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“The Old Love Letter” by Zhang Jiajia 张嘉佳“老情书”英译

July 23, 2022

短篇小说“老情书” — 2014年网红作家张嘉佳著,齐冉译

Zhang Jiajia rose to fame in 2014 after his writing went viral on the internet. This short story is from his 2014 book “I Belonged to You”(从你的全世界路过). It was adapted into a TV drama in 2016. I translated this story from the Chinese in 2014; I haven’t updated it since so please excuse the inevitable errors.

The Old Love Letter

Can you talk or not?

There are two kinds of people who can talk. The first are able to take stock of the situation, divide things into categories, and speak right to another person’s heart, like the TV host Cai Kang Yong. The second talk a lot, but not a word has any impact, like an AK-47 that never runs dry, like Hu Yan (胡言).

Hu Yan is one my most eccentric friends. Usually you hardly realize he exists; as soon as he opens his mouth it’s a nuclear bomb. Boom! Ash blasted on everybody’s face.

One of my bros went through a breakup; his girlfriend took his ring and ran off with somebody. The motley crew gathered at KTV. None of us wanted to bring it up.

Somebody said faintly, “Let bygones be bygones.”

From the corner came Hu Yan’s voice.

“Let bygones be bygones; sluts love to get with morons.”

The room was deathly silent. Everyone’s face was expressionless. I could hear the line in everyone’s heart: “Ha ha ha ha! Oh shit! This guy is too good.”

Another of my bros got married. The welcoming party burst into the bride’s room. The last obstacle was finding one of the bride’s shoes. A pack of dudes tearing the room apart just couldn’t find it, so annoyed that sweat soaked their backs.

    Hu Yan ambled in, knitted his brows and said, “Hidden really good. Ugly chicks. Obviously something only an ugly chick would do. Ugly chicks can’t do anything else but they’re pros at hiding stuff. Otters are ugly their whole lives but they just eat and sleep and don’t mess around. Seals love to hide stuff but they don’t go screw with cuttlefish. Today’s supposed to be a lucky day, but she just has to destroy marriage. They say some girls are good to your face, but really they wish you were like them: never get married your whole life. Today it turns out to be true.”

As soon as he finished, a short girl burst out crying, flopped down and crawled under the bed, from the bed frame pulled out a shoe, and then ran away howling. Everyone looked around in surprise, then burst into cheers. Wiping sweat, the groom thrust a glass of wine on Hu Yan.

“Thanks, man. Today is all thanks to you. Say a few words!”

At the edge of the crowd, I cried, “No!”

It was too late. Hu Yan raised his glass and said excitedly, “Today we gulp the festive wine. Tomorrow the tree topples and monkeys flee.”

I urged him to learn from Kevin Cai, so he watched few episodes of Kangxi Lai Le and said, laughing, “Little S is so great; she’s like a twitching colon, even more shameless than me!”

Why’s a slack colon suddenly shameless?

Hu Yan’s lips are terrifying, but the guy is loyal and honorable; he’s a few years older than me. His father passed away a long time ago; his mom is almost 70, and they depend on each other for survival. The old lady is sharp as a whip, from Jiaxing; she sometimes makes us zongzi to eat. People online howl about the “Sweet Zongzi Party” and the “Savory Zongzi Party”—what party? Only the ones from Jiaxing are really zongzi, others at best could be called “rice balls with filling.” When the old lady sent us zongzi it was nuts; whoever’s house still had a few, we’d rush over that night and eat them all.

One day at dusk Hu Yan called me desperately begging me to go to his house. He was working overtime and couldn’t leave and his mom was bugging him like hell to come home and help out. I rushed over there, panting, and in Hu Yan’s house there were three old ladies sitting up straight around a mahjong table, eager faces turned on me.

    Fine, so play a few rounds. Turns out that gang of old ladies was crazily shrewd; wherever they go, they win. Red in the face and moaning I lost again and again all the way until 11:00. 

Game over, Hu Yan’s mom asked me, “Little Zhang, didn’t Hu Yan break up with his girlfriend?”

    I was stunned: “No idea.”

    She said, “I’ll give you two zongzi; hurry up and talk.”

    I said, “Oh, that girl is from Changsha; she went back home. It’s long-distance so it doesn’t make sense for them to stay together.

    The old lady narrowed her eyes: “Bullshit. Hu Yan must’ve talked too much shit.”

    I said, “We can’t rule out the possibility.”

She slapped her thigh: “Aiya, I never even met her; she just took off. That beast has screwed up good girls one after another.”

I waterfalled sweat…

Hu Yan pushed open the door and came in, yelling, “Mom, what the hell are you talking about?”

    She yelled, “My daughter in law?”

    Hu Yan waterfalled sweat: “She’s an only child, and her parents are old. She doesn’t want to live far away so she went back to Changsha.”

    The old lady flew into a rage: “So you go with her to Changsha!”

    Hu Yan said, “If I go what about you?”

    “I stay here; Little Zhang serves me on one knee.”

My legs went limp.

Hu Yan turned to run; he dragged me away paralyzed on the ground, weeping and yelling, “My zongzi! My zongzi!”

The two of us went to our bro Guan Chun’s bar to talk nonsense. Actually, I understood Hu Yan; the old lady had lived in Nanjing for some thirty years; all her friends for playing mahjong, exercising, walking, and chatting all lived in one neighborhood. Old people can’t make a new group of friends like we can; when they go live in a new place there is only loneliness.

Just as we ordered a round of drinks, Guan Chun led an old lady inside and with a long face said, “Hu Yan, it’s not that I didn’t help you; your mom came here herself.”

    Hu Yan was enraged: “Bullshit! You’re even holding zongzi! You definitely sold me out!”

The old lady leaning on a cane smacked the table and said, “Shut up!”

The whole bar went still; everybody shut up; even the singer, quaking with terror, furtively shut off the music.

    The old lady said, “I just especially can’t stand you young people, twenty or thirty talking nonsense like only ‘plain’ is real. Are you up to it? I was sent down to the countryside; I worked with peasants; I suffered through famine. You will never know what that’s like. But today I’m happy as a clam with nothing to do but play a little mahjong, get up and go to bed early—you think you get inner peace for nothing? An old monk said, in the end you have to see mountains as mountains, but have you ever seen them as anything else? You’re still young, but you don’t get out and move, never face true hardship, thinking never entering the world is the same as leaving it—you think you came straight from Nirvana? I suffered for my plainness. Your plainness is laziness, fear, seeking comfort, a stupid dog that can’t bear to face the world. A woman leaves you and you don’t chase her? Even put the blame on an old lady like me? Idiot.”

She waved her cane and nearly hit Hu Yan in the head: “I never even saw that girl; you all seen her?”

Most of the people in the bar nodded as if chopping garlic.

The old lady said, “You’re weak; you don’t know a thing. Seeing other people strain and suffer you only know how to hide in a corner, make cheap shots, talk sass and make a fool of yourself. Pei! All day long you do nothing but count money. If you spend money you can make more; screw up and you can try again, but once your youth is gone? Only veterans can retire; if you’ve never fought, don’t look down on sacrifice. Can you talk or not? If you can talk, just go to Changsha; tell her, ‘I want to marry you.’”

The old lady trembled out a piece of yellowed paper and shouted, “My husband wrote me this; I’m going to read it to you.” She stared at it and said, “Oh what an idiot! I grabbed the wrong one. This is the electric bill. Little Zhang, you like writing; you make up something.”

I immediately recited, “Believe in youth; thus the more we love, the deeper, but we must love. Used for sacrifice, thus we go to death and return alive, but we must return. From the low valley we scale the mountain peak, then we may find the garden of sweet breezes. There will come a day when all the mountains and terraced fields at our feet bloom with sweat. If you want a home full of harmony, you must drop your bones and pass a myriad beautiful scenes.”

    The old lady slapped me and said, “How can you say ‘bones’ in front of a seventy year old lady? Get out!”

She watched Hu Yan silently, then said, “A few months ago, you were on the veranda talking on the phone; I heard it. You urged her to stay in Nanjing and not go to Changsha. You begged and begged and cried yourself. I really wanted to burst in and beat you senseless. What were you crying about? It’s good that she cares about her parents; can’t you go with her? After that you worked overtime every day. You think you’re hard working? Or was it you were afraid of coming home all alone and missing her?”

The old lady said, “I’m old. Originally, after you were married I wanted to send zongzi every day for you two to eat. Once you got sick of eating them, I could go. You’re my son. Don’t be afraid if you get lost; just come home. Your mom won’t die just yet; when you come back I’ll be at home.”

She finished speaking and wiped her tears, then puffed out her chest and left. Guan Chun hurriedly saw her off. I looked back and discovered every single person in the bar had tears in their eyes.

I suddenly understood where Hu Yan’s language ability came from. It’s absolutely genetic.

Afterward Hu Yan still didn’t go to Changsha. The old lady was so mad she couldn’t bear to watch; she didn’t play mahjong and demanded I teach her how to go online and use Weibo and whatnot. A few days later she booked a tour herself and went traveling, following a pack of old lads and ladies wearing red hats, huffing and puffing going to see nature in Guilin. Hu Yan was worried and wanted to go with her, so in the end she snuck out at five in the morning and left Hu Yan alone staring mutely at the ceiling.

After she came back she was still angry with Hu Yan and got ready to conserve strength and build up her energy to keep at it. Two weeks later she had a heart attack but was saved and hospitalized, awaiting bypass surgery to replace her mitral valve. Us guys spent the night in shifts; the old lady closed her eyes and didn’t say a word.

One day Hu Yan sat by the old lady’s side, sleeping soundly. I had just come in holding a plastic bag, wanting to trade shifts with Hu Yan.

The old lady struggled to open her mouth and said, “Yueyue, Hu Yan is a good boy.”

Suddenly I was beside myself with tears. Yueyue was Hu Yan’s girlfriend, working in Changsha, probably asleep already. How did the old lady know her name?

Right. Actually, mother knows everything.

Later, the old lady didn’t make it to surgery. She had a second heart attack, her condition critical, and couldn’t be saved again. Hu Yan couldn’t talk any more; he became terse and quiet.

For the first seven days, everyone kept a vigil at Hu Yan’s house. At 11 o’clock at night, the unlocked door opened and a girl burst in. She was wearing makeup.

She yelled at me, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

She sobbed, knelt before the old lady’s portrait and said, “Auntie, I told my parents. They said I should stay in Nanjing. Since Hu Yan has a mom like you, they can relax.”

We stood dumbfounded and didn’t say a word, not sure what had happened. The girl was Yueyue, working in Changsha, but there she was in Nanjing. Yueyue was hiccupping with sobs. The old lady’s portrait stood in front of her, smiling at everyone.

That afternoon I had gotten a phone call from Yueyue. She asked me about Hu Yan’s mom. 

I said, “Why don’t you ask Hu Yan?” She said his phone was turned off. I didn’t dare say too much and asked, “What do you want him for?”

Yueyue told me that in fact the old lady hadn’t gone traveling, but went all on her own to Changsha. That day Yueyue was at work. The old lady came up to the counter and deposited 200,000 yuan. Yueyue handled the process and asked how she would like to deposit the money. 

The old lady said, “I hear working at a bank is hard work. Every year you have to reach a certain amount in deposits to get promoted.”

Yueyue couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was saying, and said thanks.

The old lady whispered, “Yueyue, hurry up and get promoted. Make that idiot Hu Yan regret it.”

So just like that Yueyue met Hu Yan’s mom. She immediately took a half day off work and took the old lady out to eat.

The old lady asked, “Yueyue, do you like Hu Yan?”

Yueyue cried, saying she liked Hu Yan but her parents were not in good health; she didn’t feel at ease unless she stayed in Changsha, and was sorry she had disappointed her.

The old lady chuckled and said, “Then you just stay here in Changsha, hurry up and get promoted so Hu Yan doesn’t come here and torment you.”

Yueyue asked, “Is Hu Yan willing to come to Changsha?”

The old lady nodded and said, “He’s going to come. I just came over to get familiar with the area. Later I’ll move over here for a while until you two are settled, then move back to Nanjing.”

The old lady spent three days in Changsha and made zongzi for Yueyue. Afterward, when Yueyue sent her off she discovered the old lady had been staying in a cheap hotel. The table was piled with bamboo leaves and rice and the cheapest kind of rice cooker.

I realized why the old lady had wanted to learn how to use Weibo. She wanted to find Yueyue! My tears wouldn’t stop.

    I said, “Yueyue, you better come to Nanjing right now. Auntie passed away.”

Yueyue who had rushed so many miles for the funeral knelt before the portrait, pulled out a zongzi, and weeping, said, “Auntie, your zongzi are delicious. I was saving the last one in the refrigerator, but today I took it out and it was rotten. Please, Auntie, don’t blame Yueyue…”

All our friends were choked with sobs.

A year later, Hu Yan and Yueyue were married. That day didn’t have a grand banquet, only three tables—all the closest friends. Yueyue’s parents came from Changsha, but other than that there were no relatives. Yueyue wore a wedding dress, beautiful beyond compare, but from the time she came onto the stage, she was crying. Hu Yan in a well-pressed suit held Yueyue’s hand and pulled out a yellowed piece of paper. He read earnestly. Every few words were interrupted by sobs.

Dear Comrade Liu Xue,

I really like you. I have already applied to the leadership; I want to transfer to Nanjing. They didn’t approve, so I quit. I haven’t figured out how to transfer my file yet. Please prepare to receive me in Nanjing.

 Dear Comrade Liu Xue, 

I can’t talk, but I have a feeling I must express. I want to live together with you, forever.

One scene appeared in the minds of all our friends:

The old lady, leaning on a cane, standing in the bar, rebuking the young people, shaking out a yellowed piece of paper, saying, “My husband wrote me this; I’m going to read it to you. Oh what an idiot! I grabbed the the wrong one. This is the electric bill.”

Translator’s comments

The name of the character “Hu Yan” literally means “talking nonsense.”

The love letter needs to be understood within the context of the time: by disobeying and abandoning her work unit, the woman risked utter ruin and staked everything on her lover.

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