Title: historia de vita mea
(The Story of My Life)
Author: alyson yang (杨吖李)
This is a sorta a historical fiction. (Translation: History is completely messed up, do not get your historical facts from here.) I've always entertained the idea that after the Chinese Civil War* in 1949, 'China' (as in Yao Wang) split into two people to represent both the 'Republic of China in Taiwan' and the 'People's Republic of China'. So Chun-Yan represents the PRC, and Mei represents the ROC. However, they are both 'China' (which explains why Yao is their 'father').
The story starts off around the middle of Octobertime, 1958. The main character has already celebrated her birthday- however, Mei has not. This means Chun-Yan (PRC) is 13 and Mei (ROC/Taiwan) is 14 for the time being. (Chun-Yan's birthday is October 1st, Mei's is October 25th.) Kiku (Japan) is 26 in the first chapter (February 11th), and Lien (Vietnam) is recently 27 (September 2nd). The twins (North Korea, South Korea) have already turned 25 (August 15th). Kasem (Thailand) is the same age (June 24th). Jia Long (Hong Kong) is 17 (July 1st), and Andre (Macau) is 19 and will be 20 on December 1st.
*Yes, there was a Civil War in China (1927-1950). The conflict resulted in two de facto states of China, one in Taiwan and one in mainland China. The Republic of China, or KMT party (Kuomintang), which ruled China after the Qin Dynasty, became the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the People's Republic of China, or Communist Party of China, took over the mainland.
In China, it is customary to refer to those younger than you, especially if they are female, as 小 _ (pronounced sh-yow in Mandarin). This is a term of endearment, as 小 means little, or small, in Chinese. Therefore, Chun-Yan (春燕, spring swallow) will be referred to as Xiao Yan (小燕, small swallow) by a variety of characters. Mei will also be known as Xiao Mei as some; this is a pun, as 美, as her name is written, means beautiful, but 妹, which sounds similar, has the meaning of younger sister. Xiao Mei, or 小妹, literally means little [younger] sister.
A note: jie (姐) means older sister, ge (哥) means older brother. The oldest brother or firstborn son in a family is typically known as the da-ge (大哥, literally big [older] brother) by the other siblings—although this may not always be the case. Kiku, although the 'firstborn' son, is not referred to this in the story, as Lien is older than him—therefore, all of the siblings defer to her instead. However, she is not referred to as da-jie (大姐, literally big [older] sister); Chinese families, especially during this time period, treasured the sons of the family far more than the daughters.
If it is not obvious enough, baba (爸爸) means father and mama (妈妈) means mother. These are considered childish terms, however, and older people prefer to use the more casual ba and ma. A more disrespectful way to refer to one's parents is lao die and lao ma (老爹, equivalent to "old man", and 老妈, equivalent to "old woman"), particularly used by teenagers.
Also, please do not flame me for racism and country bashing. Please keep in mind that the main character is not a Mary-Sue, and so is not perfect. She will have pretty opinionated views of others. This story was written trying to capture the viewpoint of a Chinese girl living in a shielded part of a major municipality, not long after the events of World War II. Naturally, xenophobia runs rampant.
"..." is speaking in Mandarin, which this story is also "narrated" in. Wu Chinese, although the standard dialect in Shanghai, will not be used, as both Wang Yao and his wife were from different parts of China (Anhui, Hubei), and therefore do not speak the local tongue. Naturally, their children speak the same language as their parents, but having been raised in Shanghai, know quite a proficient amount of Shanghainese as well.
historia de vita mea
the flaw of humanity
There are fifty-six rooms in the inn, fifty-seven if you count the attic. Kiku-ge's been thinking about an expansion in the West Wing, but Lien-jie says it's too expensive. It's actually not, if you add up all the funds that we've collected in the savings account, but everybody knows the real reason why she's so reluctant to hire contractors to work for us. Because, traditionally, it was Baba's job to make the rooms, and Mama's to furnish them. Something foreign is unthinkable, unwanted. Something that does not belong.
The local Police Department lists our parents as deceased, simply because it's so much less of a hassle then writing them up as 'Missing'. They've got better things to do with their time than trace endless circles around missing civilians who haven't been seen since a decade ago. That's actually a rather subjective view, though, and only makes sense if you think doing 'better' things with time is lounging around, drinking Western coffee, and waxing elaborate odes about the glory of Mao Zedong.
Today the sky is drab and gray, like the color of the cotton sheets draped in an economy-class room. In some of the more expensive rooms, there are brightly dyed fabrics imported from faraway places with exotic names like Ah-rei-bi-ah and Ah-fe-re-ka. I am forbidden from entering these rooms, but I can imagine how soft the blankets must be, how high the pillow is. My own bed is composed of a small, handwoven bamboo mat and a thin coverlet stuffed with dried rice for a pillow, the traditional childhood bed. Kiku-jie has promised to graduate me to a straw mattress when I turn fourteen.
It will rain soon. Mei-jie is in the village marketplace currently, trying to shop for good deals. It's hard to get any reasonable prices on foodstuffs now, especially with the Great Famine in some of the Southern provinces where we usually import our edibles from, but somehow Mei-jie manages to convince all the stall keepers to give her everything half-price. It is a talent worth boasting about, but only away from the watchful eyes of the law-keepers.
I can imagine her now, sharp tongue and bright eyes, pretty pink Bragi dress, haggling with the elderly woman who sells the herbs. Perhaps toying around with the butcher's son for a good deal on meat. She's fourteen right now, but in a few days she'll be fifteen. A good year to get married. And she's attractive, too, with the umber-brown hair and large, slanted golden eyes found in the Central-Southern regions of China. A rounded face, no overly sharp chins or sunken cheeks. Her status as the innkeeper's daughter, a respectable position, will only raise her worth.
They say she looks like our mother. There is a photograph of our parents on the front wall of the hotel, dating all the way to 1944, before I was born. Baba stands regal and proud in his best hanfu, his long ponytail wrapping handsomely around his shoulder, and next to him is Mama, smiling like the sun, looking as if the world were made of joy. She was the prettiest girl in her hometown of Huangpi, in Hubei, and had been engaged to a well-off baker before she had ran away to a brighter future with Baba, in Shanghai, the City-Above-The-Sea, working at Baba's new and uncertain Chun-Yan Bed and Breakfast Inn.
Chun-Yan, the Spring Swallow. A symbol for all the suffering my parents had had to go through to get here—it was the guide for travellers who had strayed from their paths, a symbol of prosperity and good health and longevity. The name they eventually chose for me, their last child, that short, small runt of the family, in hopes one day I would be a beacon of hope for others. They would probably be disappointed if they were to see me now.
I do not resemble either of my parents. My chin is pointed, my cheeks slightly slanted, my brown-red eyes almost too large for my face. Big and round, like a foreigner's. A childish appearance, complete with the dark onyx ox-horn buns I have never quite grown out of. Some say that I must take after my ancestors, and they console me with assurances that I am very pretty in my own way, beautiful, even. But even if I were to believe them, no man would ever want to marry such a young-looking girl, lest the gods curse them with a line of only daughters. It is a punishment given to those who have committed the gravest of sins.
Sometimes I wonder if Baba thought about this, too, when he produced no sons with Mama. It is irony at its very best; his two biological sons are both mixed-bloods, children of people of non-Han origin. They are looked down on in culture, and there are some laws preventing them from owning land and property. He cannot give his property to his full-blooded daughters, either, for they might marry away and his lineage will no longer possess what is rightfully theirs. And his adopted children are out of the question—not only are of non-Chinese blood, they are also of impure races.
An almost laughable topic. A well-endowed innkeeper born of good, healthy farmer genes and the rare ability to read and write, taking in five foreign children—two of part-Japanese heritage and three born from the blood of third world country citizens—when he already has a beautiful, faithful wife and two pure-blooded daughters that will one day grow up and marry good families. One would almost expect this statement to be followed by a nervous laugh and a kai wan xiao—just kidding!—by the speaker, because it's ridiculous, really, just plain ridiculous and why on Earth would any respectable man in his right mind take in a ri ben gui zi—?
But of course, Baba is long gone by now, his body probably already six feet under along with the corpse of Mama, and any explanations for his actions will in most likelihood never be given in this lifetime.
I bump into Lien-jie on my way to the attic, hoping to catch a short afternoon nap before my evening shifts—delivering meals to the customers who pre-order Dinner Service, standing in as night receptionist until our customer influx increases. Her arms are filled to the brim with dirty sheets, wrinkled and graying, and emitting a faint foul odor oddly reminiscent of stale urine and sweat. The smell itself is unfamiliar to me, and I wrinkle my nose with disgust, but nonetheless hold out my arms obediently.
"Here, Lien-jie, I'll take the sheets," I say, careful not to keep my lips open too long lest the miasma permeate my mouth with revolting flavor. "You should go back to your shift—"
She shakes her head, effectively cutting off the end to my sentence. She has always been a taciturn personality, as far as I can remember, but it is amazing how much she can convey with her body language alone. "...these are dirty sheets," she says in quiet Mandarin, a crisp, cool tone. "You shouldn't touch this, Xiao-Yan. You're much too young, too pure for this. This is human filth."
I tilt my head in confusion to her words, but before I can question her further, she has already brushed past me and into the hallway door behind the staircase. It takes me a second to realize that she has gone in the complete opposite direction of the laundry room, to the place where the boilers lie. What she would want with boiling hot water is beyond me, but then I remember the smell emitting from the sheets and decide that yes, indeed, anything so disgusting should be disinfected immediately.
The attic is made up of four rooms—a large bedroom, separated by a fraying silk folding screen so that the males and females sleep separately; a connected kitchen and dining room unit, where the meals are made and eaten; a privy, complete with fully functioning Western plumbing; and the last one a small bedroom, no bigger than a closet, reserved for guests if all the other rooms are occupied. Right now it is late harvest season, the least busiest time of the year, and so it is vacant, untouched and starting to gather dust. Yong Soo-ge will either choose to clean it or leave it as it is now, depending on his mood. Most of the time he decides on the latter, which gives Hyung-Soo-ge so many coronaries it's a miracle he's still alive right now.
Kiku-ge is lying on his strange mattress—a fu-tuan, a gift to him from Baba a long time ago—when I open the sliding bamboo panels, unmoving and in most likelihood asleep. I carefully step over his still form, trying not to wake him up from his peaceful slumber, but he stirs to alertness as soon as I brush my wooden slippers on the ground beside him.
"Xiao-Yan?" he says, running a hand through his hair tiredly and propping himself on his elbows. His words are slurred. "You are up rather early tonight..."
"I'm going to take a rest before my shifts," I whisper back, taking light steps across the room. Carefully sliding away the folding screen, I make my way to my mat and, kicking off the slippers, collapse on the hard surface. There is a slight crunch as my head hits the rice pillow. "You should go back to sleep, Kiku-ge."
"No, I was about to rise just when you came in," Kiku-ge says, and there are sounds of undressing on the other side. Most likely, he had been wearing traditional Oriental clothing to bed. Sometimes I wonder why he bothers to do so, especially when he is required to change into a Zhongshan suit right afterwards in morning, lest the Red Guards catch him practicing such heresy, for not adhering to the modern age. Perhaps he is rebelling in his own way, although I do not quite the understand the point of doing so.
"Hnn," I hum neutrally, rolling over on the mat, "okay." The musty, stale air of the attic brushes against the skin revealed by my pretty Bragi dress, a hand-me-down from Mei-jie, and I shiver slightly. On some of the colder nights I usually join Mei-jie or Lien-jie in their beds, or perhaps even welcome Jia Long-ge and Andre-ge's warmths (although unlikely, as their mattresses are perhaps even harder than my own), but Shanghai's unexpected autumn weather patterns usually provide either reasonably cool or lukewarm evenings. Cold weather is a rarity so early in season.
Winter, however, is a different story. We are lucky if the frost does not scare off the fish, or freeze the fishing boats, often causing irreversible damage that bring bills with large and imposing numbers to our doors. One year, there was even snow, blanketing the world in endless white. I remember it particularly, because it buried the hotel completely and Kiku-ge, Yong-Soo-ge, Hyung-Soo-ge, and Kasem-ge had to dig their way out with help from some of the burlier customers, and also because I had a panic attack thinking that we would all die.
Before I was born, when the Japanese soldiers still occupied Shanghai, and foreign powers from very far away had taken to claiming sectors of land for their own greedy agendas, it was an even harder life during the snowfall season. My older siblings do not speak of such a time, but it was clear that there was not as much ample food as there is today, and even the rice in the rice pillows had to be cooked into xi fan, or rice porridge. I am lucky to have been born during the end of the war; although Mei-jie, being born two years before me, was spared most of the gore, I know that even she sometimes she dreams of blood and corpses and ghosts from times past.
I am rudely awakened from my hazy thought processes when loud footsteps clack into the room, shaking the floor, and shoves away the folding screen loudly. I notice that in my pseudo-nap somebody had tucked Lien-jie's thick fabric quilt over me, although my ox-horns have become loose and untidy over the rice pillow. I stare blearily at the intruder, eyes still glazed with sleep, aware that I probably am not looking very dignified at the present moment.
Luckily for me, it is only Mei-jie, her hair pinned up in the usual large pink flower barrettes and fancy bun, a pair of small Western earrings hidden by her loose bangs—Kiku-ge had put his foot down when she had asked to see the local doctor to get them pierced, but Lien-jie had taken pity on her and punctured her ears instead. "Chun-Yan," she says, her face flushed with cold, and sits on her mattress, shivering—her revealing Bragi dress does her no favors, although I doubt she will stop wearing it for such trivial matters. "Kiku-ge told me to wake you up for evening shift. It started raining earlier than we anticipated, so the meals are going to be served early today. Here, I'll redo your hair for you."
I crawl onto her lap compliantly. Despite being only two years older than me, Mei-jie has always seemed to be a perfect, mature lady, the pinnacle I could never, would never reach. And ever since she went through puberty I can only barely brush against her shoulder, something I will be forever bitter about—our family is composed of people of above-average height; before her growing spell, at least I had a compatriot in dwarfism.
"Do you want to try something different today?" she asks, pulling my hair tightly. I stifle a cry of agony at her rough actions—like how Lien-jie used to say, beauty is pain. "I was thinking a long braid, or maybe a high ponytail. You're getting too old for ox-horns."
"Mama wore them too, so I don't see why I can't," I say defensively, and Mei-jie shrugs, pulling my hair into a tight bun behind my head instead. I wince, but do not protest her actions.
"Yes, but Mama was raised in Hubei. The people up there are louder than nine-headed birds, and the locals will cheat you out of all your money if you're not careful enough. Heaven knows what she picked up there, in such a dirty place, before she left for here with Baba. We're fortunate enough to live in a city for proper, civilized people. You can't simply go around in public looking like a fool."
I stare her from a corner of my eyes, wondering since when she had developed such an opinionated belief of people from other provinces. Certainly it was not from any of our siblings—a sinking feeling begins to grow in my stomach as I think about it, and I feel slightly ill. My older sister is slowly entering the prejudices of adulthood, and the large void in-between us, although already massive, is starting to expand.
Mei-jie does not seem to notice my mental anguish. "Alright, you're all finished," she chirps cheerfully, removing one of her own pretty pink flower barrettes from her hair and tucking it the area over my ear. "Make sure you wear something over that dress, unless you want to waste away the entire day tomorrow in bed. Oh, and whatever you do, stay away from the East Wing tonight."
"Yes, jie jie," I say, not really processing her words, before standing up. Grabbing a shawl from the metal wall-hangers, I hurry down two flights of stairs and into the main hallway. There is a small utility cart waiting for me at the bottom, with a list of customers' names written in a mix of fan ti zi and jian ti zi—Baba had taught my siblings the traditional characters, while I had grown up reading the standardized simplified Chinese, and so for simplicity's sake we used both and let the guests decide on which one they preferred.
There are only two requests for dinner service tonight—unsurprising, given how few customers we have right now. The tourism will resume again in winter, after harvest season is done and over, but in autumn we make do with what we can. We live in the outskirts of Shanghai, away from the hustle and bustle of the main city, hidden from Western cars and high-rise buildings common in the metropolis. There are advantages to this, but also disadvantages: for one, compared to larger hotels, our income is much more meager.
The first delivery round is no surprise; the Chairman Mao Brothers' Union rents the same room in the hotel every Sunday for their weekly gatherings (in which what they do has nothing to do with Mao Zedong, and more with illegal opium and gambling rings), and they have been coming here for so long that Kiku-ge, who normally disapproves of such things, allows me to serve them. I knock on the door twice, pause for a second, and knock once again—the loud talking in the room drops to a murmur, and a bed creaks in protest as somebody rises and steps across the room.
There is a sound of the door being unlatched and it is opened to a small crack, a suspicious eye peering through through, before backing away to allow the door to swing open fully. "Ah, Xiao-Yan-mei, you look so mature now with that new hairstyle!" a man laughs, putting a hand on my shoulder and ruffling it affectionately. I slip out of his hold awkwardly. "I almost didn't recognize you without the ox-horn buns—I swear to the Heavenly Emperor, you're looking more and more beautiful each day!"
"Please marry my son," another man jokes, smoking a joint of something rancid-smelling in a low horn-pipe as he lounges on the bed. "He's a Shanghainese man born and raised, he'll treat a pretty little lady like you right. I promise if you two get together, you'll never have to work another day of your life." The other men evidently find this humorous, whooping loudly and slapping their knees in amusement.
The room is dark and musty, cigarette smoke drifting out the one open window, the curtains blocking out both the sun and unwanted witnesses. There is a deck of cards and a pile of yuan in one corner, a stack of scattered matches in the other, still-glowing embers from cast away tobacco ashes littering the ground and leaving scorch marks on the wooden flooring. Kiku-ge has long given up on trying to fine them for such appalling treatment of privately owned property, instead choosing to add the damages cost inconspicuously to the final bill.
"If anybody wants to marry me, they'll have to get past all six of my older brothers and then my two elder sisters," I quip back in good humor. I look inside of the cart at what Kiku-ge has prepared. Ten bowls of rice porridge, a single plate of sea bass, three braised pork dishes. Another three plates of xiao long bao, steamed pork buns from the North with a Shanghainese twist. "And even if they do survive my siblings, if they're not rich, they can dream on." I begin unloading the top of the cart, setting down the food on the long wooden tables. Some of them are already beginning to form round heat rings from overuse.
They all laugh at that. "Alright, I'll take your word for it, little lady," a man says, evidently amused. "Thank you for bringing us the dinner. Take care, in this cold weather." The plates and chopsticks are passed out, and the room is filled with the sounds of arguing over splitting the food, cutting off any answer I could have given. Deeming my job as finished, I back out slowly from the room, carefully dragging the cart through the door frame. The door closes gently behind me.
The next delivery is on the other side of the building, in the North Wing. I carefully ease the utility cart across the bumpy floorboards, making my way through the precariously narrow hallways. My destination is the first one to the right from the entry point. The room is so silent, I'm doubting whether there's anyone in there or not, but I knock politely against the door anyway. If the tenants miss Kiku-ge's dinner, it's their loss, after all.
The door creaks open quietly, and a girl looks out cautiously. She must be around Jia Long-ge's age, perhaps seventeen or so, give or take, but she's not very developed and is maybe about only a head taller than me. She's not exactly beautiful, like my older sisters or Mama, her features more boyish than not (even her hair is cut short, in some morbid parody of a funeral veil), but her stark plainness is refreshing, in a way, especially to someone like me who has had the unfortunate circumstance of growing up surrounded by unusually attractive people.
"Herro," she says, in a thick accent, and her voice is so quiet I have to strain my ears to catch it. Her manner of speaking is unfamiliar to me. "Who you are? I no ask for peopre—"
"I'm here to deliver dinner," I say quickly, before she can deliver any misconceptions about the hotel. "You are... ah... you were the one who ordered dinner, right?" I look down at the delivery sheet and sure enough, in some form of convoluted Chinese I do not understand, the paper reads: 部屋9.
She shakes her head. "Sakura Honda," she says, pointing to herself. "That my name. I order earlier with kanji."
"Sa-ku-ran Hong-da," I attempt to pronounce, butchering the phrase completely. She gives a slight smile at my awkwardness. "Sa-ku-rang Hong-da? Ah, I can't pronounce it... I'm sorry..."
"It okay," she reassures me, nodding. "Good for Chinese person. You are name?"
"Chun-Yan," I answer her. "Call me Xiao Yan, though. Everybody does." I extend my hand in greeting, painfully aware of our difference in status—her fingers are white and bony, the hands of somebody who has never worked in their life, a high class person with servants at their beck and call. My own fingers are lithe and padded with slight muscle, as well as darkened by the seaside sun, although not as dark as the fishermen's wives who labor at the harbor every day.
"Chi-ne Ya-ma," she says, her pronunciation just as bad as mine. "That good name. I call you chibi-Yama-chan, you very short." She gives a small laugh, fanning herself with her hand to cover her mouth. Her previous shyness and suspicion slowly disappears, replaced by a more outgoing personality. "You work at hotel? You rook very young, still a chird—twerve, thirteen? "
"I just turned thirteen last week," I affirm, making a face at the odd nickname, before peeking into the cart and checking that everything is accounted for. Kiku-ge always makes extra food, in case a guest changes their mind with their food choice, but it makes it hard to determine if every dish is present. "Do you want me to unload the dishes for you, or would you prefer to take them inside yourself?"
"I take them myself," she says, a small smile cracking at the edge of her lips. She is noticeably prettier when she smiles, small dimples forming on the folds in her cheek. "I eighteen, nineteen next month. Six year more old than you. Otou-san work here for money. You are first not hate me because I from Nippon."
Suddenly, everything falls into place, from her heavy accent to her strange name. She is Japanese, and a true one, to top it off. Unlike Kiku, who was born of a mixed ancestry, with half a Han parent, half a pure and respectable bloodline. This is an authentic foreigner, descended from the same people who killed and pillaged my people, who also has enough shamelessness to pursue a job in the very place that they had attacked only a few decades ago. A passive anger floods me, and I want nothing but to make her suffer, to make her feel pain beyond all measures—
She stares at me with a hopeful expression, as if trying to gauge my reaction to that statement, and all of a sudden I can feel nothing but a deep shame. Who am I to judge her because of her country, of the doings of others that she herself has no part in? In this aspect I am not better than Mei-jie, belittling other provinces because of what few people are and most others aren't. The flaw of humanity has been passed onto me, so gradually that I never realized it, but ever present in my being. I have been stained black by the very things I abhor most.
I can feel my face heating up, and I clear my throat uncomfortably, forcing a hesitant smile on my face. I cannot make myself look at her in the eyes. "Am I?" I ask, blandly. "Why would people dislike you? You're a very pleasant person. Here, take these." I all but shove the dishes in her hand, and leave hurriedly, pushing the cart along the hallway; away from her, away from my guilt.
When I force myself to glance back just before turning the corner, she is still standing on the threshold of her room, unmoving.
Outside, the storm rages.