Chinese Stories in English
1. Filial Piety (孝顺)
Having more money is useless; the more you have, the less you can spend.
Don't look at me. That's not something I said. It's something my uncle told me categorically. Is my uncle stupid? Am I? Shit, you're the stupid one! People in my hometown all say the same thing. When I went back there during Chinese New Year last year, two shocking tags had been written in white lime on the wall of the village committee's courtyard. One said “One person's ligature; A whole family's glory”. The other said “Having more money is useless; the more you have, the less you can spend!"
No, no, it definitely isn't a "Village of Crazies" or a "Demented Village." Nor is it a "Wealthy Village" or a "Utopian Village". There're no millionaires in my village, and that's the truth. Let me put it this way: When I went visiting door-to-door during the New Year's celebration, I held a big hundred-yuan bill in my hand to show to folks. It was the first time they'd ever seen that large a banknote. Most of them didn't believe it was real.
I was going to leave one for my uncle, but the old guy said that it was useless and he couldn't spend it. No one could break such a large bill, understand? There was no way to get change. When the villagers saw me, they all said, "Having more money is useless; the more you have, the less you can spend." It sounded like a drill or a secret code. They were afraid I couldn't understand this rustic maxim. They explained it to me as an iron-clad fact.
That's the way it was.
We have this guy in our village, Old Man Song. His wife died young, leaving him to act as both mother and father to raise their two sons to adulthood. The eldest son wasn't too sharp, he'd had encephalitis. In a word, he was a dummy. The youngest son was sharp, and the old man put all his hopes on that boy. This kid really did work hard and became the first university student in our village's history. He lived in the big city from the time he started school until he went to work, and didn't come home very often. People say he became a rich man later and his life was a breeze. He had all kinds of money, and even bank presidents would come to him for a loan. Everything in his house was silver if it wasn't gold, nothing else. Even the toilets were gold-plated.
Old Man Song lived in the country with his dimwit son. No need to say it, their life was really tough. The two of them couldn't go out at the same time because they only had one pair of pants.
The youngest son was quite filial and came for a visit one year. A row of high-class sedans drove up and stopped at the entrance to the village. The road into the village was inadequate and they couldn't drive in. Several people disconnected a car seat and carried the son into his father's home. He was followed by a group of people, four or five of whom were just bodyguards, all were wearing sunglasses and shining gold rings. Some people also carried boxes of things, such as a refrigerator, a washing machine and the like. Old Man Song later stored coal in the refrigerator and pickled veggies in the washing machine because there was no electricity in the village.
That time the younger son only stayed for half an hour. He had no time for a longer visit because he was too busy and had to get to the provincial capital to catch an international flight.
Old Man Song said he hoped the younger son would take his dimwit brother to the city, but didn't say anything about himself. The younger son wouldn't go for it. He said his brother was used to the country after living there all his life and would get sick in the city.
The wealthy son asked his dad if he needed anything, and the old man told him he didn't, except he didn't have enough to eat. The son hadn't even brought a piece of steamed bread with him, which rather disappointed the old man.
When the rich son was about to leave, he gave his father a boxy, thin, very good looking card. He told the old man there was lots and lots of money in that card, enough to buy the whole village and still have a bunch left over. The old man was skeptical. He looked over the tiny card for a while and then reached out and touched his son's forehead. He didn't have a fever, so it didn't seem like he'd been talking gibberish. The son told his father that all he had to do was swipe the card to use it.
Then he was gone. The old man went to the small variety store in the village wanting to buy a bottle of kerosene for his lamp, but no matter how he swiped the card, he couldn't get any money out of it. He brushed it with a brush – no money. He rubbed it against the brick bed – no money. He tried the top of the stove, the door frame, and even the racks in the variety store, but he still couldn't get any money out of that card.
The old man was on his deathbed. The card-swiping incident had caused a sensation in the village. The vast majority of the villagers thought that his son was either a con man or a mental case.
A few people said that this gewgaw couldn't be used in the village but could be used in the big city. Old Man Song had never been to the city, not even when he was young. Now he couldn't even get to the outhouse without his nitwit son propping him up. How could he go to the big city just to buy some food? His neighbors said that if his youngest son could've just left him thirty or fifty yuan to start with, he wouldn't have made his father sick from anxiety.
It wasn't easy finding anyone to help him in the village because of his son's reputation for having money. Some well-intentioned villagers occasionally gave him some tofu or steamed buns or porridge or something, and the old man had to get by on that for half a year.
Then Old Man Song died. No one knows how his younger son found out about it, but anyway he came back to the village. There was a huge show on the day of the funeral, and it really opened the villagers' eyes. Loads of fish and meat, expensive cigarettes and wine, and other offerings were enough to fill a large carriage. There were fireworks all day, and paper houses, cars and horses to burn....
Right at the end, the younger son wrote a check for ten thousand yuan in front of the villagers, then lit it with a lighter and burned it on his father’s grave. They say it was so the old man could take it with him to spend in the underworld.
2. Cola (可乐)
The province’s Governor came to the city on a research and investigation tour. His agenda included chairing a symposium to be attended by young cadres in the municipal government. Ah-Ming, a recent college graduate, was fortunate enough to be selected to attend. He sat excitedly at the oval conference table.
A microphone, a name placard and a bottle of cola were on the table in front of each participant.
During the symposium, everyone wanted to be first to speak. They raised their hands eagerly, hoping to say a few words and make a good impression on their bosses. Because of time constraints, Ah-Ming didn’t get his wish.
Other guests had grabbed the speaking opportunities, so when the time came for the meeting to end, Ah- Ming still hadn’t felt the need to wet his throat. When the host announced the end of the meeting, without thinking about it, Ah-Ming picked up the bottle of cola that had been placed on the table for him and casually stuffed it into his pocket.
The Mayor, who was accompanying the Governor on the tour, took note of what he’d done. He frowned and asked his secretary who that boy was. The secretary replied that he was a college student who’d just been assigned to work in the Foreign Economic Commission.
After the Governor’s tour ended, the Mayor convened a special meeting for committee, office and department heads to convey important directives issued during the Governor’s inspection and to briefly summarize what had been done to make him feel welcome on this visit. In his summary, the Mayor pointed out some deficiencies in the reception process. He singled out an instance where a new university student in the Foreign Economic Commission had participated in the symposium but had not followed the rules. He was greedy and petty, and had pocketed a beverage without regard to the image that presented.
The leaders of the Foreign Economic Commission had lost face. Back in the office they sought out Ah-Ming and tactfully reminded him to pay attention to all the small details in his work for the organization. They told him how the Mayor had criticized him for taking the bottle of cola, but played the matter down.
Ah-Ming felt wronged and tried to explain his actions to the Commission Chairman. The Chairman waved him off and said, "Forget it, forget it. Just pay more attention from now on."
The more Ah-Ming thought about it after he got home, the angrier he got. “That bottle of cola was intended for the participants, and there wouldn’t be a problem if I’d drunk it there, right? So drinking it then was acceptable, but taking it to drink later was greedy and petty and ignorance of the rules. What is this rule, and what’s the logic of it?”
In college Ah-Ming had developed a bad habit of being obstinate, and this habit came to the fore now. He spent that night writing a letter to the Mayor to explain from different angles the reasonableness of his behavior.
The Mayor hadn’t known Ah-Ming from Adam, but as he read the letter, he got angrier and angrier. He wrote comments on the letter and made heavy underlines beneath some of the letter’s key words. The letter was transferred forthwith to the organization’s departments and the Foreign Economic Commission. The leaders were quite embarrassed and decided to speak to Ah-Ming separately.
The more they talked to Ah-Ming, the more confused he became, and the more he felt that he had a serious problem. He began to write papers, one after another, examining and explaining his position over and over to his co-workers in the office. Time after time he used his salary to buy carton upon carton of cola and invited everyone to drink some. He also donated blood several times. He was hoping to prove that he was neither greedy nor cheap, and still less avaricious or selfish.
It was all to no avail. Ah-Ming lost hope, because at various meetings within the origination, the "cola incident” was always held up as a negative example, albeit without naming names. It was cited to tell all cadres, and especially the young ones, the meaning of governing for the people and being incorruptible in the administration of public affairs.
Ah-Ming decided to file an appeal, but he could find no evidence that he was being persecuted. No one had deducted anything from his salary and no one had stopped him from working. But he always felt that something was wrong. He spent several years being uncomfortable and depressed.
The next government restructuring, he volunteered for a grassroots position. The leadership approved his request.
Ah-Ming relaxed when he was assigned to a poor village to work as an assistant to the village chief. On the day he started work, he bought a cart-load of "Coca-Cola" in the city. When he arrived in the village he let everyone, man, woman, young or old, drink as much as they wanted.
A month later, Ah-Ming received a public criticism, assertedly for “excessive eating and drinking” at the grassroots level. He knew in his heart that, while the "eating" part fell short of the mark, the evidence of "excessive drinking" was incontrovertible.
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Stories by Lao Ma (Ma Junjie), Page D
laomaruc 的博客, translated from pages cited below
1. Filial Piety