Have you ever been to the Great Wall of China? Simply breathtaking. Tong Yan, however, does not seem think so… Or maybe I should say, she finds it a little too breathtaking. Literally.
Chapter 3.1 – Are You Truly Real? (1)
When he arrived, Tong Yan was still beside the bus stop, sitting on the railing surrounding the flowerbeds alongside the street and staring, lost in thought, at the road. She had long since passed the age of trying to blame fate or people, or letting herself fall into despair and give up hope on herself. It seemed Gu Pingsheng’s words years ago truly had affected her. “In this world, you have the right to choose anything. The one exception is your parents. You cannot choose them and you cannot give them up.”
His face suddenly appeared before her eyes, and it was looking down at her.
As she raised her head to look at him, he was already handing her a bottle of icy-cold water. “It’s really hot today.” Taking it from him, she noticed that there was some water on his palms, which should have rubbed off from the water bottle.
He pulled out a package of napkins and handed it over to her, motioning for her to wrap the bottle as she drank from it. “I took my friend’s car and I’m not very used to it, so I drove rather slowly.” The whole time as he spoke, he was smiling.
Right as he was about to open his mouth to say more, Tong Yan had already broken out into a little laugh. “Let’s agree first. You can’t ask me why I need to borrow money.”
Gu Pingsheng put on an expression of great surprise. “Student Tong Yan, I’m trying hard already to avoid that topic. Can’t you tell?”
“I can.” Tong Yan gave him a meaningful look. “I was just worried that Teacher, you’d keep trying to think of so many things to say to ease the awkward atmosphere, so I thought I’d just say it out bluntly.”
She had originally intended to get the money with Gu Pingsheng and then head straight to the bank to deposit it, but to her surprise, Gu Pingsheng handed her a card and directly told her the PIN. “There’s ten thousand yuan here. Take it for now.”
She looked up at him, somewhat startled. “I only need six thousand. That’ll be enough.”
He smiled, “I had assumed, since you said you needed to borrow six thousand, you likely had calculated in all your living expense money into that already. I don’t want you to come back to me three days later to borrow money to buy your train ticket and then, when you get back to Shanghai, you can only nibble on mantou [plain, steamed bun] everyday to get by.” He was joking, but he had indeed spoken the truth of the situation.
Tong had no choice other than to stretch out her hand to take it from him and say, “When I’ve saved enough, I’ll pay you back right away.”
However, immediately after she said this, he pulled the card back. “I don’t have anything to do today. I’ll take you to the bank to deposit it.”
Later, Gu Pingsheng not only accompanied her to the bank but also very insistently volunteered himself to take her home.
When Gu Pingsheng stated the words, “teacher’s home visit,” she froze for an entire minute downstairs of her home before finally gritting her teeth and resigning herself to the reality that “good words are required of mouths that ate favours of food and tied are the hands that accepted favours handed to them.”
Since it was an old apartment building, it was not part of any so-called community compound.
It was a free-standing, five-storey building adjacent to the road, and right outside its entrance was a main street and a bus stop. Every time Tong Yan sat by the window and gazed out at the cars coming and going, she would admire herself again for her own foresight. It was fortunate that when the property values had first started to soar, she had taken the deed of this place and put it away. Otherwise, sooner or later, her dad would have secretly sold it, and then, she and Grandmother would not even have a home to live in.
She sat by the window, peeling cloves of garlic, one by one.
Grandmother had once been a primary school music teacher, but because her school later was merged into a centralized one, when it came time for her retirement, she did not actually have true, recognized teaching qualifications. As a result, her old-age pension amount was very low. This, though, did not affect Grandmother’s passion for teaching. The whole time since Gu Pingsheng stepped through the doorway, he had very patiently explored the advantages and disadvantages of “education based on personality types and learning styles” with the elderly woman.
From time to time, Tong Yan would sneak a glimpse of them before continuing with lowered head to peel the garlic. Without being aware of it, her hair had slid down in front of her eyes. She stretched out a hand and tucked the hair behind her ear, but her fingers happened to brush against the corner of her eye. Because there was garlic residue on her hands, this brief contact was enough to cause tears to stream down, and she could not stop them even if she tried.
“Need any help?” He walked up to her.
Seated there on a small stool, Tong Yan raised her head to look at him, her eyes glistening with tears.
Gu Pingsheng paused, dazed for an instant.
In this moment, the scene before his eyes and the night that they had first met each other seemed to completely superimpose themselves upon one another. The only differences were, at that time, her hair had been a short, ear-length style and perhaps because of her young age then, her eyes had been even bigger and brighter. But the only thing that could be found in those eyes had been an intense feeling of despair — that form of despair that had nothing to do with death and parting but was simply due to hopelessness in life and reality.
“Garlic.” Seeing the sudden still look in his eyes, Tong Yan, in contrast, actually grew panicked. “My eyes were just stung by garlic, that’s all.”
He, too, was momentarily taken aback. Grandmother hurriedly brought a wet towel out from the kitchen and handed it to Tong Yan, but in the end, Gu Pingsheng was the one who took it. When the elderly lady returned to the kitchen to continue cooking, he was already crouched down and wiping her eyes for her. She did not have the chance to refuse before she was closing her eyes amid his actions.
A very light, gentle touch combined with a warm towel carefully dabbed and cleansed around her eyes.
“It’s good now,” he said.
Tong Yan opened her eyes and then suddenly felt slight embarrassment. “Thank you.”
Before, in their dormitory’s chat sessions, they would always say that you should never find a boy from the Faculty of Medicine to be your boyfriend. He would be accustomed to seeing all areas of the human body and the boundaries that should exist between males and females would be very blurry to him. Therefore, it would be easy for him to fall into cheating or something along those lines… But she had interacted with Gu Pingsheng for five weeks, and besides noting that he did not have any taboos about physical contact between the opposite sexes, she did not find him to be a person who was casual about physical intimacy.
She grabbed a handful of garlic. Such senseless and ridiculous thoughts. She did not know why those thoughts had even crossed her mind.
This was Tong Yan’s third time eating with Gu Pingsheng… Halfway through her meal, she discovered that Gu Pingsheng had eaten a lot of plain, white rice, and she suddenly wanted to laugh. While Grandmother was in the kitchen ladling out some soup, she quietly said to him, “Teacher Gu, northerners’ cooking tends to be salty. Sorry about that.”
He gave her a little smile. “It’s not a problem. Could you pour a glass of iced water for me, please?”
“We don’t have any that’s iced,” she chuckled. “We don’t use a water dispenser in my home. It’s all water that’s been boiled already.”
The result, however, was that she had just poured a glass of water when Grandmother came out carrying the soup.
Seeing Tong Yan setting down a glass of cooled water, she at once chastised her in a serious tone, “Haven’t I told you since you were young that you should not drink water when you’re eating?”
Tong Yan immediately pointed at Gu Pingsheng. “Those of them who’ve come back after living abroad all have this habit.”
She did not dare say that the dishes were salty, otherwise Grandmother truly would bring them all back into the kitchen and completely re-make them. Gu Pingsheng very cooperatively went along with what she said, offering an apologetic smile as he picked up the glass and took a large drink of water.
When Grandmother went out to the park to feed stray cats, only the two of them were left in the home, and she did not know what she could have Teacher Gu do.
The living room only had that one small couch. Was she going to have to sit there side by side with him and watch television dramas? Or read? This teacher’s home visit had not had a specific purpose to it at all, so she did not know what she was supposed to have him do.
Gu Pingsheng merely sat there and appeared to be looking at the old photographs that were beneath the glass top of the coffee table. Due to his height, he seemed more like he was sitting on a child-size toy sofa. “I’ve only lived in Beijing before for half a month,” he suddenly spoke up. “There are many places that I haven’t been to yet, such as the Great Wall.”
Tong Yan’s eyes brushed over the photograph he was looking at. It was one of her when she was a little girl, hands on her hips, standing atop the Great Wall.
A black and white photo. And her hair was done up in two little pigtails that stuck upwards.
“Then, Teacher Gu, you can take advantage of this vacation time to go around to a few more places and have some fun.” She very much wanted to take a book and cover up the photographs beneath the glass top. “From Beijing, there’s three sections of the Great Wall that you can go to. One is Badaling. This one you for sure should not go to during a National Day holiday. There’ll be as many people there as you’d see at a temple fair. Then there’s the one at Mutianyu. The view there is better than Badaling, and there aren’t that many people there during the holidays, as well.”
Gu Pinsheng nodded. “And the other one?”
“The other?” Tong Yan prudently cautioned him, “Juyongguan [Juyong Pass], you absolutely should avoid. It’s so steep you need to use your hands and feet to climb it. So exhausting you could die. The previous two are about ‘walking’ the Great Wall. Only Juyong Pass is about ‘climbing’ the Great Wall.”
She had not expected that Gu Pingsheng was the type of person who, the more you warned him not to go, the more interested he would be in going. And since he expressed a great enthusiasm towards Juyong Pass, Grandmother was also very hospitable and instructed Tong Yan to accompany her Teacher Gu to climb the Great Wall.
Since entering university, apart from her physical education class, she basically had not engaged in any other physical activity. On such a steep stretch of the Great Wall, after climbing for less than ten minutes, she was already unable to walk anymore.
An elderly man and woman, each carrying a backpack, calmly and easily passed her. The gray-haired old woman turned back and smilingly addressed Gu Pingsheng, “Young man, why aren’t you holding your girlfriend’s hand and helping her along. I think she’s physically drained.”
Tong Yan only felt that this voice was floating somewhere above the heavens, and before she could even grasp the essence of what had been said, Gu Pingsheng had already taken her hand in his.
So unexpected. Her heart silently quivered a couple of times. She utterly could not keep up with the pace that reality was moving at.
Instinctively, she lifted her head.
Because he was facing the sunlight, Gu Pingsheng’s eyes had squinted together slightly, but still, they carried a smile in them. “If I had known that it would be this steep, we would have gone instead to that Mutianyu you had mentioned.”
Panting, and with the heavy beating of her heart sounding in her ears, she gasped out, “Yeah… I… I told you this place was ridiculously steep. I… I’ll be fine… fine climbing by myself.”
The sun this day was especially strong. Where was the feeling of a golden autumn day? The sun was obviously even fiercer today than during the height of summer. While she was speaking, beads of perspiration followed the curve of her chin and dripped down onto the dark gray stone blocks.
Gu Pingsheng motioned for her to take a rest, and immediately, Tong Yan leaned her body against the stone wall to her right.
The mountain breeze brushed against their perspiring skin. It was very pleasant. Both of their palms were sweaty. Their bodies were cool, but their palms were getting hotter and hotter. Tong Yan was growing increasingly uncomfortable as her body would feel waves of coolness and then waves of heat, but she dared not move her fingers in the slightest.
After a long while, her entire arm was feeling numb, and she finally turned her head to the side to glance at him.
Gu Pingsheng happened to be looking at her as well. “Rested enough? Let’s go. Once we reach Banshan [“Halfway Up the Mountain”], it’ll be better.” And then, in a very natural manner, he started the climb upwards with her hand in his.
Tong Yan did not even have a chance to protest and could only focus her efforts on trying to keep pace with him. As he was much taller than her, this meant he was half-pulling her in their ascent, and naturally, his hand was gripping hers tightly. Halfway through the climb, he even switched to use his other hand.
All around them, they would occasionally pass by people who were stopping to take a rest. Two or three stone steps away, there was a couple, and the girl’s voice drifted over to them. “Look at how strong and fit that guy is. How come you’re so useless? You’re not even climbing up as fast as me…” For the remainder of the hike, Tong Yan was rather preoccupied as she climbed up. They should be so far apart, but suddenly, the distance between them seemed as if it had been shortened.
When she at last stepped up onto level ground, she immediately pulled her hand back from his. “Teacher Gu, would you like to drink some water?” From her backpack, she pulled out two small bottles of water and had just handed one to him when she heard a text message alert tone.
Pulling out her mobile phone, she took a glance at it. It was the class prefect from when she was in middle school: I called you. Why didn’t you answer?
Tong Yan wearily replied to him: I’m in Beijing. At Juyong Pass. A phone call will be charged long distance plus roaming. If there’s anything, text me.
Another text was quickly returned: Juyong Pass? Didn’t you climb that enough before? Hey, by the way, I saw Lu Bei today. Why was there a girl with him? I never heard that you guys broke up?
 馒头 “mantou.” One of the traditional staples of ethnic Han Chinese food. A yeast-based type of bun that is steamed and contains no filling. (The buns that contain a filling are known as 包子 baozi.) Having only mantou to eat would be akin to having to survive on dry slices of bread everyday.
 吃人嘴软,拿人手短. When you have eaten food someone has given to you, then the words you speak about that person must be carefully chosen so as to never speak poorly about him or her. When you accept things that a person gives to you, then anything you do will need to be carefully thought through such that you take into consideration how it would affect the person who bestowed you the favour. So, in general, this saying is warning people to be careful, for when you accept favours from someone, as a repayment, you may need to do things for the person or at the very least, not do anything that reflects negatively upon that person.
 The school mergers is referring to a program brought about by the Ministry of Education in China that shut down small, local or village schools and merged them into larger, centralized schools in more densely populated cities. The concept was that this would improve use of building and land resources, and also teaching resources by ensuring higher quality of teachers at the centralized schools. Grandmother was a teacher at one of the smaller schools and probably was not as qualified on paper as the newer, younger teachers with university educations, so she was not retained. Hence, when she retired, because on paper she did not have the formal qualifications of a teacher despite years of teaching, her pension took a hit.
 庙会 “miao hui.” Temple fairs or temple gatherings are a traditional Han Chinese custom. They are usually held on specific major holidays or days of religious significance at folk temples in worship of Chinese gods and deities. In addition, there will be various activities, entertainment, and opportunities to purchase items and hence can be very busy and crowded.
 半山. This means “halfway up the mountain.” In Juyong Pass, there is a pavilion called Banshan Pavilion 半山亭 [“Halfway Up the Mountain Pavilion”], also called 观景凉亭 “Scenic View Pavilion”, is the largest pavilion in the Juyong Pass section of the Great Wall.
1 of 1 Prologue
7 of 66 Main story segments
0 of 3 Epilogue segments