Everyone knows what elementary school is like. Most of us sucked at math; some played football, others foursquare. Jin Li excelled at socialism.
When Jin Li arrived in Virginia Beach in 1986, he had a bad haircut, or maybe we just thought it was a bad haircut. We didn't know about China. It felt like a big place, like Texas or Canada, full of people who constantly had to brush their bangs from their faces, like surfers. Haircuts felt important. Though we lived less than ten miles from the ocean, we couldn't swim, so we'd never be real surfers. We didn't mind not being surfers. We were socialists.
In the fall of second grade, Jin Li established his first after-school club. That's not exactly true. Chang Liu started the Chinese Liberation Party.
Chang Liu: Jin Li's lone good memory of China. The first comrade. An upright socialist. He taught Jin Li everything he knew about revolution, convinced him nonviolence was cool again. He was the Karl Marx to Jin Li's Lenin. We didn't know Karl Marx or Jin Li's Lenin, but we knew we liked them. They were better than Chairman Mao, but that's beside the point. In the second grade, the party was poorly organized. We didn't have clear goals. We had only one real member other than Jin Li and myself.
Kenisha Baker taught Jin Li English, tutored him in the appropriate slang. Bad shoes were bobos. Jin Li took pride in his shoes, his haircut, and as both became trademarks of socialist thinking, even Kenisha gave herself a bad haircut. She started wearing bobos.
Solidarity was important. In the third grade, Jin Li stood before the masses gathered in the cafeteria for lunch and prophesied that Bettie F. Williams Elementary would become a fascist regime if we didn't reform our policies. Only the masses had the power to make things change, and we were the masses.
Jin Li called for the immediate redistribution of lunches: those brought from home, those bought in the cafeteria. With the inflection of a TV preacher, he stood on the cafeteria stage and expounded: "Everyone deserves to eat what they want sometimes!" Not knowing what to do, we all began clapping, as if lunch had become an ad-hock assembly, one of the cool ones, like the talent show. This felt weird to us, but in a good way. We had never clapped during lunch. Before any of us had time to appreciate the strangeness of our clapping, Jin Li broke our applause with the full strength of his socialist voice: "Why should Clarence have to eat peanut butter sandwiches every day? No one should have to eat peanut butter sandwiches every day. Aren't you tired, Clarence, of eating peanut butter sandwiches every day? Look at him," Jin Li said, which sounded rhetorical, but then he repeated the call, which made everyone actually look at Clarence Fairbanks, who was one of the chubbiest kids in school, and who had the misfortune of not only being the object of everyone's attention, but of having a mouthful of peanut butter, some of which had leaked out and perched on his chin like a slug. "I'm tired of watching Clarence eat peanut butter sandwiches! Who else here is tired of watching Clarence eat peanut butter sandwiches?" We resumed our clapping because we liked what he was saying, and it was fun to clap.
Jin Li turned quiet and grew still and more solemn than we'd ever seen him. We stopped clapping. "It should be obvious to all of us. Clarence deserves french-bread pizza sometimes. Why shouldn't Clarence have french-bread pizza sometimes? Don't all of us together have the power to make sure Clarence has french-bread pizza sometimes?" We didn't understand what Jin Li meant by power, but we could feel the invisible energy of everyone in the cafeteria nodding at the same time because we knew Clarence liked pizza because we all liked pizza. We also liked how many times Jin Li said sometimes.
Jin Li let another thunderous round of applause run its course before continuing: "I don't think I'm asking for too much here. Do any of us here feel like I'm asking for too much? Who here is willing to trade their pizza for Clarence's peanut butter sandwich? I'm sure it's a good peanut butter sandwich. I'm sure it's a great peanut butter sandwich if you don't have to eat peanut butter sandwiches every day." Jin Li's mastery of repetition wasn't lost on a single one of us. We were stunned and impressed. We sat with our mouths open. Some of us had pizza in our mouths. Some of us stopped breathing. We had forgotten that Jin Li had asked us to do something. When no one came forward with their pizza, Jin Li offered his own lunch tins as collateral for the peanut butter sandwich. We'd never seen him eat anything that didn't come out of the metal tins. We assumed the tins were Chinese because we'd never seen them before. More than anything, we wanted to see Jin Li eat something that wasn't Chinese for the first time, to see what faces he would make, but that's beside the point. The truth was, Clarence had already eaten more than half his peanut butter sandwich, and what remained was no longer a shareable portion, never mind the soggy indentations in what was left of the white bread from the power of his chubby fingers. But somehow, even in the midst of experiencing perhaps the worst and best kinds of embarrassment simultaneously, Clarence was still smiling, as if he, Clarence Fairbanks, shared a small part of the cause of everyone's cheering. He did, of course. We all shared a part of it. That's how real socialism was supposed to work.
As our fevered clapping reached its pinnacle, Clarence politely declined the socialist lunch tins with the kind of hand gesture made by old rich ladies when they want something (or don't want something), or by saints—in paintings—when they're not doing anything good with their hands. And for the rest of the afternoon, Clarence kept smiling—we all kept smiling—even during math.
Jin Li would do everything he meant to or die trying. In the fourth grade, he received the worst news of his life on a postcard from China. We were sitting in the alley between the apartment buildings where we lived, at the edge of the Lake Edwards complex on Baker Road.
The Great Wall, which we had heard of, curved and crumbled on the front of the postcard. It didn't look so good. Words scribbled in red Chinese letters completely covered the back of the postcard. As Jin Li often wrote in Chinese—on his history tests, in the notebooks we shared—we'd seen Chinese writing, but we couldn't decipher it.
Jin Li interpreted: back in China, Chang Liu had renounced non-violence, coordinated stink-bombings at stores in Beijing, at a restaurant like McDonald's (but not McDonald's), at a movie theatre that showed a movie like Rambo (but not Rambo). Kenisha and I secretly liked Rambo. Jin Li grew livid; he stormed out of the alley, leaving us sitting on our cinderblocks, clueless, stabbing blindly with weak, illogical recommendations for how to console our dear leader. "Maybe we should get him a present," Kenisha said.
Later, at the Salvation Army, Kenisha folded and tied a red bandana. It made her bad haircut look good. The bandana seemed cool so we bought three of them.
The next day, in the alley, we gave Jin Li our present, wrapped in newspaper, and to our relief, he smiled and brushed his bangs from his eyes. He tied his bandana the way we tied ours. "That's the problem with the Chinese," he said, as if he'd never been Chinese, or as if there were two kinds of Chinese, and the only thing they had in common was that people who didn't know any better called them both Chinese.
He expounded from the cinderblock he was sitting on: "The Chinese communists started out with good intentions. Even though, despite their good intentions, the Chinese communists ended up being just as greedy as the American capitalists. You have to have an element of democracy." He stood and pointed emphatically, as if the sky could be an element of democracy. "People everywhere want freedom! Do you know what I mean?" We didn't know but nodded like we did. "We all need freedom. With restraint, of course. Freedom with restraint! Do you see what I mean?" We nodded. Kenisha put her hand on her heart. We said the pledge like we'd said it a thousand times before. Jin Li rubbed his chin, as if a goatee might sprout there if he thought hard enough about justice. Socialist or not, Jin Li liked the pledge. He liked the idea of facial hair. He rubbed his chin longer than we'd seen anyone rub their chin before.
After a while, Jin Li stopped rubbing his chin and brushed his hair from his eyes. He started writing in our notebook. It was a furious kind of writing. We could tell when Jin Li wrote Chinese and when he wrote English. We assumed the Chinese writing in our notebook hid thoughts Jin Li didn't want to share with us, but how could that be true? It wasn't. Privacy like that would've been contrary to his socialist nature. We wondered if his brain had ideas that could only be expressed in Chinese characters. If you don't understand the complex relationships of the symbols, you might easily mistake sequences of Chinese letters for beautiful pictures, like in a comic book. As if Jin Li had found a way to take snap-shots of the complicated feelings and thoughts he was having, using his Chinese writing as a camera.
But all that's beside the point. We ate pizza sometimes, all of us, in every grade. Even Jin Li tried pizza. He didn't like it, of course.
As the red sun dipped beneath the crumbling rooflines, as Kenisha tucked the laces of her bobos into her ankle socks (which we'd seen her do a thousand times before), we could feel everything we wanted changing, as if the words we believed were true. Kenisha and I were as close to revolution as we'd been or ever would be. Jin Li would get much closer. In college, Kenisha received a postcard from Beijing written in the unmistakable collage of Chinese and English. The Chinese, though beautiful, remained indecipherable. The English was legible, but equally mystifying: "Whatever you do, no matter what, promise me you won't recycle."
Even now, I don't know much about China, but I know this: if Jin Li really was taking pictures of us with his Chinese writing, and if they were the kind of pictures you can pull forward at any time, anywhere, and look at, undisturbed by the narrowness of alleys and other kids, and if you can see everything the way it was, exactly as Jin Li had seen it before, I hope you can tell we're smiling. ●
Josh Norman slings organic produce in Virginia Beach. Previously, he herded cattle, taught English literature, begged for rupees, and delivered light fixtures and people to other places. His short stories and poems have appeared in DUM DUM Zine, Bayou Magazine, Green Briar Review, and Barely South Review. His first poetry collection, Telescopes and Other People, was released by Dynamo Verlag this spring. Find him at Dynamoverlag.com and Sicksimpletyrannosaurus.tumblr.com