Newton Niu: A Chinese Boy
 by Yafei Hu
Yafei Hu 2002
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“Under the sun, Fiction walks by, dragging its long, dark shadow. You hear onlookers cry out, ‘That can’t be Reality!’” --the author

It was almost noon. The ocean was making its loud murmuring noise, welling up layers of colors: one moment it was snow white, another moment it was light blue or jade green. All was pleasant. Once in a while, waves gathered strength, rose up high, and crashed down flat. The thundering sound they made sent a chill through you.

Slowly, he walked towards the ocean, then he turned around and walked towards us. The sun was blazing above him, burying his face in shadow. We couldn’t see the expression on his face.

His mother, Huifen, and I were lying on the beach, basking in the sun.

“Mother, I’m going.” He stood next to Huifen, looking down and hunching his shoulders a little as usual. Now, looking back, I know he must have wanted to bring his face closer to his mother’s.

“All right, all right. Get in quickly while the water is good.” Huifen was hurrying him, obviously having in mind the rainy weather that we had had since our arrival.

It was the first time that Huifen and I had gone to Bush Island together. My in-laws have a summer house on Bush Island, near Wave Beach. My husband and I often invited friends to spend a few days there with us. This time, Huifen asked to come, so I came with her. We were spending four days there, but it had rained for three. Luckily, on our last day on the island, the sun came out, bright and hot. Newton Niu finally opened his mouth, broke his silence, and wanted to go swimming.

Huifen acted like she couldn’t wait to get rid of her son. I knew it was because she didn’t want him to miss the sun and the fun.

Newton Niu walked toward the ocean again.

In the sunlight, his body looked skinny, and his complexion pale to the point of transparency. He had a habit of hunching his shoulders when he walked; his neck stuck out slightly with each step. I could see his spinal bones moving under his skin from his neck to his waist. From behind, he looked much older than fourteen. He picked up his legs a little higher than necessary, and he completed each step carefully. It seemed that he was trying to leave behind a line of deep footprints.

It was following this line of deep footprints, after how long I don’t know, that Huifen and I went to look for Newton. The footsteps disappeared at the water line. We were lost. We knew where he had entered the ocean, but we couldn’t figure out where he had gone.

When the life guards found him, he was already dead. Soon, everybody on Bush Island knew that a Chinese boy had drowned at Wave Beach.

To many people, it was just a tragic accident that Newton Niu was drowned, but to me, his Aunt Qinglian, it was quite different. There were chunks of lead in my heart, an extremely heavy burden of chunks of lead.

*      *      *      *      *     

Newton was a good friend of mine. He was the only fourteen-year-old-friend I had. He was very special to me, and he was quite different from other fourteen-year-old boys.

Speaking of Newton’s being different from others, I have to mention his father and his grandfather, who were also different from others. His father, Yongsheng Niu, wore a P.L.A.(People’s Liberation Army) uniform at a young age, but he never fought in any battles. He did, however, fight many battles with his pen: first he wrote a couple of biographies of famous generals, then he wrote several movie scripts about famous battles that the P.L.A. fought before liberation—that is, before 1949. After fighting these battles with his pen, he became famous himself. Then people knew that he was the son of the famous peasant writer, Tianli Niu, who lived in the countryside most of his life, and wrote a novel that sang the praises of China’s collective farms. Talking about these two—one army writer, one peasant writer—people often say, “Like father, like son.”

I came across Yongsheng Niu at a party of Chinese people in the town of C. I asked him some questions about the military and literature. We both enjoyed the conversation, and wanted to continue it. I became a frequent guest at the Niu residence, where I became acquainted with Huifen and Newton. I realized that Yongsheng didn’t really enjoy being in the U.S., but he couldn’t go back to China. According to the Chinese authorities, Yongsheng had “severely vilified” China’s military leaders in his last movie script. A Hong Kong university had invited him to visit, and then helped him to get to the U.S. Huifen and Newton joined him later. In the U.S., Yongsheng kept writing, hoping to eventually return to China. But writing in Chinese didn’t generate any income for his family. His writing was like “water far away that doesn’t quench the thirst right here.” Huifen became the family’s bread-winner. She worked long hours in a chain store that stayed open 24 hours a day. Newton was a seventh-grader in a public school in town. He was tall and skinny, and he often appeared shy and lonely. He attracted my attention for some reason that was hard to put into words.

I still clearly remember how I became involved in Newton’s life.

Just before Easter weekend, the seventh grade at Newton’s school put on a show. Newton was playing a part in it. All seventh-grade parents were invited to the show. Huifen mentioned this to me on the phone. She said Yongsheng would never “waste” his time on this kind of event, and she herself happened to be working the night shift. I said, “So what? Take a day off, Huifen. You both should go to the show. It’s important to Newton.” Later she called again and explained that it was a busy time for the store, and it was hard for her to take a day off. I didn’t insist on her going. I knew the real reason was financial: she didn’t want to lose a day’s pay.

Huifen was a good mother, and she thought of a way to solve the problem. She asked me, “Qinglian, can you go to the show?” I wasn’t surprised by her request; I had been thinking of going with him. I felt he needed somebody to be there for him. If it wasn’t Huifen or Yongsheng, it had to be me.

In the evening, I dressed carefully and drove with Newton to the school. We arrived an hour before the show started. I had never seen him so excited: he was scurrying around, either looking for his teacher to put make-up on him, or looking for his props and costume. He was even chatty with his fellow actors and actresses. During the show, I took lots of pictures. Newton must have been impressed by all the flashes my camera made, for he seemed very conscientious and dramatic in his role of farm boy.

After the show, I went up to him with a bouquet in my hands. “You’re great, Newton! I never knew you were such a talented actor. I’m very proud of you. Your parents are lucky to have a son like you.”

Newton lowered his head, apparently embarrassed by my compliment. At my last sentence, he seemed to have returned to his usual self, shy and lonely. I bent my knees a little, trying to see his face more clearly. I saw tears in his eyes. I put one arm around his shoulders, and pulled him toward me.

A black boy came over and said, “Hi, Plato. Well done!” He winked at Newton and then walked away with an elderly black lady, who seemed to be his grandma.

Newton didn’t say anything to the black boy. He didn’t seem to be in a talking mood. I felt that this was an opportunity to distract Newton from whatever sad thoughts he was having, and I asked him why he was called Plato. He said he didn’t know. Then he grabbed one of my hands and dragged me away from the crowd of student performers, each one of whom was a center of attention, surrounded by parents and grandparents.

On our way home, he was silent the whole time, holding the bouquet in front of him with both hands. He looked straight ahead at the road, and his chin touched the petals of a white lily when the car hit a bump. He sat like a statue.

A couple of days later, I told Huifen to come and get the pictures that I had taken at the show. Newton came too. Sitting on my couch, Huifen was looking at the pictures one by one and passing them to Newton, who was sitting next to her. He was putting them into a very neat pile. Handing him the last picture, Huifen turned to Newton and said, “These are good pictures. I’ll put them in an album.” I was surprised at her matter-of-fact, even nonchalant comment. I was worried about Newton’s feelings. Then I realized that it was typical of Huifen. She wouldn’t praise someone to their face, even if it was her son. It was not only typical of Huifen, it was typical of Chinese people.

Newton put his hand—the hand that was holding all the pictures—behind his back, and said in a rebellious tone, “Don’t show them to my father!”

“Why not? Are you crazy?” It wasn’t the first time that I heard Huifen using the word “crazy” when speaking to Newton. She always said it in a way that a fellow Chinese would interpret according to the saying, “care shown by beating, and love shown by harsh words.”

Newton seemed determined not to show the pictures to his father. He jumped up from the couch and ran towards the front door, saying, “I won’t show him. I won’t...”

I took a few quick steps and caught him by the sleeve. I said, “How about this, Newton: I’ll keep them for you. I promise your father won’t see them.”

He handed the pictures to me and came back to the couch. I saw Huifen looking at him with frustration, and spitting out that all-too-familiar word, “Crazy!”

*      *      *      *      *     

One day, I got an e-mail message from Newton. He wrote,

Dear Aunt Qinglian,

Remember you asked me why my friends call me Plato? In your opinion, which name is better, Newton Niu or Plato?

I didn’t know how to answer such a strange question. Huifen once told me that Newton’s Chinese name, Xiaojie, was hard for Americans to pronounce, and Yongsheng gave him the English name Newton, after Isaac Newton. I decided to reply as follows:

Your name, Newton Niu, shows your parents’ high hopes for you. I bet you like the name your parents gave you better than the names others give you—no matter what they are. Am I right?

The next message I got from him was a long letter. I was shocked as I read it:

Dear Aunt Qinglian,

You’re wrong. I hate all my names, whether they were given to me by my parents or by my “friends.” None of them is the real me. The Newton that my father had in mind—the famous scientist—is long gone, not to mention that my name becomes a tongue-twister when “Newton” is followed by “Niu.” I don’t want to be a replacement of the dead Newton. Nor do I want to be the carrier of my parents’ hopes, high or low. Does anybody ever care what hopes I have?

Hopes don’t belong to me. Nor does my body: my father “repaired” me yesterday. He said I was becoming hunch-backed. He wanted me to sit, to stand, and to walk with a straight back, acting more like a man, “especially a Chinese man in a foreign country.” When I said I didn’t know what he meant, he pushed me against a wall, and commanded that I stand with my shoulders and back touching the wall. I found myself hating him afterwards. I wish he gave me a chance to explain that I walk that way because that’s how all the boys in my school walk, and it’s cool to walk that way. I’m not a cool kid at school, but I want to be cool. I don’t want to be a Chinese man in a foreign country. I want to be what I want to be.

You probably don’t know, Aunt Qinglian, that I don’t have any friends in school. Everybody makes fun of my name and says I’m a “nerd.” They call me “Plato” because I gave the correct answer when the teacher asked, “who was Plato?.” When she asked the question, the class was silent for a while. Finally Antonio, the black boy you saw at the show, said that maybe Plato was the guy who invented play dough. I raised my hand when the whole class was shouting, “Yeah, yeah,” and gave the answer I should never have given. They call me by that name not because they respect that person for his wisdom, nor because they respect me for my knowledge. In their eyes—and perhaps in the eyes of many other people, including my parents—I’m not worthy of respect. I’m nothing.

Aunt Qinglian, I love you for your love of the world. I’ve tried to love this world, but I’ve never succeeded. I felt your love for the world from the bouquet you gave me. You probably feel that the world is like your flowers, full of life and color. If I have any hopes, I hope to love this world as much as you do. But I don’t have any hopes—none at all. I often think of escaping this world and going to another world.

Reading these words, especially the last line, I felt a surge of fear. When I resumed reading, my eyes immediately caught the following lines:

I often find myself creating my own escapes—my own worlds. My novels, my science fiction, and my computer games are all escapes, all my own worlds. I wish I never had to leave those worlds. I wish I could always be in a world of my own.

At the end of the letter, he wrote, “Yours Sincerely, Jeremy,” and explained in a P.S. note,

Jeremy is my only good friend. He’s Jewish. Last year, he went traveling with his father. I know he won’t be back for a while, so I borrowed his name. Aunt Qinglian, can you call me Jeremy too? That way, in this world of my own, Jeremy will be known to at least two people, you and me.

He didn’t forget to include one last line: “Please don’t tell my parents about this letter. Jeremy trusts you.”

After reading Newton’s letter, I didn’t know what to do. My instinct told me I couldn’t show it to Yongsheng. I knew his temperament; if he heard about this, he would “repair” Newton, believing that “it’s the father’s fault if the son doesn’t behave.” I decided that I would tell only Huifen.

Huifen was in tears before I finished translating Newton’s letter. She sat in front of my computer and sobbed. I could hardly make out what she was saying. “Yongsheng is trying to help. He means well. But, but Newton doesn’t understand. What went wrong? What went wrong?” I could tell Huifen was a traditional Chinese woman. Her respect for her husband often challenged her love for her son, and she often sacrificed love for respect.

I asked, “Huifen, Why don’t you two find an excuse to take Newton out, to go somewhere, to do something together, so you can all relax a little.”

“Now that you mention it, we do have an excuse. It’s Newton’s birthday next Friday. Usually on his birthday, Yongsheng either says “why bother to make a fuss over a birthday?” or, “there’s no need to waste money on things that have only superficial value.” He likes to tell Newton that when he was little, he only had one bowl of noodles and one hard-boiled egg on his birthday.”

I said to Huifen, “This time we’ll do things differently. We’ll throw a big party for him.” Huifen’s response was that she had no space in her home to hold a party. I said we could rent a room from the Community Center, where they had pool tables, ping-pong tables, pianos, etc. We would invite as many people as possible. When I saw Huifen hesitating, worried by the phrase “rent a room,” I said, “Huifen, I’ll pay for it. You’ll do the preparation. Let’s do it for Jeremy’s sake, okay?” I didn’t forget to tell her that she should never reveal the fact that she knew his secret name, Jeremy. Huifen smiled and said that she couldn’t pronounce “Jeremy” correctly even if she wanted to.

*      *      *      *      *     

Many people came to Newton’s birthday party. Most of them were friends of Huifen’s and mine. Of course, they brought their children with them. Quite a few of the children were about Newton’s age. We succeeded in persuading Yongsheng to show up. He did show up, but I could read in his face the comment, “how can one spoil a child like this?”

The room we rented was big. It had tall windows on three walls. Huifen spent a whole afternoon hanging colorful ribbons on the ceiling and tying bunches of balloons to both sides of each window. A big table stood in the middle of the room, covered with a light blue cloth—that was Newton’s favorite color. On the table was a birthday cake twelve inches in diameter and three inches high. On the cake was written, “Celebrate! Your Fourteenth Year of Life!” It was my idea to have this—instead of “Happy Birthday, Newton”—written on the cake. Huifen understood why. The room had a piano, a ping-pong table, and a pool table, each occupying a corner. In the last corner, there were a few metal chairs lined up against the wall. Everything was ready.

When the party started, the guests gathered around the table and sang Happy Birthday, and of course Newton blew out the candles and cut the cake. Slightly embarrassed, he walked away from the table after his job was done. While the guests followed his lead and walked away from the table with cake on their plates or in their mouths, I went up to Newton and whispered, “Happy birthday, Jeremy!” He smiled at me knowingly, but he didn’t stop retiring to one of the chairs in the corner. I saw him sitting there, watching his guests playing in other corners of the room. I hesitated a little, but decided to go and join him.

All of a sudden, I heard music. It was Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” I turned around and saw Wu Meng at the piano. A group of adults and kids were standing around the piano. Wu Meng’s parents were friends with Huifen and me. Wu Meng was one year older than Newton. They both came to the U.S. at the age of nine. Wu Meng was now an eighth-grader in a private school. He was becoming a good pianist. I wouldn’t have believed that the music I heard was being played by a fifteen-year-old if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I couldn’t help but stop and listen to the music.

When Wu Meng was about to finish and people were about to clap, I heard a man’s voice from behind saying, “Look at Wu Meng, then look at yourself, a chicken-hearted loner. It’s your...”

I clapped with all my might, hoping that the clapping would cover Yongsheng’s criticism. In the meantime, I hurried towards Newton’s corner.

But it was too late. Newton had already stood up from his chair and stormed out of the room. My instinct told me to follow him, but Yongsheng stopped me and said, “Don’t bother. Who does he think he is, throwing a temper tantrum!” I had to stop and talk to Yongsheng about doing things the right way.

Before long, Newton was back and standing in front of Yongsheng and me. He was dressed all in white—white pants and white top buttoned in front from below the waist to under the chin. A bright yellow sash went around his waist like a belt, except there was a neatly tied knot on the left side of his waist. He looked into my eyes and said, or rather announced, in an unusually loud voice, “Aunt Qinglian, I want to show you my karate moves. I was promoted to Yellow Belt yesterday.” He sounded determined and he looked handsome. I had goose bumps all over me.

“Great! Let’s have it!” I, too, announced in a loud voice.

He started after everybody had come over and formed a circle. For about thirty or forty seconds, he stood in the middle of the circle, making long, deep breaths; his back couldn’t have been straighter. Then slowly he raised both arms in front of him, and stretched them out towards both sides of his body in a beautifully controlled way. What followed was a series of quick moves of arms and legs, and a series of powerful punches and kicks. Every turn of his body was fast and firm; every move was accompanied by a whizzing sound. I was so surprised to see a completely different Newton that I started cheering.

Newton seemed to be totally oblivious of his audience. I saw him jump high in the air and kick his chair with both feet. “Crack!” He kicked the chair onto its side and stood in front of it. Then he began banging the chair with his fists. They fell on the chair like raindrops, and his breathing sounded like a bellows.

“Stop it, you idiot!” It was Yongsheng’s voice. Newton didn’t seem to hear his father at all. He continued banging the chair, and his hands started bleeding. Suddenly I saw Huifen dash into the circle and hold Newton by the waist with both of her arms. Then Yongsheng joined her. Together, they dragged Newton away from the crowd and out of the room.

*      *      *      *      *     

It had been two weeks since Huifen and I contacted each other. I knew it was a difficult time for the family, and I knew I shouldn’t get involved. Yet in the back of my mind, I had been expecting e-mail messages from Newton. I had the feeling that he wanted to talk to me.

He did finally write, as I had expected. It was on a Thursday.

Aunt Qinglian, this is probably the last message you will get from me. At nine o’clock tonight, my father will confiscate my keyboard. He has been pressuring me to write a self-criticism for what I did at the party. He said I embarrassed him in public.

All I did was what I felt like doing at the moment. Why do I have to write a self-criticism? Why didn’t he ever write a self-criticism when he embarrassed me in public? He embarrasses me very much when he eats in a restaurant, picking up his plate, shoveling Lo Mein into his mouth, making loud slurping sounds. Nothing is fair in the Niu home, which is (unfortunately) where I live.

I’ve been sitting at the computer for several days, but I can’t produce what he wants. There are only a few hours left before I lose my keyboard, my computer, my escape and my other world.

Aunt Qinglian, where can I go after nine o’clock tonight?”

The message was signed, “Jeremy, your friend who is lost in this ugly world.”

I panicked. I said to myself, “I have to call Huifen.” But before I could call her, she called me from her store.

She sounded very upset and worried. “Qinglian, Yongsheng is driving his son to the wall, and he won’t listen to me. I would take my son away from him if I had a place to go. Qinglian, can we go to your in-laws’ island? Can we go there just for the weekend? I need your help. I’m going to ask for Monday off. Don’t invite Yongsheng, just the three of us. Could you...”

She was thinking out loud, and she sounded awful. It was about two weeks before my in-laws went to Bush Island. I decided I would go there with Huifen and Newton.

Thus, Huifen, Newton and I—just the three of us—went to Bush Island.

It rained for three days in a row. We were imprisoned in the house. The only thing we could do was to talk to Newton, and we did. Yet his face, like the weather, was dark and gloomy for three days. Thanks to the sun that came out on the last day, Newton smiled a pure smile, as pure as a baby’s. He said to Huifen, “Mother, I want to go swimming.” Huifen nodded like a hen picking up rice. She said, “yes, yes, we’re all going. You swim. We lie in the sun.”

It was almost noon. The ocean was making its loud murmuring noise, welling up layers of colors: one moment it was snow white, another moment it was light blue or jade green. All was pleasant. Once in a while, waves gathered strength, rose up high, and crashed down flat. The thundering sound they made sent a chill through you.

*      *      *      *      *     

My mother-in-law stopped by on her way home from Bush Island. She handed me a three-ring-binder that had a black vinyl cover and held some loose three-hole paper. She said, “When will you kick the habit of leaving notebooks behind? Mary found this one in the closet of the master bedroom.”

I used the master bedroom because my in-laws weren’t around. Mary was the lady who had cleaned the house for years, before and after each group of guests. I have the habit of scribbling on paper wherever I go. I also have the habit of leaving notebooks behind wherever I leave. My mother-in-law knew me well, and whenever she saw notebooks with ideogram scribbles, she saved them and brought them to me.

I took the notebook and said “thank you,” as I had done many times. But before I could put it away, I had a strange feeling.

I held the notebook carefully and opened it.

The first page was torn; somebody had tried to remove it, but didn’t do a neat job.

The second page had a line of nicely written Chinese characters across the top: “Aunt Qinglian, I’ve found a real other world, a beautiful and spacious other world. I’m going there. Yours, Jeremy.”

First published in Feng Hua Yuan (Issue 101, August, 1996)