He’d grown up in a farming village, his only possessions two blue Mao jackets, one stuffed with cotton for the winter, the other without cotton for warmer months, and a family of wooden frogs that fit into the palm of his hand. In 1980, a migrant worker program brought him to Beijing, where he bored holes in door hinges and small gauge gears at the state-run metal-stamp factory. Twenty years later, he had become co-owner of the factory. He was worth twenty million yuan, but most of his neighbors assumed he was a schoolteacher with patrilineal claim to his hutong house. This aggravated his wife to no end.… She had given up trying to explain to him that to be rich was glorious and there was no shame in having means. Even total strangers felt a sense of relief and pride in the presence of success.
“Only Nixon could go to China.” No, it’s not just a line from Star Trek; when Nixon met with Mao Zedong and other officials in 1972, it was considered historic, and only an American President with his record of vehement opposition to Communism could undertake such a trip, especially during the war with Vietnam, and not be labeled a sympathizer. Vietnam is now a hot tourist destination, China is the PayDay Lender to the world, and at this moment in American history, perhaps only a story set in China could get away with painting successful capitalism as a burdensome duty upon a sympathetic victim.
Yang comes home from his factory for lunch; he’s standing under the peach tree outside his house and wondering what to do about his daughter, who has not swept the yard as he’d asked, when earthquake hits:
The branches above him shivered and dropped petals and twigs on his head. Must be something big up there, he thought.…suddenly the tree shook off its remaining petals and he found himself staring directly into the sun. He felt unsteady on his feet, as if, in the middle of choppy seas, he’d decided to stand up in his rowboat for a better view. He threw his arm around the tree’s rough trunk, just in time to catch himself from toppling over backward. His stomach churned.
This disorientation never seems to leave him as the story goes on. On television, he sees the carnage (remember? over 80,000 died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, including thousands of children caught in collapsed schools) and decides to donate blood.
It seems donating blood in China isn’t as simple as it is here. Oh, the procedure itself is simple, but a bribe must be offered along the way. From this story, it would seem the entire country runs on bribes; I’ve seen episodes of Law & Order that made New York seem the same way. But Yang has some personal history that makes him more respectful, though resentful, of the bribe way of life, and he knows how to live within it:
They lived near the Forbidden City in an ancient hutong neighborhood. Most of their neighbors were Chinese Yuppies whose boredom with the practical elements of Communism, like work groups and neighborhood committees, was a source of wonder to Yang. He’d grown up in the countryside in the late sixties and early seventies, and as a child he’d pulled yams next to intellectuals sent down for reeducation. He respected the party’s ability to whip citizens into a storm that could flatten everything in its path. These days, when a yuppie butted heads with the neighborhood committee over a plan to install a bathroom in his three-hundred-year-old home, he bribed a cadre in the municipal government who directed the committee to issue a variance.
There’s a lot of that language-of-destruction (whipped, flattened), running through the piece, as though the the earthquake is the physical manifestation of something more metaphysical.
The story traces Yang’s frustrating journey through corruption as he attempts to help his countrymen, yet finds himself shut out and punished at every turn. He forgets to get a certificate for the blood donation, so must donate again, to make it official. The money he gives his daughter for her school collection goes unrecorded. His business had in the past sent large amounts of money for relief projects, but now he finds himself the victim of public censure because his current donations are not flowing past the right people, all of whom will take their cut; he wants to donate directly to the Red Cross, and that won’t do, not at all, because the guy above him has a guy above him who has a guy above him and they all need to pay tribute as some portion of the money finds its way to those who need it.
All of this makes Yang an extremely sympathetic one-percenter, even when he descends into the same rhetoric that is so unseemly when it comes from Mitt Romney or the Walton family:
Yang had to find the right balance: a donation large enough to calm the men, but not so large as to make it look like he had money to burn. The men complained endlessly about their wages and suspected that untold riches were piling up in vaults beneath the factory, money withheld from them expressly to scuttle their chances for advancement in the world. What if he fired them all on the spot, sold the factory to the highest bidder, and settled into a quiet life of mah-jongg and cold beer? And why was it his duty to compensate the men for their donations? It was the damned ingratitude that got him. How dare they hold his feet to the fire.
…Then he heard the applause. The men’s faces, turned up to him like a band of starving children he’d fed from his own kitchen. Some were waving their hardhats. Amazing, he thought. But by tomorrow they’ll have found a reason to turn against me.
I have the sense that some of the characters are representative of cultural groups: bureaucrats, the next generation, the fading older generation, workers. I’ve read before that’s common in contemporary Chinese literature, which is an area I’ve explored in only the most surface way. This is not, of course, Chinese literature. Jack Livings, an author new to me, is a New York journalist, but his short stories, at least the ones I’ve found, are all set in contemporary China. I assume that’s his journalistic beat; if not, don’t tell me, because I learned more about China than I have from all the news articles and documentaries. That’s the magic of fiction, you know: you can watch the earthquake on TV, you can read about China’s strange blend of communism and capitalism, but it’s all over-there-happening-to-those-people until you walk a nice guy through his struggle to do the right thing.
The story begins and ends with peach blossoms – a symbol of vitality – and Yang’s daughter. In the opening scene, she’s neglected her chores, but by the end, she’s obeyed:
Little Li had finally swept up the petals, but he felt no sense of pride in her obedience. He dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve and lowered himself onto a bench across from the denuded peach tree….He thought that if he had an ax, he would chop it down, but he didn’t, so he sat, folding and unfolding the garbage ticket and trying to recall what it had been like to be poor.
Of course, poverty is the ultimate equal opportunity experience, but that’s the concept the one-percenters, even Chinese one-percenters, seem to forget.