Fiction / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Blue Lotus

by Isabelle Li

Crystal. Call me Crystal.

When my friends insist, I tell them my Chinese name. I endure the distorted pronunciation and compliment them on their first attempt: "That's good, Tim. You ought to start learning Chinese."

"I started Japanese once but didn't keep going."

"Find a Japanese girlfriend and you'll be compelled to learn."

"They do say the best way to learn a foreign language is through pillow talk."

So the conversation flows, away from my name. I take a deep breath and straighten my back, feeling confident and anonymous again.

People give me goodhearted advice: "You've got to be yourself. Why don't you use your Chinese name? It's very special."

I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage.

I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule.


I pulled my luggage through the automatic sliding door and stepped into the arrival hall.

"Xueqing!" My brother waved at me from the back of the crowd behind the half circled railing. With his athletic build, bald head and red singlet, he stood out like a cactus on fire. I hurried towards him and we met in the middle of the crowd for a quick embrace.

All around us were men holding up passenger and hotel names on cardboard, taxi drivers, hands in pockets, surreptitiously soliciting customers and anxious families waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. People talked at the top of their voices, competing with the broadcast from overhead speakers.

A handsome man in a crisp black shirt and silver tie took my suitcase. My brother introduced him as Biao. His gaunt face looked out from behind his hair, like that of a nocturnal animal, waiting for the right moment to strike. He gave me a powerful handshake and retreated into vigilance.

We walked out into the dusty sunlight. The familiar air replaced the stale cigarette smell. Above the car park was a pale blue sky. I squinted and inhaled deeply.

"Which part of China are you from?" I am often asked this question.

"Northeast, further up from Beijing."

"Is it near Szechuan?"

"No, it's closer to North Korea and Inner Mongolia."

"What is it like?"

"Where shall I start? My hometown is situated on the Great Northeast Plain, which has black fertile soil and the best produce. Our tomato and zucchini are twice as big as the ones here, and our spring onions can grow to as thick as a baby's arm. Our rice is so fragrant that you can eat it on its own. In spring, the fruit trees blossom all at once, and you feel surrounded by clouds of pink, red, white and purple. In summer, the willows burst against an azure sky like green fireworks. In autumn, the poplar leaves shine like gold coins. In winter, the temperature plummets to twenty degrees below zero. We have double glazed windows and central heating, so it's warm and comfortable inside the house. But if you were to wee outdoors, your urine would turn to ice before reaching the ground."

"Wow! When are you going again?"

"I haven't been back for a while."

I climbed into the backseat of my brother's van and sank into the broken upholstery. The city had sprawled further along the highway, new apartment blocks sprouting like clumps of mushrooms after rain. Some buildings had air conditioning units hanging outside the windows and colourful laundry on the balcony. Some had no signs of occupancy. Others were skeletons, steel bones without the concrete and brick flesh.

"If they had used our bricks, they could have saved a lot of money on electricity," my brother said from behind the steering wheel.

"Are you still involved in the business?" I asked from behind him.

"The bricks didn't sell, although they are lighter and provide better insulation. Everyone goes for low cost and no one cares about quality. Now the poor village is left with an open quarry."

Signboards marked the future addresses of new developments, promising garden settings and modern interiors: "Europa – the Perfect European Lifestyle"; "Les Champs Parisiens – the Masterpiece of High Grade Villas." Cranes with safety mottos on the side stood high like dentists' pliers, determined to pluck something out of the empty sky.

"What about the lightning arrestor business? These buildings have to be lightning proof."

"It's usually a subcontractor responsible for lightning arrestors, and if he doesn't get paid, he doesn't pay us. This is called triangle debt. They owe you money, yet you have to buy them cigarettes and beg them for payment. So debt collection has become a popular business."

Along the highway's edge were strips of young poplars in muted green, shivering from the noise and the wind stirred up by the passing vehicles. In the distance, factory chimneys belched burning ash and yellowish black smoke. Electrical towers carried high voltage power lines into the grey smog on the horizon.

Biao was sitting beside my brother. He looked back at me, smiling curiously. After a prolonged silence, he asked tentatively, "Have you had an accident?" His broad accent was as conspicuous as his question.


"Nobody wears a seat belt here."

I released the belt and saw on my white tank top a diagonal black stripe. Fine black particles had collected on my damp forearms.

Biao laughed.

"Biao, you are going to get heat stroke if you don't take off your tie," my brother said.

"It's a matter of international image," Biao said, looking back at me again, exposing his sparkling white teeth.

"In Australia, people wear a T-shirt, shorts and thongs in summer," I said.

Biao undid his tie, folded it neatly and packed it into a plastic bag. He then took off his shirt and hung it carefully on the side of the window. Before he put on a T-shirt, I saw a long fresh wound roughly stitched up on his tight abdomen.

We turned into the industrial district of our city. "People call the Steel West District 'Holiday Resort,' because many state owned factories have closed down," my brother said.

We drove through the street markets. Pedestrians ignored traffic lights. Bicycles rode on both sides of the road in either direction. Ten empty taxis hovered on a roundabout.

My brother stopped in the middle of the road. Biao gathered his stuff and jumped out, flashed his teeth at me and disappeared into the crowd.

"What happened to Biao?" I asked, as I sat down next to my brother, taking Biao's seat.

"He received a life sentence for manslaughter when he was fifteen. Luckily there was a fire at the chemical plant in the prison. He broke into a control room to turn off the switches and prevented a major explosion. His sentence was reduced to seventeen years."

"How did he get the wound on his stomach?"

"We went chasing after a debt. The guy refused to pay. Biao took out his knife. The bastard was still playing hardball, so Biao unbuttoned his own shirt and sliced himself open. He then took out his medical box, applied some antiseptic and started to sew himself up. The fucker agreed to pay after a few stitches."

"He seems a good man."

"He's on cocaine and is courting a Russian prostitute. I got him to help with the soccer betting, but there has been a crackdown. He won't last long."

My brother had aged. His complexion bore a new darkness and roughness, like a shadow, a mask of anger, obscuring his true expressions.

In my memory, my brother had been fixed at the age of seventeen, extremely good-looking, his long hair giving him an edge over other boys, his face perfect in proportion and his eyes an unusual bright yellow. For a while he had pimples, and every night he washed his face with sulphur soap.

When I was a child he used to hit me. It always started with his slapping the back of my head, twisting my arms, scratching mosquito bites that had already healed or grabbing my head to lift me off my feet, which he called "Pulling the Radish." I fought back, kicking his shin with my heavy metal army shoes. He would be provoked and start beating me very hard, knuckling my skull or kicking my bottom. Once he slapped my thigh so many times that it took months for the black handprints to fade away.

My brother hit me and forgot about it. He spoke to me as if nothing had happened. But I sulked for a long time, responding to his questions or jokes with silence. Would I have felt differently if I had known he was to be put in prison for seven years?

"Don't tell Dad, but I won't come to Australia. I can't go anywhere as long as they are alive," my brother said before we turned into the hospital.


When we arrived at the ward, Mum was standing at the door to her room with a young nurse by her side. She was dressed in a floral top and a long black skirt. Her face beamed at the sight of us. I ran forward and embraced her. She felt soft and warm and unsteady.

"Your mum's been waiting the whole morning," the nurse said. "We couldn't get her to sit down."

"I was instructed to go to the airport earlier in case the flight was ahead of schedule," my brother said in an exaggerated tone.

We all laughed.

Mum caressed the back of my hand and looked into my face. "You must be exhausted my child."

"I'm fine, Mum," I said. "You should rest a bit more."

"Where has the Old Man gone?" My brother asked.

"Your father went to check out," the nurse said.

I took out the box of chocolates my father had asked me to buy. "Thank you for looking after my mother. This is a small token of my gratitude for you and the others who have worked so hard."

"It's no trouble," the nurse said, tucking the box under her armpit. "Actually your mum taught us a lot. All the girls came to consult her and your mum was so patient. Some of us will come to see her when she's back at work."

Just then my father came out from the lift, still sorting some papers in his bag. Then he saw us. "Little Xue has come home!" He embraced me. He had shrunk and become shorter than me. "You came at the right time. The worst part is over. Let's go home."

We had an elaborate farewell with the doctors and nurses on duty.

Sitting next to me in my brother's van, my father recounted Mum's illness.

"I lost control of all my muscles. Your brother carried me on his back and I could not hold on to his neck. I might as well have been a dead person," Mum said. She was sitting next to my brother in front, looking out the window.

We were driving by Zhongshan Square, where Chairman Mao's statue had been replaced by a chrysanthemum garden. A group of retirees was dancing in the middle.

A half finished high rise, a new ruin, marked the proximity to my parents' compound. My brother steered the van through the entrance, skilfully avoided a trishaw selling fruit and matches, and splashed up muddy water from a puddle on the dirt road.

The compound consisted of four low rise buildings. The one facing the street had its ground floor occupied by restaurants and a bath parlour. Outside the backdoor of a restaurant, three waitresses sat on low stools in a line, kneading tablecloths on washboards in soapy water, their legs spread around their aluminium basins, sleeves rolled up. Two waiters were playing badminton in the shade next to the rubbish dump.

Perpendicular to the first building were three other buildings. My parents' unit was in the middle block. The security door was constantly open because one of the families on the ground floor had opened a childcare centre in their home. We walked up the stairs, passing by upside down "Fortune" posters on the residents' doors, remnants of the last Chinese New Year. Advertising material pasted along the stairway gave out the telephone numbers of the same lines of business: plumbing, carpentry, removals and cures for STDs and impotence, new ones over old ones, as if the walls were blistering and peeling.

My mother had put on a glove before holding on to the dusty railings. She climbed very slowly, her delicate frame weighed down by her plump body. She had suffered tuberculosis in her teenage years, which reduced her lung capacity. She breathed audibly. Her other arm held on to mine. We rested on every landing.

We were greeted by Tyson, a puppy according to my brother, but already weighing fifty kilograms. He sniffed my shoes and seemed to love me immediately. Wagging his bushy tail, he attempted to put his big paws on my stomach.

The living room had only one cushion left, torn to shreds, on the floor in front of the windows. A pool of urine reflected the sunlight.

"Isn't Tyson too big for the apartment?" I asked.

"Look here." My father pointed to a corner of the iron railings enclosing the balcony. One bar was sawn open. "If it had not been for Tyson barking, someone would have broken in during the night."

"Nowadays it's not safe for the elderly to live by themselves. That's why I got Tyson for our parents," my brother said. He then told me that the couple downstairs, both police, had had an intruder in broad daylight, while the wife was sleeping after a night shift. She grabbed the blade of the intruder's knife and injured her hand. "Always look through the peephole before you open the door, whether to go out or to let others in."

"Don't worry, my child," my father said. "I have an iron rod behind the door, a knife under my pillow and a tazer in my pocket. You are safe here."


My brother had an appointment. My father and I went down to the restaurant for lunch, leaving my mother to rest at home.

The waitress was a softly spoken girl with a strong accent. The louder my father asked a question, the softer she answered. My father had lost one side of his hearing at a young age, and the other side seemed to have significantly deteriorated in recent years. He had developed a peculiar jerk of his head, as though his good ear was being pulled by an invisible string, towards the source of the sound.

The waitress took the order, brought out some cold entrees and a bottle of beer for my father.

"Have you had your hearing tested?" I asked.

"I can make out what's happening and what's said. It's not a big deal."

"How has it become so bad?"

"I was walking on the street during Chinese New Year. A fire cracker exploded right next to my ear. I had tinnitus after that, like a gong ringing. Then the tinnitus was gone, along with a good part of my hearing."

"I want to buy you a hearing aid."

"A friend of mine spent twenty-four thousand yuan on hearing aids, American brand, and guess what, he only hears himself better." My father laughed heartily, while trying to hold back the shredded cucumber in his mouth. "If you have some money to spare, just give it to your brother."

I nodded. The first time my brother asked for money had been twelve years ago. "It's not easy for me to open my mouth, but you know how stingy our father is. I can't get a cent out of him," my brother had said over the phone, his voice flat and dry.

My father continued, "When we die, you and your sister have to look after him. Give him some money every year." His face that had once been oily and taut was now smooth and puffy, slightly feminine. He was regressing into a replica of my grandmother.

"I haven't been able to find him a job in Australia. I don't know where to start."

The first hot dish arrived: stir fried clams, steaming and glistening.

At a nearby table, a man was swearing his allegiance to one of his mates, his face bursting with alcoholic redness, his eyes bloodshot. Others tried to calm him down by sharing around cigarettes. Smoke in one hand, a toothpick in the other, the man was momentarily quiet and contemplative.

"What's the culture like in your part of China?"

"Our ancestors were nomads. The culture today is still very macho: an eye for an eye. People are hospitable, passionate and wear their hearts on their sleeves."

"Do you remember Uncle Wang, the psychologist? His daughter bought an apartment in Manhattan. They live with her half of the time," my father said, as though making a passing comment, but I could hear the deliberation.

"I've inquired about the prospect of you and Mum migrating to Australia. It's only possible if at least half the children are Australian residents. In our case, it's one third."

The second dish arrived, "Three Spirits of the Earth," stir-fried eggplant, potato and green pepper.

"I've quit my job," I said.

He looked more concerned than surprised. He chewed with a loud clatter, a few crumbs on his lips. His false teeth did not fit very well. "You were earning a good salary."

"I'll write and supplement writing with interpreting."

"I wanted to write too when I was your age, particularly film scripts."

"I have an idea of a novel based on our family history. I'll interview you, Mum, Brother, Sister and any other relatives. You can show me any old records you have."

"I wrote hundreds of letters to your mother from the army. When the Cultural Revolution started, we burned all our diaries and letters." He paused. "I kept one of your mother's letters, not to me, but to someone else, although never sent. In the letter she said she never loved me. After we die, you can open it and you'll know what your mother is really like." He put more stir fried potato into his mouth.

I looked away.


I had a nap and came downstairs to find Mum dozing in front of the television, her head securely tucked into her neck. My father had gone out to play mahjong. Tyson was lying in the afternoon sun, wagging his tail, waiting for the signal that someone might take an interest and pat him.

"Mum, what are you doing?" I sat down next to my mother on the bare couch.

"Waiting for the weather forecast," she said, looking at me and the surroundings, as though she had lost her bearings.

"Mum, don't watch too much television. Your brain is the closest to being asleep when you watch TV. It just receives information and doesn't make any effort."

"I only watch the science programs. Your grandfather was interested in archaeology." She emphasised the word "archaeology" with a childlike conviction that it should invoke awe and reverence. After a while, she asked, "What's the time difference between here and Sydney?"

"Two hours. Sydney is two hours ahead. Three hours in daylight saving."

"What season is it in Sydney now?"


"Do you need to wear a woollen vest?"

"The winter there is mild. The native trees are mostly evergreen. I wear a skirt throughout winter."

Mum looked happy, as if she had pictured my life in a better place with a better climate. "Do you think in Chinese or English?"

"It depends on the circumstances. With English speakers, I think in English. Right now I'm thinking in Chinese."

"You are like your grandfather. He used to recite Shakespeare." She emphasised "Shakespeare," again with an almost childish pride. "Do you have a dog?"

"No, I live in an apartment." I paused. "Do you remember visiting Australia?"

"Not anymore," she said with a sigh of resignation.

I rested my head lightly on her shoulder, feeling her softness and warmth.

"How are you, Mum?"

"I'm fine. Just worried about your brother."

"I've quit my job. I'll write and work as an interpreter."

"You are very talented my child, like the hare, but with the persistence of the tortoise."

"I'm working on a novel based on our family history. I'll interview you and Dad, Brother and Sister later on."

"Write about your brother. Let the world know what happened to him."

She continued slowly, "When he was in detention, I went to see him. He had a bruised eye and a broken lip. He was beaten up every day with belts and boots, until he couldn't walk properly. He had scabies on his neck and between his fingers."

"Don't think about it Mum."

"Your brother was only seventeen. He happened to go to visit a primary school friend and joined him and some other kids for a fight. 'Severe punishment for organised crime,' so they said. But it was not prearranged, and certainly not organised."

She clasped her hands on her lap to stop them from trembling. Her plump face looked empty, exhausted from the inside. I put my hand on hers.

"There were three young men taken into custody around the same time. They pulled off a girl's bra on the street, and because there were three of them, it was considered an organised crime. All were sentenced to death. When they were shot by the firing squad, a thunderstorm gathered and the sky was totally dark. Heaven sympathises with the unjustly punished. One of the mothers went mad. She refused to pay for the bullet."

She was silent for a while, then she said, "When your father is here, I won't be able to tell you this. Once I came home early from the hospital and all the doors were open. That was many years ago, when you were a young child. We were still in our old place, the red villa. I came up the stairs and heard them, your father and Grandma Chen's niece from the village.

"I left quietly. After that I told her she was no longer welcome in our home. I was too proud to confront your father. I love all of you, and so does he."

The sun shone through the dusty glass, giving the room a blue undertone. Tyson came and put his paws on my lap. I wiped away the mucus from the corners of his eyes. His face looked wise beyond his years.


My balcony is near the top of a slope facing a golf course and Middle Harbour, where I witness the ever-changing beauty of the sky, the water and the rolling green. At night, silver mist rises from the water. In the morning, wisps of mist linger on the loose branches of eucalyptus and dissipate only after the sun is up.

I go to an early yoga class, walking on the quiet paths, careful with the stone stairs, still wet from the night drizzle or morning dew.

"Inhale, imagine waves retreating back to the ocean. Exhale, imagine waves washing over the sand." I concentrate on the breathing and the asana, my joints loosen up, my muscles flex and extend, and thoughts drift out of my mind. At the end of the class, I lie on my back, close my eyes, and let my body relax. I feel sad sometimes, and tears stream from my eyes and trickle into my ears. There is a well at the bottom of my heart, which becomes visible when the debris is removed.

It was warm and still outside. Mid-afternoon fatigue drifted in the air. It clung to the exposed stomachs of the men with their nylon shirts rolled up to their chests, squatting and standing by the roadside, smoking and hurling abuse at each other. It hung from the high heels that dangled off the slender feet of the young women sitting outside the bath parlours, gossiping, spitting the shells of sunflower seeds all around them into the dust.

Some commotion. A crowd was gathering to watch the opening ceremony of a restaurant. People came out from the neighbouring shops. Cars and bicycles stopped in the middle of the road.

The entrance of the new restaurant was decorated with red drapes, above which hung a black wooden signboard inscribed with four golden characters: "Active Dragon Lively Tiger."

Deafening music blasted from the speakers. A stocky woman with heavy makeup jumped onto the carpeted steps. She clapped her hands and started singing a North-Western folk song, her hips gyrating rhythmically as if she was exercising with an invisible hula hoop.

The speakers were so loud, beating my eardrums. I blocked my ears. People around me seemed indifferent to the noise and they started to look me up and down. I pushed my way through the crowd.

I read the paper and watch the news, learn new English words every day to enlarge my vocabulary, go to movies and the theatre, make friends and keep in touch.

At dinner parties, I participate in conversations about current affairs and the cultural scene, and make witty comments. Sometimes I feel lost listening to my friends debating the definition of a perfect cup of coffee and lamenting the hardship of never being able to find one. Looking at the fine food on the table, artwork on the walls, the mood lighting, I wonder who I am, why I am here.

"Be of service to the people." Chairman Mao's command was once printed on posters, the front covers of journals, the flaps of school satchels, and I grew up believing that was to be my mission in life. But who are my people? Have I been of service to anyone?

Like a man walking in a snowstorm, I look back to find that my footprints have been erased. I do not know where I am and can no longer find my way back.

I stopped at a salon called "Weird Cut." Two boys and a girl in their twenties were sitting outside.

One of the boys stood up. "Sister, where did you have this cut?" He lifted the back of my hair and shouted at me. He was very small, dressed in a clean white shirt. With a slightly receding chin and round face, his head looked like a hazelnut.

"Is it not good?" I unblocked my ears and shouted back.

"Was it done with a single cut? There are no layers in it." He shook his head and sucked his teeth, as though viewing vandalised artwork. His two friends talked between themselves and concurred, nodding vigorously.

"You think you can do a better job?" I asked.

"Of course. Come on in."

We walked into the dimly lit shop. Large posters of Hong Kong movie stars covered the walls. The hazelnut boy layered two sheets over me and led me to the sink. He washed my hair very gently and pressed the focal points on my skull.

When we came back the singing outside had stopped. Two rounds of firecrackers concluded the ceremony.

"Sister, you don't look like a local."

"I grew up here."

"Have you been living in Beijing or Shanghai?"

"Further than that. Overseas."


"Australia. Sydney."

"Nice. Kangaroos and the Opera House."

"It is a beautiful place indeed."

"How much do you earn?"

"Quite a lot if converted to RMB."

"Are you what they call a white collar?"

"Sort of."

"I knew it. You look different." While talking, he cut my hair one strand at a time, using a razor.

"I haven't had my hair cut solely with a razor before."

"This is a new technique, inspired by an ethnic minority's ancient tradition of using a machete for a haircut."

"Sounds dangerous."

"It's all in the skill. We went for training."

The other hairdressers came in. One sat down and started reading the newspaper. The other shuffled around, sorting out the rollers and hair dyes. Both pretended not to listen to our conversation.

"How many days do you work?" I asked.

"Every day. We open all year round except for the first five days of Chinese New Year."

"Do you not have annual leave?"

"Yes, six days. I took it all during the last Chinese New Year and went home for two weeks."

"Where are you from?"

"Iron Ridge, famous for our garlic and comedians."

"Your mother must have been pleased to see you," I said.

"Yeah. But I got bored towards the end." He wiped his hands and turned on the stereo. "I'll play you a song."

It started with slow guitar, then a mellow male voice. He hummed along.

Nothing can stop
Your longing for freedom.
Life of a heavenly horse travelling across the sky,
Your heart has not a thread of attachment.
Passing through the age of gloom,
Once hesitating,
The moment you lowered your head,
You recognised the path under your feet.
A world of freedom in your heart,
So translucent, high and far away,
Blooming, the never withering
Blue lotus…

"That's a wonderful song," I said.

"It's for people like us." My hairdresser smiled at me in the mirror, a small figure among the posters of the superstars.

We listened together in silence, while his razor blade cut my hair, meticulously, strand by strand.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
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All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.