Published in Issue 62.4: Fall 2023
“We, like most of the 汉人 (han4 ren2 – Han people), do not have a legacy. Our culture got all screwed up. Our people departed from the Chinese traditions. We might look Chinese, but the history made us nastier and more cut-throat, with less consideration and wisdom.”
That was how he started the conversation. I had asked dad to tell me about his father, my 阿爷 (a1 ya4 – grandfather). I had known a-ya when we lived in Shanghai, a man who held himself at a defiant height, clinging to his tallness. He always seemed to be squinting, examining his subject—my dad, my grandmother, my uncle, me—but that was only noticeable in the brief moments of silence. For the most part I remember him talking, expounding on ideas incomprehensible to a child, speaking words, brimming with authority. A-ya was a handsome man with a square jaw, straight nose, and thin lips. I couldn’t tell if the face I saw was from memory or a photograph. So I asked my dad, and I wrote down what he told me.
Dad has always been reserved with his words. There was a proverb he would repeat to me: 一瓶水不响， 半瓶水晃荡. A full bottle makes no noise, a half-filled bottle sloshes. A metaphor commenting on the relationship between wisdom and reticence. Fill oneself full, and sit knowing that you’ve sated your thirst. To speak, to write, to express is to spill, a losing of the water you’ve worked so hard to source. Expression in all its forms is vanity, a need to prove one’s wisdom and, therefore, proof of one’s ignorance and insecurity, a compensating act.
Dad, therefore, rarely speaks, but when he does, there is an earnest finality in the things he says. His words draw from a deep well of self-assurance. A bottle in the shape of a Chinese man, a body flooded with viscous density. He does not lack opinions. They pour out like dense liquid mercury forged by an unseen restless tongue, perpetually undulating, questioning, turning, and pressing. Forming truths.
“We might look Chinese, but history made us nastier and more cut-throat, with less consideration and wisdom.” That is how dad started the conversation.
And my response?
“Remind me of a-ya’s full name again?”
The young man signed his name, 庞纪眉, Pang Ji Mei, at the bottom of the page. He sat back and reread the messy characters that he had spent the last three nights scrawling. The workers at the printing press could fix the few graphite smudges. He will probably sit and dictate the words to them. He would not want them to misread his handwriting. He had chosen his words very carefully, plucked them from the Shanghai summer air humid with political tension.
These words were a response, his response to a speech made by a peer a few years his junior. The student shouted revolutionary dogma about the proletariat and the New Culture, which had come to replace the teachings of Mr. Confucius. Pang listened intently and watched the young man hold up this new ideology, lauding it as an entirely modern replacement for a stale and antiquated tradition.
On these pages made of discarded news bulletins, there was a response to the student. Not a rebuttal, because in actuality Pang agreed with much of what the student had said. The response instead addressed the fervor with which the young man spoke, the fervor of the revolutionary incapable of seeing the dangers of a complete rejection of China’s past. The need for revolution is real, Pang cannot deny this fact, but there is also value in the ways built over millennia. It is not one or the other.
With his words, he will take from the old to build the new. His words will open their eyes.
“The official Personality Policy of the Communist Party evaluated a person’s worth and loyalty under two criteria. The first judged you based on your own performance and merit. The second judged you based on your family background. Only those with 可靠 (ke3 kao4 – reliable) lineages could lead The Party. You know, peasants and laborers. Your great grandfather, a-ya’s dad, was not the Party’s ideal. He was a businessman. But that didn’t deter a-ya. Young men always focused on the first criteria. Personal merit gave them hope that they could rise to be someone.”
I am thirty this year. I am not old, but there are others who are younger. I am on my laptop, following a trail of Wikipedia links. It starts with the May Fourth Movement, to List of Campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party, then Four Pests Campaign, Hundred Flowers Campaign, The Anti-rightist Movement, Ideologies of the CCP, which fork into the Four Olds and Organization Department of Chinese Communist Party. These pages are full of details, footnotes, and more incomplete stories. I gather and write with little direction. This pursuit of words is still in its youth. Its infancy is born from a friction between work that is stable and quiet and work that is luxurious, yet essential. This is a tension so stereotypical for kids like me that I want to stop mid-sentence and throw these pages away. But I don’t, because I am not deterred.
This is not about the struggle to choose between the two paths. Through the presence of these words on this page, I have already chosen. Instead, I wonder why I have made this inevitable choice. I wonder why I am moved to write. I wonder why I have come to my dad searching for an answer, even though he conflates the essence of writing with the idealism of youth. Dad speaks of writing as foolishness, and I am a fool. Letter by letter, word by word, I am trying to bury this naivete deep in bodies of sentences—not to hide it but to keep it a little longer, before wisdom washes it away.
Pang Ji Mei hurried into the halls of the Health Department. The gray cargo wool coat provided little warmth against the cutting chills of Shanghai’s winter winds. The starched white of his pharmacist uniform peeked out from under the heavy jacket. He took off the coat at the doorway—the white loose-fitting smock against the sea of charcoal, navy, and military green. He stood there for a moment, still, just long enough to be noticed, not by the other gray, blue, and green bodies, but by the momentum of the day.
The other pharmacists left their white coats in the office—cuffs picking up the dust that condensed in the night, collars rubbed yellow through the rote goings-on of work, and minuscule dots of orange on the upper back, left behind by rusting hooks. Pang brought his smock home every night. He would put it on his only wooden hanger and bring it into the bathroom so that the steam from the precious hot water would smooth the cotton knit. Then, before bed, he would inspect it, running his hands lightly along the seams searching for frays.
张 Zhang and 李 Li were already at work, sweeping the floors and wiping down all the surfaces, a routine they had just completed fifteen hours earlier, as they closed the office. The two men were 10 years his senior. In fact, all of his charges were. The two men were perpetually balding, Zhang from apathy and Li from jealousy. Both men had run local apothecaries prior to liberation, small neighborhood shops dispensing herbal remedies. Pang had studied chemistry and apprenticed with a pharmacist from London who had taught him English.
Zhang looked up. “Good morning 领导 (ling3-dao3 – leader)”. Li nodded in acknowledgement. Zhang handed Pang a list of prescriptions that had been sent over from the hospital and university. Pang read over the list and started to work.
“When young people have good political fortunes, sometimes it is a bad thing. They become full of themselves. A-ya was proud. He liked to show off. When he was young, he wrote essays and articles. He spoke without consideration, because he lacked good influences growing up. His father, your great-grandfather, was always traveling. Business required that.”
By my dad’s logic, my choice to write reflects his influence. He would probably agree with this idea, though I will probably never know how this deduction would affect him. The exact responsibilities that a father has to educate his son are opaque to me. He does not elucidate these responsibilities, because telling me what he thinks he ought to have done would bring into focus his own vague failures. He would have to acknowledge the things he has passed down against his wishes, against his will, despite his fears and everything he knows. But this passing happened ntheless, because that’s what happens between fathers and sons. Inevitabilities are passed down, knowledge transferred. e knows he is responsible for my pursuit of writing, but to recognize this paternal failure of influence would be too much. So instead, when I ask him about a-ya he chooses to tell me the story—the story of the failures of his father.
The mural read, “Eradicate pests and diseases and build happiness for ten thousand generations!” Below the text, centered in a red diamond, is the character 福 (fu4 – prosperity). To the left of the character is a woman in a pink shirt holding a broom, ready to sweep. To the right is a man in all-white with sanitation gloves and a pesticide pump, spraying the upturned corpse of a rat, a mosquito, a fly, and a sparrow. Behind them a joyous celebration unfolds against a thriving industrial skyline.
Pang Ji Mei stared at the bright mural, as the nearby sewage outlet flowed into the Huangpu River. The stench always burned his nose despite the lit cigarette between his lips. The Chairman had tasked the Health Department to promote The Four Pest Hygiene Initiative. The mural helped instill in every citizen the personal responsibility to stamp out all sources of disease and societal harm: the rats for the Plague, mosquitoes for malaria, flies for their general nuisance, and sparrows for eating rice and grain, the hard-won fruits of the peasants’ labor.
He never really understood the last one. Even if a flock of sparrows entered a rice silo, they could never make a noticeable dent in the stores. But alas, the Party made the decree, and the people took action. He watched his neighbors, friends, and coworkers light firecrackers to scare entire flocks into the open air, toss nets to bring these flocks back down to the ground, and stamp the frail bird bodies to death. Children wore sashes chained with dead sparrows strung up by tiny broken feet, balled in mixtures of industrial glue and sap that had been brushed on tree branches. He remembered being woken up by the chirping screams in the predawn air, only to have the alarm silenced by whichever neighbor had gotten up first, eager to cull and collect. The size of the mass sparrow graves became a measure of one’s party loyalty. After the bird song stopped, for months, Pang would still find errant feathers in the corners of his small bedroom or along the dry street gutter. The birds died not for public health but for individual favor. One never knew if a Party leader was watching, so it was better to do one’s duty without discretion. Stupid sycophants desperately grasping at any opportunity to rise up. Pang wondered if anyone had improved their lot in life hunting sparrows. He extinguished the dying cigarette and exhaled a final breath of smoke and condensation. As he turned and walked into the hall, his shoes squeaked against the newly washed concrete floors.
“That ability to see things for what they are, to analyze an issue, and crystalize a conclusion. That’s something that we share with a-ya. This capability is in our 血 (xue4 – blood). And when we have those moments of clarity, we start to believe that we are different or special. He was not careful. This was a-ya’s strength and weakness. I’ve seen it in you.”
My dad sees it in me, and I see it in him. The two of us seeing each other. He is the most astute person I will ever know. I wonder if he views our seeing like I do: that we are observing the light as it refracts through mirrored irises into reversed neurons only to come to opposing conclusions about the same subject.
An Oakland native, Aaron Pang is just a writer and performer telling stories to any one who will listen. A first generation child of Chinese immigrants, a choir boy, a tech guy, and a disabled person, Aaron hopes his stories will inspire others to embrace their multi-faceted identities. Aaron’s writing can be found on Essay Daily, The Moth Radio Hour, and Proof by America’s Test Kitchen. Aaron is currently pursuing an MFA at the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.