By Sonia FL Leung
I can see the day of their departure vividly in my mind’s eye.
It was a freezing cold day. A farewell crowd gathered around Ting, my little sister and me. We were underneath the two lychee trees in front of the grand Liang’s House, named after my rich great-grandfather who had ordered its construction.
The lushness of the evergreen lychee tree foliage, the heavy black clouds, the shiny white car, the greyness of the rice paddy fields that were filled with dead stalks... they closed in on me, suffocating me. The stomach-turning odor of the pig farms nearby, the quiet gripping sobs of the farewell throngs — added a tremendous weight to my overburdened chest.
A tall, broad-shouldered aunt bent forward and grasped me around my waist. I fought to wriggle free from her. She then gripped me with one hand and used the other to pull my head toward her winter long coat. The hard fiber of her coat hurt my face. But she kept pressing my head to her to prevent me from seeing my parents and two of my siblings leave. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ting was fighting hard too. She panicked, appearing to not comprehend what was happening.
Ting was the pearl in my mother’s palm. I knew she didn’t understand why she must stay behind with me instead of going with them. Unlike me, she had never been left out of family excursions.
“I want Mama!” screamed Ting.
Ting is two years younger than me. From that time on she would have only me to rely on. I should stop crying. I should comfort her. I should fight off the fears for both of us. But I couldn’t. Tears kept rolling out of my eyes, hot and scorching. My restrained body was trembling. I couldn’t reach out to her. I couldn’t stop us from crying our hearts out. The grip of my aunt was strong enough that it felt like she could snap my arms in half. But this fear didn’t stop me from keeping up my struggle. Ting and I broke free and chased the car. A few aunts and uncles ran after us. They caught us and held us tight. We wailed. We begged. We kicked. Nothing worked. The car got smaller and disappeared behind a steep slope.
I was born in Jiyang County in the dormitory of the hospital where my father was doing his residency. My mother was a primary school teacher. From Jiyang to Liang’s House in Nan’an it took twelve hours by bus and another ten on foot from the bus stop walking through some mountainous tracks. Nan’an is a county close to Xiamen, an ancient port city in eastern China’s Fujian province. Great-grandpa Liang sailed from there to Indonesia, where he made his fortune. My family used to visit Nan’an once every two or three years during Chinese New Year to spend time with Grandma Liang and our extended family. So I only met her about four times before my parents and two siblings left for Hong Kong.
For my parents, escaping to Hong Kong offered a rare chance to flee from the economic hardships people like them faced in China at the time. Though they both had government jobs, their salaries were much less than others, like my uncles, who had taken advantage of the reform and opening up of the country’s economy to set up businesses. China’s bureaucratic household registration system, or hukou, also put a limit on mobility within China. So my parents grabbed the chance to go to Hong Kong, which back then was a British Colony. There they became factory workers. And because they couldn’t afford to take all four of their children with them at once, they took my elder sister and brother, leaving my little sister and me behind in Nan’an with Grandma Liang for the next two and a half years.
Great-grandpa Liang had sent money home to build Liang House in the hope of keeping his roots intact. It had more than thirty rooms with an internal well and a courtyard. A large grey threshing ground completed its majestic look. Out front, the two lychee trees that each summer produced bunches of the sweet fruit that hung like giant, rose-colored grapes bathing in the sunshine. Lychees, which have a short season, are generally believed to bring out the “fire” in people. As a Chinese saying goes, one lychee contains three batches of fire.
A few days after I moved in there, I found two photos of my great-grandparents hanging high on the wall of the upper grand hall. I threw back my head and took some time to study the images. Great-grandma was the archetype of a Chinese “big wife,” the first wife of a prosperous household head. She looked prim, proper and forgettable — an ethereal good wife. Great- grandpa had a grand and imposing look that matched his reputation. His face was slim and his cheekbones high. When I saw his eyes, I realized where father and I got ours.
My father had a younger sister and five younger brothers. My aunt was married and left Liang’s House long ago. When Ting and I arrived, three of the five uncles were married and lived with Grandma in the house. Her husband — my Grandpa — had left for Hong Kong two years before my parents did. So, Grandma, Ting and I were the left-behinds.
Grandma came from Yunnan province, in southwestern China and thousands of kilometers away from Fujian. The dialects of the two areas are very different from each other. Even after four decades of living in Fujian, Grandma still couldn’t pronounce the word xi, or death. Instead, she said chee in a thick Yunnan accent. “Wo yao gam oh chee qu lor!” or "I’m hungry to death!” was her favorite refrain in the Hokkien dialect spoken in parts of Fujian. Then she would fry some rice and wolf it down. She put the leftover fried-rice on the kitchen table for Ting and me to eat after we returned from school. Flies buzzed over our dinner, the pork fat in which the rice had been cooked, congealed, causing us to lose our appetites.
Grandma was never concerned. With her bird-like eyes, she was not the affectionate type. Yet she was unpretentious and displayed no favoritism. She was the first person who treated Ting and me as equals. Grandma made it clear to both of us that we were not to disturb her life and not to bother her with any of our emotional needs. Whenever we missed our family and got teary, she refused to have any of it and just walked away. She carried a heavy bunch of keys that hung around her waist, as she locked everything away in the cabinets inside her room. When she tried to hurry, her bulky body protested and swayed in exaggerated ways from side to side. Her keys jingled loudly. She ran with the great risk of toppling over. The noise and the clumsy movements made me feel sorry for her. It left me wondering what scared her most: handling our emotions or showing hers.
Amid the sorrows of being left behind and living in the lonely Liang’s House, a joyous thing happened. I encountered and fell in love with Chinese literature. The Four Great Chinese novels, Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdom, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber became my soothing, stimulating companions. Depictions of scenes from these novels were painted on the inner walls of the house, and carved onto the stone pillars and window frames. They created a surreal environment for me in which to hide, to seek, and to dream. I imagined other worlds that might exist in a different time and space. Gazing at those paintings and carvings, I forgot about where or who I was. It was such a relief to be free from one’s slight yet heavy self.
I began to read the simplified version of these marvelous novels. Dream of the Red Chamber, my favorite, featured three teenage principle characters. One of them was Lin Daiyu, who charmed me the most. She was unconventional and hypersensitive. When Daiyu was nine, her mother died. She moved to live with her matriarchal maternal grandmother in Rongguo House. Daiyu became my friend almost instantly. We struggled together. And when she cried, which was frequent, she gave me permission to cry too. A corner of a wall in the upper hall featured Daiyu alone in the Grand View Garden inside the Rongguo House — a kind of Garden of Eden for the teenage protagonists. The picture portrayed the fragile Daiyu gathering and burying petals of the fallen flowers. Whenever I felt like crying, I would go and sit next to a stone pillar at the back of the grand hall. Looking out from the dark corner and up to the wall, I had an unimpeded view of the depiction of Daiyu’s scene. And it was a safe spot to sit and spend time with her alone. The stout stone pillar concealed me perfectly. The privacy provided an idyllic surrounding for my sorrow to meet with hers. There was a poem inscribed on the right upper corner of the depiction. Though I didn’t understand it, I would murmur some words and phrases in the poem. They sounded musical, consolatory and echoed beautifully in my mind. The stone pillar supported my back nicely, even as its chillness sent ripples through my body.
I was nicknamed Wou Ling, or Dark Ling, because of my dark complexion. Relatives and friends of my parents understood that I was the un-favored child. Many adults tended to be extra nice to the revered Ting to please my parents. They simply ignored me. Mother had often complimented Ting on her talents in front of our relatives whenever we returned to Nan’an to celebrate Chinese New Year. Ting sang and danced during these family gatherings. The relatives clapped and cheered her. She was the center of the attention while I was her dark shadow.
But now, after the departure of the rest of my family to Hong Kong, Ting suddenly lost her halo. I thought it would please me to see her descend to my level. But it wasn’t so. Every time I stole a glance at her, the misery in her eyes drowned me. I had to quickly look away to stop my heart aching. But I couldn’t let her know that I pitied her. I was afraid that it would sadden her more because I was her Leegi, or Second Elder Sister as she called me. So I tried to keep my distance. But like lychees with a thin skin, she was vulnerable. Her eyes had oblivion and fragility all through them. I wanted to give her shelter and hope. But I had none to offer.
Second Uncle’s two sons were closest to us in age so we often played together. This uncle was square-faced and small-eyed like Grandma. He was medium-built and pale. As he had difficulty in finding a job, Grandpa gave him some money to run a grocery store next to the house. But he often left his wife to manage the shop as he returned to the house to sleep during the day so that he could drink and gamble at night with other villagers. Whenever the four of us had an argument, Second Uncle would run out of his room and yell at Ting and me. He accused the two of us of being trouble-makers. His two sons, my cousins, weren’t bad; they played civilly with us. But after a couple of instances of their father supporting them when they were in the wrong, they became meaner. Conflicts that we could have easily solved between us before would escalate quickly into fights.
One day, when we had one of those nasty arguments, Second Uncle rushed out of his room. Without a word, he came at me. Stretching out his hand, he tried to grab hold of my arm. I ran. He turned to Ting instead. The minute she saw him coming at her, she stood stock-still. Her eyes and mouth were agape and her body quivered. I wanted to shout and tell her to run. But I didn’t, for I was afraid it would make him come back at me. I ran more and hid behind a stone pillar in the front part of the grand hall. A bit later, when I breathed easier, I looked back. Second Uncle clamped his iron fingers around Ting’s wrist as if he meant to squeeze it off. His free hand pointed toward his room and he asked his son to get a feather duster. One of them did so. Once Second Uncle got the duster, he told Ting to bend forward. He began to thrash her bottom hard with the duster handle. Once, twice, three times.... He yelled at her while he beat her, “I asked you to stop fighting with my sons. You never listen, do you? See if this can help you listen!”
His sons laughed. But they stopped when they saw their father continuously whipping hard at Ting. It shocked them also. And it shocked them more when they realized that Ting didn’t make a sound. She must have been completely taken by surprise at such a savage act as she went slack, nearly doubled up. Her bottom was a deflated football. She appeared to be paralyzed with despair. No crying, no resistance. Tears rushed down my cheeks and splashed onto the tiles. I pushed my knuckles hard into my eyes to stop myself from crying. Her silence terrified him. He stopped and gave her a quick look. Then he let go of her and returned to his room with his sons tagging along behind him. Ting fell onto the floor. My mind urged me to run to her, but my feet would not move. Like a trail of thick snot, my body stuck to the pillar.
The night that followed was long and tortured. As I was afraid of the dark, I usually kept the two halves of the door slightly ajar. And I put a high back wooden armchair, the heaviest chair I could find in the house, behind the door, just in case. Our room was next to the open courtyard that was in the center of the house. A solitary shaft of moonlight seeped through the gap between the doors and silvered the room. I sat up in bed and stared at the back of Ting who was asleep facing the wall. She turned around, I looked away. She stayed turned in for a minute or two, then out again. Her breathing was shallow. Then I heard sobbing sounds and quickly looked at her face. Her eyes were closed as she was still asleep. Drawing up my legs, I encircled my arms around my knees and rested my head on them, listening to her sobs and feeling my heart ache with every sound of it.
Sometime later, the sound of her sobbing faded and her breathing deepened. She became stiller and stayed facing out. I raised my head, put down my legs and turned to face her. My heart tightened. My back ached. A cold clench. Her chubby face with baby fat was cruelly cute. Her lips pursed in discomfort and her brows were knitted. A few strands of faintly misty hair stuck to her left cheek. I stroked them away. Tear stains, the fresh and wet ones, below her eyes gleamed in the dimness of the night. My eyes fixed on those tear stains of hers. After a while, I reached out to take her hand, which was resting on top of her right leg. I saw them — the deep violet and blue marks — on her wrists. Bolting upright, I gasped at her bruises. They stabbed at my heart, pulling me apart. And it felt like the stone pillar was falling down on me, crushing me to pieces. I heard a strange, shaky voice coming from the back of my throat murmuring to her, “I’m so sorry, Ting. Your Leegi is so useless. She is such a coward and didn’t even try to protect you a bit!”
Two weeks after Ting was beaten, there was a movie screening. In those days in Nan’an, the only opportunity for us to watch a movie was when a rich man returned from overseas. To celebrate his coming back, his family would hire the community film crew to show a movie in an open area, usually on a threshing ground. That night, I brought a low wooden chair and went with others to watch it. Some time into the movie, I felt something warm and wet running down my trousers. I realized it was my pee. What’s wrong with me? I grabbed my chair and snuck away. Forgetting about my fear of the dark, or of the field animals, I hurried through the dark trails among rice paddy fields and headed home. Once I arrived back, I shut the door tight and leaned on it for a while to catch my breath. I removed my trousers and panties in disgust. Together with the short wooden chair, I shoved them all underneath the bed. The thought of them, the great fear that something was terribly wrong with me, and the ultimate feeling of shame – of being a filthy, useless person – kept me up all night. When I heard the cock’s first crow, I jumped off the bed, retrieved the three items and hastened out of the room. It was still dark outside. I went to the kitchen, got a half-used bar of brown soap and an enamel washbasin. I put the clothes and bar of soap inside the washbasin, and placed it on top of the small chair and rushed to the washing area around the well.
A bucket that had a rope tied to it stood next to the short wall built around the mouth of the well. I dropped the bucket into the darkness holding the line. Leaning over the deep hole, with the faintest hint of warmer air rising against my face, I hauled the bucket hand over hand until it rose suddenly into view, the dim sky shimmering within like some luminous oil. I poured the water into the washbasin over my disgusting clothes and washed them over and over again. Afterwards, I hung and hid them among the rest of the laundry. A day passed and no one noticed it. I was relieved. But for a long time to come, I smelled the stink of urine around me all the time.
And then, another thing occurred. It happened to the space around the middle of the right side of my neck. It started to swell up and turned into the size of a rice dumpling, repugnant and horrifying. I showed it to Grandma. She gave it a glance. Then she went into her room, retrieved a small jar of medicine and gave it to me. She asked me to mix them with water and drink it. She said Iate too many lychees and they brought out too much yang, or fire in me. She told me that the medicine was yin, it would cool off the fire, and then I would be alright. It got worse. The ball grew bigger, filthier, redder; and it threatened to burst. Reluctantly, Grandma took me to a doctor. He scheduled a small surgery the next day and removed the abscess. I took some antibiotics and wore a patch over the wound and returned to the clinic by myself to have the wound properly cleaned and the patch renewed. One day, the doctor declared that the infection was cured. When I arrived home and looked in a mirror, there was a distinct blemish over that place on my neck. It was bumpy to the touch. I have this scar to this day.
Lychees helped also bring out a different fire in me. At school, Chinese was my favorite subject. My Chinese teacher, Teacher Li, was six feet tall and a slim man in his early fifties. He reminded me of the great writer Lu Xun that my mother held in great esteem. Like Lu Xun, Teacher Li had a dense mustache, and a pair of very thick eyebrows that were often locked together, giving him a strict, fearsome look. But it was Teacher Li who enabled me to taste the elixir of triumph, the first taste of it in my life. Every week we had to submit a composition. Teacher Li paid great attention to our work. When it was time to return the compositions to us with his comments, he often kept mine. Then he read them out loud in front of the class. It happened frequently during those two years. The image of his first reading of my composition burned wondrously into my memory. I sat at the front of the class. He stood next to my chair when he read my composition. The way he held the piece of paper with my large, strong handwriting on it was as if he were holding a precious stone; it was full of tenderness and appreciation. He stood elegantly with his long straight legs together. As he read, his body swayed slightly forward and backward, in sync with the rhythm of his reading. When he encountered a verb that was ingeniously used or a beautiful phrase, his forward movements extended further and he was on his toes for a second or two. Then he landed back on his heels gracefully and launched another round of gentle rocking. When he finished the reading, his thick eyebrows parted and his mouth widened. An approving, transfiguring smile blossomed on his wise, wrinkled face. Gradually, he turned to me and said, “Young lady, you can certainly write.”
A delicious shiver of excitement ran through my body. His smile and words became a surge of energy that enfolded me. It felt like bathing in the early morning sun, and such a gentle sun gradually warmed my heart and brought a glorious glow to my cheeks. It helped lift the weight of self-hatred from my stiff neck, my tight shoulders and my sore back. I sat erect. Some of my classmates looked admiringly at me. I received their silent praise with grace, a virtue I didn’t know existed within me before that moment.
I wished to bottle that moment — the moment of recognition, of triumph, show it to my fat her and mother and tell them, “Ba! Ma! Look! Your Wou Ling isn’t so useless!”
When I discovered my talent for writing, I began to write to my parents. Upon finishing the first letter, I folded it neatly and gave it to Grandma and asked her to help post it for me. But after I had written about four letters over the next few months, I didn’t get any reply. I got suspicious and anxious and asked Grandma about the letters. She told me she gave them to Second Uncle because he was the one who went to the market to purchase products for his shop and that he had a better chance of posting them. It was highly likely that Second Uncle read my letters and destroyed them because I mentioned that he had hit Ting in one of those letters. I rewrote a new long one that summarized the last four and kept it inside my school bag. One day, when I visited a friend, I asked her mother to help post it and she agreed.
A few weeks later, when I returned from school, Grandma gave me her signature hateful, stern look when something was up. What had I done? She approached me and handed a letter to me. I was electrified and thought I must be dreaming. I kept staring at the letter and forgot to breathe. Then astonishment gave way to glee. I received the letter from Grandma, thanked her and broke into a run. I immediately ran to my usual spot that was next to the stone pillar. Holding the letter close to my throbbing chest, I took a few deep breaths to try and calm myself. Looking out, I saw the sun weaving its golden threads together and making a large, thin bamboo sieve in the courtyard. Sparrows flew in and landed on the roof beams. I looked up to the wall and caught Daiyu’s ephemeral smile.I unfolded Mother’s letter. Her tame, elegant handwriting jumped into my eyes. “My dearest Ling and Ting, you are the treasures of my life...” Tears streamed down my cheeks. She said she was beyond herself when she received my letter. She mentioned that she had written to Grandma many times asking about us. But all Grandma replied was that we were fine. Nothing special. Finally receiving my letter gave her bliss and misery at once. She was delighted to reconnect with us and stricken to learn about our deplorable situation. She promised to do everything she could to improve our living condition. She said that she had written to tell Grandma that she would send her more money every month, and asked her to hire a part-time helper to cook dinner for us. She asked Grandma to please make sure that we would have at least one hot meal a day. Also, she had Father write a serious letter to Second Uncle asking him never to lay a hand on us ever again.
I sprang from my seat with joy. The sense of achievement filled my body with strength and hope. It made me realize that being me wasn’t always wrong or terrible after all. I bottled the moment.
I ran to look for Ting. Once I found her, I took her to the courtyard. Late afternoon sunlight bedecked the yard. The upper grand hall was about two steps higher than the yard. I sat her on the stone edge of the grand hall. Her legs dangled above the warm, sunlit ground. I showed her the letter and gave her a quick summary. Ting stared at me the whole time with disbelief. She turned to the letter, touched it, smelled it, placed it against her chest, held it in front of her, read it, and read it again. She whispered a few words and phrases under her breath. Slowly, she looked up and regarded me with happiness, appreciation and admiration. Then she leaped off her seat and reached out to me. We hugged. We cried. We laughed. We shouted. We danced. The peals of our laughter intertwined and filled the courtyard.
Sonia FL Leung is a Hong Kong-based writer. She is currently working on her first book, Today After Ever, a coming-of-age memoir. In 2016, her piece "Diamond Hill" won second prize in Hong Kong's Top Story. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the City University of Hong Kong.