“You’re either good enough, young lady, or you’re not. My advice? Stop fishing for the moon at the bottom of the sea. Find a steady job and a good boy. You’re not young anymore, if you know what I mean.”
The audience was still mid-gasp when Jiayi, microphone drooping, made up her mind with a brave nod: she would accept the judge’s advice. No exceptional talent, this she already knew; and it was also true that she wasn’t young anymore, at twenty-seven. But it was the self-assured and indifferent way he said it – steady job, good boy – on national television, no less, as if young women were blind to their own reflections, that induced the revelation. There’s an old saying about those who are discontent: they are like snakes trying to swallow an elephant. But she had not thought, until then, she could choose to not be a snake, simply step out of her skin and spawn someone else.
Back home, she ignored the relentless pinging of her instant messenger to edit a resume. The next morning she trekked to a job fair across town, at which eager-eyed graduates were casually evaluated and steered into their proper ranks. At the back tents, where the sealing parts, small pharma, and copycat companies camped, Jiayi spotted a wiry woman with thinning hair who did not seem entirely worn out and colorless.
“There were six million graduates this year,” the woman said with a sigh, scanning Jiayi’s resume. “There were six million the year before, six million before that, and many more six millions since your graduation. What makes you so idealistic?”
“I’m not,” Jiayi replied. “I’m practical.”
The lady looked up. “You’re not from Hebei, Hubei, Shanxi, or Anhui, are you?”
Jiayi shook her head. “My parents are from Beijing.”
The woman nearly smiled. “We’ll be in touch if you are qualified.”
The next part was easy, since boys are easy. The trick is to see them as show contestants and know that in the end it doesn’t matter. One only has to be careful to not aim too high, hope too hard, because it’s dangerous to wear an open heart. Girls have to protect themselves, this Jiayi knew intuitively. Who else would? The power she exerted could as easily turn inward and destroy her from the roots.
Honest and hardworking boy seeks caring woman, read one profile, after she had skimmed a hundred others. She messaged.
Almost instantly, the reply: “Why do you want to be my friend?”
They exchanged meaningful emojis before Jiayi asked, “Where are you?”
“The Egg,” he said, using the nickname for the National Center for the Performing Arts just west of Tiananmen Square.
She arrived an hour later at a nearby Starbucks, which she thought was a thoughtful choice, the choice of someone who at least tries. He was easy to recognize, because he had been staring at her.
Across from the boy, Jiayi understood deep down, where her mother and grandmother and mothers before them stored their hungriest and most unspoken-of hopes, that in life one must make concessions to achieve the truly meaningful. She felt superior — how a foreigner must regard her — more gracious and mature.
He was not outwardly strong, and his features could not be called sharp, but he was mostly symmetrical. He looked healthy. There are worse things to bequeath a child than good health. She leaned. His eye slipped to the left, his smile grew nervous. His father was an accountant at a firm that controlled a chain of three-star hotels, and his mother was a banker — or worked at the bank, he wasn’t entirely clear. They inquired of each other’s hometowns and phone apps.
“And what do you do?” he asked.
“Oh,” she said, catching her breath. She could have said she sang. She could have gone with the safer reply, said she worked in an office. But she had higher ambitions. Jiayi saw it clear as fantasy, her body giving life to a boy — a businessman, clever and discreet, or an engineer, maybe even an innovator. Or she could have a daughter, a pianist dressed by Christopher Bu, or a flight attendant who traveled the world from Paris to the U.S. She could be a singer if she wanted. She would be equally versed in folk songs and the arias of Puccini. She would toggle phonation frequency by the seventeenths. She would have a mother who recognized a gift as a gift, and nurtured it, allowing her to dream, and that mother would work, since it was in her blood to endeavor, and force her husband to work harder if it meant they could hire a tutor, and her songs would fill worlds and spaces, the main concert hall inside The Egg and the expanse between breaths. What would the judge say then? Nothing. He would have nothing to say. No one would dare counsel her on the future.
“Um,” the boy said, briefly turning his head at the spot over his shoulder where Jiayi was staring.
“Sorry,” she blinked, and fixed her gaze at the reflection in his eyes. “Did you say something?”
Anthony Tao is a writer and editor who grew up in Kansas but currently lives in Beijing. His work has been published in journals such as Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, Borderlands, Frontier, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Asian Cha. He has a “poetry x music” album, made in collaboration with a classical guitarist, called The Last Tribe on Earth. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonytao.