Clara Spars ~ Domino

There’s noth­ing quite like the Chinese edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem, where by the very same for­mu­las that are drilled in the stu­dents’ heads day in and day out, con­crete “this-is-the-answer” study­ing is added and mul­ti­plied to com­pose a sin­gle ado­les­cen­t’s entire life. I’d walk the hall­ways of Beijing Number 80 High School mar­veling at the head in front of me. It was always craned over a book, rich with streaks of gray and white, and in some cas­es bald patch­es, and I’d find myself con­fused because this head belonged to some­one much younger than I was, most like­ly a four­teen or fif­teen year old kid. At lunch, after rush­ing to the stuffy cafe­te­ria not only in order to scav­enge an emp­ty seat at a table but also for fear of the food run­ning out, I might’ve decid­ed to break away from my bub­ble of fel­low American exchange stu­dents in an attempt to prac­tice Mandarin and make new friends, but more often than not my efforts were no match for the immense home­work load await­ing the Chinese stu­dents back in the class­room. They’d come to the cafe­te­ria only to eat. Any sem­blance of social­iz­ing was waved off as a waste of pre­cious study time. My day was struc­tured by eight hours of class, a small win­dow of free time where only the inter­na­tion­al kids could leave cam­pus, fol­lowed by a two-hour manda­to­ry study peri­od in which we were locked in our dorms by the ter­ri­fy­ing dorm moth­ers. The night­ly dorm-mom rota­tion kept us on our toes as they each had their own dis­tinct way of barg­ing into our rooms and scream­ing at us, occa­sion­al­ly with fright­en­ing objects in hand such as knit­ting nee­dles or knives.

I had begun to occu­py my lim­it­ed free time by going to the gym locat­ed right next to the school because it worked as a means of blow­ing off the steam that built up dur­ing such an exhaust­ing sched­ule. it was here that I first encoun­tered the screaming.

I was zoned in on the steady pound­ing of my feet against the rub­ber belt of the tread­mill, blast­ing music through sweaty head­phones to block out the sound of my own pant­i­ng and for­get how tired I felt, when a new lay­er of noise that I had nev­er noticed before sud­den­ly spread itself through­out the song—a gut­tur­al, engine-like series of bursts that fell uneven­ly between the up- and down­beats of the melody. I hit the pause but­ton only for the music to be stripped away from the groan­ing. I real­ized that the noise was not, in fact, a part of the song, but rather a facet of the orches­tra of gym equip­ment sur­round­ing me. The man direct­ly behind me was con­tort­ed in a gob­lin-like crouch, strug­gling under the grav­i­ty of a not-too-impres­sive­ly-sized weight that dug creas­es into his chub­by shoul­ders. Perpetual bursts of vocal explo­sions near­ly made me trip and fly off of the machine. This accom­pa­nied my work­out for the rest of the day, and what would even­tu­al­ly become every sin­gle time I went to the gym.

One day, as I was rins­ing my face in the bath­room, I heard a blood­cur­dling shriek that last­ed about ten full sec­onds com­ing from back inside the equip­ment room. I wait­ed a minute before anoth­er one emit­ted through the door for anoth­er absurd­ly long dura­tion before think­ing to myself, “Holy shit, some­one’s dying in there!” In a rush of adren­a­line, I burst through the door ready to save a life, only to dis­cov­er that the sound was com­ing from a young, scrawny man fold­ed over upside down as he tried to push weights up with his spindly legs on one of the leg con­trap­tions. He was­n’t in trou­ble. He was just anoth­er dude shit­ting him­self try­ing to lift some weights. I should’ve known.

When I turned six years old, my grand­ma gave me a domi­no set as a birth­day present. I had seen movies in which peo­ple had set up intri­cate swirling designs of domi­noes. They’d tap light­ly on the side of the final piece and it would knock an entire elab­o­rate process into motion, rows branch­ing into more rows, paths curv­ing around each oth­er in a para­dox­i­cal­ly chop­py flu­id­i­ty. The domi­no-cov­ered floors of entire rooms would flat­ten in a wave gen­er­at­ed by patient pre­ci­sion and a sin­gle touch. I want­ed to pre­pare some­thing of this mag­nif­i­cence with my domi­no set, to cre­ate a wave of impact with the tap of my fin­ger, but I found it dif­fi­cult to arrange any sort of col­li­sion chain that did­n’t take the form of a sin­gle straight line.

I was hard at work on my domi­no set on the floor next to my father’s arm chair. He was an esteemed human­i­ties teacher at a pri­vate high school on a hill, and in addi­tion to teach­ing typ­i­cal ninth grade his­to­ry and English he also offered class­es like com­par­a­tive reli­gions and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. He was always read­ing books on these sorts of top­ics, and this is what he did now.

Daddy, whatcha read­ing?” I asked set­ting anoth­er domi­no in place.

A book by a very smart man named Hegel.” He respond­ed, under­lin­ing an impor­tant part of a pas­sage with his orange highlighter.

That rhymes with bagel!”

He could open up a bagel shop and call it Hegel’s Bagels.”

I gig­gled. “What is his book about?”

He let out a con­tem­pla­tive sigh and rubbed his hands togeth­er quick­ly as if attempt­ing to start a fire with their fric­tion, a strange habit that took place when he felt tired. “Well,” he began, adjust­ing his glass­es and scratch­ing his chin, “the part I’m read­ing right now is about some­thing called a dialectic.”

Dia-what?” I tapped on the last domi­no of my lat­est set­up, but halfway through, one of them missed knock­ing into the next and the motion died out.

Dialectic. It hap­pens when two oppos­ing things synthesize—that means ‘come together’—to move his­to­ry forward.”

I stared at him blankly and he let out a laugh. “It’s complicated.”

Keep going! I want to be smart!” I gath­ered the lit­tle tiles and start­ed map­ping out anoth­er path.

You are smart. You’ll study all this stuff when you’re old­er. Maybe in my class!”

How do you move history?”

Well… it starts with the two parts under­stand­ing one anoth­er. They must rec­og­nize them­selves in each oth­er and interact.”

Sit down and have a lil’ chat?”

With a cup of tea!”

That seems easy enough.”

He nod­ded and pen­sive­ly replied, “You’d think so.”
“We’re mov­ing his­to­ry right now!”

He smiled warm­ly. “Yes we are.”

I stared back down at my domi­noes in frus­tra­tion. “Daddy, why won’t my domi­noes work?”

What do you mean they won’t work?”

I keep try­ing to make them fall over in fun ways but I can only do it in a straight line.”

Well, sweet­ie, look at how you’re spac­ing them.”


That one over there is too far for the oth­er one to reach when it falls over. Especially when it’s off to the side like that.” My eyes fol­lowed his point­ing finger.

When you’re bend­ing the path, you have to take spac­ing into account. They have to be able to reach each oth­er. Otherwise they’ll fall with­out knock­ing each oth­er over and they’ll stop mov­ing.” He took off his glass­es and set his book to the side, crouch­ing down to sit next to me on the floor. He con­fi­dent­ly adjust­ed a few of the pieces so that they were clos­er togeth­er and angled more towards the path I want­ed them to fol­low. “Now try it.” He said. I held my breath as if I might acci­den­tal­ly blow the tiles in the wrong direc­tion, tapped on the last domi­no, and excit­ed­ly watched them fall into each oth­er in the swirling path I had designed for them.

I was abroad in Beijing on a pro­gram attempt­ing to engage in a world­wide cross-cul­tur­al dia­logue through lan­guage and immer­sion. However, through­out the week with over ten hours per day spent study­ing furi­ous­ly, and a lack of Chinese com­pan­ions will­ing to let me prac­tice speak­ing with them, my so-called “cross-cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion” often took place dur­ing the des­ig­nat­ed free time, and in turn amid the steamy ambi­ence of the over­crowd­ed gym by means of a call-and-response cho­rus of mid­dle-aged men scream­ing aggres­sive­ly as they thrust­ed their pelvis­es while lift­ing their tiny weights.

Why the hell were they scream­ing so loud? I kept think­ing. I often found myself doing sev­er­al exer­cis­es that at times seemed absolute­ly unbear­able, but dur­ing peaks of dis­com­fort, at the very most, I’d let out a lit­tle huff of exhaus­tion that was only audi­ble from a few feet away. These men could be heard from across the build­ing, inces­sant­ly shout­ing at the tops of their lungs with every move­ment of their bod­ies. Their cries echoed through­out the entire gym­na­si­um as though they were being repeat­ed­ly stabbed in the gut by a psy­chopath. I kept as far away from them as pos­si­ble, but I could only main­tain so much dis­tance in the tiny enclo­sures of the gym. I con­tem­plat­ed what oth­er aspects of their lives were pro­vid­ed this sound­track of ter­ri­ble grunt­ing. Walking up the stairs to their apart­ments every night? Sex? I shud­dered at the thought of one of these men releas­ing gut­tur­al yelps as they pound­ed away with the same pelvic thrusts that they brazen­ly dis­played dur­ing their workouts.

Weekends var­ied dras­ti­cal­ly from the school days locked down on cam­pus. I went home with a host fam­i­ly and stayed until Sunday. The fam­i­ly nev­er had any plans, which allowed for total free­dom through­out the day, save for a cur­few in the late evening. My host sis­ter could­n’t go out if she want­ed to; her home­work load was too enor­mous and she did­n’t have a moment to spare oth­er than to eat meals and use the bath­room. I went about the city on my own, meet­ing with friends to go sight­see­ing. This entailed a sick­en­ing amount of hours spent on the Beijing Subway.

That day, it was incred­i­bly smog­gy out­side with an air qual­i­ty index of over 350. As I removed the straps of my face mask from either ear, it got caught on an ear­ring and yanked it out to be lost for­ev­er between the grat­ed steps of the esca­la­tor. My back­pack thud­ded onto the con­vey­or belt as I passed through the secu­ri­ty check, tak­ing a sip of my water bot­tle to demon­strate that it was only water. A card scan and anoth­er esca­la­tor lat­er, I stood on the plat­form at Donghuqu sta­tion await­ing the train that would take me to the Changying stop where I could walk ten min­utes to my host fam­i­ly’s. Fifteen stops with a trans­fer from line 14 to the 6.

I loved liv­ing in China, expe­ri­enc­ing the cul­ture, learn­ing the lan­guage, eat­ing the food… But there were bad days—days when I found myself repulsed by the for­eign odd­i­ties of behav­ior and sub­stance around me, days when I went about every­thing with an unshake­able cyn­i­cism. On days like these, the sub­way was my least favorite part of Beijing—apart from the pol­lu­tion. That day was one of these days.

The subway’s con­ve­nience that I so deeply appre­ci­at­ed was actu­al­ly the prob­lem. Since it was one of the most com­mon­ly used ways to get to and from school or work, it was death­ly crowd­ed. The rush hours in the morn­ing and evening were unlike any­thing I’d ever expe­ri­enced. If one did­n’t take a run­ning start to shove the already over­flow­ing crowd fur­ther into the train, one ran the risk of wait­ing for hours until rush-hour end­ed before he or she could head home. I had been elbowed hard in the diaphragm, smacked straight across the face, and even had times where my feet could lit­er­al­ly leave the ground and I would not fall over because there was absolute­ly no space to land, and the crowd was packed tight­ly enough to hold me hoist­ed in the air. I did­n’t think it pos­si­ble, but the odors that emit­ted through­out the mug­gy air inside the train were even more potent and rank than at the filthy, sweat-cov­ered gym. In spite of the pol­lu­tion, infi­nite num­bers of Chinese men and women spent their time out­side adding to the shit in their lungs by suck­ing in cig­a­rette smoke and blow­ing it in the faces of oth­er pedes­tri­ans as they marched the side­walks with­out masks on. The acrid, stale stench left over from these cig­a­rettes mixed with the hot fumes of human sweat and bod­i­ly oils to cre­ate nau­se­at­ing waves of odor. During my time in China I devel­oped the capa­bil­i­ty of inhal­ing as lit­tle as human­ly possible.

It was rush-hour. Cellphones blink­ing with WeChat noti­fi­ca­tions were shoved only slight­ly clos­er to my face than the human limbs that car­ried them as peo­ple craned their necks to stare at the screens. I was sweat­ing pro­fuse­ly in the oven-like car when some­one’s back­pack smashed into my rib as anoth­er wave of indi­vid­u­als charged into the train.

A short, par­tic­u­lar­ly foul-smelling man who looked to be in his late for­ties stood close­ly in front of me. I could feel the hot bursts of his cig­a­rette-stained breath on my cheek. I felt him star­ing intently—nothing new to me as a for­eign­er in China, though I still had­n’t man­aged to get used to it—and when I uncom­fort­ably met his gaze, he bared his crooked, yel­low teeth in a hair-rais­ing smile. I gave him a lit­tle nod and turned away, feel­ing incred­i­bly sick from the hot, cramped quar­ters and his nasty breath blow­ing aggres­sive­ly in my face.

A few sta­tions lat­er was a pop­u­lar trans­fer sta­tion where, to my immense relief, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of pas­sen­gers pushed their ways out of the sub­way as the rush-hour began to slow. I now had an entire inch of space encir­cling me and even man­aged to lift an arm to scratch an itch on my nose that had been both­er­ing me for the past few stops. Another stop, and anoth­er flock of peo­ple exit­ed the sub­way doors. My lit­tle bub­ble of space extend­ed anoth­er inch, except for on one side, where the smelly man neglect­ed to take advan­tage of the half step he could’ve tak­en to sep­a­rate the two of us. I shook it off, telling myself he prob­a­bly just want­ed to stay close to the han­dle­bar next to me for sup­port, but anoth­er clus­ter of peo­ple get­ting off and pro­vid­ing the slight­est bit more space made me sus­pi­cious of his stub­born­ly main­tained prox­im­i­ty. As I took a slight step back­ward, I noticed him lean fur­ther towards me. The sub­way made a sud­den jerk as the dri­ver hit the brakes pulling into anoth­er sta­tion, and the smelly man seem­ing­ly lost his bal­ance, falling into me. People all end­ed up pressed up against each oth­er in a domi­no-like col­li­sion, a far less grace­ful reen­act­ment of the toys I had messed around with in my child­hood. The only dif­fer­ence in my case was that my con­tact includ­ed a path-defy­ing sense of inten­tion that domi­nos were not sup­posed to be capa­ble of.

I wore a skirt that day. After a long, cold Beijing win­ter, it was final­ly begin­ning to warm up enough to go with­out a thick win­ter coat, and I cel­e­brat­ed by wear­ing one of my nicer outfits.

I now think of pieces of fab­ric and what they mean to me. What they cov­er, what they reveal… do these things speak words? Does a long-sleeved but­ton up whis­per how that busi­ness man’s day is going? Does a ripped pair of jeans shout at me that that woman over there is hun­gry for a grilled cheese sand­wich? Does a skirt that ends above the knees tell the peo­ple around that the girl wear­ing it wants to be fucked in a pub­lic area by a total stranger over twice her age?

The moment the sub­way jerked, the smelly man’s hand was up under this skirt, light­ly grasp­ing the left cheek of my ass. I was too shocked to have any imme­di­ate reac­tion, but a moment passed and, as I wheeled around to glare at him with rage, I vio­lent­ly pulled my skirt down, attempt­ing to smack his hand to no avail. It remained attached to me like a leech. As I twist­ed and writhed vicious­ly, his long fin­ger­nails scratched my leg. Then I felt something.

I knew what a hand felt like. I knew the tex­ture well enough: the thick­ness and rough­ness of the skin, the way the bones shaped the joints of its fin­gers. I knew what his hand in par­tic­u­lar felt like because it had just touched me, it had just grasped me. And I knew that what was touch­ing me now—this smooth, slight­ly moist, firm, yet sig­nif­i­cant­ly soft­er appendage, that was now rub­bing up and down against my but­tocks under­neath my skirt—was no hand.

I took three whole steps, with­out regard for who or what was in my way, and the man remained attached to me at the hip—in the most lit­er­al, dis­gust­ing way—for every stride.

Whether the peo­ple around me could­n’t tell what was going on because it was too crowd­ed and they were too absorbed in their phone screens, or whether they did know and decid­ed not to react, no one around moved a muscle.

I think back to this moment and am remind­ed of the image of a scrawny man lift­ing weights at the gym. What did the scream­ing do for him? It took up space. It made him big­ger. It emit­ted a burst of ener­gy that pro­vid­ed him room to flail his limbs and thrust his pelvis, and it used enough force to let every­one know of the space in the air he was consuming.

Just like the per­pet­u­al beat of shout­ing that marked my hours in the gym, I slow­ly let out a scream with the force of all of the sweaty exer­cis­ing men and their pelvic thrusts, mak­ing sure every­one through­out the entire sub­way could hear me.

The smelly man’s eyes widened in hor­ror and he whipped him­self around, zip­ping up his pants and sprint­ing out the door at the next stop.

This was the sec­ond time in my eigh­teen years of life that I had been assault­ed. The first case con­sist­ed of drug­ging and rap­ing in a pitch black room where I remained defense­less with no one to res­cue me, and now the sec­ond took place in front of hun­dreds of peo­ple, and was left unno­ticed, unmen­tioned. While the first inci­dent kept me inca­pac­i­tat­ed from scream­ing, this time I was capa­ble of call­ing out. I lived through two oppo­site kinds of assault, both matched with an unpar­al­leled frus­tra­tion and sense of loss that sim­ply can­not be put into words.

I had want­ed to exist as the sin­gle domi­no that evad­ed the col­li­sion, the piece placed out of the way of the rag­ing wave of con­tact brought on by oth­er pieces, but if that were the case I would also exist as my own inhibitor, ceas­ing the motion of the rest of my life’s process by iso­lat­ing myself. Balancing these two notions, self-pro­tec­tion and mobil­i­ty, tore me apart.

But the men at the gym taught me to cre­ate a tem­po­rary bub­ble. From deep in their guts emit­ted pow­er­ful bursts of sound waves that cleared the premis­es, drove every­one wit­ness to their explo­sive cries as far away as pos­si­ble. Cries that demand­ed atten­tion. That forced recog­ni­tion. That, at their prime, were the pent up amal­ga­ma­tions of strain and frus­tra­tion and pride and loss. That stood stur­di­ly as the domi­noes that would knock oth­ers into motion, push the oth­ers away from them­selves in long, swirling paths.

I returned to my host fam­i­ly that night in shock. My sis­ter sat at the kitchen table study­ing away furi­ous­ly, in such a state of focus that she hard­ly noticed me come in. She had undoubt­ed­ly been sit­ting there work­ing all day long. I stared at her until she looked up, shoot­ing me a smile, a nod, and a quick “Ni hao!” before return­ing to her stud­ies. I remained stand­ing. Something was build­ing up in my subconscious—a tin­gling, uncom­fort­able feel­ing scratch­ing at the inside of my mind and beg­ging for release. It col­lect­ed in my body, pierc­ing my gut and my heart with tiny nee­dles until final­ly emerg­ing from my mouth.

I let out a long, ter­ri­ble, droned out cry of dis­com­fort and fury and sad­ness and pain. My host sis­ter jumped up from her seat, run­ning over and anx­ious­ly ask­ing what the mat­ter was. I respond­ed by let­ting out anoth­er shout. And then anoth­er. She stood in front of me, star­ing hard in con­fu­sion. After some time, she took my hand, and did some­thing I had­n’t been expect­ing. She set down her pen­cil and removed her read­ing glass­es, and slow­ly but sure­ly, began to cry out with me. The two of us stood near the door­way let­ting out per­pet­u­al shrieks of frustration.

I had knocked her into motion too.


Clara Spars is an 18-year-old fresh­man at Stanford University. Born in Berkeley, CA, she has spent most of her life in the Bay Area. She has just com­plet­ed her gap year study­ing abroad in Beijing with a State Department spon­sored pro­gram known as the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. It was dur­ing this past year that she began seri­ous­ly writ­ing dur­ing her free time.