Papa Is Not A Criminal

By C. Fong Hsiung

 

“Ooh…look at her. She’s beautiful like a fairy.” I angle closer to the comic book and caress the picture with my fingers.

Ai-Lei sticks her head in between the page and my face. “Let me see, let me see. Ooh…Mei-Lan, look at the long hair. I wish my mama would let me grow my hair like that.”

With a huff, I lean back against the wicker lounge chair. “You’re blocking my view.”

Ai-Lei jerks her head up. I give her a withering glance and then resume eyeballing my red and gold kimono-clad princess. “When I grow up, I’m going to look like her.”

Ai-Lei gazes at me with rapturous eyes. “Do you want to be a fairy when you grow up?”

“Don’t be silly. You can’t become a fairy, you have to be born one…don’t you?”

“Umm…maybe, I dunno. I want to look like that too when I grow up.” Ai-Lei curls deep into her wicker chair and a dreamy glaze clouds her eyes.

“Mei-Lan, where are you? It’s bath time.” Mama’s shrill call jolts me upright.

“I’m coming, Ma,” I yell back, wishing Mama would stop treating me like a baby—a six-year-old baby. I sigh and give up chasing the princess in my head. I can almost feel her sash, fluttering gossamer wings, slipping through my fingers like sand. Uncurling my legs, I stretch my arms, rise up and stand at the edge of the balcony. My hands grasp the cold cement railing where, through the gaps, I can see a field of wooden planks across from the dusty path below. My seven-year-old brother is running with a group of boys on the planks while another boy gives chase. “Why can’t We-Shin take his bath first?” I think as resentment wells up in my chest and I watch We-Shin now stop to parry and thrust his hand in imaginary swordplay. He thinks he’s the hero slaying a fiery dragon. Sometimes in his pretend-world he cuts me down with blood-curdling whoops, making me believe his sword has truly felled me.

Over the boys’ boisterous play, I hear the silvery tinkle of cowbells, but I can’t see the cows. Dusk comes early in December. The milkman is heading home, and the calf must be trotting close to its mother, nosing into her milk-heavy bosom, hoping to slake its thirst. It seems to understand already that human’s needs come before its own. The poor thing eats last.

“Mei-Lan, come here this minute or you’re in trouble,” Mama hollers somewhere downstairs.

“Coming, Ma,” I yell and cast another lingering glance at the field that looks like a giant checkered carpet laid on the ground. The raw hides that had been stretched out to dry there were removed several hours ago. Now it is a playground and communal gathering place for storytelling. My kung-kung, grandpa, promised a new story for this evening. He said that he would tell us about his adventures during his travels from China to India where we now live in Calcutta in the leather-tanning community of Tangra. Kung-Kung left China on a boat about forty years ago during the early twenties.

With pleading eyes, Ai-Lei extends an arm toward me. “Can I borrow your book while you take your bath?”

I clutch my comic book to my chest. Mama subscribes to a Hakka merchant who in turn has the books shipped to him from Hong Kong. “Promise you won’t fold or tear it like you did the last one I lent you.”

“I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Reluctantly I hand the book to Ai-Lei and make my way to the stairs. As I put one foot on the first step, the last couple of tanning machines stop their incessant thrumming, and all is quiet. I continue half-way down to the landing and deep voices float up. Somewhere, mongrel dogs yelp—Mama says there aren’t any pure breeds here in Tangra. Probably fighting over a piece of bone.

I reach the ground floor and see a group of men with serious faces, gathered at the tannery’s front door.

“I received a letter today from Ah-Ping, my brother in Assam,” Uncle Chin-Li says from his rattan stool.

Mr. Wu glances up from one of the concrete benches flanking the entrance. His Adam’s apple wobbles in the wrinkled neck, and he drawls in his boring way, “Chin-Li, what is the latest news there? How many more Chinese families have been rounded up by the police?”

Oh, oh…not more war talk. It’s too scary. I should head to the bathroom right now before I get into trouble. Still, even though adult-talks sometimes make my heart race, I can’t help listening.

Then, We-Shin’s howling reaches my ears. “Ooh…my eye…my eye.”

It looks like his over-zealous fencing partner has jabbed my brother’s eye. In a flash, Mama dashes past me. Her ears are ultra-sensitive to our distress calls. Good, she’s forgotten about my bath.

Uncle Chin-Li continues as if We-Shin’s cries are nothing more than background noise. “Two more families were arrested. My brother doesn’t know where they’ve been taken to. Rumor has it that these people aren’t coming home any time soon.”

Mr. Wu says, “I heard that the Chinese are being interned in Rajasthan.”

“Why Rajasthan?” Mr. Chiu asks beside him, his voice rising higher.

“There’s a concentration camp in Deoli. The police are arresting Chinese people on trumped-up charges of espionage.”

“Bloody government,” Mr. Wong growls from the other bench. “India’s Border War with China is over, but still they arrest whole families.”

I climb up to Uncle Chin-Li’s lap and wiggle my bum until I’m comfortable. He wraps his arms around me and says, “Ah-Ping wrote that it’s only a matter of time before he and his family will be taken away too. He can’t leave as they’re being watched.”

“So, what about us? Are they going to arrest us too?” Mr. Chiu squeaks, one foot nervously bouncing up and down on his toes while his head nods back and forth.

Mr. Wu clears his throat. His wrinkled face looks grave. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us, but I do know that no Chinese is safe right now.”

“But that’s so unfair. We haven’t done anything. There’s no spy among us.” Mr. Chiu whines.

“Ah-Ping says that the police come and arrest Chinese people with no warning. They won’t let you take anything you can’t carry yourself. The women there are sewing bags just like we are doing here, and stuffing whatever they can into these bags.”

“Yes, it’s the wise thing to do. We all have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” Mr. Wu says.

A queasy sensation seems to churn in my chest and stomach. I look up at Uncle Chin-Li. “Aren’t the police supposed to arrest only bad people?”

“Mei-Lan, why aren’t you out there playing with your brother? You shouldn’t be listening to adults talk,” Uncle Chin-Li musses my hair.

“But Uncle Chin-Li, are we going to jail?”

“Of course not, you silly girl. Now run along and play catch with your brother.”

I slide down from my uncle’s knees just as Mama stops at the door, one hand clutching We-Shin’s upper arm. Mama frowns at me. “Mei-Lan, I’m giving your brother a bath first. You stay right here, and I’ll come back for you.”

Another reprieve from my bath.

I slip back upstairs to the balcony overhanging the front entrance. Ai-Lei has left, and I can make out the outlines of the two wicker loungers’ high backs. I climb up to one of them and watch the occasional lights twinkling in the distance as a car or a scooter drives by on the road, beyond the wooden planks field. Sounds of conversation hum below where Uncle Chin-Li and the other men continue to debate the Chinese people’s fate in India. I wonder what this place, Deoli in Rajasthan is like. The adults mentioned concentration camp. I’m not sure what that means. I wish I hadn’t given my comic book to Ai-Lei. But it’s too dark to see now, so forget the book.

Suddenly I realize that an unusual quiet has settled over the place. I scramble down from my chair and look down through the gaps. A dark and boxy vehicle parks below. The doors open and four men step outside. They disappear underneath the balcony, and I hear someone speak in Hindi. I can’t make out the words.

With my heart somersaulting up to my mouth, I creep downstairs. At the bottom of the steps, I see a terrifying sight. Four men underneath the naked yellow lightbulb, each tapping his palm with a baton. Four policemen in khaki uniform. Uncle Chin-Li and the other men seem nervous. Mr. Wu’s jaws grind and his Adam’s apple wobbles. Shadowy figures emerge outside and form a silent semi-circle beyond the entrance.

One of the policemen now raps the ground with his baton as he clears his throat and barks, “Looking for Mr. Shau-Min Chen. Shau-Min Chen?”

Horror fills every inch of my body. What do they want with Papa?

“Why are you looking for him?” I turn my head toward the tannery when I hear Mama’s quivering voice.

Behind her, scrubbed and fresh-faced, We-Shin gazes at the policemen with curious eyes.

“Where is Mr. Shau-Min Chen? We’re here to take him in,” the leader says with an imperious stare. I can feel the almost palpable disdain oozing from his body.

“He’s not here right now,” Mama says with a hint of defiance.

“It’s okay, Lillian, I’m Shau-Min Chen,” a quiet assertive voice says behind Mama.

Papa walks upright past Mama and stands in front of her like a shield. The officer takes a few steps forward and faces my papa at eye level.

“What am I being charged with?” Papa asks quietly.

“You are under arrest for spying against our country for the Chinese government.” The officer’s gaze wavers.

From my position, I can see Papa’s rigid spine and squared shoulders. He says, “How does a working man like me, born and raised here in Calcutta, with no ties to anyone in the Chinese government become a spy?”

“We have it on good authority recorded on this piece of paper here that you were speaking out against India.” The officer waves a piece of flimsy paper. “There’s a Chinese flag raised on your roof. What other proof do you need?”

“Sir, may I point out that there is an Indian flag right next to the Chinese flag up there? What anti-India words have I spoken? My crime, if you want to call it one, is speaking out against the War. I don’t believe that any war is necessary.”

The officer, his chin jutting forward, isn’t in a mood to debate the merits of the War with Papa. He motions his lackeys to take Papa into custody. “Enough of this talk. You’re coming with us.”

Papa raises his hands to halt them, “Since you’re determined to arrest me for something I haven’t done, please tell me where you’re taking me.”

“You’ll be interned at Deoli in Rajasthan.”

“That’s a long way from Calcutta.” For the first time Papa sounds apprehensive. “Can I have a few minutes to say goodbye to my family and to collect my things, please?”

“Make it quick.” The officer snaps his fingers.

“Wait,” Uncle Chin-Li says with a stoic expression, “please arrest me instead of my brother-in-law. He has a wife and three small children. I’m single and I can take his place.”

The officer’s eyebrows quirk upward like wings in flight. A fleeting disconcerted shadow flickers in his eyes before he says, “I can take you in too if you want, but my orders are to arrest Shau-Min Chen only.”

Papa turns to Uncle Chin-Li and grips his shoulders. “Thank you. That’s foolish and brave. I need you to stay and take good care of your sister and the children when I’m gone.”

My uncle’s mouth trembles and he clenches his jaws. “I’ll be here when you return.”

Papa’s arm circles Mama’s waist and they walk together to our room. A few minutes later the door re-opens. In her arms, Mama holds my little brother, We-Lim still rubbing sleep from his eyes. Papa is carrying two dark blue cotton bags that I had seen Mama fill with clothes and utensils only a few days ago. I had wondered back then why Mama was sewing so many bags. They stop a few paces from the officer.

Suddenly Mama’s wail pierces the charged air. Some of the women among the onlookers wipe their cheeks with their sleeves, sniffing and blowing their nose unabashedly. My hands clutch the banister at the bottom of the stairs. Nobody seems to notice me in the shadows as I watch the entire drama unfolding in front of me. Papa is not a criminal. The police are supposed to arrest thieves and murderers. This is a mistake. They must let Papa go.

Papa drops the bags and embraces Mama and my baby brother. He bends his head and whispers something to her. She becomes quiet, but her shoulders continue to shake as he rubs her back. Papa looks up and sees me. “Come here, Mei-Lan.” He beckons me with his fingers while his other hand reaches for We-Shin who is standing by the side with clenched fists.

I put a tentative foot forward. Papa says encouragingly, “Come here, my princess.”

The short distance gapes like a mile. I want to run and hug my papa, but my legs won’t move. Papa takes a couple of steps and lifts me into his arms. He holds me so tight I feel like my breath would burst through my lungs. Then he puts me down and my legs go wobbly like jelly. I’m glad his hand is gripping my shoulder, or I would surely collapse. Papa goes down on his knees and gathers We-Shin and me. I will never forget how sad he looks as he says, “Papa has to go away. Your mama is going to need all your help now. Can I count on you to be her helpers?”

We-Shin nods, his tears shining in the stark, yellow light. I knuckle my eyes, not quite understanding why Papa has to go. The terrifying sensations tell me this is real, that I will not see Papa for a long time.

Mama’s shoulders shudder violently and she releases an animal-like howl that I can’t bear to hear. Papa straightens up and holds Mama close to him. “Please don’t cry, Lillian. You must stay strong for our kids. I’ll be back soon, just wait and see. The government will come to their senses and realize this is not right,”

His sad gaze sweeps over us again as he turns. “I’m ready to go, Officer.”

I watch Papa through blurry eyes, my tears falling fast and furious. He inclines his head toward us one last time. The expression on his face is seared into my brain. Then he steps forward toward captivity with his head held up high. My papa is not a not a criminal.

My heart weighs like a brick, straining so hard against my rib cage that I think it will break off and shatter into pieces. I wish I could turn the clock back. I wish I’d listened to Mama when she called me to go for my bath. Maybe Papa would not have to go away if I’d done what Mama wanted me to do. I turn and bury my face in Mama’s shirt as I fling my arms around her waist. I hear the car door close with a thud, and I lift my head to look for Papa.

He is gone, swallowed inside by the black van. I glance up at the officer as he lifts his feet off the ground. For a brief moment our eyes lock. I hold his gaze without flinching, willing from the bottom of my soul that he would change his mind. He blinks and closes the door.

With a roar, the engine comes to life. The big black box jolts back and forth a few times. Then its headlights turn away from us. Only the tail lights are now visible. Soon, they twinkle and vanish around the corner. I feel hollow with an emptiness I cannot touch or soothe. With We-Lim still clinging to her, Mama gathers We-Shin and me. She bows her head and sobs. I wish I can wipe her tears away, but I’m too busy wiping my own.

Musings of a Staunch Hakka

The inimitable Fei Chen, bitten by the writing bug has contributed a number of articles for my blog. Here she is again, unabashedly enthusiastic about her “Hakka-ness.”

A jewel in the Chen family

We are born social creatures. From the moment we arrive on this earth, we blink with tears of joy and turn on high octave voices to attract love and affection. Emma Lily Chen, my first grandniece, arrived into the Chen family on March 17th, 2015, which is also St Patrick’s Day. Baby Emma is our symbol of love, hope and joy. She is like a pearl engaging us with her beauty. She stirs our thoughts and brings the family together with joy, conversation and laughter.

If I were…

Imagine being in my shoes for a moment—I was excited to attend a reading by C Fong Hsiung, so I arrived at the reading an hour before the scheduled time. I toured my surroundings with curiosity, wonder and fascination. Two love birds sat on an aluminum bench in the empty University of Toronto stadium, shoulder to shoulder, sharing secrets in that open space, showing off their youth and their carefree spirits. They reminded me of my younger self decades ago.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled reading time I hurried to the second floor of the OISE building feeling like an obedient goody-goody student. As I was about to enter the room, an orator with curly hair and bewildered eyes greeted me. She said “You must be Fong.” I replied: “How I wish I were Fong!”

If I were Fong, I would bury my head under the sand like an ostrich and simply write and write and write. I have earned my experiences and knowledge through life’s journey, be they good, okay, or yet to be discovered. Perhaps I will let my stories fan out like the beautiful feathers of a fanciful peacock.

Fanciful musings aside

We now have history in the making right in the midst of our Hakka family. We are an opinionated culture, critical among ourselves, and often indulge in gossip that gets us into trouble and emotional turmoil. At the same time, I realize that these very same spoken words, emotions, culture, traditions and our language help us to connect with one another and blossom. During this past Mother’s Day celebration, the Lee twin sisters and many other sponsors put together a special luncheon for the Hakka community. During that meeting, Shaun Chen identified himself as a Liberal Party candidate for the upcoming federal election. We wish Shaun great success in our great Canadian democracy.

Go Shaun Go!!!

A Piece of SKY…Food for Thought

Fei Chen has been featured in these blog posts several times. This one is her latest about the Hakka culture.

Sky“Everybody has a piece of Sky over their head. 每人頭上有一頂天.”  My sister said to me at times of uncertainty. I’m comforted that Sky or 天 protects and looks after all of us. Sky and I have formed a very special bond. With my head turned up to the blue Sky, I whisper my secrets and joys and deposit all my imaginary treasures in that heavenly space.

Not everyone is lucky to have a sister to look out for them or to impart words of wisdom. 每人頭上有一頂天. Many years ago when we ventured out to North America, we faced unknowns and other obstacles.  I was lucky that during such times, I had and still have my sister with whom I can share my inner-most thoughts, my joys and my doubts.

Now that the snow has melted away, at the crack of dawn I am once again able to venture outside in the open spaces in search of my hidden treasures and to reconnect with my piece of Sky 天.

Sky : In our Hakka culture we refer to Sky-天 as our supreme celestial power from which we draw our physical and mental well-being.  When I was young, I used to accompany my grandmother to climb four long flights of stairs to the pinnacle where our revered temple or 聖帝公公 is located in Pei-Mei High school, Calcutta, India.  Our rickshaw-wala carried our wicker baskets filled with food prepared by my mom. These we offered to our God. I watched my grandmother bow to the open Sky first, holding lighted incense sticks, before she commenced her prayers.

Chef Wong

Food for thought: Just as food forms the main part of our offerings to God, food brings us together at our Hakka community gatherings. The delicious flavor of food leaves us with more sweet thoughts about ourselves and the people we shared the feast with.  In our last Hakka social gathering we were privileged to have Chef Paul Wong 黃正傑 join us and demonstrate how to make Northern Chinese dumplings. Our very own Hakka Chef Paul! He was chatty and full of humour while he did a “show and tell” of this savory authentic Chinese cuisine which not only satisfied our appetite, but also stimulated our brains.

bon appétit !!!

Mighty Sun and Its Reflection

Mighty Sun

Fei Chen is the guest blogger for this post.

Beauty from my backyard:

Sunrise is a natural phenomenon that occurs every 24 hours.  I watch its ascend over the water from the best seat on Earth,—the beach behind my house—a visual feast for the naked eye. It pleases my senses to see the red hot ball of fire spiral out of a huge body of shimmering water that is Lake Ontario. Gently and gracefully it lifts itself out of the water leaving me just enough time to glimpse its reflection, before going on to share its solar powers with the world.

I was lucky enough to capture that precise moment with my iPad and it is my pleasure to share that picture with you.

Life is a journey:

Each sunrise marks a new day in our journey through life. When we reach the end of this trip, Buddhist conventions bring our family members, relatives and friends together. We congregate to support each other for the loss of our loved one and to pray for the departing soul’s smooth crossover.

Recently I had the privilege of sitting down in the memoriam hall of our Buddhist temple to pray for 姑丈 (Uncle), my 愛容姑’s husband who passed away.  The monks led us in solemn prayer service. The gong bell dinged at intervals accompanied by the occasional drum-beat during the monks’ rhythmic chanting. We burned incense to help the departing soul accelerate into the path of eternal peace.

During my meditation, I glimpsed my departed grandparents’ and my father’s plaques, which hung on the memoriam wall. I could not help but contemplate my own mortality. Memories of our unconditional family bonds crept into my mind to remind me of how lucky and privileged we were. These reflections of my extended family also left me with many bittersweet stories of days gone by. In that brief waking moment, I realized that life is simply a journey and we are the passengers.

Power of Yoga:

Just as my visit to the Buddhist temple to pray and meditate for departed loved ones can feed my spiritual soul, so does practicing Yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning discipline in mind, body and spirit. There are many forms of Yoga practice, and the beauty of it is that you can do it on your own with your own purpose in mind. I love Yoga as it allows me to detach myself from everything and work with nothingness. I can sink into my inner self, to find my own solace, embrace my surroundings and connect with my cheerful side.

Namaste!!!

2015 – Year of the Goat

Year of the Goat

Fei Chen, the author of this post has been a guest here a few times. If you enjoy reading this, you may like her other posts: Why You Should Celebrate Your Life and In Memory of a Neighbor.

Goat, sheep, lamb—domestic livestock. They’ve provided us with food, clothing, symbolism, and even memories for centuries.

 Food and Religious Offerings:

My earliest memory of a goat came from my grand-mother who was the matriarch of the Chen family. Small in stature but big in ideologies, she believed in building a successful business and keeping her family comfortable. My grandmother owned a leather-tanning business that employed local natives. These spiritual locals believed in offering live goats as sacrifices (Puja) to please God in return for His blessing to all humankind.  Every year my grandmother obliged her employees with a live goat. They also got a day off to perform their ritual—a gesture that made everyone happy as it also provided meat for a tasty curry.  This is something that I value most about communal living.

 Memories with My Children:

Ba Ba black sheep—life was a merry-go-round when I was raising my two kids. I learned with them, ate with them, and sang nursery rhymes with them. We learned how to count, do arithmetic, and memorize our times tables the old-fashioned way.  My children—full of fun—filled me with joy as they still do to this day.

 Passengers in Noah’s Ark:

The Book of Genesis says that Noah’s Ark drifted in the Flood when God sent heavy rainfall for forty days and forty nights. On board this vessel were pairs of every animal. So of course, goats would have been among the chosen ones—living undisturbed and happily in the Ark. Though there is no physical proof of Noah’s Ark, the story prevails. It continues to flourish and to entertain our imagination of a legendary Ark atop Mount Ararat in Lebanon.

 2015 Lunar Year of the Goat:

February 19, 2015 is our Lunar New Year and millions of people around the globe will be celebrating the New Year on that New-Moon day.  The traditions, beliefs, and culture pass on from generation to generation reminding us of who we are and where we come from.

Happy New Year! 恭喜癹財!

Why You Should Celebrate Your Life

FeiHsia2

This is a guest post written by Fei Chen. She writes thought-provoking pieces about life mainly for herself, and now I’m honoured to have her share some of her thoughts here.

Celebration of Life: I recently attended the funeral of our neighbor, 敬元哥 who lived to be 98 years old, or 102 years according to the lunar calendar. Instead of tears, his descendants greeted me with smiles. I was surprised, but pleased when one of his grandchildren explained that since her grandfather had passed on after 90, rather than mourn his death, our Indian Hakka community should celebrate his life.

In our conscious state we don’t spend enough time celebrating our lives. Instead we constantly plan, busily organize our calendars, and work like restless bees to acquire tangible assets. We do this to feed our physical needs, trying our best to achieve our set goals: this is what I call “a sequence of our life journey.” You see, our parents instilled in us these values of hard work and responsibility for ourselves. In turn I tell my children to follow the same mantra: go to university, earn degrees, find a good paying job, and settle down to a stable life just like the vast majority.

But we don’t have to follow the masses. I once watched a prominent actress on TV say, “What if a turtle has wings…” She made me put on my thinking cap, and I realized that humans have multidimensional brains. We think, react, and perform sequentially, but we can also step out of our comfort zone and think virtually and dream in the abstract.

Life is a Process:  I believe every one of us is born with a unique gift to prepare and equip us for our survival, challenges, and expectations.  Often we lose our faith when we battle opposing strong currents; then we are forced to take refuge to reassess our priorities.  Once we recognize and discover that sparkle and joy of life, however long it may take, we say, “OH WOW!!!”

Two Hakka Matriarchs Remembered: I immensely enjoyed reading C Fong Hsiung’s book Picture Bride recently. I appreciated the stories and the characters in the book that carried me back 35 years ago. In the scene where the Fong described Jillian’s grand-mother’s big 70th birthday bash, I couldn’t help but picture the author’s own grand-mother 亜球伯姆 and my grand-mother who were best friends while I was growing up in Tangra, Calcutta. 亜球伯姆 and my grand-mother were two matriarchs, close associates, and just like “two peas in a pod.”  When I was a teenager, I used to accompany these two old ladies during their Tuesday matinees at the cinemas. I’d overhear their conversations, and found their friendship and sisterhood truly remarkable.

Full Circle: As I stood in front of the lifeless body of 敬元哥 to pay my last respect, despite the smiling faces around me, emotionally I felt sad, and physically I felt empty and hollow. But then I wondered, “What if 敬元哥’s soul has crossed over, and my grand-mother and my dad greeted him on the other side?” Is there actually life after death?  What if there is a subconscious state where our souls fly to eternity when they depart from our physical bodies, and so on and on…

In Memory of a Neighbor

FeiHsia

Guest Post by Fei Chen

The neighbors from my childhood home have great bonds with my mother and love for her. We lived in communal surroundings in Calcutta, India where we cared, joked, and had fun together after long and sweaty work days. We respected the elders, loved the children, looked out for one another and often shared our food together. I have come to the conclusion that it is that sharing of food that glues our human feelings, bonds our emotions, and feeds our spiritual needs. In retrospect, in the old days we did not have a typical social structure; instead each family was like a cloister, compelled to cobweb ourselves in a tight and close-knit environment, and ultimately that kinship and social behavior became the cradle for our norm.

Last summer 月雲姊 and 緆芳哥 came from the United States to visit their friends and families in Toronto. My sister was with us at that time and I had the privilege of sitting down with them for lunch. 緆芳哥 wittily said to me with a mischievous smile, “Munchu said hello to you!” At that moment his tone of voice and his facial expression resonated with my childhood memories of Munchu. He was a street vendor who sold me numerous helpings of junk food in our old neighborhood of Tangra, also called Dhappa. This was a place where all Hakka people knew each other’s affairs and family histories. In that place we created our live comedies, laughing at other’s visible disabilities and immaturities without malice. We laughed out loud and then instantly shook off the scene and moved on to the next stage of life. We carried no menace, threats or physical harm to others.

Our ancestors like many others, left China and settled in Calcutta, India around the time when communism was in its incubation. Also we Hakka are adventurous and free-spirited people. I have witnessed my parents overcome ups and downs in different venture capital businesses. Yet they came out of their hardships, cheerful and triumphant, and always learned from their mistakes while they moved on.

緆芳哥 and his family were our family friends, and they were living in our compound long before I was born. To this day they still communicate with my mother. A short time ago while I was at my mom’s place for lunch, the phone rang, and it was 月雲姊 and 緆芳哥 saying hello. Then a few weeks later we were notified that 緆芳哥 had passed away. We are sad to lose one of our true friends from our inner circle.

Life is fragile. Everybody measures, values and loves life differently. I like to quote from our spiritual leader Dalai Lama and how he sees life: “Love and Compassion.”

30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: What an Experience

A Free Course, Reblog-hop-150x150ally

Is anything really free these days? The only thing I can think of is the air that we breathe. But wait, let me tell you about D’vorah Lansky’s 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge. Not only was it free, it DELIVERED…day after day during the thirty days. And the best part of it all…you don’t need to spend a cent if you don’t want to and still get the full benefit of the course. Did I get your attention yet?

Converting a Skeptic

I started out as a skeptic. How much can I really learn from a free course? You heard the saying before: “You get what you pay for.” Well, not this time. D’vorah packed so much content into the 30-Day Challenge that I could barely keep up. I stayed up late at night listening to the webinars and constantly reading the great variety of materials provided. The posts teased and pushed my brain to its limit. How do I get the best out of all these marketing tips? So many to choose from, and I still have a day job to do.

My Ah-ha Moment

On Day 18 of the Challenge, I listened to Kristen Eckstein speak about serializing books on Kindle. I knew right there and then that I’d found a strategy that would suit me perfectly. My fiction, Picture Bride, will be published by a traditional publisher during fall 2014. I don’t have a book out yet, but I have many short stories that I’m still editing. Why not release some of these stories as a series on Kindle? And for my free giveaway for anyone signing up on my website, I started to write an ebook called How to Stir the Writing Fire in Your Belly.

I was on fire. I signed up for Kristen’s Kindle in 30 Challenge for the discounted rate of $97. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you don’t have to pay for anything if you don’t want to. I’ve just started this course and hoping to self-publish my first ebook soon.

About My Novel

Picture Bride is about a young Hakka Chinese girl from India who marries a cold and aloof stranger in Canada. Bound by tradition and culture, she stays in the marriage despite his uncaring ways and even after she discovers his secret. Then when she is forced to flee, she is spurned by her father who cares only about his honor and reputation.

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Stir the Writing Fire in Your Belly

Once upon a time, if you asked me if I believe I could write a novel, I would have said, “No.” That changed when I started “Picture Bride”, a book I have now completed after working on it for two years. Determination was the single most important factor for my finishing this project. But how do you get this fire in your belly?

For many years, I had this vague notion in my head that I would write a novel. It was just a seed, blown about and unable to take root as life kept happening and other priorities would uproot this little sapling. When I finally decided that I had a book in me, the seed grew and took hold this time. If you’re contemplating whether you should start writing a book, and you need assistance in motivating yourself like I did, here are some of the things you can do.

  1. Take a writing course. The positive feedbacks can leave you glowing with pleasure and wanting more. I took an online program and thoroughly enjoyed working with my coaches.
  2. Turn the internet into your friend. The resources online are limitless. When my writing bug first nibbled, I couldn’t find anything helpful in the bookstores and the libraries—the internet was only just emerging. The best I could lay my hands on was a book that put me to sleep each time I attempted to read it. Needless to say, I never finished it. 
  3. Read about the writing craft, advice from bloggers, books…anything that helps you improve your art and teaches you about the publishing world. 
  4. Join writing forums, the ones that allow you to post your stories and poems for other members to critique in a constructive environment. I found writing.com to be extremely helpful in fuelling my creativity during the early part of my novel.
  5. Join social media. I was hopelessly lost on Twitter during my newbie attempt and turned away for a long time. When I came back, I was determined to figure out what the buzz was all about. What I discovered was a whole new universe where writers and others are more than happy to share all kinds of useful information. Follow the links on some of the tweets to find out what other writers, social media gurus, and sometimes, unsavoury characters—you can skip these, are doing.
  6. Attend a writers’ conference. When I attended my first one, I received the biggest boost to my writing side…I can’t begin to quantify the benefits.
  7. Create a writing routine and stick with it. Make your goals achievable so you don’t come down hard on yourself with the guilt trips. My target was not word count…that was too difficult given that some days my left brain was more active than the right.
  8. Write short stories and poems to take breaks from your book. It’s like flexing the smaller creative muscles to feed the bigger ones.
  9. Find out if there’s a writer in your community or amongst your contacts. Befriend him or her. Somewhere along my writing journey, I was introduced to one. She not only fanned the sparks that sometimes threatened to fizzle, but we’ve become good friends too.
  10. Buy a tablet or an ebook reader. It’s so easy to download books and they cost a fraction of the printed ones. Sometimes they cost nothing! And you’re supporting the writing community in the process.

So write on.

My Namesake…My Challenge

How convoluted can your name get? If you have a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you my story.

When I was born, my parents promptly named me and registered my birth just like any law-abiding citizens. What’s so unusual about that? It’s a big deal—given that we’re talking about living in India during a time when many Chinese births were not registered until years later.

Owning an accurate birth certificate was quite an accomplishment…it was, until my parents decided to change part of my name before I enrolled for kindergarten at the local Chinese school. Apparently my generational name—the one that was common to all my sisters, unborn at the time—was in conflict with one of our ancestors in China. My parents didn’t think it was necessary to update my birth certificate though.

The curve ball came when I went to an English school at eight—earlier than most other Hakka Chinese kids my age. Rather than use my birth name, I was enrolled with my revised name spelled phonetically. One could argue that my high school certificate is not mine.

Another twist came about when we were allowed to become legal Indian citizens. The birth certificate became an important document. Only problem was that the person preparing my application added an alias. Now here was the perfect opportunity to right all that was wrong, but no…that would have made too much sense. I’ll spare you the details—fodder for another blog perhaps—of how a butchered sound-alike of my name was included into my citizenship documents.

When I immigrated to Canada, I reverted back to my legal given name registered at birth…until I got married and adopted my husband’s surname…but that’s the least convoluted part of this story.

Eight Years Old, and All Grown Up

When I was eight years old, I went away to study at a boarding school for the first time–at my own insistence–I might add. My English education began because I pestered my mother to let me study English. The local Chinese school in Tangra, a suburb of Calcutta (now called Kolkata), was the primary school for most of us back then.

My mother relented, and I went away to another city. I had to take an overnight train to get to my school where I stayed for nine months a year with two breaks, summer and winter. Too late…as I tried to get some sleep, half lying on my bedding roll in a crowded train compartment, I was confronted with the reality of what I’d committed myself to. I wouldn’t see my mom for the next four and half months. That was enough to bring some huge tears, and I mean torrential downpours, that lasted for a couple of weeks.

During those early days at school, struggling to learn English, I regretted bitterly being a spoiled kid and getting my way. The truth was my mother probably wanted an English education for me, and when I bugged her to let me go, she didn’t need a lot of coaxing.

Later, when English became more of a first language to me than my own Hakka dialect, I patted myself for being so forceful with my mother…I actually had the audacity to think that my eight-year old self was responsible for my own educational direction.

My mother’s birthday is coming up this week. I dedicate this blog to her for giving me the gift of language.

The Hakka Moral Police

The Hakka self-righteousness was in its full glory, bestowed upon an unlikely victim—one of my sisters, a university professor.

An anonymous self-appointed moral police—obviously the cowardly kind—sent a letter to my sister via her mother-in-law. The writer admonished my sister for displaying inappropriate behaviour in public—the reason, she shakes her leg sometimes when she’s seated. Now I don’t know about anybody, but I often shake my leg unconsciously too. It’s not a jerky movement. Okay really, do I even need to justify it?

Another sister, the one who hopes to write an expose´ on humour in everyday stuff that bugs her, thinks the motions may actually benefit the body if one considers any physical activity better than being inert. Ah… pity…the writer implied that such movements are vulgar and only fit for women who worked in tea and beer houses in the old days in China.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Apart from giving us a good laugh, the anonymous writer has wasted precious time and energy, especially if he or she is an old…insert whatever you want here. Clearly these people have too much time on their hands. In the writer’s own words, they’ve taken it upon themselves to call out behaviour that is unbecoming, e.g. smoking, drinking, and of course, bouncing legs. Who gave these gossip-mongers the right to sit on the high moral pedestal?