Short Story: Leftover Women

leftover

(Another short story for your enjoyment. Like my book Party Members and my previous short story Dumplings, this story is also set in the fictional city of Huaishi)

Leftover Women

Ding Bantian had accomplished many things. The walls of her office were lined with them.

Pride of place went to her PhD certificate that hung in a frame in the centre of the wall like the image of a god within a temple. The large black letters proclaiming Ding Bantian to hold a PhD in Chinese literature were the first objects to confront any visitor to her office. Surrounding the certificate on all four sides were a quartet of graduation photos: high school, bachelors degree, masters and finally the doctorate. In each of the photos a smiling Ding Bantian beamed with satisfaction at the scrolls of educational honour grasped firmly in her hands. None of the other certificates or letters of achievement that decorated her office quite matched the glory of the PhD certificate, though the accomplishments detailed upon them were certainly not insignificant.

Unlike the offices of most of her colleagues in the university, the certificates on her walls were not intermixed with photographs of family. There was only one family photo that Ding Bantian kept in the office – a faded photo of herself with her parents taken when she was in primary school – but today it was not in its usual place upon the wall. Today Ding Bantian held the photo in her hands, and she was crying as she stared at the image of the little family posing during a day trip to the beach.

“Is everything ok, Vivian?”

Vivian was her English name. It was only used by one person in the whole world, and that was the American teacher Tim who was addressing her now. Tim worked in the room facing Ding Bantian’s office. He must have heard her crying.

“I’m fine, thank you.” Ding Bantian wiped her tears away before she turned her head to face Tim. However, the streaks down her cheeks were still visible in the light of the afternoon. Tim took the hint and didn’t push the subject any further.

“Good to hear. If there’s anything I can do to help though just give me a shout. I’ll be in my office all day – got some papers to mark before the students return.”

“Thank you. I’m fine, really.”

“No problem. Hey, I thought you were supposed to be back home for the holidays all week?”

“I… I came back a little early. Too much work to do.”

“Tell me about it! Well, be seeing you Vivian.”

She nodded goodbye and watched Tim as he returned to his office. He was in his late forties and was a visiting scholar from Harvard. Like most foreigners he was slightly overweight compared to Chinese men, but he was always dressed well in a three-piece suit which helped to cover up his paunch. When he had first arrived at the university Ding Bantian had teased him for his bad Chinese and inability to pronounce her name; in return he had given her the English name of Vivian to help in their mutual communication.

Outside it was beginning to rain. Clouds were forming in the sky darkening the room; Ding Bantian placed the photo back on her desk and switched on the overhead light. Somewhere, in the nearby alleyways surrounding the university, firecrackers were being set off. New Year had already passed, but most people were still on holiday and the firecrackers would continue until the Lantern Festival.

She was still angry about what had happened over the New Year, however the worst of her rage was already over. Back here in her office, her display of certificates and achievements gave her comfort. No matter what her parents thought of her, they could never diminish all of the great accomplishments she had earned. Though only thirty-two, she was already a doctor in Chinese literature as well as an established expert on gender theory. She was a published author of two books discussing the role of women within Ming Dynasty literature, one of which was currently being translated into English with help from Tim across the corridor. In her new home at Shanghai’s prestigious Jiaotong University, Ding Bantian had the honour and recognition that she had worked so hard to achieve. However, as soon as she had returned home for the New Year, that honour and recognition had evaporated the moment she had stepped foot on the train to Huaishi.

***

Huaishi. Dirty backwards Huaishi. An ugly little place where people who read books were viewed suspiciously and the air stank of coal. It was a different world to Shanghai. There were no cosy little coffee shops where she could type out a thesis on her MacBook. There were no shops selling French jazz. There were no people who cared about her groundbreaking research on sixteenth century poetry. There was only family. That was the sole reason she had ever gone back.

The train was full of the rough migrant types that Ding Bantian now rarely interacted with in her new life in Shanghai. She had left all of that behind in Huaishi. The dark-skinned peasant women and uncouth men on the train almost frightened her. They reminded her too much of where she had come from and what she had worked so hard to escape from. Her only connection with Huaishi was her parents: a couple in their late fifties who subjected her to the same questions every New Year. Did she have a boyfriend? When was she getting married? Why wouldn’t she allow her parents to arrange a date for her? It was all so tiresome and they never asked about her work.

Her father was worse. A man on the train who was squatting in the aisle spitting out melon seeds onto the ground reminded her of him. They had the same untrusting face that scowled at the world. The look on the man’s face as he spat out the melon seeds resembled her father’s facial expression every time she mentioned the university or attempted to bring up her work. He had never agreed with her decision to leave Huaishi and pursue an academic career in Shanghai, though he had relaxed his criticisms in recent years as he became more and more obsessed with the stock market. Ding Bantian’s mother had been the first to discover the world of stocks and shares – joining her friends in daily trips to the bank to watch how the small amounts of money went up and down. Her mother had introduced her father to shares and the obsession had grown ever since. He was certainly not a success at manipulating the stock market but it had been a blessing to Ding Bantian in many ways. Now when her father began to criticize her lifestyle choices, Ding Bantian merely had to enquire politely about the state of his investments and the conversation would take a different direction.

 

As always, Ding Bantian had felt obliged to return home for the New Year holiday. She was never specifically invited back each year, but it was an unspoken tradition that could never be deviated from. Her habit had been to arrive on the afternoon of the New Year’s Eve just in time for the reunion dinner. Normally she was ready to get the train back to Shanghai before dinner was even served, however decorum meant that she always gritted her teeth and stayed for a full five days.

The train arrived at Huaishi’s decrepit main station. Hordes of workers travelling for the holidays were squatting in every available space of the decaying building. Ding Bantian had called her mother to see if it was possible to get picked up from the station, but the call went unanswered. Most probably her mother was too busy cooking to answer the phone. So instead she squeezed herself and her suitcase onto an overcrowded bus until she arrived at the rundown apartment block that had been her childhood home.

The lift never worked and her parents lived on the tenth floor. She struggled to carry her suitcase up all of the stairs and was breathless by the time she reached the front door. The front door of her parents’ house was never closed shut so she was able to walk straight in. To her surprise, there were two people she had never seen before sat around the table with her mother and father. They had already started eating. In fact, most of the food was already finished.

Erm… what’s going on?”

She imagined how pathetic she must have looked; stood there gasping for breath on her parents’ doorstep. Her father was the first to look up and notice her.

“Ah, Bantian, you’ve arrived!”

Her father looked more relaxed than usual. Her mother too. Both of them were slightly red in the cheeks from alcohol. The other two people were a young couple in their late twenties or early thirties. On Ding Bantian’s arrival they looked sheepishly at her father for guidance.

“What’s going on?” Ding Bantian repeated. “Who are these people and why have you started dinner without me?”

“Sit, sit, take a seat!” Her mother got up from her chair and led Ding Bantian by the hand to the sofa. After she had done so, she uncharacteristically closed the front door behind them. “Your father has something he needs to talk to you about.”

Her mother rushed into the kitchen and closed the door. Whatever her father was going to say, it was clear that her mother didn’t want to involve herself in it. Finishing his beer, her father had pulled his stool across the room to sit directly in front of Ding Bantian. Behind him the mysterious young couple continued to eat. Ding Bantian wondered who they were. Perhaps the young man was yet another attempt by her parents to find her an appropriate suitor. However, her father quickly corrected her assumption with the very first sentence he spoke.

“You’re probably wondering who our guests are. Bantian, I’d like you to meet Zhang Xianshi and his wife Chen Shengyu.

Upon mentioning their names, Zhang Xianshi and Chen Shengyu nodded their heads towards Ding Bantian, but otherwise continued eating.

“Zhang Xianshi is a financial advisor,” her father explained. “He’s been helping me with my investments.”

Ding Bantian looked over her father’s shoulder at the young man who was currently chewing on a piece of chicken. She eyed him suspiciously and wondered what exactly he had promised to earn himself a place at the family table on New Year’s Eve. No doubt it was some kind of pyramid scheme. People from Huaishi could be extremely gullible when greed blinded them to reality.

“We need to talk, Bantian.” Her father gave her a strange look, almost pitying. “You see, I have a problem with one of my investments.”

Ding Bantian sighed. “Which one is it now? The house? The shares in that mining firm? I’ve told you before to be careful about speculating with your savings.”

“It’s none of them. In fact they’re all doing rather well. No, this time I’m afraid the problem is you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. Unfortunately you have been,” he paused momentarily searching for the words, “a… bad investment.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Ding Bantian noticed that her mother was peeking out from behind the kitchen door. She hid her head when she noticed her daughter staring at her. Perplexed at what her father was talking about, Ding Bantian returned her gaze to him.

“A bad investment? Whatever are you talking about?”

“I mean that you’re not working out. You’re underperforming. Zhang Xianshi explained it all to me. We’ve tried to help you. Every year we try and set you up with good men who could be suitable husband material, but you’re never willing to cooperate. We’re just not seeing the return on our investment, so your mother and I have decided to cut our losses and reinvest our money elsewhere.”

Ding Bantian was getting angry now. The joke had gone on long enough. She raised her voice to her father.

“What are you talking about? Investments? I’m your daughter! We should be eating dinner together not talking nonsense.”

Now it was her father’s turn to sigh. “You’re a clever girl, Bantian, so I’m sure you can understand. We’ve spent a lot of time and money in bringing you up. We paid for your education, not to mention the costs of food, clothing and accommodation. Yet you’re thirty-two and we still don’t have a grandson. It just isn’t working out.”

There was a noise from the dining table as the young man called Zhang Xianshi also now stood up and dragged his stool over to the sofa area. His wife, seemingly oblivious to the conversation around her, continued to eat hungrily. She appeared to be growing overweight. Zhang Xianshi smiled at Ding Bantian and in an overly-formal manner handed her a business card with both hands that she accepted unthinkingly. He was a neat young man with tidy gelled hair and a simple but stylish suit that looked like it had been tailor-made. In one hand he held a blue folder full of papers that he placed on his lap as he sat down.

“I’ll let Zhang Xianshi explain,” her father said, almost with a look of pride when he turned to the man. “He’s good at explaining things.”

The man opened up the folder and held it towards Ding Bantian. Still in his overly-formal manner, he waved a pen at a table of numbers on one of the pages.

“You can see her – “ he began, “- a table of average salaries within the academic profession and a list of estimated projections. You will notice that even under the best circumstances the average take-home earnings of a university professor only range slightly above the median against other white-collar professions. In fact, once you adjust for the higher cost of living and rent in a city like Shanghai, your monthly income barely equals that of a low-level government official here in Huaishi.”

Ding Bantian, with a head full of confusion, barely registered the tables of numbers that the man was waving in front of her. None of what was happening was making any sense to her. The man was continuing in his presentation.

 

“- and even if we completely remove the financial aspect of your situation, the biological aspect looks just as pessimistic. At thirty-two your fertility is already waning. Even if you were to meet somebody within the next six months, once we factor in an average dating and engagement period of twelve months, we are left with a very narrow fertility window. Your eggs –“

“MY EGGS?” shouted Ding Bantian.

“- yes, your eggs, they –“

“What the hell have my eggs got to do with anything?” she demanded.

“- please don’t take this personally, I’m only relaying the statistics to you. As I was saying, even in the best possible circumstances we are only looking at a one-to-two year fertility window before it closes completely. That’s barely enough time to produce one child; certainly not enough to produce a second which is now permitted under the new government regulations.”

“What is the point of this?” demanded Ding Bantian again. Her father ignored her, encouraging the tidy young man to continue.

“The point is that unless circumstances change drastically, your parents will never gain the grandson that they have planned by investing in you. The numbers just don’t stack up. Please don’t just take my word for it, take a look for yourself.”

He handed the blue folder to her. It was full of tables and graphs detailing average wage projections, average fertility windows, and average costs of living. It was more detailed than one of Ding Bantian’s own doctorate theses. She threw the folder onto the ground and waved a finger at her father.

“Is this what you have resorted to? Every year you nag me about my lifestyle choices and try to pressurize me into getting married and having a baby. Now you’ve resorted to graphs and tables to try and convince me to give up everything I have worked so hard for in order to satisfy you!”

Her father shook his head.

“I’m not asking you to give up anything anymore. It’s us who are giving up on you.”

Silence filled the room apart from the noise of Chen Shengyu still eating noisily at the table. The woman could eat as much as three men. From the kitchen Ding Bantian’s mother had re-emerged and had joined Chen Shengyu at the dinner table.

Ding Bantian’s father picked up the blue folder from the floor. Dusting it down he opened it again.

“When Zhang Xianshi and I first met, it really was just about financial advice. He came highly recommended from some good friends and I’ve been amazed at how he has managed to turn some of my investments around. After we got to know one another better, he offered to turn some of my other investments around too. You see, both Zhang Xianshi and his wife are orphans – everything they have achieved in life they have done so without any support whatsoever. I respect that. Yet even with all their hard work they still need a bit of help to get on the property ladder. That’s where all our mutual interests align really. Zhang Xianshi suggested that if I could help him with his problems, then perhaps he could help me with mine.”

Ding Bantian snorted. “And what are your problems?” This time it was the young financial advisor who replied.

“As your father already said: unfortunately, you have not been a great investment and it is unlikely he will recuperate his losses. However, if your father chose to invest his money in a more viable alternative – for example my wife and I – he can confidently expect a significantly higher return than what we forecast he could receive from you. Shengyu is already pregnant with our first child, and we’re happy to try for a second, so we’re already ahead of the game. My client’s, sorry, your father’s long-term objective is continuation of the family line. To continue with his present portfolio – namely you – when it has failed to indicate any potential return is a significant risk. This has little prospect of changing unless somebody creates baby futures.”

Zhang Xianshi, still in a formal manner, laughed at his joke. Ding Bantian didn’t. The advisor licked his lips and continued.

“Hence, all we’re suggesting is that your father considers me legally as his son, provide some initial support with a housing deposit, and I can guarantee he will see a return on his investment: a beautiful grandchild, probably two. Not only that, but if you compare our respective buying power and potential earnings, myself and my wife represent a much firmer investment for future financial returns as well as biological ones. The SWOT analysis I’ve created proves with an 80% accuracy ratio that you would have great difficulty matching our offer. There’s no competition really.”

Now Ding Bantian was totally confused. She looked at her father, at Zhang Xianshi, then back to her father again. Both of them looked sincere, almost apologetic. Her mother over at the table couldn’t even bring herself to face her daughter. Chen Shengyu, as before, continued to eat.

“Is this a joke?” She looked her father firmly in the eye. He shook his head.

“It isn’t a joke. I’m sorry that it has come to this, but Zhang Xianshi can provide us with grandchildren and possibly even more money for our retirement. You can’t provide us with any of that.”

 

“What about my doctorate? What about my career? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“No.”

Tears were beginning to form in Ding Bantian’s eyes. The room felt so cold.

“But what about ME? If you choose HIM as your child, what’s going to happen to ME?”

“As I said,” her father said, this time unable to make eye contact, “this hasn’t been an easy decision, but we are firm with our conclusion. You’re just not financially viable anymore. You’ve been a terrible investment and we’re divesting you from our portfolio. Your mother agrees with me. This isn’t easy on us either, you know? Actually, it’s probably best you leave now, before this gets anymore uncomfortable.”

Her father turned to Zhang Xianshi.

“Isn’t that right… son?”

“Yes, father,” he replied.

Not only did the room feel cold; it seemed to be shrinking also. The walls on all four sides were drawing in around Ding Bantian. For the first time she noticed that all of the graduation photographs that her parents had decorated their walls with were now missing; replaced by smiling images of Zhang Xianshi and his wife. Their smiling faces bore down on her. She felt intensely claustrophobic. The silence hung heavy in the room, broken only by the non-stop chewing noise of Chen Shengyu as she held a bowl of rice to her mouth and slurped the contents down her throat. Ding Bantian realized that the woman was holding her favourite yellow ricebowl adorned with blue flowers that had been her favourite as a child.

“Can…” she hesitated. “Can I at least have dinner with you before I go?”

Her father glanced over at the table and shrugged.

“Probably not. It looks like Shengyu has finished everything. Perhaps your mother can check if there’s any leftovers in the fridge for you to take home.”

***

Two days had passed and Ding Bantian was still crying in her office when Tim the American teacher had found her. The pain and humiliation burnt through every vein in her body. She could still remember the laughing from her family and their new “children” as she had walked down the corridor away from her parents’ apartment. She would never see them again. Even if they were to drop this ridiculous investment plan and try to make amends with her, she would never forgive them. They had ignored all of her accomplishments – laughed at them even! – in exchange for a slimy financial advisor and his promises of grandchildren.

 

A renewed determination took over Ding Bantian as she replayed the humiliation over and over again in her head. With a growl she cast the photograph of her parents into the wastepaper bin. She would take this humiliation as a blessing. No longer was she to be held back by her uncaring parents who cared little for the life she had built. If anything she was free now: free to live her life to the fullest and in whichever manner she wanted. The narrow-minded prejudices of her family were no longer a consideration. She would continue with her career, build it into something greater than it was already. Her success would be her revenge. Not only that: she would follow her heart’s desire and reach out for all those things that her parents had always sought to deny her.

Within seconds she knew what she had to do. Reaching into her handbag, she applied lipstick to her lips and checked herself in the mirror that rested on her office table. Satisfied with the result, she marched confidently out of her office – every inch a strong, independent and empowered modern woman – and strode into Tim’s office on the other side of the corridor. He was busy working on some papers when she entered, but looked up as she walked straight towards his desk.

“Vivian! Is everything ok?”

Ding Bantian nodded. Normally she would be shy at what she was about to say. However, excitement at all the many things she could accomplish gave her a confidence that she never previously knew existed within her. Without hesitation she said the words.

“Tim, would you like to go out with me for dinner tonight? Just the two of us?”

Tim blinked in amazement. Then smiled.

“Are you asking me out on a date, Vivian?”

She smiled back.

“Yes. Yes I am. How about it?”

Tim’s smile grew wider. His eyes lit up. Then his smile broke into laughter.

“Oh Vivian! That’s very sweet of you, but you’re far too old for me. I only date girls who are in their twenties.”

The End

***

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

10 thoughts on “Short Story: Leftover Women

  1. Oh that final line is a stinger. Had me chuckling like an asthmatic. Also, all very nuanced in retrospect. SMV, hypergamy, having it all – it’s all there. Thank you very much indeed.

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  2. Excellent. You are probably too young to remember a TV series called Tales of the Unexpected, but this would have made a brilliant episode.

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  3. Thanks. I know Tales of the Unexpected very well – have the first volume on my bookshelf. I used to love that theme tune with the roulette wheel spinning around. My favourite one was the episode with the landlady who stuffed her tenants.

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  4. Clever story. Are “Xianshi” and “Shengyu” puns?

    Welcome back, by the way. I was worried. I’m trying to decide whether it’s a bad idea to try to get a copy of your book sent to my apartment. Maybe I’ll have it shipped to some undisclosed location where I can retrieve it under cover of darkness.

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  5. Hi there! Yes they are puns: Xianshi is “facts” because he forces Ding Bantian to face facts, and Shengyu is a homophone for fertility. Ding Bantian is the biggest pun of all – it’s a shortened version of the Chairman Mao quote that women hold up half the sky. The book gets shipped to China with no issues, so don’t worry about those 3am “knocks” after receiving it.

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