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2022-09-06 08:04:15

This article won the Sixth Tone China Writing Contest’s Second Prize in the shortform category. To vote for this article for the Sixth Tone Writing Contest’s Reader Prize, please click here.

Here is what the daughter of peasants knows:

What we know, we know from others.

My mother says I was a serious child. Wide-eyed. Too busy watching the world to react to it, too consumed with seeing things to let how I feel crawl over my face.

The author poses with a goat. Courtesy of Qingqing Jessica Xi

The author poses with a goat. Courtesy of Qingqing Jessica Xi

Now, my friends say, I was born to speak all mirth and no matter. Here in America, I’m a girl that was once half-feral every summer, tamed by four walls and the lure of endless gazing at words in books.

But when the family sits on our leather couches in our warm three-story house in an up-and-coming suburb of a Midwestern state covered in fleece blankets with our two fat lapdogs, and we make the videos on our little hand screens play like magic on one of our four big screens, and the video plays the dusty days that cling to you like the body-memory of leeches, I still remember what I was so occupied with seeing, those halcyon days in China.

My father says he was a wild child. “Naked and dirty,” he describes himself. “Always getting beat by my father for something I did because I was curious. Not like me now,” he boasts. Then he sticks his chopsticks vertically in his lips in a facsimile of a walrus. “Now I’m a very serious professional.”

On the television, the video plays, spelling out chunzhen niandai in glittering red characters. “The Innocent Era.” It’s two minutes of scenes from Chinese rural life, stretched into thirty since my father pauses every clip to explain what’s going on or talk about a memory he has.

Pulling a cicada out of the cracking dirt.

Children scurry to pick stray popcorn off the ground, just-burst from the smoking machine.

A man crawling out of the yam cellar, proof of his efforts strewn around him.

Wrestling loaches in a riverbed, ducks herded down a street. Oxen trenching a field.

Grain forked onto a wagon bed taller than three people.

The clip showing sweet potatoes baked over a small fire in the middle of a field makes us all laugh. We’ve heard his honed strategy a hundred times, and he tells it again.

The strategy for stealing sweet potatoes is to eat them right away — you can’t bring them back to your house, because your parents will catch you and beat you, and you can’t store them for later, because the other boys who stole them with you will go back and take them when you’re not around. So you all have to work together and eat them immediately after running into the fields.

So many stories begin with ‘We were a poor family, but we were not unhappy. We weren’t starving, and that was what mattered.’

The key is to make decoys. Two boys are promised an equal share if they go off and make fires in different parts of the field. Obviously, they dig the holes first and are responsible about it — starting a field fire would be terrible. The others make the hole and the ‘grate’ for the sweet potatoes, silent but for the giggling.

There’s risk at every turn. If the farmer whose sweet potatoes you stole catches on, you’ll have to abandon the haul. One time, my father didn’t share with his younger brother and his brother reported him to their father. At least he had already eaten when he was reprimanded.

My father insists he was never hungry as a child. He always got at least one meal a day, even if it was always the same hard, dark bun made from sweet potato flour.

In the video, almost everything is the same color. Hands, hay, clay. Coated in the same dirt I remember from my days in the village that built my father, spending my own time naked and dirty, herding goats taller than me and holding sparrows on strings. We spat fish bones out on the floor. My father chewed my duck portions for me, gnawing off the fat. We coated soft white mantou with grape jelly my mother snuck into her luggage. The cicadas, fresh cooked, made an easy snack.

Here is what the daughter of peasants knows:

When you have been connected to the earth, you do not lose the dirt underneath your nails.

On the same big television, we watch the South Korean show “Crash Landing on You.” A South Korean woman who can’t tell directions from the sun walks into a North Korean village, where children rush toward the popcorn man. A donkey hauls water down the street. Complicated engineering MacGyvers electricity into a lightbulb so a student can see their homework at night.

“The Good Earth,” my father asserts, is just about the only book written about the rural life that he knows, the only book written about rural life he feels worthy of praise, despite its age. He laughs in recognition at the things on the screen. The miracle of something created in South Korea about North Korea that was sent over to the United States and subtitled into English so a guy from China — who had never seen a television until college — can see himself in its scenes. But everyone is so clean, he scoffs. It’s a tiny farm village in North Korea. There’s no way everyone is so clean.

As we watch the show, we munch on microwave popcorn. Fresh from the bag. Hot, greasy, instant. We bought it in a box of a hundred from Costco. It seems like we’ll never run out.

My grandfather was the son of a peasant who was the son of a peasant who was the son of a peasant. If we were not a family of peasants, starting from the first dynasty, why would our family be in the land of lands, in a place an hour’s drive from the nearest small city of ten million people? My grandmother as well.

The author’s grandfather. Courtesy of Qingqing Jessica Xi

The author’s grandfather. Courtesy of Qingqing Jessica Xi

The two of them traveled around the province when they were young and strangers — Yeye to Shanghai for the war, Nainai in search of scraps of food as a child. Maybe the trees of other cities would still have bark on them to eat. Boiled bark is sort of soft on a starving stomach.

Outside our house is a garden. Like a cleaver, it’s capable of anything. It’s gifted us tomatoes, eggplants, beans, zucchini, leeks, and squash. It’s my father’s treasure – second only to the lotus he nurtures. He can’t not have a garden. He needs to celebrate things that are grown.

I read Liang Hong’s “China in One Village” and Michael Meyer’s “In Manchuria” and Cai Chongda’s “Vessel” and all of the memoirs from immigrants, researchers, and novelists that I can get my hands on. America’s literary shelves are full of gritty true stories of poverty and struggle, each poignant and purposeful in their metamorphoses from life to lesson, and lesson to life. I search for the Chinese ones too, looking for windows to the soul.

So many stories begin with “We were a poor family, but we were not unhappy. We weren’t starving, and that was what mattered.”

When you have been connected to the earth, you do not lose the dirt underneath your nails.

Then the stories shift and twist, taking each author to a place in life where they can sit down and write a memoir, where they have the resources and time and support to write the story of how they came to get resources and time and support, and can’t go back to those days when they were poor and happy and not starving. I suppose I’m the same way. No matter how much I cry to feel recognized in the scant paragraphs that describe the beauty of the fields or the warmth of afternoons spent resting in courtyards, I’m flipping pages. Did my grandfather’s grandfather even know how to read?

Here is what the daughter of peasants knows:

When I read stories of poverty, they never taste like mine.

I am a daughter of peasants who does not do hard labor only because of the hard labors of others. I am a daughter of peasants who can now only watch as her forebears stop sweating because their bodies are failing them. I am a daughter of peasants who can afford to eat rice because of the labor of my ancestors who grew it.

Daughters of businessmen tell me of the heirlooms their family endured the loss of during China-after-the-emperors. Daughters of scholars tell me about their family books, hundreds of years old and bursting with names. Daughters of artists tell me about all of the poems they can recite, all of the references they can understand in a four-beat idiom that tastes sweet on the tongue. Daughters of laborers, it seems, do not have anything of this sort to speak of. What we had to lose was who we were connected to.

Daughters of seamstresses tell me of hours curved over a sewing machine as their cities curve over them. Daughters of factories tell me of the loneliness of the concrete, of distance, of churn. Daughters of peasants like me hide our faces from the sun that shines and warms and lights us. Daughters of the two vast countries — we eat with the mouths of both.

Author Bio:

Qingqing Jessica Xi is a mixed-race Chinese American writer who is rooted in both Minnesota and Jiangsu province. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from an American and Chinese university, respectively. Beyond writing, she enjoys crafting, hiking and pretending she has the patience for cooking well.

(Header image and icons: VCG)