23. May 2013 · Comments Off on Bitter Pills · Categories: N. Staying Alive

On my hands and knees I scrub the wood floor till it is spotless.  I wax and polish it to a glow.   Evelyn stares at it.  You did a terrible, sloppy job.

We both know that is not true.  It is part of central planning.  You’re supposed to obey even if you are told to plant a cabbage upside down.  I scrub the floor again.  I feel stupid.

Evelyn tells me that for the rest of the day I must keep my eyes cast down.

Dolores, another leader, arrives.   She and Evelyn have a chummy conversation as though I am not even in the room.  Finally Dolores says in a loud voice, what’s the matter with her that she can’t even look people in the eye?

We have a snow storm.  Evelyn tells me that I must go on a mission of mercy.   I must deliver a small package to an old lady in the town below.   The wind and snow is blowing so hard I can hardly see the steps going down the hill.  I hang on to the hand rails and inch my way down.

I have been wearing the same grey mohair coat for three winters.  Suddenly I feel that it has worn thin.  I have rubber galoshes over my shoes.  Snow is blowing in.  I am wearing the thin cotton stockings that we all wear.  I wish I had knee socks at least.  If I keep my scarf tight on my head, I can make it.

I have never gone down to the town, but the directions are simple.  It is the howling wind and snow that make it a trek through Siberia.

When I get to the house, a woman opens the door.  She takes the package from me.   She does not ask me in.  She does not want the snow to blow into the room and she closes the door quickly.

This is not what a normal person does.  I tell myself that she must have been coached by central planning.

I had another coat.  My sister had intended it for dressier occasions.  It is made of long black mohair, with a lustrous finish.  It looks like a seal coat.  It is also padded for warmth.  It had disappeared immediately.

I was surprised to see my coat hanging in the hall closet here.  It would be warmer in case I get sent into another blizzard.  But when I look in the closet again, the black coat is gone.

Some Grail women have come back recently from their mission in China, and we all remain at the dinner table while they talk about their experiences.  Very quickly the conversation turns into a bashing of colonialists.

The picture they are painting is one where greedy foreigners went to China with the sole purpose of exploiting the native population.  Soon everyone else at the table is on the side of the super good people and piling on.

I have never encountered so much hate at the dinner table.  I don’t know any sophisticated arguments on the subject, but I know certain things.  They are talking about the world I grew up in.

My mother’s family has been in Macau for hundreds of years.  There has been a mixing of races through the years and the culture is a complex hybrid.  Anyway, I do not personally know any men who fit their description of the rapacious colonialist.  But that isn’t what bothers me.

The picture they paint of the people as oppressed victims, as though their lives are pathetic until these women come and save them, just galls me.  I think that it is insulting to be seen that way.  I think of one person in particular, Ah Seem, my nanny.

Ah Seem was a truly good person.  She loved life and people.  She was naturally kind, and she was loads of fun.  After she became the second wife of a rice merchant she went to live in his town. When she came back to visit me and brought me gold earrings she was the same happy person.

Then she didn’t come anymore.  Why? I asked.  They tell me that the country has changed.  Her husband is a landowner, and the new people resent landowners.  It doesn’t matter that she has been poor all her life – to them she is a landowner’s wife.   She and her husband are taken away.    No one sees them again.

I feel the same sense of unfairness in the way the Grail women are lumping together people like Ah Seem.  They leave no room for her individuality.  They are using her as a prop.  Yes, she was a servant, but she was not a victim until some local people actually victimized her along with her husband.

So, in the most polite way I know, I speak for her dignity.  I say, “Our servants were happy.”

That is a conversation stopper.  People around the table give me condescending looks or look away.  Dinner is over.  Right after, Gertrude takes me aside, lectures me and insists that I apologize.

I will not.  I say I have only spoken the truth.  Later I am told that I need to meditate on Gertrude’s words.  I am made to kneel on a cold floor the entire night.  I fight to stay awake and kneeling straight.  The cold room helps and I manage it.




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