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Original artwork by Katie M. Zeigler

Bright are the Stars that Shine

Lili Xie

Rong found herself restless this evening. She tried to watch TV, but couldn’t find anything interesting. After changing channels repeatedly, she turned the TV off. It was past nine. Her husband, Yiming, had called earlier and said he had a business dinner so would be home late. This was rare for him. Every day, Yiming would leave for the bank at eight and come home at six thirty. Once, Rong couldn’t help ribbing him by saying, “You always come straight home after work. Your coworkers must think your wife has strict rules for you.” Yiming laughed and said, “I don’t care what they think. I do what I like. Nothing in the world is better than my home sweet home.” Saying this, he stretched out on the couch and looked around at the condo with a satisfied expression on his face.

Rong loved their condo, too. They bought it two years ago when they were getting married. With their parents’ help, they didn’t need to take a mortgage like most young couples. It was a three-bedroom condo in a high-rise next to a park in downtown Wuxi. The size and location were all desirable. Everything inside—from the color of the walls to the vase on the dining table—was chosen according to Rong’s taste. Rong didn’t mean to be bossy. Yiming insisted on letting Rong make all the decisions. When Rong asked for his opinion, he would smile and say, “You decide. I like whatever you like.” Yiming was so good-humored that Rong felt she was getting spoiled by him. Like now, just one evening without his company was unbearable.

The air inside was stuffy. She stepped out onto the balcony. It was a fine September night, the breeze gentle, the sky dark and clear, the stars bright. She took a deep breath and leaned against the railing. She couldn’t remember the last time she looked at the stars like this. Back in college, she used to think when she got her own place, she’d be on the balcony every night staring into the sky. It’d be romantic. But Yiming didn’t care for star gazing. Once or twice, when Rong had asked him to come out and watch stars with her, he’d called it “childish.” He’d rather be in the apartment, lie in bed, and watch TV; so gradually, Rong, too, lost interest in the stars.


Rong liked watching stars when she was a child. At that time, air-conditioning wasn’t widely available. On summer nights, people would put chairs in front of apartment buildings and sit outside, hoping to catch a cool breeze. Her father bought a bamboo lounge chair for her. She would lie on it, listening to her father tell stories, feeling the coolness of bamboo on her back. Her mother would wave a fan beside them, driving away mosquitoes. The sky surrounded them. On nights like those, Rong often wondered what would happen if the stars began to fall like fireworks. She decided if they did fall, she’d catch three: one for her father, one for her mother, and one for herself.

She loved her parents and was very attached to Wuxi, where she was born and raised. When it was time for college, she chose a university only an hour away so that she could go home every weekend. She planned to move back to Wuxi as soon as she graduated. There, she’d find a stable job with her father’s help, meet another native Wuxi’er, get married, and start her own family. Her future had seemed certain to her since she was a child, and she liked it that way.

But things changed in her junior year of college. She met Feng, a thin boy with shiny eyes and messy hair. After a night of homework at the library, Feng would often sit with her on the lawn and watch stars.

“I hope this doesn’t bore you,” she said one evening. “I can just sit here and look at the stars forever. It’s soothing to me, like a childhood lullaby.”

“Oh no, it’s not boring at all,” Feng said. “There is something magic about the night sky. Think about it. The Earth is also a star. We’re living on a star.”

“When I was a kid,” she said, “I thought stars were only as big as they appeared. I wanted to catch three of them if they fell, for my parents and me.”

“If you had known me back then, would you want to catch one for me, too?” Feng asked.

She laughed. “I guess.”

“You guess?” he feigned a hurt expression.

“I would, of course.”

“That’s much better.” With a contented sigh, Feng lay down on the grass, took her hand into his, and placed both of their hands on his chest. Then he started to sing a folk song in a quiet voice:

Will you be my love,

A wandering singer’s love?

My melody can’t bring you

Material comfort

All I can give

Is a small room

With a window opening to the north

Through which you can see the stars

It was a most beautiful night in her memory. Feng’s singing voice was low and magnetic. His hand in hers was steady and warm. It was the feeling of home. 

After that night, Rong became a different person. With Feng, she did so many “crazy” things. They got up early and walked barefoot in the grass to feel the morning dew. They sat in the woods on campus and whistled in competition with birds. They wandered aimlessly in the alleys to get lost on purpose to be away from crowds. One day, when they were walking hand in hand in the dusk, the streetlights went on. Feng stopped, turned to Rong, and said, “Look! All the lights are lit for us!”

This was Feng. He could see magic in the most mundane things. With him, she felt she’d discovered a new world. She loved him for that. When she told him, he said, “I didn’t bring the new world to you. It’s always been inside you. I saw it the first time we met—when you were sitting in front of the library alone watching stars. You’re different than other girls.”

Rong raised her head and looked into Feng’s eyes. They were shiny, like stars.

“What are you seeing in my eyes?” Feng asked, a little shyly.

“Streetlights. Lots of streetlights.” Rong smiled.


Feng graduated one year before Rong did. He found a job at a factory in Xiamen, a coastal city in the far south. He chose it because he loved the sea, and the fresh air there would help his health. He had bouts of TB when he was in elementary school. Due to the limited medical technology at that time, he couldn’t fully recover.

In the factory, Feng began as a junior engineer. He had to work around loud machines all day, but it didn’t bother him. He’d write her long emails every day. Other than talking about his work and daily life, he never forgot to tell her about the corner of the sky he could see from his tiny, rented room, the stars “hanging outside his window,” the smell of the sea wind, and the songs of the waves.

Rong couldn’t wait to graduate. She longed to go to Xiamen and join Feng. There they would start their life together in that tiny room with stars hanging. But she dreaded telling her parents about Feng or their marriage plans. She postponed the moment until her last winter break in college, when her parents started to ask about her plans after graduation.

“I…I want to move to Xiamen,” she said hesitantly. “I met someone in college. We plan to get married.” She felt a moment of relief after spitting the truth. Maybe her parents would understand. Xiamen was far, but it was still in China. They could go visit her anytime. After they retired, they could even move there. They would like the ocean and the warm weather.

She waited for their response, but there was none. Her mom continued to dust the window, while her dad’s eyes stayed fixed on the newspaper. It was as if neither of them heard her, as if their silence could reverse everything and make her unsay what she said.

“I’m sorry,” Rong said. “I know this is a shock, but it’s been difficult for me to tell you. Feng is a good man. You’ll like him when you meet him.”

Her dad took off his reading glasses and put them on the table. “If this Feng truly loves you as you claim, why can’t he move to Wuxi with you? Why does he make you move?”

“It’s because…the air by the ocean is good for him.” Rong hesitated but then decided to be honest. She went on and told her parents about Feng’s TB condition.

Her mom set the duster heavily down on the windowsill. “Are you out of your mind? How can you make a life with a sick man? Worse, he might infect you and your future child with TB, too.”

Hearing her mom calling Feng a “sick man” made her offended. “But his TB is under control,” Rong said, her voice trembling. “Even if it wasn’t, how can I desert him just because he has a disease through no fault of his own? It’s unfair.”

“We’re talking about your marriage, your life, not charity work…” her father said. “On top of being sick, he doesn’t have a good job. What kind of life can he afford to give you, being a junior engineer in a factory?”

“I have a college education. I can take care of myself.”

“Take care of yourself?” her father chuckled. “You understand that you’ll be completely alone in Xiamen, right? I won’t be able to help you like I can in Wuxi. Are you prepared to get a factory job like your boyfriend?”

“You’re our only daughter,” her mother said. “You’re all we have, but now you want to move thousands of kilometers away from us. Do you care about your parents at all?”

More questions kept flowing to Rong. She couldn’t keep up anymore. Worse, she realized her parents didn’t want answers from her. All they wanted was for her to change her mind.

As a result of her parents’ upset, she returned to her college a week earlier. Her vacation time wasn’t over yet, but she could no longer stand the tension at home. Upon leaving, she was furiously chided by her father, “Go to him. Find a husband, and we’ll disown a daughter.” 

She walked out, tears pouring down her cheeks. Was she selfish not to think of her parents when choosing a future for herself? Or were they selfish in asking her to give up her love for them? She didn’t know.

A few days later, when she was writing an email to Feng in her dorm, someone knocked on the door. Rong opened it and was surprised to see her father there.


He managed a smile. His face looked tired and pale. “Could I come in?” 

She nodded.

“I am on my way to Shanghai for a bank conference today, so can’t stay for long. How are you?”

She gave no answer. Her father sat down on the chair by her bunk bed. “Are your roommates not back yet?”

“No, they’ll start to come back tomorrow.”

Her dad said, “When you left home, you didn’t take any money. Do you still have enough to take care of yourself here?” He took out an envelope and put it on her bed. “Here is some money. Take it, please. I know you’re still angry with me.”

He paused. The room fell silent. Rong could hear her own breathing. Then her father sighed and said, “I’m sorry. No matter what you choose, you’ll always be our lovely daughter. Your mom and I shouldn’t have forced you to make a decision. Rong-Rong, we love you more than anything. Don’t mistake our intentions. We’re not enemies. We only want you to be happy….” Tears slowly fell from his eyes.

It was the first time she saw her father cry. Her heart ached at the sight. What had she done? What had she put her parents through? She was the most selfish daughter in the world.

“Oh, Dad.” She rushed to her father, kneeled by him, and buried her head in his lap. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you or mom, but I love him. I do love him very much.”

He stroked her hair with his broad hand. “Sometimes I wish you could always be my little girl, but that can’t be. I’m not a selfish father, but I still can’t agree that you should go to Xiamen, especially to be with someone who has TB. You are young and innocent. You don’t understand life yet…”

Her father continued, “All I can say is this. We don’t think he’s the right choice for you, but if you insist, we agree to meet him. Nothing can happen before then. Write to him. Ask him to come to Wuxi and meet us. If he wants to take you away from us, he at least owes us a talk in person.”

After her father left for the conference, Rong opened her laptop and began to email Feng again. She typed quickly, almost without breathing, “Feng, I’m overjoyed! My parents have changed their mind and agreed to meet you. Yes, they still have concerns, but they will love you as soon as they see you. I’m sure of that. Can you take a few days off work and come to Wuxi as soon possible? Love you so much. Love you more every day. Rong.”

Before she hit the “Send” button, she reread the email and pictured the scene when Feng made it to Wuxi to meet her parents. Feng was originally from Jiangxi Province so he couldn’t speak the Wuxi dialect. Her parents would have to speak Mandarin with him. Rong couldn’t help smiling while picturing her parents attempting to speak Mandarin. Especially her mom, who had rarely spoken Mandarin in her life. Her mom didn’t even care for Mandarin shows. Her favorite pastime was the Wuxi opera. When her parents met with Feng, they’d try to say a few things in Mandarin but would quickly slip back into the Wuxi dialect. Feng wouldn’t understand a thing!

“Niilii ya le niang le louda zangbae? niilii woliixiang you jiwunin? (Where do your parents work? How many people are there in your family?)” her mom would ask.

Ni ba ma zai nali shangban? Ni jiali you jikouren?” Rong would have to translate into Mandarin for Feng, like on some kind of diplomatic occasion.

The absurdity made her laugh. She laughed and laughed until her tears came out. She didn’t wipe them. While she was laughing, her mind gradually got out of that fervent, agitated state it had been in for days. It had been absurd, she thought, and the real absurdity of all was herself. She was such a phony. From day one, deep down, she’d always known she had no future with Feng. She would never leave her parents or Wuxi for him. But she had let it play out anyway, as if testing the possibilities of the plot while knowing the ending of a movie. No, she didn’t do it to hurt Feng. She didn’t do it to hurt her parents. She just couldn’t help it. There was a part of her that needed to be exhausted before she could commit back to her life in Wuxi again. Now the ending of the movie had come. It was time. She thought of her father’s tears. She thought of her mother’s heavy sighs. She thought of the songs she and Feng used to sing together. She continued to laugh; her face covered in tears. Instead of clicking the “Send” button, she deleted the email.


After college, Rong moved back to Wuxi. Through a family friend, her father arranged a position for her in a government office. Through another family friend, she met Yiming, a native Wuxi’er. Yiming also worked for a bank, so he had a lot in common with Rong’s father. Yiming got along with her parents so well that they loved him like their own son. Rong’s life was back on track. The episode with Feng became a distant memory. If it hadn’t been for Yiming’s absence and the unusual brightness of the stars, she wouldn’t have thought of him tonight. She wondered how Feng was doing. Was he still watching stars or listening to the songs of waves? She tried to picture her alternate life with Feng in Xiamen but frowned at the thought of a tiny, rented apartment. She wouldn’t be able to stand it even if there was a window with stars.

Rong heard the front door open and close. She turned and looked. Yiming was home. He walked over and stopped at the balcony door. “Why are you standing outside in your pajamas?”

Rong was going to tell him that she was watching stars, but she remembered he had called it “childish.” She said instead, “I was looking to see if I could see you entering the building.”

“Sorry, I’m home late. Did I make you worry? It’s cool out there. You should be careful not to catch a cold.”

“I’m coming in.” Saying this, Rong crossed over into the cozy light of their bedroom and closed the balcony door, shutting out the breeze, the dark sky, and the stars behind her.

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