Leaving the Village: Xiaolu Guo on a Traumatic Uprooting
"That place made me a hard person, a stoic and even merciless person"
On 3/28, Xialou Guo will join John Freeman for two events at Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice as part of The Global Soul: Imagining the Cosmopolitan. At 9:30 am, Writing Englishes, with Aleksandar Hemon and Kapka Kassabova. At 5 pm, a reading with Kamila Shamsie, Taiye Selasi, and Kapa Kassabova.
In my adult life, I often hear people say I am a hard-hearted person. They ask me where I came from. I tell them I am from a village called Shitang, literarily, Stone Pond, in Zhejiang province by the East China Sea. They must think that a person’s early life forms that person’s character. Maybe they are right, maybe I am a hard-hearted person. When I think of my childhood, it occurs to me that it must have been that fishing village, where I spent the first seven years of my life, that killed any tenderness in my heart. It feels to me that my heart was turned into a rock by those steely cornered, jagged stone houses I grew up in. That place made me a hard person, a stoic and even merciless person.
Shitang lies in between mainland China and Taiwan, 300 kilometers seaway from the Taiwanese coast. Thousands of years ago, this area was a saltwater lagoon next to the sea, and it came to be inhabited by people who built up the land on the seafront, just as Hong Kong and Macau were built from reclaimed marsh and swamp. In my memory, the sea was always yellow-brown. This yellow-brownness was caused by the large kelp beds growing in the shallow water along the shore. The kelp—we called it haifa, the hair of the sea—had long and tough stalks with broad palms and long, brown-green stripes. Like a swarm of shapeless sea snakes, the clumps of kelp formed a tangled mass blurring the divide between land and water. Despite its monstrous shape, kelp was a staple in the Shitang diet. We would stew it in eel soup or fry it with pork, along with the tiny fish we found swarming under the kelp fronds. The soil of Shitang was very salty and largely barren. There were hardly any trees growing in the village, except for the tough gardenias. They grew vigorously between rocks and on the cliffs next to the foamy sea. Their large white flowers would swirl in the salt-laden wind. I loved their strongly scented flowers. Local women often picked the blooming buds to decorate their braided hair. I would do the same with my meager ponytail.
Our family house was a small, moss-covered stone dwelling right on the horn of the peninsula. My grandfather lived upstairs, where he could directly look out onto the sea through a small window by his bed. He was the only one in our house who had a sea view. My grandmother and I lived downstairs. The view from our windows was blocked by the neighbors’ washing lines, dried squid and salted ribbonfish hanging on poles. I could see the dishes the neighbors ate through my window. I couldn’t say whether I loved or hated that house. I simply treated the house as our house, the village as our village. I lived with my grandparents without my parents present and that was an unquestioned fact for me. I didn’t know my father had been punished in a labour camp during the Cultural Revolution, and that my mother was a full-time factory worker who could not raise me. No one told me anything.
Our street was called Anti-Pirates Passage. The name Anti-Pirates Passage came from the Ming Dynasty period, when the area was heavily attacked by pirates from the east Pacific Ocean. The local militias had to arm themselves with homemade guns and bombs and managed, after many fierce battles, to repulse the pirates. That was 400 years ago. People said nothing much happened in the village after this heroic period, except that after 1949 the local authorities replaced the Buddha posters in their offices with Mao posters. Everyone admitted the village was a backwater. The only dramatic stories came from the sea. We were very close to Taiwan—the evil island that had claimed its independence from Communist China.
During that time, fishermen from nearby regions would often secretly set off in their boats hoping to arrive in Taiwan, where the Nationalist government promised to reward mainlanders with gold and farmland. Some succeeded, but very often we heard about cases of severe punishment: someone’s uncle or brothers caught on the edge of international waters and sentenced to death. “Shot at dawn” and “life sentence” were regular announcements from our village loudspeakers. In the 1970s, no one had a private radio or television. All news came from giant, high-volume speakers hanging on electricity poles in the streets. My grandparents’ house directly faced a pole with two loudspeakers. Every so often, in the early morning, we would be woken up by loud Communist songs, followed by a “to be shot at dawn in the meat market” death sentence. After hearing such news, villagers would rush to the meat market to watch the execution. I never dared to go and witness a killing. Just hearing a gunshot resound from the market square made me sick in the pit of my stomach.
Given the location of our house in the center of the village, we could always hear talking, crying, arguing, haggling, cocks roosting, kids screaming, pigs oinking all through the day and into the night. There was never a moment of peace and quiet. Now, as I think of it, it was simply the pervading ambient sound environment of China, even in the remote parts of the country. There was untrammelled life everywhere. Nothing seemed to be controlling or directing it. It just flowed like a stream.
My grandparents knew everyone in the village and everyone knew them. They could instantly spot anyone in the street who wasn’t a local. My grandmother was a kind, sometimes timid and fearful woman. She barely had a penny in her pocket, but she would still find some small presents for the kids playing in our street: candies, leftover rice, or some colorful seashells. So good-hearted and voiceless, she was the humblest person I have ever known. She couldn’t walk fast or even at a normal speed. Obviously, her tiny bound feet, which she never complained about, contributed to that. From as far back as I can remember, she always had this hunchback, even when she wasn’t that old. Nasty kids often laughed at me, screaming things like: “Your grandmother is a giant shrimp, she can only see her toes!” or “Here comes the upright walking turtle!” She had thin, grey-white hair, bound into a chignon behind her head. With her diseased and twisted spine, she had difficulty washing her hair, which always looked dirty. She also slept poorly. I could hear her long sighs in the night, and the way she moved her bent spine on the bamboo bed, which produced a constant stream of creaking sounds and woke me up in the dark.
No one had photos taken in those days in remote Chinese villages. I have no way of knowing what she looked like when she was young. Perhaps she had been a decent-looking girl, but surely she had always been small and very skinny. Her parents arranged her future marriage when she was still a baby. At age 12, she was married (or more correctly, she was sold) to my grandfather as a child-bride. My grandfather handed over a bag of rice and eight kilos of yams in exchange. And then, accompanied by her own father, my grandmother walked from her village for three days to get to Shitang for the wedding. I know she came to my grandfather’s house to fill her hungry stomach. But she didn’t know that her new husband didn’t have much rice in his rice jar. That was in the 1930s when China was ravaged by civil war, between the Nationalists and the Communists. Then there were the Japanese committing atrocities all over the country until 1945. My grandmother had vague memories of Japanese soldiers coming into their house while they were hiding in the mountain temples. The Japs looted everything. When she returned home some weeks later, she saw that almost nothing valuable was left, apart from a wok still sitting on the stove. She lifted the lid, and found a big lump of brown-colored shit inside. She told me about this incident when I was around five, which made me think that the whole Sino-Japanese War had to do with nasty shitting in woks. She had no further comments about the wars, even though she had witnessed almost every conflict in China since the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the 1970s, my grandmother was in her early seventies. In the countryside, peasants and ordinary people were still chained to the feudal system. Many times I saw her crying alone. She would quietly weep in the back of our kitchen or in front of a white porcelain Guanyin statue set inside the kitchen wall. Her eyes were always teary and clouded. Every day she prayed to Guanyin—the Goddess of Mercy—the most popular saint in our region. When I was about six, she told me: “Xiaolu, I have a dog’s life, a life not worthy of living. But I pray for you, and for your parents.”
My grandfather was always grumpy. Even though he knew everyone, he never greeted anyone in the street. It was always the other way around. People would greet him with the standard Chinese question: ‘Have you eaten today?’ Or something more specific, like: ‘How is your boat, Old Guo?’ He would never bother to answer. He would just grunt, or silently pass without even raising his eyebrows. My grandfather’s silence reigned in our house too. My grandmother would mutter things to me in a small voice. She never talked about my grandfather, at least never in front of me. She was so frightened of him. I saw how her limbs became stiff and she sometimes trembled when he passed in front of us. I never saw them lying on the same bed together, or even staying in the same room for more than half an hour. My grandfather barely ate in the kitchen with us. If he did, my grandmother would retreat, sitting in the corner, usually by the stove—a place that traditionally belonged to the woman. There she would eat the leftovers. My grandfather preferred to take his rice bowl upstairs to his own room, where he could drink liquor by himself and chew on his own unhappiness. I think he despised my grandmother deeply, partly so as to uphold tradition, partly because she came from an inland family and didn’t know how to help a fisherman.
I was told that already in their first year of marriage he had decided to despise her. For example, he despised her for not knowing how to eat a fish properly in a fisherman’s house. In Shitang, when a fish was being served, the wife would first pick the fish eyes out for her husband with her chopsticks. Eating fish eyes would make a fisherman’s eye bright and he would not miss a single fish in the sea. But my grandmother didn’t know that custom, she had barely cooked a fish in her inland mountain village. I was told by the villagers that he shouted at her during that meal: “Stupid woman, don’t you know fishermen always eat fish eyes first?!”
After eating the fish eyes, according to Shitang tradition, we would start from the fish tail. Eating the fish head straight away was considered bad luck for a fisherman. But my grandmother thought to show her modesty by choosing the part that her husband was not eating. She ate the fish head. She sucked the bones thoroughly. He grew furious and left the dining table immediately. Perhaps that explained why my grandfather always had such bad luck with his boat. His boat was constantly ravaged by typhoons all those years. Although my grandmother tried hard to learn all the customs of Shitang. Like all women in that area, she never set foot on her husband’s boat, or on any boat. To have a woman on your boat brings bad luck, even though my grandmother sewed fishing nets for my grandfather. But it was too late. She never won his heart.
It was an awful partnership. He beat her all the time, for very small things, such as for not fetching a matchbox quickly enough for him to smoke, or for not cooking well enough, or for not being in the kitchen when he was hungry. Or he simply beat her for no reason at all. He kicked her short, skinny legs, and pushed and punched her to the floor. That was the usual activity in the house. She would weep only after he left. When she cried, she didn’t even get up from the cold stone floor. Despite my being young, I was numb, witnessing this sort of scene too often. And I would hide myself whenever such a scene was repeated. In 1970s China, in an illiterate peasant house, who could claim that they hadn’t encountered such events on a daily basis? I didn’t feel close to my grandfather as he never showed any affection or warmth to me, but I didn’t think he was in any way a monster. Because where I grew up, every man hit his woman and children. In the morning, in the evening, in the middle of the night, you could hear neighbors howling after an episode—a male voice shouting, furniture being thrown about, then the weeping of a mother or a daughter. That was village life. It was normal.
My grandmother died shortly after I left the village for schooling in my parents’ town. Whenever I recall my grandmother, I always have a very sad and loving memory of this old hunchbacked woman using her pitiful savings to buy me an ice stick (a sort of cheap ice cream made with water and sugar). She would wrap the ice stick in her dirty handkerchief upon which she had coughed out her lungs, and would search for me from street to street in the scorching summer afternoons in order to give me that little morsel of sweet ice. She would find me rolling on the ground, playing or fighting with a bunch of kids in some alleyway, and she would unpack her snot-ridden handkerchief and recover what was left of the ice for me. Of course, the ice would have melted, and I would just get a thin little stick with a clot of ice on it. “Suck it quickly!” she would cry, out of breath from her search to find me. I would suck it thirstily, like a street dog on a steaming day. That was my grandmother’s love to me, although I didn’t know what ‘love’ meant then. No one ever taught me that concept in the village, at least not verbally. Later on, after I grew into a teenager, whenever I thought of her I believed she loved me, cared for me greatly. An ice stick cost her five cents, with which you could have bought a vegetable bun in the village. It was a luxurious love by our standards, and for that I should have stood by her, especially whenever my grandfather lost his temper and threw his fist at her face. But I barely defended my grandmother. I was too small and I was also scared of him. I cried often too, but not for my grandmother. I cried because I was born into such a shithole, and I cried with an extreme anger, followed by an overwhelming sense of desolation.
Eventually, my grandfather lost his boat. It was irreparably damaged in a typhoon. He was already in his seventies, and had to become a sea scavenger. Every day, he staggered along the shore with a large but empty sack on his back, his steps heavy and his breath short. He hoped to find something valuable by the water: bits of driftwood, containers, dead crabs, or even dead bodies. If he could find a dead body he could at least harvest the man’s clothes and shoes and sell them. I remember one evening my grandmother was worried that her husband would not return, because he had been coughing his head off the last few days. She left home with me and went out looking for him, or in her mind, looking for his dead body along the seashore. But we didn’t find him. When we returned home in the pitch black dark, he was upstairs sleeping heavily in his room.
My grandfather scavenged from the shore, until one day he could no longer walk properly. One morning he coughed up blood while drinking a bowl of salty porridge. He had gotten some disease we didn’t understand. In the village, there was only one traditional herbal medicine shop, which had a simple clinic. But no one could treat his illness with any modern scientific knowledge. For days, my grandfather limped around our house, coughing and breathing heavily. His eyes were two empty holes, his face grey and lifeless. The acquaintances who passed by on the street would give him one or two cigarettes, and he would just sit on the old threshold of our door, smoking bitterly. Soon the seasonal typhoon arrived, and the violent storms and cold rains shut him back inside the house.
One morning, my grandmother found that her husband didn’t come down for breakfast, and he didn’t show up at lunchtime either. She climbed the staircase up to his room with her tiny bound feet. I was in the kitchen carving a little boat from a cuttlefish bone, the sort of thing I always did with fish bones. I heard my grandmother scream something upstairs. Then she clambered down, calling her neighbors. She didn’t tell me anything in the beginning. The first thing she said to me, in a tone of desperation, was: “Go get Da Bo, or get anyone next door!” I ran out, pushing open our neighbor Da Bo’s door and screaming to everyone inside: “Come quickly! My grandmother is crying! Come to our house!”
I ran back upstairs, and saw my grandfather lying on the floor. Beside him there was an empty bottle of chemicals and a half-drunk Bai Jiu—a very strong local liquor the fishermen drank in cold weather. My grandfather’s eyes were open wide, frozen in their sockets. They looked like the eyes of a dead fish. I fell on my knees and shook my grandfather’s arms. But his arms were limp. Then my grandmother came up again, sobbing and speaking hysterically. Da Bo pushed himself in front of her, followed by his wife. With my grandfather’s dead eyes still wide open, my grandmother screamed in a pathetic bawling tone: “I should have called you last night . . . Why did you do this to me? What have I done to deserve this?!”
Then I heard Da Bo say: “What a sin! He must have poisoned himself by mixing DDT with Bai Jiu.”
At that time, every household had free bottles of DDT as well as other fertilizers distributed by the government, even though Shitang was not the best place for agriculture. Unable to understand what was going on before my eyes, I squatted on the floor, shocked and utterly confused.
My grandmother knelt down, touching my grandfather’s body, and howled inchoate half-words.
Half an hour later, a multitude had gathered in front of our house. My grandfather’s body was carried down by a few men to the ground floor, where our kitchen was. One of the elderly men tried to close my grandfather’s eyes, but the eyes wouldn’t close. Then someone screamed to my grandmother: “Get a warm towel, quick!” My grandmother stood up and grabbed a towel by a washbasin. She poured some hot water from a bottle onto the towel. The man took it and covered my grandfather’s eyes. A few seconds later, he removed the towel and everyone could see that the eyes were now shut. The man handed the towel back to my grandmother with satisfaction and began to command the people around him. I looked again at my grandfather’s corpse in his black cotton clothes, stiff and motionless. His skinny feet were naked in a pair of broken grass shoes. His mouth was grey and dry, with lips like a dead shark’s. Now I began to feel frightened of the stiff body. The villagers first whispered to each other, then they got carried away and spoke louder and louder with excitement: “Don’t you know he drank the DDT?” or “He didn’t get on well with his wife and children, no wonder he went alone!” or “He must have felt desperate!”
At that age, I couldn’t understand a thing about death. But somehow I was tormented by the scene, and felt a deep shame in front of the crowd. My grandmother told me a dead person would become a ghost. But I didn’t see any black-clothed ghost flitting around the room. All I felt was a searing anger, an icy cold loneliness somehow emanating from the shriveled dead body towards my own body. I had no one to talk to. Nor did anyone explain the situation to me. Our house was a place for public gossip in front of a poison-filled corpse. And how I hated the feeling of indignity and shame, that afternoon and for days after.
I don’t remember much of what happened during the days that followed my grandfather’s death. All I remember was that the room upstairs was barely used after he died. We didn’t sleep there, nor did we go in there often. I was frightened to enter that room by myself. I thought his ghost might be living there, or might visit us in the night. Any noise occurring upstairs at night would scare me. Since I had always slept with my grandmother on the same bed, I would wake her up and ask her to listen to the scary noise. But she would just open her rheumy eyes and sigh in the dark. Though my grandmother wept for days after the death, and would wear black clothes for the rest of her life, I was a bit numb about the fact that my grandfather was no longer living in this house. Sometimes when my grandmother and I ate our porridge in the kitchen, I felt as if my grandfather was in his room slurping the same porridge and cursing under his breath. He was a shadow in the house when he was alive, and after he had gone it felt like the same shadow was lurking somewhere all the time. I accepted the presence of the shadow without much thought. The room upstairs was the driest room in our house. Sometimes my grandmother climbed up there, hanging ribbonfish on a pole under the ceiling. When the wind came and blew through the windows, the long and pale-colored ribbonfish were like a row of hanging men, swinging weightlessly in the stale air.
I was six and a half. One afternoon I was in the village’s auditorium, hiding behind the stage curtains and watching a local opera called White Snake Lady. When the opera finished, some kids called me to return home: “Xiaolu, your grandmother is looking for you! You should go back quickly!”
I ran back home, thinking my grandmother had probably bought me an ice stick, or some exotic candy. But as soon as I arrived at our house, I saw two strangers sitting in the kitchen. A man and a woman. The man looked slender, and was wearing a pair of glasses. The woman was much shorter than the man and had a stern look on her face. She instantly caught my eye once I entered the house. She came straight up to me and took one of my arms. She looked me up and down and stated in a very strange accent:
“Ah, Xiaolu, you are so big now!”
Then I heard my grandmother speaking behind the woman: “This is your mother, call her Mother!”
I stared at the woman, perplexed.
I sort of understood this woman’s lingo, but clearly she didn’t speak the dialect we spoke here in the village of Stone Pond. Most of the fishing families here had migrated from the Fujian province long ago and spoke Mingnan dialect. With my grandparents I too spoke Mingnan dialect. So my mother’s accent was very alien to me. Then the man also moved closer, staring at me like I was some curious animal. I was very uneasy to be confronted by these two strangers.
Then my grandmother continued: “And this is your father. Call him Father!”
The man with the glasses patted my head lightly, with a smile. He had big hands and long fingers. He seemed almost gentle, no fishermen in the village had his kind of look.
I felt anguished, though, and decided not to speak at all. I withdrew myself to the corner of the room. I didn’t call them Mother and Father. I could not do it that day.
So that was it. That was the day I remember meeting my parents for the first time. They probably had visited me while I was a small baby, but I didn’t have any recollection. Strangely enough, I don’t remember much about how I felt in that particular moment. I don’t think I had a clear concept of what parents were supposed to mean, since I had never lived with them before. I was aware something had been missing in my life, that I didn’t have my parents around like other village kids did. Still, I didn’t foresee that it was a significant moment in my life. All I noticed was that there were some new tea bags and rice cakes on the table that the two new people had brought to the house.
My leaving Shitang was an all of a sudden business. I didn’t realize that this was actually the day I would leave my poor grandmother behind, that she would now be left alone in the house. There were a few kids I usually played with in the street, but I had no time to say goodbye to them, nor did I realize that I might not see them again. In my confusion, I was told by my parents that they had already packed my stuff: just a few shirts and pants, plus a pair of slippers. We would be leaving Shitang in the next few hours, on the last bus out of the village.
“Where are we going?” I looked at the two adults and asked in distress.
“We are going to where we live, Wenling,” my mother answered with her strange accent. She had a rough peasant manner, and she was not someone you would instantly like. I didn’t like her that day, nor did I later on.
“That’s where you will go to school,” my father added. He didn’t have an accent. He spoke our dialect like my grandparents. At that moment, I understood that he originally came from here. And I felt that he was more friendly than my mother.
I don’t remember if I cried when we left my grandparents’ house. I didn’t really understand what was going on. My grandmother walked all the way to the bus station with us. Because of her bound feet, we walked very slowly through those cobbled alleyways. My grandmother was greeted by many villagers on the street, and each time we would stop as she introduced my parents. “This is my son, Xiuling,” she pointed to my father. “He came to take my granddaughter to their town for schooling,” my grandmother would explain to the old women and men, visibly proud. Sometimes my father would recognize someone in the street and go over to pat the man’s shoulder and to chat. Eventually, we got to the bus station. The stationmaster, a very respected man in our village, was on duty that day. With a whistle hanging on his chest, he instantly greeted my parents and my grandmother, offering us a handful of sunflower seeds from his pocket. Then he said to me: “Xiaolu, didn’t I tell you that your dad and mom would come to take you to the big city? You will have a great life ahead of you. And your father will give you the best education!”
I nodded my head as my parents chatted with the stationmaster. A great life ahead of me: I was excited to hear this, although I had no idea what it would mean. As we jumped onto the bus, I saw my grandmother’s hands grasping the door, her eyes swelling with tears. She then took out her handkerchief from her pocket, the same dirty handkerchief she used to wrap my ice stick. She wiped her eyes with it, but tears were pouring down her cheeks.
My heart felt so heavy. I suddenly realized what was happening, and I was pierced by an indescribable fear and pain. My throat was wrenched from the effort of not crying in front of my parents. Even though I was an unhappy child living with my grandparents in this village, when it came to leaving I felt I was being pushed out of the world I had known. I also felt the weight of my father’s hands. He was holding me on the bus seat. I could not move.
As the bus began to pull out, my grandmother followed us outside of the bus window and said with a trembling voice: ‘Xiaolu, send me letters and the neighbors will read them to me!’
I nodded my head. Then she yelled in a hoarse voice: “Always listen to your parents, will you?!”
My grandmother’s last words were carried away by a gust of dusty air. The sea blew the salty breeze into the bus, and I smelt the familiar fish scent mixed with the faintest fragrance of the gardenia flowers of Shitang.