Rare Treasure

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
September/October 2002

By Justine Koo Drennan, Illustrated by the author

The day Gu Zewei was born, we got the first notice. We had a month to choose a child to give away. “I will come to take her when you have decided,” the official who delivered the notice said. She said “when you have decided,” but her words implied that she was sure we would choose the girl, not the boy, to give away.

Zewei’s name, which means “Rare Treasure,” caused a great deal of confusion in the adoption department, because it is usually a boy’s name. No one thought of girls as rare treasures.

After the official left, Zemin took Zewei’s hand and looked at her with a mixture of envy and love, as I watched them and thought. The only other choice besides giving one of the children up was leaving the country. However, after how much we were fined for having Zewei, we would have no money left.

During the next two weeks, my husband and I cared for the baby and looked for solutions constantly. We hardly ever spoke, except to ask each other to hold Zewei or change the blankets on her bed. So far, she had been much more quiet than Zemin when he was her age, and the house’s silence, combined with her simple, calm stare, hurt me more than any cacophony or uproar.

At the end of the second week, there was a loud knock on the door. It was the official again.

Rare Treasure looking at people

Would we be able to leave these familiar sights and sounds we had grown up with?

“If I were you,” she said, “I would just give her up now. There is no point in getting more attached to her.”

“How do you know that we will choose to give her? Do you just assume we will give the girl?” I asked.

“The boy is your first and he is a boy.”

“I did not say I wanted to give him either.”

“Just make a decision,” said the official, and slammed the door.

I needed to get out. The stillness in the house clashed too strongly with the inner tempest and indecision in my mind. I went out on the clattering, crowded Shanghai street—so crowded. I blamed the crowd for the indecision. If it hadn’t been for overpopulation, the government wouldn’t have had to make the one-child law.

What became of the children who were given away? Most went to other countries, so Zewei or Zemin would leave China even if we did give one away, except separated from the family. And the rest of us would still be here. We did not know if it would be better somewhere else, but at least most other countries didn’t have the one-child law. However, there still was the money problem.

As I dodged rickshaws and bicycles, and the shouts of fruit- and umbrella-sellers rang in my ears, I wondered, even if we had enough money, would we be able to leave these familiar sights and sounds we had grown up with?

When I returned to the house, my husband greeted me at the door.

“The baby has been hungry,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded.

“I’ll go back to her now.”

He nodded again.

I broke out, “We have hardly spoken for two weeks, and now the official came again, telling us we just have two weeks left and now you won’t speak at all. You always just let things happen.”

“The baby is hungry.”

I stomped off to Zewei’s bed, then remembered to tiptoe, for fear of waking her. The official came at the third week again, and we were still undecided. In the meantime, Zewei learned how to work both hands and kick her feet, discovering a world which might not end up being hers.

During the fourth week, I was so tired I fell asleep as soon as I lay down in bed. One night I had a dream in which I was gazing out across the sea to the other side, which was almost hidden in mist, causing its shape and outline to be unclear. Zemin and Zewei crawled toward it, making hardly any progress, and occasionally being tossed back by the high, dagger-like waves. I found myself hoping they would make it and wanting to go myself. Then a tidal wave came and washed me toward them . . .

That morning was exactly a month from Zewei’s birthday. We would have to choose soon. I got up and started to make breakfast. Shortly after, my husband got up. I gave him a futile, inquisitive glance. He shrugged.

We sat through the day, waiting. At five o’clock sharp, the official came for the last time. She was in a bad mood when we opened the door for her. She didn’t come in.

“Why don’t you have her ready?” she asked.

“We haven’t decided.”

“You have to. All the other families give them right when they’re born. This is ridiculous.”

I sat down on the porch steps and didn’t say anything.

My husband said, “They’re more yours than mine, really. You decide.”

Just like him to lay the decision on someone else. I sat there for a long time, almost peaceful, lost in the importance of the moment. I should be crying, I thought. I should protest. But I felt outside my body, my tumultuous mind floating far above. And then in an equally external voice, I spoke. “We’re going to leave the country. I don’t care where we go, or how much it costs, if they don’t have the one-child law. We’re going to leave China.”

*          *          *

After many delays and uncertainties, Zewei, Zemin, my husband and I stood on the deck of a ship taking us to another continent. Between us, we only had a few yuans. The horizon was cloudy, but I looked that way eagerly. Then I looked back at my children’s faces.

Rare Treasure Justine Koo Drennan

Justine Koo Drennan, 12
San Mateo, California
Justine’s Chinese name is Gu Zewei. She learned about the one-child law when she visited China.

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