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No Roofs Left Behind

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There is something very strangely calming about the cerulean tint to the sky today. The wisps of gray across the vast stone-blue stretch add an oddly romantic yet melancholic hue to the afternoon. Despite the foreboding aura that the skies exude, and Shen Wei’s general dislike for the stormy weather, for some reason, today just feels better than any day from this past week. It’s Thursday and Shen Wei only has one more meeting to attend before he wraps us his day and cycles back to his apartment.

Shen Wei leans into his elbows placed on the table, closing his eyes and letting the humidity that envelopes Dragon City right before a torrential rain wash over him. He usually hates the sticky dampness of squally afternoons, hates the way his bangs plaster onto his forehead and how his wet eyelashes smudge his spectacles. Today, however, with his notebooks and stationary spread out all over the foldable table top, he finds himself sighing deeply with relief, straightening his legs under the table until he hears his knees pop.

After spending a very hectic three weeks of June navigating his way around Dragon City, wriggling his way inside the City Council archives with the help of professors annoyed at having their summer breaks disturbed, storming through the Dragon City Central Library spending his days and most of the nights between aisles 4 and 10, Shen Wei has finally, successfully, drafted the first version of his Undergraduate Honors thesis proposal. Shen Wei had known what he wanted to work on long before the deadlines for the proposal submission had rolled out- he had known ever since he first stepped into Dragon City University.

Housing.

For as long as he can remember, his life has revolved around this one word and the entire world that this word engulfs. Shen Wei rolls his shoulders, massaging the knots at the base of his neck. He has been sitting here for more than four hours. He doesn’t even remember the bathroom breaks that he blurred his way through, and as he looks at the mess that is his table in the Dragon City University library, he grimaces slightly to see his full water bottle glaring at him from a corner. He drinks his way through half of the water before standing up with a silent groan and gathering his papers and notebooks, neatly depositing them inside his messenger bag.

Shen Wei knows that he has been neglecting his bodily needs these past few weeks, completely swept up in preparing for his thesis, going through unending meetings with his thesis advisor, and gathering all the relevant data to bolster his proposal. This whirlwind of academic activities had left him with no time to practice Muay Thai with his small group of students. After his last meeting of the day with DCU’s Social Progress and Policy Program Director, Shen Wei is going to head to his apartment and sleep off as much of his exhaustion as he possibly can in the few hours between the afternoon and his shift at Old Dixing Café at seven o’clock. He promises himself to wake up early tomorrow morning to resume his daily exercises.

Despite Shen Wei’s thesis advisor Professor Dong Fan’s fervent enthusiasm for Shen Wei’s finalized thesis topic, he had been summoned to Director Ouyang Zhen’s office twice now for follow-up questions on the presentation that he had delivered on Tuesday, explaining his research question, his qualitative and quantitative approach, and the tentative budget. Of course, Shen Wei knew why. Despite that, he was no less disappointed to know that his thoughts had successfully translated into reality.

‘Just power through it’, Shen Wei whispered to himself and snatched up his messenger bag and water bottle, walking out of the library and heading towards the building across the campus courtyard towards Director Ouyang's faculty pod. By the time he’s outside Director Ouyang's door, Shen Wei is seriously reconsidering walking over to the vending machine at the other end of the hall for a quick snack, regretting having skipped out on breakfast and lunch and knowing that the lightheadedness would be no aid against Director Ouyang's grueling, rapid-fire QA rounds. Too late, the door falls open just as Shen Wei takes a step back and towards the vending machine, with angry footsteps quickly ushering out and stumbling into Shen Wei.

‘What- Oh. Shen Wei. Sorry about that’, mutters Da Qing.

Da Qing used to be one of Shen Wei’s mentees under the Peer Tutor Support program, before he switched his major from Social Progress and Policy to Animal Psychology last fall. With Da Qing never being one to bother with honorifics anyway, Shen Wei ignores the use of his full name by the Sophomore and asks, ‘You were here to see Director Ouyang?’ Da Qing grimaces, with an uncharacteristically defeated look shadowing across the younger boy’s face before it is replaced with a false smile. ‘Yeah, yeah. He was my course instructor for Social Theory last fall and hasn’t transferred my grades over to the Sciences department yet. Just wanted to remind the lousy fucker and ask him to pace up.’

Well, that was clearly a lie. And a bad one too. Shen Wei decides to let it slide. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t really his business, today was Thursday. Da Qing always comes to Old Dixing for dinner on Thursday nights, with Da Qing's part-time job at the animal shelter being a Sunday to Thursday rotation, he has an unusual Thursday-Friday weekend. Not that it really matters, it’s summer anyway and the Fall semester does not start for another six weeks. Shen Wei might take a quick ten-minute break from his shift in the kitchen to head out into the lobby and sit for a bit with Da Qing.

The lithe boy is remarkably like a snarky little cat. From his physical mannerisms to his entire personality, the feline-natured Sophomore needs just the perfectly baked serving of Old Dixing’s fish pie and some attention from the person on the seat across the table to pour out unending tales on delightful girlfriends, unfair deadlines, incorrigible roommates, and terrible professors.

Oh yes, Shen Wei was definitely in for fifteen long minutes on whatever transpired inside Director Ouyang's office today.

‘Alright, Da Qing. See you later then’, Shen Wei smiles. Da Qing smiles back at him and adds with a light punch to his shoulder, ‘You better be looking less peaky tonight, okay?’ Shen Wei grimaces and nods, and then moves past him with a quick goodbye wave and knocks on Director Ouyang's door.

‘Come in’, the voice booms from inside, louder and gruffer than usual. Swallowing past his anxiety and steeling himself as if for battle, Shen Wei turns the knob and sticks his head inside the office. Director Ouyang looks up and sighs, ‘Ah, yes. Shen Wei. Come in. We had a meeting at two yes… and yes, it is two indeed.’ Shen Wei takes a seat and places his messenger bag on the accompanying empty seat. Director Ouyang looks past Shen Wei and outside the window, picks up the white remote on his table and turns up the air conditioning. ‘It’s going to rain again today. Better sooner than later then, it’s so hot right now. Cannot wait for the post-rain cool air and greenery to add some color to the gray drabbery’, Director Ouyang says, loosening his tie and popping open his collar button. He shifts his focus to Shen Wei, as if just noticing his presence again and sits up straighter, suddenly all business with an unmistakable glint in his eye.

‘Ah yes, we are here to discuss your thesis topic, are we? So what was the topic again?’ Before Shen Wei can open his mouth to answer, Director Ouyang continues, ‘"The Dixingren Housing Crisis in Dragon City", yes?’ Shen Wei does not know whether to nod to the rhetorical answer or to add to it. He remains silent, waiting for Director Ouyang to continue.

‘You know, for a student on a scholarship, currently academically placed in the top 10% of your batch, one really would have foreseen that you would capitalize upon your Dixing heritage to the fullest. An academic prodigy from a buried, unheard of village in the north of the country makes it to the top University in Dragon City. That sounds like an article that would sell, no?’, Director Ouyang cocks up an eye. Shen Wei carefully unclenches his jaw and forces himself to speak in an even tone, ‘Director Ouyang, as I said before in the presentation, my thesis is not primarily centered on solely Dixing. It focuses upon the Dixingren immigrants in Dragon City and the discrimination that they face from Haixing residents and land-owners, specifically focusing upon housing.’

The maddening gleam in Director Ouyang's eyes intensifies. ‘Are you not a Dixingren immigrant enrolled in not only a top university, but also paying not a dime for your quality education? Also, unlike other DCU students, you don’t even live on the campus dorms because you can very well afford an apartment of your own. Why would a brilliant student like you waste precious DCU resources on a thesis based upon fragmented rumors and a twisted version of reality?’
Right, his squalid apartment halfway across the city that he was forced to move into after-

After.

Later.

Shen Wei takes a deep breath, swallowing down terror at memories that threaten to resurface and erode his composure.


‘Director Ouyang, this is a view shared by many native Haixingrens all across Dragon City. That the plight of Dixing immigrants is a made-up story curated to garner sympathy. With this thesis, and even with my proposal alone, I have the potential to uncover enough cases and evidences that support my hypothesis and research statement. If given the opportunity – ‘

‘If? There are no ifs here, Shen Wei. Your thesis and academic advisors have clearly approved of your proposal. No, you’re not here because I am going to force you to select another topic. I can’t just disapprove of the potential-valedictorian’s thesis topic just because I think it’s ridiculous. No. You are here because you don’t see just how truly naïve you are. Shen Wei, I might sound like a bigoted native Haixing, but at the core of this discussion is not my unhidden distrust for Dixingrens and their deleterious impact on my city. No, you are here because I want you to know that during your research, when you go about ‘uncovering’ cases and looking for evidence, if you find yourself in any complicated situations, or more seriously, if the DCU garners any unwanted attention from perilous sources, the Social Progress and Policy department will be in no way responsible for your immediate expulsion.’ Director Ouyang continues staring unflinchingly at Shen Wei. ‘We are just a board of boring old professors with boring professions and boring personal lives. We have no connections or powers against the kind of people you’re looking to get up against with this thesis of yours. If you think that getting up against the housing mafia is a joke, then play along with it on your own. I have seen the research that has gone into your proposal. You went to the archives- ’

Director Ouyang takes in a deep breath, and then exhales noisily.

‘Shen Wei, you know what you are doing, right?’. Despite the cold monologue, the last question is spoken in a surprisingly soft tone, tinged with genuine concern.

Shen Wei now fully regrets walking into the freezing office on no daily nutrition to fight off the fog that has enveloped his mind. Forcing his lips apart and quickly swiping his tongue across his lower lip to drive away the tingling feeling, Shen Wei responds in a tone that he hopes conveys fully his conviction and his motivation, fueled by ten years of grief and loneliness. ‘Yes, Director Ouyang. I know. Please do not worry, the last four years of my education have been sufficient training for the undertaking of this final project for my undergraduate degree. I am fully prepared to progress forward with the research. I am also willing to sign any documents that you might have prepared to accept complete responsibility over the potential outcomes of conducting this research.’

Director Ouyang stares at him for a few seconds, his eyes roving over Shen Wei’s face with unbidden curiosity, confusion, and finally, defeat. ‘Alright. Sure. I will let you know about those documents. Good luck.’ Shen Wei is surprised with the quick, sudden dismissal but he hurries up anyway, forcing his feet to fight the inertia and shuffle past the head-rush.

Shen Wei bows his gratitude and his hand is at the knob of the door when Director Ouyang adds in an odd-sounding voice, ‘You know, if you’re going to do this, might as well do it right. You should maybe start binging on some of those energy bars or whatever it is you kids have it these days.’

He’s very quiet as he adds, ‘You’ll need every ounce of energy if you’re going to stand against Zhao Xinci and his goons.’