It was the last summer I had spent at home, only I didn’t know it then. My whole life after that becomes about calling other places, places closer to being my own, home, and starting to call this first and only home I had ever had thus far in my life: my mom’s place. But I hadn’t known it then. I wasn’t familiar yet with life’s way of drifting you afar and never to return you. Sometimes in smaller ranges you seem to be circling, but looking back from a greater distance, you are in a constant state of leaving where you were, and dropping what you had.
Had I known that I would have been more disciplined, I would not have carelessly introduced Mr. Piano into my last summer, and left him there. I would have written nothing and left nothing. I could have been much more liberal, to the point of indulgent, about what I keep. I could have allowed myself to be more attached while I still can.
It might be possible to form such a home-drifting-and-never-returning idea if someone had pressed me to think, but I couldn’t do any of that just by myself, or I refused to think anything beyond my then giddy hedonism. I was eighteen then and had just finished this momentous National College Entrance Examination, which had been haunting every Chinese of that generation since they were born. Passing this exam to get into a college was the only way of changing our fate, which everyone coincidentally wanted to change, as everyone was in an unfairly imposed, changeable fate, at least what we were told.
The Exam, as well as the rustic period around it, becomes or remains a nightmare to each of us, regardless of whether it is in the prospect or in the past, and eventually ironically, regardless of whether you did well on it or not. Even though its outcome—a score—was sold to us as very directly and positively correlated with one’s future happiness, both ends of the score spectrum see traumatized souls. For those who failed the exam, it is marked as a forever wound that one spends sometimes a whole life’s mental strength coping. For those who did well, they became simply lost. It’s hard not to, when you seem to have reached your prime right there with your life’s mission done with. Later they become the bunch that you see ever so often living abroad, most likely in US, with decent degrees and jobs and steady, uniform career paths.
I happened to be in the well camp. I don’t remember how lost I was but I do remember not being able to fully absorb the ecstasy if there were such a thing. I did enjoy my mom’s exuberant display of pride, of having raised a daughter that obviously does well at everything, where everything equates to that one exam. I also enjoyed a sense of genuine regret and sadness that I had allowed to become of my attitude in response when people congratulated me, where I’d say I could’ve done better. I imagined such a distinct response must have made me notable, that being introspective, to the point of self-reproaching could be an important element in completing my identity. I had had too little social experience to know what being pretentious is, and even if I had, I would question its definition right there, because I wasn’t pretending to be sad at all, I was, truly, not able to be fully happy. Of all the things I enjoyed, I enjoyed them in a reticent and tentative way. They were expected, planned, and in the end, not different enough to make a difference to me. Until the unexpected, whimsical entrance of Mr. Piano.
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Mr. Piano is, in fact, an actual pianoforte. He is a mister because I was in a habit of naming my toys and belongings. I had a backpack named “Di Di”—“little brother”, an umbrella—wait, I don’t remember anymore the name of the little red umbrella my grandparents got from a flee market in New York and traveled the globe to give to me in China. But surely I had named her, and surely it was a cute, or witty, or poetic name.
Mr. Piano is a mister also because he was so handsome. I had never seen anything more beautiful or elegant. It is the kind of beauty that you don’t feel appropriate getting close to, like your being there would simply taint the scene. For a moment I couldn’t believe that he’s mine. But he was in my room, and he was fully mine for that whole summer, and likely the whole rest of his life.
It started with my friend Haitao and I deciding what to do for the summer. We had three solid months at our disposal, and I had secretly decided to use it for something substantial, like developing a real friendship with Haitao. He had been my friend, and was my only friend for a whole senior year of high school, because I was transplanted into a new class without knowing anybody. He sat behind me, a seat arrangement that was maintained for a whole year, despite numerous shuffles that headteachers liked to do. I knew that was some special treatment my teacher was giving me. They liked me (for my good grades and obedient behavior), and must have spotted this special bond between me and my only friend. We were friends but we never did anything friends do, because the last year towards the big Exam is a bad time to make friends the usual way.
I adored Haitao. He was tall, good looking, and mysteriously bore a sombre air. He was talented too, had a good singing voice, and wrote a good hand of calligraphy. But like every kid raised in that time of China, talented or not, he was underprivileged. We were all underprivileged. To be good at studying was our only way out, the only metric to judge all kids. In the best time of our years we were not able to learn anything, other than what’s demanded by the Exam. The reason, now I know, is that resource is scarce for an overpopulated country, education is limited so only being the absolute top by a simple criterion can grant any possible dim speck of a future.
So both of us at the age of eighteen, being exempt from what seemed forever a pressure of study, wanted nothing but—to learn piano. We decided that and started going to an instructor. Walking for an hour in the summer sun to the instructor’s home and back was the happiest memory I can summon. The sense of transitioning to be different, to be artistic, colorful, interesting, to have the other life that I could’ve had, was finally the trigger to my full-blown happiness. I never thought I grew up poor, until I found out I couldn’t afford to be interesting. I never wanted things I couldn’t afford, until I wanted Mr. Piano. To this day I constantly have thoughts of trading this current life for another, switching fields, starting from scratch. The appealing otherness agitates me. But what holds me back is the doubt whether I have optimized this life yet. If I can’t make sure I have done the best I can in “thisness”, do I even deserve an “otherness”?
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When my mom asked what I wanted as a present for doing well at the Exam, I said, I want a piano. We both soon realized how ridiculous that answer was. Usually she gets me books for doing well at exams. For this level of exam I might deserve a library. And that would’ve been more sensible than a piano. Not only that it costs a fortune, I will soon leave home and piano is the least portable, and I still barely know how to play. But at that moment I wanted it badly. I wanted the image of me to be someone who is talented enough to know how to play, who is resourceful enough to own a piano, who is spoiled enough to have Mr. Piano right in her room. Moreover, I wanted to be that “friend with a piano” for Haitao. So he can come play with me.
Recently I have been thinking about getting a car. Even though I barely have a reason to drive. I suddenly realized part of me is still the same person, now wanting to be the “friend with a car” for some other people.
My mom didn’t say a word and got me the piano a few days later. It had cost her six months of salary—maybe emptied her bank account, and she had asked eight of her male colleagues to carry that stupendously heavy thing up two floors to our apartment, and eventually to my room.
My room is where I first met Mr. Piano, the creature I had forced into my life and onto my mom’s shoulder, on a whim. A deep steely black in the afternoon sun, with golden rays rippled across its sleek surface, Mr. Piano was resplendent. It was a comfortable looking, peculiarly self-theatrical dude; whenever you turned your eyes to him he stood still and solid, seemingly untouched by summers and winters gone by.
I did lure Haitao to come over every other day to practice. We later went to different colleges and were never in the same city until over a decade later. But he remains in my life in a meaningful way. Mr. Piano earned that for me.
Mr. Piano also earned me plenty of sufferings. After that summer nobody touched him for years. I soon forgot catastrophically how to play. I couldn’t even try when I visited home. The more my mother nags about it the more I want to hide away. I see in him a shame around the careless, whimsical decision, evidence of some culpable excessive spending that if had it been my own money, I’d be more at peace. But I cannot reconcile myself to being this reckless, perverse, unappreciative kid spending away her mom’s saving. China was not in a culture of extravagance, yet. And we were the prudent family if anything. That’s how my mom was able to raise me just on her own paltry salary. But somehow she raised me into a very opposite kind. Mr. Piano was the start of a series of whimsical acts I later often find myself obsessed with. It’s OK to be who you are, as long as you accept it. But I couldn’t accept it.
I know I could just play it once in a while when I was home. That would ease the guilt. But that would be the rational action to a mistake—accept it and do the best you can from here on. But my twisted psychology made it hard. I run away from mistakes. Then the mistake gets worse. Mr. Piano forever stands there caked in dust, demanding to be treated better, because he deserves better. He deserves to be in a house where kids are raised one after another, learn to play with him in succession; none of them ever gets super good because they all have multiple other interests, life choices and pursuits. They each can get to know Mr. Piano a little bit, just enough to venture into the outside world with an easy air of confidence and talent that shield them from complexities to come.
There’s more to the suffering. The failed pursuit of otherness left me constantly, painfully intimidated by talent. Not the kind that you work for, but the kind that you just simply, have. Or you make people believe that you easily possess, that it is legitimately part of your cell from the start of time. If someone is good at something, and when you ask how, they shrug and say they don’t know how, they just knew it from when they first remember, I am sad at myself. If someone has lots of friends but cannot remember what they did to make those friends, I am sad at myself. Anything I am mildly good at I had to work hard for. Any friend I had I had to give them my heart for. Or trade with Mr. Piano.
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Mr. Piano is no different from many other stories often told. In his best time he gleamed in the afternoon light. In his worst time he became an empty shell that produced no sound, not to mention music, for years; he couldn’t even be looked at when I came back to sleep in my old room. His call for attention cannot be answered.
The contention between best and worst in everyone’s lifetime fascinates me. Everyone is everyone else’s Mr. Piano. We were cherished, admired, treated with care and then we were on our own. Living in between those bests and worsts, we all grow into problematic souls, either too easily flustered, or too hard to sense what’s wrong. I am not even talking about the starting and ending of relationships. The labels we use are arbitrary. Even within a constantly labeled thing you are still in between states. Think about the worst when you are in the best, and vice versa. I know I am going to meet Mr. Piano again someday and have me in my best and he in his. One time I told people I wanted to take writing seriously and they told me to wait until I retire. I know I don’t have to wait that long. The best is yet to come. So is the worst.