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Waking from calm dreamless sleep, I find intricately patterned welts on my skin, embedded by the woven bamboo mattress, the only reminders of the night. I descend from the bed and frown as my feet reach the cold and damp dirt floor. It rained early in the morning, silent, without warning, a commonly decided upon secret among the capricious gods. Curling up my toes, I toddle across the room to a wooden dresser, its top reaching slightly above my head. He stands there, immersed in brushing his teeth, as I watch, silently and barely noticed from below. He glances down quickly, without moving his head, makes his decision, and spits into the porcelain washing-bowl.
I would go to school with him today. I bite on my lower lip to hide a smile. Dressing quickly, I run outside and leap over a group of scattered brown and white chickens in the yard. I pick a small, immature tomato from the garden and begin to eat it as I wait by his bicycle. We journey down the only paved road of Majia Village. Unfastened on the back of his bicycle, I cling to his shirt and hold my legs out so that they stay free of the spokes. We turn into the school courtyard and he places the bicycle against a wall. Upon entering his classroom, rows and rows of students stand from their seats, turn toward the door and, in unison, salute their teacher, my grandfather.
When the Communists emerged in China, they failed to completely destroy the old order. My grandfather remained the domineering patriarch, unquestioned and proud. A cursing, self-righteous, incessant drinker, his family relations were shaky at best. I was born a girl in a new one-child society where, despite all talk of progress, boys were preferred. My grandfather demanded I be sent to the countryside where I would not have to officially exist. My mother refused and alone named me and registered me in my birth town of Shuangyashan by Siberian Russia. In 1988, my parents immigrated to America and I was to follow. The year before I left, I stayed with my grandfather, yeye, and my grandmother, nainai, in the little farming village that bears my name.
“Sit there,” he points to a chair in the corner.
I walk proudly and slowly across the room and alight upon my appointed throne. I am after all the daughter of college-educated parents living in the mysterious and magnificent land of America, for which I will soon depart. I tell this self-servingly to a girl in the class, adding, “They have yellow hair in America. My hair, too, will become yellow.” My intention was to invoke jealousy, which I assume identical to exaltation.
Yeye looks up from his desk and hears my grandiose speech, pulls me out of the room and slaps me on the cheek. “You are nothing,” his harsh voice reverberates off the walls, “until you make yourself something.” I am bewildered and angry and stare back fiercely, as he continues: “The moment you think yourself superior, they have already become one thousand times better.” I look down at the ground. His features soften, his voice, subdued: “I am a poor farmer, and perhaps will never be greater. You can have everything. If the whole world disappears, that will be the only thing that matters to me.”
At that moment, my grandfather, Ma Zhijiang, unyielding sovereign of the family, imperial descendant, survivor of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, dignified village elder, forsook all his pride and admitted to a four year old that he was less than what he’d hoped for. And all of this to tell her that his sole wish was for her to live well and humbly. In spite of yeye’s temper, his preference for boys, the unchangeable things rooted in his nature and customs, I forgive him for what he told me that day.
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