After Dean Jiang gave his speech, several other school administrators went up to take their turn.
The sun grew hotter and hotter.
“Seems like they’ll give out some things later.” He Zhao was tall and he could see the paper box by Dean Jiang’s side at a glance from where he stood. He said, guessing, “Looks like books?”
Other schools gave books at their coming-of-age ceremonies. The gift was simple and brutal: a copy of the Constitution. But looking at the size of the box it probably didn’t contain such thick and heavy books.
Old Tang was busy maintaining order. Xie Yu leaned back quietly; he hadn’t clearly heard what He Zhao said.
He Zhao bent over. If he lowered his head a little more he would touch the tips of Xie Yu’s ears. He thought about it, then called, “Old Xie.”
Xie Yu was uncomfortable under the sun and raised a hand to shield his face from the light.
“You’re an adult now, you’ve grown up. There’s one important thing you have to learn.”
Behind him, He Zhao’s voice was low, and when He Zhao spoke his breath touched Xie Yu’s ear. His words were very similar to Mad Dog’s from just now and for a moment Xie Yu didn’t realize what exactly he meant. He paused, then asked, “What?”
He Zhao said, “Take responsibility.”
Xie Yu’s response was lukewarm. Based on his knowledge of He Zhao, this probably wasn’t anything good.
As expected, the moment he said, ‘Mm,’ He Zhao immediately continued to say, “For example, take responsibility for your boyfriend.”
So this was his goddamn ruse.
“Take responsibility my–” Xie Yu got halfway through his curse and didn’t continue. He cut straight to the point. “If you have something to say, why don’t you just say it? What’s the point of beating around the bush?”
He Zhao had just wanted to tease him. Hearing this, he smiled and bent his head, putting his forehead to the crook of Xie Yu’s neck.
At this time, the last leader had finished speaking on stage.
Looking at the time, it was about time to go into the memorial for the tour. But all the homeroom teachers were gathered by the box doing who knows what. About five minutes later, each of them carried a stack of things back.
—It was a thick bundle of envelopes.
Old Tang had not told them about this part beforehand. When Xie Yu received the letter, he was stunned for a moment.
On the envelope was written ‘Xie Yu.’
The handwriting was proper and beautiful, and very familiar. At a glance he could tell it was Madam Gu’s handwriting.
“Where’s yours?” Xie Yu glanced backward. On the envelope in He Zhao’s hands, right under the big words ‘He Zhao’ was another messy line: I’m your pa.
He Zhao saw it, too. He coughed lightly and said, “That’s my Old He. He’s a character.”
Before, in the office, he had heard Old Tang phone He Zhao’s dad. Xie Yu thought that he had a good understanding of this ‘Old He,’ but this went far beyond what he had imagined. “He is quite the character.”
As they spoke, ambient music began playing from the speakers to the side. The song ‘A Grateful Heart’¹ flowed out alongside the sound of static.
The students who had received letters were all in a state of confusion and talked quietly amongst themselves:
“What is this?”
“My dad wrote to me?”
Liu Cunhao, as the class rep, stood at the head of the line and led the group.
“What is this?” He opened the letter and read out the first line. “To my dearest son…”
Initially, his voice held a joking tone.
But after reading out these words, he suddenly went quiet.
Old Tang distributed the last letter, then stood by Dean Jiang’s side and said, “How did you think of this?”
Dean Jiang usually looked cruel and heartless, but even though his words were harsh, sometimes his thoughts were even more meticulous than those of Tang Sen, the literature teacher. He had planned the coming-of-age ceremony from very early on. He had wanted to make it special and do his best to let this group of kids remember this day.
Dean Jiang sighed. “Some things are hard to talk about in the day-to-day. Maybe through a letter, their parents can… communicate with them more.”
Xie Yu opened the envelope and found that Madam Gu had filled three sheets of paper.
The opening line was, ‘I love you.’
For a moment, through the thin sheets of paper, Xie Yu seemed to see Madam Gu holding a pen and sitting at a desk, writing.
—I love you, but sometimes love is a burden too.
I am also very grateful to you. I’m grateful that you came to be by my side.
Xie Yu’s hands tightened on the paper. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt as if someone had gently squeezed his heart.
Several girls from the next class over couldn’t keep their feelings in check and started sobbing out loud. They held their hands over their mouths and the muffled sounds of crying emanated from between their fingers.
As these girls had started crying, the atmosphere grew even more emotional.
Sometimes the most genuine, strongest thought in one’s heart is also the thought which one is most embarrassed to say.
Xie Yu read two sheets, then looked up. He stared at a nearby tree for a while, then recovered and read the last sheet one word and one line at a time.
Since you were very young, I couldn’t help thinking about your future. I thought about what you might be like when you grow up, where you would go, and what you would do. 360 professions.² I thought about all of them.
Now, you should think for yourself.
No matter what you choose, I feel proud of you.
I just want you to be safe and happy.
“The Liyang Erzhong coming-of-age ceremony ends here.” Dean Jiang took the microphone, then continued to say a few concluding words. “I hope that no matter what difficulties you meet in future, you will remember this day. All your feelings, your courage, and your first heart.”
“Now, each class please follow your teacher and proceed in order into the museum for the tour…”
The tour of the People’s Memorial Museum was very quiet. Maybe they had not yet recovered from the ceremony just now or, perhaps, facing the heavy weight of history, they were unable to speak. They took the tour according to the given path and emerged. By this time, it was nearly 3 in the afternoon.
Only when they got on the bus to go to the restaurant reserved for dinner did they grow energetic again.
He Zhao said loudly, “I’ll make myself clear now. Later, I refuse to sit at the same table with the gym rep.”
Eight to a table, they basically needed to fight in order to eat.
After He Zhao’s proclamation, Liu Cunhao immediately raised his hand. “I refuse, too.”
Luo Wenqiang was kicked back and forth like a rubber ball. The way things were progressing, he would have to make up a table with Old Tang and the others. “Hao-zi, you don’t dote on me any more? Where’s the mutual doting we talked about?!”
He Zhao took the lead and livened the atmosphere, then fell silent after that. With one hand stuck in his pocket, he leaned his head back and shut his eyes.
Even though it was pitch-dark in front of his eyes, the words from Old He’s letter still surfaced little by little.
—I was also worried that when you fell down, you got hurt.
—But more than that, I believed in you. How could my son give up over such a small difficulty?
In He Zhao’s recollection, Old He was a very cool parent. Before, he might have thought that Old He’s method of education was quite inhumane. If He Zhao fell, Old He would never reach out to help him up. “If you have the guts, lie down on the floor for the rest of your life. If you don’t, then get up.”
He Zhao thought this far, then faintly felt something move at his side. When he opened his eyes, his little friend beside him had already inappropriately stuck his fingertips a little way into his pocket.
He Zhao said nothing. He leaned against the back of the seat and stared at his little friend.
Xie Yu didn’t dodge, either, and directly grasped He Zhao’s hand.
Luo Wenqiang and the others’ conversation had drifted from dinner to the hotel. “When I get back later, I’ll do some homework…”
“You brought homework? Are you an animal? Didn’t you say it could take good care of itself?!”
“I was consoling you. You can’t believe consoling words, can you?”
The restaurant’s food wasn’t very good. Plastic tablecloths were laid over big wooden tables, and there were about a dozen tables in the hall. Many classes were squeezed in together and dinner tasted like the food that came out of the big pots in the cafeteria.
Luo Wenqiang still sat at their table, making everyone nervous.
He Zhao was worried Xie Yu would let him off and reminded him, “Later, use your chopsticks to snatch food, or not even the dregs will be left for you.”
Xie Yu split his chopsticks apart. He wasn’t concerned at all. “He can try.”
All the people who sat at a table with Luo Wenqiang sat with their backs straight, standing by as if what awaited them was not a big meal but a battle.
Wan Da sat next to Luo Wenqiang. He felt that today’s meal could definitely go down in history. While the other tables quietly ate and complained from time to time that the food wasn’t to their taste, there was pandemonium at their table.
He Zhao tossed away his chopsticks. “Damn, Hao-zi, hold him down. Don’t give him the chance to take food—”
“Wan Da, don’t eat any more. Help out,” Liu Cunhao said. “Attack his weak point!”
Wan Da was confused. “Weak point? What weak point?”
Xie Yu said, “Take his chopsticks.”
Luo Wenqiang was attacked from all sides. Someone held him down, pressing his face to the table. “Why are you doing this to me?”
The people at the next table over were dumbstruck. “Is this even still a meal? They’re being so ferocious.”
The group of them fought together and managed to protect half a plate of baked fish in the center of the table.
Instead of intricate dishes and exotic delicacies, this meal of cafeteria food-that-came-from-a-pot where the cook’s hand had slipped and added a few more spoonfuls of salt was more comparable to the scene of a traffic accident.
What nobody knew was that they wouldn’t forget the taste for many years to come.
The agenda for the two days was quite packed. After eating, they cleaned up slightly and set off for the temple fair.
It wasn’t as stuffy and hot as that afternoon. When they got off the bus, several gusts of cool wind even blew over from the lake.
South Temple was a unique tourist spot. As evening fell, more and more crowds gathered.
On the street, hawkers sold accessories out of push carts. There were red embroidery, tassels hanging from the bottom, delicate and intricate.
And there were old folks who set up stalls selling river lanterns. Bent over, they sat by the lake, feet on the stone stairs.
The culture and people here were different from A City. It looked a little old-fashioned.
Old Tang was worried about them. There were many people here, and night was about to fall fully. He asked them several times if they had brought their phones with them. “…All right, are you sure you have them? Then, everybody, split into groups and do what you want. At 7 p.m. we’ll gather back at the entrance.”
As Xie Yu listened, someone suddenly slapped his back.
He Zhao was behind him and mouthed, “Let’s go.”
“Anywhere,” He Zhao said. “Or do you want to stay here and group up?”
Xie Yu remembered the autumn school trip and thought, Forget it. It’s annoying with too many people.
After Old Tang mentioned splitting into groups, Liu Cunhao subconsciously turned to look for the two school tyrants and happened to catch sight of their departing silhouettes.
Both of them were wearing school uniforms and made a compatible match when they stood side by side. Before walking very far, He Zhao reached out with no hesitation and took Xie Yu’s hand.