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from the April 2008 issue

Red Bean Sticky Cakes and Running

I am a countrywoman. This year, I'm thirty-six years old. My name is Chen Wumi. This name isn't very pleasing to hear, but the Beijing reporter Guo Wangjing was charmed by my name. He said that my name seems Western, that Russians and Albanians have people called Wumi, and that the Qiang, one of China's ethnic minorities, have people called Wumi too. Reporter Guo was just flattering me. In fact, he didn't realize the implications of Wumi. He was twentysomething years old and from the city. He didn't really understand country life. When he was chatting with me, he mentioned that he was already thirteen when his mother took him outside of the city and he saw a pig for the first time. Of course, he just doesn't know what wumi is. On a farm, wumi is the inedible cluster of grains near the top of the stalk that comes of rice that doesn't pollinate or pollinates in the wrong location. There it becomes surplus. I have two older sisters. My mom and dad wanted their third child to be a boy, but then when I was born and didn't live up to that expectation, I really did become surplus. When I was little, I was called Wumi. After I grew up and started going to school, my school name was Chen Wumi.

My family lives in Liaoning province, in Fucheng county, in Dawa township, in Hongshu village. I have two children, both girls. I like girls. I don't like boys. The reason I don't like boys is because my husband is also a boy. My husband's name is Zhao Qinglin. A high school graduate, he used to be the gym teacher at Dawa's elementary school. Later, the elementary school teachers had to compete to hold onto their jobs, and he was left out of the running. Qinglin is very lazy. He doesn't know how to work the land because when he was young he never had to. His parents were both teachers in the township middle school. Now the stuff he does at home is all woman's work—washing clothes and cooking. The stuff I do is all man's work. Qinglin doesn't have any bad habits at all. He doesn't smoke, drink or gamble, but he likes to fish. When there's nothing for him to do, he always goes down to the small river at the north end of the village to fish. He throws the fishhook out into the river and falls asleep leaning against the orange trees. He doesn't care whether or not the fish bite. Once a huge fish bit the hook and dragged his pole into the river, but he never noticed. That's just the degree of his laziness.

Now my life is OK. In our township, we are considered one of the richest houses. Our family's wealth doesn't rely on planting crops or on producing other farm or craft products, but on my talent: I can run. At the county-wide farmers athletic competitions, I got first place in the women's 200-meter sprint. In the 800-meter, I placed first in the entire province. In last year's national farmers athletic competitions, I got second place in the 800-meter. After I won these honors, the township, county, and province all gave me very prestigious awards. I received rewards at each level and from several divisions, totaling up to more than thirty thousand yuan. I was even specially called in to the county's athletic training center to coach for the long-distance races. I formally became a state-paid athlete, and now every month I earn over a thousand yuan in wages.

After I began my new job in the county, my experience grew. I dropped out of high school, so my educational level isn't very high, but I can still read books and the paper. I can take in what's going on outside. In the news, I once read a piece about a Kenyan long-distance athlete, named Durahi Wailamu, whose mother was mentally ill. Whenever she became ill, she ran. Whenever she ran, she wanted to run to the mountains. The mountains by Durahi Wailamu's home had a lot of wild animals. If her mother ran into the mountains, she would certainly be eaten. So whenever her mother became ill, Wailamu chased her down at any cost. Wailamu chased after her mom for six years. Then her mother died. The year after that, Durahi Wailamu participated in Kenya's long-distance competition. She received first place. In international competitions, she always receives high rankings.

When the Beijing reporter Guo Wangjing interviewed me, he said that I was China's Durahi Wailamu. But I didn't know who Durahi Wailamu was. Of course, it was only as I explained my life experiences to Guo Wangjing that he said I was like her. When I finished reading the piece on her, I laughed heartily. I thought reporter Guo's calling me Durahi Wailamu was sort of appropriate. My mother isn't crazy, but some years ago, her behavior became hard to distinguish from a crazy person's.

After a person becomes famous, everyone else wants to understand him (or her). They always want to first understand his (or her) life experiences, cause of success, their (his or her) private life, etc. Concerning my life experiences, the cause of my success and my private life, I have never concealed anything.

When I was seven, my parents were still unhappy because they didn't have a son. Then my mother became pregnant again. The township and village family planning offices, as well as the township police station, united in action. They wanted to force my mother to have an abortion. After my father—as if he were a hero—paced around the room once in a circle, he brandished his huge hand toward my mother, saying, You run and I'll cover! He wanted my mother to run away. At first, Mother was supposed to run away by herself, but she couldn't relax when she thought about me. My father was already really annoyed about my two older sisters, so he treated me with even more frustration. He accused me of eating too slowly when I was little, of crying too much and of not being any good at work (by the time I was five, I was already being sent by Father out into the land to pick up firewood and stalks of wheat left over from harvest). Of course, Father always yelled at me, but he never beat me. After all, I was still his flesh and blood.

I remember when Mother fled—it must have been around midnight—she held her bundle under her arm, walked out of the yard, and then turned back again. She pulled me out from under my bedcovers, and led me away.

We first rode in a bus, but we hadn't yet left the township when we were called to a halt. No wonder. The township had already set up a roadblock to intercept four people who were known to be fleeing family planning. All of us in the bus got out and were checked. The village chief was at the roadblock. He had come specifically to find my mother. When they weren't paying attention, my mother pulled me and we entered the high sorghum crops by the side of the road. We kept running until we reached the very end of the crop field. There was no place for my mom and me to hide and in the end she decided to take us to her youngest brother's house. My uncle's in Sanqiao village; from here it's about ten kilometers away. My mom led me and never stopped running. After running for over five kilometers, I was thirsty and hungry. When Mom led me away, she had brought only one bottle of water and nothing to eat. I drank water but was so hungry I couldn't bear it. Mom suddenly said to me, Let's run faster. Uncle's house has red bean sticky cake.

I want to say some more about red bean sticky cakes. Red bean sticky cakes are our countryside's most highly regarded food. Generally, red bean sticky [nian] cakes are made during New Year's, so they are also called New Year [nian] cakes. Here, the sound refers to the nian used in nian, yue, ri [year, month, day]. We take the sound of year [nian] to represent getting a yearly promotion [niannian gaosheng]. Making sticky cakes of course requires using sticky grain that has been ground into flour. There are many kinds of sticky grains grown in our village. There's sticky corn, sticky sorghum, long-grain golden rice and short-grain golden rice. Rich families can also purchase white sticky rice from the county seat and ground it into flour. In the South, white sticky rice is called nuomi, and the flour milled from it is pure white. Of course, sticky cakes are steamed. A big pot is filled with water, and on top you put a steamer of bamboo trays so that the steamer-cloth lies perfectly flat. As the water starts to boil and steam rises above the trays, flour must be added uniformly on the top layer. When one layer is cooked, you spread another layer on. Once the cakes are the width of a finger, it's time to spread on a layer of red bean. Generally, sticky cakes have three layers of red bean. The topmost layer of red bean must be spread on thickly. Then the pot is covered with a lid, letting the low fire steam the cakes . . . I made sticky cakes once, but they didn't turn out very well because I'm so impatient. Our countryside has an old saying: If your heart is impatient, you will never eat a good sticky cake. Furthermore, the sticky cakes that my youngest uncle made were our countryside's tastiest, most difficult to find sticky cakes. Uncle alternated between using sorghum flour and corn flour for each layer of his sticky cakes. When they were done steaming, the sticky cakes had one layer of red, one layer of yellow. They were very pretty. The key was that the red bean Uncle used to spread on his sticky cakes was mixed with brown sugar and sesame oil. When his sticky cakes were done steaming, the whole village was filled with that delicious scent. These sticky cakes that Uncle made weren't the kind that just anybody could afford to make. Uncle could make them because he is well-to-do. He's really talented. He was the local doctor, specializing in bone setting. He treated falls and injuries and was a very famous doctor in our county. He developed a balm for injured bones that was tested in clinical trials at the county hospital. The recovery rate reached 100 percent and the county bought his patent. Besides Uncle's talent in medicine, he's also very well read and highly skilled as a chef. The delicious red bean sticky cakes that he made aren't even his most impressive specialty. Every New Year, Uncle's wife always sends us red bean sticky cakes.

During that night when I was seven years old, during that night that frightened me, exhausted me, starved me, there would have been no better force than red bean sticky cakes to energize and encourage me. Red bean sticky cakes would have lifted my spirits. So I kept on running madly with my mother. When it was almost daybreak, we finally arrived at my uncle's house. What disappointed me was that we stayed at Uncle's house for a day and I didn't get to eat any red bean sticky cakes. I ate sorghum rice, cabbage stew with tofu, and I even ate a meal of dumpling soup, which I never did like. (Now dumpling soup has become a delicacy in the cities and has been pleasantly renamed pearl soup or jade egg soup; one restaurant in Beijing calls it "not a bad egg.") That day Mother was red-faced, because Uncle was reprimanding her inside one of the rooms. I heard them. Uncle said, Is this worth it? What's wrong with having a daughter? Before our mom died, who did good things for her? Who was most filial? Wasn't it you? I was off giving lectures to barefoot doctors and I went to the county hospital to learn from Lei Feng. When Mom died, I wasn't even there. You took care of Mom for over half a year, so can't you see? Raising a son who's not filial means he'll just mess around. A daughter is actually the precious one. A daughter is the only one who can care for the elderly. You need to do it. Besides, with the position I'm in now I can't help you. I'm a model doctor in the county and the vice manager of the township's planned family leadership. At this point, my uncle's wife spoke. In this house, what I say goes. Sister can hide in our house. If you are afraid to take responsibility, I will send our sister to my mother's house. I can't let my nephew not be born!

That night, my mom and I were transferred to my aunt's mother's house. Just before leaving, I buried my face in my mother's lapels and quietly said, Mom, I want to eat red bean sticky cake.

Uncle heard me and took pity. Say, Wumi, today Uncle will go to mill flour and tomorrow I'll steam up some sticky cakes and send them to you.

My mom and I were moved to my aunt's mother's house. In the middle of all the joy, Mother spent her days uneasy. We had stayed at Aunt's mother's house for three days when Aunt suddenly rushed into the house. Aunt's hands held an imitation leather bag. Inside, there was a lunch box. I guessed that those must be red bean sticky cakes. Aunt said, The Dawa township government sent people over to force Uncle to say where you are. But Uncle really bit the bullet and didn't give you up. But among the people who came from Dawa, one or two of them are from the police. They're supposed to specialize in investigations. They're probably on their way over here. Right after they left, I ran here to get the news to you. You have to move again. Uncle wants you to come back quickly, to the hospital to get it done. I don't agree with him. I want to help you two, which means helping to the very end. Now I offer you four places you can go. You two can take turns staying in these four locations. These are the houses of four good friends of ours. I already called each of the wives separately. The stops are: Ma Guixiang, who works at the Qingyuan forest center for experimental fungi production; Wang Shuqin, who is a veterinarian in Tuta township; Xia Yulan, who works at the general store in Xiqiao; and Qu Fengzhi, who is a middle school teacher in Xiaowa village. First go to Wang Shuqin's house. It's about ten kilometers from here. Stay at her place for four days and Ma Guixiang will come get you. Stay at Ma Guixiang's house for four days, and then go to Xiqiao, which is about fifteen kilometers from her house. Ma Guixiang's family is a bit better off. In addition, she owes me about three hundred yuan. I don't want the money anymore. You can stay at her house for two months. The final stop is Qu Fengzhi's house. Qu Fengzhi's husband, Chen Shibin, was my classmate and she's also a good friend of my family. Stay at Qu Fengzhi's house about ten days before going back to Ma Guixiang's house again. You can keep going like that in a cycle until the eight months are up. When it's about time you can come back to my mother's house . . .

After seeing how thoroughly and precisely Aunt had planned things out, my mom was so moved she was about to cry. While I just really wanted to open up the imitation leather bag Aunt was carrying. I had already smelled the sweet scent of red bean sticky cakes coming from inside the box. We didn't stay at Aunt's mother's house any longer. That night we left for Tuta's veterinarian. The way to Tuta was all dirt roads. It had rained for a few days so the roads were still muddy. My mom pulled me along and we ran hurriedly. Who would have thought that when we hadn't yet walked five kilometers, a truck would come up from behind. Hearing the truck's horn, Mom anxiously said to me, This is no good! It's the township's truck chasing us. We have to hurry up! Without waiting for a response, Mom pulled me along and we entered the high sorghum crops alongside the road. The field had a lot of rainwater in it. My mom and I kept tumbling and falling over each other. The sound of the truck's horn wasn't there anymore. We walked until the very end of the crop field. As my mom gave a nice long sigh of joy, I became really sad. That leather bag I had been holding so tightly—I didn't notice when it wasn't there anymore. I started crying. As I was crying I kept on saying, Red bean sticky cakes. My sticky cakes. When my mom saw me crying so pitifully, she let me sit down on the ground. Then she turned around to look for that leather bag. Mother looked for over two hours at least, but she wasn't able to find it. At that time, it was nearly daybreak. Crying, I wanted to go back into those high sorghum crops and look for the bag myself, but my mom said, We can't go look for it. It's light out. The township's truck will drive over here again and it'll find us very quickly. We won't be able to save your little brother.

My mom dragged me away and started running again. This time, my legs were very heavy. I regretted losing that lunchbox of red bean sticky cakes. But my mother encouraged me by saying, Let's keep running as best we can. When we finish running past four houses, the last house is still your aunt's mother's house. Then, your aunt will make you red bean sticky cakes. Those words from Mom encouraged me with more force than anything else would have. I ran with all my might, even running in front of Mom.

The six months that followed I wouldn't call endless, but I wouldn't call them short either. I had to run about once every ten days, suddenly and quickly. As we ran, my mom and I were full of happiness. When we ran together over long distances, Mom was still able to talk to me. She said, It'll be OK if your brother looks like your dad. Your dad's head and face are both big, a face of good fortune. It'll be OK if he looks like your uncle, too. Uncle is talented. Your little brother will go to college. After graduating college, he'll return to our Dawa as the township chief. In the future, you girls will have children. No one will bother you over how many you have. Because your little brother will say it's OK. As Mom was saying this, breathing very evenly, she didn't look exhausted at all. Actually, I didn't really care what my little brother was like. What I cared about was when we would reach the end of this endless road, when we would eat Uncle's red bean sticky cakes.

Our last stop was Qu Fengzhi's house. Speaking of Qu Fengzhi, I must explain a little more, because Qu Fengzhi is now my mother-in-law. Something bad happened when we were at her house. My mom and I had been running for so long over bumpy roads, and when we ran from Xia Yulan's house in Xiqiao general store toward Qu Fengzhi's house, there was a river. On the river, there was a single-plank bridge. When we were almost at the bank, Mom tripped. After arriving at Qu Fengzhi's house, Mom had an unusual reaction. She started bleeding and looked really pale. Qu Fengzhi immediately sent word to my aunt. Aunt came with a doctor. My mom gave birth early. The baby she gave birth to was very lively. But it wasn't my little brother; it was my little sister. My mom's mood became exceptionally and painfully sad. My mom thought that these last seven or eight months spent running were meaningless. Her dream of having a son who was the township chief was utterly destroyed. Dad knew about my mom giving birth, but he didn't come to visit her, or to see me or my little sister. Later, I heard that my narrow-minded dad, because he didn't get a son, wept for over an hour by the river at the village's edge. Afterward, he jumped into the river. Because the river water was too shallow, no matter how many times he jumped in he couldn't kill himself. And my mom was too ashamed to face my dad. We lived at Teacher Qu's house for a little while. At the time, I felt I had a lot of responsibilities. Half a year of running away made me feel like wherever we went, we just gave other people more trouble. I learned from my mom how to work diligently and how to be polite when dealing with people. At Qu Fengzhi's house, I was like an adult. Aunt Qu and I fought over who would do the household chores. I even washed clothes for her son Zhao Qinglin, who was only two years older than I. Aunt Qu really liked me. One day, she said to me, Wumi, why don't you be my daughter-in-law? Without waiting for a response from me, my mom spoke first. OK. Sounds OK. Then the very fat and somewhat slow-looking Zhao Qinglin also said, OK. Sounds OK.

My career in long-distance running began when I was seven. Later, I entered Xiaowa school. So I studied where my future parents-in-law taught. This was also my mom's idea. When we went back home, our house had four daughters and we were fined six thousand yuan. We sold a cow, a room and a half of our house, and ten jute bags of soy beans before we paid it off. But our lives became even harder. My two older sisters dropped out of school and stayed at home to work on the farm. I was going to stay at home and work on the farm as well, when my mom suddenly thought of Teacher Zhao and Teacher Qu from Xiaowa school district and entrusted me to them. They offered to pay my tuition, but they couldn't give me a place to stay. (Father-in-law was a prudent county teacher. He was afraid that if I stayed in his home, it would make others suspect that he had bought a child bride.) So every day I ran to and from school. Every day, I ran at least sixteen kilometers.

Here, I want to talk some more about red bean sticky cakes. My uncle and aunt always really liked me. My years in elementary school and middle school were all because of my aunt and uncle's financial help. Aunt knew that to get to school everyday I had to walk eight kilometers, so she wanted to spend money on a bike for me. I said to Aunt, I don't want a bike. I run really fast. I just want Uncle to make me red bean sticky cakes once a month so I can eat them while I'm at school. This request wasn't excessive. Uncle and Aunt fulfilled it and this satisfying system continued for several years. . . .

A long-distance runner's diet is extremely important. I saw in the news once that Kenya's Durahi Wailamu's favorite things to eat were corn and palm dates, as well as a cake made from the sap of a certain tree. She didn't like to eat fruit, but liked a kind of vegetable called eastern pepper. When I won second place at the national farmers long-distance competition, there was a journalist who asked me about my diet. I mentioned red bean sticky cakes. The next day, the manager of a food company found me, wanting to produce a kind of red bean sticky cake and call it Wumi brand red bean sticky cakes, with a caption saying it's the special diet of the X X X athletic association. Laughing, I said, Red bean sticky cakes are certainly good, but they should be considered a food that happened to energize me during a particular time in my life. The Beijing reporter Guo Wangjing said that those words of mine were really smart.

Around that time, people asked me whether my being able to become a remarkable long-distance runner, my experience that year, and red bean sticky cakes had any relationship to each other. If I had said simply that hunger made me run faster, or that I ran faster for my mother, these words would have sounded too simple. If people knew about Kenya's Durahi Wailamu, my experiences wouldn't seem interesting anymore.

Here, I'd like to talk about a private matter that always made me hesitate and that is hard for me to talk about. I dropped out of high school in my second year not only because of my family's financial situation, but more importantly because I had the animal-like gym teacher named Zhu One Army. Of course, this was a pseudonym. You can imagine him as Zhu Two Army or Zhu Three Army. I participated in that year's provincial middle school athletic competition. I won the long-distance race. I received only athletic wear and a scholarship of five hundred yuan as a reward. However, Zhu One Army got a higher honor. He received the title of excellence for gym teachers in the province. On his forms to report his achievements he wrote: I went through over a year of hard work. I worked my heart out to nurture a young champion of the province. I paid a high price and finally received an outstanding record. My getting first place in the province gave Zhu One Army more opportunities to spend more and more time training me. But suddenly one day, Zhu One Army said that he liked me and wanted to be with me. I really looked down on Zhu One Army. He wasn't at all a real gym teacher with any skill or training. Originally, he was a township leader's chauffeur. Later on, that leader went up to the province, and before leaving, he arranged to have Zhu One Army work at the township middle school and got him on the state payroll. Since his educational level was low, he couldn't teach any classes, so he became an insignificant gym teacher.

I knew something bad was about to happen to me, but I needed to use my own special method of dealing with him. I said to him, The two of us will run against each other. When you catch me, whatever you want is OK by me. The distance was eight hundred meters or a thousand meters. I was still a girl, but Zhu One Army was a strapping young man. He thought that catching me wouldn't be a problem. So our deal started one night, behind the school's back fence. Behind the back fence there was an asphalt road that spiraled out toward the mountains. We started to run. I had underestimated Zhu One Army. By the time we had run about three hundred meters, he had caught me. Discouraged, I sat down on the ground. I closed my eyes, waiting the arrival of a nightmare. But Zhu One Army didn't do anything to me. He let me stand back up and said to me, The way I'm acting is actually bullying you, and it's not in keeping with the high morals of a teacher of the people. I only want you to say yes to me, so that when you reach marrying age, you will marry me. That year, I was eighteen. That day, Zhu One Army hugged me and kissed me.

I thought that to free myself from Zhu One Army I needed to put more effort into long-distance running. I trained hard for over a month. My long-distance record went down one minute and thirty seconds to a shocking speed. One day, I couldn't help challenging Zhu One Army again. We competed again on the school's asphalt road behind the back fence. This time, I left Zhu One Army trailing far behind me. I sat at the finish line waiting for him to run over. I said to him, You can give up this notion you have of marrying me. Zhu One Army said, This time and last time are ties. Tonight's race will be the deciding one.

As expected, that night, Zhu One Army tried to catch up to me with all his might as I ran home from school. He followed me for at least six kilometers. Then, he fell down on the ground. While I was running this time I felt so elated. The joy in my heart far surpassed my energy fuel of red bean sticky cakes. As I was running, I turned around to see how far away I was from Zhu One Army. What I was throwing away was not only the boring and shameless gym teacher, but a demon. This demon was the true force energizing me.

Because he wanted to chase me, Zhu One Army fainted on the road. The next day, he was admitted to a hospital with heart problems. A few days later he was released, but only a few days after that he was admitted again. This time, he entered without leaving. He died of a heart attack. Right before he died, he said to the school principal and the province leader, I fell down for the educational mission of our school and in order to nurture a track star. I die without regret.

While Zhu One Army was in the hospital, the heads of our school and of my class were extremely angry at me. They thought that I should visit and bring flowers to Zhu One Army. Of course, they didn't know the tragedy that could have happened but didn't have a chance to happen between Zhu One Army and me. But I still went. The head teacher bought fresh flowers for me to bring. When I put the flowers in front of Zhu One Army's bed, I even bowed very deeply to him and said, Teacher Zhu, I wish you a quick recovery. I'm still waiting for you to train me.

Zhu One Army craftily said, Student Wumi, what you need to know now is the great pains I went through for you. Because I wanted you to become a great track star, I may have used a lot of methods that were unimaginable to you . . .

At this point, I didn't know whether the white-faced Zhu One Army lying in front of me was a person or a demon. Maybe he was both a person and a demon. But he definitely was not a red bean sticky cake.

I'm already thirty-six years old and close to middle age. I can't become a track star. Not too many miracles can happen to me now. Of course, I don't really wish for any miracles to happen. My current hopes have already moved far away from red bean sticky cakes, but I haven't run far away because when I run I still have that same feeling of happiness that only I know of.

When I run I think of my family. Of course, I think of my mother the most. Right now, she's still quite healthy. She and my little sister live together. My sister's husband started a restaurant in Tuta township called Production Team restaurant. Little sister is the manager and her husband is the cook. Every day, my mom takes a pedicab into the county to buy vegetables, chicken, duck, fish and meats. She's already sixty-four years old, but it seems like she's forty-six. She bicycles very fast. As she's bicycling, she must be imagining herself running. At that moment, she and I run together.

My husband is fishing again. There will be a day when a huge fish will drag his fishing pole and him as well into the water. At that moment, I will laugh heartily as I'm running.

Aunt has already passed away from illness. Uncle's still around, but he's no longer practicing medicine. Everyday, he practices his calligraphy in Ouyang Xun's classical style. He says that this style suits his personality. Every month, he makes red bean sticky cakes at least once. However, in terms of ingredients, his red bean sticky cakes have already undergone changes. He uses red bean paste in place of red beans, and he adds a middle layer of candied green plum strips, almond, and walnuts. I no longer like the red bean sticky cakes he makes now because calling them red bean sticky cakes isn't accurate at all. When I run I often alternate between thinking about these two cakes, and this makes me sometimes fast, sometimes slow. That's the perplexing thing about my running.

As I was running, running, I suddenly had a strange thought. I ran into the high sorghum crops and saw something that astonished me. It was what I lost in the high sorghum crops over twenty years ago, those fragrant, incomparable red bean sticky cakes.

Translation of "Hongdou niangao he benpao." Copyright 2005 by Zhao Ying. Translation copyright 2008 by Victoria Hsieh. All rights reserved.

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