Although the sale of the only house the Yin family had ever known as their home was extremely traumatic, Qian found some solace in the fact that it provided some relief from the staggering family debt load. In fact, the house sold for a better price than expected and the residual funds left over after paying off the mortgage were applied to further reduce the debt.
Now they were faced with the daunting task of reducing the belongings that they had accumulated over a lifetime to an amount that would fit into the one-room apartment that Xiao-Mei’s sister had provided for them on the second floor of her store. In particular, Xue-Heng’s clothing and other personal items were the most painful things for the family to let go of.
There was enough space for a single bed for Xiao-Mei, a double bed that Qian would share with his younger brother Mo-Fan, a small sofa and a small dining table with a few chairs. They had to share one closet for all their clothes and spare bedding and towels. They had kept a lot of the furniture, knowing that their future would not be confined to a one-room apartment forever. Xiao-Mei’s sister agreed to let them store what they could not fit into the one room in her warehouse.
There was no cooking facility in the apartment but then, it didn’t matter because Qian was always working and bought his meals from the street vendors and Mo-Fan was pre-occupied with his school studies and had no time to spare for cooking meals. Xiao-Mei was the only one in the family that possessed any cooking skills but her mental state precluded any activity involving food other than eating.
Though their new dwelling was sparse and utilitarian, the familiarity of the items that they had managed to fit into the room provided a small level of comfort. Normally, given the fact that Qian’s work schedule only allowed him to sleep for five or six hours a day would have helped him to slip into a deep replenishing sleep. But lately, his nights were spent in a nearly sleepless fitful state.
Since he had dropped out of college, he knew the day would come when he would receive a notice from the government to report for military service. Even though he had spent a good deal of time agonizing over what action he would take when it came, he was still not prepared for the shock of the reality that hit him when he received the summons in the mail. He knew that there was no way for him to support the family and pay off the outstanding debts on a soldier’s salary. And yet, he could think of no way to avoid serving in the military without being imprisoned.
But today, he was going to meet Yan-Luo’s parents and dine with them so the mother would most likely be quite affable. But the thought of meeting her father gave rise to a feeling of trepidation that he could not shake off. He knew that Mr. Li was a retired military officer and according to Yan-Luo, rigorously applied the disciplinary practices acquired through years of service, to the home setting.
He rang the doorbell at the Li residence and Yan-Luo accompanied by her mother opened the door. Her mother gave him a warm enthusiastic smile and motioned for him to come in.
“I have many things cooking on the stove. Why don’t you take him into the study to meet your father?” She turned and went into the kitchen and Yan got a pair of slippers for Qian and then led him by the hand to meet her father.
Once past the dining room table and the carved wooden screen, they entered the living room. The décor, though not extravagant, was far more luxurious than anything Qian was familiar with and compared to their one room apartment it was a royal castle.
Next to the entertainment center featuring state-of-the-art television and stereo equipment was a three-tiered display case. The family photos were on the top shelf flanked by a delicately exquisite votive candle holder modeled after a rose bush with several colored glass rose blossoms. The lit candles cast a warm soft glow over their faces, masking the contrived smiles so common to poised studio portraits. The shelf below contained a small ceramic vase from the Ming dynasty and a matching teapot and cup set.
What caught Qian’s eye was the wind-up music box on the bottom shelf. Sensing his interest, Yan-Luo knelt down and wound the motor spring and then moved the control lever to the ‘ON’ position. The intricate melody from a classical opera song perfectly complimented the translucent lilies rotating on the cover. What surprised Qian in a pleasing way was the visual effect of undulating colored lights projected up into the flowers. The change in hue from brilliant yellow to dusty orange and then to deep blue mimicked the passing of a day into night, compressed into a few minutes and for the moment, Qian found respite from the burden of his difficult life.
Yan-Luo pointed at the picture of her younger sister. “She cannot dine with us this evening. She has a scheduled session with a tutor. The sound of Yan-Luo’s voice startled him back into reality.
They walked down the hallway and entered the study across from the master bedroom. Mr. Li sat erect in his chair reading the evening paper. His attempt to appear casual belied his years of military regimen. His rigid demeanor gave the impression that he was a guard assigned to protect this space from unwelcome intruders.
“Father, I’d like you to meet Yin-Mo-Qian, my boyfriend.” Qian moved toward him with his hand extended in greeting. Upon hearing her voice, Yan-Luo’s father looked up from his paper and nodded to his daughter and then looked at Qian’s hand but did not respond in kind or acknowledge him.
Qian was embarrassed and unsure of how to react. For the moment, he lowered his hand to his side. His cold reception was exactly the opposite of the cordial greeting he had received from Li-Mu.
“So Qian, it is Qian right? How are things going for you and your family?” Li’s rhetorical question was spoken from behind his paper with seemingly little interest in Qian’s response.
“Yes, I am Qian and things are going as well as can be expected.”
Li finally looked up at him for the first time. “How is your mother’s physical and mental condition?”
At this point, Qian was annoyed and struggled to respond in a measured manner; trying not to sound complacent, impatient or perfunctory. “Thank you for your concern. She is now with her sister and her condition should slowly stabilize.”
“Where do you live now?”
“In Taoyuan. Mother’s sister has provided us with an apartment on the second floor of her store.”
“I understand that you dropped out of the University and did not graduate. What are your future plans?”
By this time, it became painfully obvious to Yan-Lou that her father, while feigning concern, was trying to point out all the negative aspects of planning a future with Qian. Her father had conducted the whole conversation as if it was a job interview for the position of becoming his daughter’s husband and she wanted to put a stop to it.
“Dad! Why are you trying to embarrass Qian? That is not the proper way to treat a dinner guest.”
Li could scarcely conceal his irritation with his daughter’s overt challenge to his authority. He was inwardly lamenting the loss of his once compliant, loving and obedient little girl and was perplexed as to how he should respond to this perceived subversion. He was still mulling over the situation when Mrs. Li shouted from the kitchen, “Come and eat!”
In typical Chinese fashion she had prepared an abundant assortment of the most famous traditional dishes plus a rich vegetable soup for the final course. On the surface it appeared to be a congenial get-together but the mood was tense and conversation was sparse.
Mrs. Li broke the silence in an attempt to ameliorate the awkward atmosphere. “I didn’t know what type of food you liked so I prepared some of the most common traditional dishes in hopes you would find something enjoyable to eat.”
“Don’t worry about that. I can see that you went to a lot of trouble to carefully prepare this wonderful feast and I am very grateful for that.”
“There’s no need to be so formal and polite. Just treat this as your own home and eat as much as you like of whatever pleases your taste.”
All conversation ended there and everyone kept eating to avoid having to talk. But soon everyone was finished and now the silence was embarrassing. Again, Mrs. Li attempted to introduce a topic for conversation that she knew Qian could participate in.
“Mrs. Wang next door remarked to me that she could never find a math tutor for her son that was as talented as you and that she was sorry to lose you.”
“I feel badly that I had to quit tutoring her son but, after my father’s death my family responsibilities became so great that had no time available for anything else. Perhaps I should go talk to her later and thank her for her confidence in me and for providing me with a job for so many years.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Li offered his opinion of that idea. “That isn’t necessary. You are no longer in her employment and would never have seen her again but for your connection to our family. I don’t want your visit to our home to fuel any speculative gossip concerning you and Yan-Luo. Just remember that long after you leave, we have to live here.”
His contrary comments elicited glaring stares from his wife and daughter and Qian quickly attempted to alleviate the tension. “Your father may be right. It is getting late and it would be inconsiderate to disturb her at this hour of the night.”
But, Mr. Li ignored the silent reprimand and continued on with the pointed questioning of Qian that had preceded the meal. “I heard that your brother abandoned the family and left the burden of their support to you.”
“True. I must work to support them because they have no means to survive on their own.”
“How long do you expect this obligation to continue, for the rest of your life? Do you have a plan for your future? Will you finish your college degree and find a good job?
“The situation is very difficult now. But, in a few years my younger brother will graduate and will be qualified to secure a high paying position in a large company. Then the burden can be transferred to him and I will be able to complete my education and make a plan for my future.”
“Your brother just graduated from high school this year. In addition to four years of college, you have to consider his obligation to serve in the military. It seems that it will be more than just a few years before your family situation improves. Come to think of it, now that you are no longer in college, you should be getting your induction notice very soon.”
“I have already received it.”
“How can you serve in the military and support your family? Do you expect your girlfriend to support them?”
“I can’t serve in the military. My family needs me. That is a conflict I am struggling to resolve. I am not sure what the final solution will be but I am positive that it will not include serving in the military.”
The expression of shock and loathing on the face of the retired Army officer sitting before him had no impact on Qian. He was fighting for the survival of his family and as callous as it seemed, he had no time to consider the feelings of anyone else.