Tiao brought her head in from the car window. The radio was playing an old song: "Atop the golden mountain in Beijing, / rays of light shine in all directions. Chairman Mao is exactly like that golden sun, / so warm, so kind, he lights up the hearts of us serfs, / as we march on the socialist path to happiness / Hey, ba zha hei!" It was a game show from the local music station. The host asked the audience to guess the song title and the original singer. The winner would get a case of Jiabao SOD skin-care products. Audience members phoned in constantly, guessing titles and singers over and over again in Fuan-accented Mandarin, but none of them guessed right. After all, the song and the old singer who sang the song were unfamiliar to the audience of the day, so unfamiliar that even the host felt embarrassed. Tiao knew the title of the old song and the singer who sang it, which drew her into the game show, even though she had no plans to call the hotline. She just sang the song over and over in her headonly the refrain, "Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! . . . " Twenty years ago, when she and her classmates sang that song together, they loved to sing the last line, "Ba zha hei!" It was a Tibetan folk song, sung by the liberated serfs in gratitude to Chairman Mao. "Ba zha hei!" obviously isn't Chinese. It must be because it was not Chinese that Tiao used to repeat it with such enthusiasm, with some of that feeling of liberation, like chanting, like clever wordplay. The thought of clever wordplay made her force herself to stop repeating "Ba zha hei." She returned to the present, to the taxi in the provincial capital of Fuan. The game show on the music station was over; the seat in the quiet taxi was covered by a patterned cotton cushion, not too clean, which resembled those shoe inserts handmade and embroidered by country girls from the north. Tiao always felt as if she were sitting on the padding over a Kang bed-stove whenever she sat in a taxi like this. Even though she had been living here for twenty years, she still compared everything to the capital. Whether psychologically or geographically, Beijing was always close to her. This would seem to have a lot to do with the fact that she was born in Beijing, and was a Beijinger. But most of the time she didn't feel she was a Beijinger, nor did she feel she was a provincial person, a Fuaner. She felt she didn't belong anywhere, and she often thought this with some spite, some perverse pleasure. It was almost as if she made herself rootless on purpose, as if only in rootlessness could she be free and remain apart from the city around her, allowing her to face all cities and life itself with detachment and calm. And when she thought of the word "calm," it finally occurred to her that the person sitting in the taxi shouldn't be so calm; she was probably going to get married.
She had never been married beforethe sentence sounded a little odd, as if others who were preparing to get married had all been married many times. But she had never been married beforeshe still preferred to think this way. She thought about herself this way without any commendatory or derogatory connotations, though sometimes with a touch of pride, and sometimes a touch of sadness. She knew she didn't look like someone who was approaching forty. Often her eyes would moisten suddenly and a hazy look would float over them; her body had the kind of vigor, agility, and alertness that only an unmarried, childless mature woman would have. The drawers in her office were always stuffed with snacks: preserved plums, eel jerky, fruit chocolate, etc. She was the vice president of a children's publishing house, but none of her colleagues addressed her as President Yin. Instead, they called her by her name: Yin Xiaotiao. She looked smug a lot of the time, and she knew the person most annoyed by her smugness was her younger sister Fan. Particularly after Fan left for America, things became much clearer. For a long time, she was afraid to tell Fan about her love affairs, but the more she was afraid, the more she felt driven to tell Fan about every one of them. It was almost as though she could prove she wasn't afraid of Fan by putting up with Fan's criticism of what she did in her affairs. Even right now she was thinking this, with a somewhat sneaky bravado. It was as if she'd already picked up the phone, and could already imagine the troubled, inquiring expression that Fan had on the other end of the overseas line at getting the news, along with the string of her words, delivered with a nasal tinge. They, Tiao and Fan, had suffered together; they'd felt together as one. What made Fan so contemptuous of Tiao's life? It was surely contemptfor her clothes, her hairstyle, and the men in her life. Nothing escaped Fan's ridicule and condemnationeven the showerhead in Tiao's bathroom. The first year Fan came back to visit, she stayed with Tiao. She complained that the water pressure in the showerhead was too weak to get her hair cleanthat precious hair of hers. She complained with a straight face, showing no sign of joking at all. Tiao managed to conceal her unhappiness behind a phony smile, but she would always remember that phony smile.
Excerpted from The Bathing Women by Tie Ning. Copyright © 2012 by Tie Ning. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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