Liu Yaru: Living an Empty Life

Story written by Robert Yang

I took cautious steps into the dimly-lit entrance. “Anybody home?” I yelled through the dark living room, but the house replied with silence. As I politely repeated myself to the structure, I noticed a distant sound – the television. I traced the sound into a bright room in the back. 

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Leaning into the room, I saw a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, but it was the dusty windows that illuminated the room with filtered sunlight. To my right, I saw a baby—Yaru—and her grandmother sitting on the cot staring blankly at the TV, watching an old soap opera. They both turned to look at me, but said nothing. An older man, grandpa Liu, was crouched on the floor, busy taping a fan together. He too tilted his head up and gazed at me, but again, said nothing. 

I asked the first question: “Excuse me, is the baby’s mother home?” At this, the grandma uttered the first words of our encounter: “Her mother’s dead.” With respect and caution, I approached the grandma to learn more about the mother. She explained to us that Yaru’s mother had become depressed after Yaru was born and had committed suicide on the day Yaru turned one month old. Yaru’s father had had no choice but to continue working to provide for the family; Grandma told us that he now works in a mine in Hunan Province, 600 miles away.
 
Yaru sat nearly motionless on the cot throughout the interview; her attention was attracted briefly by our arrival but immediately returned to the soap opera that was playing in the corner. Apart from the TV, Yaru’s favorite and only toy was a fly swatter. 
 
As we continued to chat, it became clear that Yaru’s life was exactly what I saw in front of me. She has no toys, no books. Her daily routine consists of eating on the cot, sleeping on the cot, and watching soap operas on the cot. This reliance on the TV can be seen in every aspect of Yaru’s life. One of the first words out of Yaru’s mouth was ‘dian shi’, or ‘shi shi’: the TV. 
 
Her grandparents, however, seem blind to this emptiness. They have high hopes for her—they want her to make it to college—but seem to believe that Yaru’s future academic success, or lack thereof, is entirely up to fate. Although Yaru’s grandparents want her to do well in the future, they do not interact with her at home. The only conversations Yaru has encountered at home are either quick exchanges between her grandparents, or dramatic dialogue between adults in Qing dynasty costumes on the screen. And although the family is poor, they still spend a quarter of their monthly income on Yaru. They are determined to provide everything for Yaru, because Yaru is everything to them.