Lin Kong graduated from the military medical school toward the end of 1963 and came to Muji to work as a doctor. At that time the hospital ran a small nursing school, which offered a sixteen-month program and produced nurses for the army in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. When Manna Wu enrolled as a student in the fall of 1964, Lin was teaching a course in anatomy. She was an energetic young woman at the time, playing volleyball on the hospital team. Unlike most of her classmates who were recent middle- or high-school graduates, she had already served three years as a telephone operator in a coastal division and was older than most of them. Since over 95 percent of the students in the nursing school were female, many young officers from the units stationed in Muji City would frequent the hospital on weekends.
Most of the officers wanted to find a girlfriend or a fiancée among the students, although these young women were still soldiers and were not allowed to have a boyfriend. There was a secret reason for the men's interest in the female students, a reason few of them would articulate but one which they all knew in their hearts, namely that these were "good girls." That phrase meant these women were virgins; otherwise they could not have joined the army, since every young woman recruited had to go through a physical exam that eliminated those with a broken hymen.
One Sunday afternoon in the summer, Manna was washing clothes alone in the dormitory washroom. In came a bareheaded lieutenant of slender build and medium height, his face marked with a few freckles. His collar was unbuckled and the top buttons on his jacket were undone, displaying his prominent Adam's apple. He stood beside her, lifted his foot up, and placed it into the long terrazzo sink. The tap water splashed on his black plastic sandal and spread like a silvery fan. Done with the left foot, he put in his right. To Manna's amusement, he bathed his feet again and again. His breath stank of alcohol.
He turned and gave her a toothy grin, and she smiled back. Gradually they entered into conversation. He said he was the head of a radio station at the headquarters of the Muji Sub-Command and a friend of Instructor Peng. His hands shook a little as he talked. He asked where she came from; she told him her hometown was in Shandong Province, withholding the fact that she had grown up as an orphan without a hometown -- her parents had died in a traffic accident in Tibet when she was three.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"I'm Mai Dong, from Shanghai."
A lull set in. She felt her face flushing a little, so she returned to washing her clothes. But he seemed eager to go on talking.
"Glad to meet you, Comrade Manna Wu," he said abruptly and stretched out his hand.
She waved to show the soapsuds on her palms. "Sorry," she said with a pixieish smile.
"By the way, how do you like Muji?" he asked, rubbing his wet hands on his flanks.
"It's all right."
"Really? Even the weather here?"
"Not too cold in winter?" Before she could answer, he went on, "Of course, summer's fine. How about -- "
"Why did you bathe your feet eight or nine times?" She giggled.
"Oh, did I?" He seemed bewildered, looking down at his feet.
"Nice sandals," she said.
"My cousin sent them from Shanghai. By the way, how old are you?" He grinned.
Surprised by the question, she looked at him for a moment and then turned away, reddening.
He smiled rather naturally. "I mean, do you have a boyfriend?"
Again she was taken aback. Before she could decide how to answer, a woman student walked in with a bucket to fetch water, so their conversation had to end.
A week later she received a letter from Mai Dong. He apologized profusely for disturbing her in the washroom and for his untidy appearance, which wasn't suitable for an officer. He had asked her so many embarrassing questions, she must have taken him for an idiot. But he had not been himself that day. He begged her to forgive him. She wrote back, saying she had not been offended, instead very much amused. She appreciated his candor and natural manners.
Excerpted from Waiting by Ha Jin. Copyright© 1999 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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