This story appeared in the first edition of “Meridian: A Literary Atlas of DKU,” an anthology of creative writing by Duke Kunshan students, released May 2021. Find out more at the Language and Culture Center.
A Thousand Layers
I imagine my dad’s old English dictionary as a sage: knowledgeable, venerable but wearing ragged clothes.
If you sniffed it — as I sometimes do — the musty and musky odor would waft into your nose and linger for a long time.
It is standing in a corner on the third shelf of the bookcase. Right over there. When I returned home several years after I went to college and approached that bookcase, I couldn’t help recalling the life Dad’s dictionary had gone through.
Practically speaking, this dictionary retired four years ago.
It seems firmly settled in its place on the bookshelf, as if it didn’t care about anything that once happened outside the bookcase. But perhaps it evokes those “tough and sweaty” days occasionally when the owner happens to hold it in his arms again.
My dad retired, too, this summer.
The book is still in the same place. Now it is protected in a plastic bag. “Otherwise you would fall apart. I mean it,” he said as he put the book into the bag gently, the day he finally decided to no longer read it, seeming to imply, “You were my treasure. And you still are.”
If you took a closer look at it, you would doubt whether it was really a book. It fell apart long before I grew up.
It is now a spectacular pile of layers.
Thousands of paper layers.
Each page has zigzagging edges, so that you might mistakenly think the book was a masterpiece of dog bites. If you started to flip the pages very carefully, you would find faint notes on many pages, looking like an army of ants storming the gates.
Those pages are having a hard time keeping the printed words clear, not to mention my dad’s lively handwriting. Time is their enemy, stealing what they have preserved little by little. The missing pages, if I remember correctly, are from the letters O to Q.
Why did they disappear? Where might they have gone? Blown to the winds, or fled to avoid conscription in a war? I never know the answer.
When my baby babble had not yet turned into language, English was already an important theme in my family. But in our crowded apartment right across from the school, the English dictionary titled “Graduate English Vocabulary” sat stubbornly on a small, wooden desk. As I went off to kindergarten, my dad was bending over the dictionary to study English, learning every single word, page after page. In the summer heat he would wear a white tank top under the low ceiling, where hung a hardworking, loud fan. The beads of sweat slipped from his forehead and cheeks, wetting the book.
The dictionary was not large and the typesetting was tiny, so he had to read it very carefully with his thick glasses. He made small annotations on the pages back and forth and wrote down the meanings of the words on loose sheets of paper. When he went out, he often carried his “treasure” with him and reviewed new words to kill time. It seemed that nothing mattered to him other than teaching himself English with his dictionary at home.
Back then, though I could not understand why he studied English so hard, and the sound of him turning those pages over and over seemed endless to me, I knew that Dad was the kind of person who always had some impractical but fresh ideas in his mind. Once he discovered an interest in doing something, he would stick with it and dive deeper and deeper.
Illustration by Jia Long ’23
The little town where my dad grew up was called Ningguo (宁国), meaning “peaceful country” in English. In the late twentieth century, it was a typical Chinese county town with a small population surrounded by green mountains and a long, clean river. Bicycles were the main transportation. There were a few shining motorcycles galloping past the pedestrians once in a while. Some residents worked in small shops because there wasn’t a big factory in town. Others grew vegetables and took care of livestock in their backyards. People were friends with their neighbors and helped each other with housework and babysitting. Sometimes they went to the river to wash their families’ clothes or went to the food market to buy ingredients together. Satisfied with a relatively isolated and peaceful life, people in Ningguo had never bothered themselves with foreign languages and cultures.
However, my dad was an exception. He started working in a tax office in 1989 when China was opening up to the world. Some Western taxation concepts knocked on his office’s door, and when he opened it, a gust of fresh air blew on his face and entered his blood. He sensed that a person would stand out of the crowd if they grasped the opportunity to learn English as a tool for cross-cultural communication. That was the time when he bought the English dictionary and began reading it.
Several years later he opened a disco — the first disco in the town’s history.
If you walked close to it, you would see the big signboard with “Join Us” in copperplate script, shining arrogantly in the night. He bought disco mirror balls, built a bar right in the middle, designed a stage that could hold a rock band, and even named the disco a beautiful Chinese transliteration of “Join Us” — Qiong Na Si (琼那斯). When night came, the lights would illuminate the entire hall with colors. Chairs and tables sat beside the stage. Beer and soft drinks created fancy illusions inside the goblets. He knew the townsfolk were enjoying rocking, wiggling and spinning. And meanwhile, he started to hold weekly English salons every Sunday afternoon.
Yes, the English party on Sunday afternoons at Join Us disco.
In a photo he showed me recently, he is standing in the middle of the stage as a master of ceremonies with a red corduroy curtain in the background. I can imagine him speaking into a noisy microphone, saying something like, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Join Us! Welcome to English Salon! I am your MC today.”
Thirty years ago, this caused a sensation. People talked about it with their neighbors, chatted about it with the family at dinner, and invited lovers for a dance when the day ended. They were excited about the new lifestyle and the English magic my dad’s disco brought into their lives.
But throwing popular English social events in a small-town disco was not enough for him. Apparently, he knew it was just a fad. Soon he had another ambition: to become an interpreter.
He went back to work as a clerk in the new century when China finally joined the World Trade Organization. Before he had been interested in foreign cultures, but that was when he began to feel strongly connected to the world himself. He wanted to master English as a second language in this process of globalization. For over ten years, the goal which anchored his daily routine was to pass the National Interpretation Examination. He thought if he succeeded, he could be more culturally aware of the English-speaking world, for his own enlightenment and maybe also to earn some money on the side.
This was when the dictionary began to crumble.
Every day the book waited for him quietly on the wooden desk in his bedroom. His colleagues wondered why he was in a hurry when they saw him rushing back home at dusk. His friends did not know why he was busy when they asked him to play poker on the weekend. Neither did his mother when she called him to come down for lunch. As a kindergartener, all I noticed was the book got used more frequently. Seeing his little daughter stare at him curiously, he would open it up and begin reading alien words to amuse me.
The pages of the dictionary turned yellow and got dirty after two decades’ reading. The shape became more and more irregular. For years, my mom begged him to throw the dictionary away and to buy a new one. He did not argue with her. Instead, he laughed. Then, he walked back to the bamboo chair. Secretly, while he was resting, Mom used tape to fix the book cover and make sure it survived. The dictionary was indeed a loyal companion to our family.
But my dad never passed the interpretation exam. He took it once, then twice, then a third time, then a fourth time, failing each time over the course of twenty years.
One day, he finally put the dictionary back on the bookshelf.
“Time, energy and fate. You need these three things,” he said to me, wrinkles rippling on his forehead as he smiled. Even after he had to admit defeat, I didn’t understand what motivated him to learn English, until I asked him. He told me, “English has encouraged me to believe a man without any higher education could do something different. I didn’t get to be an interpreter — that’s okay. Perhaps I learned to do something else.”
This might be true that he could never be a real interpreter (or a good clerk), but he was my dad, whose white hair over the past two decades has almost invaded his black ponytail.
Dad has long, silver hair. Sometimes he likes to wear it in a ponytail at the back because he doesn’t want to shock other people. His new appearance started after the dictionary retired. He let his hair grow until it reached his shoulders. Tired of competing with him for hair length, I finally gave in – now, in the year 2021, he has officially become the person with the longest hair in my family. “Dad, don’t you feel embarrassed that people have started to address you as ‘Artist’?” I said to him slightly irritatedly before he went down to the river. His trip to the river every afternoon is sacred, and nobody can stop him from going.
In Ningguo, women use the river to clean their families’ clothes, and children skip rocks near the riverside. Men like to walk along the river after a full dinner with their family. However, none of these activities interests him. He looks around to check if there is anybody nearby, worms himself into the bamboo grove beside the riverbank, and finds a hidden spot with a view of the opposite bank. And he shouts. To his only patient listener: the river.
There are times when flocks of crows fly away because of his loud screams. But he would insist on calling it “vocal exercise.” Perhaps he excuses himself by yelling at them what he wants to become — a recitationist. That is, an artist who stands on the stage and recites poems to audiences of thousands. A few professionals in China are adept at reciting poems emotionally at the public poem recitation events. Dad admires their breathtaking voices and their fascinating poem performance. So now, in his sixties, he wants to become one of them. He will, for sure, continue to add layers to the thousand-page book of his life experiences.
In a bigger, broader world there might be found another person as pertinacious as Dad, but never in this little town of ours.
Seashell is the pen name of a member of Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate Class of 2022. She is from Ningguo, Anhui province, China. Share your thoughts on the story with the author by emailing DKU-LCC@dukekunshan.edu.cn.