Creative Non-Fiction: 'Return Receive'
Written by Zary Fekete
I live in the northern Beijing community of Tian Tong Yuan. The neighborhood is between the fifth and sixth ring roads, just to the northeast of the Olympic park which was built to commemorate the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Subway Line 5, also built in preparation for the games, stretches north and south through Beijing, and its last three northern stations service the Tian Tong Yuan community. If you are riding on the subway you will know you are nearing the northern end of the line when you see three tall apartment buildings, each with one of the three Chinese characters in the name Tian Tong Yuan or 天通苑. The characters translate into the phrase “Where sky passes into the garden,” which is an appropriate name for this bustling community which, fifteen years ago, was still all open fields.
Each neighborhood within the district has a wall surrounding it, and usually only one or two entrances. During Covid, the walls of my neighborhood were wound tight with razor wire, but some ambitious soul, not content to be caged, rigged a couple of ladders over the southern wall of the neighborhood, and when life under quarantine grew too much to take, I took my two, young sons for a hop over the ladders into the parking lot on the other side where we enjoyed the occasional impromptu game of frisbee, drawing cheerful looks and waves from our Chinese neighbors. We moved to Beijing eight years ago so I could teach at a local Chinese university.
One of the main features of our neighborhood is the local recycling center called “huishou” which is written with the Chinese characters 回收, which translates to “Return Receive”. The lady who works for the recycling center has a deeply lined face with sunburned skin and twinkling eyes. During our first week of living in the neighborhood she flagged me and my sons over to her with a friendly holler. I couldn’t yet speak any Mandarin, but she quickly made it clear what she wanted as she gestured at the two empty water bottles my sons had just finished drinking. They shyly handed her the bottles and she promptly gave them each a one mao coin. She chuckled as she saw their eyes brighten. It was their first Chinese money.
Over the course of the next few years, I learned there was nothing I couldn’t bring her for recycling. After our first month in our apartment, our bathroom required major renovation. Our landlord sent in a handyman who gutted the small room, replaced everything including the sink and the toilet, and retiled it all within two days. The handyman took everything away when he was finished except the toilet, which he left on its side in the hallway outside the apartment. After awhile I grew tired of looking at the dirty thing, and I lugged it down to the recycling center. The recycling lady saw me coming and quickly hurried over. I offered to help her carry it, but she waved me away and boosted the bowl of the toilet onto her hip. The toilet disappeared into the massive pile of other accumulated material from the neighborhood and she pressed a wadded-up bill into my hand.
“Xie xie,” I said. (One of the first and most important phrases a foreigner can learn in Mandarin.)
“Bu ke qi,” she said. The phrase means “you’re welcome”, but its direct translation is, “don’t be polite”. Over the course of the next few years I became more and more comfortable following the advice of the direct translation. My family and I quickly became friendly with her. Her name was Zhi Hua. She became one of the regular people I visited as I gradually improved in my Mandarin. I learned that she came to Beijing thirty years ago from her hometown province of Anhui. Most of her family was still back in her hometown, including her daughter, who was taking care of Zhi Hua’s aging mother. This, I would learn, not a common situation. It is usually the younger people who leave a hometown for the big city while their parents stay behind to care for the elderly. But Zhi Hua seemed to have the true spirit of her name in her. Zhi Hua translates to “flowery ambition.”
This year, just after the Chinese New Year festival, I came down from my apartment with a pile of cardboard I was hoping to recycle. I was surprised to see a young man manning the station. He hurried over to help me and quickly sorted through the stack, giving me a handful of coins in exchange.
“Where is Zhi Hua?” I asked.
“In her home town,” he said.
“Will she be back?”
He shook his head. “Her daughter had a baby.”
When I got back to the apartment I told my wife. We both felt sad. At the same time, this was a familiar pattern. The neighborhood of Tian Tong Yuan has been described by a number of Chinese sociological experts as the largest subdivision in Asia, with over 80,000 people living in this dense development of apartment buildings, streets, and stores. It isn’t surprising for someone to live here for a couple of years and then move on to other horizons. But Zhi Hua had seemed different, having lived in Beijing for so many years.
Later, I passed the recycling center again on my way to the store, and waved to the young man. I noticed the characters for the center again. 回收. “Return Receive”. As I walked away I thought of another familiar Mandarin phrase with the same first character: 回家. It was the phrase he used when he told me about Zhi Hua. “Hui jia”. It means “Return home.”
About the Author
Zary Fekete grew up in Hungary, has a novelette (In the Beginning) out from ELJ Publications and a debut novella being published in early 2024 with DarkWinter Lit Press. Zary also enjoys books, podcasts, and many many many films.