Monday, February 22, 2010

Among Mud and Sludge

"Even though growing among mud and sludge, the lotus is always clean and pure."

We were taught to do good even if we grew up among the wicked, but is it remotely possible at a young age when we are easily influenced and have not the capacity to steer our will toward the good?

My parents moved to a strange place when I was five or six years old. People looked very different from the old place and I didn't understand anything they said to me in the form of a series of sound made by the rolling of their tongues. We had to fly in an enormous airplane--that was really fun, for the first couple of hours anyway--and take a long car ride to get there.

I was a little scared of the people there, but I tried not to show it because a boy should be brave--that was what my mother said. She also said "Be nice to your sister" a lot but I found that hard to do, since she was very annoying and I didn't understand why my parents liked her so much.

We lived with my grand parents in a two-story house with a red door. I think we had the only red door in the neighborhood. My grand parents had been living there for a while so they could speak a little of that strange language, but my parents had to learn it just like me--only they didn't go to school like I did.

My grandpa walked both of us to and from the school most of the time. Sometimes my mother would take us. I was the happiest walking with my mother. Her hand was soft unlike grandpa's. Her smile was more pleasing to watch, too. But my sister had to be there to distract my mother's attention by talking childish things, and to hold her other hand.

My father got me new book bag and notebooks and an awesome mechanical pencil--my very first one--before the first day, and both my parents took us to the new school on the first day. I was a little scared and felt lost when my parents left us. For the first time I was happy my sister was there with me, although she didn't speak or understand the language either.

I had no idea what was going on, but I knew a recess was coming up when everyone in the class went outside. I left the pencil, which was the envy of my classmates, on the desk and went outside as well. Imagine my horror when I came back to find that my brand new pencil was gone. I looked around and couldn't tell who took it, and I couldn't tell the teacher what had happened either. The helplessness and agony made the first day of school the longest day of my life.

I told my parents what happened to my brand new pencil after I got home, and I could tell they were a little annoyed. It wasn't my fault, I thought to myself. I was embarrassed, and anger brewed in my chest to a consuming heap of incinerating ember.

I learned to put things in my bag before leaving the classroom, something my parents taught me to do after the stolen pencil. We all realized that stealing was more rampant in this new place, and we had to adjust our behaviors somewhat. Something they didn't teach me, and I started doing, all in an angry revenge, was to take their stuff when they were not watching. I didn't take big things, as it would be noticed by my parents, and I knew I would be in trouble if I got caught. So it had to be small and easy to hide--just like what they did to me.

My chance came when someone left a coin on his desk. I put it in my pocket when no one was watching. It was a worthless coin, as the country's inflation rate was several hundred percent a year, but I didn't know or care. It was revenge for losing my cherished possession to theft.

On the way home I would run a few yards ahead of my grandpa, drop the coin on the ground, then run back to him. When we came upon it I would say, "Look grandpa--a coin!" and pick it up. Thus I could keep the coin since no one was there to claim it. My grandpa was amazed at my frequent good fortune, as I found coins on the ground quite a few times.

Looking back, it was fortunate that I didn't continue this game for long. It was very easy to traverse down the irreversible path all the way to the dark side. I think eventually the teachings from the school and my parents brought me back from the detour without knowing what I was secretly doing. It could also be that all those coins couldn't come close to my lost pencil, and I eventually lost interest. Or was it the suspicious look from my mother that made me stop? I couldn't say for sure.

But there is always a chance that they failed to instill good in me. What if no matter how much they scrubbed and wiped and washed, and still couldn't make me clean and pure like a lotus growing in a mud pond? Would I be sitting in a jail somewhere, or lurking at some dark corner waiting for my next prey if that was the case? I hate to contemplate any further.

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(Thanks to everyone who either participated or cheered on at the 'change a rhyme' two posts ago. I have decided to donate $200 to Red Cross in spite of the low turnout, since that was my original intend anyway. Thank you all!!!)

Monday, February 15, 2010


It was Ruan's turn to take the lunch racks to the kitchen. Ruan, and a classmate who sat beside her.

Everyday a pair of students would be on duty for various responsibilities. Other than sweeping the floor, taking the trash out and re-aligning the desks before going home, several times a day they also cleaned the blackboard after each class. She would go outside and smack the two board erasers together real hard until all the chalk dust disappeared. New chalks were placed in the groove for the teacher of next class to use. Sometimes the wind changed direction suddenly, and her hair and face would be covered with chalk dust.

Once a year everyone would roll up the sleeves and sweep, scrub, and douse the classrooms down with buckets and buckets of water until the place was sparkling clean. Students never thought of saying “that’s not our job” and parents thought a little work did the children immensely good.

She put her own metal lunchbox in the racks after arriving in the morning, same as all other classmates. Now, during the first break, it was time to take them to the kitchen to be steamed. They believed cold food was harmful to one's health. Besides, cold rice just didn't taste right.

The racks were heavy for her, and she hated that she wasn't strong like her classmate. She mustered all her strength and completed the first part of the mission. The second part of the mission--getting the racks back from the kitchen--would be even harder, as the racks would be hot from the steamer, and, with all the moisture-saturated lunchboxes and empty stomachs, felt even heavier than they did in the morning.

Starving classmates swarmed to the front of the classroom to retrieve their lunchboxes from the racks. She couldn't find hers. She waited until everyone got her lunch and checked the racks again. They were empty.

Someone had stolen her lunch.

A sympathetic classmate advised her to talk to the principal. It was a terrifying thought, but she had to do it. She never had any money, so she couldn't buy anything. A search was organized, and sometime later she was informed there was an abandoned lunchbox near the kitchen. She went there as told, and it was her lunchbox indeed--left open and uneaten.

The principal asked: "Is it yours?"
A pause, then she answered with excruciating embarrassment: "Yes."
He looked at it and, for a while, couldn't find a proper word. Finally he said: "Well, maybe you can still eat it." He left after an awkward second or two.

She sat alone on the vine-shaded bench, staring at the untouched lunch and wishing the person had eaten all of it.

She put the lid back on and took it with her to the classroom, avoiding looking at anybody after she sat down. The pain in the stomach was easier to ignore than the thought in her head. What would her classmates think if they knew?

The principal's announcement in the flag-raising ceremony next morning solidified her humiliation. He lectured the entire school on how someone's lunch was stolen, and how the thieve left it untouched because it was not to the person's liking. She felt the gaze from her classmates and wished she could simply vanish. Now they knew, she thought to herself. Nobody said anything to her, but her mind swirled downward to the bottomless abyss.

How could she tell them that she ate her lunch everyday using the aroma from her fellow students' lunches as the appetizer, or she would have trouble finishing it even with a growling stomach? How could she let them know that it was prepared by her step-mother, and she understood that she should consider herself lucky to even be fed? The woman's contempt of having to be a step-mother of two girls, and her reluctance in having to feed them, showed clearly in the lunches she carelessly prepared.

She always ate with the lid half on, away from others if she could help it. She didn't want anyone to see what she was being fed with.

The rest of them had their delicious lunches prepared by their loving mothers, whose only worry was their daughters wouldn't have enough food to their liking. The aroma was a daily reminder of how she was less than her peer.

Now the whole world knew that even a hungry thieve wouldn't touch her lunch.

Somehow the pain was easier to take when nobody knew about it. That shield was stolen from her. She was left naked, with the raw wound exposed in plain sight for everyone to see. She hated the person who took her lunch and left it in such a crude display. She hated the principal for making her pain public. She hated her parents. She didn't want a step-mother, but her feelings were of no consequences. She hated her mother for not being there.

Among all that hate, she hated being born the most.

Her head bowed lower when she walked, and she never looked at anyone in the eyes anymore. Her world closed in and wrapped around her like a tortoise shell, in which she found the only comfort she knew—a desolate existence that few noticed.

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(The 'change a rhyme' is still playing if you're interested. Go here to see what had been changed:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rain God

Before you start laughing let me just say it for you: I don't know a thing about rhymes. So you can all stop the snickers and pay attention now.

I found out from Marla's blog that someone is doing a challenge with a twist. The gist of it is for readers to list or write simple things that make them happy, and for each response the author of Enchanted Oak will donate 2 dollars to Haiti's medical clinic.

Great idea! I thought.

I further thought: a good cause is worth a following act. So here it is: for each word at the end of each line below that you can think of a better substitute, I will donate 5 dollars to Red Cross to help Haiti. There are 40 lines, and each word can only be changed once. The cap is there because, um, Ms. Sarah is currently jobless, so she needs to exercise a little self control. The changed ones will be in blue font.

You can help Haiti's crisis and my rhymes, so what are you waiting for?

* * *

leaves on trees shimmer with thousands of sequins
freshly cleansed air smells of grass and aspens
thank heavens for the blessing of showers
to god of rain I pleaded with a whisper

please grace us with more nourishing moisture
water is in such desperate need at this juncture
several counties are talking the dreaded "R" word
we do not want a drought again just too absurd

* * *

the god of rain indulges me freely
two weeks of rain has fallen easily
grass on the mountains flaunt its new color
I can not find a shade bears more splendor

but the warmth of sun fairy is long missing
could you please let up just a smidgen
our water level is now more than bountiful
a little breather in between will make us o so thankful

* * *

my dog is bored and demand action
my bones are complaining dissatisfaction
my house the haven for fungi and pesters
my yard a jungle of moss that festers

one trip on the slippery brick road back there
could send me flying to the doctors in despair
the heartless god of rain parades on
there is no sign of stopping his fun

* * *

houses on the cliff are falling off to sea
saturated lands slide away everyday on tv
cars swirl and pile up everywhere you see
all state's freeways are too watery for me

wet air now smells like old woman's dirty shawl
musty, damp and suffocating on my skull
why can't you stop the cursed downpour
your mischief is more than our simple wish

* * *

one more week of rain announced by the forecaster
you should be ashamed of your ungodly behavior
when I pleaded with you for more moisture
I did not say, mind you, please rain forever

now that you have ruined houses, cars and lives
do pack up your hose, drums and darkened skies
may I suggest to sahara desert that you stay
I'm sure no one will b*tch there as you play

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lamp in the Dark

Suey rubbed her eyes and blinked hard. She had been sewing all day and all night, except at times she had to go to the kitchen and cook. She turned the wick up a little in the oil lamp, stretched her sore back, and went back to her sewing.

There wasn’t much time to lose. She could hear the watchmen’s lonely dual in the dark of the night. One would sound the hours with wooden rattles that made crisp clicking noise, and the other would echo with a gong that had brassy and lingering noise. Five sounds indicated daybreak. Was it two she just heard? She was so tired she wasn’t sure anymore.

A messenger who carried a letter written by her was sent to where Hoi was doing business to fetch him home. The trip would be doubly hard on him with the speed he must travel to come back in time, and with the heartbreaking news in the letter.

His mother, Suey’s mother-in-law of seven years, had just passed away. She wasn’t fifty yet.

For the past seven years she had taught Suey everything she needed to know about housework. Suey started out clumsily as a daughter of an affluent family, but she bit her lips and carried on. After some cuts and bruises she managed most of the work, and gradually took over running most of the household. At times she resented the fact that she had to work so hard, while daughters from similar background had it easy. She didn’t understand why they had to do everything themselves and rejected the maids included in her dowry.

Gradually though, she could somehow see their logic. A farming family was not used to luxury, and being served by maids was unheard of. Secondly, her mother-in-law came from a poor family, so she wasn’t going to let her daughter-in-law be spoiled that way. In her mind she was doing this for Suey’s own good.

Hoi was patient when she complained. After venting, she felt better going back to the manual labor that was waiting for her. There was fun in eating the food you cooked yourself, or the vegetables you planted yourself, or wearing clothes made from the cloths you wove yourself. A strange kind of fun that she didn’t know existed before her marriage.

Slowly, Suey began to think of them as her real family.

She grew stronger - both physically and mentally. She missed reading and writing as she used to do a lot before marriage, but they seemed to be very impractical now. Confucius said: “A gentleman should stay away from the kitchen.” It was considered a lowly profession to be a cook. Now she thought to herself: “A gentleman is all fluff if he didn’t realize all the hard work that went into the delectable meal he enjoyed so much. Not only it is hypocritical, his writing would have nothing to do with real life either.”

There was noise coming from the front room, and her smile disappeared. Her father-in-law had been sitting there with the coffin that had his wife’s body, and had never left since she was put in there. He hardly ate anything all day. She went to the kitchen and boiled some water, then carried the kettle to the front room. He looked up with red and puffy eyes:

“How are the mourning clothes coming along? You should get some sleep…” his voice trailed off without realizing the two statements contradicted each other. She filled his cup with hot water and replied softly: “They will be ready tomorrow. Have some tea, father.” The coffin didn’t have enough layers of paint, as they were not prepared for her premature death. Everything had to be ready overnight.

“Who is going to take care of Fucheng?” He murmured to himself and appeared to be at a complete loss. Fucheng was her youngest brother-in-law, who was just five years old.

“I will, father.” She reassured him.

“And who will take care of the books?” He continued.

“I will, father.” Her ability of reading and writing were not valued before, but would be relied on now.

“Ah…” He nodded his head: “I will show you how to do it.”

“Yes, father. I will learn. We will manage.” She could feel a tear coming up and left after saying: “Try and rest a bit. It will be a busy day tomorrow.”

The lamp was flickering while she settled down by the table. She looked at the darkness around her with a daze. Could she do it? Would they manage without her mother-in-law’s directions day to day? She felt alone and a little scared.

She didn’t know it yet with the overwhelming loads thrust upon her. With great responsibilities, great liberation was also coming her way.

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