Title: historia de vita mea
(The Story of My Life)
Author: alyson yang (杨吖李)
China in the Mao Zedong/Communist/early PRC era was a pretty depressing time. There were a lot of slums everywhere, unemployment, and crime rates were extremely high. Also, the Communist Red Guards were not your average friendly neighborhood cop (unless you never had a friendly neighborhood cop and so this comparison is useless to you) and killed a lot of so-called 'traitors', the list of crimes including wearing traditional clothing, which was thought to mean you didn't accept the new government; not obeying the beck and call of a Red Guard; and simply looking "suspicious". Not exactly the happiest place... Well, maybe I'm slightly exaggerating a bit. This is about fifteen years after the war, so things weren't as bad as they were directly post-war or in the mid-late 1960s, which is where things really went downhill.
As I've probably mentioned before, this story is set in Shanghai in the late 1950s and 1960s, which is also where my maternal grandparents grew up (they were born in 1945, the same year as Chun-Yan). Shanghai received a lot of foreign influence as it was one of the larger port cities in China, and basically because of that it modernized faster than a lot of other parts of China, including possessing cars, roads, tall buildings, etc. However, the Chun-Yan B&B Inn is located on the very outskirts of the port city, which means that it will not see as much Westernization as other sectors, and still has some signs of its rural roots.
1958 is a big year in Chinese history, because it was the same year that Mao Zedong issued the edict to begin the Great Leap Forward. For those of you who have no idea what that is, it's basically a point in history that killed approximately 45 million people. 7% (3 million) of these deaths were caused by suicide, while another 6% (2.5 million) people were beaten or tortured to death. Everyone else starved.
The phrase wang ba dan (王八蛋, literally offspring of a turtle) is thought to have originated in the Song Dynasty, although some historians dispute this theory. The phrase is equivalent to the English expletives SOB or bastard, although it can have more negative or more positive connotations depending on the context. Similar to SOB, the meaning of wang ba dan has expanded to an extremely broad insult, and is not limited to insulting children of illegitimate status.
In Korean honorifics, a male calls his older brother(s) or an older male close to him hyung / hyeong (형) and his older sister(s) or an older female close to him noona / nuna (누나). Yong-Soo and Hyung-Soo are not native to China, they still retain some Korean mannerisms and ways of speech. The same can be said of Kasem, who is originally from Thailand, and Lien as well to a certain extent, who was born in China but was raised by a Vietnamese mother until her abandonment.
Due to labor shortages because of the war, and as Korea was a territory of Japan until the end of 1945, up to six million Koreans were forcibly sent overseas to work. About eighty-thousand ethnic Koreans died in Manchuria alone. A good deal of these deaths consisted of children and comfort women, who were basically women kidnapped under the pretext of getting a job and forced into prostitution.
Also, a thing to keep in mind, is that no matter how mature Chun-Yan may act, she is still just a child. No matter how adult-like she behaves, remember that she is not one, and will not be a true one for a very long time.
"..." is speaking in Mandarin.
historia de vita mea
what we have lost
There is a dream I have sometimes, when autumn slowly trails away to form the bitter winds of winter, when the frost climbs up the glass windowsills and I crawl into the beds of my elder siblings. A woman holds me, her arms warm and comforting, and hums a lullaby that clings to the edges of my memory upon awakening. It is a peaceful dream, tranquil and comfortable, until suddenly everything shifts into screams and silver flashes and the sound of metal against metal.
Breakfast today is at first a quiet affair, as well as an unfulfilling one; only a meager amount of fish congee, served with a barely sustainable side of pickled vegetables and preserved chicken. Jia Long-ge fills the silence by droning about his uneventful day yesterday in the local coffee cafe, where he and Andre-ge go to work on weekdays, serving foreigners and the occasional police officer. The revenue from the inn is not nearly enough to sustain us in the early winter season, where we have the least customers, and so everybody, with the exception of myself and Mei-jie, has a designated occupation outside of the inn.
"Some of the foreigners were talking about you when I was taking orders," Andre-ge says to Mei-jie, setting down his bowl. I look up, vaguely interested with the topic, but back down when Kiku-ge stares at me and purses his lips disapprovingly. "It seems you're infamous in the district. One of them tried to ask me for an introduction." He sounds irritated, maybe, although it's almost impossible to tell with Andre-ge. He could be trying to kill you brutally while still having a gentle smile on his face.
"Is he an army man?" Mei-jie giggles, fanning herself with a wooden paper fan, the ones that sell in the markets for maybe ten or twelve yuan. It's unlikely that she would buy something like that herself, especially with the Kiku monitoring household expenses so rigorously, so I surmise it must have been a hastily-smuggled gift from some blushing shopboy. Mei-jie has always seemed to possess the prettiest clothes, the most fashionable accessories, the best quality items, even in times of widespread poverty like these. I pity whoever will be her future husband. "Oh, but if he's too unattractive don't bother."
"Tell that to the lao wai yourself," Jia Long-ge scoffs; he has long held a disregard for Mei-jie, far beyond the normal sibling enmities. I think that his naturally taciturn personality disagrees with Mei-jie's more dismissive one, although it could just be pure speculation on my part.
Mei-jie glares back at Jia Long-ge, tilting her head back in a derisive manner. The locks of hair over her ears shift with the movement, revealing an expensive-looking silver earring on her right ear, different from what she was wearing yesterday. We would never be able to spend so much money on something as trivial as jewelry, so I know that she must have coaxed it from one of her wealthier suitors. "I wasn't talking to you, you wang ba dan—"
"Mei," Kiku-ge says coldly, and at once Mei-jie silences, seemingly all too aware of her forbidden transgression. "That is enough from you now. Put the fan away. Dinner is a time for family—I am talking to you as well, Jia Long," he says, when Jia Long-ge opens his mouth to make a rude comment.
There is an awkward silence as Mei-jie and Jia Long-ge glare at each other angrily, interrupted only by Yong-Soo-ge reaching across the table to grab another piece of zha cai, or pickled mustard stem. It is not common knowledge outside of the inn, but Jia Long-ge is a bastard child, the product of Baba having an unmarried relationship with a laowai, or foreigner.
Baba's first wife, back when he still lived in Anhui province as a farmer, had been a laowai as well, a Christian missionary who had died not soon after giving birth to Andre-ge. When I was very young, he used to speak of her when Mama was not present, spinning vivid tales of her bright green eyes and long, beautiful brown hair. Andre-ge and Jia Long-ge look Han enough to pass for full Chinese ancestry, but their European features are still very, very much visible, and it has become taboo to engage in such talk inside the Inn.
"Marriage..." Lien-jie mutters, consideringly. I glance at her, curiosity replacing my initial hesitation and fear of Kiku-ge's chastisement. It is strange how Lien-jie, at twenty-seven, has never married, or even talked of matters of love, when she is hawkishly beautiful, all sharp angles and frigid countenance. She would have certainly no trouble finding a lover, or even a rich husband, even at her age. There are some rumors among the villager that she will die an old maid; she is long past the traditional age for marrying, and has never shown any inclination to.
"Eh, did you find someone you like, noona?" Yong-Soo-ge asks, his mouth still full of half-chewed zha cai. "How come you never told us? When is the wedding going to take place? Why am I not the organizer? After all, it was Korea that invented the concept of weddings, you know." He swallows just as he finishes speaking, producing an impish smile, prompting Hyung-Soo-ge to give his shoulder a brusque nudge.
Lien-jie shakes her head, gesturing to Kiku-ge with slender, calloused fingers from countless hours of physical labor. He stares back, looking almost resigned, as he already knows what she will say next. "You are twenty-seven in four months." The end up her sentence lilts upwards, almost as if she is asking a question. "When will you bring home a bride?"
Kiku-ge frowns, scraping away the last grains of rice from his bowl, and sets the bowl down quietly back onto the table. His right fingers are a stark white colour from the sheer force he grips the chopsticks with. "I do not need a bride," he says curtly, adjusting his jacket to fill the new silence. "What is the use of one more mouth to feed, especially in times like these?"
"A child in the house would be nice, ana," Kasem-ge remarks, receiving a scathing glance from Kiku-ge for his efforts. "Chun-Yan is getting too old to pamper now, ah, and Mei is already getting marriage proposals. Back in Thailand, the elders would always say, 'A house without children is a lonely one, indeed.'"
There is a wistful tone in his voice. It is easy to forget that Kasem-ge, and even Yong Soo-ge and Hyung Soo-ge are not native to Shanghai, or even China, for that matter, when my earliest memories are filled with them inside the inn, fooling around and being scolded by Mama. Try as I might, I cannot connect them to the children forced to work all day in horrific conditions in Japanese labor camps as I have often heard about from conversations between patrons of the inn.
"No," Kiku-ge says, his tone final. "If you want children, Kasem, bring home a bride yourself."
Kasem-ge doesn't seem to get the memo. "How can the second son marry before the first?" he says stubbornly, placing his hands on the table. "Kiku, you will be thirty in another three years, ana, and time goes by quickly. Before you know it, you will be old, ah, and children will laugh at you on the streets."
Kiku-ge doesn't do anything for a few seconds after Kasem-ge's response, before suddenly bursting into self-decrepitating laughter. I cannot help but stare, transfixed at this sudden shift in personality; even at his angriest, I have never seen Kiku-ge react in such a loud and obvious manner before. "What kind of a woman would ever marry me?" he says, chuckling darkly. Kasem-ge and the twins shift nervously in their seats. Even Lien-jie looks uncomfortable with his uncharacteristic behavior. "Who would want a—," he pauses, narrowing his eyes with distaste, "—mongrel as a husband?"
Kiku-ge's biological father had been a Japanese soldier from the War of Jiawu, who had remained behind in China even after all the other Japanese troops had withdrawn. I do not know the complete details of this story, but supposedly he had had a brief illicit affair with a Beijing prostitute, bore a child with her, and then was killed in an anti-Japanese mob attack, and the prostitute, fearful for her safety, pleaded Baba to take on the child. It is a messy tale that I have no wish to delve in, detail-wise, and has always remained a bitter sentiment for Kiku-ge, a reminder that his very existence will bring him contempt and fear in this country if anyone were to find out the truth. Perhaps this is why he is so protective over Jia Long-ge and Andre-ge's half-Han identities, and so disdainful over those that bring it up.
There is a long moment of silence afterwards, where no one knows quite what to say. Kiku-ge stands up, taking his bowl with him, depositing it in the kitchen sink before stalking out silently.
After the scene at breakfast, Mei-jie convinces me to go out shopping with her for clothing, or, perhaps, in more appropriate terms, her coaxing some unsuspecting rich man to buy her expensive items, while under the pretense of shopping at the local marketplace. We are joined by one of the many suitors that seem to be completely wrapped around her little finger, a tall, handsome soldier by the name of Wang Ma, who currently works directly under Chairman Mao's leadership but is rather low on the chain of command. He is perhaps a little older than Mei-jie, nineteen, or twenty at the most, clean-shaven and still a little baby-faced, but carries himself about in the polished, pompous way of a rich businessman. His mouth, too, is much beyond his years, much like one of an old man without a filter.
Ma is prominent enough to own his own car, a pretty red thing that makes strange sounds when the road becomes bumpy. I have only ridden a car exactly sixteen times in my entire life, and three of those times were with Baba and Mama, so the experience alone is enough to leave me wide-eyed and in awe. We drive for a long time, perhaps half an hour or so, before we reach the more modernized section of Shanghai, where high buildings and cars and even trains are everywhere, a paradigm of Western influence.
"Ooh, look at that, Ma," Mei-jie giggles, pointing to a gaggle of schoolchildren, perhaps a few years younger than me, walking across the roadside. Most of them are boys, but the skirts that five or six of them wear give them away as girls, a foreign concept. Baba and my siblings had taught me how to read and write and do simple arithmetic, and I had been educated at the local state-funded school when I was younger, but most girls my age are not so lucky. Many of them grow up illiterate and ignorant, destined only to marry young and bear a child to some man that takes a liking to them.
"Very cute, aren't they?" Ma says, blithely. I begin to wonder if he is feigning obliviousness, or if he really is that stupid. "After we marry, our children will surely be like that someday as well."
Mei-jie hides a coy laugh behind the sleeve of her jacket, and I know that she doesn't really harbor any such intentions of the sort. She is cruel in that way, behind all the makeup and pretty words, a temptress that finds joy in the futile hope of her victims. Ma is not the first man that has mentioned marriage or a proposal to Mei-jie, and he will not be the last. He is simply one in many, a fly caught in a web of lies and deceit.
We arrive at our destination a few minutes later, a small square surrounded by shops and tall high-rise buildings. Mei-jie blends in easily with the local residents, with her fashionable Bragi dress and sleekly styled hair, earning her the tacit approval and admiration of many of the people that pass us by. Ma seems to be proud of this fact, puffing up his chest as he leads Mei-jie by the arm, with me trailing behind in the background like an insistent gnat.
We stop by a dressmaker's shop first, which is already populated by a few of the local women that seem to do nothing but giggle and gossip insipidly. I stop and admire the swathes of fabric that hang from the shelves, thousands and thousands of pretty patterns catching my eye. Pre-made designs are featured on wire mannequins, trending styles that will be irrelevant by next spring, and I wonder how rich the people that live in this part of the city must be, to be able to afford buying a new dress every time the fashion changes.
To my complete surprise, Mei-jie insists on having a dress fitted for me first. Ma seems annoyed with the fact that he will be paying for my outfit as well as hers, but lightens up when he seems to remember that I might become his future sister-in-law and that it will be due good to impress me.
The store attendant takes my measurements, stating that it will be easier to fit me in a dress because of my child-like proportions. She and Mei-jie bicker over a suitable dress pattern for me, Mei-jie favoring a plaid pattern and the attendant suggesting a monochromatic fabric, before finally resolving with a striped fabric that both agree make me look more mature. Ma pays the appropriate price for the dress—I do not know how much it must have cost, although judging by his sullen expression, very much—which will be made over the course of the next week and finished by the end of the month.
After the first exchange has been successful, Mei-jie disappears into the recesses of the fitting room and I am left behind with Ma. There is not much to do, other than admire the fabric and mull in the awkward tension between us. I am not sure what he thinks of me; other than our introduction to each other, he has yet to speak to me without using Mei-jie as a medium.
"Xiao-Yan." I look up, confused by the sudden usage of the overly familiar address. Ma looks awkward and uncertain, nervously fidgeting his fingers. "I hope you don't mind calling me that?" He pauses, his face flushed slightly red. "Has, your sister, uh... I mean, Mei, ever mentioned me at home? To your brothers? Does she talk about me?" He looks like a hopeful puppy, looking up at me. "Has she said anything about marriage yet?"
I pause. Oh. Oh. It had not occurred to me that he was not completely assured of Mei-jie's love and unending adoration. Perhaps I had misjudged him; he was not as stupid as I had thought him to be. "No," I say bluntly, completely honest. "She doesn't talk much about those types of matters at all." I don't tell him about the conversation this morning, when she had casually asked Andre-ge about the foreigners potentially interested in her, or the one that we had a few days ago, when she had confided to me that one of her suitors had gifted her a bracelet made out of real gold. Gold coating perhaps, but real gold nonetheless.
He looks disappointed. "Uh, oh. Okay. Thanks for telling me." And then, looking around the room for any potential witnesses, whispers in my ear: "Do you think it'd be too early to arrange for a fortune teller to test our affinity?"
I glance at him, too confused to say anything in response. Never have I met such a dedicated suitor, who has gone so far as to think about arranging a fortune teller to tell them their compatibility within a few months or so of their relationship. Mei-jie really is lucky, some part of me thinks deep inside, that she is so beautiful and charming. To have people love her to such an extent. A bitter jealousy creeps inside my heart, tendrils of envy and greed ensnaring my chest until it feels as if it is going to burst.
For some reason, I am suddenly reminded of that girl I had met in the Inn in what seemed like so long ago, who I had abandoned so cruelly solely because of something that she could not control. The look of betrayal that had stayed on her face, as I ran away like the coward I was. The scene replays itself in my mind, mocking and scornful, as if reminding myself what a disgusting person I really am.
Luckily, Mei-jie returns before I can properly answer him. She looks excited, her cheeks flushed red, and latches onto Ma's arm, giggling, as he dutifully pays for the cost of that dress as well. From where I stand behind her, I can see the silver hoop earrings hidden behind her hair, another reminiscent memory of a man who had thought that he could win her love with money.
We stop by a few more shops after that. In that time, Mei-jie somehow wheedles Ma into buying her a pretty jade necklace, a pair of red cloth shoes, a silken parasol, and a pair of flower hair pins that sparkle in the sunlight. Ma is considerate enough to offer me an embroidered cloth handkerchief, which I tuck dutifully into the depths of my Bragi dress. We buy baozi, or steamed meat buns, from the street vendors for lunch, once again out of the pocket of our gracious host.
Ma drops the two of us off at the market, a short walk from home. By the time we return back to the Inn, it has already become late afternoon. Hyung-Soo-ge and Kasem-ge are waiting for us near the lobby, the former who appears absolutely furious.
"Just what were you thinking," he hisses to Mei-jie, looking at the assortment of gifts on her person, "when you left to go adventuring with one of your suitors, with your younger sister, nonetheless? We searched the marketplace, and there was no sign of you anywhere." He stares pointedly at the hairpins and the necklace, and then at the parasol and the bag with the shoes in them with absolute disgust. He scans over me as well, snorting coldly when he finds no objects on my person. The handkerchief in my pocket feels as heavy as stone.
"Jie jie said we could go," Mei-jie says back stubbornly, looking defensive. She inclines her head, stepping slightly to the right so that she stands directly in front of me, as if shielding me from his ire. "And since when did you care so much, ge?"
"Noona only agreed that you could go visit the market. What kind of example do you think you're setting for Xiao-Yan?" Hyung-Soo-ge says heatedly, ignoring Kasem-ge's best attempts to calm him down. "What if something happened to you, and we don't know where you are? What if he kidnaps you, or rapes you, or kills you, or all of them? You don't know his intentions, and yet you willingly go on a car ride for the sake of a few silly baubles? What if Xiao-Yan starts imitating you, and something happens to her? She's only thirteen, do you think she understands everything as well as you do? Is it really worth it?"
Mei-jie's voice cracks. "You're not my father, so stop acting like you are!" she shouts, throwing the parasol to the floor. It clatters on the ground, the white silk dirtied with dust. I freeze, unaware of what to do in the situation.
"No, I'm not," Hyung-Soo-ge agrees quietly, "but I'm your older brother, and I will not watch you recklessly endanger yourself or your sister and do nothing." There is a long moment in which nobody moves, a heavy solemn silence that permeating the room in heavy gloom.
Mei-jie moves first, running up the stairway in tears. "I will talk to her now, ana," Kasem-ge says almost apologetically, following the staircase. That leaves me alone to face Hyung-Soo-ge. It is not a match that I will win.
He looks at me, his eyes filled with disappointment. I want to shy away from his gaze, but somehow I am unable to move, fixated on almost completely black irises. "You silly girl," he says at last, reaching out a hand to rest on my head, simultaneously messing up my ox-horns. I make no attempt to move away. "You stupid, foolish girl." He sighs, pulling me into his arms. "Don't do anything as stupid as that ever again, no matter how much your idiot of a sister tries to convince you. We've already lost our parents. I don't think any one of us could lose you, too."
I don't know why, or how, or any of the semantics of it, but suddenly I am sobbing in Hyung-Soo-ge's shoulder, my tears forming a wet patch on the fabric of his Lenin coat. The hair from his braid pricks against my face, but I ignore it, too distracted with venting out everything wrong in the world: my rash callousness, my ugly jealousy, my utter judgemental idiocy—
We stay that way for a long time, before I fall asleep against the crook of his neck, the comforting warmth of his shoulder enough to lull me rest.
When I wake up, I am lying on Lien-jie's mattress. Beside me, Lien-jie is asleep as well, her legs tangled with mine in an amalgamation of limbs, her thick quilt draped over the both of us. Her arm is splayed under me as well, my head resting against the crook of her elbow. It is warm and comfortable, and I stay there for a few moments, appreciating the feeling of being next to someone.
"That's the problem, we can't continue on like this." A low male voice catches my attention, throbbing at the edges of my hearing. I recognize it as Hyung Soo-ge's voice, although why he would be awake so late is beyond my scope of reasoning. "Old Chen from the miller's is already refusing to sell to us. Says that they have to prioritize their own mouths first. People are already starting to starve to death in the Southern Provinces."
"We will have other crops if they won't sell us wheat," someone else responds. I strain my ears, trying to make out the owner of the voice. Andre-ge. "And there is always fish, so we won't starve."
"That's not the main issue here," Hyung-Soo-ge says. "Our customers will greatly decrease, as a result of the famine. We could potentially run out of money."
I sharply intake a breath in surprise. There is a sudden silence from the other side of the silk screen. I still, not daring to move, until the sound of movement resumes.
Andre-ge replies with something unintelligible.
"But I don't think that's what you will need to be worried about," Hyung-Soo-ge says dryly. "Can you still remember the riots and looting during the war? What if they decide to burn this whole place down? What speech will our most esteemed Chairman Mao give then?"
"Are we close enough to the countryside for that to happen?" Andre-ge replies. There is a soft thump, as something moves.
"Stop this, the both of you," another voice says. I identify it as Kiku-ge. "We will discuss this in the morning. It is too late now."
The voices stop. I lay still, replaying the conversation in my head until I fall asleep once again.