The Gettysburg Review 17(4): 596-601. 2004.
"The Ash Girl"
It was a Sunday morning. Shuyuan sat on the floor next to the couch buried in her Taiwanese newspaper. "The Moscow City Ballet is coming to Yuanlin to put on Cinderella," she called out. I had made another cup of coffee and was headed back to my desk. "Do you want to go?" she asked.
"If you want, let's go," I said. We lived in Wufong, about an hours drive north from Shuyuan's hometown. She was up to her eyeballs with her first year of teaching at the university. I was trying to get back into my New York writing rhythm. We didn't go out much. She grabbed up the phone, dialed a number and started jabbering away in Chinese.
"I ordered the tickets," she announced when I came out to make my next cup of coffee. "My sister's going to pick them up for me. I got three tickets. I invited my mother."
"She wants to come?" Shuyuan and her seventy-two-year old mother had a history.
"She said yes," Shuyuan affirmed. "She's never been to a ballet. My brothers and sisters think she'll just fall asleep during the performance and that I'm wasting the money," she added. "What do you think?"
"It doesn't matter," I said. "If she wants to go, let's take her." I could see, though, that to Shuyuan it did matter.
Her mother's sharp tongue and narrow-mindedness had thrown Shuyuan into fits of rage in the past. I had come to Taiwan ready to battle a monster but had found instead a sweet little old lady, unassuming and simple. She was a country girl, the daughter of a rice farmer. She had grown up in a small native village not far from Yuanlin and had no more than an elementary school education.
In New York I was surprised to discover on Shuyuan's bookshelf, scattered amongst Piaget, Weber and Freud, a number of storybooks for children, including "The Cat In The Hat" and others by Dr. Seuss. "My mother never read me bedtime stories when I was a child," she explained. "All the while I was growing up, she never bought me a single book." There was hurt and bitterness in her voice.
"There weren't any books at all in the house." she went on. "Not until my oldest brother Ming-song went away to school. He got dragged along to bookstores by his girlfriend or classmates and ended up buying the ones they were all buying. He brought books home, lots of them. He never read very many of them. But I did."
Shuyuan's share of the housework often went undone as she curled up in a chair poring through "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights," "Pride and Prejudice," as well as tomes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, and anything else Ming-song brought through the door.
"Your two older sisters can sweep, why can't you?" her exasperated mother snapped.
Without trying, Shuyuan did well in school. "My mother never noticed my good grades," Shuyuan complained.
"Your eldest sister dresses so nice. Why can't you?" her mother demanded when she saw what Shuyuan wore to school.
Shuyuan qualified for an elite high school in Taichung. Her mother and sister took her to a three-day orientation camp in the summer before her first year. They dropped her off and said goodbye. "I waited there for you to turn around again and wave goodbye one last time," her mother said, "but you just went straight into the school without looking back."
Shuyuan loved that school and excelled there. Afterwards she went directly into a good Taiwanese university. She was the first in her family to do so. Her older brother and younger sister had only made it into evening programs. The year she went away to college Shuyuan was eighteen.
When her mother was that age she still lived on the farm. When she was twenty she married a man who was then only a factory worker. As a teenager, during the Japanese occupation, he'd been sent to Japan to serve in a wartime factory. There, he had learned to operate a metalworking machine. After the war was over, he returned to Taiwan and found a factory job in the nearby city of Taichung operating that same kind of machine.
After they married, she continued living in her mother's house on the farm. Her new husband came from Taichung on weekends. The couple saved and in time had enough to make a down payment on a rice paddy. Her family's rice paddy went to her brothers. Because she was a girl she got none of it. If she and her husband were going to have a life, they had to start with a rice paddy. "If you own a rice paddy, you'll never go hungry" was the mentality. Already, the children had started coming.
She mortgaged her rice paddy so her husband could buy one of those machines he operated at the factory. He quit the job in the city and set up his own machine in a shared loft in the nearby town of Yuanlin. He procured clients and operated the machine himself. Often he did not come home until midnight. In time he could afford a second machine and hired a laborer to operate it. Then he got a third and a fourth. Eventually he owned his own factory. He had a mind for business.
The family bought a house in Yuanlin and moved to town when Shuyuan was just a child. Before long her father had a second factory, and then a third. They bought a piece of vacant land down the street and built a mansion for themselves.
Shuyuan was away in Taipei for four years at the university. After she graduated she announced she wanted to go to graduate school in America.
"It costs too much!" her mother objected. "You're lucky your father paid for your whole college education. You shouldn't ask for more. Most girls get a factory job right after junior high school."
"My mother couldn't understand what I was doing in school at all," Shuyuan complained.
Shuyuan went out and got a job. For four years she scrimped and saved until she had enough to pay for the first year of graduate school in America. "I'm leaving," she informed her mother.
Only then did her mother acquiesce and offer to pay for everything. There was no shortage of money in the family. There hadn't been for a long time.
At twenty-seven, Shuyuan was the first in her family to go abroad and the first to attend graduate school. Years later she was the first to receive a doctorate.
When she informed her mother over the phone that she was coming home with an American husband, her mother blurted, "Why couldn't you have chosen one of our men, like your two older sisters did?"
The youngest of five, Shuyuan was at the opposite end of the family from her mother and, in so many ways, felt it was impossible explain herself. There had been bitter fights between the two through the years. Always feisty, Shuyuan stood her ground and said biting things. "When I was a child I always wanted to get rid of the big clunky old-fashioned bed that filled my whole room so I could have a desk there. You would never let me," she accused. "And when I wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, you wouldn't allow it."
"You never remember the ten good things I did, but only the one bad one," her wounded mother said.
While in America, Shuyuan found during a routine physical that she had "coolie's anemia." The doctor said that this was a condition she had been born with and had all her life. Next time her mother phoned, Shuyuan pointedly told her the diagnosis and informed her that one of the symptoms was the inability to exert oneself physically without becoming faint. "You always accused me that my sisters could work three hours around the house without saying they were tired but after I worked only one hour I'd claim to be exhausted. You called me lazy."
After Shuyuan returned with her Ph.D. to interview for a job in Taiwan, she came home one day from the bookstore with an armful of new purchases. "You already have so many books. Why are you buying more?" her mother demanded.
When Shuyuan landed a position at the university in nearby Wufong, her mother took notice, for the first time, of a quality in her youngest daughter that the other children didn't have. She fretted that Shuyuan's temper and sharp words would cost her the job, and then worried that she wouldn't have the right clothes to wear, and maybe couldn't do the work. As the months went by, a pride crept into the way she talked about Shuyuan, the only one of her children who didn't work in the family business. Even to salesgirls in the department store, she'd introduce Shuyuan saying, "This is my daughter. She teaches at the university. She is a professor."
When Shuyuan's eldest brother and second sister found out we were going to the ballet with their mother, they bought tickets too. They opted for cheaper seats in the rear. The sister and her family came in their own car. Shuyuan, her mother, and I came with her brother and his wife in their Mercedes. The Performance Center was only a few blocks away from the family home, right across from a big garish megastore. The Performance Center was a stunning cube of a building faced in dark gray stone. A single massive horizontal beam, unadorned and covered with the same dark gray stone, spread across the entryway. It gave the structure a monumental air and announced that this was a place of greatness, grandeur.
As we walked up from the parking lot, raindrops began to wet the pavement. By the time we reached the front steps, the colossal overhead beam sheltered us from the downpour that ensued. Floodlights on the beam illuminated the rain falling from high up in the night sky. The effect was striking -- as if we stood within a giant sculpture whose purpose it was to suggest the awe, immensity and elemental quality of artistic endeavor.
In the front atrium a large white canvas sail strung on a curved metal frame hung suspended by cables. So simple a flourish of cloth amidst so much massive stone intimated the magic of the ephemeral and came across almost as a statement of the building's purpose.
On the front steps, Shuyuan's family members ran into people they knew. The volunteer checking tickets at the door had been Shuyuan's very best girl friend in elementary school.
"It cost six billion Taiwanese dollars to build this," Shuyuan informed me proudly as we stepped inside.
Shuyuan, her mother and I made our way down to our pricy orchestra seats. The others went up into the balcony. The house was packed. Shuyuan chattered away to her mother in Taiwanese. "What are you saying?" I asked.
"I'm telling her the story of Ash Girl," she said.
"That's what Cinderella translates to in Chinese.
"She's never heard it before?"
"No," Shuyuan said. "Her grade school education was entirely in Japanese. The Japanese didn't have that story. That's a Western story. What country is Cinderella from?"
"Maybe Germany," I guessed. "Or somewhere in Europe. I don't know." I said. "You mean your mother only learned to read in Japanese?"
"Yes. By the time the Mainland Chinese invaded and imposed Mandarin as the official language, she was already out of school." Shuyuan turned back to her mother and continued in Taiwanese with the story.
I watched the expression of wonder on her mother's face as Shuyuan told her Ash Girl. Shuyuan's mother had never read children's books to Shuyuan, or any of her children, because she couldn't read Chinese. She'd never learned Mandarin -- how to read it or even speak it. She couldn't even understand street signs.
A cute boy seated in the row just in front of us kept turning around to stare at me. An American in Yuanlin was an oddity. To me it was an oddity to see a little boy at a ballet. The seats in the row in front of us were filled with children and their parents. Looking around, I saw the whole audience was.
The lights dimmed. The curtain went up. Onstage, the old king stretched, yawned, and then sat up in bed. Off to one side dancers danced a dream the king had dreamed of a ball thrown to find his son a bride. The movements of the dancers were as much mime as ballet and revealed outwardly the king's inward thoughts.
The handsome young prince appeared in white tights that showed him to be virile and desirable. He danced out a definition of himself as the dutiful son, discerning and delicate of feeling -- and beside himself for want of a princess. Some small children from seats far in the back crept up the dark aisle to sit on the floor close to the stage and stare in wide-eyed wonder.
The scene shifted. A sylph of consummate delicacy stepped up to an ashy fireplace cluttered with dirty pots. Unschooled in dance, she moved with a simple naturalness -- like the grass when a breeze blows through it. Her sheer ragged garment clung innocently to her attractive young body. She knelt down and dutifully began scrubbing pots.
Shortly, two other female dancers burst onto the scene in a cacophony of movement. They had outlandish hair styles and were clothed in garish and ill-matched colors. They mimed an altercation over some selfish trifle. Shuyuan's mother leaned over and whispered something to Shuyuan. Shuyuan whispered something back.
"What'd she say?" I asked.
"She wanted to know if those were the two stepsisters," Shuyuan said.
Phrase by phrase, each burst of dance unfolded the story until the fairy godmother made her entrance. She and her handmaidens taught Cinderella how to dance and then dressed her in the beautiful gown and glass slippers. The little girl seated to my left perched forward on the edge of her seat and clung with both hands to the back of the seat in front.
When the prince and the ash girl came together for their dance, a hush descended over the audience. Just before midnight, Cinderella fled. The prince found a single glass slipper on the stair. Laughter broke out all through the theatre as the clownish ugly stepsisters struggled in vain to force the glass slipper to fit their big feet. Then the shy ash girl stepped forward and produced the other glass slipper. Finally, she was united with her prince.
When the curtain came down, we stood up to leave. Shuyuan took her elderly mother's arm and led her through the crowd.
When we got outside, the rain had stopped. We walked back to the car under the exquisite night sky.
After we got in the car and pulled out, Shuyuan's mother muttered something softly in Taiwanese.
"What did she say?" I asked Shuyuan.
"She said they dance up on their toes."
We drove the rest of the way home in silence. It only took a few minutes. Next to me in the back seat, mother and daughter sat side by side, arm in arm.