我最好的朋友,Tom

Tom說,你走到我前面去,因為我要放屁。

我稍微加快腳步,走到他前面一、兩米的地方,回過頭看他。他一臉微笑,像一個快樂的小屁孩。

那是2007年夏天的一個午後,我第二次見到Tom

之前的一個星期,我因為尋找、拍攝、採訪嬉皮士,來到科羅拉多州的山村Ward。在跟拍一個嬉皮女孩Semantha的途中經過Tom的家。 Tom和太太Carol當時坐在陽台上享受夏天, 悠閒地吸著煙。 Tom瞧見我,大聲說,你的相機真夠大的!” 我說, “嗯,是的,比我大, 也比我重呢。

由此,開始了我們十三年的忘年交。

Tom邀請我再去Ward。一個星期後,我果真以TomCarol的客人的身份回到Ward Tom把我安置到他家對面的一間空置的綠房子,然後帶我遛噠,因為Ward是一個美麗的地方。 Tom在這裡住了三十多年,了解它的一草一木,以它為豪。剛出門,他就要放屁,為避免為中毒,讓我走到他前頭。而我居然沒有詫異的感覺,似乎我們是很多年的朋友,彼此已經很了解。

Tom帶我走他的路線。他每天早上都和他的狗到森林散步。路上,他常常遇到女兒Greta也帶著她的狗去散步。然後爺兒倆就像兩個老鄰居一起和他們的狗去林間溜達。 Greta從來不叫Tom爸爸,而是直呼他的小名Tom GretaTom的時候,口吻像幾十年的好鄰居。但Greta從來不直呼Carol的名字,而是喊她媽媽。 Tom從來不介意親生女兒不叫她爸爸。他和Greta的感情,其實很深,既是父女,也是好朋友。 Greta差不多三十歲時跟Carol學油畫,早期的作品之一是Davenport段的密西西比河,Tom的家鄉。 Greta把這幅畫送給Tom。它至今掛在TomCarol的客廳裡。我想,Greta很清楚Tom的天性和Mark Twain筆下的Tom Sawyer以及Huckleberry Finn是一樣的。不難想像他和Tom SawyerHuckleberry Finn沿著密西西比河遊蕩、探險。 他從來沒有失去孩子的純真、坦率、好奇心和探險精神。即便在他居住了三十多年的Ward,他也經常有新發現。狐狸在雪地留下一串腳印,行山人遺漏了一個物件,一隻剛出生的鳥雛從鳥窩掉下來(Tom會小心把鳥雛放到安全的地方讓鳥媽媽發現它),一顆樹生病了……發現,讓他快樂。

2007年七月末的那個下午,Tom帶我走他和Greta經常走的路線,邊走邊給我指出動物的腳印,一顆樹的故事,一塊空地的歷史。然後我得知他的逃兵歷史。 上個世紀六十年代,Tom拒絕去打越戰,逃到Ward。他並不以當逃兵為恥,而為不參與邪惡的戰爭為傲。我向來認為,最勇敢的人,不是戰場的士兵,而是因堅持自己的信念敢與世界逆行的人。這個人不一定是哥白尼之類的歷史名人,他可以是一個不普通的普通人,比如Tom Tom不跟風,不怕別人異樣的眼光,不理會自以為是的、武斷的無知者。他讀書看報觀察世界,從來有自己的看法自己的方式。只要他認定是對的事情,他就會去堅定的去做,你別指望改變他。如果他自己發現他原來錯了,他一定不會遮掩自己的錯誤。在他了解一個人、一件事之前,他從不輕易下結論,或帶著情緒去判斷一個人。我們有時會有不同的意見,爭論得激烈時,他脫口而出一句粗言,“You are a bitch!”我條件反射似的回一句,“You are a son of a bitch!” 粗話說完,我們一起大笑。和Tom在一起,我可以樣肆無忌憚。

Tom在任何人面前,都可以肆無忌憚,因為他不懼怕世俗的眼光。同時,他接受世界的不完美,接受別人的不完美,接受我所有的缺點。因為接受,沒有疑慮,所以釋懷。他不做違心事情,因此他沒有秘密。他說秘密很沈重,藏在心裡會很累。沒有恐懼,沒有疑慮,沒有秘密,Tom是我所認識的最坦率、最快樂的人。他入世,又出世,我向來是知道的。但我從沒想過他會離世。

Tom走得很突然。美國科羅拉多時間202061號早晨五點左右,Carol聽到他呻吟了一會兒,然後舒了一口氣,以為他在做夢。七點她回到臥室,才知道,那是Tom在這個世俗世界發出最後的發聲。同日晚上(香港時間62號的早上),Greta給我發了郵件,告訴我Tom突然離世的消息。當時我正準備出門上班,怔了一下,明明讀清了每一個字,卻好像沒看懂信的內容。過了十來分鐘,站在地鐵裡,眼淚突然嘩嘩地流。那種心情,和我母親離開我們的時候一樣。頭腦一片空白,心臟似乎沒有了生命的徵象,但眼淚不斷地流,像兩條河流那樣。夜晚收工回到家,再讀Greta讀郵件,才確切地感知到痛。眼淚繼續流了兩天。工作的時候,把自己關閉掉,一旦不用工作,眼淚就開始流。Tom離開的第二天,我堂兄因喉癌離世。雖然離開家鄉後很少堂兄交往,但因為血緣的關係,因為Tom的離開,觸動很大。那感覺,就像上帝帶著殘忍的微笑對準我的心臟連開兩槍。或者說是三槍,因為去年9月,他還搶走了我的母親。Tom離開第三天,我的身體被悲傷的眼淚和勞累的工作抽乾了,我已經沒有氣力哭泣和悲傷。等我再有氣力的時候,再想Tom 我知道他一定不希望我、CarolGreta或任何親友為他哭泣、悲傷。他也許更希望我們慶祝他沒有痛苦地結束一段旅程,開始另一個旅程的探險。他離開的方式,正如我外婆過去常常說的,是有福氣的。我希望,等我該離開的時候,也像Tom那樣。

Tom離世的那天恰好是兒童節。我有時想,也許Tom特意選擇了這一天,因為他內心一直是一個貪玩的、純粹的孩子。不過,我知道,Tom從來不屑各種節日 —– 除了聖誕節,因為聖誕節的時候他可以扮聖誕老人,送很多禮物,又收禮物。(我最快樂的聖誕節,就是2007年和Tom一家過的那個聖誕節。我們不斷地拆禮物,笑著、叫著,像一群孩子,貓和狗也都收到了禮物。Tom送給我一雙很厚很暖的羊毛襪子,Greta送給我一雙暖和的羊毛手套。後來我一直在南方生活,用不上它們,把他們轉送給我怕冷的父親。我告訴Tom,我把他們的禮物給父親了,他不但不介意,還很高興,說禮物沒浪費掉。)Tom不需要世俗選定的日子去慶祝兒童的純真,或父母的愛,或任何值得慶祝的人與事。他有自己的方式。我們之間也從來不給彼此寫節日快樂的郵件。我們甚至不記得彼此的生日,不會互祝生日快樂。任何時候,不論我們在何方,相隔多遠,即便現在, 我們都在慶祝生命,慶祝我們特殊的友誼。

我們的友誼就像海明威小說《老人與海》裡頭的那個老漁夫和小男孩。每次讀到老漁夫一大早去叫小男孩起床的到那個情節,我的喉嚨會梗塞,因為,在那裡,我看到了Tom和我。而Tom來中國探望我到時候,的確會像老漁夫那樣,清早的時候,走到我房間,用手輕捏我的腳拇指,叫我起床。我睜開眼睛,就會看到他的微笑,聽到他說,早安!很美的一天開始了。我知道他已經迫不及待地要出去探險了,並不介意他來我的房間叫醒我。但我有時會介意別人看我們的異樣眼光。在中國,我的鄰居,陌生的路人常誤認為我是他的情人,以為我是為了出國勾搭老外的人。有一次,在杭州,一個的士司機教訓我說,你看你,怎麼就選了個老外呢?你知道中國有多少男人娶不到老婆嗎?” Tom看穿了我的心思,有時會故意做些出格的行為誤導早已誤解我們的人。我有時會罵他, “Tom,你知道中國人的唾沫是可以淹死我的嗎?!他不理我,繼續他的惡作劇。後來,我明白,他是用他的方式教我不要為別人的眼光活著,要為自己活。別人的想法、感覺與我的快樂沒有半毛錢的關系。在這點,CarolTom是一樣的。現在,我完全接受了自己,很少會因為別人的誤解或惡意而生氣。

昨天,Carol在電話裡對我說,她相信Tom仍然在她身邊,在他們共同生活了半個世紀的家,在他們時常溜達的林間。我們看不見他而已,但他一直都在。” Carol說,“Tom不希望我悲傷。我要快樂地活下去,一天比一天快樂。”  她這麼說的時候,鼻音重了許多。我知道她和我一樣,仍在流淚。

放下電話,我在想Carol的話。Tom到底還在不在我們身邊呢?在不在我呼吸的空氣裡呢?他能否看見我呢?如果我去旅行,他會跟著來嗎?我和Tom常常說要再次一起去中國旅行,還說邀請我弟弟和我外甥女童童同行——他見過弟弟和童童一次,很喜歡他們,每次通電話都要我向他們轉告他的問候。我還想帶他的4×5中畫幅相機去旅行。 認識Tom的那一年,我到俄亥俄學習攝影。 Tom曾經是攝影師,用4×5中畫幅相機(view camera),拍黑白膠片。我遇見他的時候,他的相機已經荒廢了好些年。我回國的時候,Tom把那部珍貴的相機送給我。幾年來,我們一直說要一起用他的4×5相機做藝術項目,一起旅行。就在幾個星期前,和他通電話的時候,我還說,”Tom,等疫情過了,你再來中國,我們用你的中畫幅相機創作。20122014年曾到中國探望我,愛上了中國,開始自學中文。每次和他通電話,他都會炫耀幾句中文,有時還是相當複雜的中文。他的聰明好學常常讓我感動。我時常想,正因為我生命有Tom和我父親我父親也是好奇、好學、少用世俗眼光判斷別人的人這樣的朋友和親人,我很幸運。所以,我渴望相信Carol的話。

可是,我不知道怎麼去相信,因為我再聽不到Tom “你走到我前面去,因為我要放屁。” 我有點生氣Tom不辭而別。我寧願他說,“Bitch, 我要走了,去另一個世界探險,不帶你去玩。那樣的話,我會大喊一聲,“You son of a bitch,不准走!否則再不跟你玩了!

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on 我最好的朋友,Tom

Hong Kong 2019 in Diptychs


I don’t usually look back at the end of a year to review bygones. I find year-end reviews, popular as they are,  futile like new year resolutions.  But one night in late November, I saw protesters passing a  sign on Nathan Road in Mong Kok that says “what does your revolution look like?”  It was a campaign by Eaton Workshop. But what a  coincidence! I wonder if the protesters, who were busy fighting and escaping the riot police, saw it, and if they did, what they thought of it, and more importantly, what they think of the social unrest since June 9th, which certainly is the biggest political event of Hong Kong in 2019 and one of the city’s greatest historical events in decades. I remember standing opposite the road and staring at the sign as protesters ran past it, feeing surreal. That moment I found myself sigh, “Ah, Hong Kong, 2019.”

Weeks later,  I was in Hong Kong Disneyland  for a portrait shoot, and I was, once again, fascinated by the human need of fantasy. I saw a family of four entering the land of fancy. Father, mother and two young children – a toddler and a two-or-three-year-old. The mother, wearing a Mickey’s headband, sunglasses, a black sweater and a bright, colorful long skirt, seemed to be the only one lost to the imagined world. Her toddler, on the father’s chest, looked at her as if watching Mickey in a TV.  The older child pushed his own baby cart behind her. And she strode forward, her face radiant in the winter sunlight, with a smile of a child’s who believed she was the triumphant Mickey ready to win another battle against Donald Duck.   It was quite a scene and, strangely, one that reminded me of the sign I saw in Mong Kok.  “what does your revolution look like?”  I couldn’t help but wonder if revolution is another form of fantasy, a need to break the reality in which we are stuck.

That was also the moment I became aware of the parallels between Hong Kong’s political movement and the city’s mundane life that goes on and on despite the protests.  So began my review of the year of 2019 in Hong Kong, in the format of diptychs.

In these diptychs, you see 

Umbrellas: What can be more symbolic and prevalent than umbrellas in Hong Kong? Umbrellas against the rain, against the  sun, against the police.

Afternoon sunlight: Pedestrians walk down the street in the afternoon sunlight, so do the protesters – at the opening of a letter V.  V for vendetta,  for victory,  for vandalism, or for violence?  But this V is not really a letter, but a part of the zigzag lines on the road, singled out by my lens at a low angle. It is a subjective suggestion, not a fact, nor truth.

Bamboos: They are used as a scaffolder for construction workers and made into a catapult by protesters.

Crowds: They gather at Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan making their annual wishes for success at work and in school;  They march from Causeway Bay to Central, shouting their wishes for democracy. In the temple, incenses are lit. In the march, cell phone torches are turned on, making a river of light in the slow shutter speed.

Dogs: A Halloween party goer, wearing a top with a Dalmatian’s pattern, drops her  toy Dalmatian to play with a real Dalmatian; A protester pauses to play with an Akita. Protesters or not, we  humans are mostly dog lovers, aren’t we?

“Drinks”:  When I photograph a sommelier, my strange mind roams to a scene where a molotov cocktail exploded above a protester. By the way, I’ve seen a lot of molotov cocktails thrown at the police, but I’ve never seen one successfully hitting its target. They are useless. On the other hand, pepper spray, tear gas, water cannon and bean bags never miss their targets. Live bullets, when fired, rarely miss their targets, too.

Masks: Protesters wear creative and fun masks, particularly after the mask ban. They  remind me of a mask worn by a busker in Central earlier of the year.

Naps: A restaurant worker takes a nap after lunch hour is over;  at HKBU, a protester takes a nap after an exhausting day and night preparing for a battle with the police which didn’t happen. Don’t we all need sleep? !

Grounded:  A baby crawls on the ground; a protester and district council election candidate is nailed to the ground.

Plants: An urban farmer shows off a dill plant he grows with a proud smile; protesters pull plants out of their pots and used them as weapons against the police. Like Molotov cocktails, they are barely effective as weapons.

Sandwiched: Pedestrians are happily sandwiched by lion dancers on Chinese Spring Festival,  months later they are nervous when sandwiched by the riot police.

Smoke: Smoke is seen at a cathedral, and on the streets, or the battle ground between protesters and the police.

Wishing:  A  reindeer is touched for good luck in Man Mo Temple. Pepe the Frog is held high as a gesture for democracy. Pepe the Frog, a symbol of white nationalism and an icon of hate in the United States, is the ideological ambassador of the political movement in Hong Kong.

Walls:  They are media for advertisements, both commercial and political.

Forests: Not too far away from the city center of Hong Kong, in Sai Kung, tourists and locals practice forest bathing, to seek peace and harmony. At Festival Walk, a shopping mall in Kowloon Tong, a painting of forest witnesses vandalism and violence.

Christmas: Domestic helpers celebrate Christmas at Edinburgh Place in Central where a Silver Hair rally is going on; At Festival Walk, Christmas decorations are destroyed along with mall facilities. 

As I watch this movement develop, I seem to see what is described and analyzed by Gustave Le Bon in his book, “The Crowds: A study of the Popular Mind.”  On at least two occasions, I met men who I suspect were infiltrators,  who might provide hormonal youths illusions disguised as  truths or ideals, who might be a tool to manipulate  the crowd psychology – impulsive and mobile and lack of conscious personality, and transform suggested ideas into acts. I think I see the disappearance of conscious personality on both sides, yellows and blues.  Which brings fear. Nightmares sometimes tiptoe to my bedroom.  I fear for Hong Kong. Would it eventually become an “Animal Farm” of “1984” ?

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on Hong Kong 2019 in Diptychs

My mother was beautiful inside and out. Is.

Mother could barely sit and I combed her hair as she lay in bed.  Her salt and pepper hair was still thick and strong, when smoothed, fanned out on her pillow like a flower. It gave me a little hope. Hope that her life would be as strong as her hair. Combing her hair, I said, “Mom, who is more beautiful, you or me?”

A smile spread from her lips, “you.”

“Nope. It’s you! You are the most beautiful from your village, aren’t you?”

Mother nodded, her smile broader, shy but proud. The kind of smile you see in a pure soul. I felt a lump in the throat, wishing I had known and understood my mother years earlier, not in the last months of her life.

It is not an exaggeration that my mother was the most beautiful girl in her village when young.  She was also known as a very able woman, admired for her handwriting, which is better than many men with higher education, and better than all her children’s.  She was selected to be trained to become a village doctor, because of which she had to travel to the township for all sorts of conferences and workshops, which exposed her to a world bigger than her mountain village Puzhu, which aroused many men’s curiosity and desire of her beauty and ability. Who is that girl?! People had asked. There was a long queue of men coveting her, handsome men and men with some power.

But mother chose father, who was considered not handsome, nor powerful, nor rich.

  “When I first visited your father’s single room flat on the campus of Heyuan High School,” mother had told me while in hospital, “the first thing that caught my eyes was his mosquito net. It was old, but clean and neatly patched where there were holes. Everything in his tiny flat was clean and tidy.” 

A good first impression.

Yet, meanwhile, another city man was waiting for mother to nod her head. It was a man surnamed  Huang, handsome and with a powerful title, but widowed with two children.

Mother chose the plain-looking, reticent high school staff in the end. My father.  “I wouldn’t want to be a stepmother,” Mother had told me, “Now I have my own children. Isn’t that wonderful?!”

Mother had always known what she wanted. She wouldn’t want to be a stepmother. Nor would she want to live her whole life in an obscure mountain village. When a young girl, she had fought with her father for her right to go to school. My grandfather gave in after a whole year’s fight and let her finish middle school, which was a luxury for village girls in the 1950s in China. “If only I had gone to college!” Mother had often lamented. Since she couldn’t go to college and couldn’t escape the remote village with the help of education, she chose to marry herself into the city.  Since she herself couldn’t go to college, she insisted that all her children go to college. And we all did go to college. 

Mother had regrets, though, because two of her children were still single in the last days of her life.  Months before she died, she had often urged me, “Have you found a man yet? You can consider a man older than you. Your father is ten years older than me. But look, we do alright. Hurry up before it is too late. When you are as old and as sick  as I am, you need children to look after you, like you look after me.”

In her last month of life, mother stopped asking me if I had found a man. Her face skin was surprisingly smooth and her eyes bright with a smile. Sometimes her eyes were fixed on a distant point and she waved her arm from time to time. She seemed to be seeing something beyond this world. One day, she said with a broad smile and sparkling eyes, “I see that mom and dad are together! I see them walking on the road, dad in front of mom. Mom is wearing a Hakka outfit, like when she was alive.”  Another day, she said to me, “go to Zhumenting market and buy nine sets of incense. Do you know how to burn incense?”  Two days before she left us for good, she was too weak to speak and she couldn’t even drink  with a straw and we fed her with an eyedropper. But when I held her hand, she squeezed me tightly, with a strength like a healthy man’s.  Father said, “she is saying goodbye to you.” Mother knew she was leaving us.

She left us on the morning of September 11, 2019. She was 78 years old.

I miss my mother. I remember her a phoenix flying out of Puzhu village,  a woman beautiful inside and out. Because she was. Is. 

(Where my mother came from, Puzhu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fl_bpzGegvI )

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on My mother was beautiful inside and out. Is.

Re-Experience China: Tao’s Instant Funeral

Note: This is a piece I wrote in 2015, not long after my dear friend Tao passed away.  These days, I feel particularly humbled by death. And humanity. The two sides of the coin of life.  And I remember the days I took care of my dad when he received Gama treatment for lung cancer. (http://chenxphoto.com/blog/?p=3222) I am so grateful that my dad is still doing well.  And yet, I am not worry-free. Far from from it.  Worried and humbled, I am.

  • – –

News of Tao’s death came when I was heading to my office for the weekly newsroom meeting.

“She passed this morning. The funeral is this afternoon,”my former colleague and close friend Wang said on the phone. She was choking back her sorrow, and anger.

I could feel my heart sinking.   Tao was suffering from severe colon cancer. Chemotherapy was unbearably painful. I remember the feel of her bones when I held her in my arms two weeks before. I remember how she moaned, “Xiaomei, pain, pain, pain.” I remember how her teenage son slumped in a chair by her hospital bed. How helpless. How desperate. How useless I felt. I could do nothing for her, for anyone. I just wiped my tears discreetly at the balcony, but tears streamed down again when I turned back and saw her’s son slump.  We all knew she would leave us, soon.  But it was still difficult to accept her death. It was shocking that the funeral would be held the same day she passed.

“Why such a hurry?”I asked.

“Her in-laws said the funeral had to be before the Chinese New year and before  15th of the lunar month. Today is 14th.”

“Ridiculous.”

“And I am not allowed to go to the funeral.”

“Why?”

“Because I was born in the year of the horse. This year is the year of the horse.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Please.”

The funeral was in the suburb of Heyuan, a town two hours from Guangzhou where I live. When I got to the funeral home, “Only Mother Is Good,” a chintzy song from a sensational Taiwanese movie in the 1990s, gushed out of low-quality speakers, hammering the gloomy heavy air on an overcast winter afternoon. But Tao’s son was nowhere to be seen. Nor her husband. Nor her maiden family. There was a sense of surreality and absurdity.

Fewer than twenty people were lining up to enter a hall to pay their respect to Tao. They dressed casually, their faces numb.  In the hall, which was palely lit by two fluorescent lights,  a stranger was holding a portrait of hers, obviously made in a hurry.  Shouldn’t her son hold her portrait? I didn’t understand what I saw.

When it was my turn to pay respect, I wanted to spend a little time with her. Tao and I had gone to the same college and had taught at the same junior college in Heyuan.  She was a respectable and responsible teacher, a loving mother, a loyal wife and a trustworthy friend.  She was  like a big sister to me while I  often acted like a spoilt little sister. Our friendship, together with two other former colleagues who still taught at the school, had been precious at a time when vanity availed and in a country where money, power and fame seem valued over integrity and friendship. This was my last chance to take a good look at her –  in a coffin. She was scrawny.  The heavy makeup done hastily made her look  ghastly. I stared at her face and felt a chill down my spine. I was both scared and sad. Imagine all the pain she had endured.  “Xiaomei, pain, pain, pain.”  I wondered if she would feel relieved because she finally escaped all the pain that had tortured her for over a year.  Deep inside, I knew she wouldn’t.  She had wanted to live because she was so much in love with her husband and because her son was only 14 years old and needed her. She would like to see her son grow up. She would like to become a grandmother.

I wanted to say something to her, but my head was all blank. A choking emptiness. So I just stood there,  in front of her coffin, my eyes teary, my lips tight, when  someone shouted impatiently, “move on!” I looked up toward the voice and saw a man in his twenties standing at the corner of the hall, gesturing to me like a cop coordinating traffic. I glared at him.  But he was oblivious to my anger and kept waving his arm, “next one.” He was  a robot doing its job.  I took another look at my friend’s dead face with heavy makeup and walked out of the hall.

Outside, by the hallway, the funeral attenders were washing their hands – to rinse off the bad luck from nearing the dead.  A middle-aged man handed me a lucky money envelope. It was also meant to help the funeral attenders to dodge the bad luck from seeing the dead.  Death had been a taboo in Chinese Hakka culture. I was not even supposed to drop in to see my parents in town because of the funeral.

Standing outside the funeral hall, holding that red lucky money  envelop, I felt absurd, and lost. Was this it? I came all the way from Guangzhou just to spend less than one minute with my friend – which was interrupted by a rude and numb stranger? I glanced around. It was getting darker and colder. The wind sounded like a baby sobbing in the trees.  People started leaving.

So that was it. Tao would be left alone here in this ghostly funeral home, then burned to ashes. I wondered where her husband, her son, her maiden family were. Why were her closest people absent from her funeral? A good person like Tao deserved more, much more!

But then what could I do? In fact, I had to leave, too,  get back to town and take a bus back to Guangzhou. She would be left here alone and lonely, after all.

I didn’t know how I could get back to town. I had had a hard time getting a cab to drive me to the funeral home from downtown Heyuan because nobody wanted to be near a place associated with death. I paid an extra fee and begged for sympathy to get someone to drive me there, reluctantly. The driver groused loudly the whole way from the bus station to the funeral home that the extra fee I paid was not enough to cover the bad luck he might get from nearing the dead.

Luckily, Lin, a former colleague, also a good friend, spotted me and asked her colleague to give me a lift back to town. I started complaining right after I got in the car, “This is a ridiculously indecent funeral. And where is Liu (Tao’s husband)? Where is her son? And her maiden family? Where are they!”

Lin hushed me, “Let’s talk another time.”  She blinked and shook her head. There was something she knew but I was yet to find out.

I was later told that Tao’s husband  didn’t attend the funeral because he was born in the year of the  sheep and the coming Chinese New Year was the year of the sheep. Her son was “protected” from the funeral because he was 14 years old in the year of 2014!   Tao’s maiden family boycotted the funeral because they believed Tao’s in-laws pulled her feeding tube on the morning of the 14th of December (Chinese lunar calendar, 15 days before Chinese New Year) so that the funeral happened before the 15th. Tao’s in-laws had told them that according to a fortune teller, Tao would pass before the 15th. They were forbidden to visit Tao in the last two days before her death. “A married woman belong to her in-laws,” They were asked to respect the tradition. Tao’s in-laws firmly believed that Tao’s funeral had to be finished before  Dec. 15th, otherwise bad luck would follow the family. Tao’s sister Yan refused to accept their traditions and practices. “Isn’t this coincidence too obvious? The funeral must be before the 15th and my sister died on the 14th!  And we were not allowed to visit her. Why? So they could pull the tube!”

But they couldn’t provide evidence of Tao’s in-laws pulling her feeding tube.  Now the two families are enemies. Tao’s in-laws wouldn’t allow her son to visit her maiden family. Her husband is grieving from losing his wife, burdened with  guilt (of not attending her funeral) and fear (to live the rest of his life without a wife) and the responsibility to raise all by himself a sorrowful son.

Wang was  furious when she heard about the indecency of Tao’s funeral. Wang and Tao had worked together for almost 15 years and had been close friends. They had taken care of each other like family. Wang had done more for Tao when she was sick in hospital than most of Tao’s in-laws. But in the end, she was forbidden to attend her funeral simply because she was born in the year of the horse. What really broke her heart was the absence of Tao’s husband and her son from the funeral. She confronted Liu, “Why?”

Liu begged for pity, “I have lost Tao. I can’t afford to lose more.”

Wang didn’t forgive him till almost nine months later, “It’s never easy (to forgive him). But now I try to understand him. I never doubt his love for Tao even though he didn’t attend her funeral. I guess he and his family indeed believe in all those superstitions. He is a victim, too. ”

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on Re-Experience China: Tao’s Instant Funeral

Let there be light, again

Two glasses of Spanish red wine downed, I move the curser, click the mouse, and Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart. K466, one of my all time favorites. One of the pieces that can boil my blood, calm my head, and make  my torso  move almost like  my head, my neck, my arms, my fingers, my legs, my feet until I am drunk in my blood with an illusion that I was the conductor and pianist. But I am clear in my head, because I suddenly   remember that imaginary President Underwood saying something like “it is time to sail with the wind, not against it.” And I remember that runner I photographed not long ago. I remember asking him how he started running. He said he was pestered by all kinds of problems just as we all do. Relationships problems. Family issues. Career bottleneck. So he  runs to the mountain, to nature. He keeps running. Running and running and running. Now he wants to run across North America, then south American. Maybe around the world after that.  “Like Forest Gump?” I remember saying to him. Then I made him run toward light. Night was about to fall and I made run toward light. Let there be light, I remember saying to myself silently, Let there be light. Now Uchida is playing Schubert D. 960. Another piece I love deeply. Come tomorrow, I shall go see the sea, with Mozart and Schubert, and my kindle.

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on Let there be light, again

juxtaposition

In Foshan, Guangdong, a British International school, Lady Eleanor Holles (LEH) , is to be built. On its groundbreaking day, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the LEH students in a poster and peasant-worker-onlookers on the site in Foshan.

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on juxtaposition

A cat passes a wall of graffiti, a famous artist passes his painting

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on A cat passes a wall of graffiti, a famous artist passes his painting

Re-Experience China:  “An Arm is No Match for a Leg”

“Guess what time I start my day,” Mr. Guo chuckled, not without pride, when I thanked him for picking me up at the hotel.

It was 6:20 am when I climbed into his car, so I guessed he started his day around 5 am, like most dayshift taxi drivers.

He laughed, “I get up at three and leave home around four.”

I wowed, then, “but is it worth it, since few needs taxi service from four to six?”

“If I don’t leave home early,  I’d be stuck in the morning traffic. Traffic is really bad in Jinan (the capital city of Shandong Province).”

He must be living quite far from the city center, I thought.  As in many cities of China,  house prices in Jinan, an inland city not known by many foreigners, are  ridiculous. Twenty to Thirty thousand RMB per square meter in the city, about fifteen thousand forty minutes away or  farther.

He continued, “Guess how many hours I work every day!”

I presumed he handed the car to the nightshift around four or five in the afternoon.

But I was wrong again.

“I am the only driver of this car,” he said proudly.

“You worked till nine or ten in the evening?” I sounded incredulous, but by then, I wouldn’t be shocked if he worked later than ten.

He counted the hours, then said, “not that many hours. I call it a day around eight. Go home, eat, go to bed about nine, then get up at three.”

I wowed again, “So you don’t see your family very much then. Don’t they complain?”

He sighed, then chuckled, “Separate beds, united hearts! I don’t want my wife to work outside. I am the only bread earner. I have to make enough for five: my parents, my wife, my daughter, and myself of course.”

“Really long days,” I said.

He laughed again.  Light-hearted laughter of a chubby middle-aged taxi driver.

“Do you take a day off every week?” I asked.

“Not really. I take a break only when I feel really tired. I am the only bread earner,  I’ve told you.”

“Life is not easy, isn’t it?” I found my words empty and felt embarrassed.

“I am used to it. Been doing this since 2007,” he sounded proud and cheerful, which I admired greatly.

“What did you do before 2007?”

“I was in the army.  A soldier for over ten years, three of which in Xinjiang.”

“But doesn’t the government assign you veterans government jobs?”

“In theory, yes.” He paused, then continued, “but you should know the Communists. What they say is one thing, what they do another.”

A former soldier criticizing the government took me by surprise. I fell silent for a moment, then gingerly, “So you are anti-communist?”

“An arm is no match for a leg. (A Chinese slang meaning the weak can’t defeat the strong.) I can’t say I am anti-communist.”

“Disagree with them?” I lowered my voice further.

“Right. Disagree is the word,” he said,  “but really, an arm is no match for a leg.  Futile to fight. The other day, I had a passenger, a granny in her seventies. She said to me, ‘you must denounce your Communist Party membership! Denounce it immediately!’ Guess how I reply? I said, ‘what are you fighting for at your age, with your old bones?  I tell you, an arm is no match for a leg, particularly not your old arm. You listen to me, take care, cherish what you have, enjoy the rest of your life, no more fight.  Fighting is futile. Pointless.  An arm is no match for a leg! Lucky you are in my cab. Another driver would take you directly to the police station.’ She shut up immediately.   Am I not right?  An arm is no match for a leg.”

I forced a laugh.

He  continued, “So I work hard, make as much as I can for my family, try to be content. You can’t rely on the government. Fighting is pointless. I don’t go to protests.  Now there is face detection. You go to a protest, the next day, the cops show up at your door. They don’t arrest you while you protest in a group.  They get you individually, at your home! A few of my fellow veterans were taken by the police several months ago.”

“What for?”

“Protest. We veterans are supposed to receive monthly subsidies, more than two thousand (RMB) a month, from the central government. But they never came. The local government kept them.  So we protested.”

“Oh, you did protest!”

“Well, that’s money I deserve, more than two thousand a month! I should go. But I kept a low profile, I tagged along at the tail of the group and mingled with the crowd. Never go to the front line.  Those at the front line were put to jail for five days. In China, the outstanding bird gets shot first.”

“Did you get your subsidies after the protest?”

“We did!”

“The protest worked  then.”

“Still, an arm is no match for a leg. That’s why I  work long hours. I  rely on myself and my family on me. And we are a happy family.”

He did sound happy and laughed a lot as we chatted our way to the airport.  He was not annoyed when he found that he didn’t have enough gas to return to the city and the gas station at the airport was closed. He unloaded my luggage, and with the same sincere smile I saw  from the hotel lobby, he wished me a safe journey.

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on Re-Experience China:  “An Arm is No Match for a Leg”

Portraits of Artists: Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy

When I read my colleague Bernice Chan’s interview  with Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy, it was almost like listening to him talking again, his eyes glistening with childlike smiles. Shining miles revealing a pure soul. Bernice and I were lucky to get two tickets to listen to him  conducting Glazunov and Beethoven. And we had the best seats! It was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in the past two years. For weeks after the concert, I listened to him and Beethoven at youtube with my Denon earphones late at night, getting too hyper to sleep, till I shifted to Uchida playing Mozart and Schubert, which also stole some of my necessary sleep. My mother would say I am hopeless, like drug addicts.

Here is the piece by Bernice:

https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/arts-music/article/2154972/russian-born-pianist-vladimir-ashkenazy-winning

(Photos ©  SCMP?Xiaomei Chen)

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on Portraits of Artists: Vladimir Davidovich Ashkenazy

Are We Double Blessed Now?

My mother suddenly announced that she now believed in Jesus, in a tone of a three-year-old declaring herself a grownup.

My siblings and I were as shocked as amused by her announcement. How would a Hakka woman as traditional as my mother fit in with Christians?  How could one who knows nothing about Christianity become a Christian out of blue?  And why?

Out of curiosity, I followed her to a Bible study group on an April  afternoon in 2016.  It was at the home of a church member, half a kilometer from my parents’ house in Heyuan City, Guangdong Province.

Hardly had I entered the wide-open gate, when an old woman in her late seventies  shot her hand in front of me and shouted, “sister, for you!”

She was giving me two small packets of wafer biscuits. Taken by surprise, I was not sure if I should accept the gift from a stranger, when another old woman, also in her seventies, explained to me, “her great-grandson was born today.”

Before I got a chance to congratulate her, the new great grandmother shot her hand to my mother, “sister, for you!”

So both my mother and I are her sisters?

My mother took the wafer biscuits with a take-it-for-granted smile as she glanced around the room, looking for empty seats. Then she took my hand and walked to two empty plastic stools against the east wall of the room. By then, the 20-square-meter rectangular room was almost full – full of grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless mouths and callused hands. There were  30 people, all of whom except one were women and  three quarters  over 60 years old. The group leader was a middle-aged woman who had the look of a strict elementary school teacher.  As she sat on a stool higher than ours at the front of the room, surveying the room, another woman in her forties   announced in Hakka, “open your books and turn to hymn 312.”

Most women looked around confused.  Several repeated “312” loudly. Sounds of fumbling books filled the room but was soon replaced by a medley of Hakka voices singing out of tune.

I looked around and was shocked to see thirty toothless or semi-toothless mouths gaping open and closed, thirty black holes spitting a volley of untuned music notes in Hakka. A volley of wishes for health, fortune, peace and grandsons.  I turned to look at my mother. She was looking down at the book, singing like a mosquito. Born a shy person and still new to Christianity, she was probably feeling uncomfortable to sing out loud with a group of strangers. But most other women were singing at the top of their lungs like a group of elementary school kids singing after their favorite teacher.

After three hymns came the prayer. A woman prayed loudly in Hakka with such passion that it sounded like a broken piano being hit by many stones at the same time. The voice at least kept the women awake, who ended the prayer with “Amen! As wished and with loyalty!”

With that, the group leader started the preach of the day and talked about forgiving. In less than fifteen minutes, a third of the women started dozing off, including my mother. I nudged her arm. She  turned to me and grinned guiltily.  She needn’t have felt guilty at all. The monotonous preaching was nothing new and it was what my parents had taught me when I was a kid. I myself would have dozed off if I had not been interested in observing my mother’s fellow Christians. Both my mother and I were relieved when the sermon was over after almost two hours sitting on a plastic stool.

“Do you agree with what the preacher said?” I asked my mother right after we left the gathering.

“I agree,” my mother said earnestly, “we should forgive.”

“So are you going to forgive Mrs Miao?” 

Mrs. Miao was our next door neighbor for decades, a very difficult woman who hated my mother for no reason and had created quite some dramas over the years. She died unexpectedly the day before.

My mother was taken by surprise, then laughed embarrassedly, “oh, dear, I can’t forgive Miao. No, I really can’t forgive her!”

I laughed, too, about my mother’s childlike honesty.

When I asked her if she would continue to go to church, she told me about Chong, Mrs Miao’s niece.

Chong joined the church ten years ago. She sings hymns all the time. She sings when cleaning. She sings when cooking. She sings when walking. She would sing when eating if she had two mouths. Chong, who was a grumpy wife and mother, is now a very happy person.  “Jesus makes her happy,”  my mother said admiringly. But I doubt Jesus would make my mother as happy as Chong because she wouldn’t be satisfied until all her children were happily married and all her children, particularly her son, have their own children – sons preferred.

A month later, I went to Heyuan Gospel Church with my mother in downtown Heyuan City.  It is a church founded by two German priests in 1897, now  registered  under  China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, with over 3000 members. The gathering here was a much bigger version of my mother’s Bible study group. Over three quarters of the members were women older than 60. The preaching (about husband-wife relationship this time) was again monotonous and long.  A few women chitchatted in a low voice.  Some dozed off.  My mother was obviously bored and from time to time looked around searching for familiar faces. Three months after joining the church, she had not made new friends yet.

“What do you think?”  I asked my mother when we walked out of the church.

“I agree with him (the preacher). But he is too long winded. He circles round and round, saying the same thing over and over again.” Then she added with an amused look, “those illiterate women follow the Bible better than me. ”

Back home, I asked my father why he didn’t go to church, he replied, “gee, most church goers are older women. Besides, the Bible contradicts Marxism and evolutionism I was taught as a Communist Party member. It is hard to change a belief you acquired at a young age. And the Christians are not that different from the red guards worshipping Mao during the Cultural Revolution.”

My mother gave me a different answer, “one goes to church, Jesus blesses the whole family. Your father needn’t go.”

I later found it was actually my father’s idea that my mother should go to church.  He got this idea after a neighbor, Mrs. Chen told him that Jesus visited her in a dream when she was very sick several years ago, “He asked me, ‘are you feeling better today?’  The next day, I felt much better. Not long after that, I got out of hospital.  Jesus blesses me!”

So my mother, who had never read the Bible, started going to church, at my father’s suggestion.

Quite a surprise. But an understandable surprise.

My parents were both born before communism took over China, but they were taught Marxism (China version) and evolutionism at school,  expecting progress in all aspects of life only to witness regress in both the society and their personal lives: corruption and social injustice in the big world despite the rapid progress in sciences and technologies, aging and ailing in their small world. What bothers them the most, however, is that they still don’t have a grandson while some of their cousins are now great-grandparents. By the way, my sisters’ children don’t count as only my brother’s son could carry on the family line according to Chinese Hakka tradition.

Sometimes they blame our family’s Fengshui. They invited several Fengshui masters to inspect our home over the years. They followed a couple Fengshui masters’ advices and moved our house gate twice. This didn’t bring luck to the family as wished.  Three years ago, another Fengshui master suggested our gate be moved (again!) to where my mother’s bedroom was. Fortunately, my parents didn’t follow this advice.

My mother also sought blessings from a local Taoist temple as well as from a sorceress. So far, nothing fantastic has happened as my parents wish. They continue to age and ail. My mother hurt her back in 2015. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer the same year.  Two of their children are still single. They still have no grandson to carry on the family line.

They must feel helpless sometimes. So when my father heard about “the magic” Jesus did to their neighbor, he made my mother go to church.  He refrains himself from Christianity so that he can still worship our ancestors. This way, we might be double blessed. This is how my parents do their math of life.

They are not alone when it comes to doing math of life. When asked to join the church, the mother of a friend of mine from Yunnan Province did a calculation and decided that the time she was to spend at the church and learning the Bible equaled a loss because she couldn’t work on the farm or in the house.  Loss of working time, loss of income.  She decided against the membership of the Village Communist Party Committee for the same reason.  The small gifts from the Party are not worth the  fee she would have to pay  to the Party and the loss of her time, she told her son.

When my mother announced her new religion, my sister said in an amused tone, “so from now on we won’t worship our ancestors on Chinese New Year?” (It is commonly believed among my mother’s fellow Christians that once converted to Christianity, one should renounce all other beliefs.)

Before my confused mother found an answer, my 85-year-old father, a reticent man,  jumped to make his statement, “I don’t believe in Jesus!”

Obviously my father would hate to lose blessings from our ancestors. In his perfect calculation, my mother’s going to church would bring home blessings from Jesus, while his absence from the church would give our ancestors no reason to abandon us. Thus, we would be double blessed. 

But are we double blessed now? Are we?

Posted in p-journal | Comments Off on Are We Double Blessed Now?