If you were to jump the fence on the west side of the No. 1 Elementary, walk through an alley and past the Women’s Alliance, you would find yourself at Xinmin Road.
This road would be renovated to several times its current width twenty years down the road. The white poplars would be cut down, the greenery instead placed in a narrow strip down the centre. The Women’s Alliance would also be relocated and the building sold to the Japanese to build a department store. New, foreign brands filled the tall building – Prada, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs – of which Xu Ping wouldn’t even be able to afford one pant leg with his monthly paycheque as editor.
The Xinmin Road in 1983, however, was just another street in the city where poplars stood tall against the clear, baby blue sky. Cars were rare while bicycles made up nearly all of the traffic, evident from the amount of tinkling bells. The street was lined with a few restaurants, state-run stores and many vendors and stands. You could find everything from popsicles and tea eggs to tailors sewing at a temporary folding table and a tent functioning as a bookstand selling comics.
The twelve-year old Xu Ping sprinted from home so fast that his red scarf flew over his shoulder. He pushed to the front of the crowd but before he could ask if Heroes of Sui and Tang had arrived, he was stopped by a holler.
“Oi, what’s the big idea!”
He turned to find a dark, stocky boy beside him. It was none other than his classmate, He Zhi.
“Hey, Da-Zhi! You’re here too?”
The two gave up their spot in the front and backed away with He Zhi’s arm around the smaller boy’s neck.
“What you doin’ here today? You’re always running off right at the bell!”
“Don’t remind me! I’m not supposed to be here. I need to go back soon.”
He Zhi eyed him as he spoke.
Xu Ping didn’t notice and continued to ask, “Did the fifth book come out?”
The bigger boy waved a book in the air. “I just got it.” Then he added, “The last one.”
“No way!” Xu Ping gasped. “You’re lying!” With that, he pushed back into the crowd and, seconds later, came back, shoulders drooping.
“All sold out.”
He Zhi chuckled. “All sold out.”
Xu Ping was furious. “You took my book, you bastard!”
He Zhi shrugged. “You’re the one who came too late.”
Xu Ping had steam coming out of his ears. “Me? If I didn’t have to–”
He stopped abruptly.
“Have to do what?”
“Nothing,” Xu Ping sighed. “Whatever. I have to go home and practise the erhu.”
He Zhi flashed a secretive smile. “C’mon, Ping-zi. What’s the rush? Tell me, is playin’ with sand fun?”
It took Xu Ping a moment before jumping in rage. “How the fuck did you know?!”
He Zhi was taken back as well. “Wait, so it’s true?” He scratched his head. “I didn’t take you to be….”
Xu Ping was seething with anger.
Someone else in his class had asked him before why he never did any activities after school. He had used “family matters” as an excuse for some time before lying about daily erhu lessons that his father had arranged for him. He was so embarrassed he was busted that he was angry. He seemed to have forgotten that He Zhi was a head taller than he was, and grabbed the boy’s collar. “Who told you! Was it that fucking Lu Jia?! He’s gonna get a piece of me!”
He Zhi peeled the smaller boy’s hands off. “Hey, hey, use your words. I have a thing about people messing with my clothes.”
This basically meant it was true.
Xu Ping plopped down on the curb with his head in his arms.
“Man, it’s just playin’ sand with your brother! Why the temper tantrum?” He Zhi sat down beside him, laughing. “We all got sibling troubles–”
“Shut up and go away.” Xu Ping turned away and continued to brood.
“And here I was wondering why you always seem to get diarrhea before the class performance for Children’s Day. And you know, my mom comes home praising you like you’re some angel, said you were nice and quiet and good at writing and even knew how to play the erhu. To think that all these years I’ve been gettin’ scolded for nothing, and here you are gettin’ mad at me? What did I do to get this?”
“Well, you deserve it!”
“Oi! That’s not very nice, now is it? I haven’t even started on you yet!”
Xu Ping decided to skip the talk and dived for the book.
“Oi! Oi! What’re you doing?! You’re gonna tear it! Hey!”
Xu Ping was flipping through the new book of Heroes of Sui and Tang on the curb when He Zhi asked, “So what’s up with you and Lu Jia?”
Xu Ping scoffed without even glancing up. “Just don’t like him. That’s what’s up.”
“Well, there must be a reason why you don’t. I think he’s alright, though.”
Xu Ping didn’t reply.
“Lu Jia said you beat his brother.”
“Yeah, I did.” Xu Ping turned the page as he read intently.
He Zhi looked over at him. “Isn’t his brother only in year two?”
“Yup, Lu Xi, year two division one, sweet talker that everyone loves. He gets so much money during New Year’s he probably gets sprains from counting it.”
He Zhi didn’t say anything but his expression clearly said: “How could you do that to a second grader!”
Xu Ping’s eyes were on the page but he was thinking: “Goddamn, I went easy on him. Should’ve just beaten him to death!”
Xu Ping had seen Lu Xi throwing dirt on Xu Zheng behind the others’ backs. Xu Zheng was dumb and slow to react. Lu Xi then began giggling, holding his stomach laughing. After he finished laughing, he pushed the boy to the ground, shouting, “Retard!”
Xu Ping was standing in the shadows on the second floor balcony. The word “retard” seemed to poke holes into him like a knife.
Xu Ping didn’t bother to explain to He Zhi. He couldn’t either, since the other boy was the youngest in his family, the one who was babied.
Xu Ping stuffed the book into his own bag and dusted his butt while standing up. “Alright. I’d better head home now.”
He Zhi grabbed him. “My book!”
“I’m confiscating it because you’ve been misbehaving.”
“What do you mean misbehaving?” He Zhi shouted. “I haven’t even read a single page yet!”
Xu Ping remembered his promise to buy a popsicle for Xu Zheng and went over to the bicycle with a makeshift cooler in the back made from a wooden box and cotton cloth.
“I’ll give it back tomorrow.”
He Zhi considered it for a moment before negotiating, “Alright, if you buy me a popsicle.”
“Buy it yourself.” Xu Ping shrugged him off.
“With what? I spent it all on the book!” He said as he pulled out his pockets which were indeed empty.
Xu Ping replied as he rummaged for his cash. “Ask your sister for more.”
“She just got a job,” he explained sadly, “Thirty bucks a month. It’s not even enough for herself. Asking her for money would be like committing suicide.”
Xu Ping handed over a one yuan bill. “Two cream, please.”
“Wow.” He Zhi’s eyes popped out. “You’re rich, Ping-zi!”
“My dad went to Qinghai to perform. This is for when he’s away.” Xu Ping reached for the change and the two popsicles wrapped in green paper.
He Zhi’s eyes were glued to them like a poor dog looking at its favourite bone. “That’s so awesome. My dad never gives me allowance.”
Xu Ping gave in. “Alright, fine. What flavour do you like?”
“Cream!” He Zhi exclaimed with a jump.
Xu Ping handed another five cents. “Mister, be sure to give him chocolate.”
“Cool,” He Zhi laughed, “I like chocolate more.”
Damn it. Xu Ping realised he fell right into the taller boy’s trap!
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Tea eggs, without shell
An elementary school in Wuhan, China, during their morning assembly
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ayszhang: Chapter threeeee. Not much to say so far since the story has just started ;) Next chapter is kind of intense though hehe
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.