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A Letter from China
October 31, 2000

A Letter from China

from Wang Yu-kuo (William)

"Wo E": ("I’m Hungry")

Maybe you don't know what a "boy" means to Chinese parents, especially to those in the country. Have you read The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl Buck (1938 American Nobel Prize Winner)? "A boy means a good fortune for the family; it also means that the boy may have a boy of his own, so that the family can continue." Perhaps you are as forgetful as I am; I don’t know the 1931 stuff either, because I was born in 1965. Now I teach English at Nanjing Institute of Meteorology.

When I was born, the whole country was in starvation. My parents were told the damned natural disasters were responsible for it, and the Soviet Union was also responsible, for it was bound to change the nature of our country’s socialism, and brought us back to the devil "Old Society." In addition, the American Imperialists were not innocent at all, for they wanted to support the Kuomingdang (the National Party) to go back to Mainland China. Though the nature and the political enemies were both harshly condemned and criticized, my parents and his fellow countrymen still could not have enough to eat, my father was a bit bloated. How could they feed me? For the first few years, I could live on my mother’s breasts. Three years later, my first younger sister was born; that was a great threat to me, because she wanted to share with me "my food." Fortunately, I was not called a "milkman" as the miserable black boy in Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Besides milk, I ate the best part my parents could find for us, and if they ate only two meals a day -- frequently they did -- I could have my third meal: maybe it was only a few sweet potatoes, or some radish boiled in water. During my childhood, what to eat next meal was always our primary concern.

With my younger sisters and brothers coming, the food problem became more serious -- my mother was wonderful. Where could she find enough food to feed us was still a mystery to me. Because I was the first child, especially because I was a boy, I could have the best. For example, if one chicken happened to die, I was supposed to have at least one leg of it, at most, my younger brother -- who was nine years younger than me -- could share the other one. I had many wishes, and most of them were concerned with food. For example, I wished there were several Spring Festivals a year instead of once a year, so that I could eat some meat or some fruits which I could not normally have, and I could eat cooked rice rather than rice gruel all the time. If there was only one Spring Festival, I wished that some relatives would come to visit us, so that my mother would be pressed to buy some meat and bones; then I could sit at the table with them and eat some; whereas my sisters could not sit with the guests; they could only wait in the kitchen and get some remains after the meal because they were girls and should not appear in front of the guests on formal occasions. Therefore, if I heard my mother’s complaint that somebody came again, I was dissatisfied, for I liked this person. He would buy me something or bring with him some eatable things, for instance, some sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds, or lotus seeds. In addition, I could eat with him at the table; if he didn’t come, my mother would not cook such wonderful meals for me. Even though I was a boy, her first son and her "heart," she would not do it.

Though my parents worked hard and ate what they had, I could go to "visit" my grandparents and my great-grandmother (we lived in the different rooms under the same roof), and have something to eat. I liked to stay with my great-grandmother, she was old and needed some "special" food; that’s to say, only the regular meals could not satisfy her, she had the privilege to eat something between the meals, because she was old and should have extra things. My two younger sisters could not go with me; if they did, my great-grandmother would hide the eatable things in the drawer and sometimes even under the quilt, sometimes they just rushed in from nowhere without knocking at the door, or sounding heavy steps. My younger sisters were hurt; however, they could only complain about her hostile injustice and prejudice against them, because they were girls, and had been told directly that they should not be strictly considered as our family members. It was quite certain that one day they would leave our family and became members of others and have children with others' family names.

I was stronger and stronger. When my first younger sister was born, I had to become a baby-sitter (I was about 4 years old), my parents had to work in the working group in the village -- they earned about 9 yuan a month (which amounts to 1.1 dollars); if they didn’t work as other members did, they could not get rice and wheat from the village by the end of the harvest. Then our whole family had to starve. In the daytime, I was locked in the room to take care of my sister. At the very beginning, I liked to comfort her; I even tried to sing something to please her and enjoy myself. Sometimes she just wept and wept, and I could not stop her. That made me furious. Why did you cry? I didn’t mistreat you. You sounded that I had wronged you, right. No matter what I said, she didn’t answer; she just cried. She might be hungry or liked to be carried out of the cradle, or because she just pissed, and hoped that I could change the diaper for her. However, I didn’t know how to deal with this. The only thing I could do was to feed her some water, which my mother had prepared before she left. If she had some water, and still wanted to practice crying, I would be tired of it. Then I would climb to the bed and go to sleep. My mother told me when I was a college student that she was frightened to death when she came back home at the interval once, and found the cradle was turned upside down, and I was in bed, sleeping soundly. From then on, my mother would not lock the door. She asked her sister, who was not old enough to work in the field, to take care of my sister.

I never thought of having new clothes. That doesn’t mean that as a boy I didn’t know new clothes were better than old ones, but my parents could not afford it. My mother usually made the clothes out of her own or my father's old clothes, I was pleased and I seldom heard my sisters complain about the old clothes, though they should have had my clothes when I became taller and could not have them. I remember when I was seven, one of our neighbors asked me whether I liked to have a new clothes or not, for surely I wanted to have new ones. Then he told me if your old clothes are still wearable, how can you have new ones? I didn’t know. If you did as I told you, tomorrow morning you would have new clothes. Would you like to try? Certainly. Then why not just roll on the uneven ground and tear your shabby clothes.

My old clothes were torn to pieces. I got my new clothes, and I was also given a good beating, too. My mother cried that evening, because she could not persuade my father not to beat me. No one could stop me giving him a good lesson; though he was a boy, he could not be encouraged to do so. My father was furious. My mother was in tears; she had to borrow money to buy the cloth and make new clothes for me during the night. The next day, when other boys threw envious look at my new clothes in school, I was proud and ashamed at the same time.

I am glad the naughty boy has now (smile) become a father to a lovely daughter, and loves her very much, though she is "only" a girl.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Next time, a tour of Hong Kong and Macao.


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