“Come on, Josh! You can do it! Go go go!” While the boy in light blue T-shirt and black shorts half-ran, half-stumbled his way toward the finish line, far behind his peers, the woman next to me cheered as if he were a split second away from becoming a world champion. Her friends beside her cheered along as the boy struggled to keep his balance.

I was at a sports meet jointly held by a few of Iowa City’s junior high schools in April, 2013. Kaifeng, the eleven-year-old son of a Fulbright friend of mine was in Josh’s group. He would be in three events, tug of war, the 50-meter dash, and hurdle running. Something unsettled me as the parents cheered for their children whether they were athletic or not, and hugging and congratulating them even if they did poorly.

“Good job, Josh!” Josh’s mother drew him to her arms, her three women friends patting him.

Such love would have been so precious for Shaoqiang, Qiu Qiang, Big Head Boy and Xie Jin, my primary school classmates over 40 years ago.

Shaoqiang was the one I got to know more than the others. He appeared shorter than he was as a result of a hunchback. His mouth and nose made him stand out. They came very close to each other, the nostrils so large they looked like two big holes. His lips seemed drawn to them, competing to get closer. The upper lip did not remain horizontal, its left corner permanently tried to reach the corresponding nostril, and his thick lower lip protruded and wrapped over the upper lip.

Shaoqiang accepted his role of the laughing stock of the class right from the beginning and took pride in demonstrating what he could do that we could not. He stunned us one morning, before the teacher arrived, by drinking from his nose. He drank as if it were his mouth. He would repeat whatever we wanted him to do to please us.

Shaoqiang could not articulate well yet he knew exactly how to mumble enough to be understood. He got the tones of the words right without ever pronouncing any clearly. He did this almost effortlessly in a high-pitched voice as if he were singing. When he occasionally answered a question in class, we would roar with laughter. It did not matter whether it was the right answer. Shaoqiang’s eyes beamed, and his lower lip widened its wrap around the upper one, bringing a comical look to his face.

Shaoqiang was assigned to sit next to me for a year. I welcomed the prospect of an entertaining desk-mate. I let him copy my homework. In exchange, he did everything I asked him to. I did not need much, and took delight in asking him to say various things, to see whether the way he said them would match what I had anticipated. I was often right. That made everything doubly funny. As I threw myself onto the desk, shaking with laughter, Shaoqiang would give a quiet smile.

I never thought of Shaoqiang after we went to different high schools, until so many years later in Iowa, when I saw Josh doing something Shaoqiang would not be asked to do, even if his limbs coordinated well. He was not in the category of normal students. A sports meet meant serious competition for us, not just participation and fun.

Now I try to imagine how it had felt to be Shaoqiang. Did he drink from his nose in order to impress us, to win our respect? I cannot help wondering whether he was psychologically impaired by how we treated him. On the other hand, I don’t remember him looking too troubled or frustrated when we teased him. Did he take it for granted that he was to be bullied by the “normal” people? There were a few times, I am glad to recall, that he had become annoyed and muttered “Fuck your mother,” his big nostrils contracting in rage, the middle of his lower lip protruding alarmingly and the bridge between his nose and upper lip turning thick like a scar. We would all shut up, shocked by the power of the little weakling who was ready to fight.

The proud faces of Josh and his mother somehow put me to shame, the shame that I should have felt when I teased Shaoqiang. I now admire Shaoqiang for surviving our ignorance. I can only wish that he did not question why he was looked down upon, and did not feel the unfairness of life. I wished that he could care less about us, as Qiu Qiang did.

Qiu Qiang was another disadvantaged boy in our class. We never found out how old he was, but he appeared to be a little old man, his back hunched, his voice coarse as if it has been used for over 60 years. On his forehead were a few deep lines, perfect for writing musical staves. I heard that some disease had stopped his intellectual development when he was about 5 years old, in addition to making him age fast. He remained in our class for 6 years, and enjoyed the privilege of doing nothing except handcopying the same 15 or so characters, which is a tiny portion of what we did in first grade.

Among those characters were “Long live Chairman Mao,” who was worshiped at the time. In any given class, Qiu Qiang would go about writing them onto little squares in an exercise book, each one allowing one character. The handwriting was childish, the characters deeply imprinted by the pencil. I took forbidden pleasure in finding the character of Mao, 毛,” to be consistently wrong. Qiu Qiang always put an extra horizontal stroke to it, as well as letting the vertical one push through the diagonal stroke. This would be a tremendous political mistake, and could lead to imprisonment at the time.

But Qiu Qiang’s condition kept him out of trouble, any trouble. He did not have to pay attention in class, he did not have to do homework, and he did not have to follow any rules. We all envied his privileges. He seemed fully aware of this special status, but knew enough not to abuse it. He did not even take the advantage of his freedom to go to the toilet when class was on. There were about 50 of us in each class of 6 grades of 5 classes each. During each 10-minute break, we would rush to any of the three directions: the toilet, the swing and the water supply room.

The female toilet consisted of two longish pits that could accommodate about six people at a time on each of the three floors. We would stand in the forever-long line, some wearing a look of emergency and alternating their feet to balance their weight constantly to repress the urgent need.

The line for the swing was the most dynamic, since those in line would chant in unison from 1 to 10. The kid on the stand-up swing would go all out, bending the knee to pump to gain speed and height after the initial push by another kid, before the next eager player stopped him or her short at the count of 10.

The water supply scene frequently turned to chaos. There was only one tap for a small tank of boiled water, and at least ten iron or plastic cups of all colors squeezed and pushed their way under the tap out of which hot water ran nonstop. The fierce cup-thrusting moves were accompanied by intense silence, broken by an occasional cry of pain from hot water spilling over a hand.

While we all held a C’est-la-vie attitude, we often turned to Qiu Qiang for some fun performance. Our elementary school years of 1970 through 1976 coincided with the second half of the Cultural Revolution, when the political agenda had a strong presence. Every so often, meetings were held for a worker, or a peasant to share with us the poverty-stricken days before 1949, the year which marked the beginning of the People’s of Republic of China, so that we would better appreciate our hard-earned happy life. Invariably, the speakers became emotional when they talked about the tragic death of a younger sister, or a parent laboring him or herself to sickness and quickly to death … Many of us would shed tears, at which point someone would shout out a slogan, “Down with the landlord,” “Long live Chairman Mao,” followed by thunderous chanting from us. Such sessions were called “reflection on bitterness and sweetness.” They did help us understand our parents’ generation, though not every parent came from a poor family. But the point was that a poor family background was an advantage, while a rich one meant trouble or potential trouble. One aim of the Cultural Revolution was to purge anyone who came from a wealthy past, the presumption being that the wealth must have been accumulated as a result of exploiting the poor.

Yet kids are kids. We heard so many speakers and shouted out so many slogans that certain parts became amusing. Qiu Qiang had made some keen observations of the speech scenes and was more than willing to improvise for the class.

“Dear fellow students! Aaaa, Hnggg!” Qiu Qiang stood on a desk during one morning break, as soon as the teacher walked out of the classroom, clearing his throat for the big speech, “In the vicious Old Society …” His deep and sorrowful voice, his slow utterance and painful expression matched so well with his old man’s look that the class went wild with laughter. Some of the boys hit the desks hard like they were drums, the girls bent over each other, some choked by laughter to the point of coughing, while some looked at the door for fear the teacher for the next class would catch us.

Qiu Qiang was so pleased with the effect that he repeated the “In the vicious Old Society” a few times until it was no longer funny. A shadow of disappointment came over his face, which was quickly replaced by a high-spirited look, “Down with the landlord!” he shouted vigorously, his right arm lifting high up. The class roared again, only to stop short at the sight of our teacher. She marched to the platform, her lips tightly sealed, her hands flipping the textbook pages. After all, it was a well-accepted slogan.

Qiu Qiang calmly stepped down from the desk. As the class resumed, he went back to his “Long live Chairman Mao” handwriting practice, getting his horizontal and vertical lines wrong one more time.

Meanwhile, there was only so much entertainment he could bring. Eventually, we grew so used to the few things he could achieve that we began to ignore and, later, forget all about him. It was not until many years afterward when someone mentioned Qiu Qiang that I was reminded of the little old man. The thin-lipped, small-eyed boyish man who appeared to smile all the time.

Maybe he did not smile. People with small eyes tend to appear that way.

No one knew anything about him.

Qiu Qiang was a mild-tempered angel compared to the “Big Head Boy,” whose name was never known. Standing not nearly half as tall as most of us, his normal-sized head caught attention everywhere at school. We could not talk about his head enough. “Big Head Boy, Big Head Boy, Big Head Boy” echoed on campus as his bracket-shaped legs inched his way forward, his arms swinging back and forth vigorously to speed up.

“Ouch! F… your mother!” Big Head Boy cried out one day when surrounded by a crowd. The boys loved to touch his head the way sports fans touch their star players these days. There was always someone who hit other than touched.

Big Head Boy wore a fierce look as his eyes swept in rage across our faces. “Which mother fucker hurt me?” he shouted, drops of saliva bursting forward.

The crowd became quiet. Everyone looked as innocent as his neighbor.

“Fuck eighteen generations of your ancestors!” Big Head Boy spat out the worst curse I knew, his hands chopping the air.

Everyone was a little afraid of Big Head Boy. As small and clumsy as he was, he had the spirit of a soldier who would fight to death for his dignity. A spark could set him off.

I never saw Big Head Boy get badly bullied. He would be the more aggressive one in a fight, and promptly pick a heavy stone from nowhere and throw it at his abuser. He never really got punished. The teachers seemed a bit afraid of him too. He did not show them as much respect as we did. Big Head Boy was like a porcupine, born with a defensive body. He was the most dignified disadvantaged student in the school.

The only close encounter I had with him was when he came to the school’s small clinic when I was on duty. A few of us had been given the most basic first-aid training and we took turns to work there during class breaks.

Big Head Boy walked in, one hand covering the right side of his head, his eyes a combination of hurt and fear.

“What happened?”

“Someone threw a stone at me,” he said, the usual edge in his voice gone.

It did not bleed much. It was more swollen than bloody, and I used a cotton stick to apply disinfectant.

He made a painful face. “Sssss …”

“Sorry, I know this hurts, but …”

“I know.”

He remained quiet and appreciative while I treated the wound. His hair was both straight and hard, the front bit pushing forward like the sharp end of a boat.

“Thank you,” he said as I pressed the last piece of white medical tape to the wound.

The bell for the next class rang. He smiled at me before running out of the room, his little body wavering left and right as his crooked feet carried him away. It was the first time I did not hear him curse, the first time I saw him vulnerable.

Now I think it must have been hard for him to fend for himself. Did he ever make any friends at school? Was school like a battlefield for him?

I wonder how he is now. None of us ever heard about him after elementary school.

It occurs to me that Shaoqiang and Qiu Qiang both have the character Qiang 强 in their names. It means “strong.” Was it a coincidence? Did their parents feel the need to put it in their names so that they would be strong for the unfriendly world? Was Qiang in Big Head Boy’s name too?

I was not friendly with my fifth-grade desk mate, Xie Jin, a transfer student over a year older than us. Taller than most, he stood out even more with a deep, coarse voice that was different from a high-pitched boy’s voice. I did not like his voice. I did not know that boys’ voices would change. He came from northern China and only spoke Mandarin, while we all spoke Cantonese. He was even more different because he seemed to have ideas of his own.

“Xie Jin, you don’t want to be so stubborn,” said Teacher Zhu, our Chinese teacher, after failing to convince him that one line in his poem should be revised. “You must have taken after your mother. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have been beaten to death by students!”

“Oooh…” the class gave a uniform sound of surprise and shock. We were only eleven years old, and had not had to deal with death in the family. All eyes turned to Xie Jin’s and my direction. He and I sat together in one of far end corners of the last row.

Tears came to Xie Jin’s eyes, making them very, very full. I felt sorry for him and looked down. His right hand was close to my left hand. It formed into a fist, tightening as I watched, shaking slightly.

The class was dead quiet. “Stop staring at me,” Teacher Zhu raised her voice. “No wonder the Red Guards put ants to her ears: she wouldn’t admit that she was wrong!”

Xie Jin’s eyes swelled but the tears would not drop. He sprang up and ran from the classroom.

From then on, my, or rather, our attitude to Xie Jin became one of caution. Caution because we were led to believe that if someone in the family was not politically “clean,” then everyone else in the family was stigmatized. Teacher Zhu must have believed that too.

I kept a safe distance from Xie Jin, though we shared one desk and had to sit close to each other. I talked to him as little as possible. He was aware of that, and did not seek my attention. He would enter the classroom looking straight ahead as if entering an empty place. Breathing heavily, he would drop to the seat next to me as if I were transparent.

When we graduated from elementary school, I did not ask which high school he was going to. I remember him only as an unpleasant big boy whose mother had died.

It was not until 2012 when Xie Jin’s name came up in a class reunion.

He had become mentally ill.

I could have expected it. Those who were condemned during the Cultural Revolution, including Xie Jin’s mother, more often than not did not do anything wrong. I cannot imagine how it was to be Xie Jin. Not knowing why his mother had been beaten to death. Not being allowed to even openly mourn for her, not understanding why he was treated with prejudice, not having any friends because he was not supposed to deserve any.

He must have been lonely, angry and frustrated at a time when I did not even know loneliness could be a state of being. He must have had a lot of questions, questions no one could possibly give answers to. How could he not lose his mind?

I heard that he was found in Beijing railway station, telling people that he was Chairman Mao’s son. Was that because he longed for the protection that status could give him? It saddened me to know his desperate need revealed itself only when he was out of his mind.

But what can I do for him now? I am not even sure whether visiting him is a good idea. Would I remind him of the unhappy years? Or, does it matter to him whether we care or not?

I wish I could undo the stupidity and ignorance of my past. I want to wash off the increasing sense of guilt I’ve felt in recent years, when I think about the way treated Shaoqiang, Qiu Qiang, Big Head Boy, and Xie Jin. How could I believe that their lives were less precious than mine?

I wonder how much damage I had done with my lack of sympathy and sensitivity.

While I know I was not the only one who had such limited understanding, I feel the need to honor the lives of my underprivileged peers, to pay them the overdue respect for their ability to survive in such unfriendly surrounding and make it to adulthood, in spite of the fact that the likes of me did not care and have largely forgotten about them.

Even Xie Jin is a survivor. He must have felt the inequality and the injustice of life. He must have tried to fight, like he did in the classroom, like his mother did. But he was only a boy or at most, young adult. He must have felt so helpless that he went crazy.

It may not matter whether I tell my underprivileged peers now that I am sorry. But it matters that I feel sorry, and that I have learned to respect and come to understand the worth of their lives. A mark of maturity, perhaps, which unfortunately takes time, heartbreak, and overdue apologies. The pain of growing up: to regret, to want to undo the wrongs, though it is late. Hopefully, not too late.

So I write about Shaoqiang, Qiu Qing, Big Head Boy, and Xie Jin. In honor of their lives.

Fan Dai is professor of English and founding director of the Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing. She was a 2012-2013 Fulbright researcher of the nonfiction program at University of Iowa. She has taught one of the few creative writing courses in English as a foreign language in China at Sun Yat-sen University since 2009, as well as a bilingual creative writing course since 2015. She publishes in both Chinese and English, with four collections of essays in Chinese, and the novel Butterfly Lovers in English. Her work in English has appeared in Drunken Boat and Asia Literary Review. She runs the Sun Yat-sen University International Writers’ Residency.

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