It was time to attend elementary school! For Hei Nuo, this was a happy occasion because he has always wanted friends whom he could play with. In this enterprise families residential area1, everyone knew one another; even if they were in different departments, they would’ve seen each other around at some point in time. So even their children were the same. These children whose parents worked in the same corporation would attend the same nursery, the same enterprise-owned elementary school and junior high. They would have the same cla.s.smates, and maybe even the same desk mates in this ladder system. This system has its pros and cons: the children who went through this system would have forged strong ties from a young age, or at least be familiar with the other kids in their cohort; while for children like Hei Nuo who weren’t part of the earlier stage of the system, it was as if they had just entered a strange, new world. He still spent most of his time alone while looking at his cla.s.smates play. His desk mate was a girl who would talk to him once in awhile, but once the other girls call for her, she would leave in a flash.
Little Hei Nuo and other students who were selected for the festival practiced together after school. The sports festival didn’t have many segments, but it had a lot of partic.i.p.ants. Students from the third to sixth year of elementary school and the three grades of junior high could partic.i.p.ate. The segments include short-, mid- and long-distance running, and throwing-type sports like javelin, shot put and primary-level softball (similar to modern day tennis, but with throwing involved instead). No matter if he succeeded at the games or not, this sports festival provided Hei Nuo with the opportunity to bridge the gap with his cla.s.smates and give his cla.s.smates the chance to notice him. He always carried a little bit of excitement inside of him when he ran a few rounds around the track everyday. Spectators would praise him for being fast and cheer him on, which was a nice feeling.
Hei Nuo took first place in the 100m race, and second place in the 200m race which were pretty good results. After the festival, he befriended the boys in his cla.s.s and didn’t have to play by himself anymore. In the following year, Hei Nuo was once again one of the main forces in the sports festival. He was mainly in charge of the 100m and 200m singles plus the relay race. He didn’t let his cla.s.s down, he always took either first or second place in his segments. By the time they were in their fifth year, the 4 relay runners were confident that they would win first place. For the past two years they had been the undefeated champions of both the 4×100 and 4×200 relay races.
But they lost miserably. Not only did they not win first place, they didn’t even take second or third place. Hei Nuo was the last runner in the relay; when he took the baton and was about to run, his cla.s.smate stepped on his shoe. Because it was the last 100m of the race, and the last runners were the fastest ones in the other teams, their moment of panic allowed their opponents to overtake them easily. Even if Hei Nuo didn’t try to wear his shoe properly and half-limp-half-ran to the finish line, they would still be far behind the rest. When they returned to the place their cla.s.s was sitting at, Hei Nuo’s eyes were stinging. The cla.s.smate who had stepped on his shoe was already crying.
Ever since he was young, the clothes Hei Nuo wore were all hand-me-downs. These clothes were even handed down to Third and Fifth Brother before him. But now that his three eldest brothers were working adults, he didn’t have many second-hand clothes to pick from. The same goes for shoes, yet at the same time it was a bit different. Even if the clothes were too big and loose, Hei Nuo could still wear them. But with oversized shoes, Hei Nuo had to walk carefully and ensure that the shoes stuck to his feet as he walked; running in them was an even bigger issue.
There was still one more 4×200 relay race, so everyone wanted him to change to a new pair of shoes. Hei Nuo didn’t go anywhere to change his shoes; if he had a spare pair of shoes, it would be a pair that was even more ill-fitting than his current pair. So he took a piece of paper, crushed it and stuffed it into the tip of his shoes. Then he winded his shoelaces around his shoes a few times before tightening them. His teammates weren’t satisfied, they were afraid that his shoes would fall off again, so they asked him to exchange his shoes with one of their cla.s.smates. A good fitting shoe really made a world of a difference; he could run in them comfortably and easily took back his first place. The few little ones were smiling happily again. The relay race was the last segment of the sports festival; when it ended, the students dispersed chaotically. After they moved their chairs back to their cla.s.srooms, the students went home to prepare for the next day’s races.
Hei Nuo didn’t look for his cla.s.smate to switch their shoes back before he hopped back home in glee. Of course he was happy; during this time of the year he would receive books and soap boxes as prizes. When his family was having dinner, his cla.s.smate’s mother went to their house with his cla.s.smate to ask for the shoes back. It seemed like his mother thought that Hei Nuo was trying to cheat his cla.s.smate of his shoes, so she was angry and anxious to get it back. One pair of white shoes costs 3 yuan, while a technician’s salary was only 36 yuan, not to mention the even lower salaries of common workers. Hei Papa and Mama patronisingly offered the pair of mother and son some polite words to send them away.
After the unwelcomed guests left, Hei Papa’s face immediately turned black. He angrily reprimanded, “We might be poor but we still have our dignity!” and started throwing all sorts of nasty phrases at Hei Nuo like “useless”, “not just poor in person but also poor in character”, and how he “completely threw away Papa and Mama’s dignity and face”. He warned Hei Nuo that if he dared to borrow anything from his cla.s.smates again, he would break his legs. Finally, he punished Hei Nuo by making him stand in front of the wall. Even though he was young, he could grasp the hints of doubt and condescension in his cla.s.smate’s mother’s words, so he admitted to ruining his parents’ reputations.
His sharp insight was built up from reading so many of his brothers’ books. When his big brothers’ novels laid about idly, he would pick them up to read. He not only finished reading the four cla.s.sic novels3 by the time he was in his third year, he had also read a ton of other miscellaneous genres: military, history, biographies and even a “Ze Wutian” biography written by a j.a.panese author when he was in his fourth year. For someone like him who lacked a source of entertainment, reading books was his greatest joy.
When they were in their sixth year, they experienced the sadness a.s.sociated with leaving their young, ignorant selves. It was the last relay race for the 4 runners, and even though their junior high school wasn’t too far away (in fact it was right opposite their elementary school and the children of the enterprise workers will end up in the same junior high), the chances of the 4 of them all ending up in the same cla.s.s again was slim. So everyone was aiming for first place, which wasn’t an impossible task for them, and it should even said to be a guaranteed win. But two days before the sports festival, Hei Nuo smashed his knees. After he applied some reddish medicine, his injury looked horrible so it was impossible for him to partic.i.p.ate in the sports festival.
His friends thought it was regrettable that he had to miss out, but it was even more regrettable when they didn’t get first place. No one knew that when Hei Luo saw them fall behind the rest, he almost regretted smashing his knee. This year’s sports festival required partic.i.p.ants to wear shorts and white shoes – and it was these two requirements that blocked Hei Nuo from leaving the spectator stands.
1. A residential area where the families who all work in the same enterprise live… is what I’ve interpreted from the novel?
3. the Four Cla.s.sic Novels of Chinese literature, namely: A Dream of Red Mansions 紅樓夢 红楼梦[Hong2 lou2 Meng4], Romance of Three Kingdoms 三國演義 三国演义[San1 guo2 Yan3 yi4], Water Margin 水滸傳 水浒传[Shui3 hu3 Zhuan4], Journey to the West 西遊記 西游记[Xi1 you2 Ji4]?