The weekend of May 5–6, 2018 will probably be one of the most memorable moments in my life. I reconnected, thanks to modern technology, with my college classmates, with whom I had lost contact for almost thirty years.
We graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 1989. At that time, private home phones were scarce. Emails were non-existent.
After I came to the U.S. in 1993, I lost contact with my college friends.
On May 5, 2018, I finally found and joined the WeChat group — similar to a Facebook group, specifically for our class.
The air exploded with excitement. Just looking at the names brought back so many memories. Out of forty-one students in our class, thirty-five were in the group.
Someone uploaded our class picture. As we reminisced about those who were not in the group, one person mentioned that four had already passed away, “rode the crane and sailed west.”
Two were boys I did not know well. Boys and girls lived in different buildings, making it difficult to intermingle much. They were shy and did not visit female dorms often. One died of liver cancer, and another in a motorcycle accident. I mourned for them.
But when the names of the other two surfaced, I almost choked with grief.
These two I knew well and had always hoped to see one day. One was my roommate who occupied the upper level of the bunk bed we shared. Her name was Yuan (All people’s names in this article are pseudonyms).
Both of us were younger than the other dorm mates, so as freshmen, while they talked of dating, clothes, and other complicated subjects, we rejoiced in ice cream and new found songs of Deng Lijun.
We grew from knowing almost nothing about dating in the first year to sharing our heart aches and pains of relationships in the later years. She was quick and smart and cracked jokes that sometimes bordered on crude and made us laugh hysterically.
Inside, she was a sensitive insecure girl who grew up in a small town with ordinary parents. Not much social or cultural capital, sociologists would say.
Shanghai, with its overflowing goods and people, fascinated and frightened her at the same time.
Her hometown in the deep mountains of Sichuan province was inaccessible by train. To come to school, she had to travel for several days on a boat to Wuhan, and then catch a train from Wuhan to Shanghai. The whole process took a week. Therefore, during winter breaks, she often opted to stay in school, but then she got lonely because the rest of us went home.
During her junior year, she fell in love with a Shanghai boy, who was almost the opposite of her. While she was relatively short and unnoticeable, the boy was tall and handsome. She was insecure and shy; he exuded confidence and talked with ease.
Yuan loved this boy with all her heart, although he had no inkling of what was going on.
Every day, she went to class early, sat on the front seat, just for the pleasure of seeing him walking into the class, or catching a glimpse of him leaving. She walked aimlessly near his building, for the sheer chance of seeing him come and go out of it.
This went on for months and months, and she did not even have the courage to talk to him. I only knew because one day she looked so despondent and pale, I thought she was sick. The dorm happened to be empty, and she burst into tears.
“If I wrote a letter, would you give it to him?” she asked between sobs.
I promised I would.
The next day, I pretended to walk towards the back and talked to the boy in charge of our mailbox. On my way, I dropped Yuan’s letter on the desk of the boy Yuan was in love with. He looked surprised but covered the letter with a book.
I needed to leave campus that afternoon. The following day, I got a note from the boy, asking if I could meet with him.
I looked at his gloomy face, foreboding crowding my mind.
“You read the letter?”
He nodded, misery deepening the furrow between his brows. “Yuan is a wonderful girl,” he said. “I like her as a classmate. But I don’t feel that special chemistry people call love.”
He handed me a letter to give to Yuan.
She stayed in bed for two days, with her mosquito net down, skipping almost all classes. I went into the net and sat with her, tucking my legs inside her warm thick quilt.
How do you comfort one rejected by love? To say there are plenty of people out there who could be your potential second half is useless and hollow. Such wounds go deep and often refuses to heal, for a long time.
She did finally get over it. In her senior year, she dated a graduate student from another department. He found a job in Guangzhou. She went with him, not wanting to go back to her hometown.
That was all I knew. I stayed in Shanghai afterwards, attending graduate school. Yuan wrote me a few times.
In one letter, she said, “I married an uninteresting guy and now live an uninteresting life.”
After coming to the States, I thought of Yuan often. I searched for her name in her company directory. Nothing showed up. I put in her name, along with Guangzhou. Lots of entries appeared, but none matched her background. Reluctantly, I gave up the search, believing I would be able to see her, somehow, someday.
And now, this terrible news. From what I could gather, she died around 2010.
How could this open lively girl who loved life die? Impossible. And yet, what my classmates said was indisputable.
She did not like her job. She actually called one guy from our class asking if he could find a job for her, but he was not in a position to do so. Years later, she was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia and took an early retirement from the factory.
One of my classmates, who worked in the same company, went to visit her during a holiday. Her husband and twin sons complained that she would disappear for a month and then call and say she was in Saipan Island on the Pacific.
After retirement, she traveled, without her husband and children, to Tibet, Turkey, Paris, and on. But then, one day in a northern city, she was reported to have jumped to her death from a high-rise hotel, most likely suicide. No one knew for sure.
What desperation and sorrow had induced her to jump? What was more terrible than death? My heart turned to shreds.
I imagined Yuan walking towards me in a black and white dress, red ribbons on her hair bouncing off the sunlight, a mischievous smile lighting up her features. I saw the two us eating sweet rice cakes as we came out of the department store near campus. How could she be dead?
But tragedy did not stop here.
The second person who had passed away, and also by suicide, was equally shocking. His name was Hao. He was the first and only Communist Party member in our class.
To be a party member in high school or college took special qualities. These students had to be exceptional in everything, especially in leadership and willingness to assist others.
Hao was one of those big brother type of boys, although he was small in stature, who could always be counted on to help, whatever trouble you had.
He was from a relatively poor province, and probably from the country. It broke my heart to think how hard his parents had worked to produce an outstanding son like him and what his death could do to them.
Someone uploaded a picture of our freshman year. Hao organized this trip for us to go to an island near Shanghai for a weekend. We met some older students from Fudan University, spent the night talking about literature, philosophy, and national events. Early in the morning, we went to the ocean to watch the sunrise.
As the sun’s rays transformed the waves into glistening layers of gold, purple, blue, and orange, someone played a song in a handheld tape recorder.
In it, a beautiful female voice kept asking: Dear ocean, from whence have you come, and towards what destination are you going?
The picture was taken before we left on Sunday. Snap. It became a permanent memory. The ten of us stood in front of a Mongolian style tent, a breeze shuffling our shirts. We were so young, so full of sunshine.
Yuan and Hao both stood near me. Yuan, short-haired at the time, looked straight into the camera; a slight smile played on her lips. Hao, on the other hand, was dressed in a green Mongolian style robe with a red belt tied around his waist. He was grinning broadly, obviously happy.
What happened to him?
After graduation, I continued in Jiao Tong, attending graduate school. Hao stayed to become an administrator. Sometimes we ran into each other or had gatherings with others who also remained in Shanghai. But after I left the country, I did not know anything about him.
From what I could gather, he left the college to join a real estate company in Shanghai around 1993. Why? I assume it was the urge to do something for himself. The wave of economic development had started to shape Shanghai; young people were all looking for advancements.
He had chosen real estate. What happened afterwards? No one knew for sure. He returned to his hometown, depressed. One classmate tried to call him, hearing about his depression, but he refused to answer the call. And the last we heard was that he had killed himself.
I had always liked Hao. His gentle brotherly smile warmed my heart every time I saw him. What happened in his job in the real estate industry? What were his struggles? Why would he end his own life?
Many of us were consumed by guilt. If we had known, we could have traveled to their homes and talked to them, at least listened. If WeChat had been invented earlier and communication more convenient, we might have helped. Collectively we might have been able to assist them to get over whatever hurdles they faced and not just hear about their passing until years or decades later.
I was shaken to the core. Two of my dear friends gone, forever, to the earth from whence they came.
Amidst the deepest sorrow, the tragedies instilled in me a strange sense of gratitude. Whatever challenges I face, I am at least alive. Life is beautiful, but fragile. Cherish what you have.
For my friend Yuan and Hao, I feel their presence above. They are, at last, in peace. The storm has passed. May peace be always with them.
Heaven, be gentle and kind, let them know they are loved and missed, in millions of ways.
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