Monday, January 25, 2010


They were polite and courteous young people when they first came to the village. They would borrow either a wok or a cleaver from us, but always returned them promptly after they were done. I felt sorry for them—so young, and already thousands of miles from home. Their garbs were torn, dirty and skimpy.

They called us either “big uncle” or “big auntie,” the way kids in most villages did. We had to go to their meetings organized by some village leader everyday, and I really didn’t mind too much, except I moved with difficulties in the snow. In the meetings they told us our poor days were about to end, and that their "common property party" would liberate us from the evil landlords soon.

We had some land, but I didn’t think we were evil because we had to work very hard to put a roof over our heads and food on our table. There was not a single idle hand in the house. Everything we had we earned it with sweat and back-breaking work. But I didn’t say anything under some villagers’ unfriendly glare. I recognized some of the faces that had refused work we offered in the past.

Often someone from their group would pat my round tummy lightly and ask: “Big auntie, when is the baby due?” and nod with a mysterious smile after I replied. I didn’t think much of it. Kids were naturally curious about such things and were probably too shy to ask.

I was “sitting the month”1 in my bedroom with my new born baby when things came crashing down.

First I heard that a lot more of them were coming to the village. The meetings soon turned ugly. People would shout hateful bouts of slogan against landlords.

Then one day they came and dragged my husband and my father-in-law out. My sister-in-law told me what happened next.

They were forced to kneel down on an outdoor platform with cone-shape paper hats put on their heads that read “landlord” on them. The villagers shouted and threw stones at them all day long. Her hollow eyes reflected the horror she saw. She couldn't shed a tear.

After three days of this torture they died. It was cold, they didn’t have any food or sleep during the three days, and they finally succumbed to the stoning. Nobody was allowed to collect their bodies. They wanted to use them as a warning to others. My mother-in-law and I were crying everyday after hearing this. The most heart wrenching thing was we couldn't even bury them properly.

And then the liberators and the village vagabonds came and occupied most part of the house. The remaining women in the family were crammed into two rooms. They confiscated our food as well. We had meager rations from the liberators while they ate to their hearts' content.

I grieved silently in my bedroom. My husband and his father were honest and hard working men. They didn’t deserve this kind of death. What would be the future of me and my babies? What would happen to the family? In less than a year the invisible hand of a demon choked off our livelihood. Our only fault was being the owner of a piece of farm land.
My mother-in-law and I sneaked out one night to where the bodies were. We took a piece of wood plank with us to carry the bodies. They deserved to be buried instead of being exposed like animals. It was difficult for us to move my father-in-law’s body – we both were bound-foot women, but eventually we managed to move him onto the plank. I had to hush my mother-in-law so her sobs wouldn’t alert anyone.

We dug a grave in the field and buried him. It was hard to dig a deep one since the soil was frozen. I couldn't tell if my tears were from grief or the piercing wind.

We went back to move my husband’s body, and that was when I found out he was still alive. His faint breathing was barely detectable. We were elated. We put him on the plank and dragged him home to my room. It was the only safe place because the liberators wouldn’t enter my room during the first month. We slowly nursed him back to health in a few weeks.

They found out what we did, and told me they would deal with me later.

My mother-in-law told us to leave before the month was up. The liberators would no doubt kill my husband as soon as they could. She would be safe, she said, because she was a woman and didn’t really own the land. We made the difficult decision to do what she said. We didn't know if we would ever see her again.

In a snowy evening when most people were sleeping, my husband, me, my elder daughter left quietly. I wrapped my baby close to my bosom and covered both of us with my cotton quilted jacket. We plunged our feet into the deep snow all night long, avoiding the main roads, and caught a train in the next village. We traveled hundreds of miles to the capital city of the province, where we heard was not controlled by the liberators yet. My husband found a job at the pier as a day laborer to support the family.

I still get a headache when it gets cold, because not only I didn’t get the proper rest after the child birth, but also from the work and long march I did in the snow. But it was nothing comparing to the nightmares I have until this day.2

(1. It was believed women needed to rest 30 days after the child birth, and their rooms were considered unclean for a man to enter. 2. After hearing the story from this elderly woman, I too had recurring nightmares for years.)

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Perfect Gentleman

“There’s a delivery for you, my dear.” The receptionist chirped happily over the phone. She thanked her and proceeded to the lobby. It was flowers from her boyfriend, she was sure of that. She didn’t know though, that there would be a forest waiting for her.

“Wow! What’s the occasion?” A co-worker couldn’t hide his awe while she performed a careful balancing act back to her desk. It was both glorious and enormous, and she replied with her eye lashes batting purposefully fast: “Just because.”

He laughed. She sat it down and basted in the warmth of the divine light. She was being loved by a perfect man.

He was doing all the right things. Flowers, calls, “love you”s, pulling chairs and holding hands. There was not a single thing wrong with him. He was perfect, and she was on cloud nine. She thought his shiny head and round silhouette symbolized wisdom and success. After all, he prided himself as a true gentleman. She had finally found the man in her prayers.

She should know, of course, that there was the black hole of "too good to be true" lurking nearby, waiting to devour her. This has to work, she told herself instead. Nobody had ever treated her the way he did. He talked about marriage, moving in, and what closet she could use constantly. The visual of a happy life they would share was so vivid she could taste it.

It started subtly and she didn’t catch on. A casual comment about news event or people they knew caused his uncomfortable silence. The hand holding stopped. The “love you” became scarce. The flowers made their appearance less and less frequent. She ignored them – he must be tired from his work.

One day he called hours after the time he promised, with a resigned voice and a change of plan:

“I’ve been busy…I have Timmy tonight so I have to cancel. Do you want to come over after work instead?”

Timmy was his babysitting duty almost constantly. They spent countless dates as a party of three. Family was important, so she didn’t complain. This time though, she didn’t feel like trading a night out with babysitting again, so she said: “I’m actually a little tired. I think I’ll go home tonight. We can do this another time.”

There was that silence again. He stopped calling for several days. She had his recorded greeting when she called. Her world was lost in a haze, and there was not an echo to answer her when she reached out.

When he finally did call, he said:

“I don’t think this is working out. We are not meshing as we should.”

“What do you mean?” Was he breaking up with her? It felt like a bomb exploded somewhere near her. She couldn’t see a thing.

He was not happy she didn’t go along with his change of plan, and that was what he meant by “not meshing as they should.” He didn’t think she would have a different idea from his.

She explained and explained. No, she wasn’t mad at him. She was just tired. She would be happy to be with him and Timmy otherwise. She understood Timmy was family, and family should come first. Finally he agreed to meet. Things slowly went back to normal.

Only it was never quite normal again.

Every little thing made her nervous now. Did she say something wrong? Was he going to break it up again? The warm basting light had become revealing spotlight that shone on everything she did and said. If she inquired what his thought was, he would answer curtly: “Why? Are you wondering in your fucked up mind if I’m going to break up with you?”

The gentleman strangely disappeared. In its place was an unkind and distant shadow that scared her. Somehow she had transformed from a princess to a beggar, and she hadn’t a clue how she got there.

There was really no other way to respond when he called and said this was not working out, for the second time.

“Okay. When should I come by and get my stuff?” She didn’t miss a beat.

A pause, then he hesitantly added: “It’s not you. I could be too sensitive sometimes…”

“Please. Don't give me the ‘it’s not you’ speech. When will you be home?” her heart shivered as she spoke. She hung up the phone and all strength was drained from her. The soft carpet cradled her curled up body, and time halted to a hush around her for a long while.

She got there an hour before he would be home, and left everything he had ever given her inside of the house. She collected the few things of hers, and left before seeing him.

While she pulled away she had a final glance at the house – the home of the perfect gentleman.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Three Days

"Going to the kitchen after three days
Washing hands before making a soup
Not knowing my in-laws' taste
I ask the little sister to try it first"1

Suey got up before dawn and washed her face in a hurry. She had everything she needed for the morning ready last night, and now she just had to change.

Hoi said softly: “You’re up so early?”

It didn’t sound like a real question though. Farming families rose and rested in harmony with the sun. It was more of his way of saying good morning.

She replied: “Go back to sleep. I think I heard mom in the kitchen…” and out she went.

There was a faint light from the brick stove, and she saw the back of her mother-in-law. She turned and saw Suey standing by the door timidly. With a smile she said:

“Up already?”

“Yes, mom. You’re early.” Suey felt embarrassed that she might give the impression of laziness, but “mom” didn’t seem to be upset. She was also relieved that she had the foresight to put on her darker, plainer clothes made of cotton.

The first thing mom showed her was how to start a fire in the stove. Within minutes her brand new clothes were stained with soot, and her sleeves were used to dab sweat off her forehead. The only comfort was she might have hot water to use the next morning.

She watched and kept the soy milk and rice porridge from being burnt, but the flat bread and pickled side dishes were out of her ability completely. The steamed buns were so complicated to her she just wanted to cry. Her mind was busy making sense of all the steps in preparing those foods, but it was overwhelmingly frustrating that she was on the brink of panic.

Mom seemed to see through her thoughts, and told her: “Don’t worry. You’ll get a handle on it soon enough.”

She didn’t think that day would come, but she didn’t tell mom.

Together they served the breakfast to the men. Some were family – Hoi among them. Some were hired hands. They ate almost all of it before they left for the fields. Harvest was done, but there were wheat to be turned on the flat land waiting to dry, the rice fields needed to be turned upside down before it turned too cold, so the roots would serve as the fertilizer for next year’s planting.

Women in the house would be making mid-day snacks for the men while they worked, then sending it to the fields. There was not a moment to waste. They ate their breakfast after the men left and, after they returned to the kitchen, mom whispered to her:

“Don’t forget to give me your ‘proof’ later.” 2

Her face burned like the fire under the stove. Her husband did the "deed" last night, and she had carefully saved the “proof;” but to think she had to show it to his mother and father was both horrifying and awkward. No matter how gentle Hoi was, he couldn’t save her now. She would have to do this on her own.

“Come. Let me show you how to make noodles as a starter. It’s the simplest task.” Her mom beckoned. She followed her to the corner of the kitchen where the big board was. Hoi’s sister joined them for breakfast, but disappeared to her room afterward. She had the luxury to enjoy life as an unmarried girl, just like Suey before her own wedding.

It felt like a lifetime ago.

(1. An ancient poem describing the mood of a new bride making her first meal. 2. Proof of virginity was required from the bride, or she would be expelled from her husband’s home and deeply shamed.)

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Going Home

Suey lifted the flap cautiously to see if the familiar stone road was in sight. Now that she was a married woman, being seen by strangers was not such a taboo anymore. Out of habit, though, she carefully hid her face out of sight. The daily market was over, and people were walking home with fresh produce and meats in their baskets. Just like her, they were going home.

Only she didn't have grocery with her. She turned to see her travel companion, Hoi, her husband of three days. His eyes shined like dark onyx, with a hint of something exciting that made her face warm. She looked away so he wouldn’t find out that she was secretly wanting him. Boldness in a woman was unbecoming.

She had left home on short outings when she was a girl. Her mother had taken her to a temple several times to beg the gods with generous offerings. They failed to perform the miracle her mother had asked them. She remembered first the disappointment, then the bitterness she felt every morning she looked into the mirror.

She had also gone to the temple of the marriage goddess like so many other girls. All the travels were done with her securely tucked away in the covered horse carriage. Other girls from poorer families walked to the temple, but they always had fans or handkerchiefs to cover their faces if any men were around. They prayed feverishly for good husbands, and in exchange they promised to return with more offerings. She remembered how little hopes she had when she prayed. With her cleft lip she was sure the matchmaker would never find a husband for her.

Her bitterness was gone now. Hoi turned out to be better than she had imagined before the wedding. He was kind and a little shy. Although this was only the third day they had been together, she could tell he was not the tyrant she heard from the stories the servants used to tell about their husbands. Sometimes the beatings they described made her wish she could stay at her parent’s house and never marry.

The sound of the horseshoes clacking on the cobblestone told her she was near home. Her heart started beating with happiness. How she had missed her mother and her maids! A part of her wished she had never married, and stayed in the warmth and protection of her parents forever. Her husband extended his hand to help her dismount, and the touch of his hand pulled her back to reality.

The giant stone lions stood on both sides of the gate guarding the mansion looked happy to see her as well. They walked up the steps to the threshold of the main gate, and she could see her parents walking toward the gate to welcome them – the newlyweds. Her tears flooded out without warning, and she collapsed on the stone ground on her knees. Hoi followed her, kneeling to his in-laws and called out: “Mom, dad.” Her father said in a pleasant tone, “Do get up, my son. Do get up.” If he was emotional to see her, he did not let on. She knew he was behaving the way it was expected of a master of the house.

Her mother pulled her up and put her arms around her. She saw her mother's watery eyes and told herself to stop crying. This was supposed to be a happy occasion. Together they walked through the courtyard and arrived at the main hall. A big round table had been set up in the middle of it, and now the father said to the servants, “Tell the kitchen to start serving lunch.” The housekeeper replied, “Yes, master.” and disappeared. The young guests freshened up in the water basins offered by the servants. Suey looked at her mother. Somehow she seemed so familiar and yet different at the same time. Just like the house - it was her home and now it felt like a strange place. She could tell there were many questions her mother wanted to ask her, but couldn’t. She had so many things to tell her mother, too; but she couldn’t.

She and Hoi were seated at the “top seats” that were customarily reserved for distinguished guests. She felt like a complete stranger in her own home. Her siblings and their spouses were there for the happy family event. Knowing what little she knew about men now, she had a difficult time looking at her brothers and her sister-in-laws. She held hands briefly with her maids - the two who were sent home on her wedding night - and refrained from crying by forcing a tearful smile at them. The maids did the same, and they stood behind her for the rest of the meal.

She had dined in the main hall before, during important family gatherings such as New Year, her parents' birthdays, and several festivals every year. Those occasions were always accompanied by banquets in the main hall. She could only imagine what was going through Hoi’s mind. She was sure he had never seen such a house or being treated in such a manner before, but he behaved respectfully so far.

They dined in pleasantries and laughter, with endless dishes served throughout the meal. She had a chance to be with her mother after the meal, when the men stayed in the main hall to talk, and the women retreated to the back quarter. The smaller children all begged, and received, candies from the new bride, and were now playing in the courtyard.

The first question her mother had was:

“Is he being nice to you?”
“Yes, mom. He seems to be a nice man...” She replied shyly. The other women in the room laughed, and her face turned red.

She couldn’t tell her mother how he was taking advantage of the privacy of the horse carriage, and had been caressing her wrists all that time, sometimes venturing up to her upper arms in the sleeves. She knew she should have stopped him – they were, after all, at a public place; but she couldn't and didn't. How could she tell her mother that her body weakened at his touch, or that she enjoyed his caress and wanted more, or that the “big event” her mother warned her about had not happened yet, but she almost looked forward for it to come?

They both were inexperienced in the newly found pleasure of the flesh, and they both were still exploring each other in small steps. Her mother warned her about the intrusive and painful nature of the big event, but she never told her daughter that a man’s hand could ignite her body with such desire that she was terrified by her own yearning for him.

Her mother saw the blushing on her face, and understood more than Suey's simple answer indicated. She held her hand and said gently, “It will be alright.” Suey's anxiety over the inevitable event was somehow eased a little by her mother's soothing voice.

They left shortly so they could reach her in-laws’ house before it turned too dark. She waved to her parents from behind the opening until they disappeared from her view. Hoi held her hand while she wiped away her tears.

She was going back to her husband’s home. It would be her real home from this day on.

(The old custom dictates the newlyweds go back to the bride’s home on the third day of the wedding.)

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