The First Time

Zhang Sanjian is back 2022-06-07 00:00 Posted on Beijing


Today, sitting in front of my computer, I reminisce about a time when I was studying in Nanchang. My aim was to improve my vocal skills and learn Italian songs, so I went to the provincial capital, Nanchang, to seek guidance and learn.

In the early days of my studies, I spent two hours every weekend traveling by green-colored train from Xinyu to Nanchang. This routine cultivated my ability to fall asleep instantly on any mode of transport, though two hours was my limit. Later, during my senior year of high school, I lived alone in Nanchang for a while to undergo intensive training in vocal music and music theory.

My parents took me to Nanchang and rented a single room for me in a small alley opposite the old campus of Jiangxi Normal University. As I recall, the room was just big enough for a piano and a bed, with a toilet, and cost three hundred yuan a month (I later realized why it was so cheap — there was a pigsty behind the house). That was my first experience of living independently, away from my parents. With a monthly allowance of six hundred yuan, I could sample various street foods in the alley: Ten-Mile Fragrance Wontons, Lanzhou Ramen, spicy hotpot, and various fried foods. Although it wasn’t the healthiest diet, it tasted like freedom! Finally, there were no parents constantly nagging me, and attending classes was at my own discretion. Sometimes I would even skip classes, saving the tuition fee for a good meal or a new pair of sneakers. But freedom came at a price — away from school, away from parents, with no classmates or friends around, often staring at the basin full of dirty clothes I was reluctant to wash, and that slightly smelly room, where only the piano kept me company all night.

Fortunately, as a youth skilled in basketball, I could quickly make friends, and the guys on the court were always willing to team up with me. I used to spend a lot of time sweating it out on the basketball court at Jiangxi Normal University. I’ve played with many college guys who loved basketball, and I liked walking through the alleys with a basketball, looking around and exploring.

Back then, a sneaker store caught my attention. It had various signature basketball shoes and many branded running shoes, all at very cheap prices. My encounter with the store owner seemed fated and it marked many firsts in my life — I bought my first pair of New Balance running shoes with my living expenses, learned to play ‘Dou Di Zhu’ [a popular card game] for the first time, tried beer, and also became a shop assistant selling shoes for the first time.

The shoes I bought were incredibly cheap, less than two hundred yuan. Logically, branded running shoes couldn’t be that cheap. Later, I learned that some shoes deemed defective by the brand were cut in half, then these defective pairs were picked out, mended, and resold. The shoes were indeed genuine and had no major issues, except for having been ‘in an accident’ and reprocessed, so they were very cheap. Other signature and limited edition shoes were what we now call ‘A-grade’ counterfeits.  You could spend a little money to satisfy a craving, and I admit that vanity drove me to indulge a few times.

Now, about the three owners of the sneaker shop on Nanshi Road near the Normal University. All three were students at the Normal University. Xiao Lei was from Hubei, while Xiao Nan and Xiao Ping were from Henan. Usually, we played basketball in groups of four, so I joined their team and they gave me the nickname ‘Xiao Shuai.’ Xiao Lei and Xiao Ping were shorter but agile, I was of average height, and Xiao Nan was the tallest at 187cm. Our combination worked well together, with shooting, breaking through, inside and outside plays. The only downside was Xiao Nan’s slender build and his dislike for inside collisions, so many physical confrontations fell to me, the high school student, like grabbing rebounds and jostling for position.

I admired these three for starting a sneaker shop during university to lessen the burden on their parents. Later, I also took on some commercial work during my university days to supplement my pocket money, probably influenced by them. They took turns minding the store during their free time, and I would also hang out with them, watching games, discussing sneakers, and playing ‘Dou Di Zhu.’ Unless I got an unbeatable hand, I usually lost, with bets typically involving running errands, buying ice pops, or helping to mind the store for a few hours. The harshest bet was having to drink water and not being allowed to use the restroom if I lost…

Even though we were all poor kids, every day was filled with joy. Among us, Xiao Lei was the most cunning at playing cards. Quick-witted and clever, he truly embodied the saying ‘Nine-headed bird in the sky, Hubei guy on the ground’ (no offense intended). One habit of Xiao Lei left a deep impression on me. Around four or five in the afternoon, our usual time for basketball, if Xiao Lei wasn’t around, I’d call him to say we were heading to the court. He’d typically respond with, ‘You haven’t left yet? I’m already there,’ or ‘I’m just at the back door, almost there.’ At first, I believed him and hurried over, but upon arrival, he was nowhere to be found. I later realized this was his usual trick; often, he would still be at home when he said those things. After crying wolf too many times, I stopped believing him. So, whenever I was still at the shoe store, I would call him, saying, ‘I’m already at the court, where are you? Hurry up, or I’ll team up with someone else.’ Then I would leisurely make my way to the court—this was my first lesson in bluffing.

Xiao Ping loved hiking, and later on, I often saw his photos and videos from various treks. When I stayed at his place, we would talk at length about the power of walking. My tiny, smelly room always felt eerie when I was alone, so I frequently crashed at their place. During the summer, I slept in the living room on a bamboo mat. It was a bit hard, but at least I wasn’t lonely.

Xiao Nan, a tall and handsome guy standing at 187 cm, had a beautiful girlfriend. We used to be in touch quite a bit. While writing this article, I even called him. Funny enough, I had forgotten his name and only remembered he was from Luoyang, Henan. So, I searched ‘Henan Luoyang’ on WeChat and found his wife’s account, which led me to him. Talking to an old friend after so many years still felt incredibly warm, especially since we shared carefree times together.

He and his girlfriend, who started dating in university, are now happily married with kids. He told me Xiao Lei and Xiao Ping also married their university sweethearts. Thinking back, I realize I witnessed three ‘love marathons’ unfold, and I’m genuinely happy for them.

My first drinking experience was egged on by these three older guys, accompanying barbecue with a beer from Nanchang. It tasted so bitter, and I wondered how anyone could enjoy it. One beer turned my face red, and after two, I was fast asleep back in my room. Though I missed their weddings, the warmth of these memories stays with me, and I wish them well.

Throughout life, we meet various people. Good or bad, each one contributes to our growth. We’ve fallen into pits dug by others and been helped out by kind souls; we’ve offered warm embraces to friends and occasionally indulged in late-night soulful talks. Sometimes, we’ve been beaten down by rivals, left bruised and battered. But that’s when we lie down and read more books so that we will be regarded as ‘intellectual’ later.

The modestly decorated shoe store no longer exists. When we pulled down its heavy gates for the last time, our memories were sealed in our hearts. Like dandelion seeds, we scattered to the ends of the earth, each of us planting tiny seeds that continue to thrive.

2008 was the year of the Beijing Olympics. I took my college entrance exams, full of hope for the future, dreaming of attending a top university in a bustling city. But the exams were just the beginning of a thrilling life ahead, with many more challenges awaiting us. May we all strive our hardest on the paths ahead, with no regrets. May we have the courage to climb mountain after mountain!

Good luck with your exams! May all your wishes come true!

(Source of images: Internet)


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1 月 前

Xiao Shuai is indeed veru shuai