Two boys in China right now. Separated by many miles and many years. Both of their stories are only known to me in pieces, in a few words shared by the oldest’s teacher and in a few smiles with the sweetest little chicklet teeth from the other.
As I lay awake, trying to convince my body that it’s 2am instead of 2pm, I am left to wonder what other pieces of their stories may be.
One blue carry-on bag with wheels was all he brought with him when he left home and boarded a slow train that would take him hours from home to the front door of his university education. He had studied hard, harder than his peers, all through middle school. Play is a distant memory from his youth as if this young adult is already well into adulthood and only able to remember images of yesteryear. It was all for this moment — the head nod of goodbye from his stoic father and the quick glances from his mother as she hid moisture in her eyes and squinted in the brightness of the day. He was a university student now, and one committed to do well, to prove himself, to be successful though he wasn’t sure what that even meant yet. Whatever it was, he was determined to understand it and bring honor to his family.
You may not notice at first that Xiao Cheng is different in any way. He hides it well, holding his hand behind his back while in conversation and never resting it on his desk. With fingers missing above his knuckles on one hand, even if you saw it, you would just think his fingers were folded under in a somewhat odd but acceptable position. While others are not always aware of his shameful disfigurement, Xiao Cheng never forgets it.
“My hand is a scar on my parents’ hearts,” a scar he carries with him like a scarlet letter on his chest that has shaped his quiet spirit over his life. He is overwhelmed by worry, not sadness, just worry. He’s made it this far, but can he do enough to prove to his parents that he was worth the sacrifice they made to keep him, worth the shame he brought on their family. He wants to be a full son and wonders if good test scores will overcome his handicap. The pressure is intense, but he is fully present in it.
Somewhere in central China, there were parents who couldn’t bear the scar on their hearts, parents who desired the child they created together but whose families looked on him in disgust when they unwrapped him and saw his hand. They didn’t have to tell them it was bad luck to have a son with two thumbs; they knew it was.
And, though his sweet smelling skin and tiny-pursed lips spoke otherwise, they knew they would have to try again for a full son. He couldn’t be the one the family needed. The baby’s father knew one of his cousins had had to do something similar; no one had asked her and her husband any questions about it. She had been pregnant one day and empty armed another.
Now, it was his turn to bundle his child in a fuzzy blanket with bears that would have kept him warm between them at night and do the right thing, keep his family from disgrace, and give them another chance.
While her breasts burned with milk filling them that had nowhere to go, he took their child and came home alone with a stoicism she had never seen before. No questions were asked; and life went on.
Two boys in China. One striving to make himself into something, to make his parents proud, and to create a future, and one who doesn’t know a family beyond the coos and cuddles of doting ayis who are preparing him for his future, knowing it will be somewhere faraway from here.
— photos by Tish Goff