How I Met My First Stories
The Speech at Simon Fraser University in June 2014
I graduated from Beijing University in 1988. Being urban Chinese, I felt that 1988 was a turning point in many ways. College graduates could only get state-allocated jobs before 1987. They would go wildly looking for employment opportunities by themselves starting in 1988. When I graduated, I seemed to have a mixed feeling about the long coveted freedom. On one hand, I was finally going to have my own say about my future; but on the other hand, there was a sudden loss of privilege because a college graduate could secure a position in state-run cultural institutes or news agencies only by the appointment of the government.
I landed a job in a Sino-Japanese joint venture. It was co-founded by a Chinese state-run university and a Japanese camera manufacturer. The office was located on the ninth floor of the China World Trade Center, a landmark in Beijing’s Central Business District and a symbol of China’s rapidly industrializing global power. My job was to write an user’s manual for a Chinese word-processing machine. However, the machine hadn’t been invented yet. I was told to read various users’ manuals and figure out how to write one for our forthcoming product. I always pride myself on being a quick learner so it took me only a week to devour all the users’ manuals already out there. The manuals I read ranged from those of laser printers to eye examination machines. Afterwards, I began spending days and days doing nothing, waiting for the machine to come out. Some times, out of unbearable boredom, I volunteered to help the receptionist. From what I had already known, capitalism has an insatiable urge to cut the cost of manpower. Then why on earth would they hire a copywriter and let her do nothing?
Confused by this reality, I turned to reading. One particular book explained this to me. It was The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. I related my workplace to that of Marian, the protagonist in The Edible Woman. Marian is also a new graduate and works at an advertising agency. There are three floors inside Marian’s building. The executives occupy the top floor while the typists and couriers occupy the ground level. Copywriters, like Marian, work in the middle floor and will remain there forever. Although my office wasn’t structured like that, it didn’t stop me from using that pattern to understand how my company worked. I came to the conclusion that my idling around was because my boss wouldn’t trust important tasks to a woman. The workplace was gender-stereotyped, wasn’t it?
Several years after I had left that joint-venture, I learned something from a gathering with my former colleagues. According to them, the reason I was planted there was because the Chinese partner wanted someone to spy on the Japanese partner. “It was not true,” I shook my head, “I had never been asked to do anything of that sort.” My friends laughed about my naivete. They thought I must have been too dumb to pick up the cue. They also believed that I was nudged out of my position, which is contrary to my own belief that I had quit from my job. The more I thought about it later, the more I had to agree with them. There were indeed many instructions from the Chinese shareholders, implicit or even explicit, which could have walked me into the type of story written by John Grisham, had I not been so obsessed with Margaret Atwood. Life would have been much more exciting!
Looking back, the joint-venture I worked for was a hybrid: half-capitalist, half-socialist. It epitomized the strangeness of China’s state capitalism being transformed into market capitalism, a process that has never been fully accomplished. Unfortunately, I was not aware of that when it was occurring. All I felt was that I wasn’t part of the game. I identified myself as an outsider. That was when I started to write.
I hadn’t truly found my voice until four or five years later. I went down to Hainan Province and stayed there for three months. In the early 1990s, Hainan was the frontier of China’s economic reform. Like anywhere else in the world, where there is sudden booming, there is prostitution. There were an army of young women who wanted to sell themselves in Hainan in those years, and perhaps even more today. For better or for worse, my brain had already been wired this way: I was fascinated by being stuck between ups and downs. When I saw women caught up between expedient choices and moral conscience, I saw the middle floor that Marian works on. Consequently, I saw stories.The first batch of my creative writing were three short stories about Hainan, among them was “A Slice of Ginger”(Beijing Women: Stories).
Although the events that take place in the stories happen in Hainan province, the frontier, the emotions and the anxiety behind the stories are mostly gathered from my years in Beijing, the heart of China. Why? My explanation is that in Beijing, during the 1990s, the driving force to corrupt people was still an undercurrent, while in Hainan, every force was played to its fullest capacity. The desire was unleashed and the drama could be smelt in the air. I believe the first literary device I learned to use was to dislocate the main characters. I moved them from their ordinary world into a more exotic and dramatic setting. It sounds easy, but it took me almost ten years to figure it out.
The translation of “A Slice of Ginger” into English gave me one more chance to look back at the work itself and the relationship between the work and the time period. Upon reviewing it, I realized as calmly as if I were reading someone else’s work that Chen Xinzhang, the person who performed seduction and was the symbol of corruption, was not a private business man. Instead, he was an “Oil King”, who was in charge of rationing fuel. It was a moment of epiphany. Now I can see it without any doubt that the conflict between state power and capitalism was indeed lurking in my mind when I was writing the story. I was happy to discover that I had recycled a portion of wasted time in my life.