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"Happy Life" and Me

05186 Pu Yan
Translated by Nie Xu Min

As long as I could remember, corn was the staple food in my family. Every day, we grind the sun-dried corn with a stone mill, soak it in the water for the entire afternoon, filter and steam it in a bamboo steamer. After the hot steam has completely penetrated the bamboo steamer, we pour the corn into a large bowl, mix it with boiling water to form a thin paste, filter and steam the paste for another half hour. And it is ready to eat. During autumn harvest season, we can enjoy a rice meal, which makes a happiest day for all the children in the family, even though we only have the usual boiled vegetables to go with the rice.

Meat was a luxury, only available during New Years' Holiday. During that time, there was a widely told joke about a poor family that could not afford any meat but love to pretend and show off. They would hang a small piece of fat meat behind the front door and wipe their mouth with it before going out. People would see their oily mouth and think they were rich since they could afford meat every day. We had all kinds of wild berries and fruits for snacks. When my grandparents were still alive, they would live in a shack at the foot of the mountain and I would stay with them since I could enjoy meat from wild animals they hunted. They planted plantain and sugarcane and took them to the market to sell for salt. Whatever unsold became our snacks.

After primary school, my father began to go out to work, and the situation at home improved a little. A mixture of corn and rice became our stable food and we could enjoy meat not only during the Spring Festival, but also occasionally during other festivals. I could never forget what happened during a Dragon Festival. My family cooked a big pot of pork. Since we had not had any meat for such a long time, my second brother ate a lot that day and didn't eat any rice. Later, he became really sick and finally vomited. He was about four and a half years old. For several years after that, he didn't want to touch any meat. Now, 14 years later, he still does not eat much meat. Now when my mother sometimes talks about this with us, she jokes that my second brother saved a lot of meat for the family.

After I entered second grade, I took my three younger brothers with me to school every afternoon. The oldest brother was five-year old, the second oldest brother was three and the youngest was just one. My mother would give me one yuan a day as snack money for four of us. There were no snacks that we could buy. A teacher's mother in our school was making steam buns and selling them at school, charging 50 cents for two buns. I would buy four every day. During my classes, my three brothers would sit on the floor under my desk. I took a peek from time to time to see how they were doing. Sometimes they were quiet and would fall asleep against each other under my desk. Sometimes they were restless. I would give them each a steam bun and save the last one as a reward for the best behaving one during classes. Most of the time they all behaved and I would split the remaining bun among three of them.

When I graduated from primary school in 2004, all the villagers advised my father against letting me continue to go to school. I cried and begged. My father finally allowed me to go to junior high school. The nine-year compulsory education program has not yet been implemented in our part of the country. Primary and middle schools were not free. We had to pay tuition and textbook fees. We could not make ends meet and started to take on all kinds of debts, what with my boarding expense, my living expenses, my tuition, and the tuition and miscellaneous expenses of my three younger brothers, and money needed for grocery.

During college, I was visiting home once during winter break. I happened to notice my mother lying in bed, in great pain, with sweat all over her forehead. I asked what was the matter with her. She told me she had stomachache. She asked me not to worry and told me that it had been going on for a while and not a big deal. I asked my aunt about it. My aunt told me that, after I went to junior high school, my mother would pretend to be busy with house works and did not start her meal until my three brothers had finished. Often there would be little food left for her after my brothers were done since they were in their growth spurts and ate a lot. At that time, my mother often stayed hungry, eating very little, sometimes only one meal a day. I owe her so much!

Once my mother was chatting with some people about me and shared a story. I was in junior high then. One Sunday afternoon, before I went back to school, I started to quarrel my mother. She became agitated and started beating me with a bamboo stick. I decided to go back to school immediately and started packing up my things, with tears in my eyes. Before I walked out of the door, I walked up to my mother, wiped my tears and gave her all the money I had, five yuan. I asked her to use it to buy salt. Later my mother told me that after I left that day, she started crying. It was 2005. That was when PEACH found me and gave me much needed help. I was getting good grades. Because my family was poor, the school waived my tuition and PEACH subsidized me 400 yuan per semester. After paying for my living expenses and miscellaneous expenses, there were some still left out of the 400 yuan to help my family. I got 20 yuan every week, for 20 weeks in a semester. Out of the 20 yuan, I gave my family five or ten. Although it was not much, it was enough to buy salt for the whole family for a week. People often say that icing on the cake is nice, but I think help in times of need is the most precious.

In fifth and sixth grades of primary school, we were required to do review sessions during evening. The electricity service was just set up and unstable. We often had to use oil lamp for lighting during review sessions. I still remember the faint light and the oily smell from the oil lamp. After the school was out in the afternoon, I would cook dinner when I got home. I have been cooking dinners since I was very young since adults were busy with farm work. Sometimes I was running late for my evening review sessions after cooking and had to take my meals to eat on the way to school. What I dreaded most was to run into my classmates on the way. I was afraid that they would laugh at my colorful meals - corn with green vegetables and boiled bean dregs. Although the food looked really pretty and tasted well, I thought that people would make fun of me. When I was just beginning to understand the world and have a sense of honor, disgrace, and inferiority, I thought being poor was the most shameful thing. I felt inferior because my family was poor. This inferiority complex made me even less reluctant to have too much contact with my classmates. I became over-sensitive, arrogant and withdrawn at the same time. During those awkward and difficult days, books were my only friend. The first book I had, Camel Xiangzi, was a gift from PEACH. When I received it on a bright summer afternoon, I finished reading it without stopping. Later on, I began to save money to buy books myself. In those days, in addition to daily classes and studies, my only companion was those books. All emotions, my happiness, my loneliness, my sadness, were related to my books.

When I was reading the sad stories in Camel Xiangzi, Aunt Jeng taught me the most important lesson - "Happy Life". I began to think, to understand and to manage my emotions. I started to understand the defects and shortcomings in character and to attempt to change them to make myself a warm and loving person. Aunt Jeng knew a lot of stories. She once said that people are like fish in the sea. If a fish refuses to make friends with all the other fish in the sea just because a few fish don't like you, it's the most stupid and unworthy behavior.

"Happy life" class gave me a lot of strength and has benefited me throughout the years. Whenever I encounter difficulties or face life choices, I always remember the lesson. It reminds me that I should take a long-term view rather than focus only on the short-term interests of the moment. My English has not been very good, but I always remember what Aunt Jeng kept telling us in Happy Life class – "be yourself". We sang to the tune of Ode to Joy, "I learn English. I learn Chinese. I also learn to be happy!" This, is our eternal Ode to Joy.

Before I went to college, I didn't think much about my future. I just diligently and carefully attended class and finished my homework. After I graduated from High School, I was admitted to college. My parents had a fierce quarrel about whether I should continue my education. The topic of divorce even came up during the heated argument. I obtained a government regional student loan for tuition, and applied for a college loan from PEACH for living expenses. In addition, I took on part-time jobs in my spare time. Finally, I became the only college graduate in the village. Every time I bring up this fact, people think I am really good. In fact, I am not a bit proud of this, but rather sad. There are so many people who still can't afford to go to school. There's nothing to be proud to be the only college graduate. I am just luckier.

In my sophomore year, Aunt Jeng came to Qingdao to visit. We went hiking in Laoshan Mountain. The weather was very bad that day, windy and cold. On our way back in the afternoon, Aunt Jeng was not feeling well. We supported each other as we hiked down. Suddenly, Aunt Jeng quickly walked to the side of road and began vomiting under the tree. I followed her and gently patted her back. When she took out her handkerchief and looked up, I saw tears in her eyes. When we started walking again, the road became too narrow for us to go side by side. Aunt Jeng went in the front and I followed. After a while, she stopped, looked back and waited for me to catch up. I was not tired. I was just watching her walking down the steps from behind. She lifted one foot, tilted her body to put her weight on the other foot. When she put down her foot to the lower step, as she shifted her weight forward to this foot, it seemed that she was going to squat down. She walked slowly. As I watched from behind, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotions. At that moment, I was thinking that we were not related to her, but she came to us from thousands of miles away just to give us love and hope. She was our dearest.

There are many possibilities in one's life, and we can only choose one. However, sometimes we might not even have the opportunity to make a choice. If PEACH had not entered my life, I would possibly be living a completely different life today. Maybe I would just find someone, get married early and have children. If I were luckier, I might work on a production line in some factory, and have several children to support, leaving the elderly and children at home. When I became too old to work in factory, I could work as coolies because I were illiterate. Or I had to stay at home and live the way my father and mother did, constantly struggling to survive.

PEACH has given me many firsts in my life: first book, first physical examination, first pair of glasses, first friend, first warm sweater. PEACH has given me many other things: love, courage, ability to be happy. All these have had an indelible effect on me. PEACH has not only provided me with material help, but also given me a lot of psychological support and care. All these have enabled me to gradually learn to become a warm and loving human being. All sufferings and setbacks will pass. In the past ten years, I have slowly grasped the true meaning of a happy life. It is to be myself, to live with dignity and pride.

 

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