JIERU ZHOU was born and raised in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. She came to the United States in 2000 and moved to Hong Kong in 2010. She began her writing career in 1991 and won The Bud Award for Fiction in 1996. She is currently living in Hong Kong and is the vice editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Literature.
Read a section from Jieru Zhou’s story:
THE HOUSE IN AVENEL
by Jieru Zhou
Translated by Ying Alexandra Cao
A little bear and a little tiger lived in a little house; they were best friends. One day they found a crate of bananas in the river; it came from Panama. They decided to go to Panama, the land of their dreams. They met many animals on their way, a fox and a crow, a hedgehog and a hare. When the little bear and the little tiger asked for the way to Panama, all the animals told them to turn left. If you keep on turning left, where would you end up? Yes, quite correct. Finally, the little bear and the little tiger had returned to their home. As time went by, their house was rather weather beaten, so they couldn’t recognize it. But they were very happy; they thought this place was the land of their dreams, Panama.(1)
I often dreamed about the house I used to live in when I was in China. I dreamed about its front and back door. I saw my green mailbox and I opened it again and again. I discovered outdated newspapers and magazines, all soaked by rain or snow. When I was twenty, I left that house and moved to California. Within California, I moved several times. I moved a lot after leaving California until I finally settled down in Avenel, New Jersey. Right after I crammed my old furniture inside my new house in Avenel, I started dreaming about the place where I was born and raised. I never dreamed about any of the other houses.
You think they might just as well have stayed home all this time; you think they didn’t need to take a trip to Panama at all.
You are wrong.
Because then they would never have met the fox and the crow, they would never have met the hedgehog and the hare, and they would never have realized how comfortable a homey, soft, plushy sofa could be.
Avenel was full of Indian and Pakistani people. If someone wanted to be close to fellow Chinese people, Avenel was not the place. But I went out to the world to meet a fox, a crow, a hedgehog, and a hare. I met Anita and May in Avenel. Anita was Polish and May was Indonesian. They lived among foreigners so they were used to speaking English.
Anita was the kind of person you could hit off with instantly. The first time we met, she told me that her husband was twenty years older than her. I felt like she told me this information way too soon, and I didn’t know how to respond. I made a funny face and gave her a compliment. I think I said that an older man was more likely to be wiser and know how to love someone better.
I remember that Anita winked at me.
May had two kids, aged one and three. Every morning at seven, she put her two children in the car, strapped them in their car seats, and drove her husband to the train station. In the afternoon, when the kids took a nap, she went outside to her small yard and did chores. I passed by one day while she was washing her car. We greeted each other.
“Have a cup of tea with me,” she said. “These cookies are best with tea.” It turned out that she was selling homemade cookies. “Ten dollars for a huge jar.” She made an exaggerated expression, “delicious and it’s a good price.”
She was wearing a loose frock, probably without a bra underneath. Her hair was dry and frizzy. She obviously didn’t take care of herself. Her house was clean and neat, though. The windows were so clean that I barely noticed their existence. The sofa was white, soft, and plushy. The car parked in the short drive way was white, too. It’s hard to keep everything white when you have two kids.
And then they mended their house. Everything was just as good as it used to be. The little bear went fishing and the little tiger went looking for mushrooms. In fact, it was even better than it used to be because they bought themselves a soft, plushy sofa. They thought their little house amongst the bushes was the most beautiful place in the whole world. “Panama is the land of our dreams, and we can stay here forever and ever.”
I paid for the jar of cookies. They were really good.
If I had to choose whether to speak to Anita or May, I would choose May. Anita made me nervous, while May was more level-headed.
(1). This paragraph is the synopsis of Janosch’s famous children’s book, The Trip to Panama. Janosch (born March 11, 1931) is one of the best-known German artists and children’s book authors. The author of this story retold Janosch’s story after she read a Chinese translation of The Trip to Panama.