Whenever something didn't happen the way I wanted or I thought my luck was poor, Mother's mother—Waipo—would rub the wrinkles on her hand, as if smoothing a shirt fresh from the laundry line, and say, "Remember the farmer and his horse?" Waipo often told me this story, a story that went back thousands of years to the Qin Dynasty.
A poor farmer lived on the outskirts of the village. Whereas his neighbors had large plots of land and several horses to plow their fields, he had only a small plot of land. He had but one horse.
Still, Poor Farmer was a happy man. He had healthy parents. His wife had bore him a strong son. And at least he had a horse with which to plow the fields.
One morning, when he went out to the pasture, he couldn't find his horse. He looked in the barn; he looked up and down the road; he even walked into his rich neighbor's field. But his horse was gone.
"What poor luck," Rich Neighbor clucked, glancing proudly over to where his own son hitched up one of their many horses.
"You never know," Poor Farmer said, raising his eyebrows and shrugging his shoulders.
A week later, while Poor Farmer and his son were out pulling their plow, they heard a familiar grunting. Their horse had returned. Not only that, the horse had brought home a lovely wild mare.
"What good luck," Rich Neighbor called out.
"You never know," Poor Farmer replied, although he couldn't help but smile.
The next day, Poor Farmer's son took the wild mare out for a ride. He lost control of the untamed animal. He fell off and broke his arm.
"What poor luck," Rich Neighbor said, putting his arm around his own un-broken son.
"You never know," Poor Farmer said, his brow furrowed.
Just then, Emperor Qin's men rode into town. A war had begun. The Emperor needed all able-bodied men to fight. To die in service to the country. The Emperor's men went from house to house picking recruits. Rich Neighbor's son had to join the army despite his father's lavish donations. Poor Farmer's son with his broken arm got to stay home and live.
As Waipo always said, "Good fortune turns to disaster, disaster to good fortune. The cycle has no end, nor can the mystery of it be explained."
I wasn't sure how sweating in the middle of the park alongside beggars and migrant workers could be compared to losing a horse, but maybe. At least I was home with my parents. Able to watch over them. And just maybe I'd find a client, a job, some money today.
I wiped a drop of perspiration trickling down the side of my cheek and shifted my "tutor" sign to my other hand. Exhaust fumes made my eyes itch. The gray sky hovered like an extra blanket. The park would soon be filled with lunchtime traffic.
Counselor Zhang had promised I'd never have an official job as a teacher. Why had I pushed him so? Yunnan would have been a fine spot to work and live. And, so far, there hadn't been any opportunities for me at home.
At least one out of every three of us in the village had no job. That's what I had noticed these last couple weeks since I'd been home. Not the grain growing in the rice fields or the goats grazing by the side of the road. Not lychee or mangos ripening on the branches. Not the things I'd missed while studying in a big city, like the smell of the air after a rain. No, I had noticed the number of women—and even men— sitting around, talking, knitting, sleeping on carts in the afternoon sun. All of us unemployed.
As always, the park was crowded. I stood wedged between two other tutors, both of whom had asked for my help in writing their signs. Behind me a palm reader studied the hand of an old woman. He had taken up the spot that was normally the paper cutter's. Was Madame Paper Cutter sick? Had she been arrested? Had she found a better place to sell her cuttings?
"You're a tutor?" a woman asked.
I turned to see a short woman carrying a purse and plastic shopping bag. She wore a black cotton skirt that draped past her knees. A small child held onto the hem of that skirt as if the cloth were his special blanket.
"Yes," I said, smiling at the boy. "I specialize in working with young children."
"I thought you were going to be a real teacher," the woman said, brushing the stray bangs off her forehead. "Isn't that why you went off to college for all those years?"
"I'm sorry?" I looked at her closely. Did I know this middle-aged woman with simple clothes, dark bags under her eyes, a young son?
"Fifth cousin," she said, putting out her hands to grasp mine. "Remember?"
"Oh, yes. Yes. Of course." I grabbed both her hands in mine. My, how she'd aged. Lines etched deeply at the corners of her eyes. "And you're interested in a tutor for your beautiful young son?"
"No, no." She chuckled. "He doesn't need a tutor yet. He's only three."
"It's never too early to start," I said. "I studied early childhood education."
"No, no." She waved her hand back and forth, shooing away the idea. "I don't need any of that. I didn't sing to my baby while he was in my womb, either. Although I saw a program on TV that the best mothers do that."
"Yes." I nodded. "Studies show that the earlier the contact, the more alert the child."
"What is this?" She pointed to my sign, to my existence in the park along with migrants and other tutors, most of whom had no real education. Her tired eyes shone as if she'd discovered that the white object everyone called a pearl was just another rock. "After all the effort that you went to. All that expense and time."
"Well, these things happen," I said.
Fifth Cousin wasn't a bad sort. Everyone in the village agreed that the university experience had set me off course, had ruined my future. Fifth cousin wasn't as crass as some. Still, I was glad Madame Paper Cutter wasn't here to listen to this onslaught.
"Unbelievable," she said, shaking her short locks back and forth, her lips in a thin line. "What will you do now?"
"I'm doing it," I said, forcing cheer in my voice. Why hadn't Father and I been satisfied with Yunnan? Why hadn't Counselor Zhang managed to find just one more place for me?
From next to us, the grating of wooden wheels on the cement pavement filled my ears. I looked to the sound. A migrant worker selling water chestnuts approached with his pushcart. He would want to get by. I clutched my sign to my chest and stepped back, away from Fifth Cousin and her little boy. This was as good a chance as any to put an end to this unpleasant conversation.
"Nice to see you again," I called to her, backing up so the migrant could push his way between us.
Fifth Cousin looked at me with dark eyes. She wanted to continue chewing on my failure. How could I be so rude? Then she took the hand of her son and turned. Soon she was a distant head bobbing in the daily crowd, disappearing into her world of errands and responsibilities. Leaving me in the hot sun and crowded park to hold up my sign again for all to see.
If I got just one little job long enough to re-stock the essentials in the house and to buy Father a bottle of rice wine, maybe people would stop discussing my sad situation. At the very least, Father would stop asking about the "final conversation."
"What time of the day did you visit Counselor Zhang to ask for a better assignment," Father would ask. Or, "Did you bring a gift to compensate for all the trouble he had gone to?" Every day he had a different theory as to what I'd done wrong. Even when I mentioned that Mei Ling, who studied to be an herbal doctor and didn't get a good job assignment either—even when I said that—Father wondered what the both of us had done wrong.
That was one of the differences between Mei Ling's father and mine. Mei Ling's father didn't sit around long enough to analyze where she'd made the mistake. Instead he had borrowed money from all their relatives, so he could send her off with a Snakehead on a boat to Japan. She should be arriving in the Land of Rising Opportunities any day now. My eyes prickled like a thousand needles stabbed them. Some people left for five or ten years. Some people never returned.
Father once suggested that I best get on a boat somewhere. But this was just talk. The same as when he threatened to take the butcher knife and chop off our neighbor, the zealot's manhood. Or when he said he'd give Zi Mei an earful of his anger if she didn't loan him money at a good rate until he won his next game. Father just imagined all of these things over and over again.
"You're a tutor?" A middle-aged man stopped and lit a cigarette. His crisp white shirt was decorated with lunch. A grease spot on the chest, hot sauce on the belly. He certainly ate well.
"Yes," I said, standing up straight. "I teach young children."
His black leather shoes shines like new. He wore a Gucci belt. Real or imitation?
"How young?" the man asked, pointing his cigarette at me, the end of it stopping too close to my cotton shirt.
Did I know him? He didn't have a child in tow. Would this be another commiseration session or did he really want a tutor? I ignored the burning stick in his hand.
"I studied early childhood education–youngsters. Seven, Eight."
The man looked around the park, as though searching for another prospect. He smelled of cigarettes and aftershave. Such luxuries. He would have money to pay for a tutor, any one of us. All of us. He must have an older child.
"Nine, ten, eleven," I added with a smile. "In fact, there's never been a child of any age I couldn't teach. I have my certificate here." I reached in my shoulder bag and pulled out the round tube.
"Save it," the man said waving away the tube. "Anyone can buy a graduation certificate."
He spoke the truth. In fact, several of the tutors nearby surely had paid for such a document to go along with the signs I made for them.
"I just graduated a couple weeks ago," I said. "From Hua Xia University."
"Alright. Alright." The man took a puff on his cigarette and whistled across the street toward the greasy hamburger restaurant with the lucky golden M. A boy emerged from the crowd of shoppers and made his way towards us. Slowly. He listened to something through headphones as he bit into a hamburger.
"How much do you charge?" the man asked.
"Twenty yuan per day," I said.
"Oh, please." The man threw his cigarette on the ground and blew a plume of smoke in my face. "I'll give you ten."
"Maybe you could get one of those other graduates for ten," I said, nodding to the others in the park. "But I'm a good teacher. I won't tutor your son for less than nineteen yuan."
"fifteen," he suggested.
"Eighteen," I said.
"Hey, Baba," the boy called in between bites of food. "Over here."
The boy had stopped in front of one of the other tutors. The so-called tutor had long hair in a ponytail, a silver hoop earring in his ear. The boy handed his headphones to the man. Mr. Ponytail-and-Earring smiled and nodded his head back and forth to a rhythm.
"Is that a real tutor?" the father asked me.
I was sure that tutor hadn't gone to any university. But, then, Mother always said it's not wise to badmouth a stranger. You never knew what connections people had. How angry they would get.
"I don't recognize him from my university," I said. "But then...."
"Eighteen, then," the father said, tossing his cigar
ette on the ground next to my feet. "Eighteen yuan a day."
"It's a deal," I said.
He shook my hand and gave me his business card with his phone number. He had his own phone. What an expense. Perhaps, I could talk him into giving me a bonus.
"Now, about time–"
"Wait right here," the father said and left to retrieve his son. "I'll be right back."
I put the name card in my purse. I rocked back and forth on my feet. I had a job. Finally.
Something metal brushed against my bare ankle. I turned. Scissors.
"You're here," I said and nodded to Madame Paper Cutter.
Madame Paper Cutter was a migrant from Sichuan Province. An older woman with a few grey hairs poking out, she wore thick eyeglasses. Her rough and wrinkled fingers guided scissors across the paper like a magician creating peaches and pomegranates, dancing girls and healthy boys. Each day, she showed me how to make a new paper cutting, Each day I gave her a new list of characters to practice. She had never been to school. But she was eager to learn.
"Looks like I won't be able to do much this afternoon," I said.
She wanted me to help her write a letter to her daughter. She would teach me how to cut a crane. Still, I was excited to start working today, if this man's son had time.
"Every year that man comes with his son," she said, not looking up, but cutting a circle out of a piece of red paper.
Madame Paper Cutter was good at seeing people. The park had been her life for so long—three years, she told me—that she saw people and things most of us missed. Like when the woman who lived in a box next to the greasy hamburger shop had found a new box. Or when a policeman was coming through. Or, now, when she remembered a certain customer.
"That little Emperor is lazy," Madame Paper Cutter said, pushing her large glasses up on her nose. "He's not interested in doing anything but listening to that thing on his head."
I looked over to where the son stood arguing with his father. The son obviously wanted to pick his own tutor. Is that why the man changed tutors each year?
"Laziness is an untapped mind, my teacher always said." I could get the boy interested in studying, especially for eighteen yuan a day. I'd try telling him some of Waipo's stories. I'd pick up a book on discipline.
"I've warned many a tutor," she said.
Warned? Perhaps she'd just chosen the wrong word. She wasn't used to speaking our dialect.
I watched the way her scissors cut triangles and circles. A snip here. A snip there. The air around her smelled of chili and garlic. I was sorry we wouldn't be helping each other today. But, at the same time, I wished the father and boy would hurry back to discuss our tutoring schedule.
"Last year's tutor is over there." Madame Paper Cutter nodded in the direction of a woman standing at the edge of the park.
The woman held a well-written sign with one hand. In the other, she clutched a paperback book up close to her left eye. Her right eye was half-covered with skin. As if she'd been burned. What had happened? Why hadn't she worked out as a tutor for this boy?
"If the son does poorly." Madame Paper Cutter tapped her scissors on her right cheek just below her eye. "That father is unforgiving."
I looked at the tutor's face again. Had the man really burned her? He had come close to me with his cigarette. But, would he put one in my face? No. Certainly not. The woman must have asked for such a punishment.
"Help me write a letter to my daughter," Madame Paper Cutter said, watching me. "She's going to enter summer school next week, as preparation for first grade. I haven't seen her in three years."
"Perhaps tomorrow. I could meet you here early in the morning, depending," I said, putting my sign away in my purse. "Depending on the schedule."
The man had taken his son's headphones away and was shouting. I caught words, in between the honking of taxis and the pounding of machinery. But nothing significant. I would go over there.
"Wait." Madame Paper Cutter grabbed onto my ankle. "She loves to be read to. She loves to study. If you could just spare a minute."
"Tomorrow, I will." I knelt down and held her hand. "I promise."
Then off I went to put an end to all the haggling. How ridiculous to even consider hiring uneducated Mr. Ponytail-and-Earring. Certainly he offered a lower price. But I'd remind that father that this wasn't the place to be saving money.
"Oh, there you are," I said to the father. "I was just on my way to another appointment. By the way, we didn't decide on a schedule."
Mr. Ponytail-and-Earring gave me a sour look. The father looked down at his son. The boy stared off into the park, his dark eyes small and unblinking.
"This tutor says he will allow my son to listen to music while he studies," the father said. "Will you do that?"
So this wasn't about price? How did one study while listening to music? How could the father even consider such a silly idea?.
"I think it depends on the study," I said. "Certainly music can sometimes–"
"I like to listen all the time," the boy said, his chest heaving against his tight striped shirt. Like his father, he ate healthy meals. Too many of them.
"Of course, you love your music," I said. An untapped mind of an adolescent who may have been almost as tall as his father, but not quite. He obviously struggled to find his place, that's all this was. "We can find time to listen to your–"
"See?" The boy cut my words off. He pointed at me with a small, accusing finger. "She won't let me listen. I know she won't."
"She wants you to focus," the father explained, his eyes pleading with the boy. "That's all. This is about you getting into a good school. Why can't you see that?"
"Is it?" the son asked, jutting his smooth young chin out. He nodded to Mr. Ponytail-and-Earring. Then he turned on his shiny heels and walked away. My father would have smacked me upside the head within seconds.
"Son, wait," the father called not even glancing in my direction. "Don't you walk away from me like that. Son? Son?"
The overindulgent man ran after his spoiled child. That was one of the problems with having only one son. Parents gave in too easily. But perhaps Mr. Overindulgent would return.
I returned to my spot and pulled out my sign to wait. Madame Paper Cutter held up her finished art piece. The lucky red crane.
"That's lovely," I said. My voice was full of disappointment. I tried again. "Really lovely."
"During ancient times, all girls knew how to do this," she said, her voice soft, her cadence slow. "In fact, a girl who couldn't make decent paper cuttings was not considered a worthy bride."
Despite her voice my heart beat hard from frustration. A dull ache surrounded my skull. Would Mr. Overindulgent and his son return? .
"Let me show you how." She took out a fresh piece of red paper. She reached out and touched my arm.
Ah, dear Madame Paper Cutter. Who grew excited by the shapes a simple piece of paper could take. Who wouldn't let me wallow in my anger.
"Fine," I said and looked away from the street. I could no longer see Mr. Overindulgent chasing after his son. I threw my shoulder bag down on the ground and flopped next to her. "What's the first step?"
"Patience," she said, looking up at me through her large lenses, like a giant goldfish.
Patience. I wanted that. But I wanted a job more. Any job. I wanted my disaster to turn to good fortune.
* * *
Click here to purchase your autographed copy.
( book clubs ) ( reviews ) ( q&a ) ( bio ) ( blog ) ( bookstore ) ( contact )