Happy Lunar New Year! 2016 is the year of the monkey. Those born in the year of the monkey are said to be funny, witty, perhaps a bit mischievous. There are twelve signs of the zodiac and the monkey is the 9th sign. I was born under this zodiac and admit to sharing some of these traits, especially the part about mischief and pranks, but usually only around April 1st.
This story is based on my Chinese friend’s recollections of her grandfather, an appropriate one for this time of year.
Papa Lao Yei and the New Year Dumplings
Papa Lao Yei made dumplings for the Lunar New Year. The food was popular at the holiday because the shape resembled the old style silver or gold ingots, and this boded well for a year of wealth and prosperity.
His family loved them because they tasted good and many had another treasure inside. They contained dimes, which back then was enough to buy something. And one dumpling had a quarter inside. Whoever picked that one would make the most money in the year.
Papa Lao Yei was fast at work making the dough and filling. The apartment was small and he did not have much space, so he used flat surfaces around the house to set the bamboo sheets filled with dumplings. He made his own dough from flour and water, then he stuffed them.
Focused on his job, his hands caked in flour, his apron wrinkled with pieces of cabbage and pork and mushrooms, he did not notice his grandchildren running back and forth, peeking into the pot, watching his strong hands work and crimp the seals of each precious orb. Maybe they would see which dumpling had the quarter.
When they got underfoot, his stocky frame rose to its full height, his head high like a dragon’s. He roared. “Get out! AYE AYE AYE!” And like that, the children disappeared into the corners and nooks of the home.
He had smoothed out the air pockets and pinched the last dumpling, then he placed it on the bamboo sheet; he let his hands drop and his eye lids close. He opened his eyes and looked out the window, the sun was past midday. He had lost track of time and the morning was already gone. He put away the plates and bowls, washed his hands, and lifted off his apron. When his daughter came home, she would clean the dishes, and then they would cook the dumplings.
He went to survey his creations, first in the kitchen, then the table in the dining room, and last in the bedroom.
“AYE!!! AYE!!! AYE!! What is this?” Papa Lao Yei screamed. “Get in here! this instant!”
He called for his grandchildren and one startled soul, her head bowed, ran up and stood before him. He ordered her to get everyone, bring them to the bedroom. “NOW!!” She turned and slipped out of the room, never meeting the old man’s eyes, a whisper in reply, “Yes Papa Lao Yei.”
The children filed in, eyes widening, jaws dropping, moving like soldiers along the wall where directed.
Papa Lao Yei breathed slowly and waited.
“Who has done this? Tell the truth!” And he pointed his thick arm towards the bed, its palm spread wide, facing the children, an open hand to the Gods and to his mortal limits. The bamboo sheet on the bed had a circular imprint of flattened dumplings, squashed in a pattern resembling a person’s seat.
The heads shook. A lower lip trembled and the oldest widened his eyes, his hands clasped in front of him. Papa Lao Yei lectured them on the merits of honesty and hard work, that until they could be responsible for their deeds and contribute to the home, they would never grow up. His hands clenched into fists and released. He turned from them and brought his hands behind his back, one inside the other.
The girl gasped. “Oh,” she said before she could stop herself. A stifled chuckle from her cousin followed, then another. Her brother bumped her with his arm and the eldest nodded at them to be silent. They listened to the rest of the scolding, not without some effort.
Papa Lao Yei’s rear end was covered in flour, spotted like the pattern of flattened dumplings.
O’ HENRY ENDING
The story appeals to the reader because of it’s O’Henry type ending; we are sure the child is the culprit and will get in trouble. When we learn otherwise, we laugh, we recognize that adults are fallible, that their mistakes are in some ways larger, because like Papa Lao Yei, they often act with impunity. When the child does something wrong and gets in the way by accident, he scurries off. He knows he misstepped and it’s over.
What about when the elder does something wrong? Papa Lao Yei scolds them for his own mistake. After reading this to my daughter, who was born and raised in the U.S., I asked her what she thought. She found it surprising and funny. I asked her if it would happen here. She said it wouldn’t. And with a sideways glance and eyebrow raised at me, confirmed what I believed, not just no, by NO WAY.
I asked her if she understood the deeper message.
EAST AND WEST
How would the story be different in the U.S.? An American child would say something at the first accusation.They would not stand silently; they would deny it outright and boldly. And when they saw Papa’s backside, they would not only point it out, they would expose him in the mirror or to each other, laughing at his hypocrisy. And if Papa were American, perhaps he would laugh at himself.
The story on this level is very telling. Eastern and western culture are worlds apart, geographically and substantively. An Asian child is to be seen and not heard. She shows respect to her elders, knows her place, and remains quiet even in the case when she is right, or as may be, the parent is wrong. Papa Lao Yei will learn of his mistake and that knowledge will be his lesson. It is not the child’s place to correct him, nor is it his responsibility to apologize.
The American, by contrast, is outspoken, saying what she is thinking and often doing so with verve. She stands up for her ideas; honesty, even such candor, is encouraged at a young age. This trait is valued in our society.
This tale provides insight into both cultures, good and bad. It’s important that we recognize the difference, that we see clearly. This is a lesson for everyone.
In this year of the monkey, 2016, may your dumplings be filled with treasure and may you practice the gift of seeing clearly.
chúc mừng năm mới
Happy Lunar New Year!