Charlie and the Two Little Girls
By Minglu Zeng
I gave birth to my daughter Vivian at the age of 16. Vivian’s biological dad ran away before she came into this world. When Vivian turned 11, I felt a need to move out of the old apartment and live in a better place. I was interested in a small but cozy condo and asked my agent Jack why the owner was selling it.
“There is nothing wrong with the condo.” Jack said; then he whispered in my ear, “The owner has just got divorced and screwed.”
So the move started. Vivian loved the new place. While I was busy throwing out things the previous owner had abandoned and moving in our own stuff, Vivian was busy looking around.
“Look, mom!” her screaming came from the small bedroom.
I walked in to find her holding a small stuffed dog. The dog was about 6 inches tall, and was mostly white but for its black nose. Its two brown eyes were wide open, under a pair of drooping eyebrows. Its pair of brown curly ears draped its forehead that was oddly white on one side and brown on the other.
The dog had a tag on its neck with nothing on it.
“Why the dog has no name?” Vivian asked.
Pooh! What should I know?
Vivian looked at the bottom of the dog. “Hey, look!” She showed me another little tag tied to one of the dog’s back leg. “It had something on it, but not in English!” Vivian raised her voice further.
I had to drop something from my hand and took the dog from Vivian. I looked at the little tag carefully. “Seems like they were Chinese characters.” I said.
“Then, the dog must belong to a Chinese girl. She must have left the dog here by accident,” Vivian started to reason. “She must be missing the dog and being sad at this point!”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it. Come on Vivian, come help get our stuff settled.”
“Yes we can.” Vivian wouldn’t let me go. “We should call them and tell them this.”
There she came again with her big heart and small mind. Once her little brain turning that way, there’s nothing I could do but cooperate.
“Okay, I’ll call them. But can we set up your room first?”
I didn’t know the previous owner’s contact information. All I could do was to call agent Jack. Four days passed and Jack did not call back. Vivian was very pushy and I had to call him again.
“Oh, I am so sorry I forgot…Greg did call me and say no, they don’t want the toy dog.”
“Thanks Jack!” I was about to hang up when Jack quickly added, “By the way, he also says no, there is no Chinese girl in their family.”
I turned to Vivian and shrugged, “Here you go. You can have the dog. Oh, and they said there is no Chinese girl in their family.”
I thought she would be very happy as she loved stuffed animals, much as I did, plus, the dog was indeed very cute and adorable.
Vivian did not even smile. She dusted something off the dog’s back and uttered after a moment of silence, “The dog has a Chinese name. I want to know what it is.”
I knew she was up to something. So I ask, “Why don’t you ask Xiaoman?” Xiaoman was Vivian’s classmate.
Vivian did not respond to my suggestion but continue with her thought. “I want to give the dog an English name. I want to call him Charlie.”
“That’s a very good name,” I echoed, “Let’s call it Charlie.”
The stuffed dog Charlie seemed to have changed Vivian. She was frequently in deep thought, mostly with Charlie in her hand. One day I couldn’t help but ask, “Honey, what are you thinking?”
“Mom, I have brought Charlie to Xiaoman. She says the Chinese characters on Charlie’s tag is not his Chinese name but a girl’s name.”
Oh, that indeed was something shocking. “What’s the girl’s name?”
“Her last name is Zhang, first name Lanlan. Xiaoman says it’s a very popular name for Chinese girls. It means orchid.”
I sat down beside her. “She must be a beautiful girl,” I mused.
“Charlie isn’t looking at me.” Vivian stared at Charlie and broke her silence.
“What did you say honey?”
“You see, no matter how I change the position, Charlie’s eyes would not look at me. He is always looking at somewhere else, someone else.”
Oh, I could never catch up with my own daughter and here was all I could say to put her at ease: “Don’t’ be silly honey. It’s just a stuffed dog, not a real thing.” I knew I was merely saying something that Vivian would not listen to anyway.
“Mom, can you send me to Xiaoman’s house? I need to do something with her now.”
“But I have to…”
I would have felt some sense of achievement had I seen smile on Vivian’s face after she returned from Xiaoman’s house. Quite the contrary, there was even more cloud on her face, dark cloud.
“Guess what I have found out mom?”
“Honey, I’ve got no idea.” I was just telling the truth.
“In Sichuan Province of China, there was a huge earthquake causing the death of nearly 70 thousands.”
“Oh my gosh!” I took a chilly breath. I remembered the big quake that happened quite some years ago.
“There was a death list of one class in one elementary school. And guess what mom, there was a girl named Zhang Lanlan on the list!”
I saw what she was getting to.
“Honey,” I said, “That earthquake took place many years ago. The times do not match. Even if they did, it would have been merely a coincidence. As you already know, a lot of Chinese girls called Lanlan; and I know Zhang is a very popular Chinese last name.”
I was not sure if that satisfied my sensitive daughter. This kind of moment was when I hoped that she would be just a bit simpler.
“Mom, how far is China?”
“It is very far away. They are on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.”
She thought about something, and then came closer to me. “Mom, my teacher gave us a special project. It has to do with something outside of the United States. Can we go visit China?”
Oh dear, that was a big bang! I tried to think of it in a positive way. As a matter of fact, I had thought about visiting that country someday.
“Honey, that’s a big deal. We have to plan for it.”
“Can we start planning it now?”
I nodded and finally, she cheered up.
Both of us began to learn Chinese as much as we could. I downloaded an app into my cellphone to translate between English and Chinese.
We couldn’t go on this travel until almost a year later. We went to a remote area in Sichuan Province and got a chance to visit an elementary school called Sunflower School in a little town. I asked if there was any girl named Zhang Lanlan. I was simply trying our luck. Quite astonishingly, there was one! A 9 year old third grader.
Just that fact itself made both Vivian and I feel this travel was all meaningful and worthy. We were super excited and said that we would very much love to meet the girl. Lanlan’s teacher, who also had the last name of Zhang, spoke to us in slow English, “Lanlan is very busy. She had to take care of her family.”
A 9 year old girl took care of the entire family? I was surprised and felt that hard to imagine. “What about her parents?” I spoke slowly as well.
“Her parents are both working in Guangzhou, leaving Lanlan with her grandparents and younger brother.”
“Wow, that’s a big responsibility for her.” I said.
“Yes. It is called ‘The left-behind children issue’ in China now with so many adults leaving the villages.” Teacher Zhang explained.
It was a Saturday. Vivian and I went to girl Lanlan’s home, accompanied by Teacher Zhang.
Lanlan was cooking lunch for her family. She had a round face and short hair, wearing an apron. From time to time, I saw that she had to stand on her tiptoes.
Lanlan looked a bit shy and nervous on our arrival. Teacher Zhang did an introduction. Vivian and I said “Ni Hao” to her with big smiles. Teacher Zhang then said something more to her and she calmed down.
The meal smelled good. There was rice, eggs and soup of vegetable and tofu. Had we not seen it with our own eyes, we simply could not have believed that the meal which was not so simple was actually prepared by a 9 year old little girl.
The grandparents and the young boy were enjoying Lanlan’s cooking and Teacher Zhang encouraged us to taste a little bit too.
When we were eating, I noticed Lanlan did not eat at all.
“Lanlan, chi, chi!” I said to her in my broken Chinese. Teacher Zhang also urged her to eat.
So Lanlan ate.
I looked at her, trying to say something to her, only to find the Chinese that I’d leant was almost all gone.
Teacher Zhang offered to help.
“How often do your parents come home?” I asked.
“It’s only my mom now. My dad…” She stopped and Teacher Zhang added the missing piece for us: “Her parents have divorced.”
Vivian and I looked at each other. Then Vivian blurted these words out: “Don’t feel bad Lanlan. Me too, I only have my mom with me.”
Lanlan nodded after hearing the translation from Teacher Zhang. She continued, “It is supposed to be once a year. But my mom hasn’t been home for the New Year for three years.”
“Call your mom!” Vivian could not help but interrupt.
Lanlan shook her head, “No use.”
“What do you do then?”
Lanlan bit her lips before she came up with this: “I want to go to Guangzhou to see her.”
I could see how Teacher Zhang’s eyes widened. It was obvious that he’d just come to know the little girl’s plan.
“But do you have the money?” was Vivian’s bold question.
Lanlan again bit her own lips and answered, “I have been saving my breakfast money to buy the train ticket to Guangzhou. I am almost there.”
“Do you mean you don’t eat breakfast at all?” I asked.
She nodded, and I heard Teacher Zhang was talking to her in rapid Chinese. I could tell that he was very worried.
All of a sudden, the young boy cried. No matter how the Grandparents tried to comfort him, he just wouldn’t stop. He went so violent that, Lanlan had to stop talking and attend to her younger brother.
She held the boy in her arms and said these: “姐姐抱你，小强不哭咯！姐姐给你小狗狗玩咯！”
Before the stunned Teacher had the time to translate that, Lanlan took a small stuffed dog from out of nowhere and showed it to the young boy. The dog had a silly smile on its face and two big shinny eyes made from two buttons, which were different from Charlie’s, and its ears were so long that they kept swaying back and forth in front of the crying boy.
Magically, the crying stopped and the boy burst into laughter.
My eyes became moist. I tried hard not to show. “Where did you get this dog?” I heard Vivian’s eager voice.
“我自己做的,” she said, showing us a little basket with needles and threads.
Vivian, also from out of nowhere, pulled out her Charlie. “Hey Lanlan, this is your dog. See, it has your name on it!”
Lanlan was puzzled for a moment; so was Teacher Zhang. I gave Teacher Zhang a brief story about Vivian and her Charlie. Teacher Zhang in turn shared that with Lanlan.
“See, Lanlan, Charlie is looking right at you, isn’t he?”
Girl Lanlan took the dog. She gazed at the three Chinese characters on Charlie’s tag, looking into its cheerful eyes that seemed to be able to speak. A teardrop was slowly rolling down along her cheek, like morning dew sparkling on petals of an orchid.
"Thank you!" Girl Lanlan said to girl Vivian.
Through my blurry eyes, I saw Vivian smiling in a way that I had never seen before.
I also saw Charlie and Lanlan's smiles. From Vivian to Lanlan, little dog Charlie had crossed two worlds, which connected by two little girls’ laughter.