Ten years ago she was pursuing her Master’s degree in sociology in a Chinese university. She and another classmate, Gang Chen, worked as volunteers for a non-governmental organisation. Their tasks were to explain to sex workers how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, and to give them free condoms. Her motivation of being a volunteer was not as selfless as it appeared but her real intention was to practise her skill of field work, a typical methodology for social sciences. She endeavoured to collect data so as to support her arguments of her graduate thesis.
Her supervisor required her to report her progress once every two weeks. This day, she came to her supervisor’s office and submitted her research.
After skimming her report for several minutes, her supervisor asked: “You and Gang Chen serve as volunteers for the same NGO?”
Nodding her head, she added: “But we work in different quarters of the city. In theory, our subjects are different.”
“You and Gang conduct research individually, each covering three quarters, in total, six quarters of our city. Yesterday I read Gang’s report and just now yours. I am not sure if you discussed with each other before. But, I find that about 80% of your subjects come from the same village!”
With a solemn expression, her supervisor uttered each syllable forcefully: “Presumably, a chain of sex trade may have been formed in this village.”
She was totally speechless out of this sudden shock.
“You and Gang can probably do a field work in the village together and may discover more. But you must bear one thing in mind. When you communicate with your subjects, you shall always remember your research purpose, but meanwhile you shall try to understand your subjects. Do not forget your identity as an academic researcher and its corresponding mission, but do not neglect the indispensable morals of ‘putting human being at the centre’!”
Following their supervisor’s advice, she and Gang started to cooperate. One of the advantages of male-female co-operation was that they could conduct interviews with subjects of different genders more easily. Gradually they won the trust and even friendship of many sex workers. When she and Gang said they wanted to visit their hometown, some of them were very ready to help.
Her memory for that day was still vivid. She walked behind a female sex worker towards the village. She felt uneasy in an exciting manner because she knew what waited ahead was a cruel truth which might help her enter into the academic community.
The situation was just as her supervisor had presumed. Among all villagers who migrated to the city, for those aged from 20 to 35, 70% of them made a livelihood as sex worker; in terms of gender, within this age scope, approximately 85% of the female worked as sex workers and the rate of the male was relatively lower but still amounted to 75%. The fundamental reason was that the village failed to provide any local sources for income, therefore gave no option for its villagers. On the other hand, the situation was worsened by the introduction and influence among villagers. Precedent villagers set the example and intentionally introduced forthcoming villagers for the same trade. Some of them even established an illegal intermediary network which proactively drew villagers still in their hometown to the city.
On the basis of this field work, she and Gang published a joint paper. And thanks to this starting point of research, she received an offer of PhD scholarship from an overseas university. After graduation, she returned to China and held a teaching post in a Chinese university. Sometimes she looked back and felt that she had only turned around in the flowing river of time but all of sudden she became a supervisor for Master students. But, ten years have actually passed.
Now, she stood again in front of the village, followed by two of her Master students. One of them asked: “Professor, is this village now quite different from ten year ago?”
“In terms of construction, ten years ago, there were only one-floor cottages. At that time, the best road in the village was made of stones, about half a metre in width. Now, as we can see, there are many two-floor cottages and a cement road which I suppose is the major road of the village. But, this road is only half a metre wider than the old. Besides, the locations of these new cottages are the same as ten years ago. This means, they just demolished the old and rebuilt them in the original places. Look, these are photos I took in the village ten years ago.”
She gave them a photo album.
“Do you see? The locations of these houses do not change, in other words, the local government did not re-design the village over the past ten years. But we cannot conclude that the local government is completely absent. At least it rebuilt this cement road! If we pay visits to any villagers later, you shall observe very carefully both the exterior surrounding and the interior decoration of their houses. For example, do they have a centralised supply of tap water? Or do they install water pump machines individually? Besides talking with them for academic purposes, you shall observe their living environment, their clothes, even the plantation in the village. These factors can help us make an initial judgement on the village’s overall condition.”
“Oh, professor, it sounds so exciting, as if we were spies to steal military information from the enemy’s headquarters!”
She smiled and replied: “We do need the sharp eyes of ‘spy’. But this is not ‘enemy’s headquarters’. It is the ‘headquarters of people’. My supervisor gave me a particular lesson which influenced me profoundly.” She could not help but continuing with a solemn voice. “Researchers shall always maintain calm and objective but we also shall bear in mind the indispensable morals of ‘putting people at the centre’. Our subjects are people, people of flesh and blood, people with idea and soul.”
“Professor, the small boy in this photo, his smile is so innocent. How cute!”
She looked at the photo closely and recalled the then ten-year-old boy. She and Gang came to the village several times. They came across this boy when they arrived at the village for the first time. Since then, every time when they conducted field work in the village, he followed them like a shadow. When they finished their last work and were going to leave, she gave him several books of fairy tale and beautiful stationary as gifts. Gang asked him what he wished to do when he grew up.
The boy answered with a shy voice: “I wish to be like you.” His eyes blinked with sparkles longing for the outside world and knowledge.
Her eyes became moist the moment she heard his dream.
“Professor, do you think this boy still lives in the village?”
“He shall be twenty years old this year. I wish he studies in a university.”
“Professor, shall we try to find him?”
She nodded her head, “Yes, let’s try.”
Very excited at this task, these two students started to compare the house in the photo with those in front of them. She looked at them silently from behind and felt agitated. An old man walked by. The two students rushed towards him and asked if he knew the boy.
“Oh, isn’t he the elder brother of the LI family? Look,” the old man pointed to a group of children playing not far away from them, “the little girl with two pigtails and green coat, she is his younger sister.”
“And this boy, the brother? Where is he?”
“He left the village many years ago.”
“For work or study?”
“The youngsters of our village seldom study. They are eager to earn money quickly. He went to a city for work with a group of countrymen.”
“What does he do in the city?”
“He … I have no idea. Perhaps you shall ask his family members. ”
She listened to this conversation on the side and felt her heart went down further and further. She robbed the photo from the students and walked with big strides towards the girl.
“Excuse me, may I ask, is this boy your brother?”
“Yes, he is my brother. Who are you, please? Why do you have a photo of my brother?”
“My surname is Zhao. I am a professor. I took this photo ten years ago in this village. Your brother helped me a lot at that time. He even carried the camera for me. Before I left, I gave him some books as gifts.”
“Oh, those books were from you!”
“Did you read them?”
“Yes, they are my brother’s treasure. He never lends them to other kids because he fears they may make them dirty. If I were not his sister, I think I would not be allowed to even to touch them!”
“Where is your brother now?”
“He did not come back home for over two years.”
“Does he call you regularly? Do you, or your parents, have his telephone number?”
“He seldom calls us. But he gives money to my father every month through bank.”
“Where is your mother?”
“My mother died several years ago. She was ill. My father said it was incurable.”
She tidied the girl’s soft bang which was a little messy.
“How old are you?”
“Almost eleven. My brother is ten years elder than me.”
“Can you show me your home?”
The girl led them to her home. Ten years ago, she did not visit this family. On the current living standards, this family was barely able to make ends meet. The girl had mentioned that her mother died of an incurable disease so she assumed maybe the family had used up all their savings to treat the patient. The girl introduced them to her father very happily. Her father, over fifty years old, welcomed them warm-heartedly when he knew that she was the teacher who gave his son books. The girl fetched an iron box from a cupboard and placed the box at a table.
“Mrs. Zhao, please open it!”
The iron box had already begun to rust. She opened it and was stunned. In the box orderly lied books of fairy tale, notebooks, pencils and pens which she and Gang gave him ten years ago. The father took out a note of fifty RMB Yuan from his pocket and asked the girl to buy biscuits from a grocery. She tried to stop him but he insisted. After the girl ran out happily with the money, the father prepared tea and said in a low voice to her: “Mrs Zhao, I don’t want to discuss this in front of the child. Her brother did not call us for over one year and did not give us any money as he did before. I told a lie to my daughter that her brother was too busy with his work to come back home. But the truth is, he is in prison.”
“Prison? What did he do?”
“You came to this village ten years ago and did research. It is not hard for you to figure out the reason.”
“Please forgive my frankness. But if it is only prostitute, unless quite serious, he shall not be put into prison, according to relevant Chinese laws.”
“My son, he worked as a prostitute and pimp.”
“Prostitute and pimp are quite different cases. How long is the sentence?”
“Two years. Now one year has passed.”
“Would you please tell me which prison he is in? I would like to see him.”
The girl saw them off when they were going to leave the village, and dragged slightly her coat when the three were about to enter into the car. She crouched down and asked her with a smile: “Do you want to tell me anything?”
“Mrs Zhao, if you find my brother, can you ask him to come home, please?”
She caressed the girl’s thin shoulders and again her soft bangs, and nodded her head.
She maintained regular contact with Gang after their graduation. He continued his PhD study in a Chinese university and later assumed a teaching post in another city. Like her, he was now an associate professor. She called him and asked if he was willing to go with her to a prison and visit the boy whom they met ten years ago.
She and Gang sat in a small visiting room of the prison and waited for the boy.
A young man was led in by a prison officer.
Ten years! Now he was twenty.
His head down, he sat opposite to them and said in a very light and low voice: “Mr Chen, Mrs Zhao, …” He burst into tears and could not finish his sentence.
Nor could she utter anything.
Gang Chen managed to speak calmly: “Boy, don’t cry. You still remember us?”
He sobbed for a while and tried his best to calm down. He replied now hoarsely: “Yes, I do.”
She finally controlled herself and said softly: “You have grown up, much higher and more handsome than before.”
“Mrs Zhao, I … I must have let you down. I am a disappointment to you.”
Gang consoled him: “Boy, don’t say that. I won’t deny that I do feel sorry for you and even a little angry. But I can understand. In this world, there are many things we cannot control and many occasions when we have no choice.”
She added: “Absolutely. But when you leave prison one year later, do not make the same mistake or go to the wrong direction again. Many years ago, you were young and to earn money under emergency you had no alternative. But now you are twenty and you have more legitimate choices.”
She took a deep breath, bent towards him and asked the boy in a tentative manner: “Do you still remember your answer, when Mr Chen asked you at that time what you wanted to do in the future?”
He looked at her and his eyes became redder with tears flowing out. “I answered: I want to be like you.”
Gang Chen’s voice trembled slightly like theirs. “And now? Do you still want to be like us?”
“Yes, I do. I had this wish for so many years. But my current situation … I can never be like you …”
She held her fists and told him: “If this is still your wish, please become us. Ten years ago, I did not have the consciousness or the capacity. But now if you want to start again, I can help you …”
What you wished and finally became true is dream, whereas what you never wished but eventually happened is destiny. During the passing of age and the turning of life, many years later, we raise our heads and here you are, again in front of us.
Xiaohu (Sieghard) Jiang is now a PhD candidate (literary studies) at the University of Macau. He worked as a translator and published four translation books (from English to Chinese) in mainland China. He has published over thirty short Chinese stories and essays in newspapers and magazines in Macau.
Years Later was first published in Issue 13 of Apeiron Review.