July 31, 2017

舍得 (To Gain is to Give) —The Story of A Chinese Mother (Translation)

   [I was greatly moved by this story written by a Chinese writer, ZHAO Haining. I felt inspired to translate it into English. It's a story of an illiterate peasant mother who helped and transformed many lives with small acts of kindness and her willingness to give when she lived. At her funeral, the line of people who attended was so long that it queued from one end of the village to the other. She reminds me of the essence of my own mother.]

Ten years after my father died, under my half begging and half forcing, my mother finally agreed to come to Zhengzhou to live with me—her youngest daughter. That year, she was 70, and I was 40. As age shrank her skinny one-and-half-meter-tall body by a few centimeters, she looked even smaller. But her face still looked bright and clean with few visible weathering marks, and her hair was not completely gray, some black hair remained resilient among the gray.

We borrowed a car to pick her up from her old home in a village. She had long ago cleaned up the old house where she had lived for many decades, and packed her belongings. Among her luggage were two sacks of wheat flour, which she ground for us from the wheat she grew. This kind of flour had a fresh wheat smell. But that day, I decided not to take those two sacks of flour, because the trunk of our car was too small for too much stuff. But my mother insisted we take the wheat. “Must take it,” she said.

When she said so, I looked at her and suddenly realized something. I hinted my husband to take the sack to the back room. I ran my hands through the outside of the sack and sure enough, at the bottom of the sack, I felt a small hard pack in the soft flour. If my guess was right, that was the money that my mother wanted to give us.

Putting money in the food sacks was my mother’s secret for many years. Over a decade ago, when I just got married, we rented a small apartment in Zhengzhou. It was the most financially challenging time in our life. Back then, what I wanted the most was not a house, nor a promising job, but a wardrobe. That winter, my mother asked someone from the village to bring us half sack of rice. When my husband poured the rice into the rice bucket, he discovered the hidden 500 yuan and a note my father wrote: Buy Mei a wardrobe. When I got married, my mother had already given me the wardrobe money. When she found out that I had to use that wardrobe money on other things, she wanted to re-gift me that money. That night, holding in my hand that stack of 10 yuan bills from the rice sack, I cried. During those years, Mother saved money and put it in the food sacks to give it to me, and to my two older sisters. Even after we had married for many years, she continued to subsidize us. But how did she save that much money from growing food in our family fields of only several mu [which is less than an acre]? We had no idea. This time, even though she was coming with us, she still put money in the flour sack. To her, that was the safest place.

We brought the flour sacks with us. When I took out the money to give it back to Mother, she said the money was for her grandson Tongtong to buy a bicycle. Lately, our son really wanted a race bicycle. But because it was expensive, I didn’t buy it for him. Last time when we visited my mother, he might have mentioned it to her. So my mother remembered it. 2,000 yuan. It might be her income from the family fields for the whole year. Even we wouldn’t want to spend that much money, but my mother would just give so generously.

In my memory, my mother always gave, to us, to our relatives, to neighbors. She never hesitated to give love, to give material things, to lend money, or to offer labor.  Sometimes I just couldn’t figure out how a small peasant woman like her could be so generous. After she lived with us, every morning, she got up early to make breakfast: rice porridge, small buns, egg pancakes…. Every day the meal was different. When we got off work at noon, we no longer needed to rush to the market to buy things to cook, my mother did all the house chores. And two new pots of garlic sprouts appeared on our balcony. With my mother living with us, we had a sense of unspeakable ease at home.

Those two sacks of flour, one was poured into a bucket, and the other my husband left it on the balcony floor. Several days later, I found that sack was moved to a platform to dry. My husband couldn’t be this thoughtful. I asked my mother, and she said, “Ah, I put it there to dry so it won’t go bad.” That instantly upset me: That platform was over one meter high, that flour sack was about 30 to 35 kg, and Mother was less than 45 kg. How did she put the flour onto that platform? I raised my voice, “How did you do it? It’s so heavy. What if you hurt your back? What if the sack falls on you? What if something happens to you?” I shot her a series of questions, while she was just standing there in her apron, smiling, and waiting for my storm of anger to subside. Then she said softly,
“I’m fine now, right?”
“If you were not Okay, it would be too late!”
My temper continued until my mother promised that she would not do such heavy duty again.

One day, not too long after my mother moved in with us, she said to my husband, “Invite your [former] classmates and friends to come for lunch this Sunday. I’m here for almost a month, and still haven’t met any of them.” My husband went to college in this city, and it was true that he had many classmates living in the same city and maintained good friendships with them. They used to hang out at each other’s homes, but now they got used to gathering in restaurants. Such is city life, glamorous but indifferent. Very few still host guests at home, except for those who established very close relationships. So I explained for my husband, “Ma, they often gather in restaurants.” Mother shook her head, “Eating out can’t be as good as eating at home. Not only it’s expensive to eat out, but not very clean. Besides, how can we not host friends at home? Receiving them at home is more like a family.” My mother insisted my husband invite his friends to our home. We couldn’t dissuade her, so we agreed.

My husband called several of his closest friends who also came from the same hometown as his, and invited them to come over that weekend. That day, my mother was busy cooking in the kitchen all day. In the afternoon, when my husband’s friends came one by one with some token gifts, I brought to the table the dishes that my mother made. Those successful career men, almost dined out daily, were instantly enticed by the small dishes and the dim sums that my mother made. One of them couldn’t help picking up a veggie dumpling, and murmured that his favorite dish as a child was the dumpling that his mother made, but he hadn’t tasted it for many years. My mother put the entire plate in front of him, and said, “If you like them, eat more, and come here often. I’ll make them for all of you.” That man nodded, tears instantly reddened his eyes. His mother passed away many years ago and he hadn’t visited his hometown for a long time.

That evening, everyone drank only little alcohol but ate and talked a lot. What they talked about was not the usual subjects about businesses or work, or other social matters that they normally talked about at the restaurants. The seldom mentioned family matters slowly emerged in their conversation. They talked about their hometown, their parents…. It was such a long-lost family feel. After that, our home became a more popular gathering place than it had ever been before. Mother said this was good--as humans living in this world, it’s natural for us to connect with one another.

The third month since my mother moved in with us, one weekend afternoon, someone knocked on the door. It was the woman who lived across from our apartment. In her hands, she had a basin of washed big cherries. She said, a little blushed, the cherries were for my mother to taste. I was astonished. When we first moved here, we had a little conflict with her family due to a cable wiring issue during the remodeling of our apartment. We didn’t know each other well before that conflict; so after that, we became more estranged from each other. During the past three years, we didn’t interact with each other at all, even when we swept the small space in front of our doors, we swept only our side. Now she suddenly came to gift us fresh cherries. I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know what to say. She blushed and babbled, “Your mother’s homemade dim sums, our kid loves….” I suddenly realized that it was my mother. She didn’t know our two families had conflict. But I knew that even if she had known that, she would still have done that. To my mother, what made the most sense was that saying, “Remote relatives are not as important as nearby neighbors.” So she knocked on our neighbor’s door first, and gave them the dim sums she made, the wrapped sticky rice, the fresh garlic sprouts she grew.... With an open heart, she opened our neighbor’s door for us. Later, that woman and I became friends. Her kid often came to our house to play, following my mother around and calling her, “Granny! Granny!” as if we were one family.

Neighbors—not just those who lived across from us, but also those who lived in the front, the back, the left and the right in the same community—my mother took care of them all. She often talked with my husband’s coworkers’ parents in the park in our compound, and helped them take care of their grandson. Not only this, there were exchanges of small gifts. With joy, she often gifted the neighbors the local delicacies that she made. It was a habit that she had when she lived in the village. Though small delicacies were not significant in terms of money, they had a special flavor that was hard to buy anywhere else—a flavor that was enhanced by genuine human connections.

One time, when my mother heard one of my husband’s colleagues’ kid had leukemia, she asked us to support that family with some money. Because that colleague wasn’t that close to us, we only intended to do it as a mere gesture, but my mother absolutely disapproved of us. She said, in a human’s life, anyone could encounter challenges. If you were generous to help others, when you need help, others would be generous with you too. A kid with leukemia was a sky-high hardship for that family, and since we knew about it, we should do whatever we could to help. We listened and did what she said.

After my mother lived with us for half a year, my husband got an unexpected promotion. The votes for him were clearly much higher than for other candidates. My husband came home with a big smile, and he said it was because of my mother’s virtue that had won him so many votes. We then realized how much better that our relationships with others had become; better meant that our relationships now contained less superficial politeness and far more sincerity. Our illiterate mother, because of her generosity, brought into our life so many treasures in such a humble way. Those treasures were what we had been trying to gain but could never get. Rethink about what she said, if you were generous towards others, others would be generous towards you too. For her, a peasant woman, that was a simple truth; for us, it was such a profound teaching.

When the weather was good, I always wanted to take my mother out to go somewhere, but she always got carsick. Every time after a ride in a car or on a bus, she felt as if she suffered from a serious illness. So she often refused to go anywhere with me. That weekend, I wanted to take her to the zoo. Mother said she had never seen an elephant. The zoo was several bus stops away. Mother said, “Let’s walk there.” I disagreed. That distance was still a little too far for a 70-year-old to walk, but she absolutely didn’t want to take the bus. Then I had an idea. “Ma, let me get you there on my bike! Mother smiled. I pushed out the bike and carefully lifted her with one arm onto the crossbar between the seat and handlebars. My heart ached as I lifted her. She was so light, curling up in front of me like a little child.

We had to pass two intersections, one of which was right in the most bustling downtown area. I carefully biked to the intersection. It was red light. I got off the bike. Before I stood steady, a policeman came to me through the crowd and said, “Did you know it’s not allowed to have another person on your bike? And you even let her sit in the front.” After he finished, he lowered his head and began to write a ticket. Mother was taken back for a moment. She pulled my arm and wanted to get off the bike. I immediately repositioned her steady, and said sorry to the policeman, and explained that my mother was carsick and too old to take the bus, but I wanted to take her to the zoo….

The policeman paused for a moment, and then realized that the person I was taking on my bike was an old person. Before he spoke again, my mother criticized me for not telling her that it was not allowed to carry a person on a bike in the city. She insisted she get off. When I didn’t know what to do, that policeman reached out to hold my mother and said, “Auntie, sorry, I didn’t see you clearly earlier. The rule only applies to kids. Respectable you, please sit well.” Suddenly, he raised his hand and gave us a serious salute. Then he turned around to ask people in front of us to clear the way, and stopped the vehicles from all directions, then signaled us to cross the intersection. I, with my mother, slowly biked through that big intersection; all cars and pedestrians stopped, watching me proudly pedaling my mother forward.

That was the first time that I received such high respect. Because of my mother, because I gave her a tiny amount of love, a just-met policeman was moved to give me an exception with such respect. That solute was a gift from my mother.

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in the third year of living with us. After the result came out, the doctor, also a friend, said to us sincerely, “For your mother’s sake, don’t do the surgery. Let life decide.” This should not be coming from a doctor, but he was honest. After discussing it with my husband, we decided to listen to the doctor and take my mother home. And we decided to tell her the truth. Mother listened to us very calmly, and nodded after we finished. She said this was the right thing to do. Then she said she wanted to go back to her old home.

During the last phase of my mother’s life, I stayed by her side. Drugs were used for pain control only, but couldn’t stop the invasion of the cancer. Her body was rapidly weakened, and could no longer stand up. In good weather, I carried her out and gently put her on the recliner and sat with her in the sun. Slowly, she could not eat anymore, then even water, she had to spit out. But she never expressed pain on her face. Her remaining black hair still stood resiliently among her gray hair.… Her face was skinny, yet still bright and clean. Whenever she was awake, she always wore a smile. On her last day, she said to me,
“Your father misses me.”
“But Ma, I don’t want you to go.”
I held her hand in mine, wanting to hold it tightly, but was afraid to squeeze her too hard, so I held it gently. “Mei, this time, you must be willing to give.” She smiled, and then gently withdrew her hand, and patted my hand. This time, Mother, I can’t generously let you go. But I couldn’t speak. My heart ached so much as if it were broken into pieces.

On the day of my mother’s funeral, the line of people who attended was so long that it queued from one end of the village to the other. Besides relatives, there were my and my husband’s classmates, friends, colleagues, and neighbors from our neighborhood…. So many people, not only adults, but also kids. It was a rare grand scene in our village.

As the funeral line slowly marched out of the village, I vaguely heard some bystander asking, “Is this for a high ranking official? Or it may be a high ranking official’s parent...” My mother gave birth to one son and three daughters. We are all common folks, neither government officials nor wealthy business people. My mother herself was even more trivial like a nameless grass, never had any grand experiences, not even went to school to receive formal education. The only thing she had was a willing heart to love. And the last grand scene in her life was earned, unintentionally, by her lifelong generosity.

*1 mu is less than 1/6 acre
舍得 (To Gain is to Give) By: ZHAO Haining (赵海宁)  
Read Chinese version @ 琴台雨巷www.69311.net
Translation by: Xiaojuan Shu

No comments:

Post a Comment