Taiwanese fiction by Loa Ho, translated by Darryl Sterk
Editor’s note: Loa Ho (賴和), also known as Lazy Cloud, was a Taiwanese poet, born in 1894. A doctor by profession, it was his contribution to the literary republic – overlooked today – that led him to be hailed as the “father of modern Taiwanese literature.” This 1932 story, translated and republished in the new collection Scales of Injustice, was first published in the founding issue of Voice of the South (南音), a literary journal where Taiwanese cultural elites hoped to communicate with the wider public.
If a product is not up to standard in the factory you still have the chance to fix it, but if it makes it all the way to the market and customers don’t like it, it’s useless and will get thrown away. That’s how I felt when I arrived home after graduating from university, like a reject. It was an unpleasant homecoming.
Several days after I got home I lost the courage to go out, because every time I did I met relatives or friends who would say, “Congratulations, you graduated!” Which I found terrifying, because it would remind me that I had left the factory and was en route to the market. In the first few days, of course, I was happy to be reunited with my family after a long absence. I didn’t yet feel lonely. But soon I was used to being home again and realized all the adults in the family were busy, and that most of my younger brothers and sisters were still in school. Playing with the youngest, who were not yet old enough for school, made me happy, but it was embarrassing when I tried to discipline them, because they would always start crying. I really didn’t know how to comfort them. Even playing with them, I often made them cry, which opened me to complaints from the one who was actually responsible for taking care of the kids. So I just sat around at home and felt bored and useless.
Over a decade of student life had distanced me from my family. And when I went out I was like a guest everywhere I went. People were so polite it made me uncomfortable. To them, I was like a new product on the market people don’t trust. My fear of rejection only intensified.
Ever since I left home, I had always come back for the summer vacation a few months every year. Why did it feel so different now that I had graduated? Ah! Now I knew why. Kids all came back for summer holidays and would form their own circle with their own games and entertainments. No wonder I now felt alienated from regular society. This year there were five graduates including me. But they were no longer free from responsibility like during our student years. I couldn’t get together and hang out with them. It was the first step we had taken into society, only to discover that the proclivities of ordinary people were so totally different from ours. There was a yawning chasm between regular society and us, or at least me. The more afraid I was to go out the more bored and useless I felt.
When the boredom couldn’t be dispelled I thought of my childhood playmates who hadn’t gone to college, or even completed their schooling. My friends! The ones who tossed tops with me, or flew kites, captured crickets, picked up snails – where were they now? I heard some of them were dead. Dead? How could death come for someone so young? Death shouldn’t make me feel sad, I told myself, for no one can avoid it. Most were alive, of course. One had won a prize in public school to my envy but was now working as a porter and peddler. The first time I saw him in the street I feared he’d be ashamed, because to me it seemed he had no spirit of self-improvement; if he did he wouldn’t go and do such low-class work. I tried to avoid him, but then he saw me, too. He greeted me very warmly, without any shame. This surprised me, and made me ashamed, as if I was small-hearted.
Another playmate got who knows what lucky break and struck it rich. It wasn’t all luck, though; he was really keen on self-improvement and was now a gentleman. He hadn’t been a good student and had been underestimated by his teachers and peers alike. His effort in acquiring social status deserved respect. But when I met him in the street and called out to him, hoping to catch up a bit, he was cold, like he couldn’t be bothered to waste his precious time on me. Or like he was worried that a conversation with me would sully his dignity. Obviously, he cut the conversation short. His misunderstanding of my intentions made me laugh at myself, as if I’d been fawning over him.
Aside from the two I saw on the street, there were a few I still remembered but did not meet: like A-pho the champion swimmer, funny-looking A-iōng who could make such good paper kites, and goofy-looking A-tai who still called his dad ‘Daddy’ in his teenage years. They came to life again in my memory.
Every time I came home on summer holidays, the time would fly. Worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself to the fullest, I’d spend my time in idle entertainments. Now, I was much more inclined to wander around and observe the world, which seemed different from when I was younger. I didn’t hear the little gongs that announced the arrival of the dessert tofu pedlar so often anymore. Some other pedlars had disappeared, like the guy who set out his stand to sell silky smooth black ‘sandwiches’ with the white filling, the old fellow whose ancestors had come from Tiô-tsiu in China who sold salty, sour, sweet – various kinds of fruit preserves – and liked to joke around with us kids, and sugar cane Pêng, who set up in front of the temple. I remembered, too, the sound of the bah-chàng hawker Mr Chhiu, who could be heard from miles away in the night. I guessed these people had all died. The only pedlars I had seen again were the malt-syrup and the sweet-dumpling soup sellers, men I first met a dozen years ago.
What I really found fushigi, amazing, was that I didn’t see bigger children in the street. In our day, packs of kids roamed around. The reason for the lack of kids turned out to be that school-age children were all in public school. Ah! Was education now universal? I recalled that in our day people were reluctant to send their kids to school, no matter what incentives the authorities gave. Everyone said reading Japanese books was useless, and what we should be learning was Chinese. Obviously in the past decade people’s thinking had changed quite drastically.
In the past few days I’d discovered a fact that had given me some relief, though it was a disappointment to my family. It was that there was nothing for me to do at home. My usefulness was no longer an issue, and my fear of rejection had naturally been relieved. I stopped worrying about how to make myself useful and went out exploring.
The market street had been widened, a rare urban renewal project in a time of economic downturn. The big new Western-style houses, on the one hand, and the squat old shacks, on the other hand, symbolized the class divide in the twentieth century. The market was still bustling, with people constantly coming and going, but the ‘big business’ of the past was no more. A ‘civil’ retail market had replaced the old ‘martial’ wholesale market. There seemed to be far fewer beggars than before, people who transfigured this tawdry street market by demonstrating the truth of the world. And at the outdoor amphitheatre where the storytellers used to regale us with tales of the olden days, idlers sat around in groups like constellations in the morning sky.
The Temple to the Goddess of the Sea – that centre of faith, sacred realm of the pious incense burners – had been torn down. ‘Ah! Progress! When did the people of my hometown get so brave in embracing it?’ I couldn’t help gasping in surprise. This was the first attack on superstition, or so I thought. When I asked around I heard that the temple was being rebuilt. But I also heard that it was torn down quite a while back and had just been left like that, the ruin you saw now. Did the local leaders really have the ability to rebuild? I wondered impertinently. On the road outside there were usually quite a few beggars waiting for pious men and women to come with their ex-voto offerings to thank God for making their wishes come true. The beggars were hoping the pious men and women would show them some charity. Today at the entrance I saw someone whose job it was to drive away beggars. He said it was a government job. Did a beggar now need kyoka, permission to beg?
The Confucian temple is much more derelict than before. Before it served for classrooms for the public school, and there was upkeep from time to time, but now the only purpose it served was to enshrine the Sage, and they’d let it get run down. Amid the calls to respect the way of the Sage wasn’t it absurd? But on the other hand, the prescience of community leaders in not wasting labour was admirable.
Two weeks after returning home, the sweet-dumpling soup and malt-syrup sellers set up in the entrance to the temple to the town founder, where I was looking at the adverts on the walls. Without any customers, the pair had struck up a conversation about how difficult it was to do business, partly because of unjust fines. I sat down on the steps and joined in:
‘For as long as I can remember, I saw you yoke your wares and heard you, too, banging your little gong as you went along the street. Aren’t you going to retire? Can’t your son come out and bang the gong for you?’ I asked the syrup seller during a lull in the conversation.
‘I’m sixty-two, and my sons are all grown up. I am no longer young, but though I have two sons, they have their own things to do, and I can still work. I still have to come out and supplement the family income,’ the malt-syrup pedlar replied, brushing his moustache.
‘What about you?’ I turned to the sweet-dumpling soup seller. ‘You’ve got sons who can work, too. Why risk illness when you could be enjoying your retirement?’ I knew more about him because we lived on the same street.
‘Enjoy my retirement? If there was anything to enjoy who wouldn’t want to enjoy it? Your old man can enjoy his retirement, but people like me can only suffer! My sons don’t make much money doing odd jobs. What with the cost of rice and firewood, and with the government breathing down my neck, I’m still busting my old butt. And I can barely cover my expenses. Enjoy my retirement?!’
‘But things are better these days. Something that used to sell for a sen, now you can sell it for more than ten.’
‘Ah! You talk like a child. What’s more than ten sen now compared with one back in the day? It was better before. Don’t get me started – I’ll just be sad. We don’t have much life left, and we’re spending our days like this.’
‘You’re right, it really was better before. The police weren’t like they are now …’
‘Neither were infections. One dose used to be enough when I got a cold. Diseases today require Western medicine. I’ve got an ailment I need an injection for. These diseases have all been imported by Western doctors.’
‘Ha! I can understand why you would think that way, but actually it was the Western doctors who discovered these diseases. Hey, did your kids go to school?’
‘Go to school? Are you kidding?’ the malt-syrup pedlar said. ‘Mr Iu my neighbour’s son graduated from the public school and worked at a few stores to learn business, but got fired every time. Apparently he couldn’t write or do sums, couldn’t do nothing, and was always refusing to do heavy work because he had such a high opinion of himself. Now he’s wandering about counting pebbles in the street. There’s school for you.’
‘I saw what was what and never told my sons to go to school. Six years to learn a few useless phrases of Japanese!’ the sweet-dumpling seller added.
‘What do you mean useless?’
‘What do you mean, what do I mean?’
‘In the bank or the town hall, don’t you need to be able to speak the kokugo, the national language?’
‘It might be useful for you because you’re so talented. You’ll rise to the top. But it ain’t for us.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s no quota for people like us. A son of mine couldn’t get a Japanese job on his own, and I wouldn’t know who to ask for help. At home the only time we need to use Japanese is when the police come to check our household register, and then you just need to know a couple of phrases.’
‘You’re wrong,’ I said, wanting to tell them how it was, but the malt-syrup pedlar cut me off:
‘Not only that, students don’t learn any Tâi-oân-jī in six years of public school and have to go and ask for help if they want to write a letter,’ he said to prove that going to school was useless.
‘School isn’t just learning to write, it’s also about cultivating kokuminsei, national character.’
‘Inspection!’ The warning came from who knows where. The two pedlars yoked their wares and left, bringing our conversation to an abrupt end. ∎