Shengliver’s Note: Why did he decide to live off campus? Why did he meander on the street in the wee small hours? What did he come upon in his wanderings?


Song Gang is doing the last year of high school. I have been his teacher since the second term of Grade One.


By reading his English journal every week, I have formed a clear picture of his family background and his personality. His parents scrape a living. They raise produce in the family vegetable plot and sell it at the marketplace in town. Song Gang is the younger of two children. He has got a sister studying at a local teacher training academy. A brooding teen, he does not talk very much, probably because he is aware of the gap between his family and his peers’, and of the parental expectations.


Mother’s Decision


At the beginning of Grade Three, his mother decided to come over and look after him. In the first two years, Gang boarded on campus. Living in a dorm was fine, but Mrs Song hoped to give her son more care in the challenging school year.


Initially, Gang told his mother not to bother. He knew it would not come cheap to rent a room or a house off campus. The rent kept rising for a lot of students chose to live outside the school in the last school year. However, the mother was determined. He had to follow her arrangements.


The house the mother rented is close to a construction site. Tenants in the neighbourhood are mostly peasants turned construction workers. Living there brings Gang close to the real world. He notices the labourers rise early in the morning. Many a night he is woken up by the workers who are coming back from their shifts. They talk loud and laugh heartily, cursing a lot.


The house where Gang’s family lodge does not have modern comforts—no TV, no Internet, no heating and no air-conditioning. In the winter holidays, the family did not go back to their family home in Yunxian. Instead, they spent the Spring Festival in the rented house for Gang’s sake. The last winter holidays for Chinese high school students are a shorter version—around ten days if they are lucky. Gang thus did not have to travel to and from their home in Yunxian. He had a great time staying with his family at the rented house during the festival. The only thing he complained about was the weather. “It was freezing in the house, Shengliver,” Gang wrote in the journal. “I had to be dressed like a bear, even with a stove burning by my side.”


Despite the spartan dwelling, the boy enjoys more freedom there. He eats better and does not have to rush for his meals. The canteen at the school is overstretched by a staggering student population. At mealtimes it is a scene of crowds, long queues and bedlam. Because the mother cooks exclusively for him, Gang is able to leave out the unpleasant dining experiences at the canteen, thus saving time and energy. Also, after evening classes he can stay up a bit longer. He told me that he feels very good when he is doing his lessons deep into the night at the house. In the dorm, the lights are switched off around 10.30, so studying after 10.30 there would be impossible without a torch. Besides, the school rules ban the practice. Once caught using a torch after 10.30, the violator will be named and shamed. And his class will lose credits in the league tables. In turn the culprit will have to face the music when his class director comes in.


A Walk


Everything seemed to be going well until I read his journal entry last week. In the entry, he told me of a walk he took in the small hours the other night. It disturbed me.


After classes one evening, Song Gang went back to his lodgings. He was in a rotten mood. What caused it? I do not know.


He felt so depressed that he started to sob for about 20 minutes, face buried in bed. His mother and his sister had no clue what had gone wrong and dared not ask him. When he stopped crying, he decided to go and walk on the streets for a whole night. He left the house, telling the mother and the sister that he would not come back for the night.


He walked out of the house, leaving his family bewildered and worried. There was no destination in his mind, so he let his legs carry him. He wandered aimlessly for a long time until he could discern the place where he used to take a bus for home. It was the former bus station, no longer in service. He realised that he had covered a long distance and that the streets were deserted at this hour.


He turned around and started to backtrack. On the way, he came to a little square. No soul was there and most lamps were off. He found the square littered with newspapers. He picked some up, seated himself on a cement bench, and started reading a paper in the dim light.


As he was reading, an old fellow turned up. Song Gang thought he must be a scavenger picking litter like bottles and plastic bags. And he was. He collected odds and ends from the ground and shoved them into a sack he was trailing along.


The old fellow came over and sat down beside Song Gang. After a while, he offered Song Gang a cigarette.


“Thanks, sir, but I do not smoke,” Song Gang responded.


The two of them struck up a conversation. The old man thought that Song Gang was homeless. He told Gang that he could go and stay in his home for the night if he had nowhere to go. Over the years, he told the boy, he has helped many homeless people this way. He comes from Tanshan, Yunxian but he is now living in the city. His son and the family live in the city, too. He does not need a lot of money, but every night he comes to the square to collect paper, bags and bottles, and then sells them to augment the family income.


The old man chatted on. Song Gang half listened, eyes still on the paper. For the past decade in the square the old man had met several hundred teenagers who slept rough. He put some of them up in his own home for free. He also said that many teenagers opted to hang around at digital cafés all night long.


Song Gang was incredulous. He had thought that the old man and his deeds were only in newspapers and on television, but this very night he was with such a man in the flesh in the real world.


Seeing the boy showing no interest in his offer, the old man told Gang that at the moment some vagrants were sleeping at his home. If Gang did not believe him, he could take him there for a look. Song Gang declined the old man’s kindness, explaining that his home was nearby and that he had just come out for a walk.


After the chat, Gang realised that it was time he went back. He was sure that mother and sis were still up waiting for him. He got up from the bench, bade the old man farewell and headed for his quarters.


When he arrived, he found the house was empty with the lights on. Shortly after he stepped into his bedroom, his mom and sis came in, mother’s eyes red and tearful. It occurred to Gang that he had hurt his family, and remorse came over him. Without further ado, the Songs retired to bed.

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