When no means can prove your existence meaningful and shed elegance on your being, you come up with, for that purpose, your own philosophy.
In the year 1965, in a small village in eastern China where every pinch of barren soil stunk of poverty and not a single feather on the infertile hens provided hope to egg the inhabitants on with their dead-end lives, an undersized baby boy was born and named Guang (which means “light” in Chinese). If the birth had taken place in France he would have been named Candide, and Voltaire would have jumped out from his grave and gotten his decayed hands around the thin neck of the wicked child.
At a young age, Guang had already distinguished himself as someone in possession of intellect. When other children cried due to their hopeless naïveté, his premature wisdom guided him in the enlightened path of optimism. When the advantaged bragged of dining on gold, he responded with stories of farming under the golden rays of the mid-noon sun. When they boasted of having silver stuck between their teeth, he showed them the ever unrepaired hole in the roof of his house, through which his soul escaped at night to dance on the silvery surface of the moon. The idea of Guang despairing or doing anything of that sort was as believable as the idea of him having money in his pocket and not having holes on his shoes.
In his graveyard in France, the ghost of Voltaire, convinced of the ultimate doom of the spirit of optimism in the child, took it upon himself to watch as the end arrived. The French philosopher chuckled and leaned back onto his black-marble gravestone as he waited for the dark cloud to elipse the sunlit life of Guang.
THE FAITHFUL DOG
Guang was born the eldest in a three-child family. The younger was a brother. He was quite the opposite of Guang, spent half his time in tears and the other half using them to wet the soft cement floor of their home in order to make snotty mud pies. The youngest was a sister, who is not to be blamed for her shortcomings, which are all creations of a sexist society and sexist parents. On a good day, she might have spoken a couple of words, which were never productive words because she had the habit of speaking at inaudible volume. On bad days she did her chores silently and let herself drown in neglect.
All the above conditions left Guang a lonely boy. He did not get along well with the other children because he could never help but find their level of maturity, the lack of it, beyond his field of tolerance. In return, they nicknamed him xiao lao tou, “the small old man.”
But not to worry, soon enough Guang found himself a companion, Baron. Baron was the most faithful friend anyone could ever have dreamed of. He spent all twenty-four hours of his day following Guang around. They spent days off from the field playing straw-ball soccer, but it often ended in a bitten-down, crumbled-up mess of straw. Baron was not just an average friend; in fact he was not an average-sized friend. He walked on four feet and had razor-sharp teeth. Baron was a German shepherd.
Baron had wondered into the village one day and induced screaming and flying knives throughout the place, but in the end, Guang heeded the voice of his compassionate heart and took him in.
Then disaster struck. It came New Year’s time, and because, like every other family in the village, Guang’s family could find nothing in the house to stuff their dumplings with, they decided to pay their annual visit to some relatives in the city. This was going to be a week-long trip, and it would have been foolish to leave the house unattended for so long. Always an adroit problem solver, Guang volunteered Baron as a temporary house-keeper while the family stayed away. Baron cheerfully complied.
It was only when he stared out the window of his city-bound bus and saw Baron chasing after the bus that Guang realized that he would really miss his friend. He signaled for Baron to stop and go home. I will see you soon, he thought. This thought he nurtured until his return four days later, upon which Baron was not to be found in the house.
Baron was not to be found anywhere.
Turns out New Year was a time of indulgence and the lack of self-restraint. In their desperation, the villagers did in fact find something to stuff their dumplings with.
Even looking back today, Guang can’t help but tear up a little at the thought of Baron. “He was my only friend,” he would say.
Here you might comment, “They ate your dog!”
“Poverty,” Guang would respond, “ate my dog. And it didn’t even bother to spit out the bones.”
Do not worry about Guang. He did despair over the loss of Baron, but his nature did not allow prolonged stay in such a state. He easily forgave the neighbors, because he understood what long-term poverty could do to people. And because he believed in the due termination of the said ill, in no time he had rediscovered his enlightened path of contentment.
At the same time (despite time zone differences), in a dark graveyard in France, Voltaire slapped his fist down on his gravestone and let out a scream of agony beyond the measure of pitch. “Just you wait, you ignorant boy! Just you wait!”
But there was no need to wait. In no time, the next disaster struck.
The whole village was in a state of shameless elation and unforeseen celebration. Round lanterns hung from the eaves in red rows, and the fattest and most deserving pigs wore red bows on their heads. Every girl wore her nicest and only dress, and every mother hummed cheery tunes as they went about their cooking. The village musician walked around the village playing his festival trumpet that usually only weddings and funerals were worthy of.
The source of all this celebration was a scrawny lad named Bing who carried on the bridge of his nose a pair of inch-thick glasses. His skin tone was that of an unacceptable and lazy pale. It was the trait of those who did not toil under the hot sun, and had anyone but him possessed such a pale they would have been exiled for uselessness.
Despite his unattractive physical appearance, Bing was a piece of existence most precious to the village, worth more than the price of a panda today. He was the dragon of the century. He was going to college.
Due to consecutive autumns of unsuccessful crop yield, there was no money to put into the village’s school, if it even deserved such a title. It was the only means through which to obtain education in the village, but its cracked wooden benches and class sessions during which a whole class of twenty students shared one textbook were solid proof that the education obtained was not something to boast of. For these reasons, Bing’s success, his brains and potential, and his college-bound status were all, upon discovery, immediately crowned the hope and wallet of the village.
But the intensity of feeling in the whole village summed together was no comparison to that in Guang. He felt inspired. He felt reborn. He felt his whole existence justified. First of all he was happy for Bing, who was two years his senior and whom he had always looked up to as a role model. But more important than that, Bing was living, breathing proof that he had been right to be optimistic, to believe in a bright future. For him, Bing’s today was his tomorrow, and Bing’s success was his destiny. He celebrated with the rest of the village.
To the south of the village there was a river. It was muddy and immeasurably deep but nonetheless a river. It was the afterschool heaven for the boys, where they swam chasing one another everyday and splashed until dinner time. The parents generally disapproved of this sport and often paced around the room in fear when their son did not come home in time for dinner. But because the boys would always play down the depth of the river, the parents never got around to banning the sport.
Bing was never one of the boys in the river. Despite his mental abilities, physically he was no more than what his skin color spoke of him. In addition to that, he had always had a deep fear of activities that would suspend contact between his feet and the ground for anything more than a split second. His family was relatively well off compared to the rest of the villagers, and for his seventh birthday they had bought his an immensely envied bicycle. But Bing, being the way he was, refused to ride it and never did. In high school, he took it apart behind his parents’ back and turned it into a full-score physics project. So to no surprise, swimming was also on his blacklist, which was a blessing in the eyes of his anxious parents but a curse in his view of himself. Deep in his conflicted heart, his biggest dream was to be able to swim freely in the river with the other boys, but he was never able to overcome his fear, until one day.
This was the last day of the Era of Celebration. Bing was to depart for college the next morning. That very night, while everyone snored away in sweet dreams of the college-bound boy, the boy himself snuck out through his window and made his way to the river. He had done some pre-departure thinking, and the only conclusion that he was able to come to was that he would rest forever in regret if he did not get a dip in the river before leaving. He was a perfectionist and had a proud heart and thus did not like to live with regrets. So he went.
That same night, Guang had found his sleep disturbed by a fire-hot happiness. Every time he closed his eyes, his mind filled with images of Bing holding his college acceptance letter with a big smile on his face and then himself holding the same letter while wearing Bing’s massive glasses. Unable to contain himself, he decided to take a walk along the river, which was not far away since his home was located in the southern portion of the village.
As he walked, Guang heard a sudden splash, which he did not pay much attention too at first, but about twenty seconds later, smaller splashes followed and after them screams for help with gurgles stuck between each syllables. He sprinted along the river to find the source of the sounds, but it was farther away then he thought and by the time he got there all that was left were some circles of ripples and a couple of bubbles. No boys went swimming in that river ever again, not only because their parents threatened corporal punishment if they were to try, but because the body was never recovered. There were no means of getting to the bottom of the river, less to say finding a body there. So Bing stayed at the bottom of the river for a long, long time. Even in the water, he insisted on touching the ground.
The Era of Celebration immediately turned into the Era of Mourning. The red lanterns turned into white ones, and the pigs tactfully lost their bows. No one dressed in colors anymore, and the trumpet player locket his trumpet in his case and left it under his bed to collect dust. There were many theories about how Bing had died among the boys. Some said that he had a cramp in his foot. Some said that the fish in the river were jealous of his success and dragged him down. But Guang alone knew the truth.
Bing just couldn’t swim, that’s all.
THE DARK AGES AND GUANG’S CONCLUSIONS
The night of the unfortunate incident, across thousands of miles of land in France, a smile spread across Voltaire’s fleshless face. He was pleased at being proven right once again. Closing his eyes, he slipped across the hardened soil on his grave and lay down. “Finally a good night’s sleep…”
And indeed he had reason to be happy. Guang was never the same again.
His first love was quite a scandalous one. It involved sneaking out during the night and the wonderful sucking of opaque fluids. To call it love might be slightly pretentious; addiction would be a better description. His will to quit was stronger than ever, but the craving grew exponentially by day. Going into the night, he would find himself lying open-eyed in bed, his whole body burning in the need of…
Yes, that was his addiction. Corn roots. They are not as uninteresting as they sound. Imagine the sweet taste of corn; then imagine that taste one hundred times sweeter. That should be somewhere near the taste of corn roots. They tasted sweetest when the corn was still in the ground, which meant that in order to satisfy his craving, Guang had to pay nightly visits to the corn fields. “Every single time,” he would say, “felt like a sweet dream.”
(Ultimately, Guang went off to college to study dentistry. The traces of ginger candy died with his departure, and his only legacy, more of a detriment than a contribution, was corn root theft. Somehow his disgraceful, short-lived habit had been discovered and adopted by other children, and sneaking out during the night to suck on corn roots in someone else’s field, only to come home and find similar damage in their own field, became a common nighttime activity.)
Soon enough, the consequences came around. Dark circles claimed the area under his eyes due to sleep-deprivation, and sharp pains found their way into his molars due to the excessive amount of sugar that he consumed. Despite all, he was not able to restrain himself, and the sneaky business continued. Until…
It was only by sheer coincidence that Guang became acquainted with his second love, ginger candy. A relative who worked in a fabric factory in the city came for a visit during the summer and brought a bad of ginger candy for the children. The other brother and the sister turned their back on the odd mixture of sweetness and piquancy, but Guang found himself cheating on the corn roots. He sucked on the candies day and night, ignoring the protests of his molars. He bit each piece open with his front teeth and pressed the burning insides to his tongue, letting the sharp knives in the flavor sink into his flesh, into his heart. I’m an idiot to have lost my way in the sweet lure of the cornfields, he thought. This here is real. This here is life.
Those were just…just dreams. 
From then on, the bright smile on Guang’s face was replaced by a pair of forever locked eyebrows; even his eyes seemed to have darkened a shade. His hours spent outside were replaced by time spent pouring over books, some borrowed and some bought with the little savings he had. The pillars of optimism that had previously ruled his being were now trash in his eyes. He looked down on hope and frowned upon luck. “Hard work,” he said, “is like one of the seeds that we plant in our infertile fields. It probably will not sprout into anything and will only result in disappointment. But, if you plant a lot of them you are bound to reap at least enough to feed yourself and your family. If you plant even more of them, you might get a taste of success.”
Zhengqing Nie, Age 18, Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key