Li Bing

Sophie woke up very early and immediately felt the familiar void.  In her heart was a hole, and surrounding the hole were fresh flowers.  Still half-asleep beside her, Karl felt her stirring and put out a hand and gently rubbed her waist and abdomen.  When that was over she quietly stared at him for a while, and somehow the tears came.

They almost had a row last night, but he was the kind who would remember nothing after a night’s sleep.  Now he gave her a smile on his half-waking face.  He seemed to remember that today was Saturday, and that they were going to have something nice at home.

She had asked several Chinese students who were studying German with her to come over.  One of them, called Li Bing, was having his birthday today, and the others wanted to give him a small celebration.  Sophie Laoshi, just let us use your place, and we’ll bring the food and do all the washing and cooking.

Sophie had a part-time job in Munich teaching German to foreigners, and she had many students from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  The students from China had to cram in a lot of German to barely reach the level for entering the universities’ masters and doctoral progammes.  They were particularly poor in their first year here, and it wasn’t easy at all.

Sophie got up and changed, then went out on her bike and brought bread and fruit from the nearby store.  When she got back she took a careful look at their door-bell name-tag to make sure the names were written clearly.  This was an old, pre-war building, occupied by only seven or eight households.  The tag next to her door-bell clearly said: Frau Sophie Kohl, Herr Karl Schmidt.  It was unlikely the Chinese students would press the wrong door-bell.  She raised her head and saw the old lady on the fourth floor scrutinizing her from behind the window curtain.  The old woman kept daily vigilance over this street, determined not to let anyone break its tranquility.

Karl had already got up and was in the study working in front of his computer, humming the pop songs that were spilling out from the radio.  In the past few days the news broadcast was full of Mikhail Gorbachov’s oncoming visit to China, reports that had become a bit tiring to the ear.

Karl, a tropical-fish maniac working as a research assistant in the university, had his own aquatic setup at home, as was expected.  He talked to his fish both mornings and evenings.  He also had two cats, a brown one and a white one which resembled a pair of household guardian gods.  Right now they were crouching on two low stools left and right of Karl, throwing a glance at Sophie.

“I’m very happy today,” Karl saw her come in and broke into an unexpected chuckle.

“So are we going to Berlin or not?”  This was what nearly made them start a quarrel last night and she couldn’t help snapping back at him now, although he had never ever shown anger towards her.  Sophie’s research specialism was ancient Greek, and there happened to be an opening in West Berlin.  But Karl disliked the agonizing sophistication of Berlin, preferring instead the comfortable cleanliness of Bavaria and the stability and order of Munich.  What’s more, his tropical-fish wouldn’t be available in West Berlin.  Again concentrating on his computer, he apparently didn’t hear Sophie speaking.

Sophie arranged the things and got out some bottles of white wine and chilled them.  When she was wiping the wine-glasses with cloth the hole in her heart came out again.  The hole was black at the centre.  She went into the kitchen thinking she would make herself a honey drink but soon forgot and just went to the window and picked a few leaves of her self-grown mint and nibbled at them.  Looking down she saw Li Bing with a bagful of things pressing the door-bell to enter.  Soon afterwards she heard Karl open the door and introduce himself enthusiastically, not forgetting to present his fish and his cats in the study too.

Li Bing was the centre of attention today and he was in high spirits.  He followed Sophie into the kitchen and opened his bag, and out tumbled the things noisily: flour, leafy greens, pork, soy-sauce, leek, chili, garlic and, from the bottom of the bag, a rolling-pin.  “Lucky I listened to my wife and brought this along.  It’s used every time our classmates have a get-together.”

Li Bing had come here from Beijing to study for a doctoral degree in materials science.  He was doing quite well in Beginner’s German and was often smiling.  Sophie knew that he had just had a baby son, born in Beijing a few days ago, and he hadn’t seen it yet.  He was very happy and thinking that in so many years’ time he would get his whole family to come out here.

What time is Wang Dong coming, and the other girls?  Sophie rather liked this female student Wang Dong.  She was the one who laughed loudest in class.  On the first day of term everyone had to do a self-introduction in German.  Wang Dong had it all ready and rattled off: “I am called Wang Dong.  I am a native of Fujian.  I was born on Winter Solstice Day.  Dong is Chinese for winter.  So I am called Wang Dong.”

A few days ago these girls, Wang Dong among them, teamed up with some other students and took a short trip to France, and they would hurry back around noon.  Li Bing said, Laoshi, I’ll get started first.  I’ll make the noodles and wrap the dumplings, then when we’re all here we can boil the noodles and steam the dumplings.

Having asked Sophie politely if he could knead the dough on the wooden dining-table in the sitting-room, he brought his things from the kitchen and laid them out and got down to work.  Sophie supplied him with cold water, a big stainless-steel sieve and salt and sugar.  He sieved the flour gently, shaking it loose and piling it up.  Then he made a hole in the middle and dripped water into it slowly, and using both hands combined the flour and the water, gradually forming the whole thing into a ball.

“Laoshi you don’t have to keep me company.  This will take a while.  I’ll tell you when I’m done.”  He started to roll out the dough, using quite a bit of strength, and the table’s legs swayed to his motion.  Some time ago the cats had slipped in, and now they had each found a vantage point on a bookshelf nailed high up on the wall and were perching there.  Li Bing worked at the dough, grinning as he worked.  This morning when he called home his wife held the crying baby to the phone to let him hear it, and his heart overflowed with happiness.  Hey you, keep calm, he told himself, or they’ll think you’re crazy.

Sophie could tell exactly what Li Bing was thinking.  She stood and watched for a while, then seeing her help was not needed went into the kitchen and switched on the dishwasher to clean the cutlery and plates.  Then she put the fruit she bought this morning through the juicer and made a big jar of juice.  In May the weather was still cool, so the juice could just stand there and wouldn’t need to go into the fridge. 

She sat down to wait for the dishwasher to finish its cycle.  Looking out, she could see Karl in the study working on his computer and putting the swimming patterns of fish through a simulation analysis.  On the other side of the sitting-room Li Bing had already stretched the noodles into threads and placed them under a damp cloth and was now chopping up the bok-choy and pork with a sturdy, rhythmic hand.  It seemed to her that she could almost feel the pulse-beat of the two men.  Karl was deeply immersed in thought and his heart-beat was slow, whereas Li Bing, possessed by the joy of carrying a great responsibility, was admiring the sparkling freshness of the bok-choy and pork mixture which seemed to be saying to him: I’m so yummy, come eat me, c’mon.

Sophie could not remember since when such sensations were lost to her.  She also used to wake up in the morning as cheerful as a bird feeling that many exciting things were lined up and she must jump out of bed and get to them at once.  Then gradually she felt less of that cheerfulness and more often became perplexed, perplexed about whether or not a year later or a further year later she should be doing the same things, with the same person, and living the same kind of life.  Sometimes when Karl was talking to her excitedly about his tropical-fish she would wish he could be briefer and couldn’t understand why he was so cheerful.  When they were making love she hoped he could be faster.  Then the black hole appeared.  Whenever she had an idle moment there would be a hole in her heart, a hole surrounded by flowers.  Maybe she could go to Berlin and make new friends, and maybe she could do really well in ancient Greek, but the hole, once there, would always stay in her heart, and stay with her.  Without really knowing why, she had let go of that happy world of Karl and Li Bing, and it would be impossible to go back to it now.  She was very sure that there was no future.  

Laoshi, what floor are you on?  It was Wang Dong’s voice.  She and some other students were calling from the street below.  Sophie signaled her from the window to be quiet.  Behind the window curtains on the floor beneath the old lady was showing her grumpy face, muttering something.

Wang Dong’s voice came before she made her appearance.  Laoshi we had such luck this time.  We didn’t get visas; we just risked it and crossed over to France.  The French customs people got on the minute the train crossed the border.  We slipped from car to car, and they didn’t catch us.  Wow, Li Bing you’re terrific, you wrapped the dumplings all by yourself!  Here, we got a birthday present for you – see, we were risking danger and we still remembered you!  This silk tablecloth is for you, Laoshi.  Guten Tag, Herr Karl.  Your cats?  They’re cool!

The two cats were hitherto perched quietly in mid-air, but as they watched the crowd pour in and saw the sitting-room fill up with boisterous, sprawling people they suddenly shot up and hit the ceiling then plunged down and zigzagged across the room like bullets shooting across a battlefield.  Sophie moved between the two flying cats and brought the students wine and juice while Wang Dong, Li Bing and others entered and exited the kitchen, boiled water, put in the noodles and steamed the dumplings.  Cats and people were all busily occupied.

Karl heard the noisy stir in the sitting-room and came out to take a look.  At the sight of Karl the cats calmed down and sulkily retreated into the study.

Wang Dong placed the big wok on the dining-table and started to eat.  She didn’t have chopsticks, so she stood there and ate with plate, knife and fork.  Karl pulled a few wooden chairs from the study and Sophie invited everyone to sit down and offered more wine.  But the students preferred to stand, saying it’s great, and devoured the noodles and dumplings in big gulps.  They didn’t take much wine and just kept swilling down the hot soup which was a cloudy soy-based liquid.  The air was infused with the aroma of garlic.

Wang Dong described what they had seen in Paris.  “Everything on television was about the students in Tiananmen Square and what to do with them when Gorbachov arrives.”  She paused a bit to think, and said to Li Bing, “I say, Xiao Li,* if something really happened, then none of us would have to go home, and maybe your wife and son can come out here more easily.”

If I have a chance, I’d rather go to the States, I want my son to go to school in the States, Li Bing made it clear as he served everyone more noodles.  A classmate quickly responded: Yea, Europe is so strange.  Look at our German language institute.  The principal rides a bicycle, the janitor drives a Mercedes.  I ask people is there a mistake?  But they say I don’t understand, it’s called ecological awakening: driving a car is pollution, but riding a bike is progress.  Also, the principal earns a high salary and can afford to live in the city, but the janitor gets low pay and lives far, so the car is a necessity.

In China we’ve been riding bicycles ever since we were kids, Wang Dong said, so we’ve all had this awakening for a long long time.  There was a loud burst of laughter.  Someone asked Sophie Laoshi to say something.  Karl gave Sophie a fresh glass of wine.  She turned her head and saw the big bright kitchen window behind her and thought, if I jumped out of the window now would it shock the old lady on the fourth floor?

Sophie said, Yes, there may really be trouble at the square.  She said there aren’t enough glasses I’ll get some new ones from the kitchen, and then she said the young mint leaves that came out today smell very fresh and cool I’ll pick a few for you all to taste.  The window’s wide-open mouth looked ever so tempting.  A voice, it sounded like Li Bing’s, was calling, Don’t jump.

(March 2010)

Translated from Chinese by Diana Yue