母亲节随想

做母亲的欲望,出自爱。二十四岁那年,沐浴爱河,依在爱人怀中,说,我要生三个孩子,一个太孤单,两个有点儿少,三个正好,第一个孩子最好是男孩。不是我重男轻女,是爱至深,满心要创造一个和爱人一模一样的男人。二十六岁时,生下了女儿,并不失望,第一眼看到她长着我的鼻头,一瞬间既陌生又熟悉,让我大吃一惊,之后便爱如潮涌,开始用爱浸润这个小生命,直到多年以后,才意识到爱人的抱怨,说,我的爱全给女儿了,不管他了。

感谢母亲这个角色让我成长。二十几岁的我全心全意尽心尽职做妈妈,不要妈妈为我代养宝宝,妈妈在我身边帮手,要奉行我的养育方法。女儿四个月开始添加辅食,除了哺乳以外,我每日亲手为她做各种营养均衡搭配的婴儿餐。十个月断奶到三岁上幼儿园,每日三餐加两点,丝毫不马虎。奶粉定时冲制,奶粉和水的比例不能有一毫差错。女儿上寄宿幼儿园之前,我没有睡过通宵觉。选择寄宿幼儿园,为了培养她的独立性和社会性,她儿时成长环境太过优越,放在集体环境中,让她知道世界之大。可惨的不是她,倒是我这个妈妈,每周一、二让她留宿,强忍着不去接她,自己却无时无刻不想她,以泪洗面。实在忍不过了,就拿出纸笔,给她写信,留到以后给她看,让她知道妈妈多爱她。二十年过去了,女儿把这封信从广州带到爱德蒙顿,至今还仔细保留着。

孩子渐大,上小学,我开始充电。返回文学海洋中畅游,偶遇母亲杀婴的问题,改变了我对“母亲”的认识。维多利亚时期的英国女作家乔治.艾略特的小说《亚当.彼德》中的海蒂,美国当代黑人女作家托妮.莫里森的《宠儿》中的黑奴塞丝,都将自己亲生的孩子杀死在襁褓之中。再回想,中国历史上武则天不也有杀子的故事流传吗?计划生育时期不也时常看到女婴被害被抛弃的报道吗?人类学家的研究也表明,母亲弑婴并不罕见,在各种社会形态中都有表现。母亲的多面性是跨文化的普遍现象。贤德良母,英雄母亲,奉献的母亲,有牺牲精神的母亲,都是社会打造的母亲形象,影响、制约着身兼母亲角色的女性。

认识母亲的刻板形象是一回事,从其中解放出来,却非易事。还要感谢我的女儿,让妈妈持续成长。我在Home: Stories Connecting Us All 一书中写过Cleaning Sarah’s Room”这篇文章,记录了这一成长过程。我刚到加拿大读博时,女儿只有八岁,因为学业繁重,我总是无法悉心照顾她。她的功课我没有耐心辅导,生病也是爸爸陪她看医生,就算是陪她上钢琴课、芭蕾舞课,我也总是带着书,带着电脑,做自己的事,还有一次竟然忘了去学校接她…… 那段时间,一想到这些,我眼泪就止不住。女儿知道这是妈妈心中的痛,一有机会就说,妈,我真心感谢你把我带到了加拿大,这是你最最正确的决定,要是在广州,我肯定被宠坏了,我不会有今天的国际视野,也不会像现在这样坚强,能独立面对自己的事情,我也一定不会有现在的成熟和自信,你是最好的妈妈,因为你的独立、勤奋、坚强为我提供了最好的榜样,我今天能有这份立足世界的自信,都是因为有你这样的妈妈。女儿说得多了,我心里渐渐明朗起来,内疚应是“良母”的阴影,和女儿的情感交流,让我最终摆脱阴影,心灵更自由。

母亲节的意义对每个人都不一样。愿她让天下所有的母亲、父亲、女儿、儿子感受自由的心灵。

莫译的故事

2020年可谓人类历史上的灾年。元旦刚过,就传来武汉爆发新冠状病毒传染病的消息,之后就是封城,隔离,人口众多的中国大地顿时变得空荡荡,冷清清。病毒来去自由,无需护照,无需签证,便横行肆虐,穿越欧亚大陆,飞过太平洋,在世界范围蔓延。由这场全球瘟疫催化的中美关系恶化,全球经济萧条,加上不时从地球四处传来的地震、水灾、枪击、抗疫/议、示威的消息,天灾人祸交相呼应,人类的生存危机四伏。

人们日常生活的节奏随着经济的萧条缓慢下来。隔离缩小了人的物理活动范围,却带来了网络活动的频繁,更为人的精神活动腾出宽广的空间。我也在人生旅程的这一时刻,驻足回望,思考过去,玩味收获,规划未来。也就在此刻,突然有了为自己起笔名的冲动。它来势汹汹,却也顺风自然。为自己取笔名,是自己对文学创作和翻译的热爱的关照,是我凤凰涅槃。

我的原名“陈蕾蕾”还是很美好的,至少她让老公对我一见钟情,在历经从安徽到广州,从中国到加拿大这样的跨地域、跨国界、跨文化、跨语言的大迁徙、大折腾之后,我们依然温柔相待。爸妈给我取这个名字是在1970年,应该是原创级。现在网上随便搜一搜,叫“陈蕾蕾”的女孩太多了。1970年以前出生的,我还真没看到。

思路从自己的生辰八字开始,由此得知与此对应的五行,我命中土最为盛,火和金其次,缺水和木。我的原名“陈蕾蕾”中,每个字都有木元素,“东”字的五行属木,“蕾”里的草字头也是木,所以,找属性为木的名字好像不是当务之急。“蕾”中也有水——“雨”,而“陈”字缺水,所以,找个水属性的字作为笔名的第一个字!而且要阳水——就是带三点水的字。雨和草字头的属性是阴水和阴木,我要让笔名多些阳的元素。我想过“沐”和“涓”,没想到“沐”是如此受欢迎,我想到的所有带“沐”的名字,全都被人用了。我又想到“涓涓”、“九涓”、“久涓”、“涓羽”,还为“羽”字的选择得意洋洋了一阵子。“羽”是“宫商角徵羽”五音之一,对应五行之水。“涓羽”就是涓涓水声,细水长流,滴水穿石,涓涓不尘。可是仔细揣摩,觉得还是不够大气。“涓”虽有阳水的成分,却没有阳水的辉宏。想到凌晨,终于熬不住困倦,不甘心地睡去。

清晨5点日出时分,我被心中的不安撩醒,打开手机,继续探寻。我看到了“沫”,觉得它的音美,也想到了郭沫若,再继续Google,发现了江小沫翻译了果戈里。“沫译”?我脑子里蹦出这个名字。文学翻译也是我少年时代就有的情结啊,也是我心向往的事情。可是,再进一步查,发现沫字为凶,并非吉字。“漠”?同音!广漠,大漠风沙,宽广无垠——这是我要的辉宏气势!漠然,淡漠,漠视——我喜欢“漠”字内含的从容淡定,宠辱不惊。就是笔画多了点儿。去掉三点水?赶紧查“莫”!“莫”竟然是“漠”的通假字!而且莫字属性为水!去掉三点水也没有太大影响!莫译。太好了!想到莫言——我竟然还沾点名作家的仙气。Google上显示,只有一个叫“莫译”的在西瓜视频上发过几条吃的影像信息,和文学界、译届无甚大关系。莫译——我的笔名就是它了。马上和《粤海风》联系,第三、四期上约稿译介加拿大皇家学会会员Isobel Grundy的文章就用莫译的笔名发。

英文笔名就叫Doris Lilly Robinson吧。为什么这么叫,还有个小故事要说。疫情期间,女儿真淳也在家里办公,我们在一起工作,喝下午茶,吃饭,聊Robin DiAngelo,Elon Musk,尤瓦尔,聊跨文化经历、民族主义,聊电视连续剧Suits、Sherlock Holms。瘟疫让我们每日在家相伴,变得更加亲密无间。有一次,她下班后整理自己的房间,翻出她刚来加拿大上小学时我们给彼此写的留言、卡片、书信等。有一张用空白复印纸做成的卡片上,她称我为Lily Robinson,自己署名Sarah Kitty。那时的她才八岁,在Windsor Park小学上四年级。她刚刚从广州来爱德蒙顿,由于语言的障碍,没有什么玩伴,很孤单,很想融入新的集体,自然而然地,也想自己和妈妈像她的同伴一样,有个英语名字,就凭着她对英语的直觉感受,信手拈来,给我取名Lily Robinson;因为自己爱猫,就在我给她去的英文名Sarah后面加上Kitty做自己的姓。

这个故事现在在15年以后说起来,似乎平平淡淡,可我仍感到心中的酸楚。孩子那时是孤独的,我忙于学业,没能给她我希望给她的关爱。Lily Robinson是对我们在加拿大共同生活经历的记录。Lily也是我在读大学时使用的英文名,再恰当不过。可我发现Lily Robinson有太多重名,就找到了Doris,加在前面。Doris是希腊神话中的水神,还反映了五行之水的中国文化关照。英国诺贝尔文学奖获得者中,有个英国女作家,叫Doris Lessing,她出生在伊朗,6岁移居津巴布韦,1949年定居伦敦。共同的跨文化经历,对文学的共同热爱,也让我觉得把Doris加进笔名最合适不过。

莫言和Doris Lessing都是诺贝尔文学奖获得者。我的笔名与他们关联,希望能为我带来一些文学仙气,让我出更多作品。因为我已经有不少英文作品在英语世界出版,以后的英文著作和译著就继续用Leilei Chen吧,一是继续对英语读者有交代,二是继续在西方世界彰显我的华人身份。以后再出的中文作品,我就署名“莫译”了。

You Touched Me

Translated from 《芳华》,严歌苓著,人民文学出版社,2017年。

I had thought I wouldn’t be able to recognize Liu Feng if I saw him again. He has looked forgettable since he was twenty. No matter how close you are to him, you will forget what he looks like as soon as you avert your eyes. It would be better if he were ugly since ugliness can be one’s trademark, and, if ugly enough, one can shock the world and become famous. But he is not ugly. On a ten-point attractiveness scale, he would score a five or maybe six if he was in his military uniform and hat, especially the uniform we wore for performing on stage, which was exquisitely cut and made of good fabric – a wool-synthetic blend which gave it a well-ironed appeal.

There’s nothing wrong about Liu Feng’s appearance, but something is wrong precisely because nothing is wrong. Despite the fact that we drilled on the same team, danced in the same studio, ate stir-fried slices of pork and mustard-root[1] at the same table, studied documents and gossiped in the same red building, or – in a word – no matter how intimate we once were and how we wasted our youth together (eight years of youth!), we could never remember what he looked like. But my eyes instantly pick him out of the sea of faces in Wangfujing Street.[2] And it’s the side of his face. I want to greet him but then think I’d better wait.

His name is Liu Feng. Thirty years ago we called him Lei You Feng. Translated literally, it means another Lei Feng. [3] To pronounce it, you slow the vowel of the Chinese pinyin,[4] L–i–u–Liu, starting from L, pausing for one tenth of a second, and finally landing on Liu. The pinyin for Liu Feng and Lei Feng differs only in one letter, so we jokingly called him Lei You Feng. We were not being sarcastic. Back then we women soldiers really admired men of virtue, so it was just good-natured teasing. That’s all.

Describing Liu Feng could also be like filling in a form. Face shape: round; eyebrow and eyes: thick eyebrow, single-layer eyelids; nose: round tip, straight bridge; skin: smooth, white. Try describing Lei Feng’s face, and you would find the same features applied to Liu Feng except that Liu Feng – who was 1.69-metres-tall – was ten centimetres taller than Lei Feng. We were the most attractive persons picked from all over the country to perform on stage. Lei Feng wouldn’t have been chosen; the dance line would have been broken at the point where he stood. Thirty years ago, everyone in the red building was of the genius-and-beauty military fashion. Not a single face or figure was ugly to look at.

The red building, once our barrack, was torn down last century and crushed under an extensive avenue. Also crushed were the traces Liu Feng left in the forty-eight rooms of various sizes: the walls and the ceilings he had fixed, the mouse holes he had obstructed, the door latches he had installed, the termite-damaged wooden floor tiles he had replaced . . .. The red building had aged. It was close to seventy and should have been condemned thirty years earlier, yet its slow decay was further slowed thanks to Liu Feng. With his masonry and carpentry, he handled this dilapidated three-storeyed building with great care as if holding a gigantic, cracked egg in his hands. Inadvertently, he turned us into “the stubborn nails” even before the term was first used.[5] We lived happily in this building for over ten years until it reached its final breaking point, and we cried out in unison : “Who will fetch Liu Feng?” When a whole wall cracked overnight or when a fan-sized clay chunk suddenly fell off the ceiling, we knew it was deteriorating quickly. Every time this happened, the only thing we could do was shout: “Fetch Liu Feng!”

I am here at Wangfujing to buy some books. A group of disabled youngsters are singing in front of the entrance of the Wangfujing Shopping Mall around a donation box. They sing wholeheartedly, but the audience rushes past them, and an occasional donor will shyly step out and quickly disappear back into the crowd after donating. Nowadays, people are embarrassed of public displays of kindness. I can’t bear to look at this anymore, and when I turn my eyes away, I see Liu Feng also standing in the crowd. He appears to be steadfast in the constant flow of audiences. It seems that he’s been there for a while. From the side, his once ordinary face has become more chiseled with the erosion of time.

I move a little to get a better look at Liu Feng from the front. He has a face that is unsusceptible to aging. He looks at least seven or eight years younger than his contemporaries. It was because of the “touch” incident that he was demoted to a soldier in the company. The year after his demotion, the sino-Vietnamese war broke out.

A tour bus pulls over at the crossroad by Chang’an Avenue[6] and drops off fifty or sixty western tourists. There’s a moment of commotion in the crowd, and when I manage to find my footing again, Liu Feng is no longer there. I leave the crowd and search for him at both ends of Wangfujing Street. He couldn’t disappear so quickly unless he meant to. I walk southward for a while and then northward. The street is full of strangers. Liu Feng must be hoping keep me a stranger as well.

 

Thirty years ago, our old red building still had dreams. Most of those dreams were beautiful and bold, too.

The red building’s second and third floor each had a long corridor over which extended a long stretch of eaves. If, in the evening, you were practising the clarinet or the violin in the third-floor corridor, looking beyond the eaves of the corridor downstairs and the small studio at the end, then further beyond the holly-lined path to the right side of the studio, you would at some point see a man carrying two big buckets. This man was Liu Feng. He carried the buckets for a boy living in the next lane. The boy was seventeen, orphaned, whom other kids of the lane called Brackets because when he stood at attention, his legs formed a perfect pair of brackets. They said they used Brackets’ two legs as the soccer goalpost, and the ball could get through without even touching it.

Brackets walked with a high stool. He moved the stool forward and used it as his support to walk a step further. With two legs of his own and four legs of the stool, he needed a quarter of an hour to walk two hundred metres. At the entrance to the lane, the tap was unlocked and water sold to lane residents every evening who waited in line to buy their water. When Brackets bought his share and carried it home, the six legs became really busy. He moved the buckets first then the stool and finally his own bracket-shaped legs only to see when he got home that the previously half-filled iron bucket held barely enough water to cover the bottom. Brackets had to do this because he made a living by selling hot water from an old stove in his home.

Liu Feng delivered two buckets of water from our yard to Brackets’ home every day. When interrogated by the officer, Liu Feng responded that water was free for the army to use anyway. The officer thought for a while and felt that Liu Feng was right. Everything the soldiers ate and wore came from the people for free, so why couldn’t our soldier treat one of them to two buckets of water?

One late summer evening we lazed in the outdoor corridor after supper. Liu Feng came and went in front of our bored eyes, carrying two big buckets of water filled so close to the top that they were on the verge of spilling, yet he was able to carry them without wasting a single drop. So full from eating, Gao Qiang, the trombonist, blew a low and long sound as if he were burping. He stared blankly at the short person carrying the buckets away with such light steps along the holly-lined path and sighed: “Why doesn’t he die of exhaustion? What’s his name?” The bassist beside him, Zeng Dasheng, answered, “L-i-u Feng.” Gao Qiang dragged out his words like the sound of his trombone: “Li-u-Feng – shit, that sounds exactly like Lei You Feng.”

That’s how Liu Feng got his nickname Lei You Feng.

The first time I saw Liu Feng in close quarters was shortly after he was transferred to our troupe. One day near the end of the lunch break, he was squatting there and hammering the floor. How should I describe the worn-out floor? If you jumped hard at one end of the room, a dish on the table at the other end would turn over or at least wobble. What he was hammering was a floor piece warped hopelessly out of shape.

The owner of this old courtyard had been a warlord ninety years ago. In the 1920s, the red building used as our barrack had two storeys and was inhabited by two concubines, one old and the other young. In the early 1930s, another younger concubine was married into this place, so the owner added one more storey on top of the second floor. When the September 18th incident broke out in the Northeast[7], marrying concubines remained trendy in the Southwest. Chengdu people always prioritized the sensual pleasures of life whatever situation they were in – even in danger. People who knew the story of the building could tell the barely noticeable difference between the two shades of red painted on the third floor and the first two floors. The red bricks extended from the red building out onto a paved way, over which a parallel stretch of blue-tile eaves supported by dark green wooden poles on both sides led all the way to a pavilion. Our small studio was constructed at the base of the pavilion. It thus had an odd shape, and was cold in winter and hot in summer. Further in the direction of the gate was our dining hall which used to be the concubines’ little theatre. Later the stage was torn down, and the place was transformed into a dance hall when Chengdu became the Great Rear Area at the time of the anti-Japanese war.[8] In this courtyard none of the rooms for the horsemen and the maids – old or young – was properly built, and when the Liberation Army peacefully liberated Sichuan, they were pretty rundown and were then torn down to build two lines of single rooms even sketchier than those for the old and young maids. The new inhabitants were the officers of the art troupe with their families. The newest building, built in the sixties, was our dance studio – also called the big rehearsal hall – which was no doubt a product of the government’s large-quantity-fast-speed-good-quality-low-cost policy.

It was just another ordinary noontime when we sat around the low tables after lunch, chatting over our empty bowls and boxes, male and female soldiers arguing over trivial matters and flirting with one another meaningfully or meaninglessly. No one showed interest in what Liu Feng was doing. I noticed him because he wore two different shoes: on his right foot was the black cloth shoe the army distributed to every soldier; on his left was a dirty white soft-soled dance shoe. I later learned he couldn’t spin with his left leg. His body tended to be lopsided whenever he attempted the movement, so he wore the dance shoe all the time to practise whenever he had a chance. After hammering, he stepped with his soft-soled shoe on the floor, then stomped it with the hard-soled shoe, hammered a few more times, and stood up. He straightened his body, and you couldn’t help feeling disappointed at his height. He was short yet appeared much bigger when sitting or squatting. When he stood, you would think to yourself, “He isn’t much taller!” The flaw lay in his legs: he didn’t have long legs. But long legs would be a burden for somersaulting, and he was selected into the art troupe from his original field army engineer battalion precisely because he performed amazing somersaults. Liu Feng had mastered the skill since he was a child. He had a hard life in childhood in a Bangzi opera troupe[9] in a poverty-stricken county of Shandong province. To quote Liu Feng, “Some people are so poor that they go round stark naked!” If he hadn’t been in the Bangzi opera troupe learning somersaulting, he would have had been a stark naked child as well.

I wasn’t officially associated with Liu Feng until half a year after his transfer. We followed the big army to the mountain area in the northwest of Sichuan and camped there for seven days undergoing military training. These seven days were the only opportunity of the year for us to play at being real soldiers. The customary drill of shooting and grenade-throwing happened during this period. Playing a real soldier’s role for us was like playing games. We could avoid dance practices, enjoy shooting to the full, have hardtack snacks, and get into real fighting and wrestling while practising sentry attacks. Before the shooting training started, Vice Director Jian of the military training department needed two guards at the edge of the range to keep the locals out so that they wouldn’t become the live targets of their brotherly soldiers’ blind bullets. Liu Feng and I were chosen. Liu Feng volunteered. He came from the field army and had done plenty of shooting, so he would rather spare the fun for others. I was collectively chosen because my shooting rarely won any points. My bullet never hit the target, and they were afraid of me dragging down the total score of the team.

I was one month short of thirteen in that midwinter of 1972. I stood up tall, my skinny body measuring 1.61-metres-tall and weighing 38 kilos, to establish between soldiers and civilians a Great Wall in northwestern Sichuan. Intense gunfire lasted from one to four in the afternoon, during which time I changed from standing guard to hopping guard. In these three hours, I had to hop like I learned to do in dance class to protect my feet from frostbite. A line of targets was set up in a field of yams that had already been harvested, the darkened vines spreading like a broken fishnet. I was wearing our dance instructor Teacher Yang’s big watch and looked at it every three or five minutes as I hopped. I learned that loneliness, exhaustion, and severe cold could turn five minutes into a whole lifetime.

The gunfire ceased at five past four. The shooting was supposed to stop at exactly four o’clock. A chubby vole ran across my feet. I watched it and soon found a round, smooth hole under the field ridge. I wanted to see what was inside, so I lay prostrate and looked into the hole, but could see nothing through the high-powered binoculars I was required to use for the safety of the field. I then used a twig to poke inside while meowing like a cat, wondering if voles viewed cats as enemies like we viewed Capitalists. Then I heard a bang of a gunshot, the bullet whistling past the elm treetop over my head. Wasn’t the shooting training finished? Another gunshot went off barely half a minute later. Before I could make sense of the situation, somebody hauled me up from the ground. Turning round, I saw a pale face, its cheeks burning red and mouth puffing steam. This face looked familiar, but also strange at such close range. He said, exploding in anger: “What the hell are you doing here? Didn’t you see a peasant coming into the training field?” His Shandong accent gave him away: he was Liu Feng, the other sentry guard, now supporting a hunchbacked old woman on his other arm. Obviously, the old woman had slipped into the training field while I was harassing the vole. She seemed hurt. She moaned and collapsed on Liu Feng’s arm, her eyes disappearing into the back of her head. Liu Feng cried out, “Granny! Granny!” I was so terrified that I fainted. My next image just a moment later was Liu Feng running before me, carrying the old woman, and shouting, “So irresponsible! So obsessed with fun! Not like a soldier at all! . . .” A Red Cross flag was flying on the opposite hill. Liu Feng carried the old woman to the field ambulance. I followed behind, running and falling and running, tears all over my cheeks. Were they because of my falls, fear, or Liu Feng’s criticism? Now in hindsight I’d say it was all three.

Liu Feng and I brought the old woman into the rescue tent and were immediately surrounded by doctors and nurses who were the field rescue team for the role-play. Liu Feng and I waited for bad news outside the quilted cotton door curtain. After a while, Liu Feng was tired of standing. He squatted down, raised his face, and asked, “A teenager?” I murmured “thirteen” in a voice as quiet as a mosquito’s hum. He talked no more. I noticed a patch on the back of his collar, a long strip with tiny stitches barely visible. The curtain finally opened, and the military doctor of the rescue team called us in for a look. Liu Feng and I looked at each other: “Claiming the dead body?” Trembling, Liu Feng asked where the bullet hit. The doctor said it hit nowhere. He had spent half an hour examining the old woman only to find her in excellent shape. She hadn’t even taken any medication for killing roundworms, let alone aspirin. She must have fainted out of hunger or fear of gunfire.

We craned our heads in and saw the old woman holding a military fruit can and spooning two big chunks of pineapple into her mouth. Liu Feng nudged me, and we hurried into the tent. Liu Feng was all saluting and apologizing, and the old woman, chewing and slurping loudly, was too preoccupied with calming her nerves to pay any attention to us.

The rescue nurse whispered that we were lucky. If she had been shot, all her family would have feasted on the art troupe’s military supplies instead of eating their own yams.

Things became clearer after we returned to camp. Zeng Dasheng, the bassist, had wagered with someone that he would score three tens successively with his left-over bullets. Everyone had finished shooting except Zeng Dasheng who still lay there, aiming with the last two bullets in his semi-automatic rifle. He pointed it for three minutes without shooting, then – from the Vice Chief of the military training section standing behind – borrowed a handkerchief to cover one eye, and went back to perfecting his aim. Some teased that it would be unfair to Chief’s cute handkerchief if he missed a shot worth ten. Another said sarcastically that to score a perfect ten with that much concentration was not necessary – the shot was bound to score eleven! Zeng Dasheng jumped up to fight these hecklers before he started aiming again for a third time. By that time, seven minutes had gone by. That’s when I left my post chasing a vole, assuming that the training was over.

We had yam rice, yam with green onion stir-fry, and yam steamed with salted pork belly slices[10] for supper that day. It was said that the place yielded nothing but yams. The old woman slipped across the shooting range cordon in order to dig one more time in the harvested yam field, hoping to glean some small tubers or broken halves left behind. One of us realized this and said: after all this, Lei You Feng rescued not a good peasant but a sneaky one who stole the commune’s yams! Another followed: a sneak who frauded us out of a full meal of canned sugary pineapple reserved for senior officers at the camp only. Then another said: the song about brotherly love between the soldiers and the people resembling the love between fish and water didn’t apply to sneaky people, right? Lao Tangshan from the drama team added: Lei You Feng was wrong to call her Granny. She is no granny at all. The clinic department reporter said that Granny came for free condoms the other day. We all roared with Ha Ha Ha, for Lei You Feng had mistaken the role of Lei Feng and had rescued the wrong person . . .

Liu Feng squatted there, holding an extra-large tea mug from which he was chopsticking yam rice into his mouth. After everyone else had finished, he spoke up: “What’s the point of calling people progressive or backward? Aren’t they all just ordinary people? Do backward people deserve Lao Zeng’s ten-point shot?[11] And who isn’t backward? You try living in the countryside like they do, being hungry for a whole winter – and then see how backward you are, and whether you’ll steal the commune’s yams.”

I slyly moved closer to him. I wanted to say thank you, but then thought the sneak was the one who should thank him. Liu Feng looked at his large tea mug and said, “The yams here are really different – feels like eating chestnuts. You Little Tassel! Always fool around on the shooting range! Granny almost missed out on such yummy yams tonight!”

 

 

[1]菜脑壳炒肉片 in Chinese, a popular everyday dish of Sichuan cuisine. All footnotes here are added by the translator unless otherwise noted.

[2] A famous commercial street in Beijing lined with shopping malls, bookstores, restaurants and hotels.

[3] Lei Feng (1940-1962), 雷锋 in Chinese, was a famous People’s Liberation Army soldier. After his death, Chairman Mao Zedong launched a propaganda campaign with the slogan — “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng.” Lei Feng then became a nationwide role model of selflessness, modesty and service.

[4] Pinyin is the official Romanization of the Chinese language. It is used to mark the pronunciation and the tone of a Chinese character.

[5] “The stubborn nails” – 钉子户 in Chinese – refer to those who refuse to move to the new residential area in the process of gentrification in contemporary China.

[6] Beijing’s central avenue beside which Tiananmen Square is located.

[7] Also called the “Mukden Incident,” the start of the Japanese invasion of China on September 18th, 1931.

[8] The Great Rear Area” refers to southwest China — Sichuan province in particular — which offered the supplies that supported the anti-Japanese war.

[9] Bangzi opera is a kind of local Chinese opera popular in Hebei, Henan, Shandong, and northern Anhui province.

[10] Kou Rou, 扣肉in Chinese, is stewed pork belly slices called Shao Bai (烧白) in Sichuan cuisine.

[11] “Lao” plus the last name is an intimate way of addressing a person in a Chinese context.  Lao Zeng refers to Zeng Dasheng.

Cleaning Sarah’s Room

Sarah’s room needs cleaning. The moment I thought that, guilt welled up within me. When Sarah was small, I was a PhD student in English Lit at the University of Alberta, preoccupied with studying travelogues about China and with grad student duties. She was just eight years old when she left Guangzhou, China, with her dad to join me in Edmonton. An 8-year-old suddenly ripped out of all the comfort and pampering of home and dropped into a new life, a new culture, a new language. Surely, that little girl had needed her mother. Her mother who was preoccupied. Always preoccupied.

I began dusting her bookshelf. When she had started school here, we had lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment on the university campus. My study was also her bedroom — and also the living room. I sat and worked, and she slept behind me on a tatami we had rescued, still in its packaging, from the garbage. A tatami that lay at my back while I sat at my desk, immersed in one 1000-page reading assignment after another.

“Mummy, can you help me?”

As the dust cloth in my hand traced her books, I felt again the light touch of her tiny hand on my back. She was struggling in school and needed help with her homework.

I turned briefly to face her. “Mom is busy, honey,” I said. “Try again. Work at it yourself.” And I turned again to my own work.

Now, much too late, the softness in my belly was calling. What had I been thinking?

My heart ached.

In China, I had been a good mom. When Sarah was born, my mother had offered to take care of her so that I could be free from the chores of raising a baby. But I insisted on raising my daughter myself. I rigidly followed the nursing protocols in a babycare encyclopedia. Once I even made my husband pull the car over beside the highway so that I could measure exactly 200 ml lukewarm water for Sarah’s milk formula bottle on a completely level surface. I took her to the playground every day to make sure she got enough outdoor exercise. When she tried to grab a little bucket from another boy playing in the sand, I shook my head, like a good mom should, and gently said no. Though she was only one year old, she understood my gentleness didn’t undermine my resolution.

She was always an understanding daughter.

Even after she came to Canada. She had never complained about me not giving her enough care. She had done well at school and had even made some good friends to play and sleep over with. Would it have been easier for her if I had mothered her more? If I had cooked three meals plus two snacks a day like I had done in Guangzhou? If I had taken her to the playground everyday here too? Would it have been easier for me?

But something was wrong. I should have been pleased to have an understanding and well-adjusted child, shouldn’t I? Who said a mom pursuing her own career was no longer a good mom? Wasn’t it me — the same mom — who brought Sarah here so that she could have the privilege of speaking two languages? Of knowing two cultures? Didn’t her strong sense of independence come from me, her independent mom?

My eyes caught the framed photo on her bookshelf. Sarah with her birthday cake all over her face was glaring at me with a naughty look. She held her hands up beside her ears, making a lion-roaring pose to the camera. I thought back to a conversation about this photo. We were having breakfast in our new house.

“I changed a lot after moving to Canada,” she had said. She was in her first year of junior high then. A strange thing for a teenager to say on a Sunday morning.

“Oh? Why do you think so?” I was still thinking of Yi-Fu Tuan’s Coming Home to China but wanted to sustain the conversation.

“Well, look at the picture on the fridge. I was such a spoiled little brat back then.”

Her words had startled me. It was her analysis. Her self-reflection. Her self-criticism.

“You were a little princess then.” But hadn’t I been the ridiculously meticulous mom who had made her a princess by following the encyclopedia’s mothering rules?

“How have you changed?”

“I think I’m a better person now. Less self-centred. I like who I am now better.” She told me a story then about her friendship with Emma, what she did to grow it, how she had compromised, and how happy and grateful she felt after all the conflicts and frustrations.

I listened to her in wonder. Her maturation, her understanding, and her comfort in Canada mocked the sentimental, rigid maternity I permitted to torment me.  It was like watching her branch out of the tree of me into a separate life, independent and vibrantly healthy. Her transformation mirrored what I saw in the travelogues I was researching.

It was also my own transformation from a mom with a confining view of motherhood to one who was able to take pride in her own independence and to savour the independence of her daughter. I wiped down the glass frame holding the Edmonton Youth Orchestra poster featuring Sarah as the soloist playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor. I felt so proud of her.

 

Glimpses of Edmonton’s LitFest in October 2016

I’ve been volunteering for Edmonton’s LitFest over the past few years, an annual literature festival celebrating the writing of nonfiction. My work gives me free accesses to the readings and discussions during the festival. Some of the sessions I attended last year are still quite impressive when I reviewed my writing notes.

I went to the LitFest event on October 13, 2016. Last night’s session was a discussion on aboriginal people’s issue in Canada. Three panelists were invited to speak about their experience of working with the aboriginal community. Two were non-aboriginal, “white” Canadians, and the third called herself “a real Canadian” who had a list of heritages—the English, the Irish, the German, the Cree and others. The moderator, Tanya Kappo, had an aboriginal background and was a lawyer by trade, but she had been involving in working with the aboriginal communities for the past few years. Listening to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools had been a hard process, and she was still in the process of recuperation.

A few things stuck me. Steven Cooper, a white lawyer started to write about his experience of dealing with aboriginal clients who were mostly criminals. He started with an interesting anecdote of his family moving to Southern Ontario when he was little. His father had a Jewish background, so people thought he had horns in his head. His father even let people touch his head to prove they’re wrong. The audience laughed when hearing this story, but I was really shocked by people’s ignorance then.

Another thing about Steven is the productive shift of his career. He is a lawyer, a profession chosen for the purpose of good income and security. But years of practice leads to the commitment to writing, and through writing, he shares his experience of working with the aboriginal people and calls for societal attention for the injustice of the political system done to this group and its culture.

Myrna Kostash, another panelist, raised a provocative point about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The document talks about what white people should do and leaves out the aboriginal peoples’ voices. This absence indicates that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a document that more addresses white people’s needs than deals with the actual relationship between aboriginals and the government.

Rhonda Kronyk, also a panelist, confirmed Myrna’s point and emphasized the importance of establishing a relationship. It can be collaboration, partnership, etc. anything unilateral won’t make any fundamental changes.

Road trip to Grande Prairie

Driving from Edmonton to Grande Prairie covers the same route to Alaska, a destination Jerry and I have been thinking of going for a long time but haven’t got an opportunity to visit yet. The online research showed that there were not many things to see along the way, but the drive became scenic when you reached Grande Cache, a city in the middle of the Rockies. This meant we needed a detour to transform this working trip to a sightseeing one. So, I suggested driving from Grande Prairie to Grande Cache and to Hinton and then to Edmonton for our return trip.

The road trip is by far my favorite way of seeing the world. I enjoy its affordability and flexibility. I had never come to this part of Alberta before, and the sheer newness of the route and the destinations was a big attraction.

The drive northward from Edmonton to Grande Prairie unfolded a combination of the prairie land dotted with farms and small areas of woods that were still bare at this time of the year. What appeared unique to me was the patches of wetland – or bog – underneath the woods along the way. It is said this is why northern Alberta is rich in oil; these wetlands indicate its existence.

I am always mesmerized by the serenity of the landscape wherever I go. The road trip from Utah to California and from San Francisco to Seattle to Kelowna and to Edmonton last summer, and another drive from Phoenix, Arizona, to the Antelope Valley impressed me with the vastness and beauty of the American land. Now the wetland of northern Alberta—the dark mirror of the water, the black dots of the remaining tree trunks, the broken trees cut off from the middle with the top half still connected to the bottom at various angles, and the charcoaled image of the forests overall both enhanced and disturbed the peace of the scene.

The company site where Jerry loaded the damaged car bought by his client at an auction was located beside a range road in the middle of nowhere. Scattering on a big, dusty yard were a few trucks with long trailers. In the middle of the yard stood a flat line of rooms—obviously the office of the company. As soon as we entered the office, I started to sympathize the people who worked there. What kind of life did they have living in a place like this? The desolation of the place reminded me of Fort McMurray I visited a few years ago before the big fire. I didn’t see the camp built for the oil field workers here, though—mobile homes assembled together into long lines of residential space which were a dominant view of Fort McMurray; but the bare walls of the office and the emotionless faces of the staff seemed to tell me that the place was temporary and prone to disappear at any time.IMG_7895

On our way back to Grande Cache, the scenery became more attractive as the tripadvisor website users said. The bog continued to enchant you—more so because of the variety of the plants decorated the surface of the water. If you see mostly trees when driving from Edmonton to Grande Prairie, here you also see the water grass, the one used to decorate the naturalized pond in the neighbours back at home. The roads are getting hilly, too.

We stopped at Grande Cache Lake Beach. Having visited Invermere in BC two weeks ago where there’s no sight of snow and ice on the surfaces of the Windermere Lake and the Columbia River, I was surprised that the lake was still covered with a thin layer of pieces of floating ice. The azure sky and cotton-like clouds in the sky saw their enhanced beauty in the fragments of the mirror of the lake; the floating ice appeared dark green and formed a charming mosaic of blue, white, various shades of green on the wrinkleless face of the lake. Jerry and I were the only souls in the world. A luxury.IMG_7906

IMG_7910IMG_7907Feeling saturated enough in the beauty of nature, we continued to drive toward the direction of Hinton, a familiar place about an hour’s ride from Jasper. Our next stop was at Caribou County, a place attracting people from the highway to a creek running merrily in between its cobbled banks. Jerry started his artistic exploration by looking at the cobbles intensely, hands behind his back. His effort didn’t end in vain: he was so delighted to see two artistic pieces of rocks about the size of a paperback – one looked like a smiling-faced guy turning his head toward you, and the other showed the silhouette of an ancient Chinese official whom he would say XU Jiujing, a character in a classical Chinese opera. These two rocks were his favorite treasures from this trip.

Fear and anxiety coupled with the delight of exploration. Driven by curiosity as I always am, I suggested that we drive onto the unpaved road that – as the roadside board showed – led to a preserved area of nature. The road was winding. On both sides were the stretches of meadow inlaid with bits of snow. As we kept moving forward cautiously, we saw a big sign which said: “A red bear is dangerous.” Not a soul was in sight. Only the loud-sounding silence interfered by the noise of the truck and the attached trailer with the red Ford on top.

Agitated by the thought that we might have entered into the place that led to nowhere, we decided to turn and go back onto the highway. Yet Jerry’s attempt at making the U-turn failed as the road was too narrow for the truck and the trailer. We decided to keep driving forward, hoping that we could get onto the highway from the end of the road. But the further we went, the less confident we were. “No service” glared on my smartphone. The icon of the truck on the google map moved farther and farther away from the highway where we departed. Seeing no hope of finding the end of the road, we decided that we should back up no matter what. It took us close to an hour to back to the place where Jerry failed to make the U-turn. This time, though, perhaps out of desperation, he did it! We high-fived cheerfully, and I felt Jerry’s hand—which is always warm—cold and wet!

Lahaina, Kealia Pond, Makena Nudists’ Beach in Maui

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Twelve days in Maui away from Edmonton’s harsh winter. A luxury.

After breakfast, we drove to Lahaina for a relaxing stroll at the city centre. We parked beside Foodland grocery store. The boutiques and art galleries lined the street beside the sea. A girl working in one art gallery was talkative enough to give us useful information when we told her we’re heading toward Makena State Park’s beach area. It boasted Maui’s biggest white sand beach. She didn’t seem to agree but didn’t make any comments. She highly recommended sightseeing at an area of private beach beyond, which was known as the “Little Beach”: “Walk past the Big Beach, you’ll see ‘Little Beach’ full of nudists. Simply overlook the drama and keep walking, you’ll see the most beautiful view of the ocean.” We thanked her profusely and would definitely go and have a look.

Lahaina’s city centre is also home to the world’s biggest banyan tree. Coming from Guangzhou, I remember seeing gigantic banyan trees in the streets and in 华南植物园, South China’s Botanic Garden. But this one IS HUGE! The whole area it covers is almost the size of half a soccer field. The trunk is so thick that it reminds me of the humongous redwood tree truck we saw in California. It is protected with an orange net–obviously a warning sign to keep people away. The branches that grow horizontally from the trunk are already awe-inspiringly huge! it was even more amazing to see all the smaller branches growing vertically upon them. These smaller branches stand straight like a line of tree curtain. I wonder how old this banyan tree is. The wonder of nature, indeed!

It was hot, and we kept sweating walking in the street. As it passed noon, we decided to drove to Makena State Park, which lies eastward and is more than an hour’s drive from Lahaina.

 

We stopped along the way at Kealia Pond just beside the highway before we entered into a well-manicured, wealthy community call Wailea. This was the place we passed by when Jerry went golfing at the Wailea Gold Golf course earlier. I regretted we didn’t stop then to see this vast area of wetland. This time I didn’t want to miss it.

We parked our car in the parking lot, which was the starting point of a long and winding wooden walkway. It extended ahead, paralyzing the highway we drove from. The left side presents a breath-taking view of the wetland, green grass intersecting several ponds or puddles of water. The view soothed you with a sense of peace which muffled the traffic on the highway. The right side of the pathway was lined with bushes and trees. The narrow spaces in the midst of these plants gave a fragmented picture of the ocean. The design of the wooden pathway obviously encouraged a sustained appreciation of the wetland; beach or the ocean was not the attraction here.

Two pavilions decorated the pathway and offered nice stops for people to enjoy the serene picture of the landscape, to observe the birds residing here, and to take pictures of their visits. We couldn’t help pausing a while in the one perched in the middle of the walk. I was mesmerized by the overall scene, and Jerry was more interested in observing the birds with his telescope. The sun glazed, but the breeze cooled you down and made you want to prolong the walk. So I did, leaving Jerry to enjoy his obsession with plovers, pipers, and Ae’o (Hawaii stilts). And the rest of the walk was pleasant, and I wish the wooden pathway would never end.

 

We continued to drive to our final destination, Makena State Park. This park located in between Wailea Golf course and La Perouse Bay. The parking lot was right at the entrance. It was obviously a perfect day of staying on the beach. People dressing in bathing outfits and shouldering surfing gears and beach towels had already come back from the morning’s visit. They unloaded their things to their cars and got ready to enjoy the latter half of this beautiful day.

Instead of the biggest white-sand beach Jerry saw on the internet, we found the sands of the Big Beach were actually of a gold colour—perhaps enhanced with the generosity of the sunshine, but the beach WAS BIG. I didn’t plan to dress in my bikini, but Jerry packed it for me and insisted that it be a pity to reject the embrace of the ocean when in Hawaii. I felt weird to dress in normal outfit here anyway, so we changed behind a huge rock and came out like REAL beach visitors, Jerry in his swimming shorts, and I in my bikini. I put back on the lengthy, baggy cotton white shirt which was the under layer of the three-piece blouse I wore today. It turned out to be a perfect beach wear!

With the art gallery girl’s words in mind, we kept going to the right side until the passage led to a narrow rocky uphill of about ten metres. We climbed up and met people coming down. The top of the hill offered a nice view of the Big Beach on the left side. What a beautiful day today! The blue sky, the white clouds floating overhead and far there on the horizon, the dark blue ocean, the turquoise water laced with white waves close to the shore, and people relaxing on the beach and feeling the excitement of the water form a perfect picture.

 

When we kept going, we were surprised to see the sudden unfolding of another beach, smaller in comparison but with nude people lying or running or standing. Aha, this must be the nudist beach—the Little Beach—the art gallery girl told us. We had heard about a nudist beach beside UBC in Vancouver, but we had never got a chance to visit there. It would be embarrassing to be in such a place with clothes on even if it was just a bikini. But here not all people were nude. I had the impression that the nudists formed approximately 2/5 of the crowd. Thank goodness Jerry brought my bikini!

Feeling part of the group—or not, we quickly walked past, pretending that we loved stepping the seawater at the front and but were heading toward our next destination. Nudity must give people a great sense of liberation. A full acknowledgment and perhaps a celebration of the natural state of the human body. A great sense of sharing that we are human beings and we are the same. It takes great courage to stay natural like this. I find nudists subversive in this sense.

We stopped at the far end of the Little Beach where they were just two of us. Sandy beach gave way to black volcano rocks beside the sea. We couldn’t help walking and moving closer to the water. Jerry found sea cucumbers and sea urchins in a small area of water enclosed within the rocks. The memory of being stung by the sea urchin when we were at the Big Island, Hawaii, a few years ago, kept him an arm’s distance from the creatures. He felt prompted to grab a sea cucumber instead, and we were both amused when seeing it shooting out a thin stream of water from one end when Jerry held it in the air. He urged me to try. I was a bit scared and dared not to touch it at the beginning. Knowing that it’s safe anyway, I picked it up from underneath the water and posed for a picture with the sea cucumber peeing in my hand.

Such enclosed areas of water formed natural marine tank we often see in people’s household or in shopping malls. We saw miscellaneous small fish under the water, and bright orange starfish, rock-color crabs, and lots of urchin babies clinging to the rock surfaces. The urchin baby looked more like a round-shaped, footy bugs of about the size of a small piece of cookie. While the back of the urchin baby was as black as the rocks to which it clung, the stomach or belly was the lavender kind purple, a delicate, beautiful colour indeed. It made you wonder how it transformed into a creature with the hostile stinging spikes around its body.

We had lots of fun here observing all kinds of sea creatures and taking pictures, and two or three nudists left the beach area and walked on top of these black rocks close to us, but not close enough to strike a conversation.

 

We then decided to walk further along the coast. The beginning part of the trail presented a view of the most commonly seen trees naturally grown in areas close to the ocean here in Maui. These trees had sharply-angled, dark branches. They were not tall at all, but the way the branches extended offered a view of a tree net. Walking inside this net gave me a feeling of a trailblazer. The net was mirrored in the roots underneath my feet, which burst out of the ground and reminded me of another huge net growing downward to the depth of the Earth.

An Asian-looking man was walking from the opposite direction. We greeted and had a brief conversation about where the trail led to. The man said there may have been a trail closer to the ocean, but it must have been too dangerous since it’s full of volcano rock cliffs.

The trail kept unfolding uphill. We met three persons walking from the other direction, one woman and two guys. Again we chatted a little about the trail condition and the things to see along the way. The two guys wore beach shorts and the commonly seen Hawaii style cotton T-shirts with palm tree patterns, and the lady walking in the middle of the two guys wore only the lower part of her bikini. She had a beach towel hanging around her neck, though, so Jerry didn’t see she was actually topless.

We stopped at a scenic spot to have a look at the view. We found ourselves on top of a seaside cliff. The place where we were standing offered a breath-taking, panoramic view of the ocean, beautiful on such a fine day but awe-inspiring for its grandeur. From here we could see the uphill trail leading to the top of the seaside cliff. It must offer another stunning view. The cliff, rugged with a rusty colour and juxtaposed with the volcano rocks sitting at the seashore at the bottom, reminded me of the eighteenth-century aesthetic admiration for sublimity. We didn’t climb up to the top as it’s getting late. But I couldn’t help thinking what beautiful view we had missed up there.

When we drove back to our hotel, Jerry was still in good spirit and suggested we had a quick look at the Kahului, the city where the airport (OGG) located. We drove to the city centre area and parked at a big shopping mall. We didn’t expect it’s so busy, and it took a while to find a parking spot. Shopping malls are never a must-see attraction to me wherever I travel. I find them all monotonously repetitive. Yet, mollification as a cultural phenomenon seems to have dominated all big cities in North American and China now.

Hike along the Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala National Park

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We took our time relaxing in the morning. Later we drove to Haleakala National Park to do some hiking we weren’t able to do the other day because of the rainy, windy and cold weather. Today was a perfect day for hiking—warm sunshine, blue sky, a few clouds decorating rather than blocking the beauty of the sky.

When the car started to climb up the hill, I was already mesmerized by the enchanting view. The uphill highway circled around the mountain, so the viewer at both sides of the car can take turns to have a closer look at the view outside the window. For an enjoyable and impressive passage, we were driving above the clouds. It was an incredible view each time when I looked out of the window, either from my side or Jerry’s; the green patches of the landscape beneath the layer of flowing clouds became smaller and remoter as the car circled up to the submit. The road, as you can imagine, was narrow and curvy.

There are two Visitor Centres: one is in the middle of the uphill highway, and the other at the summit. We got to the summit Visitor Centre in the early afternoon only to find it was closed. The notice said it would reopen at 3pm. I was surprised to see such an important place closed in the middle of the day within the National Park and wondered what the staff were busy with then. When I tried to glean some hiking trail information from the bulletin board, I found that the introductory literature encouraged only the Summit Trail—an easy one accessible to most visitors. The Sliding Sand Trail was still open, but the hikers were warned to hike at their own risks. The closed Visitor Centre left the impression that this National Park might be short of working staff, or perhaps the government was trying to protect the pristine nature of the place.

Jerry and I picnicked when walking along the easy Summit Trail which gave a bird view of the volcano crater far beyond. The trail was mostly sharp, black rocks left by the volcano eruption. As we saw a thin stream of people walking downhill along the Sliding Sand Trail, we decided to join them.

The trail was an easy hike at the beginning as it’s mostly downhill and since the view was stunning. The walkway was nicely paved—with natural sandy debris obviously. We met quite a few returning hikers who were having a more difficult part of the walking journey. Panting heavily, they perhaps envied us doing the relaxing downhill walk and missed the former part of their journey. We did see two of the hikers running energetically, which made me wonder if they just chose one kilometre of the trail and run back and forth along it as part of their daily workout.

When we reached the midpoint of our hike, we saw a young girl of probably Sarah’s age—around twenty years old—standing tall on a boulder gazing at the crater in her view. We joined her in the admiration of the grandeur of the landscape, imagining with an overwhelming sense of awe the power of nature in transforming the surface of the Earth and the vulnerability of humanity. All three of us were completely mesmerized by the sublimity and beauty of the scene.

As I saw little dots of people walking along the edge of the crater, I couldn’t help asking the girl if she knew how far it was from here to the crater. She couldn’t tell exactly. She was thinking of hiking another trail and would stop here, and she was already satisfied with what she had already seen. She was friendly and offered to take a picture for me and Jerry together, which we happily did, and it turned out to be one of our favorite pictures of the trip.

The girl left to move on to the next destination in her hiking agenda, and we stood there a little longer, trying to absorb the beauty of the view to the full. A man at his early middle age came over, with a talk walk in hand. Unlike other hikers who dressed in thinner clothes, this guy wore a down jacket and a knitted winter hat. I guess he must have come from a tropical warm place who were adequately prepared for the cold of the mountain here. But his dark beard and complexion also made me think he might be from the Middle East. He looked quite relaxed, telling us his plan was to hike just to the edge of crater down there and then return.  His relaxed manner encouraged us to do the same.

Leaving the man to his admiration of the scenery, we continued to move ahead. After about ten minutes’ walk, we were amazed by a very special plant standing along the trail. The plant was about a metre high, or the height of Jerry squatting down. The part close to the root looked like a swirling skirt of a dancing girl. Seeing from afar from a two-dimensional point of view, it appeared to be an equilateral triangle. Some of these plants bore darkened, dry flowers from the stem shooting upward from the middle, and the flowering part was similar to that of a lupin, a commonly seen ornamental plant in the yards of many Edmontonian homes.

I raised my iphone trying to take in the whole scene with these unique plants in view. This is one of the pictures I feel very proud of. Close to the view is the iron-rich, rusty red, landscape decorated with little white dots of dancing girls’ skirts floating gracefully here and there. Farther away the skirts get smaller and the colour of the landscape becomes subtly more colourful; adding on to the rusty red are dark green, brown, dark grey, black, light brown, all harmoniously coexisting and forming a wonderful painting of a unique volcano mountain scene. The remotest part of this view is the sea of clouds behind, giving you a feeling that you’re in a surreal wonderland that exists only in fantasy novels or movies. The certainty you know that this is not fantasy gives you a tremendous sense of awe and satisfaction.

Jerry in the picture with a backpack walking toward the clouds immediately adds meaning to the pristine scene of nature. This will be another great addition to the photo series I’ve conceived a million times – 伴我走天涯. English title of this series? Perhaps The Meaning of Love, not a literal translation of “Accompanying Me to the End of the World.”

I couldn’t help feeling regretful for the girl we met earlier. What a pity to give up the hike in the middle of the way! I bet she would have had another wow moment if she had gone further just for another ten minutes. But after a second, I thought, “So what?” Perhaps it’s important that she already felt happy and contented.

It turned out later that we missed the trail leading toward the crater. We hiked even further, and another pleasant encounter that resulted from this “wrong” direction was meeting a group of five young people—again about Sarah’s age—who were courageous enough to have been backcountry-camping in this area. When we told them we hiked all the way from the summit, they all cast on us a look of admiration. And by then I knew that we had achieved an impressive distance along this Sliding Sand Trail hike.

Everyone Can Be a Writer

Writing needs passion. It is also about perseverance. If you have readers who like your writing, you feel inspired, eager to toil more, and enjoy it immensely. Two years ago I opened a Chinese blog in backchina.com, a website that targets overseas Chinese readers, and started to post some short pieces on women’s lives, responses to Chinese pop culture, thought-provoking incidents of everyday life, reviews of bestsellers, etc. I quickly got some fans. But with various occupations, I did not continue. Now determined to pick up writing again, I feel a sense of guilt for my fans. I realize, the call for writing in me has never died out. At this stage of life, it becomes even stronger, no longer allows me to overlook it.

In addition to teaching Literature and Composition at Concordia University College this term, I am lucky to be invited to audit Professor Betsy Sargent’s graduate course, Composition Theory, in order to get ready to teach a session of Writing Studies 101 in the winter term. I originally thought this theory course must be dry and boring, but the first class smashed my preconception.

We were introduced to the fundamental concept of inkshed, not through lecture but through a 15-minute free writing practice. We learned that a good writer first and foremost should put aside all the worries, concerns, and fears, simply allowing the pen in the hand or the fingers over the keyboard dance freely. Don’t be afraid that your words are not elegant, your sentences not smooth, your punctuations improper. Just write. This is called “inkshed.” It draws out thoughts and feelings that come from your heart, and we all know that artist creation of this kind tend to be the most powerful. This is the initial step. If you can write non-stop and write with confidence, your first step of writing is successful. What follow are revision, getting comments from peers, and ultimately publication.

For William Stafford, an American author born during the First World War, a writer “is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” Like an artist who can find in his/her painting things that may surprise her to change the original plan of drawing, a writer can encounter an insight, a kind of enlightenment unexpectedly. Without the process of writing, however, s/he may never experience this epiphany moment.

It is that the process of writing endows one with creativity, not that only one with creativity can be a writer. This important point about writing comes from one of the many excerpts selected into the book Conversations about Writing: Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In, all written by accomplished writers and scholars of writing studies. Flipping through the book, you don’t see hard-to-chew theoretical jargons. All you see are vividly described stories about how writers approach writing from their personal experiences, or experts who studies writing and the use of language sharing their learning about writing in a friendly way. Reading the book, you feel you’re having one conversation after another with writers and professors about the act of writing, sharing their writing experience, taking their advice, and learn to approach writing from an innovative perspective. You feel the urge to give writing a try because you, too, are equipped with the tool of language.

This is a three-hour evening class. I whined earlier I had to give up my favorite Chinese folk dance class. But I felt interested already after the first class. What is more valuable is that it stimulated my desire to write, encouraged me to keep writing and harvest the joy of sharing my work with the readers.

The Tragedy of the Chinese Movie, “Coming Home”

China’s recently released movie, Coming Home, is a hot topic in Edmonton’s Chinese community. It is another film directed by ZHANG Yimou, who is also the director of To Live and many other internationally award-winning films. This new one is an adaptation – a truncated version, to be exact – of YAN Geling’s novel called《陆犯焉识》, LU Yanshi, the Criminal (my translation). YAN’s novel covers a wide historical span from the Republic of China in the early twentieth century to the present-day China where the country is undergoing drastic changes as a result of its economic reform. Against the backdrop of the drastic changes of modern China unfolds the life story of LU Yanshi, the title protagonist. A gentleman from a wealthy family in Shanghai in the 1920s, Yanshi had the privilege of going to the US for further education. He became a university professor after coming back to China and sailed through his life until China launched its anti-rightist movement in the late 1950s. He was put into prison for twenty years and, later, after being released, becomes an outcast in both his family and the society. The film version focuses on the middle part of the novel, starting from LU’s failed escape out of the prison to his life with his family after being released back home in the early 1980s.

Coming Home’s interesting paradoxes enhance the tragic effect of the movie. The love between the couple, for instance, is plainly represented, yet the simplicity of form indexes the complexities of their life under an unpredictable political system. Different from ZHANG Yimou’s first success – Red Sorghum, a film based on the Nobel Prize winner MO Yan’s novel – where the love between “my grandpa” and “my grandma” is loudly rebellious, heroic, and romantic, the love between LU Yanshi and his wife, FENG Wanyu, is the deeply felt but subdued kind. We don’t see the passion of love-making in the sorghum fields, but passion is evident in Wanyu’s cold face when interrogated by the Communist authority, in her prepared meeting with Yanshi regardless of the danger of assisting an escaped criminal, and in her immediate recognition of Yanshi after more than ten years of separation when hearing his gentle, expectant, and cautious knock at the door. She did not open the door but only stood there, gazing at the door and letting her tears running profusely. In these slow-paced scenes, we see the kind of love that is enduring, almost timeless, love that is based on decades of mutual, unspoken understanding, support, encouragement and comfort, the kind of love that grows solidified and undefeated when the couple strive to survive China’s harsh political climate.

The tragedy of being so close yet unable to see each other looms larger when Yanshi found his wife suffering from amnesia after he came back home from twenty years of imprisonment in Xining. Wanyu remembers the date of her husband’s arrival; she remembers to dress up and to meet Yanshi at the railway station; she remembers to write in big strokes the name of her husband on a signboard and bring it with her for fear Yanshi can’t see her in crowds when coming out of the station. But her memories disable her from recognizing Yanshi even when he finally stands face-to-face with her. More sadly, she remembers him as Master FANG, who has sexually assaulted her when she asked him for help with Yanshi’s case when the latter was still in prison. No matter how hard Yanshi tries, he is always “Master Fang” in Wanyu’s eyes and always causes her fear and fury.

This paradox of Wanyu’s forgetful memories of her husband reaches the climax in the movie’s ending scene. Yanshi, whom Wanyu remembers to be a kind-hearted neighbour, a good-natured piano-tuner, a reader of her husband’s unmailed letters from the prison, seems content with his roles. When Wanyu is too weak to go to the railway station to meet her husband, Yanshi tricycled her to the station. The movie ends with Yanshi holding the signboard with his own name; together with Wanyu who sits in the cart, Yanshi gazes expectantly at the big crowd coming out the train from Xining, the place where his prison locates.

The movie, which has English subtitles, is available in three sections here: http://www.mvset.com/