Tuesday, April 26, 2011


[Beijing, Nineteen Eighties]

We pass by the famous Drum Tower on the corner and the wonton restaurant on its right on the way home.  Me wanting to linger and savor the aroma of wontons fat with meat stuffings and broth dripping with flavor and spices; mom pulling and coaxing me away before even a word of this request can form around my lips.

Down the street is the lone corner grocery store wherein we find our weekly provisions, a strip of pork so thin it promises transparency, bowls of pickles and soybean pastes and mountains of cabbages.  There is a whole candy and cake section consisting of three whole variety of sweets, which I visit, inhale and admire at every chance but isn't privy to their actual taste until much later in life.  

It draws me in still, the very existence of that section nearly cancels out the terror of having to walk by the lady standing behind the counter on the opposite side with a sizable meat shaving cleaver and an even more sizable scowl, both permanently affixed to even the shadow of her shape I'd glimpse out of the corner of my eye.  

The sauce counter, directly facing the door, with sweets on its left and the meat counter on its right, also draws me in like what a magnet does to a lost needle.  The heavenly aroma of soy, aged vinegar and fried soybean paste triggers a raw response in me, allowing me to dream about noodles with soy sauce, lunch without any threats of greens, and the comfortable familiarity of what you've always known, like the daily chat with an old friend. I'd also dream of volunteering for sauce fetching duty when I grow up, and just like Luo I'd be able to pocket any loose changes from the trip into my own savings envelop.

But there is no time for any of that this morning.  Everyone is heading to work so we rush home to find that dad has just got up so I sit down and read a story while he is getting ready. I read by myself as I know mom will purse her lips without being able to fully hide the smile that is adding a beautiful set of curves to her eyes and she will whisper something about me to dad real quiet but I can still just make out my name.  Dad's mouth will momentarily go from down turned corners to upturned ones, with parenthesis lines around it like adding emphasis.  He is almost as tall as the tower, with broad shoulders and arms that lifts me up so quickly it feels like flying.  His eyes always look clear and happy when it holds my reflections, even when life is too heavy and the weight is wearing on the down turned corners of his mouth.  

The stove buzzes a little when dad lifts up the cover for cooking and flames come through the holes in the coals stacked up inside.  They call it the bee hive coal, as that's what it looks like.  I don't ever see any bees confusing it for a hive though which is a good thing. 

Later on, mom is to sneak out quietly without saying goodbye.  I cry when I find out but without an audience I stop quickly.  Dad is to take me to the garden of children riding on the cross bar of his bicycle before going to work himself.  He wraps me into a cave of cotton and body heat when he reaches the handle bars riding away.  I would cry again at the sight of him leaving, siting by myself on the frozen playground of the garden.  At night, I wouldn't sleep but I'd stand on the bed looking outside, waiting for every shadow to materialize as mom, and every sound to turn out to be dad's, coming to pick me up and take me home.  I don't understand why they always wait until the last day of the week to come by, in fact I don't understand the difference as every goodbye seems like it is forever, and every reunion gives me hope that I will never have to return again.  The moments in between are spent waiting, dreaming about all the corners of my world back home and occasionally responding to commands, both the ones dad left me or the ones the teachers have just issued.   On Friday, right after lunch, after I am told I must finish all the boiled cabbages in my bowl or my parents won't be coming so I'd stuff them in my mouth to show a clean bowl, tears streaming from the stiff ridges of the vegetable pressing against my throat.  That is how dad would find me, week after week, chipmunk cheeked, wordless and watery eyed until I outgrew the age of the garden of children. 


  1. This is a sad one...and so beautiful at the same time. While I was reading, I noticed you are great with metaphors and similes. Your descriptions allowed me to picture it all so well.

    I love these lines:
    "He is almost as tall as the tower, with broad shoulders and arms that lifts me up so quickly it feels like flying."

  2. thank you Jade. There is a tinge of sadness in these memories but much joy too at the same time. I suppose life is like that.

  3. Awesome post!

    When reading this, something touched a distant memory in my childhood when my mom was in the hospital and my dad took care of me. I don't remember my mom saying goodbye before she left. She was just gone one day. I remember waiting and waiting for her to come home. They (my older sibs and dad) wouldn’t tell me where she was. They would just say that she would be home soon. Soon? How long was soon???

    I think she was gone two weeks with a surgery. I remember the pain of that separation even though I was only about 5 or 6 years old. No one explained it to me. The waiting with no explanation was very difficult. Maybe that’s why I remember it so vividly…I was scared.

    She did come home and everything went back to normal.

    Strange how your post triggered that memory.

  4. Beautiful. I caught a hint of sadness in this lovely story but I'm sure it's a good memory.
    I love all the little detailes you described especially the part about the grocery store. Well done :)

  5. Loree - that explains the feeling I remember really well. I feel a connection from your memory and shared emotions, so glad you mentioned it.

    Starlight - thanks. I did enjoy writing about that grocery store immensely. It was a cornerstone of my childhood for sure.

  6. Such beautiful and captivating writing. I felt really moved by your last post and also by this one. You capture snapshots of childhood so brilliantly.

  7. Thank you Happy Frog. I've been moved by all your encouraging comments.

  8. You are just so good. I love your writing.

  9. Wow.
    From the scents and flavours which made me salivate, to the tear in the corner of my eye for the little girl missing her mum and dad.
    I loved every moment of this story.

    I'm sure mum and dad missed you just as much as you did them.

  10. Thanks for transporting me to your childhood world, Tianyu; what a pleasure it was to visit! I especially loved the description of the grocery store, and this line: "It draws me in still, the very existence of that section nearly cancels out the terror of having to walk by the lady standing behind the counter on the opposite side with a sizable meat shaving cleaver and an even more sizable scowl[.}" Great writing, girl! :)

  11. Amazing detail - all those smells, tastes and feelings you describe. Really lovely writing Shopgirl.

  12. This was wonderful. I loved your recollection of reading by yourself to see your parents pride in thier subtle smiles.

    This piece was so full of senses, temptations and aches. You have your readers standing the corner of each room, wishing to be a part of the sweet, sad story.

  13. And now I sit here in near tears. The 'garden of the children' could be the title of this memoir or fiction piece (?) and it feels to me like you only touched the surface of this abandonment.

    Not to say that you (or this child) was abandoned, but certainly through a child's eyes that is how it felt. The threat from the adult that everything in the bowl must be eaten only magnified the feeling.

    And of course, that makes the funny line, "lunch without any threats of greens", poignant.

    Lovely writing. Thank you!

  14. Becky - thank you.

    Judge - they really did. What I have here is a limited perspective. It's wonderful to have you visit and encourage me.

    Jolina - The grocery store is as real as it can be. I miss it dearly - even and esp the lady with the giant cleaver.

    SFW - I struggle with describing smell so appreciate the feedback and encouragements.

  15. lladybug - that is a very touching, balanced and sincere comment, coming from a true and wonderful writer I can tell. It made me smile.

    PAMO - your reaction really touched me. It was painful thinking about writing this during the process; but now that it is done and out there, I can look it at it from a little distance and see the bigger picture behind it. I hope to continue convey that in words on paper.

  16. Standing on the bed looking outside. Having chipmunk cheeks full of cabbage. This is often the way children remember things. You remember what you were doing, how things smelled or tasted. And time can be confusing. Excellent post. Excellent!

  17. That is a wonderfully observant and thoughtful comment Barbra! You got the confusion part right. :)

  18. I think you did great job on this.
    where did you get these old picture of the old place!

    It is a story a years ago, but it seems lik happend yesterday!

    We will learn from it and imprve our life.




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