RUI WANG was born and raised in Xi’an, China. He received his master’s and doctoral degree in the United States. He is currently a professor and the Dean of the University Library at the University of New Orleans. He has also worked and taught at Northwestern University, Binghamton University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Xi’an International Studies University, and Humboldt State University. Rui Wang is also a novelist, a columnist, an editor, and a filmmaker.
A HERO OF OUR TIMES
by Rui Wang
I was born in Xi’an, China, in the late 1950s. Our city is famous for many things, but as a kid, I only knew of one of them: the city walls. The walls were built in ancient times to keep the city safe from the tribes living in the north. Therefore, they are also called fortifications.1 The walls stand 40 feet tall, 40–46 feet wide at the top, and 50–60 feet thick at the bottom. The top of the walls are as wide as a two-lane road, but there is no traffic. My mom used to spend afternoons there with me when I was little. I still remember how I would run around, carefree.
I started school when I was seven years old. In those days, parents weren’t as nervous about their kids as they are these days. I used to loiter on the top of the city walls after school instead of going directly home. It was always fun hanging around up there. The clouds and the birds all looked much closer than they did when they were viewed from the ground. I often stared at the sky or places in the distance until dusk.
One day, while I was walking idly up there, I felt someone tap me on my shoulder. I looked around and saw Weizhong. Weizhong was my next-door neighbor. He was about a year older than I was. My mom asked him to look after me on my first day of school. He promised that he would, but he never did. I didn’t blame him. At our school, perhaps at every school on the face of the earth, the most natural thing for kids to do is to play with other kids their age. What my mother asked from Weizhong—to go the extra mile to keep an eye on me—was unnatural.
So, you can imagine how excited I felt when I saw Weizhong behind me.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Can you do me a favor?” Weizhong asked.
“Sure, of course.” My heart was racing, but I managed to look calm. “What do you want?”
He stuck his head out to me and asked me to count how many whorls he had.
“Wow, you only have one!” I shouted.
In those days, kids believed, for no reason, that the number of whorls one had on the top of one's head was a sign of power. The higher the whorl count, the better. After I found out that I had two whorls, I had been longing to discover a loser who had only one.
“Are you sure?” He looked up, not surprised, but vexed. This made me believe that someone else had already told him about his whorl count, and he simply didn’t want to believe it.
“Yes!” I said firmly. “You can check it out yourself if you want to.”
“That’s the problem.” He sighed.
“Well, it’s difficult,” I agreed. I’d seen girls use two mirrors to check their haircuts. They place one mirror in front of them and the other in the back. If only we had two mirrors...but how could you manage to check the top of your head?
“Check again!” Weizhong snapped. He bent down one more time, moving his head toward me.
I stared at his lonely, pathetic whorl. An idea sprang to my mind. Weizhong had a pair of knee-length rain boots. They made him look powerful and distinct on the block during rainy days, and it happened to rain quite a lot that year. While the rest of us had to carefully pick paths with higher elevation and dry ground, Weizhong stomped proudly into deep puddles, making the water splash in every direction. I asked my mother for a pair of boots, but she waved me away as if brushing off cobwebs. “Are you crazy?” she asked. “A pair of boots like that could feed us for weeks.”
I put my hand gently on top of his head. “Lower, lower, lower, once more,” I tried very hard to remain serious. My sneer almost ruined my plan.
He was obedient and lowered his knees all the way down to the ground. His head almost struck the ancient bricks of the city wall.
I solemnly announced, “If you give me your rain boots, you can have two whorls.”
“What?” He raised his head and looked up at me in confusion.
I blurted out in a bit of a panic, “I’ll tell you and everyone else that I saw two whorls. Lower your head!”
He dropped his jaw in disbelief and totally ignored my order.
“I can tell everybody that I saw two whorls,” I announced again.
His eyes shifted. He finally understood and began calculating.
“Oh, come on.” I grew impatient. “Do we have a deal?”
He was still in amazement. In those days, what society expected from us were piety, frugality, grit, and other things along those lines. We were not encouraged to do a lot of thinking by ourselves. Still, parents would be worried if their children didn’t have any intelligence. I once overheard a conversation between Weizhong’s mother and my own. Weizhong’s mother said that she was concerned that her child was a bit slow. In return, my mother said, “Being too sharp won’t do him any good, either.” I knew instantly knew that they both agreed that I was smarter than Weizhong.
“How about three?” I raised my offer, “I’ll tell everybody that I saw three whorls.”
I paused for a moment and waited for a response.
“Four!” I said in a desperate manner. “That’s my final offer.” Even lies have their limits.
Weizhong struggled off the pavement. “Never mind,” his voice was somber. “Thank you, though.” He dusted the dirt off his pants and left.
I was left behind, wondering what I could have done better.
Check out The Strangers for the whole story.