By Brian Lung
Brian Lung’s personal memoir about visiting his cousins in rural China was written for English 2100 and nominated by Professor Sarah Moon. Moon writes that Lung’s essay offers “an excellent example of using a specific, personal experience to illustrate a common, human issue and its resolution. His memoir shows us how life experiences of effective cooperation and self-sufficiency help dispel the self-pity we fall into when we consider the dearth of material wealth in our lives.”
My first real trip to rural China gave me a firsthand experience of living the life of a “normal” 12-year-old boy halfway around the world. The month-long journey forced me to lose sight of all of my American privileges as a city boy and adopt new customary techniques in order to properly assimilate in this village called home. My “vacation” in China revealed to me the true meaning of being spoiled. Most importantly, life as a typical villager taught me the significance of embracing everything I possessed.
It was a Saturday afternoon and my Mandarin tutor had just left my house. The minute I heard that door shut, I immediately lost my proper schoolboy composure and slouched onto the couch where I would lie for the remainder of my day. I quickly turned on the TV screen and flipped the remote to channel 20. Halfway into the show I shouted to Ma, “Hey Ma! Look at this one! She’s just spent $10,000 on a dress that has less fabric than a bikini.” As if that weren’t enough, her entire party had cost more than a half-million dollars. What in the world was she thinking? Ma was chopping onions in the kitchen while I was watching MTV’s My Sweet 16. The spoiled princess of the week was Tiara. I watched Tiara buy half of Gucci’s entire clothing line. She continued to point at bags, shoes and dresses with her index finger as if she were using a spear to desperately kill a mammoth. Every time she gouged at one of her victims, I felt more inclined to knock some sense into her.
In the kitchen, Ma had just finished slicing half of the onions. Deciding to take a break from the tear-drenching activity, she sat on the couch and skeptically watched Tiara carry her lifetime supply of attire to the counter.
“Is she crazy? She knows she’s not even going to wear half of those clothes. Her parents must be bankrupt. So stupid!”
The one thing I never understood about my mother was her motive to speak English inside the house when we were perfectly capable of speaking Chinese. As Ma gradually grew angrier, her English soon evolved into Chinglish. Every time she stumbled across an English word she couldn’t quite pronounce, she used a Chinese word in its place.
“Ma, you are so lucky I’m not like that,” I said as she continued to stare at the TV.
“Yeah, for now.”
Ma walked back into the kitchen and started chopping away. I knew I was never going to be one of those teenagers. They were obnoxious, spoiled and ungrateful, three traits that I knew I would never possess.
A week later, my father, mother, sister and I gathered around the dining table for dinner just like every other night. Halfway through dinner, mother decided that it was the perfect night to make me choke on my food.
“We’re going to China next month,” she announced.
It was a pretty funny joke. I wouldn’t expect such a sense of humor from my parents—only they weren’t kidding.
“Are we going to Hong Kong? Can I buy a pet bunny with Gaw Gaw?”
It occurred to me that it had been eight years since I last went to China. Being that the only time I went to China was when I was four, I clearly had no recollection of what it was like there. Mother laughed and looked at father to clarify why we were going halfway around the world for a month.
“We’re visiting your mother’s family back in Shenzhen. You remember them right?”
Did they really expect me to be able to recall any memories I had there? I had no idea where Shenzhen was. Perhaps it was a province in Hong Kong, or Shanghai, or some other bustling city where I could buy an iPod for ten American dollars!
“No, no, and no. It’s a province in Gui Dong, a local farming village,” replied my father.
I understood why Ma was going to China. She had not seen her parents in eight years. But why did I have to go? Why couldn’t I just send over some photos or talk on the phone with them? After losing my appetite, I told myself it would only be a month. If I could handle living there when I was four, I could certainly handle living there now. Besides, modernization was a powerful force. There was practically no place on Earth that did not have a computer or television set. I was not going to whine about this trip to Ma and Ba like Tiara would. I had nothing to be scared of.
A month and an airplane ride later, I was in China. I was surprised by the view. Cars roamed the streets with streetlights everywhere. Benches and restaurants were occupied with kids and teenagers. The noise and crowdedness of this place made me feel right at home.
“Too bad we’re not in Shenzhen yet, son. This is only Hong Kong,” Ba said.
My jaw dropped nearly as fast as my heart. Our uncle waited outside of the airport. Staring at the skinny, narrow-shouldered man who I came to know as my uncle, I introduced myself and soon realized I spoke in English. He stared at me for a second, bewildered, then laughed hysterically with Ma. As I failed miserably to conceal my embarrassment, I could hear the voices inside my head shouting, “Great job on representing your fellow Americans, Brian!” As we started the drive to Shenzhen, I peeked out the window. The urban foreground of subway stations, taxis, and earthy trees soon disappeared into the background. Ahead of me now were rice fields, farmers riding cattle, stray dogs and muddy roads.
As we got out of the car, a sudden rush of humidity hit me and the heat wave instantly distorted my sight. We walked for ten minutes until I asked everyone if we could halt to take a break. The heat made me feel like I had just hiked a mountain with no oxygen to spare. My uncle laughed again and told my mother to tell me that he trekked these roads two hours a day and a young man like me should have no trouble in these conditions. When we finally arrived at my grandmother’s “house,” she came out to greet us. She and Ma were crying after reuniting for the first time in eight years. I would have cried, too, but my sweat had already used up all the liquid within me.
Then all of a sudden, three little children crept down the stairs. My grandmother introduced me to Hui Miao, an adorable girl about nine years old who waved at me. Her eyes and cheeks were big while the rest of her body was tan and skinny. Next in line was Hui Hong, an even skinnier boy who looked like he was eight but was actually eleven years old. He weighed no more than sixty pounds and his two front teeth were missing. Lastly, there was Hui Pi, the oldest of the three. She was sixteen, and slightly chubbier than the other two. She wore thick-rimmed glasses (with duct tape holding the cracked center together), and showed off her dimples when she smiled. All three looked very excited to see us.
For the next month I stayed at my grandmother’s home. It was a dingy old cabin that was made entirely of wood. My room was shared by five people: my three cousins, my sister and me. There was only one bed, which was nothing but a plank of wood. The worst part of our house was the outhouse. Instead of a white porcelain toilet, everyone had to use a large red plastic bucket fixed beneath the ground. A larger bucket was used for bathing. Apart from the house, my grandparents owned a barn where they kept the livestock. The roofless structure was filled with roaming ducks, chicken, and pigs.
From the beginning, this “vacation” felt like an ordeal. My first night in Shenzhen was arduous. My cousins and I spoke different dialects of Chinese, so it was difficult to communicate with them. However, our problems were solved when we later discovered that all of us spoke Mandarin. The same night, they taught me how to play Chinese Poker. It was a fascinating game and we played it the entire night in our room. But what was most fascinating was when I took out my camera. “Oohs” and “Ahhs” quickly filled the room when they viewed random photos of squirrels, flowers and skyscrapers. I was in shock when Hui Pi told me she’d never seen a camera. Had she never taken a picture of herself? What about baby pictures and birthdays? All three excitedly interviewed me like paparazzi, asking me about the “myths and legends” heard about America. “Does it snow there? They really have a machine that blows cool air? What’s Instant Messaging? You eat beef everyday?” For hours, we stayed up exchanging questions and answers back and forth, fascinated by the answers.
The next morning, Hui Miao woke me up at six. Waking up was almost as painful as the sleeping had been. I woke up with mosquito bites all over my arms. My biggest regret was not buying bug repellent in the city when I had the chance. My first experience using the bucket in the outhouse was nothing but trouble. And as if that weren’t enough, it was my honor to clean it that day. Hui Miao and I trekked five minutes from our house to the local stream to hand wash the clothes. When we arrived, Hui Hong and Hui Pi were already finished washing their portion and began walking home.
“Hurry up! We have to peel the onions!”
I suddenly realized they woke up as early as five in the morning to do their chores. “How often do you guys do this kind of thing?” I asked Hui Miao as I amateurishly imitated her as she brushed the clothes with water.
“Today is the easy work. Tomorrow we’ll really work.”
Curious, but not too curious, I decided not to ask any more questions. Upon returning home, my back ached from bending over to wash the clothes. My arms were now swollen with even more mosquito bites. Hui Hong and Hui Pi were spotless as if they grew immune to the mosquitoes. I guess it was the mosquitoes’ attempt to get the fat pompous American to leave.
“Hurry up and start peeling!” Hui Miao shouted as she hung up the wet clothes.
I followed the penetrating odor of the onions and found Hui Hong peeling away. It reminded me of mother peeling the onions, only there was one thing missing.
“Where’s the knife?” I asked Hui Hong.
The 11 year old snickered, “don’t be ridiculous. You use knives for meat, not vegetables.”
I guess I could make due with my hands. But five minutes into peeling, I started to cry when I saw the insides of my fingernails bleeding from picking the onion skin. Oddly enough, I quickly stopped crying when the youngster showed me his bloody fingertips and told me that it didn’t hurt him at all. It was two in the afternoon when I was pulled out of my nap by Hui Pi and brought to the rice fields. Uncle was wearing nothing but a straw hat and briefs. He had been piling endless hills of cow dung for hours with nothing but a rake and a shovel. Hui Pi, Hui Hong and Hui Miao nonchalantly entered the rice fields with their bare feet and bare hands and started to grab handfuls of cow manure to store in their straw basket to use as fertilizer.
“Come on! What are you waiting for?” Hui Pi shouted across the field as she waved her black hand towards me. I was incredibly hesitant about pursuing this chore, but then I thought to myself, “You’ve already cleaned the bucket of crap. Collecting a bucket of crap—it won’t be too much to ask for.” I knew I would never get the chance to be honored with such a luxurious activity, so I quickly dove into the mushy pit full of what I desperately imagined to be mud. After about an hour of manure collecting, my hands and feet reeked as I carried two full bags of cow dung on my back. I was physically and mentally worn out, but I was genuinely proud of myself when Hui Pi, Hui Hong and Hui Miao admitted that they were surprised to see me comply with this particular activity.
The last chore of the day was to make dinner. Being an American, I had always thought making dinner simply meant taking out the leftovers from the fridge and microwaving them. However, halfway around the world, making dinner meant holding a chicken by its feet while chopping its head off. For the next month, I got used to the heat and unbearable nights. My cousins and I established a close bond to the point that we didn’t even need to speak to tell the other what we wanted done. We continued to wash clothes before the sun rose, continued to collect cow manure in the rice fields, continued to peel onions with our calloused fingers, and continued to pick rice in the drenching sun. My cousins on the other hand had continued to eat the Hershey’s and Crunch bars that I had given to them, and never grew weary of taking pictures of everyone they had come across with my camera.
On the last day of my trip, my cousins and I decided to take a walk along the local pond where we skipped rocks for the past four weeks. It felt like I was wearing a coat of melancholy that grew heavier and heavier every time I thought of the laughs and anguish we went through.
“You guys should come to New York when you get the chance. There are movie theaters, ice cream trucks, air conditioners and malls. I’ll take you everywhere and anywhere you want,” I said, while trying to hold back the tears.
Hui Pi started to chuckle. Then the other two joined in. Hui Pi folded her arms back and lay on the ground and replied, “once Grandpa stops getting sick every week and we run out of things to do, then we’ll consider coming. Besides, we have stars, Chinese poker, and a pond here.”
Immediately, I dropped the rock I was going to skip. It hit me that my cousins didn’t need an iPod or a TV to live life at its fullest. They simply felt fortunate for having the opportunity to live under a roof with their family. At times when I thought that my life was unbearable, that I didn’t have anything to be spoiled about, I didn’t know the half of it. But after a month of working alongside Hui Miao, Hui Hong and Hui Pi, I had come to admire them for their tolerance and commitment. From my trip, I learned the true context of the words “spoiled” and “fortunate.”
“Home sweet home baby!” I shouted as I turned on the dust filled TV. The theme song of My Sweet 16 began playing over a montage of teenage girls pointing at dresses, handbags and shoes.
“They’ll learn,” I whispered to myself as I turned off the TV screen.
“Brian, where’s your camera?” Ma shouted from upstairs as she began unpacking the luggage.
“Sorry Ma! Must’ve left it back in China.”
Published December 14, 2014