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Chen Yekai smiled and said, "I was just making a random comment, don't mind it."
Yu Hao nodded. He didn't even have any goals he wanted to achieve before he took his college entrance examination. But his grandmother had been stricken with breast cancer, and the doctor suggested conservative treatment for her1, so in order to make her slightly happier, Yu Hao decided to sit for the college entrance examination.
About half a year ago in June, Yu Hao went to sit for his last examination in the morning. Before that, his grandmother had heated up some milk and left bread for him on the table. After his examination ended in the afternoon, he went back and realised that she had already left.
He had incurred quite a bit of debt from paying for his grandmother's medical expenses, so Yu Hao sold his house to repay most of it. He decided not to attend university, and instead chose to look for a job in the city first to pay off all his remaining debts; he planned to leave his hometown after doing so in order to say goodbye to his past and start a new life from scratch as he searched for the meaning of life.
But in the end, after he had provided a takeout service for two months during his summer holidays, he changed his mind. His manager who was suffering from a lack of educational qualifications had talked to him.
"I returned to attend college, because even a random diploma would be more useful than a high school diploma for job hunting. Education can change one's destiny, if you don't further your studies, you can only repeat your old paths wherever you go." Yu Hao explained.
"That's pretty well said." Chen Yekai said, "But, I don't think we pursue education just so that we can change our destiny. If in the morning I were to gain knowledge of the truth, then it'll be okay if I were to die at sunset2. The experience of learning itself should be more enjoyable than it is rewarding. Whatever you do shouldn't always just be done because it's 'useful'."
Yu Hao didn't quite understand. No one had told him these things before, so after he heard these words he simply nodded his head.
Afterwards, he saved up a few months worth of his salary and enrolled in a college. He could only owe his tuition and accommodation fees in advance. He had a monthly allowance of 400 yuan which was used for his phone bill, transportation fees for tutoring, bedding for when the weather turned cold……and a lot of other expenses that he would have to bear until winter vacation started. When he first moved into his dormitory, he did have hopes of developing a good relationship with his roommates as he started this new phase of his life. However, ever since military training started for them, he gradually began to realize that the problems that had plagued him for many years would likely never disappear.
When his roommates smoked during military training, he couldn't smoke with them; when everyone wanted to treat their instructor to dinner after military training ended, each person would have to fork out 50 yuan and 50 yuan was equivalent to his food expenses for four days, so he didn't join them. When his roommates asked him to stay overnight with them in an internet cafe, one night would cost him 18 yuan, and they would probably eat supper as well which would cost about 25 yuan — which was two days worth of his food expenses — so he couldn't join them in the cafe either. Others said that they would treat him, but he didn't have the money to treat them back, so he wasn't willing to scrounge free foods off others.
His roommates had pooled some funds to set up an internet line which he had contributed to as well. He intended to use the internet to play some free games on his phone so that his life wouldn't be so dull, but in the end, those who downloaded xunlei3 kept downloading xunlei, and those who watched videos kept watching videos. This had irritated him to no end4, so he got into an argument with his roommates because of this matter.
"This iPhone was given to me by Grandma." Yu Hao treasured this phone a lot. When he was tidying up his grandmother's belongings, he had discovered this gift that had been wrapped up neatly. She had planned to pa.s.s it to him after he entered university, and there were signs of it having been dropped.
"I'm prepared to sell it." Yu Hao said, "For food expenses."
Chen Yekai said, "That's not necessary. Earning money may be difficult, but it shouldn’t force you to go that far. Keep it ba."
Yu Hao then finally recognised the truth of his reality. He gave up on his plans to blend in with this university's society that was built on favours and reverted to his high school lifestyle. He sealed himself off from everyone else, and wouldn't speak unless he had to. He studied hard, hoped that he could get a scholarship, and as for the application for financial aid given to impoverished students — he had prepared all the necessary doc.u.ments for it, but never submitted it in the end. He was already in this third-cla.s.s independent college, how serious can he be about studying? Who was he putting on a pretense for?
"What about a student loan? Didn't you apply for that?" Chen Yekai said.
"It hasn't been approved." Yu Hao said, "The college said that my application materials aren't complete. They need my mother's signature, but I don't know where my mother is……so I can't get it."
Chen Yekai uttered an "un", then said, "Go and ask them again later."
Afterwards, Yu Hao was isolated from the rest in his dormitory. He was like a gloomy wild fungus that made others feel uncomfortable, and he was treated like an eyesore. His dorm room was often filled with chatter and laughter. Whenever he returned, he would put on his earphones and lie on his bed. His roommates deliberately ridiculed him when they thought he couldn't hear them, but actually, he had heard it all.
Before their mid-term exam, his roommates wanted to copy his English examination paper answers. He didn't agree, but neither did he refuse, so everyone tacitly acknowledged it as he had agreed. But after the exam started, he didn't hand out notes to anyone, and this triggered a public indignation within his dorm. After the lights went out, they used a blanket to cover Yu Hao and gave him a good beating and even poured a few cups of cold water in as well.
"f.u.c.k!" The Zhou Sheng who had been sleeping behind the screen couldn't bear to listen any further, so he sat up, walked over to Yu Hao's bed and asked, "Who did it? Those from 405? Laozi will f.u.c.k them up real nicely!"
Chen Yekai had no idea that someone would be listening in on their conversation from behind the screen. He said angrily, "Sit down right now!"
Chen Yekai looked proper and polite on the surface yet his words contained an undoubtedly imposing tone. Zhou Sheng had to give him face, so he could only sit down at one side.
Fu Liqun smiled and said, "Redhead learned boxing before, just him alone will be enough to take down their whole cla.s.s. There was once when we saw a couple of guys who were messing around with a girl outside. He went up and downed those guys with just one fist."
"So you plan on beating them up? Even if you manage to hurt them, they wouldn't pester you for compensation and instead shift the blame to him. Still wanna go?" Chen Yekai said to Zhou Sheng.
Zhou Sheng thought, "That's true." No one dared to provoke him, so they would definitely make Yu Hao shoulder the blame.
As Yu Hao looked at them, he didn't know why his heart felt a bit moved. If he had gotten them as roommates when he first enrolled in college, his life right now might have been much better. But then again, maybe after they got along for awhile they would come to hate him too ba.
That right, he remembered what had happened very clearly. He was half asleep when a blanket suddenly enveloped his head, but he only understood what was happening after he woke up. They had beaten him up for a very long time, and when they finally dispersed in a hubbub, Yu Hao didn't lift the blanket. He curled up in the blanket as he couldn't stop his tears from streaming down his face.
"They better be careful." Zhou Sheng said to Chen Yekai.
Chen Yekai said, "You're the one who needs to be careful. If anyone in their dorm breaks a leg, I'll look for you immediately, you'll be the prime suspect."
Zhou Sheng, "……"
Yu Hao couldn't help but laugh, then said, "You don't need to do that, thank you. I've already gotten over it."
Zhou Sheng asked him, "I'm practically certain that those in your dorm played their part in accusing you of stealing. How could they behave like that? Aren't they afraid of being struck by lightning?"
Yu Hao said, "I don't blame them for hating me. Sometimes, I actually kind of hate myself too."
Then after that, Fu Liqun introduced him to the work-study program because he saw him drinking tap water by the basketball court. In fact, Yu Hao had understood it clearly in his heart, so after that he never played basketball again5. As a tutor, he received 80 yuan per session, and he taught four sessions per month. He cherished this opportunity a lot.
His student wasn't very cooperative at first. Yu Hao didn't scold her, only spoke frankly about their sessions to her parent. After seven lessons, the kid might have wanted to get rid of him by placing the watch in his bag. He couldn't figure it out at first, and when he discovered that there was an extra watch in his bag, he was extremely vigilant because of what had happened in the past.
He thought that his roommate had stuffed it into his bag, so he took the watch out and placed it on the table silently. But when his roommates noticed the watch, they didn't say anything about it.
The doubts in Yu Hao's heart grew, and since he wanted to sell his phone, he brought the watch along as well to ask the recycling shop owner how much it was worth. When he knew its price, he was taken by surprise, and just as he was about to post a lost property notice outside the self study room, the student's parent had called the police.
Every time he went to the other party's house, he went directly into their study. Although he had thought that this family was rich, the thought that the watch was theirs never crossed his mind. Up till the point when the police arrived, he had always thought that he had taken it by accident when he was keeping his things in the study room, or that the people who sat behind him had left their watch on the table so it accidentally dropped into his bag.
"Did you tell Xue Laoshi all of these?" Chen Yekai asked.
"I've said some of it, and omitted the rest." Yu Hao said wearily, "He doesn't believe me."
Chen Yekai said, "Xue Laoshi is a good teacher, why would you say that?"
"He had the exact same gaze as my form teacher in junior high." Yu Hao answered, "There was once when Laoshi caught me for smoking. But I don't smoke. When I was eating, the person sitting next to me was smoking which made me smell of smoke too, but Laoshi was certain that I did it. They are biased against me, so it was useless to explain too much."
"If it were me I wouldn't want to live either." Zhou Sheng sighed, "It's way too f.u.c.king disgusting to be alive."
"Then, you've never had a single friend ever since you were a kid?" Chen Yekai ignored Zhou Sheng and said as he faced Yu Hao.
Chen Yekai said this merely to pave the way for his next sentence. After he said this, he waited for Yu Hao's response. Yu Hao quietly thought about it for a moment, and only wanted to shake his head and tell him that for him to be where he is today, half of the reason was because of his poverty-stricken circ.u.mstance, and the other half was probably due to his personality. But just as he was about to say "no", he suddenly remembered the General in his dream.
"I do have one." Yu Hao said, "I've decided to move on and live a fulfilling life."
Chen Yekai thought "why didn't you follow the script", but he still smiled and said, "I'm your friend too."
"Me too." Fu Liqun smiled as he said, "There are some matters that you shouldn't think too much about, let bygones be bygones."
Zhou Sheng said, "When I heard you say that, I thought of a movie called 《Léon: The Professional》. There's a cla.s.sic line in it that said……"
Chen Yekai couldn't bear to listen any further so he interrupted, "Your drip's finished, let's go, how do you feel?"
Yu Hao felt much better. The nurse came over to pull the needles out for him. Chen Yekai planned to bring them out to eat hotpot, as a so-called "everyone is helping you celebrate your new life" feast.
Yu Hao had more or less digested his lunch by now. He felt a vague sense of discomfort — both from self-reproach, and from his resistance towards "friendship". It was as if after he knew Chen Yekai, Fu Liqun, and even Zhou Sheng for awhile, he would gradually begin to hate himself.
As long as a relationship didn't begin, it would never have an end, expectations, or disappointment. From this point of view, Yu Hao would rather have the friends whom he had just been acquainted with go eat hot pot by themselves, while he slowly walks over alone. But Zhou Sheng had dragged him along without even giving him a chance to speak.
Chen Yekai had just finished ordering and took a few bites before he received a call from the college, so he could only foot the bill and leave in advance; meanwhile, Fu Liqun took two packets of fried rice as takeouts and brought him back to the college just in case he couldn't find his way back. Only Yu Hao and Zhou Sheng were left to face four people's portions worth of food.
Zhou Sheng had a cigarette between his lips as he ordered one more bottle of wine for himself. He kept putting food on Yu Hao's plate as he said, "When you go back to ur dorm just say that you're under my protection, and that if anyone dares to bully you, I'll show them who's boss."
Yu Hao didn't know how to a.s.sociate with this kind of university delinquent, so he could only nod awkwardly.
Zhou Sheng continued, "Guess how much Chen Yekai's scarf costs?"
Yu Hao, "How much?"
Zhou Sheng, "Enough to pay our tuition fees for an entire year."
Yu Hao, "……"
Zhou Sheng said, "Forget it, eat up." It was only after the two had forced themselves to finish the whole table of food and Yu Hao was on the verge of puking before Zhou Sheng sent him back to his dormitory.
"Pa.s.s me the lighter." Zhou Sheng took Yu Hao's lighter, then said, "Confiscating this. Go back, I'll see you tomorrow."
When the autumn breeze blew, the temperatures in Ying city dropped overnight. Yu Hao was so cold he shivered uncontrollably, and when he returned to his dorm, he realised that his roommates were all spending the night out in an internet cafe. He bent down and pulled out a knitted bag from underneath his bed — all his a.s.sets were in this bag.
After he sold his house, he was left with a few photo frames. Pictures that he had taken together with his grandmother were slotted into these frames, and there was even a laminated cla.s.s photo amongst them that was taken after he had graduated from high school. When his cla.s.s took their graduation photo, he was accompanying his grandmother in the hospital for a checkup, so he wasn't in the photo.
Yu Hao kept the photos and tried to find a down vest that he could wear tomorrow, but he discovered a wooden box underneath the knitted bag instead. When he opened the wooden box, Yu Hao's hands were trembling slightly.
There was a chess set inside.
Soldier, cannon, chariot, counsellor, horse6……
He remembered the day when his father had taught him how to play chess. That day, his father showed him how to recognise which piece was the 'soldier', and which piece was the 'governor'. He liked the side with red words7, so they had manifested as the scarlet flags that danced in the winds below the Great Wall — their prowess akin to that of an irresistible tide.
He remembered the times when his grandmother would play chess with him after his father pa.s.sed away. She had always let him win, and in his memories, his grandmother had never won him even once in chess.
"I always win!" The young him had caught his grandmother's general in a checkmate, then his grandmother would laugh as she rearranged the chess board and restarted the game.
Yu Hao gathered up his chess pieces, lied on his bed, and within this darkness where there was n.o.body else…he fell asleep.
He said to himself that he must live his life to the fullest tomorrow, just like what General had said in the dreamscape where he had been reborn. Yu Hao believed in the phrase "one dreams at night what one thinks of in the day". When the dream appeared, it had coincided with the last moments of his life. The fact that he had that dream could have implied that deep down in his heart, he still carried some hope in trying his best to continue living.
"You returned?" He heard General's voice say.
Yu Hao was shocked awake, then shouted out loud and sat straight up. General was kneeling down on one knee as he kept watch by his bedside like a faithful guardian.
"Why……why is it you again?" Yu Hao was thoroughly stunned.
The first time he had this dream, Yu Hao thought that it was a natural phenomenon. But now he had entered this dream a second time and met him once again.
General sat down cross-legged and folded his arms. His movements looked a bit clumsy because of the friction between his armour plates.
"You'll be safe for now because you lit up the fire beacons." General said earnestly, "But if you want to find yourself, you'll have to work harder."
"No no." Yu Hao said in disbelief, "Wait, this…….this is real?"
He turned around to look at his surroundings. He was situated in a house8 with wooden walls, wooden cabinets and a mattress spread out on the floor.
"This is your dream." General said matter-of-factly.
"I know this is my dream…….." Yu Hao was a bit confused, then said, "But why does this dream resemble a TV serial?"
"Is it weird?" General said, "This place is the fixed manifestation of your conscious world. Get up, you wanna take a look outside?"
General reached out to Yu Hao and pulled him up. He motioned for him to open the door, so Yu Hao opened the door and after the glaring light that blinded him disappeared, he saw a scenery filled with vast mountain ridges, hills and fertile fields. There were herds of cattle and sheep wandering about between the mountains. The sky was dark, but it was much brighter now compared to when he was standing on the Great Wall.
Yu Hao stared at the scene before him in a daze. General walked out of the house and closed the door, then explained, "The dream world is very big, and its boundaries will continue to expand as you garner more experiences."
I've never dreamt of this place." Yu Hao said as he frowned.
"You must have." General looked down to adjust his metal gloves, stretched his fingers out and clenched his fist, then said casually, "It's just that you've forgotten about it. I'm much stronger this time, so I should be able to escort you safely to the totem."
"Totem?" Yu Hao turned around to look at General.
"Let's talk as we walk ba."
"A totem is something that you have always held fast to, and is also known as your 'conscience'. The place that it's situated in is this world's core, and it decides how your 'self' is manifested."
There were herds of cattle and sheep on the prairie. There was a road paved with a mixture of soil and rocks underneath their feet as General and Yu Hao walked straight ahead.
"You still have beliefs and hopes. It's just that with the pa.s.sing of time, they became increasingly marginalised and had been driven to the edge of your consciousness. Just a little bit more and they would've fallen into your subconscious. Do you remember standing on the edge of the Great Wall last time?"
Yu Hao, "Yeah, I……..I always wanted to jump down, and I felt like there was someone who kept pushing me from behind."
General said, "Now, you've turned back. So I'm bringing you to where your totem is, then you can regain control over this world."
"Then after that?" Yu Hao asked, "What would happen to me?"
"You will turn into a better version of yourself." General simply said, "Or rather, you'll 'revert' to your previous self."
1. Conservative management is a type of medical treatment defined by the avoidance of invasive measures such as surgery or other invasive procedures, usually with the intent to preserve function or body parts.↩
2. Wow much philosophy. I expended all my Google prowess in researching this phrase. The original phrase is "朝闻道夕死可矣", famous words by Confucius' disciple. The context for this phrase is that as humans, we are gifted with the ability to think/reason (which differentiates us from other animals). And if we are to one day able to understand everything, then we would no longer need to continue trying to think/reason, and thus lead a life no better than death from then onwards (If we know the truth in the morning, it's okay if we die at night) So basically I think what's most befitting in this context of what Chen Yekai is trying to say that knowledge is great and we live to learn THE END.
3. Xunlei = China's Bittorrent↩
4. In China their hostel's internet connection gets pretty slow at night when all the students are watching vids/downloading stuff (like tragically slow) which is why Yu Hao got so annoyed↩
5. This was really how ambiguous it sounded in the raws. I'm guessing that Yu Hao understood that Fu Liqun helped him because he saw him drinking tap water, so after that Yu Hao didn't want to play basketball again lest he gets seen drinking tap water again↩
6. Chinese chess pieces (兵、炮、车、士、马)↩
7. In Chinese chess, one side has black characters while the other has red characters: