I fell in love with a dissident, a transfer student from Peking University, who wrote a poem in China, published it in the Nanyan Observer, “The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind,” an old Chinese expression which she reinterpreted, so that the yellow bird was the inevitable rising tide of democracy, which would swallow the Communist Party, as one million cicadas in Beijing awoke after being buried for decades, and scattered through the streets around Tiananmen Square with slogans and songs and banners. But Ying was not a transfer student in the traditional sense, because after the People’s Liberation Army shot and killed thousands, and arrested tens of thousands, activists smuggled her out of China, on a shipping vessel to Hong Kong, and then to Boston where she was given asylum, and she became my classmate, studying biochemistry in the basement of Cabot Science Library, with her braided black pigtails, as she sunk into a leather armchair and told me how the thought of never seeing her mother again was unbearable, that she never intended “provoking trouble,” the charge they brought against her because of her poem, which carried a six year prison sentence, how it was just an impetuous moment when she decided to write what was in her heart, not understanding she could lose her family and country for it, yet she would search for the pioneer spirit in this beautiful and unfamiliar new city.
And as I started falling for her, I asked her to the college formal, expecting her to say “how ridiculous,” how she must have more on her mind than a dance, but she said yes. And while the other girls with satiny dresses thrust their hips to MC Hammer on the dance floor, as Ying tilted her shoulders in her pale pink gossamer dress, her eyes welled up, because the gossamer dress belonged to her mother, who was stitching pads into the shoulders moments before their final embrace. She had scolded her mom, so impractical, the dress was the last thing she needed on her journey filled with peril, but still her mother carefully folded it and pressed it into her travel case. “You know what she told me?” Ying said, looking up at me. “That one day, I will feel like wearing it.” She touched my hand, almost smiling. “And I do.”
Eliot Li lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver, The Pinch, Juked, and elsewhere. Find him at eliotli.com and on twitter @EliotLi2.
Photography by: Laura Gilchrist