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ONLINE ONLY: Dingbang You're Dead

Fiction by J. Elvis Herman

Pao Dingbang wasn't overly concerned the day he went to his mailbox and discovered that he'd become a card-carrying homosexual. Must be an oversight, he thought. He was exempt from reorientation, after all. He had a fiancé who had a gown and an auspicious day picked out for their wedding. The new government-issued ID that he held told him that he was now a tongzhi, but he was certain it wasn't true. He couldn't be a homosexual. He'd mailed proof of the engagement to the Ministry of Reorientation last month, exactly as they'd instructed. Someone must have fouled up his paperwork.

Like so many cogs, he believed he could reason with the machine, so after gathering the photocopied evidence of his betrothal, he rode his bicycle to the local Reorientation office. The room to which a surly official directed him was full of long lines of young men intent on pleading their cases. He selected the line that he guessed would shed its petitioners the quickest and began his tedious wait.

He'd been in the room for only a few minutes when the man in front of him turned partly around and started complaining to him in hushed tones. "It doesn't seem fair that we should suffer because of the stupidity of others. One-child policy wasn't our decision, was it? And it wasn't our fault they started killing baby girls." Dingbang said nothing in reply, hoping that his silence would discourage further grousing, but the man continued his murmured diatribe. "Someone makes some idiotic law before I was born, and then before I've even had a chance to sleep with a woman, they tell me I'm only allowed to be with men. No way I'm doing that. I'll probably die a virgin now."

The man might have gone on and on if the grimacing police officer stationed at the room's entrance hadn't interrupted. "Watch your mouth!" he barked.

All conversation ceased. Eyes nervously darted toward the officer and hearts began pumping double-quick. While most in the room were poised for flight, Dingbang was unperturbed by the outburst. He was actually thankful for the officer's intervention. Now he wouldn't have to listen to the man's incendiary prattle while he waited.

As the minutes ticked by, the buoyant step that had carried him into the room began to flag, as if his feet wished to conform with the ones that carried the morose men out of the room in shuffling steps after their disappointing interviews. He was confident that someone would correct the error that had brought him to this cheerless place, but, still, he was anxious to put this room and these men behind him. He could sense their gloom infecting his mind.

Dingbang was watching the man in front of him as he left carrying his dejection on his back like an unseen, overheavy pack when the woman behind the service window bellowed out, "Next!"

He offered his apologies before handing his ID to her. She glanced down at the picture on the card and then back up to Dingbang. "What's the problem?" she asked. Her tone was mechanical.

"There's been a mistake," he replied. "My card's wrong. I'm not a tongzhi."

She snorted derisively. "If they paid me a yuan for every time I've heard that today, I could quit this job and retire to the country."

"No, it's true. Look."

He passed over the photocopied documents that he imagined would disprove the residency card's claim. She examined the papers cursorily before turning to her computer and typing in his name. After several minutes of concentrated scrutiny of her monitor, the woman nodded.

"There has been a mistake," she agreed.

Dingbang smiled. See, he thought, they're not as bad as people say.

The woman turned the monitor on its axis so Dingbang could see the screen and then pointed to a scanned copy of the fingerprint card he'd mailed to the ministry. "You submitted an incomplete document," she said.

Looking at the monitor, Dingbang noticed that the bottom right corner of the card had been folded over so that two of his fingerprints were covered. "Wait," he said as he riffled through his papers. "Look." He thrust a photocopy of the same card through the opening in the window. "You could see everything when I mailed it."

She took the paper and compared it to the document on her monitor. "Hmm," she grunted.

"Someone must've made a mistake in scanning it."

"It's more likely that you folded it when you mailed it."

He shook his head with the surety usually reserved for those on the opposite side of the window. "No. I was very careful when I put everything in the envelope. My fiancé and I both made sure everything was in order."

She shrugged indifferently. "I suppose we'll never know the truth, will we?" Looking past Dingbang to the man behind him, she said, "Next."

Dingbang moved his head into her line of vision and said, "I don't mean to be rude, but we're not finished."

She looked at him quizzically. "Do you have another problem?"

"No, I have the same problem, the same unresolved problem."

"What is there to resolve? The paperwork was incomplete."

"But it wasn't my fault," he insisted.

"It doesn't matter whose fault it was. The decision's been made."

"Then we need to unmake it."

She shook her head. "That's impossible."

"It's not impossible. It's not even that difficult. It won't take you more than a minute to make the correction in your computer."

She sighed deeply and rubbed her temples before responding. "Tell me, do you love your country?"

Dingbang's brow furrowed. "Um . . . yes, of course I do."

"And do you want your country to be strong?"

"Yes, definitely, but—"

"You boys who couldn't find a woman might've started a war if not for reorientation. Too many men and not enough women—that's a recipe for disaster."

"But I found a woman. That's my point."

"You should be proud that you've been selected. They'll probably write about you and your kind in our history books someday."

"But the rules clearly state that anyone married or engaged is exempt from reorientation."

"The rules also state that all paperwork must be completed."

"It was completed. I—"

"There are advantages, you know. You can marry another tongzhi now. That's not legal in most countries."

"But . . . I don't want to marry a man. I have a fiancé." The peevishness of childhood seemed to have found its way back into his voice.

"And you and your tongzhi spouse can adopt as many children as you want. Think of how nice your retirement will be with all those children to take care of you. You're luckier than most, really."

Dingbang felt like a man standing barefoot on the shore, watching the ground beneath him disappear little by little with each outgoing wave. "I love her. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

She shrugged again. "Love won't save us from civil war." She motioned to the officer near the entrance.

Dingbang looked over his shoulder and saw the man striding toward him. Tears were rolling down his cheeks when he looked back to the woman. "Auntie," he said, his voice tremulous, "can't you see that this is unfair? I did everything I was supposed to do."

"Life's unfair. You'll never be happy until you accept that."

"Please," he begged, "please, just make the change."

"You should be ashamed," chided the officer when he reached Dingbang. "You're making a spectacle of yourself." He grabbed Dingbang's wrist and began walking him toward the exit.

"Who knows?" the woman said in a raised voice as the officer escorted Dingbang from the office. "You might enjoy being a tongzhi."

Dingbang took several minutes to compose himself before riding his bicycle to his fiancé's apartment.

"What's wrong?" Ling asked when she opened the door. "Have you been crying?"

He kissed her on the cheek before telling the tale.

"What can we do?" she asked after he'd finished his account. "Who can we talk to?"

He shrugged. "Does your family know anyone in the government?"

"Not that I know of."

"I'll appeal to a higher authority then. I'll try the regional office tomorrow."

"What if they say the same?"

"Then I'll write letters to everyone in the ministry."

"Mother always says that we're better off complaining to our toaster than to the government."

"Someone will see the unfairness of the situation."

"But what if they don't?"

He shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know. Maybe . . . maybe we could move to America. I have some family there."

Ling turned her eyes to the ground and stood in silence for several moments before replying. "Let's just hope we find someone in the ministry with a heart."

Dingbang's trip to the regional office was much less emotionally fraught than his visit to the local office had been, but the result was the same. He spent most of the following week penning his first of six letters of petition to the ministry's national headquarters. Full of references to constitutional statutes and inspirational quotations from civil rights luminaries from around the world, the missive was an appeal to decency and fairness that was heartfelt without being mawkish and sensible without being tedious. He mailed it to the vice-minister with the least seniority and then immediately began writing its sequel.

The wait for a response was made doubly agonizing by Ling's absence from his life. Because the penalties for "inappropriate relations" between a woman and a tongzhi were severe, Ling's parents thought it best that she not see Dingbang while he appealed. He wanted to protest, to insist that he be allowed to lean on Ling during this time of tumult, but he knew they were right. It made no sense to pile punishment upon woe.

The reply from the first vice-minister arrived just under a month after Dingbang had mailed his plea. "After carefully reviewing your case," the letter read, "the ministry has concluded that it is in the best interest of the country that the decision stand. A list of counselors has been attached for your convenience. They are available to help you with your transition." He wasn't sure if he was more upset that his orientation status remained unchanged or that, like an unlucky investment, his three-page letter had yielded such a meager return.

With the exception of the signature, the reply from the second vice-minister was identical to the reply from the first. The next two letters were ignored altogether. His fifth letter, which he wrote on the day his cancelled wedding had been scheduled, was a scathing denunciation of the heartless monsters running the government. Less than a week after mailing that appeal, a churlish police officer, who used his baton to knock on Dingbang's door, hand-delivered the response. "I know this must be a challenging time for you," wrote the most senior of the vice-ministers, "but remember that people have been arrested for less."

He might have resigned himself to his fate then if his feelings for Ling had not spurred him to write one final appeal to the minister himself. Setting aside his growing animosity, he wrote his most moving letter to date. As he dropped his last best hope in the mailbox, he prayed that it would find its way to a man with a soul.

The reply arrived that same week. To Dingbang's surprise, the minister's letter was twice as long as the one he'd written. The response was sympathetic in its tone but heartbreaking in its verdict. Using words such as "duty," "sacrifice," and "greatest good," the minister told him that it was his fate to be a tongzhi. Dingbang vomited after reading it.

He called Ling minutes later. "Come with me to America," he said after telling her of the minister's decision. She said nothing in reply. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"I can't go," she murmured. "I can't leave Mother and Father. Who'll take care of them?"

"They can come, too."

"You know they'd never go."

"How do we know unless we ask?"

"Dingbang, it'll never happen."

"You don't know that."

"We can't be together," she said.

"Don't say that."

"You know it's true."

"Don't you love me?" His voice cracked.

After a long silence, she whispered, "More than you know," and then hung up.

He listened to her outgoing voicemail message well over a hundred times before she finally changed her number.

After Dingbang received Ling's Dear John, he stopped going to work. When his parents found out that he was being evicted from his apartment three months later, they hired a moving company to take his belongings to their home and he moved back into his childhood room. He spoke rarely, showered less, and left the house not at all. As she'd done decades before, his mother took to sneaking into his room in the middle of the night to make sure he was still breathing.

The longtime friend who eventually led Dingbang out of the darkness that had consumed nearly a year of his life was also the person who talked him into joining an online dating service for "the newly reoriented tongzhi." Though his genes protested at the prospect of being with a man, he let himself be talked into a dinner date with someone he'd met on the website. He couldn't go through with it though, and he excused himself from the table and sneaked out of the restaurant before his entrée even arrived. It was the closest he'd ever come to being the widget that the machine required.

Because his parents were also out for the night, he came home to an empty house. He walked into their bedroom closet and began rummaging through the boxes stacked on the top shelf, hoping simultaneously that his father still kept his gun hidden in the same place and that he'd finally taken his mother's advice and discarded the thing before the police could find out about it. He wasn't sure what he felt when he found the weapon, but he was certain that his days as a tongzhi were done. He was also certain that the person who walked into his bedroom, sat on his bed, closed his eyes and put the barrel of the gun into his mouth was not him. How could it be when he was still standing outside the room?

His finger was poised to do the deed when a preview starring Ling and their unborn child began playing on the backs of his eyelids. He opened his eyes and found that he was once again whole. He stood just as calmly as he'd sat and then shoved the gun into his pocket. As he walked out the front door, Dingbang wondered how many of his kind had a father with a monkey wrench hidden in his closet.

J. ELVIS HERMAN, '98, MA '98, is a writer in Las Vegas.

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