Sunday, December 27, 2009

Marinade of Contentment

Morning woke me with silence and warmth. The blinds glowed softly, tickling my senses with dim grayish light. I tried to recall dreams from last night, but there wasn't any to be summoned. The slumber was as smooth as the silky sheets around me.

Coco curled up in a furry round ball by my feet. She would not rise unless I asked: "Breakfast?" I hugged my companion - the soft pillow - with a lazy sigh and a contented squeeze. My head on its body and my arms around it, I enjoyed the slow retreat of the morning haze, one warm breath at a time.

Everything was quietly resting. Even the birds were snuggling in their nests tucked away deep in the trees. Faint aroma of dinner and spices still lingered in ribbons of air painted by watercolor brushes. Last night was brought back to mind instantly. We didn't have fancy games on a table glistening with silver and crystal to admire, but we had more than enough tasty morsels for our stomachs to expand with joy.

I asked for nothing this year. A wide screen high definition TV given to me earlier was more than I needed for my simple house and lifestyle. I was blessed in more than one way, and perhaps more than I deserved. I still received presents in spite of it. What more could a heart desire?

We missed one or two of our loved ones, but we were happy most of the small family was together. I was thankful for our health, our safety and a year of relative calmness. Perhaps a few bumps in the road, and perhaps we were scarred slightly, but we overcame and were grateful they weren't worse. We look forward to a brand new year with brand new adventures, hopefully with stronger minds from the roads we navigated through the year before.

The kids were sleeping soundly, recovering from a late night of movies, games and chattering. One was under the attack of a cold, and the other snored through the night. Chicken soup had come to the rescue, or at least to the comfort, of both mother and child. The mother would like to feed her child chicken soup everyday if she could, until the ailment was defeated completely. The child had asked for a second bowl of it. A simple "yummy" was the best reward a mother could receive.

The warmth of the bed, the scattered clan under one roof again, and little abundance in our lives made my grateful heart full of joy. This was my happiest day of the year - the morning after Christmas.

(I hope your Christmas was joyful and warm, whether you were with or without your loved ones. Happy New Year to everyone!)

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Girl at the Bus Stop

He walked slowly to the bus stop and sat down on the bench. The sultry summer heat felt like a thick warm blanket wrapped around him. There was no relief anywhere he looked. The shaved ice he just had while visiting his friend had already turned into sweat, and it was eager to escape from his every pore.

Several young girls gathered at the far end of the bench. Their whispers and giggles told him they were talking about him. It was a reaction he had to get used to, along with double takes and pointing. He was, after all, an outsider to them. The tropical island thousands of miles away from home enticed him from the booklet with beautiful pictures, and convinced him to "study abroad." It was a difficult language to master, but he studied hard in the crash course before departure. They would be in shock if they knew he could manage some basic phrases. The thought of it brought a smile to his face.

He turned to see if the bus was in sight, and he saw her.

She had long straight hair, and a clear face with no makeup. Her youthful features would be soiled by the manmade mask. The arched eyebrows asserted to be lively and challenging. Her small lips rested under a cute nose which perked with curiosity. Her dark eyes held behind a mysterious veil he could not describe. A glance from her seemed to see through his emotions, and ask for more. He had to remind himself to breathe. Her skin was perfect, as if life's worries hadn't found their ways to her yet. Her slender body was wrapped in short-sleeve shirt and a simple short black skirt. Her freshness glowed unintentionally. He hadn't seen the like until now, and a cord somewhere in him was plucked.

She came to him, or rather, to the bus stop, and sat down on the bench, maintaining a safe space between them. He moved his body when she turned to inquire the absent bus, trying to get her attention. Her eyes swept over him for a second, but they did not linger. He was a handsome young man by the standards of where he came from, and girls always paid attention to him. This was frustrating, but he was not to be discouraged.

She sensed his gaze, and hid her eyes under her long eyelashes. She hugged her books closer to her body slightly, as if they could protect her from his relentless eyes. His hair reminded her of the cinnamon bars in her mother's kitchen cabinets. His eyes looked at her, but the transparent irises strangely lacked focus, or a definite color. One could almost see through his head and into the unknown. He was not one of them - he was too foreign. She wished he would stop looking at her. What did he want? She could not fathom.

Before he could think of something to say with his simple vocabulary, the bus arrived. The group of girls swarmed to the door and shoved each other to get on. She watched from a few steps back, but did not join the battle. He quickly walked over and blocked the door with his arm, then turned to look at her. All the other girls turned and looked at her as well. It was clear what he wanted, and it was too much staring for her to endure. She lowered her head and got on the bus, whispering a soft "thank you."

His boldness terrified her. She walked to the last row hoping to avoid him. He followed her and sat down next to her, blocking her way out. She had a moment of panic, but did not let it show. She answered his questions with either a nod or a shake of her head, speaking only a word or two when absolutely necessary. He did his best to start a conversation, but clearly she was not used to talking to a stranger. He could not tell how fast her heart was beating, but gradually he sensed he was not going to have a cooperate companion for conversation, much less anything else.

She stood up after what seemed to him a very short ride, and reluctantly he moved to let her pass. She got off the bus and stole a look back, relieved to be free of his spell. He watched her silky hair flow like the wings of a butterfly when the bus pulled away. With a silent sigh he lost sight of her silhouette.

Another time or another place, the encounter would be much different. Where is she now and how is her life? He sometimes wonders, but the quiet night thousands of miles away provides no answers.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

First Night

She woke up from a deep slumber. The room was still dark, and for a while she didn’t know where she was. She realized with a shock that this was not her room, and was awake completely.

The night before was long, noisy and utterly embarrassing. The boys stayed well beyond midnight with their endless teasing, game playing, and drinking. She was forced to have a sip, and her face turned red immediately upon swallowing the burning liquid. They laughed and let her off the hook. She thought she caught a glance of her husband, who stole a look at her shyly while the boys laughed. He was a nice looking young man. Her face felt warm at her own thought.

She sat up cautiously in bed and peeked at the other end of the bed. He was still sound asleep. The fact that there was a stranger sleeping next to him, although not face-to-face, and he didn't seem to mind was a little odd to her. She was so nervous when he came to bed last night she thought she was going to faint. Her heartbeats calmed down when the only thing he did was to fall asleep as soon as he lied down. Her mother vaguely explained to her what might happen during the first night, which sounded much like a torture to her. She was relieved it did not happen last night.

But then, he must have been exhausted, too. The boys would come back again tonight, to perform another customary "havocking the new room" for the newlyweds. Only heaven knew what they had planned to do. Last night, for one of the tricks, they forced her husband to traverse a handkerchief up one of her sleeves, across her bosom (her face was as red as the persimmons!) and down the other sleeve inside of her garment. The sheer embarrassment of it! No men had ever touched her in her life except her father, and he stopped hugging her when she turned 16. Her husband's touch sent an electric wave to her entire body. The feeling was so foreign and so exciting that she almost wished it would happen again tonight.

Her face felt warmer at this thought.

She told herself she had better get up and get ready. Her mother had told her: always get up before your husband does.

Her maids were sent home last night by her mother-in-law after the banquet, which she did not attend by custom. Her mother-in-law had made it clear: no daughter-in-law of hers would have any servants. They cried when they came to say goodbye. She was in shock and did not have any tears. She grew up with two of the maids her parents sent with her as part of the dowry. They were her only friends outside of family members, since girls from good families were not supposed to go outside or be seen by strangers.

She was left alone in a stranger's house, and she knew her days of being a treasured daughter had officially ended.

She opened the door quietly and walked to the other side of the courtyard where the kitchen was. She tried to get some hot water, but starting a fire in the brick stove proved to be too difficult of a task for her. The ceremonial lectures from her mother did not mention the details of the work normally performed by servants. The courtyard was quiet and dim before dawn, so nobody saw her predicament. She did not have to cook for the first three days, but the honeymoon would end there. Her husband was the first born; therefore his wife would bear much of the housework.

She did not understand why she couldn't keep the maids, as they could lighten the workload for everybody. They would not increase the expense for the family either, as she had her own money. She did not ask, for she was not in a position to make any decisions.


She carried some cold water back to the new room. The fine china water bowl and jug were set up by her maids last night. All of a sudden tears appeared in her eyes now she thought of her companions, and felt very lonely standing in this unfamiliar room.

Her husband woke up just when she finished washing her face, getting dressed, and styling her hair into a simple bun – a style indicated her marrital status. She helped him get ready for the day in silence, both felt awkward being alone in the bedroom. Much to her relief, he did not seem to mind her imperfection. He had a gentle tone when he spoke. She took it as a sign of having a kind temperament. She thanked her parents and the goddess of marriage silently.

They would greet the parents with three koutous in the main hall, and the four of them would then go to the family’s shrine to present the bride to the ancestors, with incense and another three koutous, and ask for their blessings - the parents standing in front, she and her husband behind them. She then would become a formal member of the family.

Relatives and neighbors would come and congratulate the newlyweds all day long, followed by their boys proceeding with the second round of teasing at night. It was meant for good omen for the new couple, and they would do this for three nights straight. The more they teased, the better the marriage would be.

The night might require all her strength to endure, but comparing to what was waiting for her in the future, it was just a dress rehearsal.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The day started very early. She bathed with fruits and herbs soaked in hot water to rid any evil spirits. She then put on brand new undershirt and skirt, and waited for her aunt to come and comb her hair. She would comb her hair with the jade comb four times, each stroke with a different symbol and blessing for her future.

First combing: From beginning until end
Second combing: Harmony to old age
Third combing: Sons and grandsons all over the place
Forth combing: Good wealth and long-lasting marriage

After that, her maid would style her hair to a fashion that would accommodate the headdress later.

She was marrying down to a family with a lower status. She never met her future husband. Parents of both families arranged everything with the help of a matchmaker. She had spent the past six months preparing her dowry once the proposal was accepted by her father. She made all the bedroom linens with embroidered dragon and phoenix on them. She made all the clothes she and her future husband could possibly wear for the next ten years. It was a lot of work, but it wasn’t hard. She knew needlework since a very young age. She also had to learn how to cook. Not that she needed to – her two maids were going with her. But she learned it as a basic skill any brides should know.

And everyday, her mother would give her advice and lessons on how to be a good wife, and an obdient daughter-in-law. She could sense the sadness in her mother grew stronger as the wedding day drew closer.

It was time to leave. She had the red gown and the red headdress on a while ago. Now the maid put a red veil over her headdress to cover her face. It would be removed by her husband when they were alone in their “new room” later. The procession of the dowry started a while ago. It was required by the custom, and it was copious because of her lineage. Her father was the descendant of Confucius, the most respected scholar in history. Her husband’s family was related to the Mencius clan, the second most respected scholar in history, by marriage. In a way it was a perfect match, and she should feel grateful that she was being married off. After all, she was considered a girl with a serious flaw.

Her mother whispered some last minute advice before she boarded the red sedan. She cried silently under the veil, for the future was foggy and scary. She wouldn’t be able to see her parents often. She would be alone in a stranger’s house. Her mother was crying as well. How was the husband going to treat her? Were her in-laws going to like her? She was out of her protective arms now.

It seemed that the whole village came out to see the procession. This was not a common marriage between two ordinary families. Both families, especially the bride’s side, held high esteem and were well regarded in the village. They were educated people who used to hold government official positions. The wealth might have been declining in the past hundred years or so, but the status was still there.

The dowry carriers formed a line as long as a mile following the musicians. Men on horses guarded the procession on both sides. The linens she made occupied about ten trunks, each carried by two hired hands. Silk cloths occupied another ten, some were brocade and some were plain. There were clothing materials for the whole future family for the next ten years or more. Jade and marble vases, bowls, and ornaments for the house stored in several trunks. There was a trunk full of coins in gold, silver and copper for her to use, so she didn’t have to ask her husband or her in-laws for money. Everything she needed for her future married life was provided by her family; including the satin pieces used to clean herself after daily bath chamber routine.

All these were unheard of and unseen by the villagers before. They watched in awe and appreciation. It was a rare glimpse into a prominent family. The bride sat silently in the sedan. Occasionally a word or two would escape the music and the crowd, and reach her ears. She wondered if the villagers knew about her, and if they had guessed the real meaning behind the bountiful dowry that came with her.

What would they think if they knew? What would her husband think when he saw her? She wished many times that she could forfeit beauty in exchange of flawlessness – she was otherwise a pretty girl. She knew she was different, and she knew she was damaged in the worst sense for a girl.

Her parents knew it as well, so they did not bind her feet. They anticipated that she would have to marry into a lesser family – if she could be married off - and would probably have to do physical work. Girls from rich families all had their feet bound since tender age. They never had to work, and would always be married to other wealthy families. In fact, they couldn’t even walk without being helped.

The abundance of the dowry had a secondary, not so obvious meaning. They were apologizing for her parents. They were saying to her in-laws: “Thank you for taking our daughter. She is flawed and unworthy, and is lucky that you accepted her to your family.” Her future husband’s family had some land, but also was some kind of merchant. It was considered a lower profession than a scholastic pursuit. It probably took the matchmaker some time to find a family that would accept her.

It really wasn’t anybody’s fault, and there was nothing could be done. She was born with a mild form of cleft lip.

She crossed the threshold, helped by her maids, and walked into a smaller, simpler courtyard than the one of her parents, and began her unknown future as a wife.

(My grandmother’s wedding)


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