Dew Drops

Aches and Pains

One day, my Tai Chi Master walked into the class and asked everybody in an agitated voice: “Do you know what is pain?”  The Master told us that a woman jumped from a sixth-floor balcony at an old age home where he taught classes, because she could no longer endure the lower back pain that she suffered for years despite all her visits to doctors and physiotherapists.  He then said: “Don’t give up without trying! Teresa had knee pains and could hardly walk when she started Tai Chi! Wei had a frozen shoulder when he showed up in this class! Look at them now!”  I realized he was in a kind of pain because he felt that if only that woman had joined his classes, he could have saved her life. And he was teaching a class including the husband of the victim at that senior home.

Which reminds me how I seem to have lived with aches and pains most of my life.  Frequent migraine headaches at the beginning of my career. I relied on pain medicine and a strong will to fight the pain so that it would not disrupt my work during the week. As soon as weekend arrived, the pain took its revenge and I toiled in bed and darkness.

After child-bearing, my knees started to ache.  At some point followed my hips; then menstrual pains in the womb. Nothing worrisome, doctors say; normal wear-and-tear that commonly happens to women after giving a few births.  They shrug off these common ills by saying: “If and when it gets too bad, you come in and we replace your hip (or your knee).”  It has to get worse before it can be fixed (if you can call that a fix). Meanwhile, take some pain killers when you need to (never mind the declining results and side effects of the pills).

However, I did get lucky during a visit to a Chinese doctor named Vickie who enlightened me about aches and pains. She listened to my complaints about the ailments with a knowing smile. She fed me a bitter sweet potion. She inserted acupuncture needles in places as far from my pain spots as possible, such as my feet or earlobes. Then, in her quiet voice, almost like a whisper, she imparted to me a nugget of wisdom: “You know, pain is your friend, not your enemy. It comes because it is taking care of your body. You don’t fight your friend; you open your door to a friend.”

I stopped fighting. I decided to be very economical with medication to save some dry powder for my old age. I started to receive pain in its full force and length without analgesic aid. I became an attentive audience for my friend.  I learned to accept and be patient. And even in the most painful moments, I don’t feel helpless or lonely, because my friend has come to help me; I am not alone in fighting my real enemies.

Dew Drops

The Day I Peed My Pants

When I started school in grade one, I was three years younger than other kids in the class.  I began earlier because my cousin reached school age. I would not have it that she got all those new pencils in that shiny pencil case while I would be left home with the same old toys.  I threw a tantrum.  My matriarch grandmother ordered my uncle, who happened to be the principal of the school, to break the age rule and let me sit in the back of the same classroom as my cousin.

On the first day of school, I carried across my shoulder my new school bag that my big aunt had sewn for me.  She even embroidered a flying seagull on it.  I wore a pretty necklace that my younger aunt knitted with colourful plastic strings.  At the bottom of the necklace hang a little pocket as a pendant knitted with the same plastic strings and it held a boiled egg in it. That was my school snack that my Granny had prepared. I carried a bamboo mat on my back, like people carrying a yoga mat today. My uncle had weaved that mat.  All students brought a mat to lay it down on the floor of the classroom after lunch time and have a nap.

During the class, I played with my new toys: brand new pencils, a pencil sharpener and a fragrant eraser.  I got a metal pencil case with interesting pictures on it.  On the left there was a portrait of Chairman Mao wearing an army hat with a red star on it.  Golden rays beamed from his head as if he was the sun.   On the right there painted three happy people shoulder to shoulder: A worker holding up a hammer, a farmer with a scythe and a soldier with a rifle.

When the recess bell rang, kids ran to the big water jars outside the classrooms. They were made of thick ceramic and were as tall as half a kid. Kids took turns to scoop water with ladles made of bamboo and drink from them. Then we went to play balls and jump ropes in the schoolyard.

I asked for the washroom. Somebody pointed to a hut on the far side of the schoolyard.  I ran over and entered.  There were two rows of wooden seats on each side, one taller than the other.  Actually, it was a long wooden bench against each of the two walls, with several round holes on the bench spaced between them, each hole the size of a pair of buttocks.  Underneath the bench was one large pool of human waste.  The pool was dug down below the ground and there was perhaps a meter or two between the surface of the pool and the bench seats. You could hear the splashes of the droppings; you could see brown floats in the yellow liquid if you looked down the hole.

At my age, I was still using an enamel potty at home, while adults used a wooden bucket placed inside a beautifully carved and painted wooden box as a toilet. I had not used an outhouse. Desperate by the urge of my pee, I tried to sit on one of the holes on the lower bench, but I glimpsed a white maggot climbing up the wall. I jumped away and tried the other bench, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach it with my bum.  I stood in the middle and bent over to hold back my urge. As the loud bell rang calling kids back to classrooms, it felt as if somebody pulled a cord and a hot stream rushed down my legs.  One of the kids ran out of the washroom to the schoolyard yelling: “Teacher! Teacher! She peed her pants!”

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My English Teacher

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Mr. Huigen Chen taught me English in my high school.  He was the best English teacher in the whole city of Hangzhou and perhaps beyond.  People came from other districts of the city to enrol in my school so they could attend his classes.  Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was one of them and he was admitted afterwards to the English Faculty of Hangzhou Normal University.

Teacher Chen was energetic and passionate.  He had a disability; his right arm and hand stopped growing when he was a child, and only his left arm was functional.  What lacked from his right arm seemed to have gifted his left arm with double strength and ability.  He wrote on the blackboard with such vigor that I can still hear the squeaking of his white chalks in my mind as I remember him today.  His body, along with his left arm, moved with rhythm and impetus as English sentences poured out of his white chalk.  He always came into the classroom in a fresh navy-blue Mao-style blazer and left with his left sleeve covered in white chalk powder. When he wanted to emphasize certain words in his talks, he would throw the chalk in his hand to the floor with a powerful punch, as if drawing a huge exclamation mark in front of us.

When he himself was in high school, my father was his home-room teacher.  My Dad told me that he could type with one hand twice as fast as others with two hands. He excelled in everything he did, academics or sports, and became a student leader. He always believed that excellence should be acknowledged and rewarded.  In 1998, he was awarded the honour of “Extraordinary Teacher” in the province.

To his students who excelled in his class, Teacher Chen publicly and generously gave recognition in his way. If you gave him the right answer to a difficult question or exceeded his expectation in a test, he would squint his eyes and stare at you with a proud smile, like a father witnessing the first step of his baby, for a long lapse of time, much longer than a usual pause, so that everybody in the class would be captured and held in suspense while he savoured and shared his moment of happiness.  As the student receiving that expression of praise, you would beam or even melt away under such an intense gaze of fatherly love.

On some Sundays, he would invite a handful of his best students to his home to help him review the tests and exams of other students.  He would ask his wife to make dumplings for everybody and, with great content, he would watch his favourite pupils eat and work.  He fed himself on his students’ achievements.

Imagine the happiness that Jack Ma would have given to Teacher Chen with his accomplishments in creating the biggest digital commerce enterprise in the world!  Unfortunately, Teacher Chen died of cancer before he could watch Alibaba grow with his fatherly proud smile.

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The First Rose in 2018

I contracted a throat infection on the New Year’s Eve and woke up voiceless on the first day of 2018.  The infection quickly spread into my bronchial tubes.  I started to cough ferociously, day and night, shaking up every corner of my insides and draining every bit of energy. The violent coughs kept me awake all night, so I closed myself in a separate bedroom in the house to mitigate my gut-wrenching noises.  I picked up Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose that had been lying on my bedside table for a while and read it between my cough fits.  It seemed fitting to follow Brother William of Baskerville in his midnight wanderings in the eerie labyrinth of the mountain-top abbey in the Middle Ages’ northern Italy and his confrontation with the devil who concealed knowledge, while I was fighting my own battle with the demon of sickness during the lonely wee hours.

The coughs blazed through my chest and throat like a fire ball leaving a trail of flames and charcoal behind.  My forehead was drenched in sweat and my stomach was twisted in a tight knot after each cough attack.  The hacks seem to want to eject the bottom of my stomach right out of my throat, like turning a knapsack inside out.  The fierceness with which my body defended its airway against mucus invasion resembled the diabolical determination with which the evil character in the story guarded philosophy from intellectually curious monks.

Sometimes I couldn’t cough into my elbows because my hands had to press down my stomach to ease the abdomen muscle strain. Then I saw some tiny wet dots on the page of my book. I wondered whether the book would become venomous when somebody opened it centuries later. I also envisioned that the demon of cough would hide between the pages for a hundred years and leap out when those pages are opened again by some curious hands.

For ten days, I coughed my guts out and poured my soul into Umberto Eco’s philosophical novel. When I finally stopped coughing and slept through the night, I had long naps in the ensuing three afternoons. On the thirteenth day of the new year I emerged at last from my ecpyrosis; my body battered by the fiery sickness but my soul nourished by Umberto Eco’s intellect. I found the outdoor air so refreshing that I inhaled it deeply and imagined “red rose growing in the meadow” of my chest.  2018 promises to be a year of regrowth.

Dew Drops

The Fire Dragon in my Chest

I am exhausted, but I dread going to bed, because the fire dragon in my chest attacks when I lie down.

When my eyes start to sting to tell me they really need to shut down their eyelids, I finally put aside my book, pull out the extra pillows behind my back, turn off the bedside light and lie my head on the pillow. It feels so good to lie flat and I start to slip into my dream. However, this is when the fire dragon comes.

I feel a little fireball igniting at the bottom of my stomach. First, it gives me a little itch as the fireball gets ready to roll up. Quickly it gathers momentum and shoots upward through my chest with an unstoppable force. It makes me spring up from my pillow to let it explode out of my throat with a thunder, leaving a burning trail behind, like the tail of a comet blazing through the dark sky. The force of explosion is so strong that it seems to drag the bottom of my stomach with it pulling my inside out of my throat.  As if to make this inside-out job more thorough, the first explosion is followed by several explosions, one after another, each more violent than the previous one, until I bend over with both my hands pressing down on my abdomen trying to sooth the muscles strained by these sudden outbursts.

I am left with a charcoaled trail in my chest. The fire dragon has charged through the tranquil field of my chest, burned black where it touched, leaving red flames still flickering and licking like the tongues of snakes. The dragon’s sharp claws raked through my throat leaving a wave of piercing pain.

I remember to breath, but the fresh air into my chest ignites the embers and I have to let out a few more fiery eruptions depleting the last bit of energy left in my body. My forehead is sweaty; my eyes are teary; my stomach is twisted into a tight knot; and I am utterly consumed.

This is how my body defends its airway against any potential obstruction from bronchitis mucus.