For Colleen’s Weekly #Tanka Tuesday #Poetry Challenge, #Synonyms Only, I use Charming for Bewitch and Mystery for Treasure.
Delicate soft petals
Unfolding inner mystery
Welcome to Issue 2 of Whispers and Echoes, a journal of small things, of short writing.
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” Psalm 119:105
My parents knew I was going to church. They didn’t see any reason to stop me even though it was a different religion. I was getting very active in the youth group and was elected to be the President in the September election. Paul and Esther assisted me and other teenagers to plan for the weekly activities.
By becoming a Christian, I faced a challenge at home. My mom worshiped the multiple gods. For every major festival such as Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival in May, Seven Sisters Festival in July, Mid-Autumn Festival in August, my mom cooked a feast that included a whole chicken, mushrooms, roasted pork, and vegetable with sliced beef. She placed the cooked food on a large tray and offered it to the gods represented by wooden plaques. Incents were lit and inserted into the containers filled with ashes. With hands folded in front of her chest, she bowed to each idol three times. She repeated the same motion to all the idols. After my mom offered the feast to the idols, my family sat down to eat the plentiful dinner.
As I continued to read the Bible, I came to I Corinthians, chapter 4 of the following verses,
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
I didn’t fully understand the concept of eating or not eating the food sacrificed to idols. I thought to eat the food sacrificed to idols was associated with worshiping the idols, so, I stopped eating the feast after my mom offered the food to the idols. I only ate the rice. My mom was very observant, after several festivals, she made the connection between my church activities and the food offered to the idols. As a result, she cooked a separate dish and set it aside for me. At dinner time, she put that dish in front of me. I was appreciative of my mom’s consideration.
When my youngest sister was a baby, she became very ill one day. My mom didn’t know what to do. I carried my sister to church and asked Pastor Zeto to pray for my baby sister. After I got home, my mom took my baby sister to a Chinese doctor. The Chinese doctor examined her and prescribed the herbal medicine for her. The medicine cost five dollars. My mom only had five dollars, just enough to pay for the medicine. She took the herbal medicine home, boiled it and gave it to my sister to drink. My sister was recovered from the illness the next day. My mom didn’t say too much but seemed to be appreciative of the pastor’s prayer.
During the same year, my older sister, Jan, was married to her boyfriend. As an endowment to my parents, my brother-in-law paid to have a custom-built bunkbed for our family. It was needed as the family grew bigger.
One and a half year went by since I stopped going to school. My dad found a job working in a factory as a supervisor of the inventory of the molds for the machines. He was pleased to have a steady income for the family.
By this time, the government had a new plan for the city development. The residents on our block were relocated to a subsidized housing in Kowloon. My parents were assigned to a large unit. The flat was an empty structure with no rooms. My dad hired workers to install two bedrooms and put a bunk bed in each bedroom. We were on the fourth floor of a fourteen-floor building with twenty-four units on each level. There was a centralized bathroom with eight stalls for every eight units. The residents had their own keys to their stalls.
The market and all the shops were on the ground floor. There were stores for dried food and beans, pharmacy, beauty products, toiletries and bathroom products, barber shop, beauty salon, bakery, candies, toys and small sizes of hardware.
In the market, there was fresh produce such as green vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms. In the meat section of the market, there were whole fish or cut up pieces from large fish. Pork or beef chunks were hung on a bar with big hooks. The shopper could choose the portion of the meat and specify the amounted they wanted to buy.
After we moved, my dad soon found another factory job in Kowloon. He had a good routine for his day. He got up at six o’clock in the morning and stretched from head to toes for half an hour before leaving for work. After dinner, he read the newspaper. He seemed to be interested in reading the paper from front to back. My dad had a green thumb. He took care of his plants on Saturdays. The plants grew so well that they needed to be transplanted to bigger and bigger pots.
My mom also found a good routine for her days. She went to the market at least twice a day to buy the food for every meal. We had no need for a big refrigerator. My mom made friends with several women on the same floor. She went to play Mahjong with them several evenings a week. One neighbor had a square Mahjong table with drawers for dice and money. They played for fun, so the winners only get five cents from each player per round. There were sixteen rounds per game. So, the women had plenty of social time together.
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” Psalm 119:105
Eight months into working in the factory, I got used to the situation. One winter night I went out for a walk. The singing voices drew my steps toward a small church. I heard some teenagers singing the Christmas Carole “Deck the halls.”
I stood by the door listening. The music was so angelic and attractive to me, my feet inched in and sat down in the last pew. The practice went on and I moved up a few rows. I sat there until the rehearsal was over. The young man who conducted the singing came up to greet me. Paul was the pastor’s son and he invited me to attend the youth group on Saturday nights.
I went to the youth group the following Saturday. There were about twenty teenagers in the group. They sang several songs at the beginning of the meeting. Then someone gave a presentation on a topic followed by group games. After the meeting, some girls introduced themselves to me. The friendliness of people made me feel welcome. The pastor’s daughter Esther invited me to the Sunday evening service.
I came to the Sunday evening service at 7:00 p.m. Pastor Zeto gave me a warm welcome and invited me to sit in the front pew. Even though I didn’t know the songs for the service, I enjoyed them by listening. The service concluded around 8:30 p.m. Pastor Zeto’s wife greeted me and asked about my family. She also gave me a small Bible of the four Gospels.
I continued to work in the factory during the day. I read the little Bible before bedtime. Even though I didn’t understand the Bible stories, I continued to read through the four Gospels.
When I read Matthew chapter 7, I came across these verses:
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
These verses touched the core of my heart. I knew that my dad loved me very much. Yet my dad could not provide what I needed. My dad encouraged me to do well in school, but when the resources were scarce, my dad had wanted me to help the family by working at such a young age.
I longed for the relationship with the heavenly Father who would answer my prayers and provide for my needs. My heart was comforted by the verses in Matthew chapter 7.
In the months that followed, I spent more time in church. I attended the Wednesday night prayer meetings, Saturday night youth group, and Sunday evening service. Pastor Zeto gave me the New Testament of the Bible. I read it as if I was the Hungry Caterpillar. By April of that year, I was baptized on the Easter Sunday. The missionary who was the Director of Hong Kong Headquarter gave me the name “Miriam” because I liked singing, and Miriam in the Old Testament led the Israelites to sing after they crossed the Red Sea.
Three months before I finished sixth grade, my dad’s work was not doing well and didn’t make enough money to feed many mouths. I was asked to stop going to school and started working in a factory.
My dad took me to a factory a quarter mile from home. He signed a paper. I started working the next day and walked to and from the factory.
It was a factory that made the plastic flowers and Barbie dolls. All the workers were female. They were from young teenagers to older adults. The factory supervisor assigned tables to the workers according to their ages and skills. The older women were assigned to easier tasks such as cutting. The younger girls were assigned to tasks that required fine dexterity coordination. They all sat on the picnic-style benches around a rectangular work table.
When I started working in the factory, my first assignment was to assemble the clusters of flowers. A few months later I was assigned to paint Barbie’s faces and glue Barbie’s hair on the headpieces. I started to make some friends with the factory workers who were about my age.
I missed school very much. My dad had never explained to me why I had to stop school and worked in the factory. My younger brother eventually told me that my teacher came to visit my parents and expressed that I did well at school and would like to see me finish sixth grade.
I was six and a half years old when I started going to school. Both of my parents worked, so I took care of my younger sister during the day. I went to night school until 4th grade. From home to school was 500 meters or one-third of a mile walk. I walked by myself in the first grade, the following year my sister reached school age, we walked to school together. Going to school was fun. The teachers liked me, and I liked the teachers. I even had a crush on my fourth- grade teacher Mr. Wu.
The best thing was that when I was in first grade, my teacher said I was bright, and that made a big impact on me. I did well throughout elementary school years. Each class had about forty students. At the end of school year, the report card showed our performance in terms of their places among the forty students. From first to sixth grades, I didn’t get the first place. I was in second to ninth places. That means I was in the top twenty-three percentile of grade point average. It broke my heart when I got a ninth place that year!
My dad wanted me to memorize certain lessons in Chinese literature. There was one week when I couldn’t recite the lesson, my dad gave me a good spanking. My mom tried to block the paddle and got one strike on her hand. When looking back, I gave credit to my dad for my good grades. He checked my homework every night and quizzed me every week. It was a blessing to have a dad who cared so much about my education.
All the subjects were taught in Chinese. English was taught as a literature subject. Hong Kong was a British Colony and English was the official language. My dad wanted me to learn English, so he sent me to English tutoring when I was in fourth grade.
I was nine years old when the ninth brother Albert was born. After my mom fed him, I carried him on my back to walk around in the neighborhood. There were no televisions, not even black and white ones. People listened to radios. Not everyone had a radio either. I carried my brother and stood outside of the store downstairs to listen to the radio. On our flat, one of the occupants had a radio placed on a little wooden shelf on the wall midway from the ceiling. I liked to listen to the news broadcast. I remembered the theme music for the noontime news. Years later, I identified it as the Overture of Bizet’s opera Carmen. The music started from the beginning of the Overture, after about thirty seconds, the music faded as a female voice came in to announce the news. I also remembered staying up until 11:00 p.m. listening to “Midnight Mysteries” which were ghost stories.
My mom gave birth to three more siblings. With so many babies and toddlers, my mom quitted working and stayed home to take care of the kid. Since my mom was home, my dad decided to send me to day school. It was in Wan Chai, half an hour tram ride from home. We had school five and a half days a week.
There were forty students in the class. At each grade level, there was a master teacher who taught Chinese literature. All the other subjects were taught by single subject teachers. There was a President for each class. When the teacher walked into the classroom, the class President called out, “Stand up.” The students arose and said, “Good morning, Teacher.” The teacher responded, “Good morning.” The class President commanded, “Sit down” to direct the class to sit.
I enjoyed the music lessons from Mrs. Cheung. I learned and memorized many songs. In 5th grade, there was a singing contest at the end of the school year. I entered the contest and won 4th place. The song I chose to sing was “What a Beautiful Waterlily.” I later recognized that the song was a tune in Puccini’s opera Turandot.
I made friend with the music teacher’s daughter, Shirley. Shirley had been taking piano lessons from her mom and practiced piano every day. I loved to visit her and listened to her piano practice. We became good friends and carried our friendship through adulthood.
She was married and moved to London. We continued to correspond throughout the years. When we traveled to London on a tour in 2006, we arrived in London prior to the tour group. Shirley and her husband took us sightseeing for five days.
Chinese religion is not Buddhism. Instead, it’s polytheism in that they believe in multiple gods. It’s also a dualism; they believe gods and evil have equal powers. When I was a child, we lived in a flat on the third floor. There were red wooden plaques with images or writings represented different gods displayed around the flat. A container with ashes was attached to each plaque to hold incents. Two were hung on the side of the top and bottom part of the doorway signified to protect people’s coming and going. There was one plaque by every window to guard the evil against coming in. One plaque was in the kitchen. The kitchen god listened to people’s gossips. At the end of a year, the kitchen god would report to heaven. So before Chinese New Year, people made offering to the kitchen god to bribe him. This was my mother’s religion.
When WWII was over, we went back to Hong Kong from China. My mom gave birth to five younger siblings, and they were about eighteen months apart. My mom’s generation didn’t practice birth control! When the third sister was sick with meningitis, my mom didn’t take her to the doctor. She went to a temple to make an offering and asked for healing of my sister. She also hired a monk coming to our home to chant and burn incents. He waved the smoke from the burning incents over and around her. It didn’t heal my sister.
Eventually, my mom took my sister to the hospital. She died of high fever in her brain. My mom came home crying. When I asked where my sister was, she said the doctor kept her to take care of her. It was the way she dealt with the pain. That event gave me great impressions and cast a doubt in my mind of mom’s religion.
My family was poor when I was a child, but I had a lot of fond memories. When I think of my childhood, I think of the safe environment, friendly neighborhood, a slow pace of life, creativity of making toys and games, family closeness and simple life.
My favorite family time was Chinese New Year. We had one week off from school and my dad had five days off from work. On New Year’s Eve, Flower Markets took place in major parks. They were open from early evening on New Year’s Eve to 5:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day. One year, I went to the Flower Market with my older sister and her then boyfriend. We lived in Sai Wan, so we took the tram to Causeway Bay Park. By the time we were done walking through the entire market, there was no tram in operation until morning. We followed the tram track and took one hour and thirty-five minutes to walk home. I was half asleep even though my feet were moving with my sister holding my hand. My other hand was holding something my sister bought me. Since I was falling asleep, I dropped the thing on the ground. I bent down, picked it up and continued walking.
By the time we got home, my mom had made special food as part of the Chinese New Year ritual. We ate and then went to sleep for a few hours. On New Year’s Day, everyone put on new clothing. Kids would say, “Gung Hei Fat Choi” (Wishing you prosperous) to the parents and adults. Our parents and the adults in the neighborhood gave us kids Lucky Money in red envelopes. The tradition was that the married people gave Lucky Money to the kids and unmarried adults. We loved that because we could keep all of our Lucky Money. The first three days of Chinese New Year, we went to our relatives to wish them Happy New Year. The kids received Lucky Money from aunts and uncles.
We had our annual three activities on the 4th day of Chinese New Year. It was something we looked forward to because we did that year after year. We went to Tiger Balm Garden which was a private estate that eventually became a museum. After Tiger Balm Garden, we went to Botanic Arboretum, and then the Governor’s Garden which was open to the public during Chinese New Year.
It was not very clear when my grandma became blind. The quarter in our flat was too small for grandma to live with us. So she lived by herself in an attic of another house. My chore was to take dinner to her every evening. My mom packed the dinner in a basket and covered the food with a cloth to keep it warm (It reminded me of The Little Red Riding Hood!). It took me about 10 minutes to walk to there. Walking to my grandma’s attic was a favorite part of my day. I still remember some of the stores and offices I passed by in those days.
The office that attracted most of my attention was an orthopedic office that had a huge aquarium in the front window. After I delivered the dinner to my grandma and helped her eat. I eagerly went home hoping to stop by the aquarium to watch the fish. They were colorful saltwater fish. Among them, there were several pink fish. I was told that they were kissing fish. I stood in front of the aquarium. My eyes followed the pink fish to see if they kissed. Many times they swam toward each other, but when they got very close, one made a turn and swam the other way. My eyes followed them again and waited curiously.
One day I stopped in front of the aquarium. A girl came by and stood next to me. I told her about the kissing fish. We were watching. Then the two pink fish swam slowly toward each other. They were getting closer and closer. Finally, they were facing each other, and then kissed! We looked at each other and giggled.
Note: The scientific name of the Pink Kissing Gourami is Helostoma Rudolfi. The male Gouramis don’t kiss the female Gouramis. The kissing, in fact, is fighting among the male fish.
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