To Honor a Fire
I wrote this piece in 2015 for a writing contest. Found it while cleaning out old Word documents on my computer. Decided to repost it here, five years later.
I could throw a rock in any direction and be guaranteed to hit a rice paddy. But I had no energy left to test this out. Unable to endure the enveloping heat, I crumpled to the ground, panting. My sooty hands pushed against the dried mud as a fatigued numbness seeped through my upper arms. Sweating was a chore, already routine, my white cotton t-shirt completely soaked. Muscles twitching, I eased into a resting position and slipped off my shoes, dangling my legs over the edge of the small cliff.
“The backpack straps are biting into my shoulders,” I whined. In my ten-year-old mind, it was a perfectly valid complaint.
“A bad worker always blames the tools,” my father said sternly without an accent. He normally spoke with a slight inflection, or a heavy one when he was angry.
Here, in Xiangyang, China, he looked too at ease to fight with me. He reached for my backpack, glanced condescendingly at me, and then continued to trek down the ledge toward the vast crowd of quivering grasses, moist from the low, rolling morning fog. Without the burden of the backpack, I could finally hike sans shoulder and back pain.
Easily I overtook Dad, who was struggling to carry two packs full of water bottles and his books. “Where are we going? Isn’t this a hiking trip? Where’s the trail?” I asked nonchalantly.
He pointed, past the endless rows of rice fields interspersed with small tributaries, past the trees sticking out like behemoths, past the farmers in the fields, to the hills in the distance. I wondered what the farmers were saying: they spoke too fast, too naturally. I was a foreigner who could utter a few phrases.
“Look,” he said between heavy breaths. “We’re going to see my grandpa. Do the old ceremony. Now enjoy the view. You won’t see this again for a long time.”
Since I’d seen enough of these scenic landscapes in the desktop backgrounds on my Windows Vista computer, I simply nodded. I had no idea what ceremony he was talking about. But this scenery reminded me of a particular image of a valley selectively lightened by the sun, turning the field alternating colors of Ireland. It was the kind of picturesque place where I could throw down a blanket and immerse myself in a good book for hours, as long as it was written in English.
Ms. Mei liked to make her students copy simple Chinese characters like ‘shu cai’ (vegetable) repeatedly on a grid resembling an archaic Excel spreadsheet. They reminded me of abstract art, or those color blindness tests at the optometrist where you’d say, “Yes it’s a turtle.” Or, “I think it’s number nine.” In my seven-year-old hand, the Ticonderoga pencil, its eraser half-chewed by a preschooler from the previous class, felt big and unnatural. Yet I sat there, hour after hour, drawing the same word in a kind of mindless monotony. Perfection was chased: “Make a straighter line.” “More curve here.” “Press your pencil harder.”
Without any dust pollution or clouds, the morning fog cleared, and the sun bored into my back. We trekked through miles of rice fields, stepping over the sloshy irrigation wells and trodding a path beaten down by the farmers’ sandals over time. I imagined the rice farmers there, day after day, shouldering the burden of subsistence farming, their sunburnt skin, their wrinkly faces. It was a far cry from Shanghai, where we’d stopped the day before to take in the flashy Bund.
Unfortunately, this hike meant I had to miss the highlight of the day, when Great-Aunt Fang laid out on the wobbly wooden kitchen table, an array of souped vegetables, eggs hard-boiled, generous bowls of rice, and cong you bing (pan-fried scallion cakes). I loved everything she cooked, minus the eggs. Still, I ate them out of respect and thankfulness. Universal values, at least everywhere outside of New York City.
Pretty soon the grasses grew taller, miles of lush green hairs growing out of the mud up to our thighs. We had long since passed the other farmers, the ones from my father’s hometown, and now, a singular straw hat jutted out from the green hairs, occasionally taking a few steps forward.
Dad cursed in his native language, and, using a large branch, hacked his way through. A lone fly buzzed around my neck, a Chinese fly, impossible to catch. I knew; I’d tried. Even electric fly swatters wouldn’t stop them. And their love of human beings flourished here. An “affectionate kiss” on the neck or the hand was common, and the aftermath left me in a quandary of pain and itching for days.
“The flies bug me,” I complained. It was the perfect setup for a dad joke, something along the lines of “They’re bugs; that’s what they do.” But he didn’t bite.
“When I was your age, the fly did not bother me.” He waded through a particularly wet section of the fields. “I could catch them with one hand.”
Between the flies and the heat, I was ready to lie down on a comfortable bed indoors. “I’m tired. Can we go back now?”
My maternal grandmother’s apartment in Beijing was humble: cold concrete floors, unfinished walls, a black windowless oven from another era. Though I wanted to ignore the sounds of passersby in the busy city streets, the window was jammed halfway open. Her place was a few blocks from the Temple of Heaven, home to some of the cleanest air in the city.
My maternal grandmother was a kind white-haired woman who spent her days knitting and spoiling her grandchildren with trinkets of affection: wind-up toys, handmade sweaters, haw rolls. On our first visit to the place, when my five-year-old little sister complained of a weird chemical smell, my grandmother took us out to the best Peking Duck restaurant in town. She fought for the bill (a sort-of custom in Chinese culture) and paid all of it. In honor of our second visit, she bought a flat-screen TV that we watched for a week, before returning to the States. She always spent money for her family, not for herself.
My maternal grandmother was buried at the foot of the Great Wall. The heavily disjointed Wall reminded me of my extended family, with its faraway relatives in LA and Hong Kong and Europe. As a fifth grader, I’d learned enough geography to identify these places on a map, but not enough to feel a connection to them.
My dad stopped to survey his surroundings, like a sailor with a sea astrolabe and a rudimentary map. Only the map was in his head. With one hand holding the large branch, another pointed at me, he said, “Your family did this ceremony very much. Many times. In my childhood, all the children knew how.” It sounded like the beginning of something, a lecture maybe, only he didn’t continue.
Towards the top of the second hill, the fog drifted over and then opened up again, revealing more scalding sun. The mountain rounded out like a curve gradually approaching its limit. Just to the right of the path, half-hidden by the abundance of weeds, a gravestone stood erect. With the grass parting around it, the tombstone looked at peace in its environment, like a small person sitting in his favorite spot; it was one with the natural world. From the muddy foundation, mossy fingers clutched the facade, obscuring the etched words. Not that I could read them, but I did make out our family name—one solitary Chinese character, devoid of the usual strokes of English letters.
“It is your great-grandfather’s grave,” he said, with tired patience.
I had rarely heard of this great-grandfather; he was too many generations from me, and my parents only really ever spoke of his accomplishments. I knew as much about my great-grandfather as I did about Hou Yi, the mythical archer hero in a Chinese fable who shot down nine out of ten suns, eventually keeping the last one for humankind. (In this heat, I wanted to get a bow and arrow and finish the job.) Just like Hou Yi, my great-grandfather was to me just a few Chinese characters made immortal in words.
“What happened after that?” I asked.
“So Wei, the wife of the stone worker, journeyed to the Great Wall alone looking for Lang. She’d heard that he’d suffered the winter building the Wall. Along the way, she relied on the kind hospitality of strangers in the rural villages. She journeyed for seven long days and nights, and when she finally arrived, she found out that her husband had indeed died.” I did my best to translate the Chinese legend that my mother was recounting into scribbled notes in my binder.
Mom continued with the myth. “And when Wei found out, she cried for her husband. So much that her tears flooded down the side of the steep mountain rock, and many new trees and bushes grew there. And her screams were so loud that a portion of the Wall crumbled down, unable to be fixed forever. That is why you can still go to that part of the wall and see it’s crumbled, even today.”
“Why did people back then believe this?” Elementary school naïveté from yours truly. “It’s just like Eve with the Garden of Eden or Pandora’s Box.”
“Because people go to the Great Wall, and naturally they need an explanation for the gaping holes. Now you write the story down for Chinese school.”
My mother got up, and was about to walk out my bedroom door when I asked, “Why do you still remember these stories? I’ve forgotten most of them.” I only had a collage of a few short snippets in my brain, all mixed up and overlapping.
“Well, later on, my son,” she said in Pekingese, her childhood dialect, “when your kids ask you for stories for a cultural project or a presentation, or maybe just to remember, you won’t have any to give them.”
My dad knelt at the grave. First I thought he was tired, but then he said, “You have to kneel.” He motioned for me to join.
“The ground is muddy.” I protested but slumped anyway to the mud. From his backpack, Dad produced a stack of fake paper money and a small matchbox.
He suddenly stood up. “Oh, I forget one part. I am becoming an old man, you know. We do forget things. For my grandfather,” he said quietly. “And your great-grandfather. Yi ju gong.”
We bowed a few times. Him with grace, while I rigidly bowed, unaffected.
And then my father spread a few paper bills in a fan around the tombstone. The flies calmed. I couldn’t hear the rustling grass anymore. The shouts of farmers in the distance discontinued. Instinctively, I looked towards the right, down the path where our shoes had left marks.
He lit the match. The flames slowly frolicked around the paper money, turning it black at the corners. Smoke rose, past the trees. While the paper bowed, the corners, as charred as meat, broke off from the rest, in flight for a few seconds, fighting gravity, and then crumpled to the ground. We watched it burn until there was no more. Then we packed up our remaining belongings, leaving the smoke to dissipate, and I followed my father the long way back home.