Three days before school started, Yaoyuan was still struggling against his biological clock; after all, it was very difficult to readjust from the nocturnal lifestyle he had been living all summer. On this day he went to bed in the early morning and when he woke up again at 11 o’clock, neither Zhao Guogang nor Tan Ruikang were home; they’d both left.
Yaoyuan was annoyed, feeling a little like his dad had just been stolen. Seeing the note on the table, he knew they wouldn’t be back for lunch.
They probably went to take the exam…hopefully everything goes smoothly, and after a few days he’ll pack his bags to move on campus. Yaoyuan laid on the couch and called his friend Qi Huiyu, conveniently complaining to him about his second cousin.
“Yeah, it’s just like that where he’s from.” Yaoyuan said: “It’s pretty sad too, after elementary school they go to middle school, then marry a wife, build a house, work the fields, raise some chickens and pigs, and their whole life just passes like that. If his dad hadn’t passed away, leading him to move to the city to sustain himself, he’d probably spend his whole life in that farming village.”
Qi Huiyu laughed over the phone: “Did he embarrass himself at your house? Last time my relatives came over they embarrassed themselves.”
Yaoyuan said: “He’s okay, he’s pretty smart.”
Qi Huiyu told him that when his rural relatives came over to visit, they put his mom’s electric kettle onto the gas stove to boil, and the entire plastic bottom melted. Yaoyuan and Huiyu burst into a fit of laughter, then gossiped a bit more about a couple of girls from their class before respectively hanging up.
Yaoyuan flicked through his contacts list in boredom, looking for somebody to check the winter break homework answers with. This time, it was Lin Zibo, who wore thick coke-bottle glasses.
After checking their answers, Lin Zibo asked: “How’s your distant relative?”
Yaoyuan repeated what he had told Qi Huiyu earlier, and Lin Zibo said: “Their learning pace probably isn’t up to speed with the education here!”
Yaoyuan said: “Even their English textbooks are People’s Edition, my dad probably went to contact a vocational high school for him, you won’t starve in the trades. Did you do the additional practice booklet Nosepicker assigned?”
Nosepicker was their math teacher who liked to pick his nose, hence the nickname.
Lin Zibo also hadn’t finished, but promised to let Yaoyuan copy off of him the day it was due. The doorbell rang, Yaoyuan hung up the phone to open the door, Zhao Guogang and Tan Ruikang were back.
“How was it?” Yaoyuan asked.
Zhao Guogang said: “He passed, your ge did very well, school starts on September 2nd. Go change, we’re going out to eat and buy some things.”
Tan Ruikang smiled, Zhao Guogang said: “After school starts you need to pay special attention to English, if you don’t understand, ask Xiao Yuan.”
Tan Ruikang nodded in quick succession, Zhao Guogang continued to say: “Staying back a grade isn’t a big deal, it just so happens that you guys can take care of each other…”
Yaoyuan heard this from further inside, and asked: “Which one is he going to? We can go look at it together after lunch.”
Zhao Guogang: “No need, it’s Sanzhong, we contacted your vice principal, he can go directly to class on Monday.”
“Sanzhong?!” Yaoyuan was in disbelief, his worldview having been completely overturned. As if in a dream, he furrowed his brows and said: “You… Tan Ruikang! You got in Sanzhong just like that?”
Zhao Guogang was slightly displeased: “He has to repeat a year, he’ll stay back to do the third year of middle school with you, next year you’ll take the zhongkao together.”
Yaoyuan’s entire person almost exploded. Treating Tan Ruikang as if he were invisible, he asked: “Which class? Are you joking!”
Zhao Guogang said: “Class 1, your top class.”
Yaoyuan: “That can’t… this…”
Zhao Guogang looked up at his own son. Yaoyuan almost said “that can’t happen” out loud, what kind of joke is this! In the south, going from elementary school to middle school, then middle to high school, was like if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men tried to cross a single-log bridge! To get into the top class at Sanzhong was equivalent to having one foot in the door of all the key undergraduate programs, how did he manage to do it?! Based on what?!
“That’s too…” Yaoyuan stepped on the breaks just in time, changing the direction to say: “Too impressive.”
Yaoyuan’s expression became gloomy, going back to change his clothes then came out to put on his shoes. Zhao Guogang knew his son was very competitive, his jealousy had flared up, but he couldn’t discipline him in front of Tan Ruikang, so his expression was also ugly. He could only try to divert the conversation from Tan Ruikang.
Yaoyuan bent over to put on his shoes, but on the inside, his heart was being overturned in waves and rivers. Tan Ruikang was that good of a student? Sanzhong didn’t have a transfer exam, his dad must’ve taken him to the Grade Leader to do a test exam and then taken him to see the vice principal. Yaoyuan remembered the year before middle school Zhao Guogang had expressed himself very clearly, if he couldn’t get into a key school he’d just have to go to a normal middle school to cushion out the bottom.
Yaoyuan had studied like his life depended on it, but still missed by a few points. Of course Zhao Guogang went to a friend in the Education Bureau to ask for a slip and managed to cram him in, but Yaoyuan only found out afterwards that Zhao Guogang also had to pay 30 thousand yuan of school selection fees.
Yaoyuan’s self-esteem had received an enormous blow, and realized that he couldn’t rely on his dad forever. After getting into middle school, he worked hard to study and was finally able to enjoy the fruits of his labour a little. Just as he was feeling immensely pleased with himself, this unremarkable Tan Ruikang surprisingly also got crammed in, and was even in the same class as him!
How much money did Zhao Guogang spend?
Yaoyuan finished putting on his shoes, straightened up and followed Zhao Guogang out, then suddenly asked in the elevator: “Dad, did you pay the school selection fees? How many thousands is it to get into Class 1 now? Still 30 thousand?”
Zhao Guogang fell directly into his son’s trap. He was damned if he answered, and damned if he didn’t. After asking, Yaoyuan watched the elevator buttons expressionlessly, knowing that Zhao Guogang had no way of answering.
If he said the school selection fees cost 30 thousand yuan, Tan Ruikang was right there.
If he said no, Zhao Guogang had to at least keep his son’s feelings in mind. Plus, he knew that was impossible, Yaoyuan practically knew his own school from the inside out.
Tan Ruikang received a scare, and asked: “Uncle, what is that, what fee?”
Zhao Guogang said in a low voice: “It hasn’t been decided yet, it depends on his zhongkao score.”
“Oh,” Yaoyuan said coldly.
Tan Ruikang’s expression was at a loss. He’d just heard an astronomical number, but he didn’t know if there were any mysterious principles; plus the atmosphere between Yaoyuan and Zhao Guogang was a bit tense, as if the air within the elevator was depressurizing.
Yaoyuan had heard countless times of the theory that his dad’s money was his money. Lots of relatives from Zhao Guogang’s side of the family tell him that he should watch his dad, don’t let anybody swindle his money. Zhao Guogang hadn’t remarried, and Yaoyuan would never agree to having a stepmother; his possessive desires were stronger than normal, nobody could monopolize his dad, and outsiders couldn’t use their money either.
Zhao Guogang went to get the car. Tan Ruikang asked in a small voice: “Yaoyuan, what’s the school selection fee?”
Yaoyuan benevolently said: “It’s nothing. Congratulations, ge, from now on we’ll be classmates.”
Tan Ruikang’s brows were knitted in a knot, Zhao Guogang drove the car over and took them to have lunch. He chatted about a few things related to the new school term, like getting Tan Ruikang a new school bag, stationery, clothes, shoes, and bus card.
Yaoyuan didn’t say a word. Sitting in the passenger seat, leaning against the window and looking at the scorching sun outside, he wondered if Tan Ruikang was Zhao Guogang’s illegitimate child.
“The year your dad brought you over,” Zhao Guogang said, “Xiao Yuan was only two, you were four.”
Tan Ruikang’s brows temporarily smoothed out a little, and said: “I’ve completely forgotten.”
Zhao Guogang said: “At the time the roads here were still full of bumps and potholes, this area was still in development then, and now it’s the city centre. Xiao Yuan’s mother wanted your dad to come and do business here, it was just the beginning of the Reforms and Openness then… Yuanye's stocks were three yuan apiece, and at its height it’d rise to a hundred.”
Tan Ruikang asked: “Why didn’t my dad come over then?”
Zhao Guogang said: “He said there was nobody taking care of the two elders at home, Xiao Yuan’s grandpa couldn’t get used to the city, and there was nobody else to care for the fields at home either.”
“What about now, did they rent out the fields?” Yaoyuan asked.
Zhao Guogang said: “Not many people still work on the fields at your mom's brother's place now, maybe after a few years they can develop a tourism industry… so many years have passed in the blink of an eye.”
The car stopped to wait for a red light at an intersection, and Zhao Guogang said: “The first time your Ruikang-ge saw you he liked you so much, he kept hugging you and kissing you nonstop…”
Yaoyuan’s face flushed red, and bitterly he said: “Can you not bring this up?”
Tan Ruikang laughed loudly, saying: “Uncle, I’ve totally forgotten.”
Zhao Guogang recalled his late wife, his voice becoming much more gentle as he said: “Ruikang couldn’t bear to leave, and kept saying ‘I want a brother, I want a brother.’”
Tan Ruikang sighed: “At the time my mom had already passed, she told me once that she’d give me a brother.”
Zhao Guogang “mn”-ed absentmindedly, shifted gears and stepped on the breaks, said: “Although Xiao Yuan’s mother and your father were cousins, they were very close when they were younger. Xiao Yuan, you and your gege also need to get along, got it?”
Yaoyuan responded coldly. Zhao Guogang knew his son was right in the middle of his teenage rebellion phase, if he said more they would just argue, so he just let it go.
For lunch Zhao Guogang took them out to eat, Tan Ruikang wasn’t used to eating white cut chicken with blood in it, so Zhao Guogang ordered some other dishes for him. In Yaoyuan’s eyes he only felt that Tan Ruikang seemed more and more annoying, so he just sat there and didn’t say anything, feeling an indescribable feeling of rejection.
Zhao Guogang was still very good at making conversation, he’d spent many years in the business world so dealing with two children was naturally a cinch for him. When the topic of his hometown came up Tan Ruikang would have a lot to say, such as the chickens they raised, the eggs the fish-eating duck laid, the first bamboo shoots in spring, the local goods from back home… Yaoyuan was annoyed as he listened. When Tan Ruikang was speaking he wouldn’t speak, and when Yaoyuan spoke Tan Ruikang couldn’t understand 80% of it, and so wouldn’t speak up.
The meal was finished with much difficulty, then Zhao Guogang took them shopping. Yaoyuan rarely bought things like school bags and stationery from the Guomao—it wasn’t up to his taste, this was more Zhao Guogang’s usual habit. Yaoyuan liked going to pedestrian zones to look for some cartoon things for boys that weren’t expensive but appeared very fashionable, such as Cool Cat or Japanese products.
The shoulder bag and stationery Zhao Guogang bought for Tan Ruikang were all very expensive but looked extremely ordinary and tasteless. They also bought a pair of athletic shoes, the kind that Yaoyuan wouldn’t wear even if you paid him.
When paying Tan Ruikang insisted on using his own money, which Yaoyuan found both annoying and funny. Zhao Guogang said: “Ruikang, don’t be so courteous with Uncle. When you start working in the future, there’s plenty of time for you to buy things for Uncle.”
Tan Ruikang was silent for a long time, and finally he nodded gratefully.
Zhao Guogang drove back to their neighbourhood, paid for Tan Ruikang to go and get a haircut, then took Yaoyuan upstairs, planning to placate his son a little. However, not long after getting home, the two began arguing.
“How much money did you spend on him?!” Yaoyuan said: “Why didn’t you tell me!”
Zhao Guogang said: “Yaoyuan, his father was a brother to your mom, you’re an only child, you don’t understand brotherly affection…”
Yaoyuan: “But the problem is he isn’t your child! What right does he have?! He’s fully grown already, he can absolutely sustain himself! Why doesn’t he go and get a job?”
Zhao Guogang took a deep breath, he had no way of getting through to this son of his.
“Hypothetically, Xiao Yuan, hypothetically Dad and Mom left you at the same time,” Zhao Guogang said, “and you couldn’t go to high school after middle school and had to go out to work by yourself, would you think that destiny was being fair to you? Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think about it, your second cousin is only 17 this year! To let him take his middle school diploma and go move bricks on a construction site is to ruin him! If it were you, would you be willing?”
Yaoyuan said: “There’s nothing hard about sustaining yourself! If it really were my turn, I could also earn my own living! Working part-time while going to school, who says I have to rely on my parents?”
Zhao Guogang said: “Easy for you to say. Since you said that, why are you getting mad that Dad is paying for his school fees and selection fees?”
Yaoyuan was at a loss for words.
Zhao Guogang was about to say some nice words to appease him, but Yaoyuan headed back to his room with a dark expression, slammed the door with a bang, and locked it.
Zhao Guogang knew that Yaoyuan was just saying things. If Yaoyuan really had to go out and work a job, this young master temper of his wouldn’t last two days without throwing something and quitting. This child was spoiled too much growing up, he didn’t know what there was to be done once he’s old enough to enter society.
After smoking a cigarette, Zhao Guogang went to knock on his door, saying in an amiable tone: “Xiao Yuan, the person that Dad loves the most in this world will always be you, think clearly about this, how could you get mad at Dad?”
After hearing those words, Yaoyuan teared up. He laid on his bed reading a picture book, but didn’t go to open the door. Zhao Guogang knew he wanted some face, so he didn’t go and knock again, instead he went to call the company driver to bring over some groceries, then began cleaning the house.
Having finished throwing a temper and been given an easy way out, it was difficult for Yaoyuan to continue to go against his father, so he went to the kitchen to wash the vegetables. Tan Ruikang had also come back with a very short haircut, smiling he said: “Uncle.”
Zhao Guogang said: “Very spirited, the haircut’s not bad. Xiao Yuan, once school starts your hair also needs to be groomed.”
After returning, Tan Ruikang intuitively went to the kitchen to wash vegetables. Yaoyuan was still silent, so Tan Ruikang smiled and asked: “Xiao Yuan, how’s ge’s haircut?”
Yaoyuan glanced at him and thought pretty handsome, the hairdresser knew to give him a layered cut? The greasy impression from before was gone, the hair was washed to be clear and fresh, there was even a slight fragrance coming from him.
The shampoo girl must’ve put a lot of effort into settling Tan Ruikang’s hair.
Yaoyuan said skimpily: “Not bad, very spirited.”
“Your hair looks good.” Tan Ruikang said: “How much was the haircut? The people in the salon were trying to wash my hair and give me a perm, it really gave me a scare. They even offered a massage, I said ‘no, no, no, just trimming it is fine…’”
“They always give a massage here.” Yaoyuan said: “A massage only costs ten yuan, washing, cutting and blow-drying costs fifteen, a massage will make you feel better and more refreshed, that’s it.”
Tan Ruikang said: “Don’t you still have to get it cut after washing it? Then wasn’t washing it a waste? What a waste of money.”
Yaoyuan realized that he had absolutely no common language with Tan Ruikang, and could only nod and say yeah, yeah. Having finished cleaning, Zhao Guogang came in with an apron to start cooking, and Tan Ruikang rushed to say: “Let me.”
Zhao Guogang said: “Xiao Yuan’s picky, let Uncle finish serving him first, later on you can cook for him when Uncle isn’t home.”
Tan Ruikang smiled and agreed, then saw that there wasn’t a place for him in the kitchen, so he returned to his room.
Yaoyuan was assisting Zhao Guogang, Zhao Guogang said in a low voice: “Xiao Yuan, you’re Dad’s son, nobody can take your place. You’re the host of this house, if there’s something, concede a little to your cousin, okay?”
The rims of Yaoyuan’s eyes were a little red, and he oh-ed. Zhao Guogang said: “Bring me the fish.”
Zhao Guogang took the prepared ingredients and made a steamed fish; Yaoyuan hugged Zhao Guogang from behind, sticking his face into his back.
Zhao Guogang was 180 centimetres tall, even while cooking he needed to be careful not to hit his head on the range hood. Yaoyuan was 170 centimetres tall, just reaching over his shoulder.
Zhao Guogang let him cling to him from behind, then turned to prepare the steamed fish soy sauce, bringing Yaoyuan back and forth with him just like when Zhao Guogang would cook for Yaoyuan as a child and Xiao Yuan would cling to his leg and zone out, refusing to let go.
Zhao Guogang said: “Still acting cute when you’re almost as tall as Dad, be careful your cousin will make fun of you.”
Yaoyuan let go, and bitterly went to watch TV.
There were four dishes and one soup for dinner, Zhao Guogang’s cooking was very good, and all the dishes were ones that Yaoyuan liked, so his mood also lifted, not wanting to make as much of a fuss. But once he remembered that school was starting after the weekend and not only did he have to bring such a cousin to his own class, he had to take care of him too, Yaoyuan felt his head spinning.
The last few days of break went by in a flash, and when Yaoyuan climbed out of his blankets he couldn’t stop himself from madly shouting.
Everything was packed up, Tan Ruikang was eating breakfast outside, as soon as he opened the door he felt both hot and uncomfortable; Yaoyuan hated that he couldn’t just go back and continue sleeping in his air conditioned room.
Yaoyuan finished brushing his teeth and washing his face, then expressionlessly sat down facing a plate of steamed mantou. Immediately he felt his appetite receding. Zhao Guogang had let Tan Ruikang take out some frozen food from the freezer to make; Tan Ruikang hadn’t touched anything else, of all things he had chosen to steam a whole plate of frozen mantou.
“Eat more,” Tan Ruikang said.
Boiled water with mantou, Yaoyuan was completely speechless. Getting up to get a bag of Doll Dim Sum from the freezer, he took some shumai prawn dumplings and stuffed them in the microwave to spin, boiled water to make tea, and didn’t say a word.
“Xiao Yuan is grumpy in the mornings.” Zhao Guogang said: “Don’t provoke him.”
Tan Ruikang smiled and said: “Got it.”
The sound of a ding, and Yaoyuan began eating his shumai prawn dumplings and drinking his pu’er tea. After forcing himself to choke some down, he pushed the rest towards Tan Ruikang. Tan Ruikang immediately went to wave his hands, saying: “No, thank you.”
Yaoyuan finished putting on his socks and changing his shoes, then sat on the couch still half-asleep. With an “ah,” he collapsed onto Zhao Guogang, head pillowed on his thigh as he watched the TVB morning news.
Tan Ruikang came out carrying his school bag, and asked: “How do I use this card? Which route do I take?”
Zhao Guogang said: “Xiao Yuan will teach you, go now, it’s the first day of school, get along with your classmates.”
Zhao Guogang dug through his wallet and gave Yaoyuan and Tan Ruikang money, 500 each. Yaoyuan stuffed it in his bag without looking, but Tan Ruikang rushed to say: “No need, Uncle, I have my own…”
“Hurry up, the bus will leave soon,” Yaoyuan said, annoyed. Tan Ruikang had already spent 30 thousand of his dad’s money anyway, 400 is really nothing anymore.
Zhao Guogang said: “Keep it, if you run out of living expenses ask Uncle for it, once you get a job there’s plenty of time for you to give Uncle money.”
Once Zhao Guogang put it like that, Tan Ruikang was able to nod and take it. Yaoyuan brought him downstairs, then left the neighbourhood to take the bus, beginning the first day of the newest semester in the third year of middle school.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Kapsoura.