THE FISH DOESN’T WANT TO DIE – A Long Life in China

Apr 26, 2010 | Asia, Girls Trek Too, Tracing China's Past

March 31, 2008
Bok Sa, Toishan, Guangdong Province, China

Yesterday, we paid our promised visit to Old Mr. Ma Wen Hui. When we arrived, his granddaughter Ma Jin Feng and her mother Kuang Cui Lan flung open their doors and eagerly shepherded us inside.

We passed through the small kitchen hearth with its wok stove, and into the living area. In the main room, a kitchen sat at one end, a stairway to the upstairs bedrooms at the other, a kitchen table, couch, and chairs in between. An altar to the ancestors sat under the stairway: a red plaque inscribed with gold Chinese characters, before which sat a cup of tea and recently burned joss sticks. On one wall hung a large portrait of Old Mr. Ma, the family patriarch.

An altar to the ancestors sat under the stairway.

Fiona and I sat at the kitchen table with Jin Feng, a friendly woman of 32, with glasses, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, a plump nose, and a ready smile. We chatted with her while waiting for her grandfather to finish reading his newspaper next door, where the 99-year-old man spends his days sitting in the courtyard and his nights sleeping in the attached room.

Fiona and I sat at the table with Old Mr. Ma’s granddaughter, Ma Jin Feng, a friendly woman of 32.

Soon he walked in and waved at me with an abrupt flip of his hand – his bright bird eyes let me know that this gesture was a friendly one. His eyes were always smiling, though the smile rarely reached lips drawn earthward by 99 years of gravity. The flesh of his face hugged his skull so closely, I could see the contours of the bone beneath. His hairline was receding, though plenty of white hair remained. His eyebrows jutted out like the feathery plumage of an exotic bird. His hands grew animated as he talked, adding an energy and force to his communication that belied his years.

His eyes were always smiling, though the smile rarely reached lips drawn earthward by 99 years of gravity.

Our conversation was comical, as it once again traveled from me to Fiona to Jin Feng to Mr. Ma, and back again. Here’s what I learned about my ancestors, Old Mr. Ma, and life long ago in the village of Git Non…

Our conversation was comical, as it once again traveled from me to Fiona to Jin Feng to Mr. Ma, and back again.

My great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum, was the younger of two brothers. The older brother, Ma Fu Ying, left Gong Hao for Canada, where he worked as some sort of guard, a “door guard” Fiona called it. He made enough money to build the large house we’d seen the other day, where he returned to start a family. Later he took care of his brother’s children in Hong Kong. Many years later, Fu Ying’s grandsons became teachers and were thrown into prison during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

Later Fu Ying took care of his brother’s children in Hong Kong. Here he is with three of them.

The younger brother, Bing Sum, went to the United States, where he became Ben Mar, served in the U.S. army in World War I, and later came back to China with a Mexican wife, two sons, and a daughter. Ultimately Ben and Maria Mar had 10 children. Ben’s Chinese family accepted Maria, although other Chinese people of their day often frowned on foreign wives.

Ben Mar later came back to China with a Mexican wife. His family accepted Maria, although other Chinese people of their day often frowned on foreign wives.

Most of these things I already knew, but it was good to hear it from Mr. Ma, because it confirmed that he truly had met my great-grandfather. He clarified that Bing Sum didn’t leave a first wife behind in China. Sometimes other Chinese sojourners did this and never came home, instead marrying second wives in America, or doing without.

In the early 1900’s, Chinese men who wished to go to America borrowed money from relatives connected to lending businesses in Hong Kong, on the promise they’d repay the loans when they got jobs. Sojourners from Gong Hao first walked three hours to Toishan City, climbing over hills and mountains. From Toishan City, they caught a train to Jiangmen, and from there took a boat to Hong Kong, where they then boarded ships bound for America. The ocean voyage alone took 40 days.

Mr. Ma had always heard that life in America was harder than life in Toishan, but many Toishanese went anyway, because in America it was at least possible to make money. In Toishan, farmers owned plots of land barely big enough to feed two or three people, when most families had five or six. It cost money to buy more land, which a trip to America could sometimes help secure. More often, land wasn’t available, and the money went to buy supplemental food and supplies.

In 1940, at the dawn of World War II, with the Japanese already occupying much of China, shipments of rice from overseas stopped and local food supplies dwindled. Gong Hao’s villagers were forced to harvest their rice every three months, instead of every four, so they wouldn’t starve. They nearly starved anyway, because three-month rice was low in nutrition, compounded by eating it in the form of watered-down jook (rice porridge).

During World War II, Gong Hao’s villagers were forced to harvest their rice every three months, instead of every four, so they wouldn’t starve.

Mr. Ma went to school from the age of eight to 18, then married at 19. He was a farmer, but he played a musical instrument called an erhu – something like a violin – and he used to be quite skilled at it. He played a kind of traditional Chinese music called Yueju, and also knew how to sing and dance. He was quite proud of this. It was the only form of local entertainment.

When Mr. Ma was young, there were no cars, buses, or bicycles in Gong Hao. Poor people walked. Sometimes rich people rode on palanquins carried by several men, but there were few wealthy people in Gong Hao. Back then there were about 40 families in Git Non, and some 2000 souls in the entire district. Despite China’s population explosion, today the local population hasn’t changed much, thanks to emigration. Mr. Ma had six sons, one of whom died young, five of whom went to America. He also had two daughters, who now both live in Jiangmen. One of Mr. Ma’s sons, Jin Feng’s father, died in America. At least one of his grandsons still works in Boston, as a “cooker,” Fiona said.

Except for the advent of roads and cars, life in Gong Hao has changed very little in 99 years. Men and women still work together to plant, tend, and harvest crops of rice, vegetables, and fruit. Each village has always had a pond, which they still stock with young fish every New Year. The villages were laid out long ago in a pattern meant to provide both protection and proper Feng Shui: trees to one side, fields to the other, pond in front, hills in back. Today the original layout isn’t always obvious, because new homes have been built, changing the shape of the villages.

The villages were laid out long ago in a pattern meant to provide both protection and proper Feng Shui.

As we talked, Mrs. Kuang, the widow of Mr. Ma’s son who died in America, walked past us carrying a largish, squirming fish. She dumped it into a pot of boiling water, upon which it instantly leapt back out. Mrs. Kuang then grabbed the fish off the windowsill, forced him back into the pot, and firmly clapped the lid on, sealing his destiny. She caught my eye and we both laughed. “The fish doesn’t want to die,” I said.

Boiling versus suffocation, not much of a choice. Perhaps the Toishanese who went to America felt much the same: leaping from a boiling pot, hoping that when they landed somewhere else there might be a pond waiting to catch them.

The family invited us to lunch, and this time we accepted. While we waited to eat, we visited the tiny house where my great-grandfather’s family lived when he was a boy, before he and his brother made their humble fortunes overseas. It was a small gray brick house, just across the narrow path from Mr. Ma’s home. I was excited to find the wooden double-doors unlocked.

We visited the tiny house where my great-grandfather’s family lived when he was a boy, before he and his brother made their humble fortunes overseas.

The crumbling interior was tiny, but sufficient for several people.  Just inside the entry sat a built-in wok-stove, much like the one where Mrs. Kuang was now cooking lunch across the way. I felt awed to stand in the home where my great-grandfather was likely born, 121 years ago.

Just inside the entry sat a built-in wok-stove, much like the one where Mrs. Kuang was now cooking lunch across the way.

Mrs. Kuang’s other daughter and her husband joined us for a hearty, delicious lunch. I’d never before had rice made in a wok, which sat in a hole in the wood-fired wok-stove. During the meal we kept our bowls filled with fluffy white rice, and all dipped chopsticks into shared dishes at the center of the table. We ate a chicken that recently roamed the village, fresh greens from the family garden, barbequed pork, and my favorite: barbequed goose.

I’d never before had rice made in a wok, which sat in a hole in the wood-fired wok-stove.

I was in heaven, partly because of the food, mostly because of the friendly company. Mrs. Kuang kept chattering to me in Chinese, with a beaming smile and rapid nod. I helplessly repeated the only phrase I knew that fit the situation, “Ho ho mei!” (“Delicious!”) Everyone laughed.

The tastiest treat came after the meal, when Mrs. Kuang offered us the rice from the bottom of the wok: crisp brown, perfectly seasoned, and oily. Fiona was tickled: “I haven’t had this treat since I was a little girl.” She explained that most people cook with electric woks today, and the crust doesn’t develop at the bottom. Too bad. They’re really missing out.

After lunch, the women showed us their vegetable garden.

After lunch, the women showed us their vegetable garden. Mrs. Kuang pulled a prodigious carrot from the ground. “If I grew vegetables like that, I’d be proud,” I said. We ate a few not-quite-ripe, sour loquats from their orchard, and my stomach immediately protested.

Mrs. Kuang pulled a prodigious carrot from the ground.

We finished our visit relaxing in the courtyard with Mr. Ma, who at one point sat mending clothes with needle and thread. The entire family gave me repeated invitations to come back next year. I promised to try in two years.

The entire family gave me repeated invitations to come back.

As I took my leave, I clasped several hands and said a hearty, “M’goi san!” (Thank you!). As I took Mr. Ma’s hand in both of mine, I smiled into his eyes from as deep a place as I could find, willing him to understand my gratitude and respect.

He smiled and said, clear as a bell, “Goodbye!”

“Bye-bye!” I said, in the musical Chinese way.

As I climbed into our driver’s mini-van, I gave a final wave to Old Mr. Ma, where he stood far behind the rest, alone in the courtyard entry. He raised his arm in return, in a final farewell that only I could see.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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