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.