Ha Jin: A Pension Plan

IT WAS SAID that Mr. Sheng suffered from a kind of senile dementia caused by some infarction in his brain.  I was sure it was neither Parkinsons nor Alzheimers, because I had learned quite a bit about both during my training to be a health aide. He wasn’t completely disabled, but he needed to be cared for during the day.  I was glad to attend to him, because Id been out of work for more than three months before this job.

Every morning Id wash his face with a hand towel soaked withwarm water, but Id been told not to shave him, which only his family members could do.  He was sixty-nine, gentle by nature and soft-spoken. Hed taught physics at a middle school back in Changchun City three decades ago, but he couldn’t read his old textbooks anymore and was unable to remember the formulas and the theorems.  He still could recognize many words, though. He often had a newspaper on his lap when sitting alone.  My job was to cook for him, feed him, keep him clean, and take him around.  A young nurse came every other day to check his vital signs and give him an injection.  The twentysomething told me that actually there was no cure for Mr. Shengs illness, which the doctor could only try to control and slow down its deterioration. I felt lucky that my charge wasn’t violent like many victims of dementia.

Mr. Shengswife haddied longago, beforehe cameto theUnitedStates,buthe believed she was still alive.  Oftentimes he couldn’t remember her name, so every morning I let him look through an album that contained about two dozen photos of her and him together. In the pictures they were young and appeared to be a happy couple. She was a pretty woman, the kind of beauty with glossy skin and a delicate figure you often find in the provinces south of the Yangtze River. Sometimes when I pointed at her face and asked him, Whos this?” hed raise his eyes and looked at me, his face blank.

About a month after I started, his daughter, Minna, intervened, saying the photos might upset him and I shouldn’t show them to him anymore, so I put the album away.  He never complained about its absence.  Minna was a little bossy, but I didn’t mind.  She must have loved her dad.  She called me Aunt Niu.  That made me uneasy, because I had just turned forty-eight, not that old.

Part of my job was to feed Mr. Sheng.  I often had to cajole him into swallowing food.

Sometimes he was like a sick baby who refused to hold food in its mouth for long. I made fine


meals for him chicken porridge, fish dumplings, shrimp and tyro pottage, noodles mixed withshredded shiitake mushrooms, but in spite of his set of full teeth, he seemed unable to tell any difference among most of the foods.  A good part of his taste buds must have been dead. When eating, hed jabber between mouthfuls, his words by and large incomprehensible.  Yet once in a while hed pause to ask me, “See what I mean?”

Id keep mute. If pressed further, Id shake my head and admit, “No, I didn’t follow you.” “You always space out,” hedgrunt, then refuse to eat anymore.

Lunch usually took more than two hours. That didn’t bother me, since in essence, my job was just to help him while away time.  Due to his willfulness about food, I decided to eat my meal before feeding him.

After lunch we often went out for some fresh air, to do a little shopping and get that days World Journal; I pushed him in the wheelchair. Like a housewife, he was in the habit of clipping coupons.  Whenever he saw something for sale, he would cut the ad out of the paper and save it for Minna.  That made me feel that he must have been a considerate husband willing to share lots of things with his wife.  Now, with my help, he enjoyed frequenting the stores in Flushing.  For food he claimed he liked freshwater fish, perch, carp, eel, dace, bullhead, but he wouldn’t eat seafood,nothing from the sea but scallops.  The last was recommended by the young nurse because it contained little cholesterol.  She also told me to give him milk and cheese, but he disliked them.

One afternoon we went out shopping again. As we were approaching a newsstand on Main

Street, Mr. Sheng cried, “Halt!”

What?” I stopped in my tracks.  Peoplewere pouring out of the subway exit. “Wait here,” he told me.


“Shes coming.

I wanted to ask him more but held back. His mind could hardly take in a regular sentence. If

I asked him a question longer than ten words, he wouldn’t know how to answer.

More people were passing by, and the two of us stood in the midst of the dwindling crowd.

When no passenger came out of the exit anymore, I asked him, “Still waiting?”

Yeah. He rested his hands on his legs.  Beside him, a scrap of newspaper was taped to the

top horizontal bar of the wheelchair.

We must buy the fish, remember?”  I pointed at the ad.

He looked vacant, his pupils roving from side to side.  At this point the subway exit was again swarmed with people, and pedestrians were passing back and forth on the sidewalk.  To my amazement, Mr. Sheng lifted his hand at a young lady wearing maroon pants, a pink silk shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses.  She hesitated, then stopped.  What can I do for you, Uncle?” she said with a Cantonese accent.

“Seen my wife?” he asked. “Whos she?  Whats her name?”

He remained silent and turned his worried face up to me.  I stepped in and said, “Her name is Molei Wan. Not knowing how to explain further without offending him, I just winked at the





“I don’t know anyone who has that name.  She smiled and shook her dark-complected face. “Youre lying!” he yelled.

She glared at him, her nostrils flaring.  I pulled her aside and whispered, “Miss, dont take it to heart.  He has a mental disorder.

“If  hes a sicko, dont let him come out to make others unhappy. She shot me a dirty look

and walked away, her shoulder-length hair swaying.

Annoyed, I stepped back to his chair.  “Don’t speak to a stranger again,” I said.

He didn’t seem to understand, though he looked displeased, probably because he hadn’t caught sight of his wife.  I pushed him away while he muttered something I couldn’t catch.

The fish store was nearby, and we bought a large whitefish, a two-pounder. It was very fresh, with glossy eyes, full scales, and a firm belly. The young man behind the counter gutted it but left the head on, like I told him. By no means could Mr. Sheng eat the whole thing—I would cook only half of it and save the other half for the next day or later.  On our way back, he insisted on holding the fish himself.  I had tied the top of  the plastic bag, so I didn’t intervene when he let it lie flat on his lap.  Bloody liquid seeped out and soaked the front of his khaki pants, but I didn’t notice it.When wegot home, I saw the wet patch and thought he had peed.  Then I found that neither of his pant legs was wet.  You meant to create more work for me, eh?” I said.  Why didn’t you hold the fish right?”

He looked puzzled. Yet he must have meant to be careless with the fish, peeved that I hadntlet him wait longer outside the subway terminal.  I began undressing him for a shower, which I had planned to do that day anyway.  As for his pants soiled by the fish blood, Id wash them later.There was a washer upstairs on the first floor of the house, where his daughter lived with his twograndchildren and her husband, Harry, a pudgy salesman who traveled a lot and was not home most of the time.

I helped Mr. Sheng into the bathtub.  He held on to a walker with its wheels locked while Iwas washing him.  I first lathered him all over and then rinsed him with a nozzle.  He enjoyed the shower and cooperated as usual, turning this way and that.  He let out happy noises when I sprayedwarm water on him. He should be pleased, because few health aides would bathe their patients as carefully as I did. I had once worked in a nursing home, where old people were undressed and strapped to chairs with holes in the seats when we gave them showers. We wheeled them into a machine one by one.  Like in an auto bath, water would spurt at them from every direction. When we pulled them out, theyd hiccup and shiver like featherless turkeys.  Some of  the aides would let those they disliked stay there wet and naked for an hour or two.

After toweling Mr. Sheng, I helped him on with clean clothes and then combed his gray hair, which was still thick and hadnt lost its sheen. I noticed that his fingernails were quite long, with dirt beneath them, but the companys regulations didn’t allow me to clip them, for fear of a lawsuit if they got infected.  I told him, “Be a good boy.  I’m gonna make you a fish soup.

Yummy.   He clucked, showing two gold-capped teeth.


I COULDN’T DRIVE, so whenever Mr. Sheng went to see the doctor in the hospital, Minna would take both of us there in her minivan. She already had her hands full with her four-year-old twin boys and her job in a bank, and had to use a babysitter.   Her father didn’t believe in Western



medicine and becameunhappy whenever we visitedthe hospital. He might have his reasons - according to the young nurse who came every other day, acupuncture and medicinal herbs might be more effective in treating his illness.  But he would have to pay for the herbs since Medicare didn’t cover them.  Even so, hed make me push him from one herbal store to another, and sometimes he went there just to see how those doctors, unlicensed here because of their poor English, treated patients - feeling their pulses, performing cupping, giving therapeutic massages, setting bones.He couldn’t afford a whole set of herbs prescribed by a doctor, usually more than a dozen per prescription, but hed buy something from time to time, a couple of scorpions or centipedes, or a pack of ginseng beard, which is at least ten times cheaper than the roots and which he asked me to steep in piping-hot water to make a tea for him.  He would also have me bake and grind the insects and promise him never to disclose his taking them to Minna, who regarded Chinese medicine as quackery.  I had no idea if centipedes and scorpions could help him, but whenever he ate a few, hewould grow animated for hours, his eyes shedding a tender light while color came to his face. Hed sing folk songs, one after another.  He always got the lines garbled, but the melodies were there. Familiar with those songs, I often hummed along with him.

Together wed sing: As the limpid brook is babbling east, / I shall keep your words secret and sweet. Or, A little pouch with a golden string, / Made for me by the village girl / Who smiles like a blooming spring.

But often I wasn’t so happy with him. Most of the time he was difficult and grouchy and would throw a tantrum out of the blue.  Because Medicare covered acupuncture, he went to a clinic for the treatment regularly.  The only acupuncturist within walking distance and listed by the program was Dr. Li, who practiced in one of  the tenements on Forty-sixth Avenue.  I often missed his office when I took Mr. Sheng there because those brick buildings appeared identical.  One afternoon as I was pushing him along the sidewalk shaded by maples with purple leaves, he stopped me, saying we had just passed Dr. Lis clinic.  I looked around and figured that he might be correct, so we turned and headed for the right entrance.

Excited about my mistake, he told the doctor I was “a dope”. Lying on a sloping bed with needles in his feet, he pointed at his head and said, “My memorys better now.

“Indeed,” Dr. Li echoed, “you’ve improved a lot.

I hated that donkey-faced man, who lied to him. Mr. Sheng couldn’t even remember what hed eaten for lunch. How could anyone in his right mind say his memory had gotten better? He smiled like an idiot, his face showing smugness. I was pretty sure that he had identified the right entrance only by a fluke.  Outraged, I flopped down into his wheelchair and pretended to be trembling like him.  I groaned, “Oh, help me!  Take me to Dr. Li. I need him to stick his magic needles into my neck.

Li laughed, quacking like a duck, while Mr. Sheng fixed his eyes on me like a pair of tiny arrowheads.  Red patches were appearing on his cheeks and a tuft of hair suddenly stood up on his crown.  That frightened me and I got out of the chair. Even so, I couldn’t help but add, Take me back, I can’t walk by myself.

I shouldn’t have aped him.  For the rest of the day he went on jerking his head away from me,

even though I cooked his favorite food–chicken porridge with chestnuts in it. I thought he must




hate me and would make endless trouble for me.  But the next morning he was himself  again and

even gave me a smile of recognition when I stepped into his quarters in the basement.



Mr. SHENG DEVELOPED a strange habit–he would preventme fromleavinghim alone and want me to sit by him all the time.  Even when I went upstairs to launder his clothes, hed get impatient, making terrible noises. He just needed my attention, I guessed. When I walked out of his room, I could feel his eyes following me.  And he had become more obedient at mealtimes and would swallow whatever I fed him. One morning I asked him teasingly, pointing at my nose, Whatsmy name?”

He managed to say, “Jufen.

I gave him a one-armed hug, thrilled that hed remembered my name. To be honest, I liked to stay with him, not only because I got paid eight dollars an hour but also because his fondness for me made my work easier. It took less time to feed and bathe him now.  He was so happy and mild these days that even his grandchildren would come down to see him. He also went up to visit themwhen his son-in-law wasn’t home.   Somehow he seemed afraid of Harry, a white man with thickshoulders, shortish legs, and intense blue eyes.  Minna told me that her husband feared that Mr. Sheng might hurt their children, and that Harry didn’t like the old mans smell.  But honest to God, in my care, my patient didn’t stink anymore.

He had quite a number of friends in the neighborhood, and we often went to a small parkon Bowne Street to meet them. They were all in their sixties or seventies, three or four womenwhile the other seven or eight were men.  But unlike my charge, they weren’t ill; they were more clearheaded.  Though Mr. Sheng could no longer chat with them, I could see that they used to bequite chummy.  Theyd tease him good-naturedly, but he never said anything and just smiled at them. One afternoon, Old Peng, a chunky man with a bullet-shaped head, asked him loudly, Whos this?  Your girlfriend?”  He pointed his thumb at me, its nail ringwormed like a tiny hoof.

To my surprise, Mr. Sheng nodded yes.

When are yougonna to marry her?” a toothless man asked.

“Next month?” a small woman butted in, holding a fistful of pistachios.

Mr. Sheng looked muddled while his friends kept rolling, some waving at me.  My face burning, I told them, “Don’t make fun of him.  Shame on you!”

“Shes fierce, said Old Peng.

“Like a little hot pepper,” another man echoed.

“Shes real good at protecting her man,” added the same woman.

I realized there was no way to stop them, so I told Mr. Sheng, “Come, letsgo home.

As I was pushing him away, more jesting voices rose behind us. I began to take him to the park less often; instead wed go to the Flushing Library.  He liked to thumb through the magazines there, especially those with photographs.

One morning, as I was scrubbinghim inthe bathtub, hegraspedmy handand pulled it toward him slowly but firmly.  I thought he needed me to check a spot bothering him, but to my astonishment, he pressed my hand on his hairy belly, then down to his genitals.  Before I could pull

it back, he began mumbling.  I looked up and saw his eyes giving out a strange light, some sparks




flitting in them. Wordlessly I withdrew my hand and went on spraying water on his back.  He kept saying, “I love you, I love you,you know.

Hurriedly I toweled him and helped him into a change of clean clothes. I didn’t say a wordthe whole time, but my mind was in turmoil.  How should I handle this?  Should I talk to his daughter about this turn of events?  He wasn’t a bad man, but I didn’t love him. Besides our age difference, twenty-one years, I simply couldn’t imagine having an intimate relationship with a man again. My ex-husband had left me eight years ago for an old flame of his, a woman entrepreneur in the porcelain business in the Bay Area, and I was accustomed to living alone and never considered remarrying.  Id been treating Mr. Sheng well mainly with an eye to making him like and trust me so mywork would be easier, but now how should I cope with this madness?

Having no clue what to do, I pretended I didn’t understand him.  I began to distance myself from him and stay out of his way.  Still, I had to take him outdoors and I had to coax him like achild at mealtimes.  Also, hed break into a cry and let loose a flood of tears if I said something harsh to him.  Hed murmur my name in a soft voice –“Jufen... Jufen... as if chewing the word.  He could have been interesting and charming if he weren’t so sick. I felt sorry for him, so I tried to be patient.

About a week later, he began to touch me whenever he could.  Hed pat my behind when I stood up to get something for him. Hed also rest his fingers on my forearm as if to prevent me from going away and as if I enjoyed this intimacy.  Finally, one afternoon I removed his hand from the top of my thigh and said, “Takeyour paw off me. I don’t like it.

He was stunned, then burst out wailing. “No fun!  No fun!” he cried, pushing the air with his

open hand while his face twisted, his eyes shut.

Minna heard the commotion and came down, a huge bun of hair on top of her head.  At the

sight of her heartbroken father, she asked sharply, Aunt Niu, what have you done to him?” “He –he kept harassing me, making advances, so I just told him to stop.

What? Youre a liar.  He can hardly know who you are, how could he do anything like that?” Her fleshy face scrunched up, showing that she resolved to defend her fathers honor.

“He likes me, thats the truth.

“Hes not himself anymore.  How could he have normal feelings for you?” “He said he loved me.  Ask him.

She placed her hand, dimpled at the knuckles, on his bony shoulder and shook him.  “Dad, tell me, do you loveJufen?”

He looked at her blankly, as if in confusion.  I hated him for keeping mute and humiliating me like this.

Minna straightened up and said to me, “Obviously you are lying.  You hurt him, but you pinned the blame on him.

“Damn it, I told you the truth!” “How can you prove that?”

“If you don’t believe me, all right, I quit. Iwas surprised by what I said; this job was precious

to me, but it was too late to retract my words.

She smirked, fluttering her mascaraed eyelashes.  Who are you?   You think youre so




indispensable that the Earth will stop spinning without you?”

Speechlessly, I walked into the doorway to collect my things.  It was late afternoon, almost time to call it a day.  I knew Minna had befriended Ning Zhang, the owner of my agency; they both came from Nanjing.  The bitch would definitely bad-mouth me to that man to make it hard for me to land another job.  Even so, I had to keep up appearances and would never beg her to take me back.

I didn’t eat dinner, and I wept for hours that night.  Yet I didn’t regret having given Minna a piece of my mind.  As I anticipated, my boss, Ning Zhang, called early the next morning and told me not to go to work anymore.


FOR SEVERAL DAYS I stayed homewatchingTV. I likedKoreanand Taiwanese shows, but I wanted to learn some English, so I watched soaps, All My Children and General Hospital, which I could hardly understand.  Using a friend as an interpreter, I talked to Father Lorenzo of our church about my job loss; he said I shouldn’t lose heart.  “God will provide, and you’ll find work soon, he assured me.  At the moment you should use the free time to attend an English class here.

I didn’t reply and thought, Easier said than done. At my age, how can I learn another language from scratch? I couldn’t even remember the order of the alphabet. If only I were thirty years younger!

Then one evening Ning Zhang called, saying hed like to have me take care of  Mr. Sheng again. Why? I wondered to myself. Didn’t they send over another health aide? I asked him, What happened?  Minnas not angry with me anymore?”

“No.  She just has a short temper, you know that.  Truth be told, sinceyou left, her dad often refused to eat, sulking like a child, so we want you to go back.

What makesyou think I’ll do that?”

“I know you. Youre kindhearted and will never see an old man suffer and starve because of your self-pride.

That was true, so I agreed to restart the next morning. Ning Zhang thanked me and said hed

give me a raise at the end of the year.

Minna was quite friendly when I returned to work.  Herfather resumed eating normally, though he still wouldn’t stop saying he loved me and he would touch me whenever he could.  I didn’t reproach him—I just avoided body contact so I might not hurt his feelings again.  To be fair, he was obsessed but innocuous.  It was the incurable illness that had reduced him to such a wreck; otherwise, some older woman might have married him willingly. Whenever we ran into a friend of his on the street or in the library, Mr. Sheng would say I was his girlfriend. I was embarrassed but didn’t bother to correct him.  Therere things that the more you try to explain, the more complicated they become.  I kept mum, telling myself I was only doing my job.

Once in a while he would get assertive, attempting to make me touch his genitals when I bathed him, or trying to fondle my breasts. He even began calling me “my old woman. Irritated, I griped to Minna in private, “We have to find a way to stop him or I can’t continue to work like this.Aunt Niu, she sighed, “let us be honest with each other. I’m terribly worried, too. Tell me,

do you have feelings for my dad?”

What do you mean?”  I was puzzled.



“I mean, do you love him?” “No, I don’t.

She gave me a faint smile as if to say no woman would openly admit her affection for a man. I wanted to stress that at most I might like him a little, but she spoke before I could.  “How about marrying him?  I mean just in appearance.

What a silly thing to say.  How could I support myself if I dont hold a job?” “Thats why I said just in appearance.

I was more baffled. “I don’t get it.

“I mean, you can keep your job but live in this apartment, pretending to be his wife.  Just to make him content and peaceful.  I’ll pay you four hundred dollars a month.  Besides, you’ll keep yourwages.

Well, I’m not sure.  I couldn’t see what she was really driving at.

She pressed on.  “It will work like this--legally youre not his spouse at all.  Nothing willchange except that you’ll spend more time with him in here.

“I don’t have to share his bed?”

Absolutely not.  You can set up your own quarters in there.  She pointed at the storage

room, whichwas poky but could be turned into a cozy nest.

“So the marriage will be just in name?” “Exactly.

“Let me think about it, okay?” “Sure, no need to rush.

It took me two days to decide to accept the offer.  I had remembered my aunt, who in herearly forties had married a paraplegic nineteen years older than her and nursed him to his grave. She wasn’t even fond of the man but took pity on him. In a way, she sacrificed herself so that her family wouldn’t starve. When her husband died, she didn’t inherit anything from him–he left his house to his nephew. Later she went to join her daughter from her first marriage and is still stayingwith my cousin in a small town on the Yellow River.  Compared with my aunt, I was in a much better position, earning wages for myself. Eventually if I moved into Mr. Shengs place, I might not have to rent my apartment anymore and plus could save eighty-one dollars a month on the subway pass.  When I told Minna my acceptance, she was delighted and said I was kindness itself.

To my surprise, she came again in the afternoon with a sheet of paper and asked me to sign it, saying this was just a statement of the termswed agreed about. I couldn’t read English, so I wanted to see a Chinese version.  I had to be careful about signing anything; four years ago Id lost my deposit when I left Elmhurst for Corona to share an apartment with a friend-my former landlordwouldn’t refund me the seven hundred dollars and showed me the co-signed agreement that stated I would give up the money if I moved out before the lease expired.

Minna said shed rewrite the thing in Chinese. The next morning, as I was seated beside Mr. Sheng and reading a newspaper article to him, Minna stepped in and motioned for me to come into the kitchen.  I went over, and she handed me the agreement.  I read through it and felt outraged.  It sounded like I was planning to swindle her father out of his property. The last paragraph stated:To sum up, Jufen Niu agrees that she shall never enter into matrimony with Jinping Sheng or accept

any inheritance from him.  Their ‘union’ shall remain nominal forever.



I asked Minna, “So you think I’m a gold digger, huh?  If you dont trust me, why bother about this fake marriage in the first place?”

I do trust you, Aunt Niu, but were in America now, where even the air can make people change. Wed better spell out everything on paper beforehand.  To tell the truth, my dad owns two apartments, which he bought many years ago when real estate was cheap in this area, so we ought to prevent any trouble down the road.

“I never thought hes rich, but I wont ‘marry’ him, period.

She fixed her cat eyes on me and said, “Then how can you continue working here?” “I wont.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Aunt Niu.  Cantwe leave this open and talk about it later when we both calm down?”

“I just don’t feel I can sell myself this way.  I dont love him.  You know how hard it is for a woman to marry a man she doesn’t love.

She smirked.  I knew what she was thinking–for a woman my age, it was foolish to take love into account when offered a marriage. Indeed, love gets scarcer as we grow older.  All the same, I nervedmyself and said, “This is my last day.

Well, maybe not. She turned and made for the door, her hips jiggling a little.  She shouldn’t have worn jeans, which made her appear more rotund.


NING ZHANG CALLED the next day and asked me to come to his office downtown for “a heart- to-heart talk. I told him I wouldn’t feel comfortable to confide anything to a thirtysomething like him.  In fact, he was pushing forty and already looked middle-aged, stout in the midriff and with a shiny bald spot like a lake in the mouth of an extinct volcano.  Still, he insisted that I come over, so I agreed to see him the next morning.

For a whole day I thought about what to say to him. Should I refuse to look after Mr. Sheng no matter what?  I wasn’t sure, because I was in Ning Zhangs clutches. He could keep me out of work for months and even for years. Should I sign the humiliating agreement with Minna? Perhaps I had no choice but to accept it.  How about asking for a raise? That might be the only possible gain I could get.  So I decided to bargain with my boss for a one-dollar-an-hour raise.

Before setting out the next morning, I combed my hair, which was mostly black, and I also made up my face a little.  I was amazed to see myself in the mirror: jutting cheekbones, bright eyes, and a water-chestnut-shaped mouth.  If twenty years younger, I could have been a looker.  Better yet, I still had a small waistline and a bulging chest.  I left home, determined to confront my boss.

At the subway station I chanced on a little scarecrow of a woman, who pulled a baby carriageloaded with sacks of plastic bottles and aluminum cans.  No doubt she was Chinese and over seventy.  The cloth sacks holding the containers were clean and colored like pieces of baggage.  A rusty folding stool was bound to the top of the huge load. On the side of the tiny buggy hung a string pouch holding a bottle of water and a little blue bag with a red tassel, obviously containing her lunch.  There were also three large sacks, trussed together, separated from the buggy-load, and holding two-litter Coke bottles. All the people on the platform kept a distance from this white- haired woman in brown slacks and a black short-sleeved shirt printed with yellow hibiscuses.  She

looked neat and gentle but restless, and went on tightening the ropes wrapped around the load.  A



fiftyish man passed by with two little girls sporting loopy honey-colored curls, and the kids turned to gawk at the sacks of containers and at the old woman, who waved her small hand and said to them with a timid smile, “Bye-bye.” Neither of the wide-eyed girls responded.

The train came and discharged passengers.  I helped the crone pull her stuff into the car.  She was so desperate to get her things aboard that she didn’t even thank me after the door slid shut.She was panting hard.  How many bottles and cans has she here? I wondered.  Probably abouttwo hundred. She stood by the door, afraid she wouldn’t be able to get all her stuff off at her destination.  Time and again I glanced at her, though no one else seemed to notice her at all.  She must have been a daily passenger with a similar load.

A miserable feeling was welling in me.  In that withered woman I saw myself.  How many years could I continue working as a health aide who was never paid overtime or provided with any medical insurance or a retirement plan?  Would I ever make enough to lay aside some for my old age?  Howwould I support myself when I could no longer attend to patients? I must do something now, or I might end up like that little crone someday, scavenging through garbage for cans and bottles to sell to a recycling shop. The more I thought about her, the more despondent I became.

The woman got off at Junction Boulevard, dragging her load that was five times larger than her body.  People hurried past her, and I was afraid she might fall at the stairs if one of her sacks snagged on something. Her flimsy sneakers seemed to be held together by threads as she shuffled away, pulling the baby carriage while the three huge sacks on her back quivered.


NING ZHANG WAS pleased to see me when I stepped into his office.  Take a seat, Jufen, he said.  Anything to drink?”

“No.  I shook my head and sat down before his desk. “Tell me, how can I persuade you to go back to Minnas?” “I want a pension plan!” I said firmly.

He was taken aback, then grinned.  Areyou kidding me?  You know our agency doesn’t offer that and can’t set a precedent.

“I know. Thats why I wont go look after Mr. Sheng anymore.” “But he might die soon if he continues refusing to eat.

Pity suddenly gripped my heart, but I got hold of myself.  I said, “He’ll get over it, he’ll be fine. He doesn’t really know me that well.  Besides, he has a memory like a bucket riddled with holes.

“Do you understand, if you dont work for us, you may not be able towork elsewhere either?” “I’ve made up my mind that from now on I’ll work only for a company that provides a

pension plan.

That means you’ll have to be able to speak English.” “I can learn.

At your age?  Give me a break.  How many years have you been in this country?   Ten or eleven?  How many English sentences can you speak?  Five or six?”

From now on I’ll live differently.  If I cant speak enough English to work for a unionized company, I’ll starve and die!

The determination in my voice must have impressed him.  He breathed a sigh and said, “Quite



frankly, I admire that, that jolt of spirit, although you made me feel like a capitalist exploiter.  All

right, I wish you the best of luck.  If I can do anything for you, let me know.

When I came out of his office, the air pulsed with the wings of seagulls and was full of the aroma of kebabs.  The trees were green and sparkling with dewdrops in the sunshine.  My head was a little light with the emotion still surging in my chest.  To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to learn enough English to live a different life, but I must try.


Originally from Ha Jin, A Good Fall, Vintage Books, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Ha Jin.


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