17-year-old Cui Ying’s biggest worry in life was when the English teacher called out her name to read the text.
Her pronunciation was far from standard. Although she worked hard to correct her mistakes, the words still sounded bizarre when she spoke.
The more she felt anxious about her classmate’s ridicule, the less she dared to speak. When she saw an unfamiliar word, she didn’t dare to speak at all. She stood silently at her seat, her fingers tightly gripping the textbook.
The afternoon sunlight filtered in through the classroom windows, landing on the dazed, drowsy faces of the students. Outside, cicadas chirped endlessly.
The old classroom didn’t have any air conditioning, only the rickety groaning of the electric fan. The air was stifling hot, the overall mood gloomy and tired.
It wasn’t until the English teacher called out another student’s name that Cui Ying released a slow sigh of relief. With this small act of mercy, her soul seemed to finally return back to her body. She could breathe again, could enjoy the beauty in this sweltering summer’s day.
In the windowsill behind her there was an arrangement of vines that climbed across the length of the classroom wall. Even if the mottled wall was covered with dust and ash, Cui Ying felt that this sight was particularly moving. The vines seemed to have infinite stories, infinite different futures.
The end-of-school bell signified her freedom.
The walk from the school back to her house was like a prisoner’s first steps out of the jail and back into civilization.
There were no more mountains of homework, no more impossible-to-remember formulas, and no more confusing foreign letters.
The stores that lined the streets around her advertised all kinds of little joys. Plastic models posed in display windows, their clothing fashionable and flattering. The flower shop was filled with a forest of plants, all promising to give their recipient an unexpected moment of happiness.
At the end of the road was a jewelry store. Cui Ying liked to look at the amethyst jewelry in the display window. Whether it was in the brightness of day or under the glaring streetlights at night, the amethysts were beautiful and radiant to the eye. Even a passing car headlight was enough to illuminate it to an exceptional brilliance.
She had never counted how many 0s followed the price tags, just like how she had never once entered the CD shop, the clothing shops, or even that flower shop…
Those weren’t part of her world.
Although they existed in close physical proximity to her, those worlds couldn’t have been farther away.
The world in front of Cui Ying consisted only of homework and tests.
Cui Ying didn’t understand why, in these few precious years of youth, she was supposed to learn enough things to fill the entire ocean. Children were forced to carefully study and go to school. By the time they graduated from university, their youth would have been wasted, eaten up by the bitterness of schooling.
Life was so long, and there were so many important lessons that were impossible to know when you were still young.
It was just like how their primary school teachers made them read the Chinese classics. It didn’t make sense at all! How could a ten-year-old understand the real-life injustice faced by these authors, the profound satirization of society hidden in the text?
The books that Cui Ying didn’t understand seven years ago, were now enough to make her cry.
Every time Cui Ying tried to protest about this great farce, she was met with the same response — if one didn’t properly learn in their youth, then they would never be able to learn in their entire life! Don’t think so much, have you thought about your ambitions after university?
In these hot, muggy days of summer, with homework piled to the roof, it was hard to see any kind of future.
And then, she was 18.
They said that this year would be crucial to the rest of her life.
A new English teacher arrived at the school.
She was fifty years. Her hair littered with small strands of white hair, which was arranged in a neat and orderly fashion over her head. There were a few wrinkles on her face.
The new teacher’s wardrobe mostly consisted of elegant, form-fitting clothes, and a color scheme that never exceeded three colors. Sometimes, she wore a vibrantly dyed headscarf, or had a beautiful amethyst bracelet around her wrist.
Later, Cui Ying realized that it was part of a set.
Compared to those designer brand jewelry pieces, the price was not too high, but every piece was truly one of a kind.
The teacher’s desk had a flower vase near the edge, filled with all kinds of seasonal flowers.
She was getting on her years, but did not dress like any of the other female teachers her age. There was no makeup on her face, no perfume, no nail polish, and none of her clothes were designer brands. Even more preposterous would be to imagine her carrying around a 5-figure designer purse.
She had average looks. However, she carried herself around with the kind of grace that could only be accumulated with age.
This teacher, who was nearing the retirement age, was very kind and passionate about teaching. For the kids who struggled in her class, she brought them into her own office, giving them detailed one-on-one instructions.
Cui Ying’s pronunciation wasn’t standard, and she didn’t dare to open her mouth and speak, but her grades gradually went up.
Even though the teacher gave her little instruction, she still found the advice invaluable.
In the eyes of this teacher, every student was different. A student’s performance in a class wasn’t because of how low or high their IQ was, but rather how they processed the questions that they were given.
Within two months, this English teacher’s popularity was very high.
Cui Ying was unable to stop herself from hearing gossip about this teacher.
It was said that this teacher was very famous, and the school had spent quite a lot of money in order to have her teach here, to raise the rate of students from their school who entered university. The large amounts of transfer students this year was also said to be attributed to her fame as a teacher.
This first rumor, Cui Ying believed.
As for the second rumor of the transfer students, she was a little more skeptical. It wasn’t like this English teacher was a sports coach, bringing her students with her every time she moved.
“I remember you always hated English class,” Cui Ying’s desk partner said.
“I still don’t like it,” Cui Ying replied.
She admired this new teacher very much. It was the first time that an English teacher had ever encouraged Cui Ying to work harder. She told Cui Ying that she wasn’t stupid, but rather unsuited to learn English right now. In other words—
“Right now isn’t the best time for you to learn English. Perhaps the best time will not happen in your entire lifetime, or perhaps it will appear out of nowhere. I’ve met students who’ve become fluent in Spanish in less than half a year, simply because they became so zealous towards the language. Perhaps you will meet a similar situation with English. One day, you may become a fan of an English or American show, and suddenly find yourself speaking fluent English. However, right now, the most important thing for you to do is not to hate English. Otherwise, the language will hate you too.” The English teacher had smiled as she addressed her students. “There are a lot of things that lie waiting in your future, so don’t restrict yourself needlessly.”
Cui Ying solemnly nodded her head.
Right, life was so long.
Cui Ying wanted her life to be similar to this English teacher’s. She liked everything about her teacher.
She liked her good taste, her jewelry, the flowers in her office and the CDs inside her desk. She liked this teacher’s lifestyle.
Cui Ying also wanted to live like this in the future.
The whirlwind of twelfth grade came and went, filling people’s minds with homework and making them quite forgetful towards everything else.
The first Tuesday of autumn, Cui Ying forgot that she had afterschool duty.
The second day was the school’s inspection. The number of students who fled afterschool duty numbered in the tens. When the homeroom teacher and class president heard about this news, they became extremely furious, demanding that all the students who had skipped write a self-reflection and run 800 meters every day for a week.
Writing a reflection was nothing. It was the running that was frightening.
Cui Ying’s limbs felt weak, and she gasped desperately for breath.
The first day, she nearly fell, only to be caught by someone just in time.
“We’re all suffering together. There’s no need to thank me.”
The person who spoke was a student from the neighboring class. He was one of the transfer students from this year.
His height and appearance were average. However, his eyes were clear and bright, and there were many girls in Cui Ying’s year who pursued him.
All the other boys in their year didn’t understand why. How could someone who didn’t play basketball, or soccer, or even video games be so popular?
Actually, Cui Ying knew this student.
It wasn’t because she liked him. Rather, she had noticed how his style of dress was always neat and tidy, no matter the season. His clothes were all form-fitting and suited him, making others feel a sense of ease when they saw them.
He never wore any fluorescent, eye-piercing green, nor did he step on the back of his athletic shoes, and he would never use his shirt to wipe off the sweat on his forehead.
His homework was done correctly, his grades were decent, and he was overall a presence that was hard to overlook.
Cui Ying had never been interested in love. She was an average student, someone who spent all her energy on completing homework. Combined with all this running, she was utterly exhausted.
However, when she spoke with this student, a peculiar feeling washed over her.
They didn’t discuss celebrities, or gossip about school.
Instead, their discussion started with homework. To be exact, a single history problem.
In history, there were a lot of strange analyses. Cui Ying frequently thought that the answer was C, only to discover that the correct answer was actually B. It seemed that the way she thought was always different from the people who wrote the textbooks.
These differences in thinking resulted in Cui Ying losing a great deal of points. She knew her mistakes, and would not make them the next time, but still felt reluctance in her heart.
Why was her answer incorrect?
It was just like how people analyzed literature. Couldn’t a poet just write a poem? A single falling leaf or a bout of fall rain, how was this desolate in any way? Couldn’t it simply be another kind of beauty altogether? The people who wrote these answers had pits in their brains!
If the answer didn’t come from the poet themselves, how could someone else claim to have analyzed the poem?
Life was so long, it could not all be filled with despair.
The mountains were so beautiful, the water was so beautiful. A human had so much to experience in life.
At first, Cui Ying had only mentioned one problem. However, her classmate was quick to echo her sentiments. He began bringing up more problems, including ones that Cui Ying had ridiculed but hadn’t fully understood the meaning of.
Cui Ying, who was still in her rebellious years, finally realized that in this large world, she was no longer alone.
Love had come to her so quickly, and so beautifully too.
They didn’t kiss passionately under the grove of trees by the road, or walk home together after school. Instead, they exchanged letters.
Sometimes it was just a few sentences. Sometimes, it was an entire page. Still, all the words were brimming with an indescribable, wonderful, feeling. Cui Ying was eighteen years old, and had never met someone who matched her way of thinking so well. Of course, the things they liked were different, and sometimes they would argue. However, even when they bickered, they would concede that the other provided good points, and try to understand the other person’s manner of thought.
Therefore, even an argument was a wondrous thing.
The more they talked, the more their eyes saw.
The young man knew many things that Cui Ying didn’t. He knew how to appreciate a song, how to listen to Western opera, even how to choose clothes that suited her. One particularly memorable day they skipped cram school together, travelling to the city and visiting a science museum, an art gallery, and a cinema.
Both of them disliked romantic films, preferring the more intellectually stimulating science-fiction genre.
Both of them disliked eating food while watching a movie, and disliked even more interrupting the other person’s thoughts. When they watched the movie, they didn’t talk during any scenes, only discussing the film after it had finished.
Cui Ying felt that her boyfriend was the most amazing male she had ever met. He was someone who respected others, and never exhibited any misogynistic ideologies. He wasn’t interested in doing pointless things like other boys his age, and never bragged about himself.
The more she delved into the details of his perfection, the more outstanding she thought of him as.
Their love was a mutual secret. Both the boy and the girl liked to keep to themselves, and felt that the classmates who always gossiped about how this is my babe or this is my man were stupid.
—if your boyfriend or girlfriend was amazing, why would you want to let the world know?
Wasn’t your partner’s outstandingness your own secret treasure?
As long as they were happy together, they didn’t need the envy of others.
Life had began to show the first signs of their future glory.
For the students, everything they had worked for had finally come to fruition — they had finished testing.
Cui Ying had been accepted to a single school. It wasn’t a famous school, nor did it have any particularly good majors, but Cui Ying felt that it was good enough.
Their graduation trip was to the seaside, where there was a large water amusement park.
Every attraction was accompanied by an extremely long line. Cui Ying joined a line and engaged in a lively conversation with a classmate. However, it wasn’t until she noticed that familiar silhouette at the end of the line that she finally revealed a smile.
They were waiting for a ride that simulated the violent torrents of a tsunami.
Cui Ying walked onto the boat, pulling a life jacket over her arms.
The boat tossed and turned in the waves, riding a high wave in one moment and then rapidly falling down the next. The water obstructed her entire vision.
Suddenly, someone called out in panic. Cui Ying felt herself strain against the safety bar. Her body was tightly bound by the seatbelt, restricting her movements as her seat was flung off of the boat.
She didn’t remember the ride having this kind of movement!
Cui Ying’s thoughts became hazy.
She felt into the water. Suddenly, she felt extremely dizzy, her four limbs exceptionally weak.
Cui Ying tried to breathe, only to realize that what had entered her mouth was water.
The taste was extremely bitter and salty. Was the water at the amusement park this dirty?
Cui Ying felt someone grab her clothes. Suddenly, something crashed into her head.
Her world became black.
Her body was sinking.
Everything was silent.
She couldn’t feel anything.
Something seemed to be shining in front of her eyes.
“It’s a cerebral concussion. Quick, get her to the hospital!”
Cui Ying used all her energy to look at the person in front of her. She vaguely realized that it was raining. Ashore, a large number of ambulances were parked, surrounded by a crowd of people holding microphones. Something seemed to be wrong.
A middle-aged woman was being restrained by a few police officers. She cried bitterly, looking at Cui Ying.
“…why… died… why are all of you alive?!...”
The voice echoed, disjointed, in her head. Cui Ying’s vision suddenly began to shake.
Wait a moment, who am I?
Why am I here?
What, exactly, happened?
When she opened her eyes, she was lying on a hospital bed.
An identity card had been hung over the foot of the bed. An unfamiliar name was printed on it.
Many unfamiliar people came around, as well as a few reporters. Her surroundings were vaguely familiar, but felt wrong.
She couldn’t think too much. Thinking made her head hurt.
“She’s lost her memory,” the doctor said.
“Hello, Miss Li Xuan. I’m sorry that you were attacked. It was a family member of the deceased… she wasn’t thinking clearly. Actually, both of her daughters were killed in sea-related incidents. She thought that you, the survivors, had stolen her daughter’s opportunity to live.”
Her name was Li Xuan?
Was it true? The person lying on the hospital bed thought.
The strangers left. Slowly, she began to recuperate. The other survivors of the incident began to tell her the truth of what had happened.
They said that the tragedy had happened because they had blindly trusted the travel agency.
It had been a doomed trip from the start. The water amusement park was organized by a group of cultists who needed a human sacrifice of women and children. Therefore, they paid a company to advertise a woman and child discount for the tickets, and then tried to disguise the sinking of the boat as an accident.
However, hearing this kind of outlandish information made her even more confused.
Li Xuan felt an inexplicable sense of loss. She didn’t know who she was, and there was always a nagging feeling in her mind that something was wrong.
She looked in the mirror at her reflection, and the feeling intensified.
She had been married? With kids?
Both her husband and children had died in the boat malfunction?
Nothing had been fully explained to her.
One day, Li Xuan saw a crying child.
The woman that had been rescued with her during the incident fell into a deep depression. Her child was not yet one year old when she became a widowed single mother. Her own parents had stolen her severance compensation and then disappeared, not even wanting their grandchild.
The news about the cultists was kept under wraps. Although the survivors had been given some compensation money, none of the news sites were willing to publish any of their stories.
Her fellow survivor hugged this child, bitterly crying.
If no one was able to care for this child, then it would be sent to the orphanage
The child was too young. Its face was so small, its curled fingers so tiny. It wasn’t old enough to understand anything yet. If it was sent to the orphanage, it would have no certain future ahead of it.
Furthermore, she didn’t know if those orphanages had enough resources. What if they decided that all of their wards had been damned from the start, not deserving to live? Why didn’t the news cover this? There were too many whys...
Li Xuan realized that she couldn’t continue like this anymore.
She quickly quit her job, then took out the money that she had been given as compensation for the accident. She reached an agreement with the doctors, receiving her hospital discharge that same day.
Together, with her fellow survivor, they departed with the child into the night.
Living was more important than anything else.
Losing her memories wasn’t important. All that mattered was that she lived according to how she wanted to.
Later, she became extremely close with her fellow survivor. Afterwards, they would mutually help each other, comforting each other through their struggles and raising the child into an extremely outstanding adult.
The English teacher set aside the scarf that she had been knitting to grab the phone. She smiled, glad that her son had taken time to call her during his graduation trip. Because she was getting on in her years, she had not participated herself.
The teacher listened to the voice on the other side of the phone for a long time. A sorrowful expression covered her face.
She replied, quietly, to the boy she had raised for all his life, “I’ll be here soon. Cui Ying is a good child. If she sees you being so miserable, I’m sure she will suffer as well.”
She slowly put down the phone, and sighed.
How could something like this happen?
There had been a malfunction at the water amusement park. One of the seats had separated from the boat at the tsunami simulation ride, and a student had died on the spot.
Her son was surely devastated. It had occurred, after all, in front of his eyes.
Before, whenever he had spoken of the person he loved to her, he had always been so happy.
If anyone still remembers the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in Korea, I imagine the situation in this story to be similar.