7840 words, novelette
Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy
Lao Zhang’s son was about to turn one; everyone expected a big celebration.
Planning a big banquet was unavoidable. Friends, family, relatives, colleagues—he had to reserve thirty tables at the restaurant.
Lao Zhang’s wife was a bit distressed. “We didn’t even invite this many people to our wedding!” she said.
Lao Zhang pointed out that this was one of those times where they had to pull out all the stops. You only get one zhuazhou in your entire life, after all. Back when they had gotten married, money was tight for both families. But, after working hard for the last few years, they had saved up. Now that their family was complete with a child, it was time for a well-planned party to show everyone that they were moving up in the world.
“Remember why we’re working hard and saving money,” said Lao Zhang. “For the first half of our lives, we worked for ourselves. But now that we have him, everything we do will be for his benefit. Get ready to spend even more money as he grows up.”
On the child’s birthday, most of the invited guests showed up. After handing over their red envelopes, the guests sat down to enjoy the banquet. Although everything in the world seemed to be turning digital, the red envelopes were still filled with actual cash—that was the tradition, and real money looked better. Lao Zhang’s wife had borrowed a bill counter for the occasion, and the sound of riffling paper was pleasing to the ear.
Finally, after all the guests had arrived, Lao Zhang came out holding his son. The toddler was dressed in red from head to toe, and there was even a red dot painted right between his eyebrows. Everyone exclaimed at the handsome little boy:
“Such a big and round head! Look at those perfect features!”
“So clever and smart!”
“I can already see he’s going to have a brilliant future.”
The boy didn’t disappoint. Even with so many people around, he didn’t cry or fuss. Instead, he sat in the high chair and laughed, reminding people of the New Year posters depicting little children holding big fish, symbolizing good fortune.
“How about we say a few words to all these uncles and aunties and wish them good luck?” Lao Zhang said.
The boy raised his two chubby little hands, held them together, and slowly chanted, “Happy New Year, uncleses and aunties . . . fish you pro-perity!”
Everyone laughed and congratulated the child for his intelligence and the Zhangs for their effective early education.
The auspicious hour finally arrived, and Lao Zhang turned on the machine. Sparkling bits of white light drifted down from the ceiling and transformed into various holograms that surrounded Lao Zhang and his son, in the middle of the banquet hall. Lao Zhang pulled one of the holograms next to his son’s high chair, and the child eagerly reached out to touch it. A red beam of light scanned across the little fingers—once the fingerprints were matched, he was logged into his account.
A line of large red characters appeared in the air—You’re One!—accompanied by an animated choir of angels singing Happy Birthday to You. After the song, a few lines of text appeared:
Zhuazhou is a custom in the Jiangnan region. When a baby has reached one year of age, the child is bathed and dressed in fresh clothes. Then the child is presented with various objects: bow, arrow, paper, and brush for boys; knife, ruler, needle, and thread for girls—plus foods, jewels, clothes, and toys. Whatever the child chooses to play with is viewed as an indication of the child’s character and abilities.
Lao Zhang looked up at the words and felt a complex set of emotions. My son, the rest of your beautiful life is about to start. His wife, also overcome by emotion, moved closer and the two leaned against each other, holding hands.
Unfortunately, although the Zhangs had begun the baby’s education before he had even been born, the boy still couldn’t read. He waved his hand excitedly through the air, and pages of explanatory text flipped by. The end of the explanation was also the start of the formal zhuazhou ceremony, and everyone in the banquet hall quieted down.
The first holographic objects to appear were tiles for different brands of baby formula, drifting from the ceiling like flower petals scattered by some immortal. Lao Zhang knew that none of the brands were cheap: some were imported; some were one hundred percent organic with no additives; some were enhanced with special enzymes and proteins; some promoted neural development; some were recommended by pediatricians; some were bedecked with certifications . . . The choices seemed overwhelming.
The little boy, however, was decisive. He touched one of the tiles with no hesitation, and with a clink, the chosen tile tumbled into an antique ebony box set out below.
Next came other baby foods: digestion aid, absorption promotion, disease prevention, calcium supplements, zinc supplements, vitamins, trace elements, immunity enhancement, night terror avoidance . . . in a moment, the son had made his choices among them as well. The colorful icons fell into the box, clinking and tinkling like pearls raining onto a jade plate.
Then came the choices for nursery school, kindergarten, and extracurricular clubs. The little boy stared at the offerings with wide, bright eyes for a while, and finally picked woodcarving and seal cutting—two rather unpopular choices. Lao Zhang’s heart skipped, and his palms grew sweaty. He was just about to go up and make his son pick again when his wife stopped him.
“He’s not going to try to make a living with that,” she whispered. “Let him enjoy his hobby.”
Lao Zhang realized that she was right and nodded gratefully. But his heart continued to beat wildly.
Then the child had to pick his preschool, elementary school, elementary school cram sessions, junior high, junior high cram sessions, high school, and high school cram sessions. Then the choice to apply to colleges overseas appeared. Lao Zhang’s heart once again tightened: he knew this was a good choice, but it would cost a lot more money, and it was difficult to imagine having his son thousands of miles away and not being able to protect him. Fortunately, the toddler barely glanced at the choice and waved it away.
Next he had to select his college, decide whether afterward he wanted to go to grad school, to study overseas, or to start working, choose where he wanted to work and to settle, pick a house, a car, a spouse, the engagement present, the wedding banquet, the honeymoon destination, the hospital where their child would be born, the service center that would come and help—that was as far as the choices would go, for now.
All that was left was to pick the years in which he would trade up his house, the years in which he would upgrade his car, the places he would go for vacations, the gym he would join, the retirement fund he would invest in, the frequent flier program he would sign up for. Finally, he picked a nursing home and a cemetery, and all was set.
The unselected icons hovered silently for a moment, and then gradually dimmed and went out like a sky full of stars extinguishing one after another. Flowers and confetti dropped from the ceiling, and celebratory music played. Everyone in the banquet hall cheered and clapped.
It took a while before Lao Zhang recovered, and he realized that he was soaked in sweat as though he had just emerged from a hot pool. He looked over at his wife, who was in tears. Lao Zhang waited patiently until she had calmed down a bit, and then whispered, “This is a happy occasion! Look at you . . . ”
Embarrassed, his wife wiped her wet face. “Look at our son! He’s so little . . . ”
Lao Zhang wasn’t sure he really understood her, but he felt his eyes grow hot and moist again. He shook his head. “This way is good. Good! It saves us from so much worrying.”
As he spoke, he began to do the calculations in his head. The total for everything his son had chosen was going to be an astronomical sum. He and his wife would be responsible for sixty percent of it, to be paid off over thirty years. The other forty percent would be the responsibility of his son once he started working, and of course there was their son’s child, and the child’s child . . .
He now had a goal to strive toward for the next few decades, and a warm feeling suffused him from head to toe.
He looked back at his son. The baby remained seated in the high chair, a bowl of hot noodles symbolizing longevity in front of him. His almost translucent cheeks were flushed as he smiled like the Laughing Buddha.
New Year’s Eve
Late at night, Wu was walking alone along the road. The street was empty and everything was quiet, interrupted occasionally by explosions from strings of firecrackers. The night before Chinese New Year was supposed to be spent with family, with everyone gathered around the dinner table, chatting, eating, watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV, enjoying a rare moment when the whole extended family could be together in one room.
He approached a park near home. It was even quieter here, without the daytime crowd of people practicing Tai Chi, strolling, exercising, or singing folk operas. An artificial lake lay quietly in the moonless night. Wu listened to the dull sound of gentle waves slapping against the shore and felt a chill through every pore in his skin. He turned toward a tiny pavilion next to the lake, but stopped when a dark shadow loomed before him.
“Who’s there?” a shocked Wu asked.
“Who are you?”
The voice sounded familiar to Wu. Suppressing his fright, he walked closer, and realized that the other person was Lao Wang, his upstairs neighbor.
Wu let out a held breath. “You really frightened me.”
“What are you doing outside at this hour?”
“I wanted to take a walk . . . to relax. What are you doing here?”
“Too many people and too much noise at home. I needed a moment of peace,” Lao Wang said.
The two looked at each other, and a smile of mutual understanding appeared on their faces. Lao Wang brushed off a nearby stone bench and said, “Come, sit next to me.”
Wu touched the stone, which was ice cold. “Thanks. I’d rather stand for a bit. I just ate; standing is better for digestion.”
Lao Wang sighed. “New Year’s . . . the older you get, the less there is to celebrate.”
“Isn’t that the truth. You eat, watch TV, set off some firecrackers, and then it’s time to sleep. A whole year has gone by, and you’ve done nothing of note.”
“Right,” Lao Wang said. “But that’s how everyone spends New Year’s. I can’t do anything different all by myself.”
“Yeah. Everybody in the family sits down to watch the Spring Festival Gala. I’d like to do something different but I can’t summon the energy. Might as well come out and walk around by myself.”
“I haven’t watched the Spring Festival Gala in years.”
“That’s pretty impressive,” Wu said.
“It was easier in the past,” Lao Wang said. “Singing, dancing, a few stupid skits and it’s over. But now they’ve made it so much more difficult to avoid.”
“Well, that’s technological progress, right? They’ve developed so many new tricks.”
“I don’t mind if they just stick to having pop stars do their acts,” Lao Wang said. “But now they insist on this ‘People’s Participatory Gala’ business. Ridiculous.”
“I can sort of see the point,” said Wu. “The stars are on TV every day for the rest of the year. Might as well try something new for New Year’s Eve.”
“It’s too much for me, all this chaos. I’d rather have a quiet, peaceful New Year’s.”
“But the point of New Year’s is the festival mood,” said Wu. “Most people like a bit of noise and atmosphere. We’re not immortals in heaven, free from all earthly concerns, you know?”
“Ha! I don’t think even immortals up there can tolerate this much pandemonium down here.”
Both men sighed and listened to the gentle sound of the lake. After a while, Lao Wang asked, “Have you ever been picked for the Gala?”
“Of course. Twice. The first time they randomly picked my family during the live broadcast so that the whole family could appear on TV and wish everybody a happy new year. The second time was because one of my classmates had cancer. They picked him for a human-interest story, and the producer decided that it would be more tear-jerking to get the whole class and the teacher to appear with him. The Gala hosts and the audience sure cried a lot. I wasn’t in too many shots, though.”
“I’ve never been picked,” said Lao Wang.
“How have you managed that?”
“I turn off the TV and go hide somewhere. The Gala has nothing to do with me.”
“Why go to so much trouble? It’s not a big deal to be on TV for the Gala.”
“It’s my nature,” said Lao Wang. “I like peace and quiet. I can’t stand the . . . invasiveness of it.”
“Isn’t that a little exaggerated?”
“Without notice, without consent, they just stick your face on TV so that everyone in the world can see you. How is that not invasive?”
“It’s just for a few seconds. No one is going to even remember you.”
“I don’t like it.”
“It’s not as if having other people see you costs you anything.”
“That’s not the point. The point is I haven’t agreed. If I agree, sure, I don’t care if you follow me around with a camera twenty-four hours a day. But I don’t want to be forced on there.”
“I can understand your feeling,” said Wu. “But it’s not realistic. Look around you! There are cameras everywhere. You can’t hide for the rest of your life.”
“That’s why I go to places with no people.”
“That’s a bit extreme.”
Lao Wang laughed. “I think I’m old enough to deserve not having all my choices made for me.”
Wu laughed, too. “You really are a maverick.”
“Hardly. This is all I can do.”
White lights appeared around them, turning into a crowd of millions of faces. In the middle of the crowd was a stage, brightly lit and spectacularly decorated. Lao Wang and Wu found themselves on the stage, and loud, festive music filled their ears. A host and a hostesss approached from opposite ends of the stage.
A megawatt smile on his face, the host said, “Wonderful news, everyone! We’ve finally found that mythical creature: the only person in all of China who’s never been on the Spring Festival Gala! Meet Mr. Wang, who lives in Longyang District.”
The hostess, with an even brighter smile, added, “We have to thank this other member of the audience, Mr. Wu, who helped us locate and bring the mysterious Mr. Wang onto the stage. Mr. Wang, on this auspicious, joyous night, would you like to wish everyone a happy new year and say a few words?”
Lao Wang was stunned. It took a while for him to recover and turn to look at Wu. Wu was awkward and embarrassed, and he wanted to say something to comfort Lao Wang, but he wasn’t given a chance to talk.
The host said, “Mr. Wang, this is the very first time you’ve been on the Gala. Can you tell us how you feel?”
Lao Wang stood up, and without saying anything, dove off the edge of the stage into the cold lake.
Wu jumped up, and his shirt was soaked with cold sweat. Blood drained from the faces of the host and the hostess. Multiple camera drones flitted through the night air, searching for Lao Wang in the lake. The millions of faces around them began to whisper and murmur, and the buzzing grew louder.
Suddenly, a ball of light appeared below the surface of the lake, and with a loud explosion, a bright, blinding light washed out everything. Wu was screaming and rolling on the ground, his clothes on fire. Finally, he managed to open his eyes and steal a peek through the cracks between his fingers: amidst the blazing white flames, a brilliant, golden pillar of light rose from the lake and disappeared among the clouds. It must have been thousands of miles long.
What the hell! thought Wu. Is he really going back up in heaven to enjoy his peace and quiet? Then his eyes began to burn and columns of hot smoke rose from his sockets.
The next day, the web was filled with all kinds of commentary. The explosion had destroyed all the cameras on site, and only a few fragmentary recordings of the scene could be recovered. Most of those who got to see the event live were in hospital—the explosion had damaged their hearing.
Still, everyone congratulated the Spring Festival Gala organizers for putting on the most successful program in the show’s history.
Xiao Li was twenty-seven. After New Year’s she’d be twenty-eight. Her mother was growing worried and signed her up with a matchmaking service.
“Oh come on,” said Xiao Li. “How embarrassing.”
“What’s embarrassing about it?” said her mother. “If I didn’t use a matchmaker, where would your dad be? And where would you be?”
“These services are full of . . . sketchy men.”
“Better than you can do on your own.”
“What?” Xiao Li was incredulous. “Why?”
“They have scientific algorithms.”
“Oh, you think science can guarantee good matches?”
“Stop wasting time. Are you going or not?”
And so Xiao Li put on a new dress and did her makeup, and followed her mom to a famous matchmaking service center. The manager at the service center was very enthusiastic, and asked Xiao Li to confirm her identity.
Xiao Li had no interest in being here and twisted around in her chair. “Is this going to be a lot of trouble?”
The manager smiled. “Not at all. We have the latest technology. It’s super fast.”
“You’re asking for all my personal information. Is it safe?”
The manager continued to smile. “Please don’t worry. We’ve been in business for years, and we’ve never had any problems. Not a single client has ever sued us.”
Xiao Li still had more questions, but her mother had had enough. “Hurry up! Don’t think you can get out of this by dragging it out.”
Xiao Li put her finger on the terminal so that her prints could be scanned, and then she had a retinal scan as well so that her personal information could be downloaded to the service center’s database. Next, she had to do a whole-body scan, which took three minutes.
“All set,” said the manager. He reached into the terminal and pulled out a hologram that he tossed onto the floor. Xiao Li watched as a white light rose from the ground, and inside the light was a tiny figure about an inch tall, looking exactly like her and dressed in the same clothes.
The little person looked around herself and then entered a door next to her. Inside, there was a tiny table and two tiny chairs. A mini-man sat on one chair and after greeting mini-Xiao Li, the two started to talk. They spoke in a high-pitched, sped-up language and it was hard to tell what they were saying. Not even a minute later, mini-Xiao Li stood up and the two shook hands politely. Then mini-Xiao Li came out and entered the next door.
Xiao Li’s mother muttered next to her. “Let’s see, if it takes a minute to get to know a guy, then you can meet sixty guys in an hour. After a day, you…”
The still-smiling manager said, “Oh, this is only a demonstration. The real process is even faster. You don’t need to wait around, of course. We’ll get you the results tomorrow, guaranteed.”
The manager reached out and waved his hands. The miniature men and women in the white light shrank down even further until they were tiny dots. All around them were tiny cells like a beehive, and in each cell red and green dots twitched and buzzed.
Xiao Li could no longer tell which red dot was hers, and she felt uneasy. “Is this really going to work?”
The manager assured her. “We have more than six million registered members! I’m sure you’ll find your match.”
“These people are . . . reliable?”
“Every member had to go through a strict screening process like the one you went through. All the information on file is one hundred percent reliable. Our dating software is the most up to date, and any match predicted by the software has always worked out in real life. If you’re not satisfied, we’ll refund your entire fee.”
Xiao Li still hesitated, but her mother said, “Let’s go. Look at you—now you’re suddenly interested?”
The next afternoon, Xiao Li got a call from the manager at the matchmaking center. He explained that the software had identified 438 possible candidates: all were good looking, healthy, reliable, and shared Xiao Li’s interests and values.
Xiao Li was a bit shocked. More than four hundred? Even if she went on a date every day, it would take more than a year to get through them all.
The manager’s smile never wavered. “I suggest you try our parallel dating software and continue to get to know these men better. It takes time to know if someone will make a good spouse.”
Xiao Li agreed and ten copies of mini-Xiao Li were made to go on dates with these potential matches.
Two days later, the manager called Xiao Li again. The ten mini-Xiao Lis had already gone on ten dates with each of the more than four hundred candidates, and the software had tracked and scored all the dates. The manager advised Xiao Li to aggregate the scores from the ten dates and keep only the thirty top-scorers for further consideration. Xiao Li agreed and felt more relaxed.
Three days later, the manager told Xiao Li that after further contacts and observation, seven candidates had been eliminated, five were progressing slowly in their relationships with Xiao Li, and the remaining eighteen demonstrated reciprocal satisfaction and interest. Of these eighteen, eight had already revealed their intent to marry Xiao Li, and four had shown flaws—in living habits, for instance—but were still within the acceptable range.
Xiao Li was silent. After waiting for some time, the manager gently prodded her. “It might help to ask your mother to meet them—after all, marriage is about two families coming together.”
That’s true. That day, Xiao Li brought her mom to the matchmaking center, and after her identity was verified, her mother was also scanned. As the dates continued, the ten mini-Xiao Lis had ten mini-moms to help as sounding boards and advisors.
Her mom’s participation was very helpful, and soon only seven candidates remained. The manager said, “Miss Li, we also have software for simulating the conditions of preparing for a wedding. Why don’t you try it? Many couples split up under the stress of preparing for their big day. Marriage is not something to rush into rashly.”
And so the seven mini-Xiao Lis began to discuss the wedding with the seven mini-boyfriends. Relatives of all the involved couples were scanned and entered the discussion; arguments grew heated. Indeed, two of the candidates’ families just couldn’t come together with Xiao Li’s family, and they backed out.
The manager now said, “We also have software for simulating the honeymoon. A famous writer once said the way to know if a marriage will last is to see if the couple can travel together for a whole month without hating each other.”
So Xiao Li signed up for simulated honeymoons. After that, there were simulated pregnancies, simulated maternity leaves—one potential father who was only interested in holding the baby and paid no attention to Xiao Li was immediately eliminated.
Then came the simulated raising of children, simulated affairs, simulated menopause and mid-life crises, followed by simulations of various life traumas: car accidents, disability, death of a child, dying parents . . . finally the couple had to lean against each other as they entered nursing homes. Happily ever after?
Incredibly, two candidates still remained in consideration.
Xiao Li felt that after so much progress, she really had to meet these two men. The manager sent her the file on the first match, and an excited Xiao Li could feel her heart beating wildly. Just as she was about to open the file, however, a warning beep sounded, and the manager’s face appeared in the air.
“I’m really sorry, Miss Li. This client was also going through the simulation with another potential match, and half a minute ago, the results came out, indicating an excellent match. Given the delicacy of the situation and to avoid . . . future regrets, I suggest you not meet him just yet.”
Xiao Li felt as though she had lost something. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
“The whole process is automated for privacy protection. Even our staff can’t monitor or intervene. But don’t worry! You still have another great match.”
Xiao Li admitted that advanced technology really was reliable.
She opened the file for the other match and saw his face for the first time. She felt dizzy, as though the years in their future had been compressed into this moment, concentrated, intense, overwhelming. She felt herself growing light, like a cloud about to drift into the sky.
She heard the voice of the manager. “Miss Li? Are you satisfied with our program? Would you like to arrange an in-person meeting?”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Xiao Li.
She showed the manager the picture. He was speechless.
“Um…” Xiao Li blushed. “What is your name, actually?”
“You can call me Xiao Zhao.”
A month later, Xiao Li and Xiao Zhao were married.
Yang was home from college for the Spring Festival break. Liu, a high school classmate, called to say that since it had been ten years since their graduation, he was organizing a reunion.
Yang hung up and felt nostalgic. Has it really been ten years?
The day was foggy and it was impossible to see anything outside the window. Yang called Liu to ask if the reunion was still on.
“Of course! The fog makes for a better atmosphere, actually.”
Yang got in his car and turned on the fog navigation system. The head-up display on the windshield marked the streets and cars and pedestrians, even if he couldn’t see them directly. He arrived at the gates of his old high school safely and saw that many cars were already parked along the road, some were more expensive than his, others cheaper. Yang put on the fog mask and stepped out of the car. The mask filtered the air, and the eyepiece acted as a display, allowing him to see everything hidden by the fog. He looked around and saw that the entrance to the high school was the same as he remembered: iron grille gates, a few large gilt characters in the red brick walls. The buildings and the lawn inside hadn’t changed either, and as a breeze passed through, he seemed to hear the rustling of holly leaves.
Yang passed through the classroom buildings and came onto the exercise ground, where everyone used to do their morning calisthenics. A crowd was gathered there, conversing in small groups. Just about everyone in his class had arrived. Although they all wore masks, glowing faces were projected onto the masks. He examined them: most of the faces were old photographs taken during high school. Soon, a few of his best friends from that time gathered around him, and they started to talk: Is he still in grad school? Where is he working? Has he gotten married? Has he bought a house? The words and laughter flowed easily.
Just then, they heard a voice coming from somewhere elevated. They looked up and saw that Liu had climbed onto the rostrum. Taking a pose like their old principal, he spoke into a mike, sounding muffled: “Welcome back to our alma mater, everybody. The school is being renovated this winter, and most of the classrooms have been dismantled. That’s why we have to make do with the exercise ground.”
Yang was startled, and then he realized that the buildings he had passed through earlier were also nothing more than projections of old photographs. Remembering the old room where he had studied, the old cafeteria where he had eaten, and the rooftop deck where he had secretly taken naps, he wondered if any of them had survived.
Liu continued, “But this exercise ground holds a special meaning for our class. Does anyone remember why?”
The crowd was quiet. Pleased with himself, Liu lifted up something covered by a cloth. He raised his voice. “While they were renovating the exercise ground, one of the workers dug up our memory capsule. I checked: it’s intact!”
He pulled off the cloth with an exaggerated motion, revealing a silver-white, square box. The crowd buzzed with excited conversation. Yang could feel his heart pounding as memories churned in his mind. At graduation, someone had suggested that each member of the class record a holographic segment, store all the recordings in a projector, and bury it under one of the trees at the edge of the exercise ground, to be replayed after ten years. This was the real reason Liu had organized the reunion.
“Do you remember how we had everyone say what they wanted to achieve in the future?” Liu asked. “Now that it’s been ten years, let’s take a look and see if anyone has realized their dream.”
The crowd grew even more excited and started to clap.
“Since I’m holding the box, I’ll start,” Liu said.
He placed his hand against the box, and a small blue light came to life, like a single eye. A glowing light appeared above the box, and after a few flickers, resolved into an eighteen-year-old version of Liu.
Everyone gazed up at this youthful image of their friend and what he had chosen to remember from their high school years: there was Liu running for class president, receiving an academic and service award, representing the school on the soccer team, scoring a goal, organizing extracurricular clubs, leading his supporters in his campaign, losing the election, hearing words of encouragement from teachers and friends so that he could redouble his effort, tearfully making a speech: “Alma Mater, I’ll remember you always. I will make you proud of me!”
And then, the young Liu said, “In a decade, I will have an office facing the sea!”
The light dimmed like a receding tide. The real Liu took out his phone and projected a photograph in the air: this much more mature Liu, in a suit and tie, sat behind a desk and grinned at the camera. A deep blue sea and a sky dotted with some clouds, pretty as a postcard, could be seen through the glass wall behind him.
A wave of applause. Everyone congratulated Liu on achieving his dream. Yang clapped along, but something about the scene bothered him. This didn’t seem like a reunion—it was more like reality TV. But Liu had already come down from the rostrum and handed the box to someone else. Another glowing light appeared above them, and Yang couldn’t help but look up with the crowd.
And so they looked at old memories: classes, tests, the flag-raising ceremony, morning exercises, being tardy, being let out of school, study hall, skipping classes, fights, smoking, breaking up . . . followed by old dreams: finding love, jobs, vacations, names, names of places, names of objects. Finally, he saw himself.
The short-cropped hair and scrawny, awkward body of his teenaged self embarrassed him, and he heard his own raspy voice: “I want to be an interesting person.”
He was stunned. What had made him say such a thing back then? And how could he have no memory of saying it? But the crowd around him applauded enthusiastically and laughed, praising him for having had the audacity to say something unique.
He passed the box onto the next person, and he could feel his temples grow sweaty in the fog. He wanted this farce to be over so he could drive home, take off the mask, and take a long, hot bath.
A woman spoke next to him—he seemed to recognize the voice. He looked over. Ah, it was Ye, who had sat at the same desk with him throughout their three years in high school.
He didn’t know Ye well. She was an average girl in every way: not too pretty, not too not pretty, not too smart, not too not smart. He searched through his memories and recalled that she liked to laugh, but because her teeth weren’t very even, she looked a bit goofy when laughing. He recalled other bits and pieces about her: her odd gestures, her habit of doodling in their textbooks, the way she would sometimes close her eyes and press her hands against her temples and mutter. He had never asked her what she was muttering about.
He heard the eighteen-year-old Ye saying in an even, calm voice, “I don’t think I have a dream. I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years.
“I’m envious of each and every one of you. I’m envious that you can dream of a future. Before you had even been born, your parents had started to plan for your future. As long as you follow those plans and don’t make big mistakes, you’ll be fine.
“Before I was born, the doctors discovered that I had a hereditary disease. They thought I wouldn’t live beyond my twentieth year. The doctors advised my mother to terminate the pregnancy. But my mother wouldn’t listen to them. It became a point of friction between my parents, and eventually, they divorced.
“When I was very little, my mother told me this story. She also said, Daughter, you’re going to have to rely on yourself for the rest of your life. I don’t know how to help you. She also said that she would never help me make my decisions, whether it was where I wanted to play, who I wanted to be friends with, what books I wanted to buy, or what school I wanted to go to. She said that she had already made the most important decision for my life: to give birth to me. After that, whatever I decided, I didn’t need her approval.
“I don’t know how much longer I have. Maybe I’ll die tomorrow, maybe I’ll eke out a few more years. But I still haven’t decided what I have to get done before I die. I’m envious of everyone who’ll live longer than I because they’ll have more time to think about it and more time to make it come true.
“But there are also times when I think it makes no difference whether we live longer or shorter.
“Actually, I do have dreams, many dreams. I dream of flying in a spaceship; dream of a wedding on Mars; dream of living for a long, long time so that I can see what the world will be like in a thousand, ten thousand years; dream of becoming someone great so that after I die, many people will remember my name. I also have little dreams. I dream of seeing a meteor shower; dream of having the best grade, just once, so that my mother will be happy for me; dream of a boy I like singing a song for me on my birthday; dream of catching a pickpocket trying to steal a wallet on the bus and having the courage to rush up and seize him. Sometimes, I even realize one of my dreams, but I don’t know if I should be happy, don’t know if I died the next day, whether I would feel that was enough, that my life was complete, perfect, and that I had no more regrets.
“I dream of seeing all of you in ten years, and hear what dreams you’ve realized.”
She disappeared. The light dimmed bit by bit.
A moment of quiet.
Someone shouted, “But where is she?”
Yang looked down and saw that the silvery-white box was lying on the ground, surrounded by the tips of pairs of shoes. He looked around: all the faces on the masks flickered, but he couldn’t tell who was who for a moment.
The crowd erupted.
“What the hell? A ghost?”
“Someone’s playing a joke!”
“We went to school together for three years and I’d never heard her mention any of this. Who knows if it’s true or not?”
“I’ve never heard of any strange disease like that.”
The discussions led nowhere, and they couldn’t find Ye. The reunion came to an end without a conclusion.
After dinner and some drinks, Yang drove home by himself. The fog was still heavy, and the passing, varicolored lights dissolved in the fog like pigment. He fell asleep as soon as he was in bed, but he woke up around midnight.
He was seized by a nameless terror, and he was sure that he would not see the sun rise again, that he would die during his sleep. He recalled his life, thinking about the ten years since high school that had passed far too quickly. He had once thought life rather good, like a flowery, splendid scroll, but now a rip had been torn in it, and inside was darkness, a bottomless darkness. He had fallen into a chasm from the sky, and inside the chasm was only a lightless fog. All he could see was the nothingness behind the scroll.
He curled up in the fetal position and sobbed, and he vomited his dinner onto his pillow.
The fog was gone in the morning. Yang got up and looked at the clear sky outside.
He felt refreshed, and the unpleasantness of the previous day was forgotten.
Grandma Zhou was almost ninety-nine, and the family planned a big celebration. But just as everything was about ready, Grandma Zhou slipped and fell in the bathroom, fracturing her foot. Although she was rushed to the hospital right away and the injury wasn’t serious, it still made it hard for her to get about. She had to stay in a wheelchair all day, and she felt depressed.
The evening sky was overcast, and Grandma Zhou napped in her room by herself. Knocking noises woke her up. Raising her sleepy eyes, she saw a figure in a white dress floating in midair, indistinct, like an immortal.
“Is something happening, Young Lady?”
Young Lady wasn’t a person, but the nursing home’s service program. Grandma’s eyesight was no longer so good, and she couldn’t tell what Young Lady looked like. But she always thought she sounded like her granddaughter.
“Grandma Zhou,” said Young Lady, “your family is here to celebrate your birthday!”
“What’s there to celebrate? The older you grow, the more you suffer.”
“Please don’t say that. The young people are here because they love you. They want you to live beyond a hundred!”
Grandma Zhou was still in a bad mood, but Young Lady said, “If you keep on frowning like that, your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will think I haven’t been taking good care of you.”
Grandma Zhou thought Young Lady had taken very good care of her—in fact, she did it about as well as her real granddaughter. Her heart softened, and a smile appeared on her face.
“There we go,” said a grinning Young Lady. “All right, get ready to celebrate!”
Bright lights came out of the floor and transformed the room. Grandma Zhou found herself inside a hall decorated in an antique style with red paper lanterns and red paper Longevity characters pasted on the walls. She was dressed in a red jacket and red pants custom made for her and sat in a carved purpleheart longevity chair, while all the guests around her also wore red. Grandma Zhou couldn’t see their faces clearly, but she could hear the laughter and joyous conversations, and the noise of firecrackers going off outside was constant.
Her oldest son approached first with his family to wish her a happy birthday. There were more than a dozen people, and, after sorting themselves by generation and age, they knelt to kowtow. Grandma Zhou smiled at the children: boys, girls, some dark skinned, some fair skinned, and she had trouble saying some of their names. A few of the children were shy, and hid behind their parents to peek at her without speaking. Others were bolder, and they spoke to her in some foreign language instead of Chinese, making the adults laugh. There was also a little child curled up asleep in her mother’s lap, and the mother smiled, saying, “Grandma, I’m really sorry. It’s about five in the morning in our time zone.”
“That’s all right,” said Grandma Zhou. “Children need their rest.”
It took almost a quarter of an hour for the members of her oldest son’s family to offer her their good wishes one by one.
Then came the family of her second son, her older daughter, her younger daughter . . . then the friends who had gone to school with her, friends from the army, the students she had taught over the years, in-laws, distant relatives . . .
Grandma Zhou had been sitting up for a long while, and her eyes were feeling tired and her throat parched. But she knew it was difficult for so many people to make time to attend her party, and so she forced herself to keep on nodding and smiling. Advanced technology is really wonderful; it would be so much harder for them to do this in person.
As she watched all the guests milling about the hall, she felt very moved. So many people around the globe, divided by thousands of miles, were here because of her. After all the miles she had walked and all the things she had experienced and done, she had connected all these people, many of them strangers to each other, into a web. She felt fortunate to be ninety-nine; not many people made it this far.
A figure dressed in white drifted over to her. At first she thought it was Young Lady again, but the figure knelt down and held her hand.
“Grandma, sorry I’m late. The traffic was bad.”
Grandma Zhou squeezed the hands; the skin felt a bit cold, but the hands were solid. She squinted to get a closer look. It was her granddaughter who was studying overseas.
“What are you doing here?”
“To wish you a happy birthday, of course.”
“You’re actually here? Really here?”
“I wanted to see you.”
“That’s a long way to go,” said Grandma Zhou.
Her granddaughter smiled. “Not that far. Not even a full day by plane.”
Grandma Zhou looked her granddaughter up and down. She looked tired, but seemed to be in good spirits. Grandma Zhou smiled.
“Is it cold outside?”
“Not at all,” said the granddaughter. “The moon is lovely tonight. Would you like to see it?”
“But there are still so many people here.”
“Oh, that’s easy to take care of,” said the granddaughter.
She waved her hands, and a replica of Grandma Zhou appeared. The replica was dressed in the same red jacket and red pants, and sat in the carved purpleheart longevity chair. The guests in the hall continued to come up in waves, wishing her many years of long life and happiness.
“All right, Grandma, let’s go.”
The granddaughter pushed the wheelchair through the empty corridor of the nursing home until they were in the yard. There was a vigorous shantao tree in the middle of the yard, and to the side were a few wintersweet bushes, whose fragrance wafted on the breeze. The sky had cleared, revealing the full moon. Grandma Zhou looked at the plants in the garden and then at her granddaughter, standing tall and lovely next to her like a young poplar. Nothing makes you realize how old you are as seeing your children’s children all grown up.
A few other residents of the nursing home were sitting under the tree, playing erhu and singing folk operas. They saw Grandma Zhou and invited her to join them.
Grandma Zhou blushed like a little girl. “I have no talent for this sort of thing at all! I’ve never learned to play an instrument, and I can’t sing.”
Lao Hu, who was playing the erhu, said, “It’s just a few of us old timers trying to entertain ourselves, not the Spring Festival Gala! Lao Zhou, just perform anything you like, and we’ll cheer you on. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to celebrate your birthday?”
Grandma Zhou pondered this for a while, and said, “All right, I’ll chant a poem for you.”
Her father had taught her how to chant poems when she was little, and her father had learned from his tutor, back before the founding of the People’s Republic. Back then, when children studied poetry, they didn’t read it or recite it, but learned to chant along with the teacher. This was how they learned the rhythm and meter of poetry, the patterns of rhyme and tone. It was closer to singing than reading, and it sounded better.
The others quieted to listen. The moonlight was gentle like water, and everything around them seemed fresh and warm. Grandma slowed her breathing, thinking of fragments of history and tradition connected with the moon and all that is old and new around her, and began to chant:
As firecrackers send away the old year,
The spring breeze feels as warm as New Year’s wine.
All houses welcome fresh sun and good cheer,
While new couplets take the place of old signs.
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World in June 2013.
Author’s Note: While I was at my parents’ home over Spring Festival break, I wanted to write some stories about ordinary lives. I don’t particularly care about predicting the future, but I do think that deep changes are happening around us almost undetectably. These changes are the most real, and also the most science fictional.
The future is full of uncertainties, and it is as hard to say it will be better as it is to say it will be worse. In a few decades, I don’t know if anyone will still remember how to chant ancient poems, but I do know that in every passing moment, the people in every house—men, women, old, young—are living lives as meaningful as they’re ordinary.
The poem included in this story was written by the Song Dynasty poet Wang Anshi.
Xia Jia (aka Wang Yao) is Associate Professor of Chinese Literature at Xi'an Jiaotong University and has been publishing speculative fiction since college. She is a seven-time winner of the Galaxy Award, China's most prestigious science fiction award and has published three science fiction collections (in Chinese): The Demon-Enslaving Flask (2012), A Time Beyond Your Reach (2017), and Xi'an City Is Falling Down (2018). Her first English language short story collection, A Summer Beyond Your Reach, will be the first book published by Clarkesworld Books. She's also engaged in other science fiction related works, including academic research, translation, screenwriting, and teaching creative writing.
Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.
Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.
Liu is also the translator for Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” and Vagabonds, Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, as well as the editor of Invisible Planets and Broken Stars, anthologies of contemporary Chinese science fiction.
He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.