Chapter 2: A Toisan Village
I was born on May 26, 1928. I was named Poy Jen. My name means “one who deflects negative events and generates positive outcomes.” It means that when misfortune dislodges our family, I am the one who returns us to the center, and keeps us centered.
I am a direct descendant of the first families who settled in our village one thousand years ago. Suey Wan is the name of our village, and it is a thriving village to this day. We still have a house there. It has sat empty for fifty years, awaiting our family’s return. We are a Chun Clan village, and so my maiden name is Chun. Your father was born and raised in a nearby Lee Clan village, before he left for America at the age of thirteen. Years later, he came back to marry me.
We were farmers, and we came from somewhere else in Northern China about one thousand years ago. We are people of the T’ang Dynasty, that’s why we still call ourselves T’ang Ren or, as we say it in Toisanese, H’ong Ngeen—people of the T’ang.
Our soil was how sek—rich and wet, for Toisan is in the Pearl River Delta. Water so shiny you have to squint to see it. Our village faced a large paddy where we grew rice and vegetables for market. All of us helped with farming, even the kids.
Together, we prepared the fields, fixed the mud walls, planted, fertilized, and harvested. Each family raised their own vegetables in their private garden patch. Cabbage, scallions, bok choy, mustard greens, lettuce—so many vegetables. Fruit trees grew in yards throughout the village, for the weather was hot and moist for most of the year. Oh, so many kinds of fruit trees—red apples, bananas, plums, peaches, and many, many more.
Our hills were full of trees that we used for building houses, wheelbarrows, plows, and furniture. Our water came from a village well. Deliciously cold, clean, and sweet water. When I was old enough, the first thing I did every morning was to fill two pails and carry them home. This kind of life makes you strong. Even today, I am strong. Until a few years ago, I still could carry a twenty-five-pound bag of rice several blocks, from the store to our home.
Chickens and ducks ran freely through the village. “Gop, gop, gop,” pecking away at this and that. We ate them or sold them. Many families raised pigs for market. We didn’t raise pigs—“uggghh”—too stinky and messy.
Instead, we raised fish in the village fish-pond, for eating and for market. As kids, we played in the fishpond. We weren’t supposed to because none of us could swim. But we liked catching tiny fishes. With my younger sisters, Tien and Yoong, and our girlfriends, like Kow Woon, we would sit on our heels, and, with tiny nets, catch baby fish. “Hslout, hslout, hslout,” was the sound of the fishes squirming in our hands and flapping on the ground. “Ha, ha, ha,” we laughed so much. We always got a little wet, but the sun dried us off before we got in trouble with mother. Then, we put the fish into a bowl, playing with them for days.
Every few months, village men dropped nets in the water to catch fish for market. We chased after the fishes that flipped free, flopping all over the ground. We’d grab one or two for dinner. The men scolded us, “eating money instead of putting it in your pocket,” as we ran off, half-closing our eyes as the fish thrashed, splashing water all over our faces. But no one really minded a few fish being taken. Especially not for special occasions like Chinese New Year or a wedding.
Life was not easy in the village like it is in America. Farmers worked constantly. Sweating and breathing hard. Worried all the time about enough rain and sun, daily checking for insects and rats that ate our crops. Our clothes were patched over and used until they fell completely apart. But still, we had lots more time to relax, to chat with one another, and to play. Once everything was done, it was done. You can’t make the crops grow any faster by acting busy.
Life was simpler in the village in that way and safer—that is, until the Japanese Army attacked us.... The nearby Wong Clan fought back, killed some soldiers. Then, we heard what happened, a dawn attack. Everyone was slaughtered – women, children, old people, too – whoever was in the village. They burned every building, wrecked every chicken coop, duck yard, and the fields. Two Wongs survived by jumping into the outhouses, ducking their heads under. We heard they kidnapped women from other villages, young girls, from villages and took them to Suey Nam, where their garrison was, and made them work and other things the elders wouldn’t talk about in front of children. If a girl fought back, they tied her up like a pig on a pole and took her with them anyway.
At first we couldn’t believe that the world had any people that cruel. We scratched our heads, lifted our eyes wide, rocked on our feet, placed our hands on our hips, and scrutinized the person trying to convince us, but just couldn’t imagine any people under the heavens behaving so crazy. It's just people mean talking because we’re at war, we said. Until the survivors of the Wong massacre, people we knew, hid with us. Our village is at the end of the valley and so we were the last one they attacked. But I can still remember the sound of their airplanes that first day – “woo, woo, woo;” the rhythm of their boots, such big boots – “bawk, bawk, bawk,” whenever they stormed in later...
Chapter 3: The Butterflies of Death
It was 1938, and I wish my Mother could tell you herself about that tragic first day, and then of the near-fatal events of the second day, which I recount at the end of this chapter. But my Mother does not believe in revealing the sorrows in her life. She says it kills the spirit to recite bad times. Brings them back. She says I should focus on the positive, look ahead, think good thoughts no matter what happens, and the future will be happy. I’ve pressed Mother, but except for a few grunts of acknowledgment that “yes, something like that happened,” she goes no further. I’ve used my best trial lawyer’s techniques to corner her, including relentless “yes–no” cross-examinations. But Mother waves her hand like a judge, simply vanquishing this irrelevant line of inquiry.
So, I must fill in the gaps for her and tell the stories of the sorrows in her life. I do so in order to understand her and the nature of her gifts to me. To learn the story, I have interviewed my father, who is more Americanized and thus more forthcoming. I have also spoken with several Clan Sisters who live in San Francisco, and with relatives in the village who knew Mother as a child. Her two sisters and brother, San Franciscans too, are like her —they haven’t been very helpful. Besides, they don’t understand me, and, because of that, they don’t think particularly well of me. To them, I am the lawyer who irresponsibly decided to become a struggling writer. I am the successful businessman who thinks that while making money is only okay, it is not the primary purpose of life.
I should explain that my mother is not afraid of hearing bad news or facing hard times. Nor is she afraid of tackling the sorrows of life on their own terms. Quite the contrary. She speaks her mind, clearly, loudly, and emotionally when she is unhappy. She wraps her arms around unhappiness in a bear hug. Then slowly, steadily, and with great care, she turns misfortune around, one problem at a time, one day at a time. Perhaps it was her first near-death experience as a girl that taught her that tragedy could be averted, or, if unavoidable, turned around.
That morning in 1938 was the first time a Japanese Zero fighter plane attacked Mother’s village. No one had actually seen an airplane before, and so no Toisanese warning shout was issued. How could backcountry farmers know that airplanes killed? Kow Woon was orphaned when that first plane flew over the old village—a clutch of cottages of no strategic importance. It was the “woo-woo-woo” sound of the plane that caught the children’s attention. Curious children, they rushed out of their classrooms, jumping up and down and scanning the skies. Parents soon joined them outside their homes, shading their eyes with their hands as they too looked into the sky, in the direction of toward the woo-woo-woo sound.
The Zero discharged its machine-guns, raking the ground toward the school children. The bullets were red and orange, arcing down through the air, bouncing along the wide lane by the fish pond where people socialized and children played. The children thought the red and orange bullets were butterflies. They ran closer to catch them. “Butterflies, butterflies,” they gleefully shouted. Suddenly their laughter twisted into screams of agony. Children fell everywhere, shrieking. Blood spread and gathered in pools. Then the bombs fell into the crowds of confused adults and then onto the row houses.
Thereafter, whenever the sound of “woo-woo-woo” was heard, the villagers would cry “Run and hide. The butterflies of death. The butterflies of death are coming.”
Kow Woon’s family was killed that day. In the way of the village clan system, there were no orphans. Grandmother Chun adopted Kow Woon as her own child, simply declaring that she was now Kow Woon’s mother. Compassion meant that no child was ever homeless, and if Grandmother Chun was known for anything, it was for her compassion.
Years later, on a singularly stormy day in 1942, at the height of the Japanese invasion of China, the specter of death came again. Expanding their occupation of China, the Japanese war machine persisted in their indiscriminate slaughter of the unarmed peasants of China. It was part of a brutal, inhumane strategy of genocide designed to break the will of the people and to enslave the nation they had invaded. All too well known were the tales of captured young teenage girls and young women, their subsequent rape, torture, and murder of captured young teenage girls and young women. Or worse, to be programmatically raped as sex slaves by entire units of men, euphemistically designated as – “comfort women,” – until they died.
After the first few raids of the mid-1930s, the villagers devised a verbal alert system and everyone would flee into the hills and hide until danger passed. They had learned that that for soldiers on foot, it was just much too much work hiking through the forested hills for a day’s ration of rice and vegetables. Japanese soldiers did not forage there, not even to capture young girls. They’d raid the village, but no further.
This daytime, however, some villagers could not make it to the safety of the hills in time – including my grandmother, my mother, her two younger sisters, Yoong and Tien, and their adopted sister Kow Woon. Perhaps the loud hard rains had muffled earlier warnings, for not even the hollered loud, harsh sounds of Toisanese syllables could pierce athe deluge’s clatter deluge. Only too late had they hear the cries “Japanese soldiers!" Japanese soldiers! Run! Hide!” My Grandmother Chun quickly hustled Poy-Jen, Yoong and Tien, and Kow Woon, outside, but then realized they could not cross the rapidly rising water level of the fields. They could not run into the safety of the hills. Mute with horror as the water level kept rising before their very eyes, they realized that death was here.
Grandmother knew their only hope was to hide in an abandoned house on the outskirts of the village. It was a slightly fallen structure and far enough away from the main road that maybe the soldiers would skip it. They’d see that the roof had fallen through, that the windows were broken and the wind and rain could blew through freely. Obviously, any food inside would be ruined. If they came close anyway, maybe they’d notice that the inside were too cobwebbed and dirty for a hiding place. Yes, perhaps the Japanese soldiers would ignore it. That was their Grandmother’s only hope.
My Grandmother scooted the girls toward the house. Once inside, she found a hiding place, amid a large pile of reeds used for cooking fires stored in a shadowy corner. She pulled aside the tied bundles of long reed grass, shooed her four girls onto the floor, piled back on the reeds back into a womb like cave big enough for all of them and herself. She carefully tucked in their little feet and hands and finally crawled in herself. Only then did she hide herself, hovering over them, spreading her arms over the girls, two on each side, like a mother hen.
Through the sound of the pouring rain, they heard the soldiers’ advance despite the loud rain. Their boots beat an advance towards them- – “bawk, bawk, bawk.” Yelling loudly in Japanese, they kicked down the partially rotted front door,. They yanked open doors to bedrooms, closets, cupboards and cupboards. They shouted what sounded like angry curses.
The girls and Grandmother huddled, frozen together, and swallowed their terror.
A soldier trampled in their direction, . He reached the stack of reeds. Soon, it would be all over but the screaming—and the bullets in the head. Maybe they would at least be spared bayonet practice. But just then someone outside shouted and miraculously, the soldier stopped, muttered, and then turned around. Sounds of stomping away. Soldier’s voices died down. The “bawk, bawk” rhythm faded into the cadence of the falling rain. Silence. Longer silence.
“Be quiet. Don’t move. It could be a trick.” Grandmother whispered carefully, keeping her arms over the four girls. They remained still for a long, long time. But the Japanese soldiers had indeed left and they were safe.
Grandmother’s quick thinking had saved them all; to live another day. “Ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows—this is the promise of life,” she undoubtedly muttered to herself as she thanked Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion who comes to the aid of all beings who are suffering.
Chapter 4: The Clan Sisterhood
The most important thing a Toisanese girl learns is this: —that all the females of our village are - hung dee moy, - Clan Sisters. Age doesn’t matter— little girl, wife, or elder, all village females are Clan Sisters. It doesn’t matter if you were born in another village, like a Lee or Wong surnamed village, and married a Chun man. A wife automatically becomes a Chun Clan Sister once she moves into her husband’s house and is treated by the Sisterhood the same as if she had been one born into the village. It also doesn’t matter if you marry and move to another village—you remain a Chun Clan Sister.
The Clan Sisterhood is like your best friend for life. We’re a family that will always welcome you no matter what. We’re a huge women’s club, so you always have friends to drink tea with, share gossip with, and who will baby-sit for you. A Clan Sister will always help you no matter where you are, no matter what you do. We will raise each other’s children as our own and teach them the good things, which is – to know right from wrong, study hard, respect everyone, save money, and help take care of the family. The Clan Sisterhood has been a big part of my life. Perhaps you’ve noticed that my Clan Sisters have always been involved in your life?
That’s why when someone I have never met is introduced to me as hung dee moy --- Clan Sister-- - I immediately give her the same respect, assistance, and affection I would to a hung dee moy I was raised with. I would help a new sister in any way I can. In Toisanese, hung dee moy can mean all sisters together, or singular, a sister of our village clan, like“she is hung dee moy.”
Hung dee moy is a title, like auntie or niece or grandmother. That’s why, when you sometimes ask me who was that lady we just met, I can just say “She is hung dee moy” instead of “auntie” or “elder” or “friend.” The younger sisters call the adults “yee-yee” or auntie. The Aunties called the younger ones “moy-moy,” or little sister.
To understand the workings of the Clan Sisterhood, you have to understand a few things about our village, like our customs, our daily life, and how we were organized.There was a lot to do every day because we were on our own—there was no government to provide social assistance, regulations or emergency services. But we got things done—all of it, in a village with no social services, no regulations. We had no repair shops to call to fix broken things, like in America. But broken tools got fixed, roofs replaced, and levees repaired. We even built our own grammar school.
There were no college-educated experts telling us how to farm or build canals and levees, like in America. Yet, we fed ourselves and made money selling vegetables, rice, chickens, pigs, fish and even beef to the towns. And hundreds of years ago, we built a canal that connected us to Guangzhou. We built levee walls for each village all along the way. Over the centuries, the widest boats traveled to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and back. That’s why Toisan people are all over the world—the canal took us to the sea. The canal is there today, still being used. When you drive from Hoisin to the village, you can still see it along the road.
To get it all done, men and women had separate jobs. That’s how the village was divided, by our jobs. This has been so for many centuries, and so the Clan Sisterhood started to meet, talk how to do things better and better each year. The men had a Clan Brotherhood, but you’ll have to talk to your father about that. Better yet, talk to my younger brother, your Uncle Wah. I can only talk about the Clan Sisterhood.
I am telling you all this so you can see that even though we were farmers in a village that’s not even on a map, we were smart people and good to each other. You think we could have lasted one thousand one hundred years if we weren’t smart people? Famine, flood, sickness, bandits, and the Japanese war? You think we could go through all those hard times together if we didn’t treat each other well, no matter how bitter life was?
The Clan Sisterhood had special knowledge that men did not. Elder Clan Sisters cooked herbal medicinal soups to heal illnesses. Mothers cooked season-change herbal soups to adjust their children’s chi levels, so they wouldn’t catch cold when the chilly north wind swept far south into our village. Aunties spent hours preparing the chi energy soups for a birth mother during her post-partum rejuvenation.
Each generation of younger Clan Sisters learned the older generations’ knowledge and then added on. So you see, the Clan Sisterhood was like a college for women. We taught one another what we had to know, passing on women’s expertise and wisdom, generation after generation.
Women had to know how to plant different types of crops, how much to water each plant and when. Men were not the only ones farming! “Szooon, szooon, szooon”—plant by plant, we checked the stalks in the mud and water. Women knew how to harvest the crop, how to separate the grain from the husks. Women tended the vegetable gardens, protected them against insects and rats, and picked the vegetables at the best time to eat. Green, sweet, and crunchy! “Lok-lok”—that’s the noise vegetables should make when you eat them. Women preserved food, like salted fish, fatback pork, sun-dried oily duck, sausages, dried vegetables, and dried fruits. Women even raised chickens, pigs, and fish for market.
At the age of six, I was raising the chickens for our family and I was good at it. Every morning I fed them rice husks and vegetable leaves. “Gawk, gawk, gawk, gawk,” they said as they ran down from the chick coop. That’s the best food to feed them so that they grow sweet to the taste. These were real chickens, not like the U.S. kind with chemical injections to make them look tasty. Even my hens tasted good after they stopped laying eggs. My chickens ran around all day and at night jumped back into the coop by themselves. I counted them to be sure and if any didn’t make it home, I went out in the dark, held my thumb and index over my lips and called to them “ject, ject, ject.” Wherever they were sleeping, like leaning against a corner or lying under a bush, they’d recognize my voice and wobble out to me, very sleepy-headed. Easy to carry, about a foot tall when full-grown. Always found them – nobody stole anyone else’s chicken.
And women ran the household for the entire family. Cooked everyone’s favorite foods all the time and all the special dishes of Chinese New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival. Women raised the children. Toisanese believe that mothers must raise their own children; that’s what mothers have to do if you want happy children. Yes, no matter how busy we were in the fields, we saw them several times each day, even if we had to walk fast back and forth, back-and-forth. Kept them healthy and taught them manners. Tutored them in Chinese, history, math, and the three principles of democracy. I mean, it seems sometimes that women did everything.
I was working when I was five years old. Started early every morning. Got two pails of water from the well. Cut reeds for the cooking fire. Checked plants in the paddies to make for snails. Sometimes it was so cold, my hands would be numb from sticking them into the paddy water, and my breath would blow out like smoke. “Phoo, phoo, phoo”--- I blew into my hands to keep them warm. “Bum, bum, bum”-- I jumped up and down to warm up.
I tended the vegetables in our garden plot and carried them home to cook. As I got older, I learned when a chicken was best for eating and when it was too old. I learned how to defeather and cut the chicken, and how to o cook it so the skin was chewy, the meat juicy, and the inside of the bones still red.
The Clan Sisterhood—that’s teaching by working together, not through books. Oh, girls went to school too, for about six years. But that was to learn how to read and write Chinese, add and subtract, and learn a little Chinese history. We studied Sun Yat-sen, because he was Cantonese like us. We celebrated his democratic revolution of 1911 which overthrew the imperial system. Every year - on October 10, or “Ten-Ten-Day.” We memorized his Three Principles of Democracy, ideas he got from America. But only some really smart men kept going to school. Like my oldest brother who became a schoolteacher.
Over the centuries, the Clan Sisterhood developed a special way of making decisions, the “speaking round-and-round.” This “speaking round-and-round” is not like gossiping or socializing. That’s more like “ji-ji-ja-ja...ji-ji-ja-ja...”—everyone talking at the same time. But when a “speaking” began, everyone quieted down. Each person could speak, and no one would interrupt until she was finished. The “speaking round-and- round” was part of everything we did. Before we planted the new crop, we gathered in a “speaking round-and-round.” Before we built a new house, we met in a “speaking round- and-round.” Before we helped a mother give birth, we assessed any health dangers and assigned duties in a “speaking round-and-round.”
Actually, in Toisanese, we call it “Gong loi, gong huie,” or “speech coming and speech going.” But I think you understand it better as “speaking round-and-round” because it’s not like arguing back and forth, like lawyers. You know what I mean, you’re a lawyer. We stand in a circle and take turns listening until we understand the situation.
The Clan Sisterhood solved many village disputes using this way. There were no courts to settle matters and no sheriffs to enforce the right thing to do. Everyone who wanted to could get involved. This had to be done without taking sides, even if one party was a stinky, rotten rind. The solution had to be fair for each party to accept the solution. You see, we couldn’t have someone so unhappy they wouldn’t work with someone else. There was always some task that needed everyone’s help—flood repair, seeding, harvest time, or fixing a roof. In this way, the “speaking round-and-round” kept us united and cooperating as one village.
So this was how I was raised and taught, surrounded by women of all ages, from many villages. Witnessing and learning from their deliberations. Knowing what to do by helping out with my own hands. Self-reliance, acting for the common good over one’s own needs. Finding common ground and lasting solutions when there were problems.
From them, I not only learned to cook meals, but the recipes for the medicinal chi soups, and how to gather herbs and heat them up for poultices, to cure sprained ankles and wrists, bruised muscles.
Toisan villages believed in mandatory education for boys and girls both, and so for six years, I also studied formally,: mastered reading and writing Chinese, how to figure sums, all about Chinese history, and the democratic principles of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
Finally, one of the most important jobs left to the Clan Sisterhood was to ensured the future of the village by finding a husband for each little sister—and, hopefully, a kind man, too. Every sister wanted a say, but you wouldn’t bring everyone to the” first meeting” between the prospective bride and groom and their families. Only the elder Aunties went, the ones who were good at sizing up a man. The younger sisters could meet him later, if he was acceptable to the elderAunties.
Like with your father, the first time we met, before we became engaged.
THE EIGHTH PROMISE