ZHAO KUI: Last year around this time, I had a very strange dream. Each year in August and September, the time before my birthday, my feelings and moods are rather complicated. My father died on a 26th of August, and my birthday is on the 18th of September. So during those weeks, I’m always having a difficult time.
    In my dream, I was in the house where I used to live when I was a child. It’s a single-story house with a yard in the back. There is a street in front and on the other side of the street, there’s my primary school. In my dream, it was summer, a very quiet and silent summer, no wind at all, no noise on the street. I had nothing to do, so I went out on the street and sat down on the sidewalk. I lighted a cigarette and watched my surroundings. I saw the moon hanging in the sky, everything was incredibly silent. I noticed the trees on the street, there wasn’t even the slightest movement in the leaves. On the other side of the street, there were many people, some of them were walking, others were riding their bicycles or doing other things. Many, many people. The primary school was to my right, and there was a crematorium next to it. I was really bored and lay down on the ground, smoking my cigarette. I felt quite comfortable. After a while, I heard human voices, it seems some people were having a discussion. I looked where the voices came from and I saw a small red spot in the sky. It was a dark red spot, like a drop of blood, not very bright.
    I fixed my eyes on the red spot and tried to figure out what was so strange about it, because all the other people were also looking at it. Then the red spot started expanding and rotating. It began to look like hot magma, and it rotated as if someone was stirring it clockwise with a stick. It grew bigger and bigger, you can’t imagine the feeling of standing under such a huge thing, it was like one of those enormous space ships in a science-fiction movie. And it still grew bigger and bigger. Some people started to scream out of fear and panic, and I was really scared, too. But I didn’t think of running away, actually I didn’t feel any danger, I just wanted to see what this thing would do. When it was rotating at a certain speed, suddenly a cloud of black smoke burst out of it and hit the ground. It stirred up a wave of mud and dust. Just like a tsunami, the wave moved over the ground like a huge, heavy curtain. Then I suddenly realized that all this was happening in complete silence, there was no sound at all. And it was happening really fast. The wave was very high, and I realized that, if I waited any longer without doing anything, I wouldn’t be able to run away anymore. At that moment, my instinct told me to run away as fast as possible.
    My house was just on the other side of the street, but I had no time and no means to inform my family. I couldn’t tell my mother and my brother that disaster was coming their way, I couldn’t save them. I thought about that in the dream, but I really had no time. I ran as hard as I could, trying to escape the muddy, smoky wave. I was swearing all the time, using dirty words like: “Fuck! What is that damn thing? What the fuck happened?” I was shouting really loud. I was very angry, but I had no idea how to deal with the situation. At one point, I looked back while I was running and I saw that the wave seemed to have no intention of stopping at all, so I tried to find a safe place.
    I don’t know how far I ran. I was still scolding all the time, but after a while I somehow felt that the thing was calming down. I arrived at a landfill which was higher than the rest of the city, and higher than most of the buildings. I hid behind a broken wall, I didn’t dare to look back. I was totally soaked in sweat. I stared at my feet, I don’t remember what kind of shoes I was wearing, I think it was a pair of cloth shoes. My right shoelace had become undone, so I kneeled down to tie it up again. But suddenly I felt a deep sorrow and sadness inside of me, I felt very, very sad and hurt, it was a feeling of sadness much more intense than anything I had ever felt in real life. And I didn’t want or need anybody to comfort me, I just wanted to be alone and be sad. Then I tied up my shoelace.
    I saw that the sky was still dark and quiet and that there was no wind. I wanted to see how the city looked like now, so I stood up and walked around the broken wall, to take a look at the city. Everything had been torn down, the whole city lay in ruins. Normally, when you see a city after a catastrophe, there will still be some buildings left over, small ones and higher ones, or at least the structure of some buildings will remain, even though the rest is completely destroyed. But I couldn’t see a single building, everything had been completely broken into small pieces, the whole city had been levelled and the debris was covering the land where the city used to be. I tried to find the place where my house had been but I couldn’t find it. I didn’t remember how I had arrived at the landfill, I couldn’t see any road leading up to it. But now I was here, safe but alone, there was nobody else around. The sky started to clear up and I could see some blue through the clouds, but it was a purplish kind of blue. It looked like a picture I took once in Dawukou, with a rainbow on one side and dark, heavy clouds on the other. A deep, scary, cruel colour. I didn’t wake up yet, I kept looking at the sky in my dream until I felt tired. Then I lay down, still looking at the sky. Finally, I woke up. I still remember this dream very clearly.
    My father died when I was 16, and this changed my life completely. He was a talented man, he was director of purchasing and marketing in a large company. He travelled a lot to make business in different places. That was in the 80’s and 90’s. When he went to Beijing or Shanghai, he always brought back some presents for me, such as fine candy, good clothes or nice sports shoes. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I didn’t have good grades in school but I was good at sports. I did track and field athletics professionally for a while. When my father died, everything changed. It happened very quickly and suddenly, he fell ill and two months later he died. He got weaker and weaker, and one day he was gone. It was like a dream. The day of my father’s funeral, according to Chinese tradition I had to kneel down for a long time in order to guard my father’s soul. I was very tired but I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice it, and suddenly I felt dizzy and I fainted. Other people helped me up, but I didn’t remember that I had fainted, I wasn’t aware that I was completely exhausted, I had no sensibility at all.
    The year after, I took the high school entry exams but I didn’t pass them. I had the option to go to police school or to study physical education to be a sports teacher. But at that time, my little brother was taking the middle school entry exam and my father had just passed away, so nobody had the energy to think about my situation. In the end, I went to a technical secondary school. This school gathered all kids of people, some of them were really young kids, others were adults with families. I studied financial accounting, something that I totally dislike. People who haven’t been to technical school have no idea what it is to be there. It’s a school with a really unpleasant atmosphere, it has a very bad influence on you. It’s very different from a normal high school. Basically, what I learnt there was to smoke, to drink alcohol, to fight, and to flirt with girls. I did all that, but I never bullied other people, even though I was always accosted by complete strangers for no reason whatsoever. I almost turned into a really bad person, I was only one step away from that, but I managed to control myself.
    When I graduated, I had nothing to do for half a year. I was hanging around with other guys who also had no jobs. I started playing the guitar at that time. My so-called friends may have thought that I was different from them, all they knew was to fight, but I knew to play the guitar, at least a little bit. Then one day my mother asked me if I wanted to go to a private college in Xi An. That was also like a dream, everything happened very fast. One week after she had asked me, I arrived at the school. I packed my stuff and bought the ticket, then I went to Xi An. It was the first time I left my home province, Ningxia.
    When I arrived at the school, I had no idea what I wanted to do there. I was just a bad kid. But I knew more than my classmates, I knew how to make contacts, how to fight, I drank alcohol. They had just finished high school, I felt they were not my equals, I had nobody to hang around with. After some time, I met a labour worker from that city. He was working in a factory and he played the saxophone. So he became my friend instead of the other students. We had a good relationship, we played music together and talked about bands such as Nirvana and Radiohead. This really opened my eyes. He also taught me to appreciate good movies, like Trainspotting. All this made me understand something about myself and I began to see that going to college was quite boring and meaningless.
    During the winter holidays, I went back to my hometown and I saw that my family’s economic situation wasn’t good at all. My mother had a simple labour job to earn some money. She received carbon strips from a factory and cut them in standard sizes. They paid her by the kilo, and she used the money to pay my schooling fees. I felt really uneasy and sad about that. Life was cheap in Xi An at that time, I only spent 350 RMB per month, but I always spent all my money as soon as I received it. After the holidays, I went back to the college only to quit my studies. I wanted to go home, I wanted to work, I had to find a way out of my situation. What was the use of going to that school? Nobody was really studying, nobody knew what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of my classmates came from rich families, they had no idea about work and real life. My friend, the worker, knew a young man who lived in Zhuhai and worked in a bar. He asked me if I was willing to go there to work as a singer. I had no idea about this job. I asked how much they would pay me and they said 100 RMB per day. I thought, 3000 RMB per month, that would allow me to make a living for myself and even send some money home for my mother! So I went to Zhuhai.
    When I arrived there, I had only 70 RMB left in my wallet. My hometown lies high up in the mountains, but Zhuhai lies on the coast. I couldn’t get used to the climate and I caught a fever the night I arrived. I drank a lot of medicinal tea, and the next day I went to the job interview. I had to sing for them, and of course I didn’t do well at all. I didn’t earn any money in Zhuhai. I was very dejected and disappointed when I went back to Ningxia.
    The time that followed was a time of great confusion. I went to Beijing and Tianjing, I wanted to be a musician and play in bands. I met lots of different people. I have no idea how I made it through that time, I don’t remember all the things that happened. One day I came home and I realized that of all the things I had done, there wasn’t one single thing that I had done successfully. And I was already over 20. My mother never blamed me for anything. I saw how hard her life was, and I thought: And I, what have I done? I wanted to hug her and say something. My mother is a very traditional woman, she doesn’t talk much. I told myself: From now on, you must take care of your mother. You’ve had a wild and selfish life, but your mother always gave you everything and now you must give her something back!
    At that time, my uncle was working in a project for China Telecom, he was putting up telephone poles and wires in a small town called Tao Le. So I went to help him and stayed there for two months. Tao Le is a very small town, it actually used to be the smallest town in China. It’s located on a narrow strip of land between the Yellow River and the desert. Sometimes it would start raining very hard and I had no umbrella or raincoat, so I went to the desert and dug a hole in the ground, got into it and covered myself with sand up to my neck. I put a plastic bag over my head and watched the rain until it stopped. Then I went back to work. If I wanted to wash myself, I took a bath in the Yellow River. I didn’t care about anything, it felt so good to be spending lots of physical energy. I felt I could release all the pressure I had built up before. In those two months, I earned 560 RMB. I wasn’t happy with that, after all I was working for my uncle, I thought it wasn’t fit. But now I think it was a very good experience for me. While I was living in big cities, I used to spend lots of money, I liked buying good clothes and going to restaurants. But in fact I felt empty. After I knew what it meant to work really hard, I understood life better. I was quite skinny, but very strong because of all the physical work. I wasn’t eating well, but I’m still alive. That’s the important thing.
    I once had a girlfriend who came from a very rich family. They owned a villa in Tianshui, that’s in the province of Gansu. I lived with them for one year, so I saw them really close-up. Her father has a lot of debts and he used to beat her mother. They would always spend a lot of effort on cooking their meals. I only wanted something simple, like noodles. To be honest, I don’t understand those elaborate meals, how to prepare them, they seem to taste all the same. Every day, other rich and powerful people would come to visit, and I had to attend to them. I really hated that. I always had to serve them alcohol. The only thing I enjoyed was taking out the dog, that was the happiest moment of the whole day. In the end, I couldn’t get used to living like this, so I told my girlfriend: Sorry, it’s not that I don’t love you, but I can’t stand this life any longer. On my birthday, I took a bus back to Ningxia.
    The journey back home now seems like a dream to me. The way from Gansu to Ningxia goes over winding mountain roads. I arrived in Ningxia at 6 o’clock in the morning, and at 7 I had to take the bus to my hometown. I wanted to see my mother, I was missing her a lot. When I arrived, there was nobody home. I asked a neighbour and he told me that my mother had gone to Yinchuan. I hadn’t called her to tell her that I was coming back. I wondered what she was doing in another city. At 9 o’clock, I took a bus to Yinchuan. There I called my relatives and they told me that my uncle was in the hospital, he had to undergo brain surgery. I rushed to the hospital, and there I finally met my mother. I felt very much relieved. They had just finished the operation. My girlfriend’s parents had given me 1000 RMB, I had spent around 200 RMB to buy moon cakes for them for the autumn festival, and I had spent something on my journey. I had about 700 RMB left when I arrived at Yinchuan and I gave everything to my uncle. After all, he was ill. My mother didn’t have much money, but she bought me a pack of chestnuts and we ate them together on the street, talking and talking. I felt very happy and comfortable.
    I finally got what I wanted. I didn’t feel good about leaving my girlfriend, but I really wanted to come back home and be at my mother’s side. That’s what makes me happy. Then I opened a shop in my hometown. I don’t want to go to other places anymore. I don’t like big cities, they are all the same. Tall buildings, lots of bricks and concrete, it’s like living in boxes. I don’t want to live like that. Some people want to go to Tibet or to Yunnan. I don’t. Maybe those places are thousands of years old, or closer to the sky, as they say, but I don’t want to go there. I’d like to go to the province of Zhejiang, to a really small village with arch bridges, where people are kind and smile at you, where they don’t pollute nature and don’t care about consuming, where there are no mechanical sounds, that’s where I want to go. Even if it rains a lot, even if the climate is really humid. I’d like to go there for a few days, eat simple food, and then come back here to work. I know I have to work hard to survive, I cannot escape from that reality. But I think it would be nice to go to a small village to take some rest, to cool down and release all the pressure I’ve accumulated so my breath and my heart can go back to their normal rhythm again. Then I’d go back to work.
    Now I’m slowly building up my business, and I’m playing in a band with my brother. I used to dream of being a rock star and playing on a big stage, like Woodstock, but now I don’t dream of that anymore. I no longer have any desire for that at all. Sometimes, a melody occurs to me which has to do with my life and the things I’ve experienced. Then I join up with some friends and we try to complete the melody and make a song out of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s with one friend or with a hundred friends, it doesn’t matter if they like it or not. Now, music for me is a way to relax and to express myself. It satisfies me without any reason behind it. It’s a way of releasing the things I have accumulated. Instead of fighting or destroying things, now it’s enough for me just to play my guitar. In a big city, maybe I would need several thousand RMB per month, but here with only 1500 RMB I can live quite well. Some people might say I don’t have any ambitions, but I don’t think that’s true. We only have one life. My father died when he was 42, he was a strong man, but he didn’t win the fight with death. In only two months, he was gone forever. I want to live, I want to be a good son to my mother, a good father to my kids, a good husband to my wife. Maybe it will be difficult, but that really is the life that I want.