“Be ready by 5 PM this coming Monday evening,” the taxi driver informed me one early morning. I was bicycling to school to check on something. He was a relative of a relative. Something like that. Everybody is related to somebody, I heard that often. After all, we are all from the same part of China, I heard that too. Self-employed, Ah Doong was a common laborer (working on land that belonged to others) but decided to try something less strenuous and punishing. Like me, he disliked the searing heat of the tropical sun, turning his skin dark and leathery, making him much older than his young age. With some assistance from his parents, he acquired a car and became a taxi driver to support a family of two children.
The wife tapped rubber trees that belonged to a wealthy relative, returning about thirty percent-plus of her rubber earnings to the owner, a common practice in many villages. The family lived relatively well in a village raising a few pigs and chickens and growing their own vegetables in a small plot behind the house. Like a few in the area, they squatted on land that belonged to a kind friend of the family.
Many recent emigrants from mainland China depended on the generosity of their friends or relatives to build their first modest dwelling, a common practice in many villages. I mean lending a helping hand, in this case, allowing newcomers to build their first houses on your land. Rent did not exist in our vocabulary then. We had at one time at least seven different families on our land in the village. Houses were built not in a cluster but scattered here and there.
(Maybe that was the way it was done in some rural areas in China. Remember, China is a huge country—as big as America—and there was plenty of room to build your houses.) Matter-of-factly they occupied many large tracts of our land that could have been planted with money-making rubber or coconut trees. Or tapioca (cassava in the West) and vine-y sweet potatoes for the pigs. Both rubber trees and pigs were a major source of income to our family. It should read: the only source of income for our family.
And why was Grandpa so generous to his relatives and friends? Grandpa was one of the original pioneers in the community. Most were relatives, new or later arrivals in the village. Grandpa, like the other first colonists, received three acres of free land for a start. Others who came later were not as lucky. Grandpa knew the hardships and he wanted those who came later to have an easier start in a new country. He and another friend also built the first vernacular school for the children in the village on our land (the school still exists today under a different name, moved to the central part of the village).
Yes, during important holidays like the Chinese New Year, you might expect to receive life chickens, fresh eggs—usually something from the farm—and fish from grateful squatters. I don’t remember if all our relatives did anything to show their appreciation. After a while, they took things for granted. However, all of them were able to find work, mostly in the village, a few became fishermen, raised decent families, and eventually moved away and built new houses on their own properties, within a radius of five miles or so.
Remember…almost all of them hailed from the same geographical area in mainland China. Some were probably neighbors in China. Or they had known each other for a long time back home.
Remember also…if you settled in urban areas, there were many Chinese associations in existence, like the Wong Association, Ding Association, Yu Association, you name it, which were established to offer all kinds of assistance to any Wong or Ding or Yu families who were new in the country from China. Help was there if you needed it.
I was lucky to be going to Singapore because my relatives were waiting for me. Were they?
By now Father, the mistress, and the kids (without the grandmother) had left without me in a different taxi to Singapore a few days ahead. Ah Doong arrived punctually at the house. He had two other passengers for the ride. All my worldly possessions were in a small piece of luggage, mostly ordinary clothes and some money to pay the driver. To my surprise, a cousin (a son of Mother’s third brother), who graduated with me from the same school, would be one of my traveling companions. They lived within walking distance from my ancestral home in the village.
I’d heard the story a million times. Mother became a surrogate mother to her five brothers when their mother died at a young age. They kept the five boys. Mother was the oldest. Two girls were given away for adoption. One married a teacher, the other a shopkeeper. They fared better than the five brothers. It should not surprise anyone that all five brothers and their families lived within a radius of less than two miles from Mother. Growing up, I did visit all my uncles and their families and their children often…almost like the neighbors down the road. Or up the road. There was nothing remarkable about their humble dwellings or simple livelihood. Most of my older cousins were Chinese educated. There were a few teachers of Chinese in the bunch. The younger ones went to the same school I attended, a Methodist mission school.
However, I disliked intensely the fact that Mother treated me like one of her brothers, given none of them was educated. Yes, it affected the way she talked to me—her attitudes about my desire to go to school and about why I wanted to spend time with friends who were educated. I couldn’t spend an evening with any one of them without her coming screaming and cursing at my friends and their parents at their homes. She humiliated me in front of my peers, and not just once. If you must know, Mother did everything to undermine my quiet but determined pursuit of a better life than the one she could offer me.
Imagine how sick and disgusted I was to hear her say, “Look at so and so,” as she would often remind me, falling on deaf ears, “he never went to school.” Yes, Mother, I hear you. Yes, Mother, I believe you. So and so is able to work on the farm, she continued. Raise a family. Never did go to school all his life. And he is doing well. By her standards. Very low expectations to begin with.
I wasn’t impressed with any of the young men or old men she paraded in front of me. I despised every one of them. They had one and only one thing in common: they were all uneducated, trapped forever in abject poverty. They couldn’t see or imagine a better life beyond the four walls of the village. I felt sorry for them.
To my utter surprise and dismay, Sister in England years later would defend Mother saying, “Brother, you should be a little more sympathetic toward Mother. You can’t really blame her for who she was, can you? That’s all she knew. Forced to take care of all her brothers because she was the oldest child. She became a surrogate mother to them. And you should understand why Mother treated you the way she did.”
“If Mother was smart,” I told Sister, “Mother would have encouraged me to go to school. Because if I had a good education, I could take care of her for the rest of her life. How come she forgot that? Instead she made us suffer. We worked and worked and worked from morn till night, seven days a week without rest or play or anything. And you are telling me I should accept what Mother did to us? No way. Sorry, Sister.”
It pained me every time Mother repeated her story—like a popular refrain in a hit song. Except she always avoided mentioning the names of my cousins, especially on Father’s side of the Ling family. Some were professionals: one was a lawyer, another a prominent principal, a police chief, and a nurse, et cetera. And they had one thing and one thing only in common: they were all very well educated and living a good life. Mother knew every one of them at her fingertips. But conveniently she chose the wrong people to try to impress me: the uneducated ones in the village where we lived.
It irritated me to no end. Mother forgot I was not just so and so. I was someone who wanted to go to school. Someone who was endowed with potential and possibilities. Someone who knew that, with education, I would be going somewhere, somewhere better than the present situation of near poverty and subsistence living. I didn’t want any part of the village life. That was the reason I left the village hurriedly.
And now I was on the way to Singapore.