Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chapter 4: Mei-jun Goes Home

Mei-jun could not bear to look at rivers, for each time she did she could not help but exclaim, "How can this one even compare to the river back at our old home..." Ever since I was little, I'd hear her start with, "Ah, the water of Xin'an (新安) River..." followed by some long-winded speech that inevitably ended with "is the clearest!" The river's first layer was fine white sand, its second layer smooth stones shaped like goose eggs, and on top lay the river's verdant green water. If you wanted to catch fish, you could just take off your trousers and stand in the water, tie the legs together, and cast out your make-shift net. Just like that, you'd find your pants full of fish! After saying all that, Mei-jun would always look my way to make sure that I was listening, then let out a sigh of resignation, "[Ai! It's like playing the piano for a cow.] Even if I'm telling you it was true you still won't believe me, you simply don't understand just how clear the water was!"

[Translator's Note: The actual text here goes, "唉!對游彈琴啦” The subsequent paragraph explains the seemingly confusing Chinese, "牛,他總說 【游】,所以【牛奶】,就是【游奶】” The author adds this in to highlight Mei-jun's provincial dialect, however this color is lost in translation.]

She was silent for a while, then added in a low voice, "One day... one day I will bring you back to see for yourself. Then, you will understand." It was as if she was speaking to herself.

I, daughter born in Kaohsiung, could not imagine what the Yellow River and Yangtze River were like, but even as a little girl I was familiar with that Xin'an River -- as to where it was located was another matter entirely, for I had little inkling as to whether Zhejiang was above or below Jiangsu or on the eastern or western front -- but I definitely knew that Xin'an River's water was the cleanest water in the world.

This daughter, now all grown up, brought Mei-jun to see the icy lakes of the Swiss Alps, to see the origin of the Rhine, to see the deep blue scenery of the Danube. Mei-jun was filled with satisfaction and praise, "Europe is truly a beautiful place!" But before taking more than a few steps I heard her quietly let out a sigh. I purposely did not turn around. Wait. Just wait for it... and as expected she supplemented it with, "But this water, cannot even compare to our Xin'an..."

Before she knew it, Mei-jun lived in Taiwan for 60 years, learning the local dialect, growing to love the humid tropical climate. This foreign town became her hometown. As for her ancestral riverside village, a dam constructed in 1959 drowned everything into the depths of Qiandao Lake (千島湖). She finally understood just as dynasties could rise and fall, countries could be established and annihilated, cities too could now be wiped off the map, leaving no trace.

1987 -- After the Taiwanese government finally granted their citizens permission to pay a visit to their ancestral villages, masses of people banded together to return home; perhaps human connections were now long-lost, but their old homes were still their old homes. However, Mei-jun of Chun'an coldly questioned, "Go back? Go back to see what?"

"Even if you can't see your village," I, Mei-jun's daughter said, "you can at the very least see some people?"

70 year old Mei-jun, estranged from her ancestral home for half a century, on September 1995 returned to Chun'an for the first time. No, now it was Qiandao Town - a small fresh town where the trees were recently planted, walls were freshly painted, books were newly printed... all located on a little island.

"Dao? Qiandao? (Note: Dao (島)= island, Qian (千) = thousand)" Mei-jun corrected me indignantly, "It was once all shan (山 = mountains), it's Qianshan, not Qiandao." Of course, after the area was flooded, old cities sunk into the newly-formed lake's watery depths and the tops of the mountains reemerged as islands. Qiandao Lake was once Qianshan Town, and Mei-jun never truly believed that 50 years of "滄海桑田 (lit. blue seas where there was once mulberry fields)" could literally happen.

"This time when I go home, I absolutely need to find my father's grave," Mei-jun asserted. "After the dam was built, his grave must have been washed away... carried to where though? For so many years I've dreamt of him. He climbed out of his grave, his face green just like the color of seaweed. He would say, 'My daughter... I am cold. You must find a way to help and move me...'"

The extended family, sitting in a circle, suddenly fell silent. I surveyed at everyone's expressions... our reticence felt complex. We were all startled to hear Mei-jun's superstitious visions, yet no one wanted to hurt an old woman's feelings.

"The lake's very big, there's one thousand islands," they said hesitantly, "we only have a general idea as to where the grave is, so it may be difficult..."

"We can try." Mei-jun insisted.

One relative suggested, "We could make some long-distance sacrifices so long as we face that direction when we make our offerings. Wouldn't that also work, Big Sister?"

I looked at Mei-jun and found that she was looking right back at me. Ah, I knew that this stalwart woman was up for a fight.

"I've been making distant offerings from Taiwan for 50 years." Mei-jun paused briefly, her face showing unmistakable displeasure. Then suddenly a verbal barrage, "I've already been praying for 50 years, so after trekking a thousand miles to personally come to Chun'an, do you really think I'd settle for more long-distance offerings?" Everyone fell silent once again.

"... After the time a boat caught on fire," a relative painfully tried to explain, "boat rentals have been closely regulated."

"I am a daughter of Chun'an," Mei-jun had determination frozen on her face, "finding my father's grave is heaven's law and earth's principle."

The second day, we finally found a motorized boat and hired a boatman familiar with the waters. The boatman still remembered the lake's old terrain as if he had a hidden navigation system, seeing straight through a watery subterranean, reverting each island to its original mountain state, recognizing where each mountain originally stood next to one another.

The boat shuttled to and fro over an area of 600 square kilometers, flitting from one island to another, leaving a trail of smoke and waves extending into the distance. Qiandao Lake looked pure and clean as if it were untouched in its actual natural state, but the our eyes saw mountains were they were now none, land where there was now water. Those countless desolate islands towering over the water surface were not originally islands and were not originally desolate. They were once mountains that my mother in her younger days once climbed, picnicked on before. Below the water's surface were fields and fields of fruit groves where my mother once accompanied her parents to collect rent. This piece of unadulterated wilderness used to be rich fields of irrigated abundance. Above the water surface was the vestige of land, neglected after the flood. Submerged was once thousands of unbroken years of flourishing culture.

We looked like tourists. But we were not tourists.

The surf splashed and foamed around us, the water droplets that landed on our hands felt moist and cool. There is Monkey Island. It has a lot of monkeys, do you want to check it out? No thanks. There is Snake Island. It has a lot of snakes, do you want to take a peek? No thanks.

We only wanted to see one particular island. We were searching for one island amongst thousands.

The boat coughed and puttered as it decelerated -- the boatman reckoned that we were close. Relatives stood up attentively in twos and threes on the bow of the ship to survey the water. In front of us was a small nondescript island... Mei-jun's cousin furrowed her brow and stared ahead thoughtfully, hesitating for a moment before declaring, "Here," pointing to that little island, "it's right here."

That small island that she pointed to, overrun with weeds with a ring of patchy yellow dirt along its perimeter, was not even bigger than a rooftop. We hopped onto the muddy beach. The same cousin reminisced and recounted, "Back in the day, this is where we buried 小表哥 [small older male cousin]. We thought that we had moved his grave to a high enough point of elevation, but never would we have thought..."

No one in their wildest dreams thought that the flood could actually submerge an entire mountain, leaving only its very tip. Mei-jun turned her attention towards two pieces of broken brick soaked in the water, sitting tangential where the waves lapped over the yellow dirt beach. The wind howled around us with such force that we could barely keep our eyes open. Mei-jun's white hair flew upwards towards the sky as I supported and held her tightly. The wind's roar filled our ears, but there was also Mei-jun's feeble broken voice,"... Father -- I'm here, I knew. You clearly told me that you were very cold..."

The lake's waves trapped tumbling seaweed, softly pounding the bricks that disappeared with every curl. Those bricks were soaked for a very long time, their surface already covered with moss. An incense was lit, its pure white smoke twisting like a soft boneless animal, carrying prayers with the wind to an unknown place between the water and sky.

We left Chun'an via a mountain route heading towards Jiande. That year, people with private boats were arrested and inspected for carrying non-government salt cargo. Small vehicles jounced on the stone-paved road, clambering up a steep slope and then spiraling down in tight circles. The cars kicked up clouds of dust, covering the nearby trees with a layer of white grit. However, the light reflected off Qiandao Lake glimmered and sparkled unceasingly. Perhaps she was tired, but Mei-jun said scarcely a word on the way back. I shook her, "Hey look, this is Xin'an River's water, look how clear it is!"

She gazed out the window and leaned her head wearily on the glass, quietly asking, "Is it?"

I reached out my hand and put my arm around her frail thin shoulders.

[Translator's Note: I felt like Mei-jun's last comment was very loaded. "Is it?" What exactly is she referring to? Whether that is in fact the Xin'an River? Whether the water was clear? Or does it simply mean that she's lost her connection to her past? This is one of the reasons why many Chinese read this book and feel deep irreconcilable sorrow. Mei-jun's story here is not unique in that sense.]


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