Twenty fragments of a ravenous youth - By Xiaolu Guo

MY YOUTH BEGAN WHEN I WAS 21. At least, that's when I decided it began. That was when I started to think that all those shiny things in life – some of them might possibly be for me.

If you think 21 sounds a bit late for youth to start, just think about the average dumb Chinese peasant, who leaps straight from childhood to middle age with nothing in between. If I was going to miss anything out, it was middle age. Be young or die. That was my plan.

Anyway, when I was 21, my life changed just by filling out this application form. Before then, I was just an ignorant country girl who didn't know how to do anything except dig up sweet potatoes, clean toilets and pull levers in a factory. Okay, I'd been in Beijing a few years, but I was still a peasant.

My momentous transformation took place at the Beijing Film Studios. It was a boiling hot afternoon. The walls of the recruitment office were still messy with the slogans of Chairman Mao: 'Serve the People!' Green-headed flies buzzed over a lunchbox of leftover noodles. Behind the lunchbox, a hero of the people was dozing away on his chair. He was supposed to be supervising the registration of film extras. It had obviously worn him out. He paid no attention to us. We were flies too.

There were three other girls filling out forms. They looked much cooler than me: dyed hair, tattooed arms, fake leather handbags, jeans with holes, the whole lot. They chatted and giggled like geese. But I could tell that, underneath their fully armed appearance, they were just brown-skinned peasant girls from yellow sandy provinces, like me.

I picked up a pen from the desk, a Hero fountain pen. Only old communists still use Hero pens. I've never liked them. They're lousy. As I wrote, the Hero started to leak. The ink ruined my application form. My fingers turned black, and my palm too. My mother used to say a black palm would cause your house to catch fire. So I started to worry my inky palm would bring me bad luck.

The office was totally full of application forms. CVs were piled from floor to ceiling. Dust hung in the air like the milky way. As I attached my photo to the top-right-hand corner of the sheet, the hero of the people dozing behind the lunchbox woke up. The first thing he did, he stood up and swung a fly-swatter around his lunch to exterminate the flies. The three girls stopped filling out their forms and looked frightened by this sudden violence. Bam, one fly. Bam, a second. He sat down again, two dead bodies on the desk in front of him.

I handed over my 15-yuan registration fee. Without looking at me, he took a bunch of keys from his belt and, leaning forward, opened an old squeaky drawer. He found a big stamp, adjusted some numbers, and pressed it into a red ink pad. Then he raised his arm and slammed it down on my form. Extra No. 6787.

So, I was the 6,787th person in Beijing wanting a job in the film and TV industry. Between me and a role stood 6,786 other people – young and beautiful, old and ugly. I felt the competition, but compared with the 1.5 billion people in China, 6,786 wasn't such a daunting number. It was only the population of my village. I felt an urge to conquer this new village.

Still without looking at me, the fly-swatting hero of the people started to study my photo on the stained form.

'Not bad, young girl. Compared to other parts of your face, your forehead has something: it's nearly as broad as Tiananmen Square. And your jaw's not bad, either. It will bring you good fortune, believe me. Square jaws do. As for your earlobes – fat as Buddha's. The fatter the luckier, did you know that? Mmm... you're not that ugly. You can't imagine how many ugly people come to this place every day. I don't get it. Don't they look at themselves in the mirror first?'

I listened patiently and then thanked him. Leaving Extras No. 6788, 6789, 6790 behind, I walked back out into the street. The noon sun hit the top of my head so heavily it immediately fried my hair. The summer heat and dust of the city rose up from the concrete pavement. I was caught in the middle of this heat fight. I almost fainted in