At age thirteen, I lived on the fifth floor of Ya Qing Court, a grey apartment building with many windows that overlooked the street. There, we called the smog over the city the yellow dragon because it made the sky perpetually yellow, and people often wore masks outside. A few Yang trees sat across the Beijing street in a courtyard. On the ground floors of apartment buildings were shops where vendors from the country sold candied fruit called tanghulu and guokui pork pancake. Multi-colored awnings always flapped in the wind, and old men sat in their rickshaws waiting to carry passengers to their destinations. Down the street, my school was a complex of sterile white buildings that resembled a jail. Whenever I left the streets and entered the gates of No. 241 middle school, I felt as if I were leaving freedom and entering a courthouse where a strict jury would judge me.
In that school, our teachers were our guides, judges, prosecutors, and executioners. They wielded immense power. One winter, I made Ms. Liu’s face turn red when I privately corrected her use of future tense in English. She sent me outside without a coat, and I stood there for twelve hours shivering in the snow. Often children stood with me who were also sent outside to stand in the snow. Sometimes I could see a hundred children, standing in a line outside, shivering, contemplating their mistakes.
In school, I knew a girl named Nancy. She was the kind of girl who would not eat her hot pot and dumplings outside like the other women while the men ate inside, as was common in Chinese culture. She insisted on eating at the table with the men. She loved hip-hop dancing and ping-pong. While the rest of us left our hair black, Nancy died her hair golden. Her legs were pale and long. Nancy always smelled like laundry detergent, as if her clothes were cleaner than ours. Unlike most of us, she was an Opera God: kind and good and gave everyone luck. Each day, she would encourage her friends: Keep working hard! Have a good day! We lived in a bamboo-steamer-like environment, where every kind word was a cure for death.
Naturally, she didn’t belong in this place. Nancy was like the tiger locked in the zoo. While the rest of us understood our cages, Nancy seemed to quietly pace crazily. We all should have noticed when she began to change.
One day, she stopped smiling. When the teacher called on her, she stood up and said nothing. I thought she was having her period, but then I was too worried about my own problems to help.
On a Wednesday when we arrived at the school, news that Nancy was missing spread quickly on campus. That day, the rain and clouds converged to form a grey dragon in the sky. The whole day, teachers didn’t seem to notice her absence. Even our counselor ate her sandwich in her office and watched television operas. But we students secretly thought Nancy had run away to another city, like Holden in Catcher in the Rye, and would be back. But Nancy’s tall, lean figure remained noticeably absent.
Two days later, I read about her in the city newspaper. They didn’t mention Nancy’s name to protect her identity, but we all knew.
Rumors spread that Nancy was staying in a shabby motel. I knew the place. From traffic and pollution, the outside wall of the motel long ago turned from white to dirty yellow and was covered with patches of small ads. From her boyfriend, I found out that Nancy was smoking marijuana, playing games on her phone, and eating the 3-for-$1 mysterious-meat pancakes sold on the street.
While riding the bus one day to the library, I passed the motel and saw Nancy wearing our school’s uniform, but it was oil stained. Her pants looked wet as if she’d washed them but didn’t have a dryer. Without shoes on, she was standing at the door of her motel room. She gazed straight ahead, and her normally happy eyes looked as if they held a secret. Her long hair looked like that of a homeless woman. For weeks, she stayed there in that terrible motel, skipping school, smoking marijuana, and setting a bad example for all of us. She was my hero. When our teachers weren’t around, some of us said quietly to each other, “I want to be Nancy, even for one day. One hour. So I can stop studying for just a little while.” When we said those words, our faces looked like those of mischievous, scared children. Secretly, we spoke about the joy of playing soccer on a field under the pleasant sunshine or riding the Cinderella’s Secret Palace at Disneyland in Shanghai.
But our words changed when teachers’ pets interjected: “Nancy was such a bad girl. Ms. Lee cannot get the extra prize this month for being a good teacher. We will never be like Nancy!” But secretly, we were all Nancy. We all felt that hidden desire to throw away our futures to go lie in some dingy motel, where life was devoid of pressure, where mysterious meat pancakes were better than egg tarts from Crazy Bakery and unending school. To us, that terrible, frightening life was better than the one we lived every day.
The situation changed when the principal cornered Nancy’s boyfriend and threatened to beat him if he didn’t tell her where Nancy was hiding out. Pretty soon, the police were dragging Nancy into the principal’s office. I remember watching the armed officers escort her across the blacktop to the office. Like a criminal, she looked at her feet the whole time. Her face looked sick, weak, dirty, and wild. I could see a tear in her shirt and her pants, as if she’d run through trees to escape judgment, as if she had been willing to risk harm rather than return.
Later I heard that the principal beat Nancy with her bare hands, screaming, “You’ve hurt our reputation! Now the education government is punishing us by taking money from our school!” When Nancy arrived home, her dad beat her so angrily that he injured her leg. Beatings were normal in China. Parents and teachers beat their children as a way of teaching them life experience. Later that week, at her apartment, Nancy stood on the ledge of the window, but her parents stopped her. She tried to grab a knife, but her parents took her to the hospital, where she lived in a small, dark, windowless room for seven days, like an animal in a cage.
I never saw Nancy again and she never returned to school, but we still talk about her. She lives on in my mind, and I’m sure she lives on in the minds of other students who want freedom. Sometimes when I study biology for 20 hours straight and I feel evil in my brain, I throw my book across the room. I turn on my music, and for ten minutes I become Nancy. I become her.
As a senior at Amador Valley High School, Yuwei is a creative writer, student journalist, and page editor of the Amador Valley journalism class. She is actively involved in school and enjoys being part of the community. Yuwei is a professional Chinese Zither player, —a 21-string traditional Chinese Instrument almost 2000 years old— which she has done since the age of four and passed Level 10 at 11 years old. She enjoys doing competitions and won first place in the National Chinese Zither Competition from 2009 to 2016. She also writes her own zither pieces included: Summer; That year, that river; Childhood; Homeland grassland, Homeland river, etc. As a member of High School Music Collaborative and the leader of PLAY Chinese Ensemble, Yuwei enjoys using music to share the joy and happiness to other people in the community. Although English is her second language and she just came to America three years ago, she has already won the Scholastic Writing Contest, Bay Area Book Festival Writing Competition, and the Tri-Valley High School Writing Competition as the only double winner.She always tries her best to make the school and the Pleasanton Unified School District better as a leader in LINK, an active member in Pleasanton SIAC and a student representative in LCAC and DCLC. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, reading books and cycling.