July is the hottest month of the year in Beijing. Old Zhao felt that his heart was as parched as the earth under the midsummer sun.
“Doctor Zhang, we have waited for the operation for twelve days. Didn’t you say that we could do it this week?” Old Zhao asked.
He tried very hard to control his emotions in front of the doctor in charge of his father. But still he held the doctor’s hand in a firm clasp, as if the doctor would waft away like smoke at any moment.
“Please listen to me. Be patient, ” Dr. Zhang said as he tried to loosen Old Zhao’s grasp. He had come across various complicated diseases, encountered a few medical accidents, and dealt with a number of unreasonable family members of patients, but he had never run into such a touchy question, one that he felt ashamed to answer.
Old Zhao eased his clinch, but he still stood in front of Dr. Zhang, determined to get an answer.
“Don’t be emotional. Please don’t be emotional, ” Dr. Zhang said repeatedly, trying to clear his mind. “I know your father’s case very well. It would be all right to postpone the operation for a month. Believe me. I promise you that I will do the operation on Aug. 26, as soon as the Olympic Games end.”
“What does the operation have to do with the Olympic Games?” Old Zhao asked. He could not figure this out.
“They were originally not related. But since the government has set forth such rules, hospitals have to observe it. Except for urgent ones, all operations must be postponed to ensure adequate medical supplies during the Games. As residents of Beijing, we all should do our part to make the Games successful, right? ” Dr. Zhang patted Old Zhao’s arm and walked away.
Indeed all things were making way for the Games, which had been the priority in Beijing ever since the city succeeded in its bid seven years ago. Having lived all his life in Beijing, Old Zhao knew that the Olympic Games were a dream that the Chinese people had held for a hundred years. He wished the Games success from the bottom of his heart. However, was it necessary to hold up the operation for his father for the sake of the Games? It sounds like the two things are somehow related. But if one thinks about it harder, they actually have nothing to do with each other.
The traffic peak had passed when Old Zhao got out of the hospital. The vehicles going up and down the streets were far fewer than last week. As the Olympics approach the government ordered that only half of the city’s vehicles, alternating between odd and even license plate numbers, could get on the road each day. Beijing’s air quality had improved quite a bit because of the measure. However, when officials of the International Olympic Committee tested the air quality the other day and pronounced that it failed to reach their standards, the government immediately put out stricter driving restrictions, allowing only ten percent of Beijing’s vehicles to drive on the street on a single day.
One could drive his vehicle only when the last number of its license plate identified with the date. Old Zhao had a Chery QQ car and the last number of his license plate is four. He had driven it the day before, so he had to wait for a week to get it on road again…. Old Zhou, a neighbor, had 1 as the last number of his license plate. So he can drive his car on July 31 and August 1, two days in a row. Old Zhou was so pleased and has been bragging about it to everyone he meets, as if he foresaw today’s trouble when he registered his license plate a year ago.
Old Zhao’s house was a dozen bus stops away from the hospital. He was sweating from every pore while he biked home from the hospital. Not just because of the heat, he was stopped for security checks every time he passed an intersection. He knew that the checks was carried out to ensure the safety of the Games and it had gone on for several days. He pinned his ID on his collar for security guards to see. But since the characters on the card were so small, he had to get off his bike and walk close to the guards every time he was stopped.
The neighborhood he lives in is much quieter these days. No people talking nor dogs barking on the lawn where it used to be boisterous. Perhaps it was because many migrant workers had left the city. It felt weird that some of the neighbors he had known for a dozen years suddenly disappeared, as if they had been dissolved by the fervent Olympic atmosphere.
Dinner was ready for Old Zhao at home. His wife had cooked kidney beans with pork, one of his favorite dishes. After a few bites Old Zhao found that the beans were smaller than usual, and they were dry and had some dark specks on them.
“Why didn’t you buy some good beans? We should sometimes treat ourselves well, right?” Old Zhao said to his wife. He felt for a moment that nothing was satisfactory to him in this world.
“I searched all over the vegetable market and found only these beans. It is said that vehicles from outside of Beijing are restricted to enter the city and all vegetable are in short supply. Perhaps we will not even be able to get beans like these in a few days, ” his wife said unpleasantly.
“Come on. We can’t even have a decent meal because of the Olympics?” Old Zhao said in a fit of anger. But he was not sure at whom he could vent it. “Do those foreigners who are coming to Beijing for the Games get to eat vegetables?
“I heard that the foreign athletes will have vegetables cultivated especially for them, which were not irrigated with water, but with milk or soy milk,” his wife answered.
On hearing this, Old Zhao suddenly choked. He could not bite or swallow the rice in his mouth. He felt that the five rings of the Olympics had become five loops, which yoked his neck one by one.
The TV in his house started to broadcast news. The headline was how excited Beijing residents were for the Games. Listening to the sound of cheerful performances, Old Zhao felt better and swallowed the food.
The next news story said that Xu Dong’e, a well-known movie star, decided to stay outside of Beijing for a month to support the Games. Many fellow residents applauded her behavior. In TV interviews, they all said that the Games are the biggest issue in China right now, and all other things should make way for it.
Old Zhao finally got it. So the government wanted people to leave Beijing! Well, it seemed to make sense, since there were so many people living in Beijing, with all kinds of backgrounds. It was hard to prevent unexpected things from happening during the Games. The fewer people there were in the city, the easier for the government to ensure the safety of the Games. Wouldn’t all the problems be solved if all other residents except for Olympic workers moved out?
On thinking of this, Old Zhao asked his wife in a loud voice, “Hey Boss, why don’t we respond to the call of the government and go visit places outside of Beijing? The vegetables must be cheap there, since they can not enter Beijing. ”
He regretted what he had said as soon as he finished. He heard his wife sneering. “We could go tour the world as long as you can afford it. Your work unit has let employees stay home for three months to reduce air pollution. They might even give you a double bonus at the end of the year, right?” she said.
“Just pretend that I didn’t say that. I shouldn’t have said that, ” Old Zhao sighed. He found that the most horrible thing in the world is not the Olympic Games, but the poignant words of his wife. Just at that time the doorbell rang. It was Ms. Zhou from his neighborhood committee.
“Good evening, Sister Zhou, it’s good timing for you to visit us, ” Old Zhao said.
“Hello. Have you eaten? What did you have for dinner? Old Zhao was very hospitable today,” Ms. Zhou said.
“It is because you are such a virtuous and respectable person and we all welcome your visit, ” Old Zhao said. He invited Ms. Zhou to sit down and handed her a cup of tea.
Ms. Zhou asked about Zhao’s father’s health, and then started to talk about what she really wanted to say.
“The Olympic Games are coming closer each day. It is a symbol of our country rising up and it could wash away its shame over the past hundred years. So I’ve come to ask you what you are thinking about it,” Ms. Zhou said.
“Needless to say, we resolutely support it as residents of Beijing in the new era. We sincerely wish the Games will be a big success. I gulped three bottles of white wine in celebration the night Beijing won the bid,”old Zhao said.
“You might not need to mention that. I came to ask you whether you need some help, ” Ms. Zhou said.
“To tell you the truth, although the Olympics is a good thing, it makes the lives of us ordinary people harder,” Old Zhao said.
He finally got a chance to vent his complains. He talked about the postponement of his father’s operation, the imposed driving restrictions, the short supply of vegetables, etc. He could not control his emotions and stood up. “So many things have been halted for the Games. The government might ask the earth to stop revolving and people to suspend living, ” he said.
“I think what you’ve said is quite reasonable, ” Ms. Zhou said with a smile. Then she took out a bottle of pills. “You see, I brought this medicine to help you.”
Old Zhao got scared, “You are not intending to take our lives, right? I still want to live for some more years.”
“Why are you thinking this way?” Ms. Zhou continued her smile. “Look at the instructions. It is not poisonous. It is a new medicine newly developed by the Academy of Sciences. You will sleep for a whole month after taking one pill, just like a bear hibernates. You don’t need to eat or drink anything. After you wake up a month later, the Games will be over, factories will restart production, people will be able to drive freely, vegetables will be in rich supply, and your father will be able to get the operation done. How fantastic would that be!”
Old Zhao stood still in astonishment. He felt that something was wrong, but on second thought, the offer seemed to be reasonable.
“Don’t worry. The medicine has been distributed in the neighborhood for two days and most people have already taken the pills and hibernated. My husband took it the day before and he is now enjoying a sound sleep, ” Ms. Zhou said.
“Can my father take it?” Old Zhao asked. This was the only question he had in mind.
“For sure. And his disease will not worsen during the hibernation. The Health Department has said that. You can read the instructions yourself, ” Ms. Zhou said.
It seemed that the medicine was all Old Zhao needed. He took it to the hospital and asked Dr. Zhang about it. Dr. Zhang confirmed what Ms. Zhou had said. So Old Zhao helped his father to swallow a pill. After watching him fall into a deep sleep, Old Zhao went back home and took a pill together with his wife. Within half a minute, he lost consciousness.
It seemed that just a moment had passed before he woke up. The hunger he felt reminded him that it had been a long sleep. When he turned on the TV, he saw news stories that happened on the day of Aug. 25th. The stories had nothing to do with the Games anymore. His wife woke up too.
“Are the Olympic Games over?” she asked.
“I guess it’s over, ” Old Zhao said. He changed a few channels but still couldn’t find a bit of information about the games. The dream that the Chinese people had held for a hundred years seemed to have passed away overnight.
He called the hospital and learned that his father had also woken up and the operation would be done the next day for sure. He was relieved and said to his wife, “Cook some noodles. I will go buy some vegetables and a chicken to stew soup for my old man. He must be hungry too. ”
The vegetable market was close to his house. Not as many people as usual were there, but there were all kinds of fresh vegetables. As Old Zhao chose the vegetables, he saw a neighbor and immediately talked to her.
“Auntie, are the Games over?” he asked.
“I heard that they are over. I myself just woke up yesterday, ” the elderly lady answered.
“They are over. I heard that it was very successful, “another neighbor said.
“I heard that China won more gold medals than any other country in the world,” a vegetable vendor said.
“Yes. I also heard that. China won more than 40 gold medals,” another person said.
“I heard that not even a tiny accident had happened during the Games,” one said.
“I heard that the air quality was very good during those days.”
“I heard that the Chinese team took all the gold medals in Ping Pong and Diving. ”
“I heard that the Chinese men’s soccer team did not get a single goal again ”
“I heard that Liu Xiang broke the world record, ”
“I heard that the president of the International Olympic Committee said that the Beijing Olympic Games were the most successful in the history of the Olympics.”
“Yes, we Chinese had a big show this time. I heard that all foreigners were awed. The Olympic Games have never been so successful before.”
Old Zhao took the vegetables home. His wife had cooked noodles and bent her head to eat without waiting for him. She saw tears in Old Zhao’s eyes, “Why are you sad? There are still noodles left for you in the wok.”
Old Zhao put down the vegetables and rubbed his nose, his voice trembling, “Hey Boss, go outside to listen to what people are saying when you are finished with the noodles, I heard that…I heard that… our nation has finally become powerful now.”