4. Speech Competition
A person admires the beauty of stars. They stretch out their hands to pluck the star and try for a long time but they can’t get it.
People laugh: You’ve overestimated your abilities.
He replies: I’m reaching out to pick stars. Although I didn’t pick a star, I am satisfied with the beautiful view and my hands have not been stained.
The dreary summer holidays came to an end and the new school year began. We moved from the first floor to the second floor and became second year students.
When school started, Teacher Ceng Hong notified me that I was joining the student speech competition organised by the city this semester and told me to prepare the speech draft. Any theme was fine as long as the main topic was positive and wholesome. When she said that the main topic had to be positive and wholesome, she couldn’t resist laughing, I also laughed. It was weird, after Teacher Zhang in primary, I treated teachers like they were evil spirits but I had a strange sense of compatibility with Teacher Ceng Hong.
I said, “Why is it me? What happens if I can’t get an award?”
She was impatient, “Why do you always have so many questions? Just do as I say.”
“I feel like I can’t, actually last time when I was on stage, my legs and tummy were wobbling, I couldn’t even smile like a fool.”
Teacher Ceng Hong tapped her cigarette and laughed, “You’re even able to stand on the table tennis tables, I saw that you were smiling pretty well but you’re afraid to go on stage?”
I thought that was true, if my face was as thick as the city’s wall then what is there to be afraid of?
After I finished the draft and Teacher Ceng Hong edited it, she told me to write it again. After editing the draft five times, we finally settled on the draft speech. At the same time, she started to train my speaking by hand. In the beginning, during morning reading in Chinese, she made me stand at my seat and read texts out loud. After I was used to it, she made me stand on the podium and recite poems, any choice of content was okay, as long as it was an ancient poem it was fine.
This was much too easy, due to the child prodigy Chen Jing, I had skimmed through all sorts of poetry. However I never expected to be scolded by Ceng Hong on the first day: “Do you know why Chinese poetry are known as songs? Reciting it like this is a humiliation to the poem.”
I walked off the podium in a serious manner, thinking over how to understand why poetry are known as songs.
After I got home from school. I opened the radio, found a literature station and listened attentively to poem recitals. From poetry recitals to story telling, ballads and appreciating essays, I spent every lunchtime in front of the radio. Every afternoon during class recess, I would find a secluded corner and practice alone to the trees or the clouds.
Teacher Ceng didn’t pay attention to what I did and still called me up to recite poems like before. Sometimes she would scold me and sometimes she wouldn’t make a sound, as long as I finished reciting, she would let me leave the podium. As time passed, no matter how my classmates looked at me, I always pretended as if they weren’t there.
Brother Li finished preparations for his dance hall and was getting ready to open business however, the name wasn’t yet decided. Brother Li disliked the suggestions, “Li Li Dance Hall’, ‘Night Rose Dance Hall’ and ‘Milky Way Dance Hall’, so he said to Xiao Bo, “Help me think of a name.” Xiao Bo laughed and thought of a few but before Brother Li gave his opinion, Xiao Bo rejected those himself. He crumpled the sheet of paper beside him into a ball and tossed it at me, “Qi Qi, help think of a name.”
My head was full of poetry so I randomly said, “Across the Water.”
Brother Li wasn’t satisfied, “Why is it across the water? I’d rather pave the road to the guest’s door and let them come everyday.”
Xiao Bo laughed, “The place that people have to go to everyday is home but it’s exactly because they have to go home everyday that the other world has a force of attraction. Across the water, you want to look but you can’t see clearly, you want it but you can’t obtain it.”
Brother Li scoffed, “Enough, I’m getting a headache from listening. Just as well the fortune teller said that I lacked water in my five elements and water can also bring in wealth. Let’s invite in good omen and use this name.”
After Brother Li finished talking business, he looked towards Xiao Bo and said, “Little Six isn’t very satisfied at you, be a bit more careful.”
Xiao Bo said, “Sorry.”
I started to listen attentively, Brother Li saw that I was staring at him with shining eyes and laughed, “Look at yourself, are you afraid I’ll eat up Xiao Bo? Staring at someone like they’re a target for archery?”
Xiao Bo came between me and Brother Li and apologetically said, “Brother Li……”
Brother Li waved his hand, “Xiao Bo, you don’t need to think so carefully, I’ve pretty much watched her grow up, am I able to argue over general things with her? Plus I reckon that this girl’s horoscope seems to be very compatible with ours, haven’t you seen how our business is growing more and more successful?”
I snorted with laughter, Xiao Bo also laughed. Brother Li said somewhat embarrassed, “Don’t laugh, there are some things I would rather believe exists than not.”
With a few jokes, the tension between the three of us eased. Xiao Bo sat on the sofa laughing, Borther Li looked at us and said, “I’m not afraid of Little Six. When I was out mixing in society, he was still blowing his snot somewhere. However, it’s just that we’re now business, not mixing with the triad. We’re not on the same path as Little Six, they like to flaunt their fighting, we’re talking friendliness gets you riches.”
Xiao Bo immediately said, “I understand.”
Brother Li continued, “Xiao Bo, when we became sworn brothers, I told you about my thoughts. During youth, which guy doesn’t have courage? Who doesn’t fucking want to be the boss? But where is my boss? Where are my brothers who wanted to be bosses? If they aren’t fucking disabled then they’re maimed. On the contrary, those who were spiritless have now peacefully found wives and gave birth to children. Zhi Gang who follows me now was also a well known person back in the day, but do you guys know what he used to do before he followed me?”
We both didn’t make a sound. Xiao Bo knew but he didn’t want to disrupt Brother Li’s talking spirit. I really didn’t know, only faintly remembering that there was a cripple by Brother Li’s side called Zhi Gang.
Brother Li smoked his cigarette, “A pedicab driver! It’s for your own good that I’m keeping you under control for now.”
Xiao Bo said, “I won’t make Little Six unhappy again in the future.”
Brother Li nodded and asked, “Do you want to continue helping in the karaoke bar? Or do you want to go to the dance hall?”
Xiao Bo said, “Karaoke bar.”
Brother Li laughed, “That’s fine, especially since you’re in second year of high school now and you want to go to university. Study hard and strive to be the first university student among us. As long as you’re able to get in, I’ll pay your school fees.”
Xiao Bo said in a low voice, “Thanks Brother Li.”
Brother Li stood up and walked towards the door, when he passed by the sofa, he abruptly reached his hand out and took my glasses. I shrieked and chased him. He held my glasses high up in the air, teasing me, “Your temper has been growing with your height. A few years ago you were still dutifully calling me ‘Brother Li’, if it wasn’t for me, you would’ve took a life already yet now you dare to glare at me.”
I jumped up to reach but I still couldn’t reach it, Brother Li said, “Call me big brother and I’ll have mercy on you.”
The people in the hall all watched us laughing. Wu Zei also teased, “Four Eyed Panda, call big brother.”
Xiao Bo folded his arms and leaned against the door smiling.
I went around Brother Li, jumping to the left and right but yet still unable to grab my glasses. Although I was laughing whilst jumping, I refused to call him big brother thus he refused to give it to me. I was getting a bit impatient so I yanked at his suit, wanting to take it by foce.
Wu Zei loudly shouted, “Four Eyed Panda is being brutish again, Brother Li, don’t just be on guard against her hand, her mouth is deadlier than her hands.”
Don’t hit the face and don’t tear off scabs! Wu Zei this jerk is using whichever kettle that hasn’t boiled yet! I was so angry I couldn’t be bothered getting my glasses back, I took a plastic apple from the plate used for decorations in the hallway and threw it at Wu Zei. I occupied a commanding position so he was unable to defend himself from it.
Brother Li and Xiao Bo both leaned on the staircase watching while giving out sarcastic remarks. Wu Zei started cursing angrily.
The four of us used to play around together often, playing poker whilst sharing jokes but as Brother Li’s business grew bigger and bigger, everyone was busy and even when meeting, it was always to discuss business. It had been a long time since we had messed around like this so we laughed and shouted, half crazy and half insane, half for the sake of being happy and half because we wanted to cling to the happy times.
Wu Zei covered his head, dodging left and right, not expecting a few people to come in just at that moment. My apple whirled towards them and I watched as the apple was about to smash into the person at the front. One of the people among them ran out and jumped, catching the apple.
Although it was blurred, my short eye sight wasn’t too bad, his silhouette seemed very familiar and I immediately recognized the person who caught the apple was Zhang Jun. I also realized who the apple nearly smashed into and couldn’t help but be dumbfounded.
Brother Li slapped my back, he was using a hollow palm with the five fingers joined together and the middle of the palm shrinking back so when it landed, because there was air inside the palm, there was a loud smack sound but it didn’t actually hurt.
“You’ve caused trouble? Quickly apologize to Little Six and thank Little Brother Jun.”
As Brother Li was talking, he walked down the stairs and warmly passed Little Six a cigarette, getting him to sit down.
Xiao Bo pulled me into a room and put my glasses back on my face, exhorting, “Stay in the room and don’t come out, when you want to go home, if they still haven’t left, go down from the balcony.”
He turned to leave but I held his arm and said, “Don’t go out, Little Six will definitely call people to pour you alcohol again.”
He smiled, “It’s fine, my alcohol intake is good.”
I could only let him go. I sat in the room for a while, I wanted to read but I couldn’t read it in so I decided to leave by flipping down the balcony. I gripped the railing with my hands, my body hanging in mid air, swaying to and fro, as I pondered whether to press my luck and just jump down or to try and grab on to the drain pipe on the side of the wall and slide down it.
On the street, there was a person who continuously rang the bell on their bicycle. I turned my head to look, it was actually the child prodigy Chen Jing. He was sitting on his bicycle, one foot on the ground and one foot on the pedal, staring at me. I blanked out for a moment and fell to bottom first to the ground. I gritted my teeth in pain and breathed in and out quickly.
Chen Jin laughed out loud and nearly fell from his bicycle. I coldly stared at him then pretended not to recognize him and stood up to leave.
He chased after me, pushing his bicycle along, “Luo Qi Qi, do you still remember me?”
I pretended to be confused and looked at him perplexed. He was disheartened, “I am Chen Jing, I was your desk mate in primary.”
I continued to ignore him but he didn’t give up, as if in disbelief that he would actually be forgotten by someone. He wanted to keep reminding me but it was hard to avoid falling lowly into self glorification that way which was even more beneath his dignity so he only pushed his bicycle along, depressed, not saying anything yet not leaving either.
I suddenly asked him, “Why?”
He asked me, “What why?”
“Why aren’t you Chen Jing?”
He understood my meaning and his mouth slowly turned up into a smile, “It’s too tiring being Chen Jing, My dad allowed me to laze around for a few years or else, who knows what other tricks my mom has in store for me? It’s not hard to say that she might make me go become a teenage university student and create a sensation on the news. She’ll feel the glory but I’ll have to be classmates with a bunch of grandpas and grandmas, don’t say basketball and soccer, I might not even have any friends to play table tennis with.”
I understood, “Then you’ll have to become Chen Jing again.”
He sighed, “Yeah, now that I’m in high school, I have to work hard to get into university. If I don’t well, my dad will be displeased.”
I smiled, “Then I’ll wish you a speedy success!”
He also smiled, “What about you? When will you decide to put in all your effort?”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
He continued smiling, “I heard that you won an award in a maths competition during primary. Everyone in the class must have been quite surprised but I don’t find it a bit weird at all. When I was your desk mate, I realized that you were actually quite smart.”
I objected, “I’m not on the same path as you, goodbye! Child prodigy!” After speaking, I ran off at lightning speed.
Results for our midterm exams came out. Chen Jing’s rank rose from around 200 when he was admitted to the school to being first in the year. It created the wonder of being the greatest result rise since the founding of the school. All the teachers were dumbstruck. The high school teachers rushed to ask his middle school teacher if his grades were originally very good and he had only done poorly on his entrance exam. Of course his middle school teacher shook his head, his grade rise was too unimaginable. News don’t usually spread between the middle school and high school departments but we actually heard of his name, added to the fact that he was four years younger than the others in his year, in an instant, the title of child prodigy returned back to him. Even Li Shen, Lin Lan and the others would discuss this high school prodigy.
However, Xiao Fei didn’t approve of him and feared that due to his child prodigy halo, I might grow feelings for him again. She kept warning me to not like Chen Jing. When she lectured me, her catchphrase was, “You’re looking for a boyfriend, not a library.”
I laughed out loud when I heard this, Xiao Fei always had her fallacious reasoning. Perhaps it was because from small to now and took things for granted so she didn’t think of it as the slightest bit uncommon.
After midterm exams, under Ceng Hong’s supervision, I continued preparing for my speech competition.After trying to understand countless poetry recitals from people on the radio station, I gradually started to gain my own insights.
One day, I chose Liu Xi Yi’s ‘Sorrow of an Old Man’. Although beforehand I had put much thought into how I should recite it and I knew that this was a tragic poem lamenting the mercilessness of time but it wasn’t until I was really reciting that unknowingly, when I got to the line “A year that is spent similarly, a year with different people” that I suddenly felt grief.
Today, we are all sitting in this classroom, tomorrow, where will we all be? Where will I be? Where will Xiao Fei be? Where will Zhang Jun be? Where will Xiao Bo be?
We’re so impatient to grow up and break free from our parents and teachers but after we grow up, will we be able to understand how precious our present time is?
After I finished reciting, Ceng Hong applauded energetically. My classmates all stared at me dumbstruck, they didn’t understand the things I had just thought about in that short period of time but Ceng Hong probably understood.
Ceng Hong told me to go down and said that I can stop reciting poetry and that from tomorrow onward, to find her during class recess.
She took me to the auditorium and got me to stand on the stage and look down at the empty seats from my high position.
“From today onward, we’ll officially start practicing your speech delivery. Giving a speech isn’t the same as reciting poetry, it is also dependent on your body language to engage the listener. We need to learn use our eyes, smile and hand gestures to stimulate the listener’s emotions.”
Under Ceng Hong’s guidance, I started the dull practice of telling my speech again and again. She corrected each and every one of my small movements and made me learn what natural and at ease was, what being impassioned was and what being sorrowful without injuring oneself was. She even invited the teacher of the high school department’s dance team to train me on how to walk from below the stage to the microphone and after the speech, how to bow gracefully and leave.
I started learning how to be graceful from the dance teacher and walked around and around the stage while Ceng Hong smoked a cigarette with her hand on hip looking vulgar below the stage.
The dance teacher was her high school classmate and they also graduated from the same teacher training college so their relationship ran deep. Often she would lecture me while shouting at her, “Ceng Hong, if you keep being like this, you really won’t be able to get married.”
Ceng Hong blew out smoke and ignored her then coldly pointed at me and scolded, “Luo Qi Qi how are you as stupid as a pig? You were just taught but you’e forgotten already! Smile! Smile! Even if you aren’t happy inside, you still better have a smile on your face!”
Due to Treasure Bowl, I was considerably well known among the teachers. The dance teacher looked out for my expression but saw that I didn’t care at all whereas she was quite surprised. She felt that I wasn’t stubborn and unruly with no regard for elders like the rumors had said. During break, she said to Ceng Hong, “This girl is quite interesting, no wonder the lazy you would give a lot of care to her.”
I wasn’t a three year old, I knew long ago that there are all kinds of different things between scolding and good words. Some people can hide ill will under praises, other people will bury their painstaking efforts under the sound of lecturing. People who treat you well aren’t necessarily truly treating you well and those who treat you badly aren’t necessarily actually treating you badly.
Of the entire year level, it wasn’t just me participating, other Chinese teachers all picked the best in the class, got them to practice a few times, corrected their mistakes and that was it. Yet Ceng Hong chose such a bad student like me and persistently spared no effort to trouble oneself and trouble other people to come and teacher me. Even if she called me a pig head a hundred times, I still had to take it in.
The five top middle schools in the city all got together in No. 1’s big auditorium. The speech competition was divided into the different year levels and the television station even came to record to play during the city’s news broadcast.
I didn’t let down Ceng Hong’s teachings and got awarded second prize. The dance teacher felt somewhat regretful, she said that the girl who got first prize had a sweet voice, bright image and looked very youthful and energetic but actually, I seemed more experienced. However, Ceng Hong and I were both very satisfied with the result. To me, being able to talk calm and unhurriedly and display everything I had learnt was considered a success. And being able to personally get a person who trembled when speaking on stage and didn’t even dare lift their eyes into someone who smiled and spoke with manner was already in Ceng Hong’s eyes, a success.
I discovered that I was quite similar with Ceng Hong, we were both people who would put in their full efforts during the process but when the results came out, as long as we met our basic requirements, we would be satisfied. We weren’t people who would take unnecessary pains for an insignificant problem and have to get first.
When I went upstage to receive my award, I suddenly saw a very familiar silhouette from the corner of my eye, Zhang Jun was walking towards the door. I instantly became absentminded. The auditorium could only fit two thousand people and the school didn’t require every student to attend. The students who came were good students in the eyes of the teacher, those who took delight in attending class activities and cared about collective honor. Bad students had long taken this opportunity to not go to class as a school holiday and went out to play. Although Zhang Jun’s grades weren’t considered bad, but I didn’t believe that Zhang Jun would care about what the teacher and students’ thought to come and listen to the tediously long speech competition.
Why did he come?
As soon as my train of thought opened, I immediately shouted stop at myself. What did why he came have anything to do with me?
After getting an award at the speech competition, from then on no matter how big or small the poetry recital competition, speech competition, the teachers would all let me go. I didn’t refuse any, from the school ones to the city ones, I participated in all of them. One part was because of getting an award, another part was for getting more practice and improving my skills.
Because of the speech competition, the teachers thought that I was a fluent speaker and also let me participate in debating competitions.
Actually, after I overcame my shyness and nervousness, speech competitions weren’t so stimulating but debating competitions were very stimulating. The requirements towards your range of knowledge and reaction speeds were higher and it was really to my taste.
I liked searching for loopholes in the opponent’s speech or using language designed to make the opponent fall into my arranged trap. There were many different ways and it was all changeable as long as I could defeat the opponent.
I fully enjoyed the moment I got to interrogate my opponent.
I started to also repeatedly win awards for debating, to the extent that I joined seniors in higher year levels representing the school in state competitions.
Along with my ‘public appearances’, I could be considered to be a bit well known among the teachers, parents and classmates. Even my dad’s coworkers heard of my ‘articulate speaking’.
I pretended not to care on the surface but inside, I was secretly proud of my ‘achievements’. Every time I went to collect an award, as long as I thought of Guan He and Zhang Jun among the students watching me below the stage, I would feel especially excited. It seemed like the person I defeated wasn’t the opponent but Guan He; it seemed like my successes weren’t for the class or school but for Zhang Jun.
While I was privately proud of my progress, I forgot that when I was walking forward, Guan He didn’t stand still either.
An essay Guan He wrote for the school newspaper was sent to ‘Youth Literature’ by Class (5)’s teacher. Not only did ‘Youth Literature’ use it, they put it in a prominent space on that week’s publication. The second year middle school teachers all mentioned this essay in Chinese class, Ceng Hong got me to read it to the whole class so we could all appreciate Guan He’s excellent writing.
Perhaps there are very few people who subscribe to ‘Youth Literature’ now but in the 90’s, pretty much all the schools would order this magazine. Back then when there weren’t many magazines and newspapers, this magazine was widespread across China and had a bigger influence than any of the youth magazines today. In comparison, my second prize in the speech competition that appeared for three seconds in the city’s news broadcast wasn’t even worth mentioning.
Seeing Guan He’s writing be changed into text and printed onto the beautiful pages, I couldn’t tell what I was feeling other than sweetness, sourness, bitterness and spiciness. I had to smile whilst reading or else I’d really disappoint the devil Treasure Bowl and the angel Guan He’s training but nowadays, my ability to smile was truly outstanding that even my master, Guan He, wasn’t able to tell it was fake.
I thought that I was already running with effort but I never thought Guan He would run faster. When I had only just started to think that I was a bit closer to Guan He, she had thrown me far, far behind again. The tiny bit of arrogance I had inside didn’t even have the chance to swell before it was shattered to pieces.
When I thought to how Class (8)’s Chinese Teacher would definitely also praise Guan He’s talet and perhaps may even call up a student to read her essay out loud for the entire class to appreciate, I couldn’t help but think how Zhang Jun would feel. His taste would probably also be very complex but he definitely wouldn’t have full stomach of bitter envy like me.