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Wenxin & Etienne

The Cotton Teaser’s Empty Book of Cotton

On a Backstreet in Northeast China, a Yarn Spun of Survival


On a wintery day in the lane of Huiwu Street, Shenyang, an LED light sign advertising “Cotton Teasing”  protruded out of the building, like those night markets in Hong Kong. The stall was on the first floor of the building. A heap of trash was piled outside Hong’s stall. In the very front of her stall, outside of the glass doors, was a small ramp. The street was a mix of little shops and residential apartments.  

She was a middle-aged woman. She was digging into a big sack at the front of her apartment stall while talking to customers who came by to pick up their cotton quilts. Hong’s grandson played by her side. She was dressed in a sapphire goose-feather jacket. She wore a white mask and a thick cyan headband.

Hong’s stall was as narrow as a corridor. The left side was taken by a refrigerator with cold drinks and a wide freezer with ice-cakes inside. The right side was taken by a table with drinks to sell, and another table with miscellaneous toys, scissors, boxes, and a tea kettle. The cotton quilts were kept in an in-promptu attic above her head. She peeled off the brand of ice cream advertisement and put it on the glass door of her stall. The skin of her hands was wrinkled and rough. 

People used the quilts for a long time, so the cotton inside gets stiff. It no longer kept them warm. It stiffened. “People nowadays buy new quilts rather than fix them. But teasing the cotton brings it back to life, makes it fluffy, better than new sometimes,” Hong said. She clutched onto a thick bedsheet. “The cotton inside the cloth is real gold.”
Hong's left pant leg was rolled up, revealing two wounds on her left knee that were swamped in purple, coated with yellow ointment exposed to fresh air. She had tripped and was about to fall on top of her grandson, so she chose to fall down the steps instead. “My knee is like this but I still have to work,” she complained, “I have no choice.”
Hong, whose name has been changed to protect her identity,  bought the shop and apartment three years ago with a three hundred thousand yuan loan. “This is my property. I own it. I am sheltered and free.” She also bought another apartment about a ten-minute walk from this stall fourteen years ago, where she began teasing the cotton in Shenyang. 
Cotton teasing was not her choice of living style nor a skill her parents passed on to her. “It’s what my husband does. He inherited the cotton teasing skill from his father. I have to do whatever my husband does for a living. As the old saying goes, ‘Follow the man I married, be he a cock or a dog.’ What choice do I have?” 

Hong was born in a little village in Hunan Province. She had to cook for her family and do farming work since she was eleven years old. After marrying her husband at eighteen, she accompanied him to travel north to big cities in China. “I travel wherever there is business for cotton teasing, wherever I can make a living to survive.” In the northern cities, coldness brought more demand for cotton. She moved from Huaihua in Hunan Province, Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, and Shenyang in Liaoning Province over a period of nearly 31 years. Their home was wherever the teasing machine was. At some point, they had nothing but a piece of plastic over their heads as roofs. If it rained, they put another piece of plastic on the ground. This establishment is the first place they own.

Hong walked to the back of the room, the place of the cotton-teasing machine. The machine was a green box with cogs and chains, as large as a big table. The initial sheet of cotton was about as thick and dense as an old carpet and as large as a bed. The surface was creased and bits were falling off, like the inside of an orange peel. She grabbed a pair of thick but sharp scissors and cut the sheet through the middle. She had to use her other hand to squeeze the scissors shut at every snip. When she turned on the machine, it roared as loud as you would expect. She placed the pieces of old cotton on a platform with a rectangular opening, and the machine began devouring the cotton. 

What happened with the stiff cotton inside the machine was inside the machine. It cannot be seen. The cotton that came out the other end no longer looked like a stiff sheet but rather was a cloud. She picked up one of many thick bamboo sticks placed in the corner of this room and put it on top of the place where the fluffy cotton came out. With the machine running, the fluffy cotton naturally rolled up around the stick. The strands of cotton were no longer tied together as a solid entity. It was hard to distinguish when the cotton ended and the air started. Indeed, thousands of strands fell loose off the cotton and began floating around the cotton teasing machine. While Hong waited next to the machine, she took a seat on her own secret cotton-teasing time machine and opened her pandora’s memory box that was filled with stiff cotton. 

Her father drank and hit her mother every day after he got drunk. Shattered pieces of glass bottles, smelling of alcohol, were scattered around their home. Hong watched her mother leave the home with a suitcase when she was six years old. She never saw her mother again. After her mom left, her siblings and herself were hit by her father every day and scarred by shattered pieces of alcohol bottles. “I was forced to sleep with the pigs in the barn.” 

Her two sisters both got pregnant during the engagement stage of their arranged marriages. The father was so embarrassed by the family scandals that he decided to arrange a marriage for her while drinking with a buddy when she was as young as 18 years old. Hong wanted to leave home to make a living through her labor and to marry a man of her choice, but her father threatened her and smashed furniture around. 

Her father said, “You are my daughter. You are my property. Unless you die, you have to do what I told you to do. If not, when you come back home, I’ll break your legs.” Hong witnessed her third sister facing the same challenge and still left home whereas when she came home, he hit her with her own suitcase and threw her out. She panicked. She could not escape her father's wrath. Unless she died, that's what he had said. So she decided to drink a bottle of insecticide. It didn’t work. She was saved with tubes through her nose into her body. 

“My father-in-law was the same alcoholic rubbish as my father’” she said, and paused for a few seconds.“He hit me every day after he got drunk.” But soon she resumed carrying the stick rolled with cotton towards a big table and started unfolding the fluffy cotton into a thin white blank cotton page. “I’m glad that my father and my father-in-law are both dead now. The two people who tortured me the most in my life have finally died. I am finally free.” Her eyes were often rimmed with tears once in a while when she spoke. “To love, or not to love, does it matter anymore? It is about survival.” 

“Suicide was painful. And with that pain, how dare I try it again?” she said while putting on another jacket for her grandson who was playing in the stall. Hong gave birth to her two sons within the first three years of her marriage. She decided to stay alive for them. She wanted them to have the mother she never had. 

Her husband was satisfied with his two male heirs, but she wanted to have a daughter that she could talk to. Eight years after the birth of her second son, she told her husband, “I will have a baby. If it is a boy, I will have an abortion. I will only have a baby if it is a girl.” 

“I can only tell my secrets to a daughter, but not to the boys.” After a round of unrolling the cotton, she put another stick on the machine and waited for the next round of fluffy cotton. She repeated this move almost twenty times and finally, a thick white fluffy page of cotton was laid out on the table. 

When the cotton is all placed back together on the table, it is almost ten times as thick as its original size. She has created a colossal empty book of cotton. She has the story, she has the pages, but she does not have a pen. “If I were educated and literate, I would write a big, big book on my life,” Hong said, “but I am not, so I can’t.”  
Her grandson woke up grumpily from a nap. He smacked her in the back of her head with his little hand. “Don’t cry if you can help it,” he said in his high, child’s voice. Her head wobbled a bit from the blow, but she returned only a smile at him. 

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Wenxin Tang

Wenxin Tang is a writer and poet from Shanghai. She is 22 years old with a major in Humanities at NYU Shanghai. She is delighted to explore slow journalism. She loves traveling and cats.

Etienne Ortega

Etienne Ortega studies data science and political economy at NYU Shanghai. He has lived in Mexico City, Tijuana, and Chongqing before coming to Shanghai. He loves city life and writing in parks.

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