By: Han Han
Translated by: Margaret Xuanyi Lu
Many people do not know this, but I was the class representative for math in elementary school. Afterwards, due to my carelessness and my preference for writing, I didn’t do as well in math anymore. Shortly after that, I met my first girlfriend, ‘Z’, who ranked among the top three students in our school. Z was the kind of girl who could solve the hardest geometry question on any math test using several different methods. I was the kind of guy who wanted to disregard calculations and simply use a measuring instrument to find the answer.
With Z’s grades, she was bound to be accepted into one of the city’s best high schools. However, she was also very proud and would never let anything interfere with her schoolwork. Even if I did well, the best high school I could hope to get accepted to would have been a high-ranking community high school. I knew that Z would never deliberately do worse so that we could attend the same high school. All I could do was to work hard myself. Never believe people who tell you that distance isn’t a problem in love. You’re not mistaken if you thought that this story sounds like the plot of my novel Triple Door. The only exception is that in Triple Door, the love interest intentionally does poorly on the high school admission test out of love for the protagonist. The protagonist, however, somehow manages to excel on the test and is consequently accepted into one of the city’s best high school. Being able to fantasize these clichés is one of the greatest explicit rights of a writer.
At that time, love was by far more powerful than the advice of parents or teachers. I started to pay attention in class, preview lessons and review course material. After working hard for a while, I finally achieved a perfect score on a math test for once.
Yes, a perfect score. Remember that I was in a special class back then, which was supposed to feature an accelerated curriculum designed for the academically gifted. I vaguely remember that there were only three or four students who achieved a perfect score on that test. When the teacher announced that I had a perfect paper, the entire class was shocked. I gazed out the window and thought the tree leaves were exceptionally green that day; even the flocking birds looked bigger than usual. The first thing I did after hearing the news was to borrow a sheet of paper from a classmate. I began writing a love letter that I planned to give Z after school. I didn’t even care that I was writing embarrassing phrases such as ‘Don’t forget me’ and ‘Everything is up to destiny.’ In that brief moment, my passion for math even exceeded my love for Chinese.
Then an incident occurred, leaving a shadow that would follow me for the rest of my youth. I remember that after the teacher handed back our test papers, she said, “Han Han did unusually well this time. I hope he didn’t cheat.”
My classmates immediately began to murmur and I even heard some words of agreement.
I hastily responded, “Teacher, the other two students with perfect scores sat far away from me. It would have been impossible for me to copy off them.”
She said, “You didn’t have to look at their papers. The students sitting beside you usually do better in than you. You might have copied from them.”
“How is that possible? Their scores weren’t as high as mine,” I shot back.
The teacher parried, “Perhaps you were fortunate enough to miss their incorrect answers and find the correct solutions yourself.”
“Teacher, please ask the students around me if I copied off them.”
“You’re the one who cheated, not them. How would they know what you did?”
“Then bring me to your office and I’ll do the test again.”
“You already know the questions and answers. Even another perfect score wouldn’t prove anything. We can give it a try though.”
This is just a brief summary; I don’t clearly remember every word, as this happened sixteen or seventeen years ago. So, with everyone’s eyes on me, I went to the teacher’s office to take the test again.
Because I had already taken the test, everything went well. I only got stuck in one place—the printing services back then were very rough, and sometimes the numbers weren’t clear. Naturally, I asked the teacher what one of the numbers was.
Upon hearing this, my teacher immediately took away my paper and said: “You cheated, or else you would have remembered what number it was. You already did the test once, how can you not remember? You must have cheated on this question.” She even produced my neighbor’s test and pointed to the same question. “See? He answered it correctly. In your paper, you answered correctly as well. That is my evidence.”
I was desperate. “I only remember how I solved the questions, not the questions themselves.” I then covered up some numbers on the test. “Tell me what these numbers are. You were the one who wrote the test.”
She couldn’t answer. After a while, she stuttered something like, “Stop making up excuses.” She then proceeded to phone my father, who was at work.
My father immediately cycled to the school and asked the teacher what had happened. “Your son cheated on a test,” she said, “I’ve confirmed it.” She started criticizing the way he supervised my education. I tried to interrupt, “Dad, I actually…”
Without a moment’s hesitation, my father threw me all the way out of the office. He has always hated cheating with a passion. My father was busy at work that day and was angry at being suddenly called to the school and criticized in front of many teachers. He yelled at me for a while, apologized to the teacher, and promised that he would educate me better in the future. I couldn’t say anything in my own defense.
My teacher then told the entire class I had cheated. Except for several of my best friends, everyone was happy to believe it. People who haven’t had this experience may find it difficult to understand my emotions. I think people who are wrongly accused easily develop a desire to take revenge. As I walked home, my fifteen-year-old self thought of ways to get even with my teacher, and some of these thoughts were even quite extreme. In the end, I did nothing, and I learned to forget. Why? Because ‘Z’ believed me.
When I went home, I gave my parents a full account of the story, and my father apologized to me. My parents weren’t very wealthy or powerful, so they didn’t dare anger my teacher. It was also difficult to prove such matters, so we chose to let it go. My parents said, “Achieve perfect scores a few more times to prove to them that you can do it.”
This reverse encouragement was not very useful. I felt disgusted whenever I went to math class or saw a math problem. Every time I opened my math textbook, I found it difficult to concentrate. After class, I wanted to leave right away. The leaves on the trees didn’t look as green anymore, and the passing birds felt much smaller than what they were before.
I never again achieved a perfect score in math. The only reason why I didn’t give up on math completely was that I still wanted to go to the same high school as Z. Fortunately, we weren’t learning any new material in math at that time. My confidence came solely from my vow to Z, my Chinese teacher’s approval of my writing, my publication of several articles, and the fact that I broke our regional record for long-distance running. Soon, we had to take the entrance exam for high school. My math score was… I’m sorry… It wasn’t perfect. I apologize to readers who wanted to hear a more inspirational story. However, my score wasn’t terrible either, so at least I hadn’t completely wasted those days.
In high school, I did miserably in math and science-related subjects. It wasn’t because I was evading the responsibility. Perhaps my life could have gone in a completely different direction after I achieved that perfect score in math. In some alternate universe, maybe I could have coded some of your favorite websites. Perhaps there would be a popular STEM genius and Weibo blogger called Han Han, who often wrote good pieces. He even built his own race car which produced an insufferable level of noise that his mother-in-law resented.
In that split second when I was drafting my love letter to Z to tell her the good news, my love for math and my confidence were both immense. Yet this confidence only lasted for a minute. Unfortunately, there is no ‘what if’ in life. Did I become a stronger person? Yes. I grew less concerned with the opinions of others and more determined to pursue my own passions. Did the incident affect me at all? I have to admit it did. I subconsciously carried my prejudice against this teacher into my early works, often critiquing and insulting all teachers. Many of my arguments were subjective and petty. My resentment against teachers was buried in my subconsciousness, so I could freely take revenge against the entire teaching profession. Very rarely will you see a teacher with a positive image in my novels. I didn’t recognize my prejudice when I first incorporated it into my novels and essays. Was my math teacher a bad person? That is not true either. She was disciplined, simple, strict and selfless. I later found out that she was experiencing problems in her marriage at that time. Perhaps she spoke thoughtlessly then but had to follow through in order to maintain her authority. As for me, even though I was wrongly accused, this incident changed my life. I consequently devoted all my energy to developing my more valuable talents. I love my current profession dearly, and I’m happy with my life. As for my classmates, most of them had forgotten the incident when we met in class reunions years later. People don’t usually remember the sufferings of others.
More than a decade later, I became a teacher myself. As a race driving coach, my students are only allowed to enter competitions with my explicit permission. When I sit in the race cars of my students and gaze out the window, the leaves on the trees are still their original shade of green, and the birds are still the size that they should be. There was a time when a student — who was usually very good — drove off the track due to nervousness. We looked at each other, stunned. He wiped the sweat from his brow and said, “Coach, I should have been able to control this turn at this speed. Yesterday I did it every time when I was practicing.” I told him, “I believe you. I saw you do it yesterday.”
Han Han (1982-) is one of China’s most famous contemporary writers. Han Han achieved fame at an early age with his publication of various essays and his renowned novel “San Chong Men”. In 2010, Han Han was listed on TIME Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people around the world. Currently a writer, filmmaker, and rally driver, Han Han is widely considered to be the voice of the new Chinese generation.
Margaret Xuanyi Lu is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. Her translation works have previously been published by the Asymptote Journal.