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Many years later, as his curious grandson asked about the blade-shape scar under his left eye, Luo was to remember that distant afternoon when he encountered three upperclassmen in a crooked alley. At that time, Chengdu was an ancient, quiet city full of memories. Dim, narrow alleys crawled in downtown like snakes. Beside men in khaki uniforms occasionally striding by with their oily guns, nothing seemed to be changed for decades.
Nothing seemed to be changed, the school was still school and kids still got bullied.
That was supposed to be an awesome day: class ended early, and the autumn sky hung high and sober. Luo strolled into the crooked alley not far from his school. He was talking about this great day with his friend. As they were on their routine way home, three shadows emerged at a corner. Luo’s delighted heart assumed that they were about to say hi.
However, those three teenagers never thought of greeting. They shoveled him away and grabbed his friend by arms without a word. He wanted to scream, but as soon as “what are you doing here man” squeezed out of his trembling lips, one of the boys glared at him and ordered, “Shut up”. He watched these upperclassmen shovel his short and chubby friend against the wall. He heard the biggest one among the three, muscular and tanned, cursing the boy at the wall with words like “snobby”, “spoiled”, “filthy capitalist”, and “mother*****g landlord”.
No, no, his friend didn’t deserve this. Surely this boy used to live in a giant mansion with fountains. He used to be the only kid in class who owned those delicate books behind the windows. But he was far from snobby. He loved inviting his classmates for dinner; he shared the books he received with the entire class before he could peek inside them. He treated everyone abnormally well, it seemed that his smiley mouth could never reject any offer. Even after his father got locked up and the huge mansion he grew up with got taken away by men in khaki uniforms, his uplifting heart and generosity stayed with him. Nevertheless, after his father’s imprisonment, there seemed to be some force around him that propels the ones he used to call “friends” away. Luo was among the few still loyal to him.
So, when Luo spotted that muscular and tanned hand slapping on his friend’s pallid face, he charged his skinny body against the mountain-like torso of the one who was hitting his friend.
“Leave him alone you b******s!”
That teenager’s sweaty shoulder was as hard as a rock. Luo unleashed all his power to hold those two raging arms back. He found himself on the ground at the next moment. It hurt. He tried to get up from the ground, but two burning eyes met his, and he was thrown back on the wet earth again.
“How dare you befriending this snobbish kid? Why are you defending him from justice of the people?” He emphasized on “people”, not sure if it’s sarcastic or sincere.
“Don’t bother. What do you expect from a petit bourgeois boy?”
Luo could not recall what exactly happened afterwards. There are just fragments stuck in his mind: the images of his friend helplessly looking at him, of the three blurred figures around him; the sounds of him screaming, of the fists pounding on his skin; the smells of moldy tiles; the feeling of cold stairs, and of heated blood running across his face.
When he finally regained consciousness, he was staring at the high blue sky, left cheek stinging with pain. Then, his friend’s face, full of tear and gratitude, came into sight. Luo attempted to sit up, but the pain chained him to the ground. The three attackers were gone. He could tell the steps of residents of the neighborhood coming closer. When they were carrying him to the hospital, he silently clutched and determined to gain power to protect himself and the ones he cared about.
Those three teenagers did not know their bullying changed the life of Luo, just as Luo had never realized that the blade-shaped scar meant more than shame, until many years later. Without that scar, he would not have started to workout or study hard at school, nor would he ever able to attend one of the best colleges in the province. Without getting into that college, he would never have come to Beijing and become an engineer working for the army. Without coming to Beijing, he would never have met my grandma and given birth to my mother. So, there wouldn’t be this teenage boy sitting by a desk 12,000 miles from Chengdu, writing about how his grandfather got that blade-shaped scar.
Those three teenagers would not know that their hatred against the rich kids was unleashed by the “founding fathers” 1500 miles away in Beijing, when the latter took over the country with their communist ideals. Likewise, these “great men” who built “the New China” would never know what happened that distant afternoon in that crooked alley 1500 miles from Tiananmen. When the three poor upperclassmen raised their fists against their rich schoolmate, the poor in the country had already risen up against the ones who ruled them. The “liberation” of Chengdu brought the newly formed government into this ancient city. The dim flashes by skyline and the vague popping of cannon shots still resonant in everyone’s memories.
Barely a year ago, in the dark night before “liberation”, soldiers in gray flooded the narrow alleys of Chengdu: some of them swarmed out of the city as if the devil was chasing behind; more of them, in poorly-made and unfit uniforms, dropped their guns and quietly walked towards their former enemies. Later in the morning, men and women in khaki uniforms parade into the city with people’s enthusiastic welcome, just as what had already happened, and would happen, at thousands of cities in this suffering country. Both Luo and the three bullies should be in the crowd, excited about the brave new world in front of them. The family of Luo’s friend, which sensed uncertainty about the future of their wealth, might hold him back from joining his ecstatic peers.
Those few well-off families were afraid of the new “Land Reform” campaign. These policies, designed to create absolute equality, granted peasants right to divide their landlords’ immense farm. The long-suppressed poor did more than taking land from the rich: they arrested, tried, tortured, and even executed their landlords. Father of Luo’s friend was lucky to survive from the hands of raging people, yet his family lost most of its wealth accumulated for generations. Luo’s friend could not enjoy the privileged life he was used to. He could no longer go to the private school that only taught the heirs of wealthy households. He had to attend a public school with the children of the impoverished majority, which he barely interacted before. The boy navigated through his new school life with his good nature. He almost felt fit into the community when he made friends with classmates from other social backgrounds, such as my grandfather. Nevertheless, the wrath of the crowd haunted him, takes in form of three poor upperclassmen blocking the crooked alley.
The arrival of “liberators” had enormous impact on Luo’s lower middle class family too. If the communist side lost the brutal civil war and was never able to reach Chengdu, his family would’ve kept profiting from its tiny photography workshop. Luo would’ve finished high school and become a photographer after his father, continuing his parents’ lifestyle. He would be able to feed his large family by taking photos. There would be no need for traveling 72 hours on a rusty train to the capital for a research job. However, he would not be able to tell his grandson anecdotes about Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Nikola Tesla as if these big names were his acquaintances.
My grandpa, Luo, always told me: “Living through your life is like walking through a shadowy alley, you never know what’s waiting for you at the next corner.” People got pushed toward various directions by forces that they cannot perceive. People alter other’s paths unconsciously in the ways that they do not always understand. The route in front of us is often fogged. The only thing we can see is where we are right now.
I forgot to tell you that if my grandpa refused to stand up for his friend, or if he remained the same timid, fragile kid traumatized by that scar, it would be impossible for you to hear this story as well. Not only the tide of history, but also his own free will shaped him into who he was, into the one that I am familiar with, love, and revere. Although there are always external factors influencing us, only our own feet can complete the journey ahead. If we get terrified, get destroyed by the countless possibilities around us, we would never move forward in this crooked valley called life.