The Untimely Death of a Lowborn Valedictorian

Originally by Mimeng, a web author permabanned for her trouble

Image by joaph on Pixabay

[Translator’s note: This article was originally written by Mimeng, a popular Chinese web author, in January of 2019. Upon publication to Weibo, the piece engendered many discussions among netizens sympathizing with the plight of China’s lower classes as well as questioning the current state of Chinese society.

Needless to say, it was swiftly removed by Internet censors on the grounds of “inciting the people’s antagonistic sentiments” and “promoting negative energy [sic].” At the beginning of February, Mimeng’s account came under a seemingly self-imposed two-month-long moratorium on posts. On the 21st of February, her accounts on WeChat, Weibo, and iFeng were all closed down, with iFeng stating that its ban is “permanent and irrevocable.”

The following is translated over from the repost found on SecretChina.com, which is in turn copied from a WeChat account who managed to save a version of the original post.

I’ve done the best I could in translating this with my limited knowledge of written Chinese, so apologies in advance if some parts don’t read as naturally as they should. However, I wanted to give this piece a shot anyway, not only to give an English-speaking audience a glimpse of the kind of media that falls on the wrong side of China’s censorship protocol but also to (hopefully) convey a bit of Mimeng’s original themes to a wider audience, as I think her ideas can resonate with any modern society — not just China’s.]

Introduction

On January 8, 2019, I found out that my high school classmate, Zhou Youze, had died of stomach cancer.

At the time of his death, he had been a financial accountant at a national firm with around $550 left on his debit card. Yet, he passed away in a $14.95 coat dug straight from the bargain bin.

At the time of his death, he had also been four months from his 25th birthday.

From the time I received the news, to the time I decided to write this, to the time you’re now reading this, half a month had gone by — half a month of hemming and hawing. I started this piece five different times only to give up five different times, finding myself at a loss each time. However, I finally decided to force myself through it and write on.

To be brutally honest, Zhou Youze and I hadn’t talked to each other during college at all. The friendship that had accumulated between us during high school had been all but erased by these past five years. Despite this, I’ve somehow been in an almost-depressive state since his passing, with emotions I feel but hardly the right words to convey them.

The fact that I’m recording everything I remember of him today is not because I have regrets about what I could have done more for him as a friend, or that I’m seeking absolution for these regrets. It’s because his passing has inspired me to rethink these past few years of my life, reflect upon my relationship with society, and evaluate whether anything I’ve ever done truly has any meaning at all.

I’ve found that after thinking all of this through, I almost want to undo everything I’ve done after the age of 18, burn it — and start all over again.

One

The day I found out Zhou Youze had passed, I had been at an izakaya in the China World Trade Center chatting up an investor.

And what, exactly, had I been chatting about?

Oh, you know, the usual — about the future state of the economy, about red ocean industries versus blue ocean industries, about how to quickly turn a profit, about the illusory “financial independence” that we all seem to chase in this field. This isn’t my first rodeo; I’ve been at this for two years, including my internships, and my current project has to deal with commerce, so I need to keep my finger on the pulse of the market outlook for the next year and predict which products will most likely receive financing.

So goes an average day in my life, and it’s been like this for the past two years: drinks after dinner after drinks after dinner with the misters and misses and mentors and whatnots. I bow perfunctorily, greet perfunctorily, smile perfunctorily, all of it a well-practiced routine. The audiences come and go, and I am their willing actress.

Buzzzzzzzz…….

But everything changed that day when my phone wouldn’t stop vibrating.

I threw an apologetic look at the venture capitalist seated before me and opened WeChat, only to have hundreds of notifications hit me all at once. What’s more intriguing is that all of them seemed to originate from our long-dead high school group chat, which I had forgotten to mute on account of its relative inactivity.

Now, my entrance into the working world has forced me to pick up a skill over the past two years: the skill of filtering out unimportant information at the highest of speeds and subsequently producing a swift conclusion. I think it’s probably something to do with one of my boss’s go-to lines — “I don’t want to hear all this bullshit. I only want three actionable suggestions for the future, do you have them or not?

I do, I do, and I do — of course I do. I’d be sacked otherwise.

Naturally, I treated this situation the same way, taking about 30 seconds to digest the hundreds of messages on my phone screen and distill them down to a core conclusion: Our high school classmate Zhou Youze has passed away.

Objectively speaking, I actually remember very, very few things about him. It’s not something I feel great about, but it’s the truth.

What I do remember only exists as blurry shadows — his slight figure, standing at a mere five-foot-three, with his face a constellation of acne and his Mandarin heavily accented. But he was smart. Really, really, really smart.

Two weeks into tenth grade, our class had to take a math diagnostic test. The math teacher (also our homeroom teacher) had brought in a thick stack of papers, and with a slap of the lectern, loudly proclaimed, “They said that our high school has the best feeder schools in the prefecture, and you guys are the honors class. So go on, show me what you’re made of!”

After all the answer sheets had been collected, our teacher calmly informed us that we had just taken the math portion of the 2010 Sichuan National College Entrance Exam.

The classroom instantly erupted.

“What the hell? We’re literally only two weeks into high school!”

“Assholes!”

But the results would prove that most people were faking it. A day later, when we all got our grades back, the highest score in our class was a 123 — a score that many seniors couldn’t even reach after three years of high school math. This means that whoever got that score can literally skip every math lecture in high school and still have that 123 as a base.

At that time Zhou Youze’s desk had only been an aisle away from mine, where I noticed him staring at his answer sheet, dumbfounded. I stole a glance at the 40 at the top and immediately felt a lot better about my own 90. At least I had a passing grade.

He saw me looking over and was quite unfazed, not revealing a single hint of embarrassment or frustration. He only let out a self-deprecating laugh, and asked, “How did y’all learn gāokǎo stuff?”

“We had to learn geometry and derivatives in eighth grade for Math Olympiad,” I replied.

He nodded slowly.

“Gosh! Y’all are amazing, doing Math Olympiad.”

Though it had been half a month since school started, this was the first time I had actually spoken to him. In that moment, I remember thinking that he was pretty dumb and really slow.

A month later, I no longer dared call him “dumb” or “slow.”

Our math lessons quickly organized themselves into modules — an approach designed to give us a holistic view of the field by marching through the various mathematical branches one at a time. Each lecture, we’d focus on one subject and end the lesson with a quiz on said subject, and the quiz questions were always insanely difficult, not in the least because we’d hardly have enough time to process the lesson we just heard before we were tested. Predictably, these quizzes are usually followed by much bellyaching on the part of us the students.

But from the third quiz onward, Zhou Youze became far and away the highest-scoring math student in our year, an achievement he’d maintain all the way through the end of twelfth grade.

Eventually, we became a bit more friendly.

I had heard a few things about him from other people as well. He wasn’t from our area, but from a small village in a township in a different city. During the high school entrance exam, he had outscored the honors students from the elite middle schools in his city despite only coming from a remote village school, handily securing himself a seat at our top-3 prefectural high school with the highest score in his city.

He was really, truly smart, but his family was also really, truly destitute.

He’d only ever spend 7 dollars a week on all his meals and expenses. At home, he had a little sister six years his junior — also in school, and also really intelligent. His tuition to attend this high school in our prefectural capital was raised by his local village committee, and they all say that he’s their village’s pride and joy.

That has left such an impression on me to the point where several years later when I watched Yang Chaoyue deliver her teary-eyed “I’m the pride of my whole village,” on Produce 101, I had to do a double take to realize I had heard the words spoken in Zhou Youze’s voice.

After we became more acquainted with each other, I’d often talk to him between classes and after school. He always found some of the things I’d say interesting, and I also felt the same about many of the things he’d say.

At our high school, all students would receive free milk every morning. I didn’t drink milk, so I’d always just toss it in the trash. Once, he caught me as I was about to throw it away and was absolutely mortified.

“You can’t waste things like that! If you don’t want it, sell it to me. But don’t ask for too much.”

“Don’t you have milk too?” I asked.

“My sister doesn’t,” he replied, smiling.

I handed him the milk.

“I won’t take your money. But just let me score higher than you on the next quiz, all right?”

At the end of winter break in tenth grade, everyone came back to school eager to share their own experiences. It was a ritual of the student days, anyhow — the first day back was always small talk central. We had all experienced change in some way, shape, or form: some people came back with new clothes and new shoes, others with new haircuts, others had even gone vacationing overseas.

Zhou Youze, like the rest of us, had also changed. That day, he arrived with a new coat. As he walked into the classroom and took his seat, the English letters emblazoned on it only became more and more glaringly obvious to the rest of us.

After class, a few of the boys sauntered up to his desk. In a half-joking half-demeaning tone, their leader asked:

“Youze, where’s that from? It looks pretty swag — what, did you buy Adidas and then remix it yourself?

Everyone sitting within earshot tried not to laugh, but a few of them couldn’t hold it in and let loose a few chortles anyway.

I didn’t say anything and pretended to be absorbed in my book.

When the boys finally left, he discreetly passed a note to me. On it were the words, “What’s wrong with my clothes?”

I thought for a bit and decided to be honest.

“The actual brand is spelled Adidas. Your coat says ‘Adadis.’”

I thought that he’d never wear that coat again. But the day after, Zhou Youze once again entered the classroom sporting the same outerwear — only this time, he had it on inside out. A motley of sewn-on fabric patches dotted the coat, making his appearance all the more comical. However, I figured that to him, the scrambled letters were probably more of an eyesore than the patches now.

There were a couple of times that day where I wanted to ask him why he kept the coat, but I ultimately couldn’t spit it out. Alas, those who possess a high IQ really do seem to be blessed with a sixth sense; I was read like a book.

During self-study, he turned towards me and said:

“I only have this winter coat — just this one. It cost my family half a month’s food money.”

Just like that, very down-to-earth. Without a trace of defensive arrogance or pitying humility.

I’m no trust fund baby, but I’d consider my family solidly middle class. My parents are also both academics; growing up, I’ve been raised from a young age under the principle of noblesse oblige. So when he’d talk to me about his family, my first reaction was to dodge the topic in an attempt to conceal my pity from him. I already knew that his family didn’t have much. I’d always silently sympathize with him and would always try to keep the conversation topic from steering in that direction.

But when he said those words in that way, I suddenly felt an inexplicable and unbearable sense of shame.

Two

It’s not just my memories about Zhou Youze — nearly every memory I have about my high school life has become foggy and faded over time. And yet, each time I talk about high school, it seems that all pathways of conversation always lead me to fixate upon this one special moment.

Our high school was probably one of the few secondary institutions in China truly dedicated to the concept of a holistic education: we had electives in both the performing and visual arts, actual clubs with substantial activity budgets, as well as many classes which encouraged critical thinking. Every afternoon, each classroom would tune in to the day’s edition of the CCTV News.

A couple of months before our college entrance exams in 2013, our homeroom teacher — a graduate of the Nanjing University Mathematics Department — scrawled the word “dreams” onto the blackboard before us with a few quick strokes.

The class was abuzz.

With a sweep of his arm, he recollected our attention.

“You all think this topic is cliché, don’t you? Well, let me give you lot a bit of life advice: from now on, cherish every person who’s willing to genuinely talk about your dreams with you, like me. Because once you go out into the real world, there will rarely be anyone who wants a serious conversation with you about what your dreams are. Most people you meet will either call you an idiot for even thinking about this stuff, or they’ll be people looking to swindle you for your money or for your work.”

There are very few people who I can say that I admire from the bottom of my heart, but our homeroom teacher was one of them. When he had us, he was in his early thirties, a math teacher, and a hot-blooded, incorruptible man with justice coursing through his veins.

His upbringing probably molded him this way, as he had been from a poor family in the Daliang mountains of Sichuan and had suffered through many a hard time in his life. He would never favor the well-off students over those less fortunate, never seeking bribes from the parents. He also tried his best to treat us all equally and did a pretty good job of that.

“You all are the best high school students that our prefecture has to offer,” he continued.

“You’ve been given the best education from a young age, and most of you will attend elite colleges in the future. But I want you to remember that no matter how high you score on your tests or how much money you make from now on, I will not think any better of any of you for that alone.”

“You must remember the responsibility that comes with your privilege. If this society and this country need someone great in the future, why can’t it be one of you? You guys have consumed the best educational resources in this country — if even you don’t have the vision to change the world, then who will?”

He then instructed us to take out a piece of A4 paper and to write about our dreams. No character limit.

“If it’s hard to think about your dreams, then just write about the kind of person you want to become in ten years.”

The bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenagers seated before him then were completely captivated by his galvanizing words — with heads full of optimism and hearts full of passion, we dove headfirst into the assignment under the fearless leadership of our teacher. A contemplative silence sank upon the room as we penned each character deliberately and determinedly, with all the gravitas of writing an executive order.

Next, we were all asked to stand up and read our papers aloud.

Someone wanted to create a Microsoft-level product to change the world, while someone else wanted to develop a cure for AIDs. One person said that they wanted to found the world’s most transparent charitable organization. Another person wanted to be a medical examiner who’d only offer pro bono services to those who couldn’t afford them. There were police academy hopefuls and aspiring military commanders, and I, of course, was also compelled to follow suit.

“I want to become a journalist,” I proclaimed. “I’ll devote myself to being a just voice for the general public so that everyone is heard.”

In a sea of fanciful moonshots, Zhou Youze’s dream stuck out like a sore thumb.

“Be a good person and make good money.”

Those eight simple, dispassionate words sounded especially sterile and utilitarian against their surroundings.

“Could you be any less pragmatic?” asked a classmate.

Several of us laughed. Zhou Youze responded with a good-natured chuckle, and then asked, with an air of mock affectation:

“What could the swans of this world possibly know of the hopes of sparrows?”

At the end of the period, our homeroom teacher collected all of our papers and made a promise with us: he’d keep all of our dreams for ten years. If we still remember them ten years later, we were free to visit him and ask for our papers back.

During our graduation ceremony a few months later, our principal had expressed some similar sentiments. These exact words were later inducted into the annals of our school’s official history and became very, very widely quoted, so much so that I can remember them in my sleep:

“I always feel like I still have so much I want to tell you, but I’m afraid the future might not give me another chance.

I’m also afraid that I’m placing too many expectations on your shoulders, but I ask that you all humor this old man one last time today and entertain a few more of these ridiculous requests.

Now, I have never desired for any of my graduating students to show up in Forbes rankings, but I do hope to see some of you on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize, for the Pulitzer. I want to see you win the Lasker Award, see you honored by the United Nations, see you recognized for an extraordinary contribution to the betterment of humanity.

You might be thinking at this point: Why does this old fart not want me to go out and make money?

And for that, I apologize. Because from the day you entered these doors, I have never once viewed you as feeder students into elite colleges — instead, I hoped to nurture you into the people who will have a hand in writing the future of this world.

I hope that your time at school prepares you for goals far beyond simply getting into a good university and becoming fabulously rich. I hope that each and every one of you can say that they became a person who lived their very best.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with five words. In the next decade or two, it will do you well to be wary of them — success, conceit, apprehension, comparison, and desire.

You might not understand everything I’m saying to you now. But if you ever feel lost one day in the distant future, feel free to come back any time and walk a few laps around the track. Our doors will always be open for those of you who’ve once left.

If the security guards won’t let you in, give them my name — that is, if I’m still around.”

Those were some of the most inspirational memories of my entire high school career — actually no, make that my entire life.

As my homeroom teacher had predicted, I have never used the word “dream” during any serious conversation over these past few years.

And when I did use it, the syllable always seemed to get distorted by the levity of self-deprecating sarcasm.

Three

There were 46 people in our high school graduating class. Our average score on the college entrance exam was a jaw-dropping 643; needless to say, we were all accepted to Tier 1 universities.

Meanwhile, Zhou Youze, with an overall score of 693, had easily taken the title of City-Wide STEM Valedictorian and accepted the offer of a certain elite mathematics institution.

The norm for students at our high school was to throw extravagant banquets celebrating college acceptances. If you didn’t get into a great school, you’d attend to collect your consolatory red envelopes. If you did land your dream school, your job was to show off as much as you could within your parents’ means.

For example, one of my classmates had a father who was a wealthy real estate mogul. On the day of this guy’s banquet, everyone within a ten-block radius of his house knew that he was going to Peking University.

I came home from school that day with some grievances for my father.

“Look at what other parents do for their kids!”

My dad, without missing a beat, replied:

“Look at what other kids got into PKU!”

And yet, Zhou Youze — whose score put him in the top thousandth percent prefecture-wide — did not organize any banquet.

After submitting our matriculation forms, we all returned to our classroom for the last time.

I had decided to gift him a book, Diaries from a Journey to the West by Ling Hezai.

“Why did you give me this book?” he asked.

“Ling Hezai debuted ten years before writing this book. Sure, his writing’s lost a lot of its panache since then, but I think it’s all the more moving for it, really. Like, I don’t think I can imagine being a writer for ten years straight. I’d think someone would run out of things to write…”

“Gosh, that’s real deep. But hey, you probably thought it was good, so you gave it to me, right?”

I opened the book and flipped to the last page — a conversation between Xuanzang the young monk and Li Shimin the future Tang emperor. Xuanzang questions whether Li Shimin can actually change the world; when Li asks why Xuanzang doubts him, he answers:

“Because the you right now, who wishes to change the world and save the people, have nothing but honor to your name. But after you raise your army and conquer the nation, when you’ve become the most powerful man alive and everybody sings your praises — would you still be the same you?”

I took my pen and underlined this bit of dialogue. In the margin, I scribbled the words, “Let’s both not change,” and then handed it back to him.

Just like that, we parted ways forever.

It wasn’t until much, much later when I realized that this quote had been really just for me.

In college, we all found new friend groups and gradually drifted apart from our high school friends. So it was only natural that when I upgraded my phone in college, I forgot to add Zhou Youze’s contact information to it. The days of silence between us slowly began to pile up into a year, then two years, then three years, then four years.

Everything I know about him after high school came mostly from my friends who still had connections with him. I don’t know how much of it is real and how much of it is rumor, but frankly, I have no way of finding out. Humans are far too fond of exaggerating other people’s stories for the sake of getting a bigger reaction from their audience. This is also a kind reminder to the writer recounting his story now — I’ve had to stop myself several times when I realized that I had been dramatizing his life.

Because I don’t want to overstep my bounds, all the stories about him that I didn’t personally participate in will be presented faithfully as what I’ve heard from secondary (or perhaps even tertiary) sources.

I heard that he studied ridiculously hard in college.

Unsurprising. His entire life had always revolved around studying.

In high school, a few of us had gotten together in the classroom to watch the movie So Young. There’s a scene where the male lead tearfully breaks up with the female lead using this line:

“My life is a skyscraper that I can only build once.”

I had found that line unbelievably cheesy.

“Chen Xiaozheng, you piece of crap! Take responsibility for your feelings!”

But Zhou Youze had been nodding in agreement at the same scene.

“No, that’s how it is,” he said. “Some people’s lives are skyscrapers that they can only build once.”

Looking back now, those words were oddly prescient for him. He’s spent the past few years carefully building his own skyscraper bit by bit, wary of making even the tiniest of mistakes.

Before we graduated high school, I told him that he should go into architecture — after all, he was always really good at spatial reasoning and geometry. But he had shaken his head, telling me that an architect would require too many years of schooling before they could make good money. Once in college, he eventually chose the accounting major, which he figured would provide a quick route to earning money and supporting his family. He never ditched a single lecture and would always aim to be the highest scorer on all his tests.

I heard that in college, he had taken part-time jobs nonstop.

He did everything, from being a private tutor to working at McDonald’s for $3 an hour. Sometimes he’d pass out flyers and be out in the sun all day for $9. Other times he’d also be an on-campus Postmate, charging 15 cents per run. This was how he funded his tuition and gathered his living expenses, one hard-earned cent at a time.

I heard that he once got into a fight with one of the trust fund babies at his school.

A posse of rich kids had approached him during finals season, asking him to text his own exam answers to a group chat while they took the exam. They told him that they would pay him very well, but he adamantly refused.

The leader of the posse was not happy with his response and said a few unsavory things. I don’t know what specifically was said, but the opening salvo seemed to be when this leader suggested the reason the Zhous must have been dirt poor for 18 generations was that they all had sticks up their asses, or something to that effect.

A fight ensued, and of course he lost. How could one very small man possibly win against multiple other guys?

I heard that in 2017, he gave up his chance at grad school.

That year, he had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer and his sister had also just entered high school. He had to get a job to support her.

He landed an accountant position at an enterprise company, where one of his superiors asked him to fake some records in exchange for a large sum of money. He adamantly refused.

I also heard that he had known he was at his limit since the beginning of this year.

But he also knew that his sister was going to start college in 2019, and that his mother had once called him in tears, telling him they wouldn’t be able to afford her tuition.

Since April of 2018, he had taken three part-time jobs outside of his full-time job, all in an attempt to earn enough money for his sister’s tuition. He was terribly desperate.

Someone told him that there was a guaranteed way to make money fast as a sales ambassador for a wellness products company — the payouts would come quickly, and he’d be able to make connections. He correctly identified this as multi-level marketing and adamantly refused, saying that he’d rather sell his own kidney to support his sister than join a pyramid scheme.

Even though I never saw what he looked like when he turned this down, I feel like I have a good idea of how it went. I can see him furrowing his brow, and then saying, in flawless, unaccented Mandarin:

“I won’t let my sister grow up using your dirty money.”

Five months later, this wellness company would come under investigation.

By then, Zhou Youze had already completed his life’s final journey.

Four

So while he was out experiencing the final chapter of his life, what had I been doing?

Five

The day I found out Zhou Youze had passed, I had been at an izakaya in the China World Trade Center chatting up an investor.

And what, exactly, had I been chatting about?

Oh, you know, the usual — about the future state of the economy, about red ocean industries versus blue ocean industries, about how to quickly turn a profit, about the illusory “financial independence” that we all seem to chase in this field. This isn’t my first rodeo; I’ve been at this for two years, including my internships, and my current project has to deal with commerce, so I need to keep my finger on the pulse of the market outlook for the next year and predict which products will most likely receive financing, as well as devise a creative solution to improve our current standings.

Thus, I had scheduled an appointment with this fat cat in his forties, who sported a Rolex Hulk Submariner and was more than happy to casually drop a “VC” into our conversation every three sentences or a “P/E ratio” every five.

I sat across from him, wearing a moderately low-cut top which hinted at the presence of cleavage. My half-reverent, half-fawning expression was further accented by a face of exquisite makeup, and whenever he said something that was even remotely along the lines of logic, I’d provide immediate validation in a variety of different flavors. For instance:

“Wow! That’s so amazing — how did you possibly think to do that?”

Or another crowd-pleaser,

“Oh my God, that’s so insightful! Your knowledge of the market is simply unparalleled.”

Of course, the delivery of these lines is what ultimately matters, and it’s an art I perfected a long time ago. My hand-picked words are routinely laced with admiration and coyness — not too much and not too little, but enough to make whoever’s seated before me feel like everything is just perfect.

There’s really not much to it at all.

After hanging out in business circles for a while, you gradually build up a repertoire of techniques for currying favor with people from a variety of different backgrounds. Most of these tricks involve putting on the style of makeup they like and dressing within the bounds of professional workwear while leaving room for the imagination. To that end, I’m never without my powder compact and lipstick; even during meals, I’d often sneak away to touch up my complexion. It was imperative that I always looked my best.

The realization that my looks and youth could buy me some resources opened my eyes to the reality that life was actually teeming with these types of shortcuts. Sure, the most I’ve ever done with my appearance is to wheedle some information or net myself a business connection, but that pales in comparison to what some other people are capable of.

Unfortunately, that’s just how things are sometimes. Once you realize that you can solve your business problem by getting drinks with a random man, it begins to become a habit.

That evening, however, I quickly absconded after receiving the news about Zhou Youze, just barely managing to stay in character. The investor had offered to — insisted on — escorting me home, but I was no longer in the mood to act.

Six

A couple of days later, our high school class had a get-together.

Surprisingly, this was perhaps the one occasion post-graduation where a decent number of us had actually bothered to show up: of the 46 of us, 24 had attended.

At first, the atmosphere was somber as we exchanged memories of our deceased classmate. Our former class president, who had known him best, told us a few more details of his post-college life — such as the fact that when he passed, he really couldn’t even afford his own treatment.

When he passed, he only had a handful of clothes in his closet. He died wearing that same coat that he got in high school, the one with ‘Adadis’ emblazoned across the back.

After subtracting for his own living expenses and medicine, along with a few payments to help out his parents, he had left around $550 in his bank account — all for his sister’s tuition.

The room bemoaned his fate with pitying sighs: Ah, Youze was so hard-working and so very smart! What a shame.

This sentiment lasted only an hour more before the topic of conversation began to drift; before I knew it, the condolences had fully devolved into shoptalk (read: one-upping):

“Yeah, so I made Senior Engineer only two years after getting into Alibaba.”

“Oh no way, really? Well, I’m in BD now, and it’s honestly such a cakewalk — you just drink yourself silly and laugh at everyone’s jokes and the money keeps rolling in, hahaha!”

“No, but let me tell you guys about this stupid thing that happened to us, right? We were entertaining a client and had just gotten him a few high-quality Insta models to, uh, y’know? But a few days later his wife barges into our office and said something about their kid being sick that day — she threw quite the bitch fit. It’s like, lady, c’mon, really? It’s not our company’s fault that your husband can’t keep it in his pants.”

“So many of my college classmates have gotten funding for their startups already. But really, these investors know jack shit these days — anyone can just throw together a few buzzwords, take the money, and run. I’ve been thinking of coming up with some half-assed idea myself to see if I can get away with it.”

“Hey, hey, hey — don’t say that about my industry, dickhead! If we give someone money, that means that the idea’s not stupid, but that there’s some really stupid users out there who’d fall for it. If you don’t take money from stupid people, then who are you gonna take it from, right?”

“Hahahaha, damn straight! Like taking candy from a baby!”

“Yeah, all the stuff that’s popular now — I mean, just look at Tik Tok! It all makes money because it’s addictive. But what can you do? Getting people addicted is how you keep the profits coming.”

“Our school’s really something, isn’t it? We’ve all graduated into society’s upper crust, so we’ve all gotta take care of each other, know what I’m saying?”

I suddenly felt exhausted. Terribly, terribly exhausted.

In all my years in Beijing, even when I was faking pleasantries with the most irritable of clients, I have never felt the same level of exhaustion as I did at that moment. I lowered my head and sent a quick message to our class president:

But $550 isn’t even enough for one semester’s tuition.

Our president replied: You always focus on the most interesting things.

I left him on read, the number 550 weighing on my mind. Zhou Youze must have had his fair share of regrets when he passed because he hadn’t saved nearly enough.

As the “upper crust” continued to preen and parade their successes at each other, I finally made the decision to leave. A wave of disgust struck me as soon as I left the building — what was I even doing here? A glance at my feet showed me the bag that I had purposely chosen for the occasion, a Prada with “da da” printed across the front; I became disgusted with myself as well. I quickly turned my bag around, suddenly embarrassed by its garish logo, and then attempted to call a Didi. I’d even tacked on a bonus, but for some reason, no drivers had picked up the ride. I waited in the frigid winds for a very, very, very long time.

Eventually, I chose to walk home instead.

It was one of those walks which filled my head with sundry thoughts.

I thought of my grandma. Once, when I had been about a year into my current job, she had fallen seriously ill. I went home to visit her and was greeted by a room full of my relatives; there was hardly enough time for me to get into character before I had to pay my respects to each of them. But I somehow managed it expertly, even with those relatives who I absolutely couldn’t stand. My grandma eyed me wordlessly as I snaked across the room.

After I left the house, I heard her furious voice screech a few choice words to my father:

“I told you not to let her start working! I told you to send her overseas for grad school! And you didn’t listen, you said to let her try what she wants. Okay, now look at her! She acts less like a twentysomething and more like some sly old coot with a receding hairline! And she’s not even thirty!”

I thought of when I first moved into my apartment, a one-bedroom by Qingnian Road for $1450 a month. Before I moved in, someone had told me that my neighbors in the complex were mostly single women as well, about 60% of them sugar babies. My landlady had insisted upon meeting me in person when I came to look at the apartment, possibly because she was wondering how a single young woman like me could produce the means to live somewhere like this. She probably thought I was the newest member of the sugar baby brigade.

Lastly, I thought of that one homeroom we had in high school where we all wrote down our dreams. I remembered the inspired teenagers in that room who had penned down their lofty aspirations with such intensity — a far cry from the people who were laughing as they talked about how to scam investors and prey on the general public. I heard that our homeroom teacher had stayed true to his promise to hold onto what we wrote, but I honestly don’t know how many of us would be able to face him as we are now.

It just didn’t feel right to me. How could this have happened to us, of all people?

In fact, our downfall had already been pointed out to us years ago by our ever-judicious principal: success, conceit, apprehension, comparison, and desire. It’s just that we got so caught up in advancing through life that we forgot his last warning to us. Thinking back now, had any of us even taken his words seriously at all? Did we have good intentions and then fail, or have we never even tried?

I went into our high school group chat and found Zhou Youze’s profile picture. It was very obviously his college graduation photo; in it, he was in full cap and gown, with his tassel turned to the left. The name of his most illustrious alma mater was displayed on a screen behind him in large font. He was wearing a self-assured smile as if he were a mathematician being handed the Nobel Prize for his life’s work.

It suddenly occurred to me that in our class of “upper crust” students, he was the only one who had lived according to our old principal’s wishes. Yes, Zhou Youze — despite having made fun of himself for being a “sparrow” compared to us “swans” — was the only one.

What could the swans of this world possibly know of the hopes of sparrows, indeed? Who really is the sparrow, and who really is the swan? Who, really, had we been laughing at all those years ago?

Seven

That night, I clicked into his WeChat profile and did something really dumb.

I hit the button labeled, “Add friend.”

As expected, I got no response.

His friends on WeChat could see ten posts. The second most recent one was from October 31, 2018, when he had shared a link to a song: “The Scent You Left” by Zhang Xiaojiu.

This song was popular with a lot of my former classmates, so there were a lot of people passing it around — I had even shared this song around ten times myself. I figured that he probably first heard it from a link someone posted. After all, he had never been the type to seek out new music himself; he never had the time. All of his waking hours had to be used for either studying or making money.

In that song, there’s a line that goes:

“Wipe off the dust, so that it doesn’t get in your eyes.”

I think that after his passing, I can no longer listen to that song ever again.

Up until his death, I had known Zhou Youze for eight years. I used to always think of him as some golden boy chosen by the universe; the odds of him attending both an elite high school and an elite university, despite originating from a village where most people quit school after the sixth grade, were infinitesimally small.

When I was younger, I would have this recurring dream where each person lived their life in a deep well, and the deeper you got into the well, the more frightening and dark things would be. People would spend the better part of their youth trying to climb their way out. In the dream, I saw that people all had their own way of doing things: some slow, some fast; some diligent, others lazy. Zhou Youze had been born at a level lower than mine in the dream, but he climbed insanely fast. By high school, we were at the same depth.

Back then, I believed that after a few years, he’d beat me to the top and finally be able to live a life bathed in sunshine.

Eventually, I stopped having this dream. But just the other day, I had suddenly remembered it again in even more detail. For instance, we all had different methods of scaling the well; some people had an elevator. All these lucky few had to do was to push the right button, and they’d be at the top in seconds. These people were like our talented, wealthy class president, or that one trust fund baby who beat up Zhou Youze for not texting him exam answers.

Some other people had stairs, like me. But I’d always find the stairs too tiring and instead fixate upon those who rode elevators, hoping that I could also have an elevator some day.

And then there were the people who only had a tattered rope dangling before them. They were fated to struggle their entire lives for each and every inch they ascended, unable to stop for a break even when they were beaten and bruised. The worst part of it all was that even if they managed to exert all of their energy — climbing so far and working so hard — to get close to the exit, there was always the possibility of slipping at the last minute, tumbling back down into the darkness, and losing everything in an instant.

Like what happened to Zhou Youze.

Our paths had crossed for only a short time, after which I coasted through life and lost myself within society’s various temptations.

Over these years, I became “savvy.” I learned to manipulate, to calculate, and to act — I would smile to people’s faces and talk behind their backs. I began to consider men based on whether or not they could benefit my societal standing over whether or not I liked them at all. Becoming a “just voice for the general public” now feels like a cruel joke — but I have gotten good at saying whatever a person likes to hear. The light in my eyes has long burned out.

Sometimes I’d lick my own wounds and tell myself that at my core, I still have the moral fiber befitting my education. Instead, it was society’s fault I turned out this way; society was what forced me to take on the role of the cunning businesswoman, and it wasn’t like I had a choice.

But after his passing, I can no longer say that in good conscience.

I’ve read a couple of articles not too long ago which suggest that it’s hard for children from underprivileged families to be truly successful. These articles say that even if these children manage to score well and get into good schools, they’re still more liable than other kids to go astray. And then to prove their point, they tell that one story of that one child who was roped into multi-level marketing and that other one who became a conman to turn a quick profit, their tone drenched in patronizing pity.

I find those articles a little hard to believe now.

Because in that practically bottomless well, Zhou Youze had been invited to take shortcuts many, many times while clinging onto the meager rope that God had given him.

“Text us the answers and you’ll have a full year’s living expenses. Guaranteed!”

“Come on, there’s no risk in just selling to your friends! There are many people to swindle out there, we don’t have to mess with the friends you care about.”

“All you have to do is fudge the numbers a little bit, and we’ll give you more money than you’ve seen in your whole life. How about it?”

But in the end, he’d rather work himself to a bloody pulp — work himself to death — than walk any of those crooked paths.

Instead, it was us — the people blessed with smooth sailing throughout our entire lives — who were the most easily swayed. We would leave our original paths as soon as we saw the slightest temptation, and yet, somehow, we’re also the ones who loudly insist that society was what had forced us to change. Meanwhile, Zhou Youze, who’s had to fight for survival against society his entire life, never uttered a single word of complaint.

When has society really forced anything onto me?

Am I the one who’s forcing the bitterness from my own pursuits onto society?

I really can’t say.

Eight

On the evening of January 20, 2019, our class president asked our group chat if anyone was going to attend his funeral.

I opened the Notes app on my phone and wrote down a few thoughts:

Hey there, old friend — no, classmate?

Sorry about that, it’s been so long since we’ve talked that I don’t even know what to call you anymore.

Before I started to write this, it felt like there was so much that I’d wanted to say to you, but it all suddenly disappeared after I put pen to paper. So I guess this’ll have to be kind of short. Apologies.

In all honesty, Youze, I’ve been really disappointed in how I’ve lived for the past two years of my life; I’m far too ashamed of myself to go and see you one last time. I don’t know if you kept that book I once gave you or if it’s long gone now, but I do remember telling you that I admired the people with that kind of resolve, who will never stop fighting for what they believe in. Yet, look at what’s become of me now, and it’s only been a couple of years.

If I were to stand before your grave as I am today, you’d probably be so let down. You probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize me.

Just the other day, I had met up with some of our old classmates. It was really quite the wake-up call — but to be honest, there isn’t really anything I can say about them because I know I’m the same as they are. I just can’t accept it though; could this possibly be the way that things should be? We’ve all received the best education that our society has to offer. If even we turn out like this, is there any hope left for this society? How did this happen to us? Is it because the times are just too testing, or because we just weren’t strong enough? We all had so much potential — we really should have, could have brought some real light into this world — why have we lost our shine? I always felt that there should’ve been more passion, more vigor within us. It would have been nice to hear how you managed to stay true, but I’m afraid that I no longer have that chance. My only solace now is that perhaps, out of the people who didn’t come to the meetup that day, there are still some of us who still haven’t lost their light.

It might seem pretty strange to you, but your passing has made me want to start my life all over again. If I had the chance to re-live my life since eighteen, what kind of life would I ultimately choose for myself? It’s a question I think about a lot these days.

But I do know that I probably wouldn’t choose the life I’m living now.

Maybe it’s really come time for our generation to take a step back and reflect upon everything we’ve done, everything we’ve been doing.

I remember in high school that there was a series I really loved to watch called “The Spirit Ferry.” I’d watch it between classes with my phone hidden in my books. Once, you had glanced over and saw me in the act.

You’d asked, “Aren’t you afraid of getting caught? Aren’t there spirits watching you?”

I had rolled my eyes at you and replied that only dumbasses actually believed in ghosts.

But you had said that you believed in them. You’d also believed in heaven.

For the first time in her life, Youze, this atheist now earnestly hopes that there really is a heaven. That way, maybe you’d be able to read this letter.

I’m really sorry that I won’t be there to see you off, but I hope that your final journey is a smooth one.

After I finished writing, I sent it to our class president and asked him to display it at the funeral. He asked if I wanted to hand-write it since it’d be more appropriate for the occasion, but I said no. I haven’t written anything by hand in such years — I can hardly pick up a pen anymore.

This letter was probably my last goodbye to him.

I’ve had a thing on my mind ever since he passed.

Every person, once no longer living, has an epitaph. Yeats has his lines from “Under Ben Bulben” — “Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death / Horseman pass by.” Hemingway had wanted the laconic “Pardon me for not getting up” (but his surviving relations thought otherwise). Bernard Shaw’s grave reads, “I knew if I waited around long enough something like this would happen,” while Frost left us with the dramatic line: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

I wanted to come up with a fitting quote for him, one that sounds impressive enough at first mention — even more impressive than those four epitaphs. But I had racked my brain for days, to no avail; nothing seemed to fit his personality just right.

After writing that last letter to him, however, I suddenly recalled a line from our old principal’s graduation speech to us:

“I hope that your time at school prepares you for goals far beyond simply getting into a good university and becoming fabulously rich. I hope that each and every one of you can say that they became a person who lived their very best.”

In the end, that quote is probably the most fitting epitaph for him:

“A person who lived his very best.”

I collect stories (and thoughts) that the Great Firewall doesn’t want you to see.

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