Yellow Summer Rain

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

The Foreign Teachers taught English, but they were different from the English Teachers. The English Teachers we had were women who looked like our mothers — short, stout, loud, wearing glasses and funnily permed hair, always angry and tense and serious-looking, walking with hands folded behind their backs, strolling back and forth in the classroom, who would tell your parents that you had been playing and screaming like a little monkey, that you whispered too much with your deskmate, and worst of all, that you had developed a crush on one of those quiet, bright, well-behaved girls who, for some reason, looked down upon the rest of us, whose gaze made us feel dirty and naughty and ashamed — well, in my case, my English Teacher was my mother.

On the other hand, no one knew where the FTs came from. Like the basketball that hit you in the nose out of nowhere, they just materialized in front of us and walked into our life with their long legs. Just like that! Usually, it was the ETs — in this case, my mother — who did the introduction. But suddenly, her English, which had seemed all right in the past, turned so awkward and clumsy beside the FTs that even I felt embarrassed for her. We realized how familiar her English sounded — we could even detect in it the rhythm and intonation of our local dialect, as if the two shared the same DNA. Or maybe she was so nervous that she lost her confidence, and confidence, as anyone who has been in a fight would know, is the key to survival.

“Welcome the Foreign Teacher,” said my poor mother, standing beside the latest FT, her pronunciation so unintelligible that we could hardly catch his name. With a little cough, he walked to the pedestal in two strides.

The FT was a tall, youngish man with pale skin and a moody air. From a black, irregular-shaped case, he took out a wooden guitar and reclined the beautiful thing against our dirty classroom wall. We stared at him, waiting to see what would happen next. I had to behave because I knew my mother was standing at the back of the classroom, so attuned had my body become to her presence that I could feel it on the back of my neck. He looked around, and inhaled.

“Hello,” he said. Then he added a few long sentences. However, having just entered the second semester of our first year in middle school, we were still trying to remember the difference between “in front of” and “in the front of.” So of course, we were unable to understand, lest remember, what he said about himself. Nor were we particularly interested in what he was going to teach, because the FT before him taught us nothing but tongue twisters. But the next thing we knew, he turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and started writing on it. He wrote slowly, his writing not particularly good-looking, certainly not the cursive type that my mother had mastered over years of practice. In a rather childish hand, he completed the first word on the blackboard.


I had heard of “yesterday.” It wasn’t a fixed day but was always the day that had just passed. Yesterday, my mother had scolded me because in Math class I pulled at the hair of Chen Chang, and my mother “happened” to pass by, catching me in the act.

The FT wrote a few more lines and asked us to repeat after him.

“All my troubles seemed so far away…”

I didn’t bother copying them down, because classes with the FTs were extracurricular, so none of the lyrics would appear in any test.

The FT got my full attention when he picked up his guitar, sat down on a chair, and plucked a few strings. Under his fingers, they made some tender, reverberating sounds. Then he began to sing.

“That’s what he did? Teaching you to sing a song for forty minutes?” my mother said when I told her about the first class. “Yeah,” I said. Later, I would spend days scouting around the town’s CD stores and mobile stands that sold pirate copies, looking for the song and its artist. But because I didn’t catch the name of the singer, all I could do was hum out the tune to the quizzical owners, my voice low and thin like those summer mosquitos buzzing around your ears. “Yesaday…” Singing in front of other people made me self-conscious, and their dubious gazes irritated me. None of them knew the song or its singer. So I wasted many hours wandering outside, breathing a lot of second-hand smoke, and returned home to my mother’s scolding.

The next class, the FT drew a big, bulky ship in yellow chalk on the blackboard, and sang about “a yellow summer rain.” As he sang, I remembered that I had actually seen a yellow summer rain back when I was in primary school. One afternoon, after the classes were over, we noticed a ring of sulfuric clouds gathering atop the trees on the horizon. Someone said, “the sky has farted! A big stinky fart!” The yellow clouds were turning purple, streaks of violet pulsing through them. Some of the kids started crying. The teacher said we’d better wait in the classroom for our parents to pick us up. So we stayed. Roaring thunder rolled like a chariot towards us, incredibly close. Then the rain dropped on the ground like bombs, yellow against the sky and the setting sun. A pair of twins waiting in the back of the classroom began arguing why the clouds and rain were yellow. The brother insisted that it was the collective fart of the town’s total population, while the sister said it was because of the pollution.

Though aesthetically I preferred the brother’s interpretation, as a practical person, I had to say that the sister’s version had more sense to my ears. The pollution in our town was so bad that we outnumbered our neighboring towns in nothing but cancer patients. Last year my mother had attended two funerals of her coworkers, who were among the first people she met when she came to our town twenty years before. The teachers from our school donated money for the treatment — my mother alone donated 500 yuan — and organized trips to visit the patients. Some visitors vomited afterwards. My mother didn’t go. She said she’d rather remember them the way she knew them, not some skeletal versions. She said she wanted them to leave in dignity. When she said the word my jaw almost fell. Never would I expect to hear it coming out of my mother’s mouth! But from her expression I could tell that she didn’t go because she, too, was afraid. Afraid that the town had cast a curse on all the residents. Otherwise they wouldn’t be falling down, one batch after another, like the paddy in the fields in front of our school. Ruined by the rain before it was time.

There were two big factories and a dozen of smaller ones in our town. The two big ones manufactured steel and fertilizer, respectively. The steel factory polluted the sky, and the fertilizer factory polluted the river. The rest did their best to make sure their modest pollution accumulated. The town was born around the 60s, when the government decided to convert the farmlands into factories and the factories into towns. Lots of people moved here, whether they liked it or not. There was a time when the factories were doing very well. So well that the workers there earned five times higher than the teachers. The salaries made the workers attractive to young women, and my mother was no exception. But after I was born, there came a few massive lay-offs; a few protests, swiftly suppressed; a few suicides, quietly buried; a few memorials, blasting recorded monks’ prayers. Many of my classmates’ fathers left our town for new opportunities in coastal cities. Cities that we had never been to and only heard of in the national weather forecast. I didn’t know whether their fathers came back or not. At least mine didn’t.

So, given the way our town was, it was kind of a mystery to me why anyone, especially the FTs, should come here. And to be clear, we were not particularly FT-friendly. When the first FT came, a Black man, we loved him because he was the next best thing we had to Michael Jordan, so we followed him everywhere, asking him to sign our comic books. With the FT we had now, even though we liked the songs he played, most of us, inhibited by our unreliable grasp of grammar, didn’t go out of our way to greet him when we ran into him on campus. The teachers didn’t speak to him, either. Mostly because they didn’t speak English and didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their colleagues. The burden then fell on the ETs to stay on decent terms with the FT. The few times my mother brought me with her to the school’s dinner parties, she always got assigned to sit with him and could only watch her friends chatting and cackling at the other tables. Ever the opportunist, she would poke me to speak with the FT to practice my spoken English. But what did I know? It felt like a test, no, worse than a test, because I was outnumbered by my examiners. So for the length of the meal, I would sit tight on my seat, racking my brain for words and phrases that might be used to strike up a conversation. I saw none of the steamed shrimps with ginger vinegar dressing nor the fried sticky rice balls with brown sugar glaze. All I could think about was clause, tense, plural or singular, countable or uncountable. In the end, giving up, I would resort to the melody that I had hummed countless times to the CD store owners, “Yesaday…all your trouble seem to go away…”

My mother frowned at me.

But the FT, after straining to hear what I was singing, smiled. He raised his thumb at me and said, “Good job!”

Watching us dubiously, my mother forced a smile and sullenly released me from the table when I was done with eating.

Although my mother was very polite to the FTs at the school, she didn’t really like them. “They stink!” she once said to me. “The other day, I met the tall guy in the hallway, guess what? He smelled horrible. No wonder foreigners love to use perfume!”

I didn’t like the way she spoke of the FT, so I didn’t respond, not wanting to encourage her. Then she said, “And they get such high salaries for doing nothing! I teach eight classes a week and get paid how much? Two thousand, three thousand yuan a month? They just teach four classes a week and get five thousand, at least!”

My eyes widened. Didn’t know being an FT was such a lucrative business! “How did you know?” I asked.

“Aunt Liu told me.” Aunt Liu was the school’s accountant. My mother was very chummy with her, always greeting her warmly and sharing snacks. “Otherwise, why do you think they’d be willing to come to our school? They’re backpackers, they leave as soon as they earn enough money for their trip!”

Wow. I lowered my head. Mystery solved, but I felt a little sad. I imagined the FTs coming reluctantly to our classes, thinking to themselves, Had it not been for the money, I’d never do this in a million years! It was always sad when one found out that a certain relationship went just one-way.

Just as my mother had predicted, this FT, too, vanished out of our life like the ones before him, as abruptly as the yellow summer rain in my memory. For a while we were left without any replenishment of FTs. And the classes they taught were reassigned to my mother, who used the time to have us recite textbooks or give us tests.

But even my mother wasn’t blind to the changes the FTs had brought us. Once a nail had been loosened, no matter how much harder you tried to hammer it back, it was never as tight as it was before. So she came up with games to keep us engaged. At first she copied down tongue twisters from the English Teaching newspapers she’d subscribed to, such as “She sells seashells on the seashore” or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Remembering how she stammered during her numerous practices at home, I’d snicker furtively behind my textbook. Then she would glare at me and yell, “Wu Di! Stand up and show us what you’ve got here!”

Feigning reluctance as I stood up, I would surprise everyone by how effortlessly my tongue glided through the twists and turns, having read the newspapers for fun when I was doing my number two. Even Chen Chang turned around, looking impressed. I have to say, I seemed to have a knack for tongue twisters and things that rhyme. I wondered if there were any songs with lyrics written like this. I would be really good at them.

Thwarted by my defiantly excellent performance, my mother came up with another trick. One afternoon, when we scurried back to the classroom, reeking of sweat from playing basketball, we were surprised to find the blackboard covered with English words. About sixty of them. While some of them we recognized, many more were completely alien to us.

“Well,” my mother’s smug voice sounded from the back. We swerved around to find her sauntering to the front. “Today, we are going to learn the names of countries and cities,” she announced, full of pride in her ingenuity. “To help you memorize them, I’m going to assign them to each of you as your English name.”

With the bendy ruler in hand, she squinted her eyes and scanned the classroom, as if she could see us through and match our qualities with the countries and cities. “You will be Jordan,” she said to Zhong Dan, a short-haired girl who was always chewing gum. “And you are Canada,” she pointed to Liu Wei, the little guy who had braces. Zhang Ning, the top of our class, was named the much-envied France, while Wei Peng, who was in a fierce, gloomy competition with Ning, was assigned Germany. Whenever a country was assigned, the classroom would react with whistles, cheers, or gloating laughter, depending on what impressions (or prejudices) we had about the place. Our reaction was weaker when it came to cities, which were more specific, hence more abstract and neutral to us. So we judged whether we liked them or not by how they sounded, which my mother asked us to repeat after her.

“At-lan-ta,” she would say.

“At-lannnn-ta,” we would say.



Unluckily, I was assigned “America.” It was ironic, because all of us knew that America was the strongest country in the world, the superpower, while I was obviously neither the strongest nor brightest in our class, so the contrast was humiliating. I wondered if my mother had deliberately given me this name to tease me. But to be honest, “America” was all right so far as names went. I wouldn’t envy Chen Chang, who was named “China,” and Zhao Cong, the boy sitting in the last row, who got “Japan.”

After the class, the naughtiest gathered around Cong and poked him: “Japan, go invade China! Go!”

Cong didn’t say a word, but his face turned crimson and his knuckles white. Even sitting where I was, I could see him shaking with fury and self-control. “Go away!” He let out a subdued roar, simultaneously a warning and a plea.

Although Chen Chang continued to sit upright in her seat, as straight and resilient as a willow sprig, her small round ears had grown translucently pink. At one point, I grabbed a fistful of chalk stubs that I’d been hoarding in my drawer and tossed them at the provocateurs.

Shrieking, they scattered, crying, “America has launched its missile attack again! Boom!”

Anyway, that was how I rescued Chen Chang from the embarrassment, but she didn’t thank me. In the Chinese class we had a test, and when she passed the test paper, she simply threw it at me without looking back, and I had to bend down to pick it up from the floor.

Later that afternoon, when I went to my mother’s office to ask for some pocket money, I found Chen Chang shedding tears in front of her. The next day, my mother renamed her “Vatican.”

In this way we lived our provincial life uninterrupted. Then summer came and went, and in September, we found ourselves back in the prison that others called classroom, some of us taller, leaner, with soft stubble over our lips. Now instead of speaking, some of us quacked, our voices clashing like train wheels against the tracks. Girls frowned at us or even stuffed their ears with fingers when we spoke. But we didn’t mind, or pretended that we didn’t.

When the new FT showed up we were disappointed: He was so old. They said it was hard to tell a foreigner’s age, but it was obvious that this one was old enough to be our grandfather. His hair was silver, his back hunched, and he had dark spots and fine wrinkles all over his face. When he wrote on the blackboard, we worried for his fingers, which seemed more brittle than the chalks. Even though it was still quite hot, he wore a brown vest over a long-sleeved blue shirt. And his right hand kept shaking. At first I thought he was nervous, then I noticed the steady rhythm of the shaking and realized that it was something he couldn’t help.

I expected more tongue twisters, because it didn’t seem like he had enough energy to sing, nor was there a guitar. But he just picked up a piece of chalk and wrote down a word on the center of the blackboard: DREAM.

In a thick, garbled voice, he asked in English, “Can you tell me, what is your dream?”

The whole class fell quiet. We had never been asked any questions by the FTs or the ETs before. We were always asked to repeat—whether it be a song, a tongue twister, or an example from the textbook.

He gazed at us benignly, without a trace of impatience, and spoke again. “A dream is something that you want to obtain, even though you might not be able to succeed.”

My heart started pounding. Growing up, I had never found anything that I was truly passionate about, much less something that was likely to fail. The idea of longing for something without obtaining it was very confusing and, in an odd way, rather exciting.

Zhang Ning raised her hand. The FT nodded encouragingly at her, and she said, blushing a little, “My dream is to be a teacher.”

I rolled my eyes. Even I knew it wasn’t a dream, because being a teacher sucked. I thought about how much happier my mother would be if she could play mah-jong for a living. Whenever we walked down the streets, her whole being would light up at the sound of shuffling mah-jong tiles from the tea houses.

Mischievously Guan Hu said, “My dream is a panda.”

We snickered. The FT looked in his direction and smiled. “You dream of becoming a panda? I’m afraid that’s physically impossible. So no, that’s not a dream.”

Then he gazed down at me and our eyes met. When I saw his face, it dawned on me that I had never looked at an FT so closely before. His hair was thinning at the crown, his eyebrows long and tangled, the bags under his eyes so enormous that they gave him the look of some ancient animal in a zoo, whose ugliness had a soothing effect.

“What is your dream?” he asked.

I couldn’t find a word to say. The whole class was watching me, waiting to see me make a fool of myself. Even Chen Chang turned half-way to cast a cool, curious glance at me, her ponytail brushing my favorite pencil box.

I resorted to what was close to mind. “I dream to leave.”

“You dream of leaving?” he asked.

I had noticed how the FT would subtly correct our answers instead of simply repeating them. So I repeated after him, a little louder. “I dream of leaving.”

“Leaving where?”

I thought very hard for a few seconds. I saw in my mind our gray town, with its dusty trees and muddy river and sandy buildings silent under the sun, with its ice rink, the swimming pool, the stock exchange market, the streets lined up with hotpot restaurants, the old men in front of the newspaper stands, the children watching TV in the shopping malls, the watermelon peddlers and the barbecue stands, the summer nights and the sound of crickets from the depth of the fields… It felt as if I were on my bike again, riding around the town, saying goodbye to them the way I said hello to all the gingko trees on the sidewalk every spring, hoping that something green would come out the next day, believing in the power of my acknowledgement…

“Leaving home,” I answered clearly. “Leaving here.”

He looked at me for a while, his gaze firm but kind. Then he nodded slowly and said, “When I was a little boy, I had the same dream, too.”

He walked past my desk and began addressing other students. I relaxed, trying to calm myself down by spinning a pencil on my fingers. Suddenly I had a strange feeling on my back. Bracing myself, I twisted around. As I’d feared, it was my mother, standing in the back of the classroom, looking straight ahead. I didn’t know when she had entered or whether she had heard my answer. Nor could I see her eyes, her glasses brilliantly reflecting the sunset outside the window. I turned back, pretending to be listening to the stammers of my classmates, but my ears were attuned to her movement. After what felt like ages, I heard the familiar clanking exiting the classroom and dying down the corridor.

The next week, when I stepped into the classroom, I sensed something different. There was excitement in the air, and several boys were gathered in the corner, grinning at me. As soon as I stared in their direction, they would avert their eyes. Finally, Guan Hu, no longer able to contain himself, yelled, “America! Why are you coming to class today? You just got bombed!”

What was he talking about? I glared at them. Ever since my mother probably overheard my answer to the FT, she had been acting weird. She never scolded me, but nor did she mention the episode, thus depriving me of any opportunity to explain myself. In the end, there was this funny atmosphere at home, an odd politeness between us, and we sat down to supper like two strangers forced to share a restaurant table. I wanted this awkwardness to end so badly that I yearned to make some trouble, to make myself seen again.

“What?” I said coldly.

“You didn’t know yet? America got bombed last night!”

The gang began to giggle. Still uncertain what they were alluding to, I pretended to go to the restroom and lingered near the teachers’ office, where the Math Teacher kept a radio to blast dance music when she was scoring our homework.

This morning, the office was quieter than usual, the radio playing news. I only caught a sentence, “the Chairman called the U.S. president to offer condolences…” before I heard the voice of our PE Teacher: “They’ve got what they deserve! Like I’ve always said, stay out of other country’s business!”

The Chinese Teacher sighed. “The people are not to blame.”

The PE Teacher scoffed. “You women are too softhearted.”

Casually I peeked into the office as I passed the door and caught a glimpse of my mother. She didn’t join the conversation but was staring at the glass of steaming chrysanthemum tea in front of her, lost in her thoughts.

When I got back to the classroom it was lively as ever. More boys had gathered around Guan Hu and his gang, who were folding paper planes and flying them into the pedestal, the blackboard, and the closed windows. Every time the planes hit the targets, they would burst into a fit of mischievous laughter, making studious girls like Chen Chang and Zhang Ning stare. I watched the boys from a distance, observing how they thumped their fists on the desktop and clamored, struck by how much they resembled their fathers when their favorite soccer team lost or the fertilizer factory manager fled with all their compensation money.

When the FT arrived, he seemed his usual self. But somehow, maybe I was wrong, I found him smaller and more vulnerable, his smile faint and wistful. He was turning to the blackboard when the first paper plane glided across the room and landed on the floor right beside him. He picked it up and looked at the plane. Magnanimously he said, “I believe that someone has dropped this.”

Like a stone dropping into a pond, his words drew out a splash of laughter from the back. I looked over my shoulder and saw Guan Hu, his arms crossed in front of his chest defiantly. The FT set the plane on the desk and was about to resume writing when the second plane flew from the same corner and, this time, crashed into the pedestal. Someone mimicked the sound of an explosion.

The FT’ s gaze hardened, a new seriousness emerging on his wrinkled face. With hands on both edges of the desk, as if to support the weight of his upper body, he said, “I understand that some of you have heard the news.”

The whole class went quiet. Someone in the back sniffed loudly. I knew it was Guan Hu, who had rhinitis and would always sniff when he got excited.

“I know as much as you do, which is very little,” he said slowly, as if inventing words as he spoke. “It’s easy to laugh at what happens far away. But harder to cry over it.”

At an amazing speed he walked down the aisle and didn’t stop until he was an arm’s away from the last row. He looked at Liu Wei. “So can you tell me, what is making you laugh?”

I would bet five yuan that Liu Wei and the other boys hadn’t caught half of what the FT had said. Wiggling in their seats, they looked at neither him nor one another.

The old man fixed his gaze on Guan Hu. “What about you?” he asked.

As much as Guan Hu fought to keep smiling, his indifference was crumbling under the old man’s composed eyes. His face turned bright red like a rotten apple, and I guessed that his mood must be quite rotten, too.

The FT withdrew his gaze, returned to the blackboard, and forcefully wrote the topic he wanted us to discuss today: HOME.

Soon we found ourselves painstakingly describing the apartments we grew up in, the kitchen that smelled of chicken soup and herbal medicine, the balconies with laundry hanging to dry, and the swallows’ nests under the awnings.

As usual, he commented on our answers and corrected our mistakes, but he seemed occupied. When the bell chimed, instead of dismissing the class, he slid out from his notebook a color film slide, no bigger than a stamp, and asked someone in the first row to pass around. It dated back to some fifty years before, he said, when he was no older than us. The wooden cabin beside the pine tree belonged to his grandparents, and the boy in the background, if we could spot him at all, was himself. “You’ve shared your home with me. Now I’m sharing mine.”

When my turn came, I held the thin cardboard frame and squinted at the translucent image within until my eyes hurt. I couldn’t figure out the boy’s face, but the brilliance of the lake was so dazzling that I could feel the sun burning my skin.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

He smiled, shaking his head. “Not until I left it.”

As abruptly as he had shared the slide, he retrieved it, nodded at us, and wobbled away. Guan Hu and his most loyal followers stayed in their seats, sulky, motionless. The rest of us played a little soccer in the back, pretending that we didn’t see them, their quiet, excruciating fury and shame.

In the end I heard Guan Hu kick his desk and curse. “Old fool! Why don’t you die!”

But Guan Hu’s wrath, as well as our memories of the news, were short-lived. Soon there was other gossip, pranks, and troubles that occupied our minds. Entering the third year, we no longer had classes with the FT, and even though we missed the pressure-free discussions at first, we soon resigned ourselves to the rhythm of more homework and tests, the increasing eyeglass prescriptions and heavier school bags. The teachers began talking about the Big Test that awaited us at the end of the year, which would decide what high schools we would enter, which would determine what universities we would get in, thus ultimately dictating what kind of life we would live. Scared by the chain reaction that a single misstep might spur, we studied as if nothing else mattered and suspended all the questions about who we were and what dreams we had. Occasionally, we spotted the FT on campus, strolling in the garden, stopping to talk to his current students under the cherry trees. We didn’t slow down to say hi.

Things between me and my mother changed, too. Now that my voice had thickened and deepened, she no longer dragged my ears in front of other people and began to show some respect for my privacy. Both of us knew that something would separate us, sooner or later. And she seemed to have accepted it, starting to spend less time in the smoke-filled mah-jong room and more money on her clothes. I became more taciturn, the words I wanted to say but never did weighing down on my chest, so much so that I turned to the pages, scribbling down my thoughts in my notebook. Chen Chang also underwent a subtle transformation right in front of me, her chest fuller, her limbs longer, her hair cut short by her mother, who said it would help her concentrate on her study. It saddened me a little when I saw her trying to flip her hair unconsciously and finding nothing between her fingers but the air.

One night, my mother wasn’t home when I got back from school. I made a bowl of instant noodles for myself and worked on my homework. When she finally returned, it was already 8 p.m. From the clang her keys made on the table, I could tell that she had had a tough day.

I came out of my bedroom and found her reclining against the chair, her head resting on the back. I poured her a glass of water. She opened her eyes at the sound and gave me a weary smile. “Do you remember the FT?” she said.

She told me about the afternoon, how she had passed by FT’s class and found it unsupervised, how she came to his apartment on campus and knocked for ten minutes without getting a response, and how, eventually, she peeked through the window and saw him lying unconscious on the floor. When the doorman opened the door, they found half of his belongings scattered all over the place, as if he had just arrived, or was about to leave. His body was still warm when they came to him, his breath ragged and weak, his cheeks moist with tears. Tears for what?

He stayed in the ICU for three days before the doctors gave up. A week or so later, a big American woman showed up at our school. Many of us saw her coming out of the teachers’ office, holding a bouquet of white lilies. She was yellow-haired, pink-faced, wearing a green trench coat. The principal and the dean were there, too. Even though my mother was there to interpret for them, they seemed more comfortable nodding at the woman and shaking hands with her again and again. Then the class bells shrilled, the woman left with the principal and the dean, my mother scurried back to the office to get her materials, and the corridor was empty again.

That evening at supper, I asked my mother about the woman. She grimaced. “She wanted to leave all her father’s belongings with the school. Everything.” My mother shook her head disapprovingly. “Now what kind of daughter does that? To be fair, she barely saw him when she grew up, that’s what she told me. He’d been working in Hong Kong as a correspondent for years.”

“What are you going to do with them?” I asked.

“With what?”

“His stuff.”

She cast a surprised look at me. “The books would go to the library. The rest they’ll throw away, most likely.”

“Can I take a look before you hand them to the library? The books, I mean.”

It took her a few seconds to understand my question. Her eyes searched my face, and instinctively I fought to keep it as blank as possible.

Then I saw that look on her face again, the steely look when she heard my answer to the FT. Her lips parted as if to say something, but eventually she sighed and emptied her glass in one gulp. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she said curtly, “Come to my office tomorrow before school.”

The next morning, I rode behind my mother, keeping the length of a bike between us. It was particularly foggy, and she rode slowly, her sturdy legs bearing down on the pedals, her neck craning forward as she tried to read the traffic lights through the mist. I saw everything — how her back had thickened, how the hair on her crown had thinned, how it was almost impossible to distinguish her from the other aunties in town — but I felt only a burning desire to reach the school as soon as possible.

We parked our bikes, passed the koi pond, crossed the tunnel trellis with cascades of blooming jasmine, and climbed up three floors until we arrived at the teachers’ office. To my relief, no one had come yet; the door was securely locked.

Still recovering her breath, my mother rooted her hand in her handbag. Then she froze.

“What?” I fixed my eyes on her face.

“I left my keys at home.” she said, her face emptied of all expressions.

Speechless with despair and a little resentment, I glared at her until, unbelievably, a mischievous, even defiant smile broke across her face.

“Come on!” She smacked me on the back with the unoccupied hand. I winced and swallowed my words. Then I heard a muffled rattling of keys in her bag. “Do you think everyone’s as sloppy as you?” she said, thrusting the key into the keyhole and yanking the door open.

Once we entered, I realized that I hadn’t been inside this room for a long time. It was the same as I remembered: the dormant potted cactus on the Geography Teacher’s desk, the faded movie star poster on the Chinese Teacher’s locker, the thermoses of various colors, and the bundles of wrapped textbooks for the next semester. As I took in my surroundings, my mother dragged out a cardboard box from under her desk.

“Here. That’s all he’s left,” she said flatly.

Inside the box: A few textbooks, a thin stack of crumpled magazines, a fairly new pocket-sized Chinese-to-English dictionary, some old local newspapers. I flipped through the magazines and found them filled with advertisements. I opened the dictionary and went straight to a dog-eared page, on which the Chinese characters meaning “haircut” were underlined by a pencil. Under the newspapers was the faded leather-bound notebook he’d brought to the class: Some numbers and words were scribbled and struck through on the pages. Nowhere could I find the slide.

My mother brewed herself a glass of chrysanthemum tea and asked leisurely, “So what did you find?”

“Where did you put the other things?” I asked.

She widened her eyes. “I didn’t! They’re all here.”

“Liar.” I heard a small tremor in my voice. “There must be more. He showed us…”

“Why on earth would I lie to you?” She let out a high laugh.

My head felt giddy, my throat tight. I could sense her cautiously observing me. Eventually she scoffed. “What treasure did you expect to find anyway?”

When I didn’t answer, she continued, “I’ve done nothing to be blamed for here. I didn’t have to come with you today, did I? It’s not my fault that you didn’t like what you found. Don’t you lash out at me!”

I shut my eyes. Things were unraveling in an unexpected direction. How I wished she could shut up, right now.

“And he was no saint, either. His daughter wanted to have nothing to do with him. People like him, leaving their family behind, drifting around — they are destined to die alone!”

“Enough!” My pubescent voice clang with naked agony. The next thing I knew, the notebook flew through the air and crashed on the other side of the room, its pages scattered and torn like broken wings.

My mother froze. Eyes reddening, she cried, “What are you doing?”

I swallowed. The damage was done: The fight, the first big one I ever had with my mother since my father left, had bitten into our relationship. It would never heal but remain an open wound, forever festering. This, I realized, was how one began to sever oneself from home.

Outside came the rattle of beans spilling onto the ground: it had started to rain. A breeze flowed in, lifting the dusty curtains, stirring the stagnant air in the room with the scent of grass and heat and dust. As the corridor came to life, I heard the clanking of high heels, the scraping of sneakers against the wet stairs, the carefree shrieks of childhood.

I fetched the notebook and approached my mother. Head lowered, she was rubbing her eyeglasses with a corner of her shirt. Without looking at me, she asked in a hoarse voice, “Class is about to begin. Have you decided?”

I wiped my face, watching her, and waited for the swelling in my chest to subside before I gave her my answer.