang out in the background before I had a chance.

"What?"  Father's disbelief exploded like a firecracker in my ear.

No smile radiated across the telephone line.  No happiness embraced my accomplishment.  My omens dissolved in an orange haze of dyed hair and the memory of a construction worker's nudges.

"But Counselor Zhang said it's my duty as a good citizen to go where I'm needed," I explained, attempting to reason with him.

"No," he whispered into the phone. 

"But, Father . . ."  If I didn't accept this job, I'd have nothing.  Four years and nothing to show for it.  Just as he predicted.  "Father, if I don't–"

"No," he repeated.  "This is obvious discrimination.  It's just because you're from a small village that you're getting such a bad assignment."

"Oh, Father."

The remnants of Orange Auntie's perfume clogged my throat.  Weights hammered against the back of my eyes.  I clenched the receiver with both hands. 

Father knew the whole economy had slid like rocks from the mountain, especially after those foolish students in Tiananmen Square irritated the government—and the world—with their silly Statue of Freedom.  Why didn't he see that now wasn't the time to be acting like a shopper choosing fruit at the marketplace?

"Seriously, Li Hui," he said.  "You'd be better off begging on the streets."

"Post office closing," the guard called again. He pointed his cap at me, indicating that I should end my call.

"Talk to Administrator Zhang," Father said, hanging up before I had a chance to explain further.

I listened to the hum of our severed connection.  Certainly Father was right.  After struggling for four years, the last thing we wanted was to live in Xin Jiang.  Once in that poor province, we'd be stuck there forever.  We couldn't just travel around the country and look for a job anywhere we pleased.  To live in a different province–that was as difficult as getting a visa to the outside world. 

I replaced the grimy receiver.  Orange Auntie's perfume now smelled like a gas leak.  I needed air.

* * *

A cuckoo clock from Counselor Zhang's government-sanctioned trip to Holland chimed eight times.  My long legs hit up against his cold metal desk, a desk that took up over half his giant office.  He'd managed to bury every inch of the grand surface with papers and books.  He looked through one of those books now. 

His short hair dark hair was parted straight down the side, not a hair out of place.  His bushy eyebrows made a long furrowed line across his forehead. My best friend Mei Ling had warned me against coming. 

"You're going against the system," she'd said slapping her palm on the bamboo bed mat  for emphasis.  "You'll either be kicked out of Counselor Zhang's office or punished.  Or both." 

I held on tight to the bag containing a bottle of Dutch liquor.  I'd used up half my congratulations money to buy the small bottle.  This was the right thing. I felt it.

I often felt things.  Nerves in my stomach when a shopkeeper planned to cheat me.  A squeezing of my heart, as if it were boiled cabbage, each time Mother didn't get to adopt the new baby boy in the village.  Especially after all the effort she went to with her knitting, her gifts, her kind words.  Sometimes I felt like a light bulb dangling from the ceiling, the electricity moving through my veins.  This when Father argued with his friends over a card game or cricket fight.  At this moment, I felt a burning inside.  As if I were buried in Hainan Island's white sand beach, the calendar picture that hung on Counselor Zhang's wall.

Counselor Zhang struck a match on the side of his chair and lit his cigarette.  He turned another page in his journal.  His eyes seemed focused far away.  He must be mulling over my refusal of the posting in Xin Jiang.  Finally, he looked up. 

"I thought you understood," he said, blowing a plume of smoke across the desk.  "You're needed in Xin Jiang."

"My parents."  I cleared my throat.  "My parents, they feel uncomfortable with me taking a job so far away."

"They are welcome to move with you," Counselor Zhang said, tapping the end of his cigarette against a white ceramic ashtray in the shape of a windmill.  "The permit allows for that."

"But the distance–it's so far."

"I see."  Counselor Zhang sat back in his chair, the leather squeaking.  "You want to have a say."

"No.  No say."  I wasn't like those rebellious students in Tiananmen.  "It's just . . . you understand, I'm the only child."

Counselor Zhang stared out the window overlooking the cafeteria where students milled about talking and laughing and finishing a last mouthful of breakfast.  Here was the man responsible for securing my "rice bowl."  Mei Ling and I always laughed that his office was right across from the rice.  Now I couldn't even muster a smile.  Father's directive had drained me of even trying to hold up a part of the sky.  After all, who wasn't an only child these days?

"I don't see how we can help you."  He took several puffs from his cigarette.  The end glowed like the eye of a devil.  "If you're going to be so choosy about where you take an assignment."

If only our family had enough face in the community that I could borrow lots of money.  Then I wouldn't be dependent on administrative decisions.  I could sneak overseas and have success, just like Mei Ling planned.

"Forgive me for causing trouble," I said, handing him the liquor I'd spent hours locating. The paper bag crinkled, a desperate sound.  "This is a small present for your efforts."

"Oh," he said, his eyes on the bag.  "You don't have to do that."

"I want to," I insisted. 

Back and forth we went three times, as was our custom.  Finally he pulled the bottle from the bag.  Mei Ling would have been surprised at his smile. 

"Ah," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.  "Junge Graan Jenever, the spirit of the nation.  This is wonderful liquor.  Thank you."
"It's nothing at all," I said.  "I appreciate your help." Counselor Zhang puffed more on his cigarette.  He stared at the bottle nodding his head up and down.  Was he recalling a small bar in Holland or thinking of Xin Jiang?

"Miss Huang, do you feel like you're embodying the spirit of the nation?"

People never questioned their assignments.  They went where they were told and were happy to do so.  But how many of them had a father like mine?

"Like our nation."  I cleared my throat again.  "I too am planning for the future.  Five, ten, twenty years from now.  I just want to make sure I can properly care for my aging parents.  As I said, I'm the only child." 

I'd spent my life waiting for this moment.  Studying as I washed cabbage in icy well water for the pigs.  Studying as I helped Mother stack potatoes for the winter.  Studying.  Studying.  Studying.  I'd spent four years waiting for Counselor Zhang to give me a job assignment.  Now I was tossing that out the window like a used tissue.

Counselor Zhang pulled his ledger from beneath a stack of papers.  He flipped through pages filled with dates and times.  Surely he was thinking of his next appointment.  Surely he had finished with me.

Counselor Zhang rubbed a thick hand over his long eyebrows.  He fixed a stray hair that had crossed the otherwise perfect part in his head. He mumbled something.  

"Excuse me," I said, my voice just above a whisper.  I stared at the scorching sun on Hainan Island, certain that I—not the sand—was on fire.

"There's an opening in Yunnan," he looked over at me with serious eyes.  "Will you take it or not?"

Electricity started at my toes and traveled up to my heart.  Yunnan had a better economy than Xin Jiang.  Was closer.  While Counselor Zhang offered less salary—two hundred yuan per month—the trade-off wasn't bad.  The stamp of residency was what we wanted.  A permit to live in Yunnan.  A new job.  This would make Father happy.  This must make Father happy.

* * *

I sat in the chair in the old post office building, drumming my fingers against the desk in concert with the hammering across the street. I waited for the operator to connect me.  A long time had passed since Father had won more than he'd lost the previous night.  In fact, fifteen years.  Fifteen years since he'd won enough money over his annual Chinese New Year marathon Mahjong tournament that we could build our own house.  People still talked about that win.  Especially, Father. 

Zi Mei didn't answer the phone.  Father did.  Had he been expecting me to call? 

"We won," I said, the words tumbling out.  "I start in two weeks. We'll be assigned a house near the school.  The pay will certainly get better as the years go by.  Besides, this is Yunnan."

I paused to catch my breath.  Father had gambled big this time.  Well, he'd convinced me to gamble big.  And he had won.  We had won.  I'd gone to Counselor Zhang and done an unheard of thing, rejecting his employment assignment.  Yet, he'd offered me another position.  A better position.  I'd done it.  I could already hear Father telling his gambling buddies of this win.  He'd be telling this success story for years to come.

"Yunnan, ah?" Father said.  He chuckled.  He was happy.  At last.

I sat back in the old chair.  Across the street I spotted Construction Worker, the man who hadn't been able to wish his son a happy birthday.  He leaned over on his ladder, hammering at two beams above him.  His boss shouted from beneath, tapping the ladder with a bamboo cane.  Construction Worker reached higher, eager to satisfy.

Migrant workers, living illegally in the city, didn't have much choice as to jobs.  They took what they could and were treated no better than cattle.  Lucky for us, I had been offered an official position.  Actually, not one but two.  A second when the first one should have been all I could expect.  This was good.  This was very good. 

"Not enough," Father said.

Certainly he was talking to Zi Mei or Don Don, saying he needed more cigarettes than was being pulled from behind the glass case.  Yes, he was celebrating the change in the winds of fortune already.  My heart felt full. 

I twirled the telephone cord with my fingers.  Outside, the worker held the beams with one hand and hammered with the other.  The reach looked painful, the strain unbearable.

"Did you hear me?" Father asked.

"Were you talking to me?" I dropped the cord.

"Who else?" Father said.  "See if Counselor Zhang doesn't discover a bigger city that needs you."

How could he say this?  Why couldn't he see how the gamble had paid off?  But then he'd often used one win as a reason to keep playing.  "You never know what's going to happen with the next set of tiles," he'd say.

"Oh, Father." 

"This is an important moment."  He exhaled loudly into the receiver.  "You can't accept second best after all the work you've put into this."

A loud thud reverberated throughout the room.  Everyone in the post office moved towards the windows, their voices tense, excited. Outside a cloud of dust turned the air milky white. What had happened?  I stood to see outside.

"Oh, my mother!" I whispered spotting a form dangling in the cloud.

Construction Worker had reached ever higher.  Too high.  His bamboo ladder tipped, then shattered right next to the boss.  Construction Worker hung from a rafter.

The boss stood up and brushed off dust from his shoulders.  He glared up at Construction Worker.  He would make Construction Worker feel the burning sting of the cane tonight.

"You just see," Father said, "if Counselor Zhang has an even better opening available.  He sounds like a reasonable man.  If you ask, you shall receive."

Outside workers and passersby gathered around the dangling man, shouting advice.  Inside I wondered how much further I could push Counselor Zhang.  So much noise filled my head, it hurt.

I shut out the noise.  I listened.  This was Father, after all.  He believed we'd hear funny northern accents and feel the brisk wind of success within a few weeks.  All without borrowing money, without leaving the country.  He believed we sat in front of the winning house of Mahjong tiles.  Perhaps he was right.  It would be worth every fen of my congratulations money, if another present—perhaps smoked fish from Counselor Zhang's beloved Holland—bought me a ticket to Beijing.

"You can do it," Father said.  "Remember, this is our future." 

Outside a crack sounded, like that of a branch breaking.  Another thud shook the earth.  Shouting filled the air.  The rafters across the street had given way under Construction Worker's weight.  He had fallen, the heavy beams landing on his head.

* * *

Counselor Zhang sat across from me.  He didn't pretend to look through his book.  He didn't flip through his daily appointment ledger.  He didn't even answer his ringing phone.

"Please understand," I began again.  "Yunnan is a fine place, I'm sure.  It's much closer.  It's just that Mother and Father are old and would appreciate the conveniences of a bigger city." 

"Like Shanghai?" he asked, looking past the gift I had brought, a kilo of smoked salmon from Holland.  "Or Beijing?"

I didn't answer.  His voice mocked me.  I felt him staring at me through his bushy eyebrows.  Was he angry?  Incredulous?

"Any help you could give," I said, my eyes on the smoked salmon.  The gift stood awkwardly on the table, still in the bag.  My knees trembled.  My palms sweat.  "I appreciate–we appreciate any help you can give."

"I've done all I can," he said, pushing his chair back. The metal casters grated. He stood up, signaling an end to our meeting.  "The university can offer you nothing more."

Counselor Zhang's voice sounded like the crack of the rafters above Construction Worker's head.  I saw again Construction Worker outside the post office buried under those heavy beams that had fallen.  Those bamboo helmets the construction workers wore didn't protect them, except from the sun.  That man wouldn't ever get to wish his son a happy birthday. 

As Father had directed, I'd approached Counselor Zhang again.  I had sought an even better position.  No, gambled for a higher spot.  Like Construction Worker reaching too high, I had also fallen off my ladder.  Father's prediction from way back had come true.  My education was now worthless.  And most certainly I couldn't prove that the new world order worked, that women held up half the sky.

* * *

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Jana McBurney-Lin
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