Mourning a Breast

mourning a breast

The following is from Xi Xi’s Mourning a Breast. Xi Xi (1937–2022) was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong in 1950. Over the course of her career, she wrote several books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, as well as numerous screenplays and newspaper and magazine columns. In 2019, she became the first writer from Hong Kong to win Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, and her literary career was the subject of the 2015 documentary film My City.

Just past six in the morning, there were hardly any pedestrians on the road that led to the swimming pool by the sea. Who’d go swimming so early? Though it would be scorching by the afternoon, it was gradually getting cooler now. I got into a taxi and told the driver to take me to Tai Wan Shan Swimming Pool. Going swimming so early? the driver asked. No, I said, I’m just going to do some exercises in the athletic field next to the swimming pool. The taxi traveled down a desolate road, newly constructed factory buildings on either side, a deserted scene of dust and debris devoid of human activity. The road hadn’t been paved yet, and its muddy edges were overrun with weeds and wildflowers. It was a road I knew all too well. Just two months ago, I’d walked it two or three times a week, carrying a backpack with a swimsuit inside. But now I was empty-handed, without a bag, only a wallet and keys stuffed in my pockets.

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I hadn’t been swimming since September. I kept thinking about the steps leading down into the pool and the lifeguard’s large umbrella, but now I couldn’t swim—I even had to be careful while taking a shower. I had left the hospital with my chest still bandaged, the back part of my side swollen like a giant gummy candy. After the surgery, the doctor instructed me to move my arm. Even lying in bed, I swung my arm back and forth like a pendulum; I had asked the nurse for an extra pillow, propping it under my arm to elevate it.

The man in “Guan Guan Cry the Ospreys,” the first poem of Book of Songs, pines for his ideal mate, a virtuous fair maiden, and is unable to sleep at night, tossing and turning, a fate that must have been very painful.9 But I think he was much more comfortable than I was.

Being able to toss and turn is a blessing—at least the whole body is free to roll around. After my surgery, I couldn’t toss and turn. My body could only lie flat. What if I wanted to turn? I could only turn slightly to the left, and I couldn’t turn at all to the right. That side was completely numb and swollen, as though the doctor had tied a piece of pork to my back. Patient Number Seven took a pill for her gallbladder. The doctor instructed her to lie in bed for two hours without turning. This was truly torture. After lying there for an hour, she started complaining. Oh, how she envied those who could toss and turn.

The athletic field next to the pool was bustling with people doing exercises early in the morning. They’d arrived by way of a clean asphalt road lined with row after row of beautiful high-rises. There weren’t many trees in the field, but because it was by the sea, the air was especially fresh, and the area was spacious. In addition to a large soccer field and two basketball courts, there was also an area to rest, with stone benches and tables. By the sea was a long promenade where people walked and did their morning exercises. This athletic field was a little different from others because it was by the sea, so there was a group of strong swimmers who came here regardless of the season. Entry to the pool cost 10 dollars, but to go everywhere else was free, and behind the athletic field’s grandstand, there were changing rooms and restrooms, with fresh water for rinsing off. Moreover, swimming in the sea was certainly more open and freer than in a pool, and seawater didn’t have the chemical smell of pool water. Of course, to swim here, you had to have strong swimming skills.

By the shore I often watched people out at sea, watched them swim to far-off places, climb onto a reef, or rest on the steps of a small pier that extended out into the water. I watched some of them run to the changing rooms to fetch fresh water, carrying buckets across the soccer field to the beach to rinse their bodies. They always said it wasn’t cold, but those of us watching found the morning wind cool. Men, of course, didn’t wear swimsuits. They wore swimming trunks. If a man with breast cancer had undergone surgery and had a long scar on his chest, would he wear a full-body swimsuit from the 1920s?

Maybe it would set off a new trend of nostalgic fashion. Among the strong swimmers, there was a woman who wore a tight-fitting swimsuit; she looked agile and healthy, which I greatly envied. The body beneath that swimsuit must have been in perfect condition, without any flaws or scars. Perhaps she took such happiness for granted. The woman’s swimsuit was patterned with a dense cluster of flowers, a combination of many colors. After rinsing her body with fresh water, she merely wiped her wet limbs with a towel, put on some sports clothes, and left with an empty bucket. When she got home, naturally she’d take off her swimsuit and change into other clothing. As for me? I now wore a strange new type of costume that I never needed to take off. It was in the style of pop art, probably designed by a painter like Dalí, and the tailor was, of course, a surgeon.

Since I’d left the hospital, I was constantly in good spirits, as though I had never undergone surgery. Other people had said that their surgical wounds were painful and prevented them from sleeping at night, but I had no such symptoms at all. From the time I was admitted to the hospital until I was discharged, I didn’t have a moment of pain. Initially, I thought I was going to suffer, but that turned out not to be the case. The greatest physical pain I’d ever experienced in the course of my life was as a teenager when I had a misaligned tooth extracted, and the few times when I’d eaten something bad and gotten diarrhea. I was extremely fortunate to have undergone surgery without any suffering. There was no pain after surgery, only some inconveniences—for example, being unable to bend my right hand behind my back when showering, or not being able to turn onto the affected side when I slept. In all other aspects, nothing had changed. I could still go shopping, take walks, read books, and eat. My mental state, however, was inevitably different. After all, I was a cancer patient. I looked healthy on the surface, but who could say what problems might be lurking? Such thoughts were truly depressing, and having to face radiation, which scared many people out of their minds, was also rather daunting.

When I left the hospital, it felt as though I’d picked up my own body from the hospital bed and brought it home. Now, it was left to me to take care of it. Before this, I never really knew I had a body. The books I’d read had focused on caring for the soul. As a result, the body was completely set aside, and while my soul had seemingly made no progress, my body had secretly deteriorated. The body is very strange: If it doesn’t cause problems, doesn’t give you a bit of pain, doesn’t give you some stimulation, then you don’t pay any attention to it. Ah, I had a body—what on earth had happened to it? Why did a tumor grow? There are many causes of cancer. Some are caused by environmental pollution, some by genetic factors, some by toxins in food. I couldn’t control the environment; it depended on the collective efforts of everyone in society. Genetic factors were also beyond my control. If my parents and ancestors had such genes, then I could only accept my fate. In fact, neither my mother nor either grandmother had ever had any history of breast cancer. My paternal grandmother died of a uterine tumor. Might it have been cancer? This happened several decades ago, and it was now impossible to investigate. None of my female cousins had cancer, so the impact of genetic factors probably wasn’t significant.

Well, then it had to have been food. Yes, I was sure that food had caused my cancer. Of course, I knew that diet affected health, that fatty foods can lead to heart disease and hypertension, and that drinking coffee stimulates the mind—this is all very basic common sense. And so I didn’t drink alcohol, coffee, or soda, and I didn’t smoke. I also avoided fried foods of any kind. Given all of this, how did I end up with a tumor? One reason occurred to me: I had a sweet tooth. I loved eating desserts. When celebrating Lunar New Year at home, I ate copious amounts of chocolates, candied lotus seeds, and eight-treasure rice. Regardless of whose birthday it was, I was the one who ended up in charge of the birthday cake. When dining out at buffets, I ate little else, mainly enjoying a mountain of cake. The desserts I ate on a regular basis were even greater in number. In recent years, I hadn’t been going to work, so in my spare time at home, I ate red bean porridge, glutinous rice cakes, sesame paste, and tofu pudding. All of this eating made me chubby. My friends knew I had a sweet tooth. At every gathering, they left me double portions of tong sui dessert soup. A friend from Taiwan invited me to tea, and knowing I had a sweet tooth, insisted that I have cake. Alas, you are what you eat. I’d eaten so many sweets, and all those deadly sugars and fats had accumulated and formed a tumor.

Of course, the world is full of people with a sweet tooth. Every year, every month, Germans and Americans consume great amounts of chocolate and ice cream, but not everyone ends up with breast cancer. It also has to do with one’s age and life history. I had just reached the age at which the disease was most prevalent, plus I’d never been married or given birth to children or breastfed a baby, and my hormones were at an unbalanced stage. Add to these factors all of those sweets—would it not make the cancer cells ecstatic? As Goethe supposedly put it: By forty, you have the face you deserve. By forty, one must of course also take responsibility for one’s own health. After leaving the hospital, the first thing I resolved to do was give up sweets.

My friends advised me to take up tai chi, since I was temporarily unable to swim, and daily walks didn’t count as aerobic exercise. I inquired at the Urban Council Leisure and Sports Department, but the tai chi classes in the parks near my home all started in August, which didn’t work for me. However, the new class at the seaside athletic field just happened to start on October 1, and the tuition was cheap, only 40 dollars for three months. But the real cost was much more, because the journey from my home was quite far and circuitous. I could take a bus, then walk for fifteen minutes, or I could travel ten minutes there by taxi. The instructor was middle-aged, perhaps in his fifties. He taught the Wu style, which was relatively easy to learn, and the horse stance, one of the fundamental postures, didn’t have to be too strenuous. The tai chi classes run by the Urban Council generally preferred the Wu style, maybe because the instructors all obtained their teaching licenses from the same tai chi association, or maybe because many of the people learning tai chi were older.

Wu-style tai chi suited me perfectly. The small-frame routine, with its emphasis on subtle, compact movements, was just the type of nonstrenuous aerobic exercise that I needed. The instructor also taught slowly, introducing one or two moves at a time, with most of the class devoted to practice. There were more than twenty students in total, practicing together, which was nice; the atmosphere was altogether very pleasant. It was supposed to start at seven. At seven, there were often only three or four early birds there, then people arrived one by one, some even half an hour late. Perhaps it was because when the weather was chilly, they were reluctant to get out of bed. Most people wore workout gear, but some wore dress shirts, suit pants, and leather shoes, because they went to work after tai chi. The instructor took attendance every day, and there were always a few absences. Some people missed too many classes and couldn’t keep up, so they simply stopped coming.

The class took place three times a week, an hour each session. I never missed class, because I had to prioritize my health. In the beginning, I relied on an alarm clock to wake me. Initially, I didn’t want to get out of bed, but gradually, I woke on my own without needing an alarm. At daybreak, I heard the birds chirping. These birds were the best clocks—their chirping was in sync with the seasons and the sunlight, chirping earlier in the summer and later in winter. If I didn’t hear the birds, I gathered it was raining. After each class, our instructor went home right away because he also had to go to work. Later, we learned he had a job at the post office. Some classmates saw him when they went to buy stamps. Among my classmates, there were several housewives who didn’t go to work. They got up early in the morning with their children, and when their children went to school, they came to learn tai chi. After the instructor left, they hung around the athletic field, discussing their children’s homework and their own health. Some of the housewives studied tai chi for health reasons. If they weren’t suffering from backaches, then their bodies were generally frail. They often saw many doctors, and chatted about various illnesses. One very overweight classmate studied tai chi in the hopes of losing weight, but you can’t lose weight by doing tai chi. Perhaps she ended up disappointed. I, however, felt great. Regularly practicing tai chi in the athletic field was very relaxing. Lingering by the sea among the trees and flowers, taking in the fresh air, was the best part of my morning routine. Sometimes when it rained, I couldn’t practice tai chi, and I felt as though something was missing, as if a day without tai chi was like a day without eating.

In the middle of the rest area and the seaside promenade, there was a small playground with bouncy horses, a jungle gym, and swings. This early, the children hadn’t yet come to play by the sea, so the swings became the adults’ cradles. These were sturdy swings, capable of supporting an adult’s weight. They didn’t swing high but swayed low to the ground. I sat on one, watching the sea gently ripple, watching the distant ferries, cargo ships, and buildings on the other shore in the hazy dawn light gradually becoming clear and bright. The sun was ever so golden, floating among the buildings, not yet radiating daggers of light.

The TV show I had watched last night featured another character dying of cancer, which is the easiest way to make a character disappear. There’s no need to act out the illness or describe it in detail—simply mention that cancer has been diagnosed, and before long, the character is gone. This time, the sick character was the female protagonist’s mother. The show wanted to leave the heroine all alone, beset by tragedy, so they had her mother succumb to cancer. In fact, it wasn’t so bad, because the woman was a good and honest, kindhearted elder. In many TV series, the characters who get cancer are big drug lords or heinous villains, and it seems like some sort of cosmic retribution. Illness is linked with things like feng shui and karma. It’s unfortunate enough to get sick, but having to deal with such societal discrimination on top of it is both absurd and lamentable.


From Mourning a Breast by Xi Xi, translated from the Chinese by Jennifer Feeley, published by NYRB Classics. Text copyright © 1992 by Xi Xi. Translation copyright © 2024 by Jennifer Feeley.

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