I left for my class before Madam Dee emerged from her room for breakfast, not that I expected to be involved in the conversation about Smallest Dee in any way. Walking to the university that hour or so later still made the exercise slightly warmer than pleasant, but I arrived in good time for my class. Ying Li and I ran into each other amid the philosophers’ statues in the courtyard and went up to the tutorial room together, where we found that we’d managed to be early and the previous class was still in session – we agreed that this was obviously due to the lack of political sign-ups at the gate today.
No-one else had arrived before class change over, so we were the first into the room after the previous group left. I didn’t pay them any particular mind, but while we were organising ourselves in our seats, the same ones in the second row against the wall that we’d had the week before, Ying Li started gushing about how good looking a couple of the boys had been. I listened and made appropriate noises in the right places, but just as Loong Lung and another classmate, Dong Ken, arrived she said, “Wait, are you even listening to me?”
“Of course I am,” I protested. “You really liked the look of the tall one with the grey backpack and the medium height one with the rust coloured streak in his hair. I’m not saying much because for me they were just guys who were there, so I didn’t pay them much attention, but the important thing is that you liked them. Do you want to be early again next week so you can see if they still look interesting, or if either of them notice you?”
Ying Li gave me a look and then asked, “Are you always this…reasonable?”
“I’m one of thirteen children,” I replied calmly, and went on, “including five older sisters. Life is much easier when everyone doesn’t find the same people attractive.” I added reflectively, “So much easier….”
“Five older sisters? Does that mean that you have seven brothers?” Loong Lung had settled himself in beside me on the other side from Ying Li.
“Five,” I corrected him. “I also have two younger sisters.”
“If you ever feel you have too many siblings, let me know – I may want to adopt one. My grandfather has been lamenting the lack of fecundity in his descendants. A distinct problem when one wishes to found a dynasty.” Loong Lung gave us a wry smile.
“A dynasty of what?” Ying Li was looking at him with interest, her interest in other young men set aside for now.
“My great grandfather formulated a…system for living during the Occupation and developed a physical martial art to go with it. He changed his family name to Loong, which upset his relatives, but there were a lot people operating under nom de guerre at the time so it both wasn’t unusual but may have gotten him on a watch list with the authorities when the authorities became aware of it. Elder Great Uncle Tian tried to turn the following into a cult, and consequently got himself and his most ardent followers suppressed because of some crazy stuff they pulled. Great Aunt Zi still deals in the mystical side of things, but she’s never claimed to be running a cult or a temple. Grandfather avoided being caught up in the suppression and decided to stick to the martial arts side of things with a leavening of the lifestyle stuff he was raised with.” He blushed. “As the only grandchild and his only living male descendant, he’s grooming me to take over from him one day or so he says.” He sighed, “My aunts just roll their eyes, update my profile sheet, and then go interview matchmakers.”
“You could tell them about Sung Nai,” suggested Dong Ken, who was sitting on the other side of Loong Lung. “She sounds very suitable.”
“No! I mean Miss Sung seems a very pleasant person, but Grandfather’s actually met her, and he might take it seriously.” Loong Lung was blushing again. As more of our classmates arrived, he added, “And it’s more complicated than that, I’ve simplified a few things.”
Mei Shu, who was sitting down in front of Loong Lung at that moment, interjected, “Families? They’re always more complicated than that, even if they say they aren’t.” Her timing, tone, and delivery were so on point that we all laughed. Then Professor Bai Qing was sweeping the last arrivals into the room in front of him and our class began.
He was, as promised, more prepared than he had been for last week. We reviewed the lecture, handed in our assignments, and received our next set of questions. Professor Bai finished by reminding us of his office hours and ushered us out the door. We all walked straight past the heated argument that was developing between a young man who looked like a devoted follower of Professor Chiang Xin, a woman with an indefinable air of being faculty who had her hair twisted up and held together with carved hair sticks, and another man of student age who wore a long, blue robe of the sort normally only seen in quasi-historical melodramas. Professor Bai may have asked one of my quieter classmates, Yan Zhi, a question so that he was busy and could not be pulled into whatever they were discussing.
The Professor’s air of having escaped was contagious and we all left the floor promptly to go our separate ways. Personally, I took a deep breath and went to do my banking. Unfortunately, the next nearest branch of the bank was not nearly so convenient, so I was back at the campus branch. Today the painter was redoing the yellow portions of the façade.
Inside the branch nothing seemed to have changed. The tellers behind the counter included both of those I’d dealt with on my previous visit and I hoped that I wasn’t going to get the first one again – I thought she’d enjoyed trying to refuse me access to my money far too much. There were five other people in the queue in front of me, and that gave me time to realise that there were two supervisors behind the tellers today. One was the assistant manager I’d met on my last visit, and she was again an impeccably dressed representative of the bank, while the other was a sallow skinned gentleman who looked as if he suffered from digestive troubles. The sallow skinned gentleman was taking notes.
My first teller from last time dealt with two customers before I reached the head of the queue. She seemed to be quite…penetrating today in the way that she asked for identification and then pronounced herself satisfied after perusing it. When she went to call for the next customer and saw that it was me, she turned to the lady supervisor and said something I couldn’t catch. The supervisor replied, something else I couldn’t hear, and shook her head. As she turned back towards me, one of the two tellers on duty whom I had not dealt with on my previous visit called for the next customer and I went to his window. My transaction was dealt with expeditiously and I was soon on my way. I left thinking that perhaps the branch wasn’t so bad after all.
A brisk walk took me to Earth Sciences precinct, and I had time to quickly eat my lunch before my Physical Geography tutorial. I arrived at the tutorial room at the same time as Chow Jian who surprised me by asking, “Sung Nai, what’s the name of that girl you sit next to in our Philosophy tutorial?”
“Ying Li?” I admitted with embarrassment, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised that you and I are in the same Arts and Philosophy tutorial group.”
He shrugged. “This is the second week of the course. I’ve sat behind you in the Art tutorials and near the door in Philosophy, and barely opened my mouth. It’s all new, all the faces are strange, and there are different people in every course – I mean there are about a thousand of us just in First Year Earth Sciences.”
I replied humbly, “Thank you, you’re being very gracious about it.”
“Hey, you did remember me in context!” He smiled, then we went into the room and took our seats before Scholar Wu arrived. The class went smoothly, except for Zang Zhang’s tablemate’s panic when he discovered that his completed assignment wasn’t in his satchel, as he’d thought but apparently back on his desk in his room. A room that was currently in the exclusion zone caused by an explosion earlier in the week. Ru Pang thought that he’d grabbed all his completed assignments when he’d evacuated, and as he’d completed it and thought he had it, he hadn’t checked it prior to class.
Scholar Wu observed his physical and verbal flailing and reached a conclusion while I was still thinking that Ru Pang was overreacting. He said firmly and not unkindly, “Student Ru, no-one is going to punish you for leaving behind one piece of paper in an emergency and then not looking at it while you arranged emergency accommodation, food and clothing. Given the circumstances, I’m surprised you thought to take anything other than what you were wearing and your wallet with you. Even if there is someone in your life who will punish you for this, I will not be telling them about it because it is none of their business. Which is quite aside from you not having done anything to deserve punishment. Please take a deep breath and a few moments to compose yourself – you and I can discuss the matter after class.”
“But, my-,” Ru Pang subsided quietly, but with a confused expression on his face.
“A deep breath,” Scholar Wu reminded him, “and then you can join in the discussion.”
I could see Ru Pang’s face as he breathed in and it seemed to me that he seemed considered reasonableness in his instructors, or authority figures in general to be an unexpected quality. It occurred to me that the relatively benign neglect my schooling had received from my parents through their distraction with my siblings’ needs and achievements might not have been a bad thing. Ru Pang’s reaction was that of someone who either expected perfection of himself or didn’t dare not be perfect because of the imposed consequences if he wasn’t.
I’d been in school with kids who’d had those problems, and some of them had wound up in state care while their families couldn’t understand what had been wrong with what they’d been doing. Admittedly, most of that had happened after a messy and complex suicide at another school and the resulting uproar over the involvement of a parental mutual help group aimed at making children “fulfil their complete academic and learning potential”. I’d floated in and out of the student group who’d longed for a kind parental word, or a little appreciation of our efforts and results, but we were all better off, in my opinion, than Lao Ci. She was a girl in my year that I hadn’t shared classes with who, in our second last year secondary school, had made sure her siblings were out of the house, killed her parents and paternal grandparents, left folios of incriminating evidence beside their bodies, called the police, and gotten away before the authorities arrived. She was still on the run, unless she’d been found since I left home, and because the dead can’t be tried, and she couldn’t yet be prosecuted, the likes of me had been left with supposition and rumour to tell us what the incriminating evidence had proved.
Well, that was a diversionary thought process and fortunately it hadn’t made me miss anything.
The rest of class went well, and we finished on time with everything done. I went from there to the library and worked out which readings I had to borrow or book time to read inside the library and borrowed what I could. Because I didn’t sit down to read anything then, I was able to snatch a quick cup of tea with Liang Ai and Ong Tien before our Statistics tutorial. We compared our datasets and questions as we drank, and I think we got a better grasp of the both the unit of work and the inadvisability of not doing the work ourselves from it.
When we got to the classroom Soong Kuang was wearing his festival robe again, but it was fitting much better – apparent Madam Ao, his emergency accommodation hostess and Ao Xian’s mother, was an accomplished seamstress who had taken his clothing situation in hand. Now the garment fit properly, and he wasn’t wearing his sleep attire underneath, the overall effect was quite dashing. The class before us ran a little over, again, and there may have been some miffed almost-stomping among the older students – with so many siblings I’d had plenty of opportunity to pick up the signs of not quite suppressed negative behaviours.
When we entered the room, Ai Kwan seemed pleased to see us. What our tutor said was, “Good afternoon, I trust you’ve all survived the travails of the week? Please, take your seats and let us get on with the matters in hand.”
I thought that the class went well. We went through questions that related to our problems and the week’s readings, Scholar Ai expanded on several special cases, and the floor was opened to general statistics questions. One of the Life Sciences students, Tang Gong, asked a question about analysing problematic experimental data and all of us wound up taking notes. Tang Gong and his fellow Life Sciences students were particularly focused on this and I suspected that a lab experiment might have had unexpected results. Or someone had varied the set experimental technique and they were trying to salvage the existing data set….
Our class ran the full hour and we left just after four. Ong Tien and Liang Ai both went to the library, but I headed home to get some gi practice in before dinner and study. I found myself walking with Loong Lung again as we left the mathematics precinct, and we discussed our respective statistics tutorials as we walked. Loong Lung was interested to hear about the Life Sciences data question and said some pithy things about opinion surveys. That was the point where we reached the intersection where his grandfather, Master Loong was waiting in his car.
Master Loong climbed out of the car to exchange greetings with me again, and in doing so showed me another lurid casual robe. This time the improbable design included bamboo and tortoises eating peaches, with the peaches being even more improbably coloured than the bamboo. We exchanged pleasantries and then the Loongs drove off to whatever event they went to on Friday afternoons.
I continued home, trying to stick to the shade, but it wasn’t easy. I was hot and sweaty by the time I got there, and I was happy to dump my bags in my room before going downstairs again to practise with Master Que. Smallest Dee was with his grandmother and brother, so it was just the two of us and we covered a lot. During the breaks we talked about the new probable entrants in the Student Professional Tournament for the end of the month that he’d heard about during visits he’d made during the day. The six names he had were male and predominantly Laosung, although there was one Hoshun and a Qianting.
Master Que and I kept working up to dinner time because various elderly ladies were making dinner tonight. The meal they produced was a traditional southern Wugao one of many small dishes placed on the table in clusters beside serving bowls of sorghum instead of rice. Madam Dong explained to those of us who were from outside the region that the area had gone through a time of periodic rice crop failures and sorghum had been introduced as a backup. In the intervening centuries the rice strains had been improved to be resistant to the plant diseases, but sorghum had stayed on the menu, particularly in low income households in non-rice growing districts – like working class Xiamtian neighbourhoods.
Cousin Tang looked dubious as he put the first portion of sorghum in the bottom of his bowl, my Tang relatives tend to be very well off, but the thick spicy fish dish he tried first with it seemed to convert him to the concept. My family always had less money than most of the Tangs but in Jingshi the go-tos if you couldn’t afford rice were different. I particularly enjoyed the sweet beans and pork in chilli dish but there wasn’t a bad thing on the table. The ladies assured us all that portions had been put aside for Madam Dee, who was working, and my empty-legged fellow students applied themselves to clearing the table. We finished with our compliments to the cooks.
At the end of the meal, Hen Xiao announced that he would be moving back into his normal accommodation in the morning. Apparently, the organisation that supplied and administered his scholarship included the owners and operators of several construction companies among their membership and that had facilitated getting repairs done to their building. He added that the building’s residents had been assured that the gas cylinder had pierced the roof, several floors and associated ceilings, and wound up in the basement, but had missed all the structural walls. Hen Xiao confessed that he considered himself lucky, in the circumstances, and gave me preliminary thanks for my hospitality.
I helped do the washing up and then did several hours’ study before I went to bed. My final thoughts for the day were that I would have to spend some time in the university library over the weekend if I was going to get everything done, and that I would have to talk to Master Que about our food shopping in the morning.
The only dream I remembered of the night was one in which I was wearing a more elaborate version of my formal robe and taking tea, as an honoured guest, with Zhuang Tian. I listened attentively as the city god explained the variances of the local dialect and accent to me while he fed me with candied peaches and excellent dragon tea. My dreaming self obviously has an exalted acquaintance.
This is now followed by The First Day of the Weekend.