Translated by Goh Beng Choo, and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and translator.
Read the Chinese here.
I was lost for almost a year. No one knew where I was, not even myself.
This was how it happened. You see, I had always wanted to get away from this awful place, because I simply couldn’t breathe the air. I’d been suffocating for more than 10 years, and if this went on, I would have cracked up. I had to leave before it was too late.
But how? Travelling costs money, and I was only a junior clerk with a small salary, never more than a hundred dollars in my bank account. Yet I was bent on going to the United States.
I recalled a wonderful cinema commercial that claimed a certain bank helped people in need, providing a lifelong service. Copying what I’d seen in the advertisement, I walked up to the bank manager’s desk, identified myself, and told him I wanted to borrow $5000.
I don’t know how to describe the bank manager’s expression. What happened next, as far as I can recall, was quite unlike the advertisement.
Although I played my part well, the manager didn’t give me a cigarette and cup of coffee. Not that I minded about the coffee, but I left empty handed, without the money either. I was furious. If he hadn’t thrown me out, I would certainly have beaten him up. I’ll never trust advertisements again in this world of liars!
I finally managed to find a way out. I went to a post office, bought some stamps from the lady at the counter, pasted them on my forehead and asked if she could mail me to the United States. The lady became flustered and quickly explained that they only mailed parcels, not people. I asked how much extra it would cost to package me up, and even offered to pay.
Not only did she argue with me, she refused to grant my request. Then she summoned several huge men – including a policeman – to deal with me. I complained about the terrible service. Although the posters on the wall showed smiling faces, nobody smiled at me; they even scolded me. It looked as if the courtesy campaign was over. The situation grew more and more chaotic, until I was knocked out.
When I awoke, I found myself tied up. For a while, I thought I had arrived in the United States. But when I saw the colonial-era police uniform I was in, I nearly went crazy. Either time had reversed itself, or the whole world had gone berserk. It was never my ambition to be a policeman, especially in a colony. I was too young then, and unqualified for the job anyway.
It was extremely mean to force me to do something I didn’t know anything about. I’m a decent man. Though not particularly political, I couldn’t imagine myself serving the colonial oppressors.
I was finally allowed to walk around. Gradually, I realized I had no duties; in fact, I was surrounded by fellow policemen. There were a handful of civilians: doctors and nurses. Someone told me this was an asylum, and I was a patient.
On what grounds could they have put me here? Was it a postal error or insufficient postage? There was no reason I should be here.
I tried to make the most of things. There wasn’t much life here; the doctors were a queer lot who slunk about like ghosts. They were the people who turned the whole world crazy, being the ones who labelled others mad.
It was nice to see Mr Chen, an old colleague, here. Every day, he sang a song titled “I am a Thrush,” so earnestly that a group of visiting young female students concluded he was innocent, which meant he was free from mental illness. The fact that he kept singing “I am a Thrush” proved that he was conscious of his imprisonment here and therefore every inch a sane man.
I, too, had given this matter serious consideration. I asked Mr Chen why we’d been labelled mad. He said it was because we behaved abnormally. This was absurd. What is normality and what is madness? Was Hitler normal? What normal things did he do? And why wasn’t he put in an asylum? What do we need psychologists for? I suppose only acts of poisoning and massacre could be regarded as acts of genius! I decided it was better to stay here.
Mr Chen felt I was innocent, since people are free to go anywhere they like, especially to the USA, a country of freedom. I said my method might have been wrong: either there was insufficient postage, or I didn’t write the address on my body. They could not be blamed for the mistake.
Mr Chen argued that it was ridiculous to redirect mail to the asylum on grounds of insufficient postage. He too began to worry that the letters he’d written to his girlfriend might also have ended up back here. No wonder he hadn’t received any replies.
Fortunately I hadn’t been mailed to Iran, I said. I didn’t like that chap Khomeini. Although I have nothing against people named Khomeini in general, I couldn’t understand the language he spoke, his beard was too long and besides, he was too old. There might be a generation gap between us.
Mr Chen told me why he was here. His therapist had discovered he believed himself to be a thrush. I asked whether this was true. He said he loved freedom and singing. The therapist regarded such talk as bird-brained and, finding him unfit for life in the outside world, referred him here.
Mr Chen argued there was nothing wrong with being a thrush. He was sane and should not have been locked up. Being a caged thrush saddened him. He became terribly depressed at the thought and started to sing his favourite song again.
The tragedy is that he really was a thrush. On one occasion, thewindows in our room were left open, and he saw a chance to escape. He spread his wings merrily to fly, only to fall and break his back. He had lost the ability to fly, he said, after such a long time in confinement.
When I visited him in the ward, he appeared despondent. “A thrush without wings cannot fly,” he sang out weakly. When he had finished, he said in tears, “I’d rather be a vegetable. If there were soil on the bed, I’m sure I’d thrive.”
“Don’t despair, why don’t you ask the doctor for physiotherapy? It might help you to fly again,” I said consolingly.
He kept shaking his head, his face smeared with tears. What else could I say? For a while we sat in silence. Then I said, “Maybe this is for the best. You don’t have to feed on grasshoppers any more. They’re hard to swallow and not nutritious either.”
He was quiet.
A few days later, when I dropped in on him, he had lost the ability to speak and simply stared at me. The nurse said he sat speechlessly all day, refusing to eat or drink. I understood. Vegetables don’t talk, do they?
My heart broke when I looked at his thin face, sunken cheeks and dull eyes. Somebody ought to have watered him.
Mr Chen died a few days later, a tragic figure. It was no mean feat being a vegetable. There was barely any sunlight in the room, and he must have withered away.
Mr Chen’s death smote me in the heart. A man who wanted to be a bird was treated as a mad fellow, whereas the birds-turned-men threw their weight around and lived in peace.
I have proof that a few of our superiors are actually transformed parrots; although they can speak, what they say make no sense. They have no minds of their own, except to repeat their bosses’ orders. Naturally, their heads are stuffed with bird thoughts.
How absurd it is that parrots should control the world and people’s livelihoods! What future does civilization have? Or is this really a bird’s world? Maybe the apocalypse is coming. No wonder Mr Chen preferred to be a bird.
I finally managed to get out of that place. Frankly speaking, I would have stayed on had Mr Chen not died. The thought of so many normal people killing others outside prompted me to contemplate early retirement.
Before I left, I had to undergo a series of strict psychological tests. The psychologist who interviewed me concluded that I had good powers of reasoning.
This is what happened. I was taken into a small room to be interviewed by a nervous wreck of a doctor. “We’re sorry to have kept you here,” he said, smiling jumpily. “We do hope you understand it was because we love you. You were too sick to live in the outside world.”
“Well, love means never having to say you’re sorry,” I answered, flashing a smile.
“Very good! No…” he hesitated a minute. “I mean, I would like to ask you a question to see if you are—”
“Normal,” I finished the sentence for him.
“No, well, yes, to see if you are fit to leave.” He took a white handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead. The air-conditioner hummed.
“I’ll tell you everything I know,” I said.
“Very good.” The doctor paused, then took a torch from his drawer.
Suddenly, he turned it on and a strong light shone right onto my eyes. I almost fell out of my chair. “I am sorry,” he apologized rather awkwardly.
“It’s all right.” I composed myself a little and, putting the chair back in place, said, “My eyes are sensitive to light.”
The doctor sat down, cleared his throat and asked slowly, “If I pointed the light at the window, do you think you could climb up the beam?”
I shot a quick glance at the tiny window, which was about ten feet from the floor.
“No,” I answered seriously.
“Why?” the doctor asked, brimming with confidence.
“What if you suddenly turned the light off while I was half way up?” I said, “Wouldn’t I fall?”
With that, I passed the test, and was discharged from the hospital.