Sherry had not returned to her home country in years. In a way, it was no longer her home country. What had been home is now the past. Father was the one who had insisted on the trip. She had been indifferent at first, but her father had persisted. China had changed; no longer a third-world country, it was now a Mecca of wealth. Yet once in a while, Sherry would catch a glimpse of the slums, normally overshadowed by the forever reaching skyscrapers. The day after their arrival, Sherry’s father had purchased a round-trip train ticket to his hometown.
Sherry watched the city view zoom by, crushing the assumptions and conclusions Sherry had carefully welded from outdated books and movies on modern China. She closed her eyes, and a billion years seemed to float by, accompanied by the soft rumble of a train and a low patter of words she once knew.
TEN YEARS AGO
A six-year-old Sherry knelt in the garden, dirt tickling her bare knees. Her grandmother knelt beside her, her fingers skillfully separating weed from vegetable. Sherry’s grandmother did not believe in planting flowers. “They only feed the eyes.” Instead, the two planted a wide array of vegetables to supply the family kitchen. So many wonders were cultivated in the garden, tomatoes for pasta, cucumbers destined to fulfill a delicious egg drop soup. Sherry relished the moment, the day was warm but not stifling; her backyard was well shaded by the great oaks behind her. Yellow orchids framed the old wooden fence wrapped around her backyard. Sherry liked spending time with her grandma; she eagerly helped with the gardening and cooking; it generated a swelling pride within Sherry. “Lai, bang wo jiu yi xia zhe ge cao,” 1 her grandma spoke again, her Chinese punctured with a few heavy pants. Sherry pulled out the weed and then paused for more instruction. Sherry watched as her grandmother gently examined a cucumber before holding it out for Sherry to pluck. The cucumber fell into the palm of an awaiting hand. Sherry’s grandma smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling.
* * *
FIVE YEARS AGO
Sherry watched as her grandma wandered their street. She watched as her grandma picked up the prickly seedpods that no one knew a name for exactly and threw them into her basket. She watched as her grandma bent to pull up dandelions from the lawn, throwing them into her basket too. What was she doing? “Nai, Nai, what are you doing?”
“These cao can be eaten. They are very nutritious.” Her grandma’s voice was a little shaky. She had aged. Nowadays it seemed everything was a challenge for Grandmother to achieve.
“No! You can’t eat those, they’re weeds! Nobody eats those! Nai Nai, come inside and go… watch some TV.”
“Ai yah! You don’t know! I used to eat these all the time as a kid!”
Sherry frowned before turning to head back into the house. Sherry rarely spent her time outside anymore, for fear of growing freckles. Sherry instead spent most of her time in front of a screen of some sort; if it wasn’t the desktop then it was the laptop. Her parents frowned and shook their heads, warning her of premature wrinkles.
“Go practice piano,” Sherry’s parents urged her.
“No, I don’t want to.”
“It’s not a matter of want or not.”
“Yes it is.”
Her father peered down at Sherry, stern and rigid. “You don’t give up on this. Don’t be a quitter. Sherry, do you know what the poverty line is?”
Sherry sat deaf to his words.
“It’s the line between happiness and sorrow. And do you know who is on the other side of the line? It’s the unlucky ones, and the quitters. Your grandma was unlucky. But she worked hard, and now she lives well in America.”
Father continued. “You are lucky; you were born on the right side of the line. If you want to stay there you have to work hard.” His voice was sharp; it cut Sherry with a truth she overlooked. But she stared ahead, refusing to look him in the eye. That night for dinner was a bowl of dandelion salad. Sherry’s mother crinkled her nose and in broken English muttered to Sherry, “She probably pick that from somebody yard.” Dinner that night was a soup of silence.
* * *
TWO YEARS AGO
“Every rice grain comes with a drop of sweat.” Sherry’s father pleasantly quoted his favorite Chinese saying. Sherry glared, angry, before shoving more rice into her mouth. “Look at all those rice grains wasted.” A few more grains slipped from the firm grip of Sherry’s chopsticks to the table.
Sherry shot back in English, “Shut up.”
“Is that how you talk to your parents?”
Sherry growled. Her father dramatically sighed, then continued to reminisce about his childhood days. Sherry’s mother joined in, and so did her grandmother.
“It was so difficult back then… We were so poor.”
“Aye… I used to live in a one-room shack. Ma, do you remember?”
“Nowadays everybody has a mansion.”
“It was incredible that you even made it into college.”
“Yes, used to walk six miles to make it to school.” Sherry’s grandmother paused, then sighed, “My mother was against it.”
“Things are better now.”
Sherry’s mother joined in. “So much better that you are getting fat!”
The whole table erupted into laughter, only Sherry continued to silently shove rice into her mouth. She grew more and more vicious, and finally erupted. “Shut up!”
The room froze. Sherry could feel her family’s eyes on her, but she continued to shove food into her mouth. Sherry’s mother found her tongue first. “Why?”
Sherry faltered; she didn’t have a why. Her family had done nothing wrong, why was she so angry? “I don’t know…”
Her mother carefully examined Sherry for a second before speaking. “Is it because you don’t know how to relate?” Her voice sounded gentle and warm.
“Yeah. I suppose so…”
The silence soon evaporated, as the conversation moved on, skipping past Sherry’s outburst as if it had not occurred.
* * *
Sherry watched as the busy crowded hustle and bustle of the city slowly changed to the slow wide greenery of the empty countryside. She watched as the crowd on the train began to thin with each passing station, till at last only Sherry, her father, and an old withered woman remained on the train. Her father sat beside her, his face buried in a newspaper, only the furrows of his brows visible. The steady hum of the train was the only sound. Sherry observed the old woman across from her. A click-clack sound joined the hum of the train; the old woman was knitting. She thought of her grandmother and wondered how Grandmother was doing. She had not seen her grandmother for years. Sherry had begun to appreciate her parents for the things she once despised. But at the same time, she no longer relied on them so much. Sherry examined the clean car. It reeked of new, not a single fleck of dirt could be found on the floor. She looked at the old woman across from her. Sherry examined her frayed gray hair, the naked age spots in her skin, the old-fashioned Mao-style coat she wore, and the plastic bags that served as her luggage. The woman undoubtedly lived in the countryside, where things moved a little slower and signs of harder times could still be found.
The train halted, and its automatic doors flew open. A smooth mechanical voice drifted overhead, thanking passengers for their patronage. Sherry, her father and the old woman shuffled to the exit. Sherry watched as the old woman shuffled away, a slow but persisting force, before briefly turning in her own direction.
Sherry stood in the empty house. It was a simple one-room house, with a kang 2 near the wall, aged antique furniture on cement floors, no windows, and no doors. Sherry was silent. Her father pointed out memories, places, the nooks and crannies of his childhood. Sherry’s father pointed out the place where he and his cousins huddled together in the cold days of winter, the table where he would fight for a second bowl of rice. Sherry felt strange standing there; she tried to pose as if she could care less, but truthfully, every molecule within her was pulled toward the door. She felt awkward, almost unworthy of the shabby hut. She suddenly felt guilty for her own prosperity.
“Dad, why did you bring me here?” She looked down at the floor as she said this. Sherry pinpointed a crack in the concrete to observe. She nudged the crack with her UGG boots.
“I just wanted you to see.” Her father’s answer was straightforward, his voice empty but full of unseen words.
Sherry’s father paused for a moment. He rifled in his pocket for a moment before pulling out a pack of cigarettes and lighting one. His eyes wandered off into the distance.
The cigarette remained lit for a few more moments, before being promptly smashed onto the floor. Then, Sherry’s father swiftly turned towards the door.
“There’s nothing left here.”
1 “Come, help me pull out this weed.”
2 heated bed