by Yuqing Weng
Yuqing Weng is the winner of the Trinity Term 2019 fiction competition, judged by Patrick McGuiness.
Lin Fang looked outside the window as the train started to move. It was already dark. Shanghai Railway Station soon faded away from her sight, and city lights blurred into dazzling stripes as the train accelerated. When the first train she ever boarded had departed with a creaky sound twenty years ago, everything outside was crystal clear.
‘Mum! Look at those lights! We're moving so fast!’ her 11-year-old daughter Yiwen exclaimed, almost jumping up from the lower bunk out of excitement. When the girl last travelled by train she was five. She could hardly remember it. Most years they flew to Taiyuan for Spring Festival, because train tickets always sold out quickly, with a hundred million people after them. Lin Fang’s family was affluent enough to afford the flights, but rail travel was cheaper and not too uncomfortable. Travellers shared a cabin with five others, and arrived in Taiyuan after a night’s sleep.
‘Shh Yiwen! Don’t be too loud.’ said Lin Fang. But the woman on the opposite lower bunk smiled leniently at the girl.
‘Thank you. You're too kind.’ Lin Fang smiled back at her. The woman was in her late forties, thinly built, with chapped hands, frosty bits in her hair and weariness woven into the wrinkles on her face. When she looked at the little girl, Lin Fang still sensed tenderness: the love of a mother that even the heavy burden of life could not erase.
From the woman’s previous conversation with her husband, who was now lying on the middle bunk, Lin Fang figured that the couple were migrant manual workers from Shanghai. They spoke with a northern accent which Lin Fang herself had already lost. Noticing they were traveling alone, Lin Fang asked, ‘Are you going to see your child at home?’
‘Yes, she’s five. We left her with her grandparents.’ The other mother responded with bitter-sweetness in her voice.
‘You must miss her a lot.’
‘Of course! But next year we're going to bring her to Shanghai to attend primary school. She’ll be staying with us.’ As she said this, she held her husband’s hand dangling down from the middle bunk. She looked up, and they exchanged a contented look.
‘We just got a residence permit.’ Her husband added, proudly.
‘That’s great! I’m so happy for you!’ Lin Fang knew how difficult it was for manual workers to be qualified for a residence permit. She was genuinely happy for them, but she doubted if she could sympathize with what they had gone through. She had never had to worry about residence permit. It had been easy to get one for a university graduate like her – not to mention that she had married a Shanghainese.
‘What is a residence permit, Mum?’ Yiwen asked, ‘Why do they have to have that to live with their daughter?’ The little girl had listened to their conversation quietly, but now she was clearly confused and didn't refrain from enquiring. She had lived with her parents since birth, they hadn't even been parted for a day. Lin Fang looked at her daughter’s innocent eyes, now filled with bewilderment by something she had
yet to experience: all the troubles and worries and pains of life, which made happiness more unattainable and more precious.
She tried to explain, careful not to hurt the couple’s feelings with their own privileged position.
‘If we were to settle somewhere else, dad and mum wouldn’t have a residence permit, and you wouldn’t be able to go to school. Children can only go to school where their parents have a permit. For example, you can’t go to school in this lady’s hometown.’
Although who would ever want to move away from Shanghai to some place God knows where?
‘Where is your hometown, by the way?’ She turned to the woman.
Hongtong. That word hit a soft spot in Lin Fang’s heart. That was the small town near Taiyuan where she had grown up. Memories from childhood flooded her mind. She saw the courtyard surrounded by four households. Two women were taking dried clothes down a wooden rack; a granny was feeding chickens;
a young lad was carrying two buckets of water with a shoulder pole. She saw herself sitting at the doorsteps, waiting. Her father walked in through the gate, in his overalls stained after a day’s work in the factory. The little girl laughed, dashed towards him, pigtails dancing with each step. Under the flame of sunset, the father lifted the daughter up, put her on his shoulder, and walked towards their house. They could already smell the steamed buns made by her mother and older sisters.
Will the couple’s daughter also be sitting there waiting? Will she cry or laugh seeing her parents? Will they have steamed buns?
‘Yeah, for example you can’t go to Hongtong.’ She finished her sentence to Yiwen. We can, in fact, She said in her heart. Manual workers were not welcomed in Shanghai, but teachers and lawyers were more than welcomed in a remote town. If they wished, they could move to Hongtong tomorrow, even Taiyuan, the larger city where her family lived in now. They could easily get a residence permit there.
There is no turning back. I left my hometown to pursue a better life. Now I have a new home, hundreds of miles away from my old one. I have a husband, and the most precious girl in the world who can happily go to school in the most developed city in China.
‘Alright.’ The girl frowned at the answer, ‘I would live in Hongtong to see what it’s like – if I could.’
‘Oh you would? We can still go visit some time.’
But you won’t see the fields, the straw stacks where we used to play hide and seek, and the mill, and all those workshops.They're all gone now.
She told the couple that she came from Hongtong as well, and the next minute they were talking about mutual acquaintances. It was a very small town, after all. Her daughter listened to their conversation, occasionally chipping in. The lights went out at 9pm. Lin Fang put her daughter into bed, but she did not want to sleep yet, so she crept out of the cabin, standing in the corridor and looked out from the window. The train was going through the countryside now. No city lights, only dim moonbeams shining gently upon the silence. She stood there, remembering her first journey home from Shanghai.
It was the Spring Festival of 1995. She left home in August that year to enroll in a university in Shanghai. It was hundreds of miles from home, and the living costs were high, but her parents insisted that she should go. Her family was hard-pressed, with her two older sisters already in universities. She still remembered her mother’s words when she boarded the train leaving for Shanghai: ‘Don’t worry about money, Fang. You’ll receive much better education in Shanghai. Focus on your studies. Women must be educated to stand on equal grounds with men. We don’t care how hard we have to work to ensure our daughter is independent and happy.’ She waved to them and her sisters from the train window, trying to smile, only to find her world
blurring as her eyes filled up with tears.
‘Money... work...’ she heard someone saying.
The boy and the girl on the upper bunks had come out to the corridor while she was immersed in reminiscence. They were university students. Boyfriend and girlfriend, she could see. When Lin Fang boarded, she saw the boy swapping with the passenger originally entitled to the bunk so that he could be with the girl. It was childish yet sweet. Her husband used to do this. No, he still does this. Now this young couple were having instant noodles for a late supper, and they were talking. Lin Fang did not want to eavesdrop, but she could not help paying attention to their conversation.
‘We might not earn as much in Taiyuan’, said the boy, ‘but it doesn’t matter. Our parents are there. We grew up there. Taiyuan is home.’
‘I know. But Shanghai is Shanghai. The city is cleaner. People are more polite. There are so many museums, theaters, and galleries. I don’t really want to leave after graduation,’ said the girl.
‘Don’t you miss the thousands of types of noodles? Don’t you miss the mutton soup? And the dumplings, the steam buns...’
Yes. Lin Fang truly did.
The girl laughed, ‘OK, please, stop before you list all the cuisines in northern China.’ She paused for a second, and looked into the boy’s eyes, ‘I know. They taste of home, right?’
‘Yeah. Let’s go home together in two years, just like we're doing today.’
Lin Fang’s phone rang. She took it out from her pocket. It was her husband. Sometimes he went to Taiyuan with Lin Fang for Spring Festival. This time he had stayed in Shanghai with his parents. She walked towards the end of the carriage to answer the call.
‘Hi, how're you doing? How’s our daughter?’
‘I’m good! Yiwen has already gone to sleep. You?’
‘All well. I went to book a table for tomorrow’s Spring Festival Dinner. Apparently I can’t cook, you know.’
‘Aha, the hobs lay waste when I’m not home, don’t they?’
‘Yes, my dearest and most capable wife. I miss you.’
She laughed at her husband’s undue flirtatiousness. ‘I miss you, too. I’ll probably go to sleep now. I’ll text you when we arrive tomorrow.’
Lin Fang walked past the young couple on her way back to the cabin. They were chuckling. Lin Fang remembered how her husband and she had chuckled on a train to Taiyuan 17 years ago. That was when he went to ask her parents for her hand. Since then, I’ve had a new home, hundreds of miles away from my old one. Would I have stayed if not for him, despite all the glamour of Shanghai? She didn’t know.
She entered the cabin and looked at her daughter in deep sleep, so peaceful, so beautiful. ‘We’ll be home soon,’ she murmured.
The next morning at 8:37am, the train arrived in Taiyuan on time. She led her daughter out of the station. Her sister was waiting for them. White snow covered rooftops, cars and trees, glaring under the sunlight, decked with red lanterns. It was Spring Festival Eve.
YUQING WENG does History and Economics at St John's College. She used to be that little girl in her story who wanted to be part of every adult conversation.
Art by Abigail Hodges