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.

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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.

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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.

Dew Drops

The Boy with the Fish


The moment I saw a picture of him when he was three, I decided he was going to father my future children.  He was holding a fish and examining the little creature so intently like a scientist over a microscope on the edge of discovering a new organism. He was glued to the deck staring at the fish, with his lips pursed forward, and everything else around him had fallen into oblivion.   There was only the intensity of his curiosity for the fish in his little hand.

We had dated unexpectedly for a couple of weeks before we parted ways to our respective countries after graduation.  It was supposed to be a quick romance squeezed in between packing and departure.  But when he pulled me out of the dance floor at the graduation ball, put his arms around my back and stared into the back of my eyes to say “I don’t want to go back to the party; I just want to be with you”, I knew things had gone out of track.  I glimpsed the intensity in his eyes.

So we broke the agreement and let ourselves get in touch after the departure.  He even persuaded me to pay him a visit. “Just once,” he said.  And alas, I saw that picture of him with the fish and that intensity in his blood, and I accepted his marriage proposal with a key ring right on the spot.

He started his own business.  Everyday and every night, he did the business, talked about it, dreamed it, breathed it, and became it.  He dreams big and lives in the sky and I keep my feet on the ground for both of us, I told myself.  I lived his intensity in creating his enterprise and maintained steady through that roller coast ride.

He has been struggling with anger since the collapse of his business.  He has been fighting with demons.  The anger occupies every cell of his brain and even seems to have gone into his hair since he let it grow.  It beats the gravity and grows up towards the sky.  It has exploded into a gigantic atomic mushroom sitting atop of his head.  Like his hair, he is desperate to rise to his space in the sky.

He started to play tennis.  He plays with pros; he plays with aficionados; he plays with the walls.  He got everybody in the family playing it too and soon our daughter was competing in provincial school tournaments.  When he is not playing, he is watching world tennis champions playing on video, in slow motion sometimes to study their movements.  When I see him watching tennis, I see the boy observing the fish.  Sometimes he comes home fuming with frustration when he couldn’t steer his mind to play a good game.  He has not found his sky yet.

We woke up on a Sunday morning and were contemplating the tree branches outside our window for a few quiet minutes.  I asked him: “Suppose there was an apocalypse and you wake up in a totally strange place to start a new life, what would you do as the very first thing?” I was expecting something like checking out what place this was and who lived there.  But he immediately said: “Get up and look for a tennis court!”  A wave of relief and hope washed over me.  The boy is still with his fish and his dreaming intensity.  I can almost see him sailing through the blue sky.


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A Good Deal to Marry a Butcher

I grew up in China in the seventies. My family ate meat on Sundays. The butcher’s big stump of cutting board was in the back of the market after you walked through little piles of dirty potatoes covered with soil and bok choy with leaves perforated by worms. There was always a line-up in front of the butcher, who was hacking a pork with his heavy knife. You just gave the butcher your ration coupon, and he knew how many grams of meat to cut for you. If you were lucky, you arrived at the time when the butcher reached a pork’s leg. If you were not lucky, you got in front when the butcher was dispensing a pork belly. There was no privilege to pick which part of the pig you wanted. The butcher tried his best to ensure that all buyers took home a mix of skin, fat and lean meat. However, a slight angling of the knife when cutting the meat could make a big difference in how much lean meat you got.

My father used to say: “It would be a good deal to marry our daughter to a butcher, so the family can always eat good meat. “

We ate chicken once a year. My mother would buy a live hen weeks before the Chinese New Year to make sure we had a chicken for the festivity. My father would circle ropes around the legs of our little table in the kitchen to make a chicken coop underneath it. It was the children’s job to feed the hen and fatten it before the slaughter. The kitchen would smell of chicken droppings before the New Year.

On the New Year’s Eve, my mother would boil a big pot of water, sharpen the knife, grab the hen’s wings and neck with one hand and slid the sharp knife through its neck with her other hand. She would hold the hen upside down to drain its blood in a bowl, tuck its head under its wing and let it cool down in a corner.   Sometimes the corpse still twitched a little. Then Mom would throw the chicken in the hot water and start plucking the feather. The big feathers were easy to pull out. The fine hair all over the body was a piece of work. My mother would give me a pair of tweezers and I would have to spend an hour or two before seeing the skin smooth and hairless. Then my mother would cut the chicken open. All insides of the chicken were edible and to be made into different dishes after much washing, chopping and salting. My mother let me pick the best feathers to make shuttlecocks to play with.

Years later, I left China to study abroad. The first time I walked into a supermarket, I was mesmerized by the abundance, the variety, the impeccably organized display and the gleaming cleanliness. That night I wrote to my parents: “Mom, you won’t believe me. Here you don’t have to kill a chicken and gut it! Everything has been done for you. Even more, you can just buy chicken breast or thighs! And pork meat! You can just buy pork chops, four or six of them, all lean and cut the same size, packed up neatly in a box, ready for the frying pan! Oh Mom, I wish you were here to see it! And Dad, I don’t have to marry a butcher to eat good meat!”