Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf

ferdinand the bull

This was one of my favorite books as a child.  The story is about a bull, named Ferdinand, who grows up differently from all the other bulls.  Instead of fighting, he likes to sit in the meadows all day long and smell the flowers.

When it comes time to pick the biggest, baddest, meanest bull to fight in the ring, the people who pick bulls see Ferdinand kicking and giving off an awesome display of madness because Ferdinand just happened at that moment to be stung by a bee.  So they cart him off and put him into the ring.  Everyone is clapping and all the fighters are very scared.  But Ferdinand goes to the middle of the ring and sits down amongst all the flowers the beautiful women have thrown.  No matter what they do to prod him, they can’t get Ferdinand to fight.  So eventually they cart him back to the meadow, where he goes to sit under his favorite tree and is happy.

I love this story to this day.  I love children’s books more than many because the best ones often contain lessons about life with few words and lots of pictures!  When I re-read this book recently, I thought, not only is it a wonderful story to share, but it struck me that there are many similarities to Taoist principles.

According to Tao, one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  There are popular sayings in the West, too, such as – “Do not try to fit a square peg into a hole.”   Many of us know the saying – take some time to stop and smell the flowers.  What does this mean?

Ferdinand is not lonely when he sits by himself in the meadows.  He is not doing anything but enjoying his surroundings in the moment.  He may be solitary when he does this, but this is a solitude that brings him happiness.

We have so many distractions in our lives today.  Personally, in the past year, I have found myself wasting too many hours on my smartphone, surfing the news, playing games, etc.  This fills the space in my mind temporarily with distractions.  More than that, it takes away from my quiet time and space to simply be still and silent so that my mind is open and relaxed.

When we find ourselves in a quiet space of the mind without distractions, we can be more creative and feel inspired.  If we are constantly busy, trying so hard to fill the empty spaces with tv, games, news, whatever it is available in front of us to keep us “busy” without purpose, we often end up missing feeling in touch with ourselves, others, and our immediate surroundings.  As I am writing now, I stop and feel the breeze coming through my window.  I notice the light.  I feel quiet and content.  But if I’m on my smart phone, I often don’t enjoy or appreciate this at all.

As for fighting, we fight in our minds.  We fight ourselves, if not others.  We get angry because people don’t live up to our expectations.  We lose touch with nature and ourselves, which is easy to do when we are pummeled by advertisements and a constant pressure of what life should be, instead of listening to ourselves and following our instincts and being truly in touch.

So take the time to stop and smell the flowers.  Put down your cell phone, turn off the tv and stereo.  You might be surprised at what you find.

The Open Hand

I was walking home from work two days ago when I came across an elderly woman standing on the sidewalk with a luggage bag beside her.  She reached out her cupped hand and said, “Please.  I’m very hungry.”  

In New York, many people ask for money, but certain people catch my attention. This woman, I guessed, was in her 70’s.  She looked East Asian, but I don’t think she was Chinese (maybe Tibetan, Bhutanese or Nepalese?).  She looked cold.

In very New York fashion, I got straight to the point:  “Why are you like this?  Do you have a home, or is there anyone you can call?”  (Some elderly people suffer from dementia.)  

“No,” she said, and then again, “Please. I’m very hungry.”  

I asked, “Do you have any family?”  

She said, “My son.  My son.”  

“Can you call him?”

“No,” she said and shook her head and didn’t say any more.  I realized it was a private matter.  Perhaps she had gotten kicked out of the home, or perhaps she had left.  

I paused and asked, “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” 

“The laundry room.  I will sleep in the laundry room.”  I didn’t know which laundry room she was referring to.  There are laundromats that are open 24 hours a day, and I guessed that’s what she meant.

“Can you call your son?” I asked again.  

“No.”  She paused a bit.  “My son changes his phone number every day.  He plays poker.  You know poker?  He plays poker every day.  He loses money.”  

I understood now that, whatever the case may be, I shouldn’t and didn’t need to ask any more questions.  I opened my purse and found two $5 bills and gave them to her. She bowed very deeply. 

I thought of inviting this woman to my home, at least for a night.  The truth is, with a poor economy, I am already supporting one friend who has been living with me and have two long-time friends (a couple) arriving this weekend to stay at my place who are not in good financial circumstances.  I have a one bedroom apartment with one bathroom, a small kitchen. 

But it was painful to see someone who was elderly and probably a proud person begging for money.  I thought to myself, No, I do not need to take on more than what I am dealing with now.  

Then a thought came across my mind – only several blocks away, there is a huge community center that helps the elderly and immigrants.  I pointed out the way, only two blocks up, three blocks left, a big building on the corner.

“They may be able to help you.  You may be able to find yourself in a better position.”

Again, she bowed very deeply.  I began to walk home.  Perhaps I should have at least walked this woman to the community center.  But I was so tired after work that day that I did not.  Also, I know people are very resourceful when they need to be.  I need to take care of myself also.

I have known for a long time that many Chinese people have problems with gambling.  If you walk into a casino, you can see whole areas that cater to Chinese people.   I have known people in my extended family who have gambled and lost a lot.  And, unfortunately, I know many sad stories of Chinese people who have lost everything because of their gambling habits.

There are many misfortunes in this world.  You can’t help everyone.  In New York City, I tend to be mindful about giving money because many homeless use the money to buy drugs or alcohol (although I don’t have anything against people buying alcohol per se).  But I don’t think this woman was trying to take advantage of me or anyone else.  I could be wrong.

I do hope she has been able to find a place where she can feel safe and warm.  What would it have cost me to have her in my home for one or two nights?  Actually, I feel a bit sorry, but then life is what it is, and I think the best thing is to concentrate my limited resources on the people who are close to me.  

I don’t expect to change the world, but I can make a little difference, perhaps, in the lives of a few people who matter the most and also in daily, small interactions where, hopefully, I can put a smile on someone’s face, even if only for a brief moment.

My Mother’s Qi Pao

Woman wearing qi pao (shorter length)

Woman wearing a qi pao (shorter length)

I was thinking of my mother’s qi pao, which hung in one closet along with several of her other precious dresses, but the qi pao was different and stood out – it was red with some embroidery, made of silk and was very shapely, with a long slit down each side of the dress.   I found out later that she wore it at her wedding. I loved the feel of the silk.  It was so soft and intimate.  I could rub it against my cheek, and it felt sensual.  

When I went to Kun Ming, I visited a factory that made silken cloth.  There were two men at a loom, weaving.  The older man sat atop an old wooden structure and pedaled away as on a bicycle but at varying speeds (I’m not sure my memory is entirely accurate here), and the younger man below moved his fingers quickly and precisely across the evenly spread out threads as across the strings of an instrument.  The older man above determined which spool of thread would filter down to the guy below.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember much more, except that the weaving of the cloth was intricately coordinated between these two men (who never spoke a word as they were working), and it must have taken a great deal of time and skill to learn how to do this.

The end product was bundled yards and yards of silken cloth of all different colors.   To this day, it is one of the most luxurious sights I have ever seen.  Each bundle seemed heavy in weight, with different patterns of embroidery in gold, silver, turquoise…  and some of the embroidery, as intricate as it was, was subtle because it was red on red or ivory on ivory.

I asked someone at the counter if I could have a small piece of cloth, just a small square as a souvenir.  She checked with her supervisor and said, “I’m sorry.  We cannot give you just a small piece.   We have to sell the cloth by the meter.  If you want, you can buy a meter of cloth.”  

A meter of this silken cloth cost $300 at the time.  Even if I could get half a meter, it would be $150, which was too much for me to afford.  Privately, I wondered if they thought I had deep pockets as a foreigner.  (You always had to be wary of inflated prices as a foreigner.)  Didn’t they have a piece of “scrap” lying around somewhere?   Whatever the case was, they were, indeed, attending to a couple of Japanese customers who had decided on what cloths to buy (most likely, for kimonos).  The woman at the counter unrolled and measured out the cloth of each bundle carefully and took out a fine pair of scissors, making an almost perfect straight cut down the middle.  

The qi pao, which is a traditional Chinese dress, is now worn mostly at formal occasions, like weddings or ceremonial functions, or is worn as a uniform for certain job functions (stewardesses at airlines, for example).  Each one is made to fit the individual body (like a glove) and has a collar at the top, traditionally with Chinese knots for buttons.  It’s not the most comfortable garment to walk around in, but it’s certainly a hip-hugging, sexy dress.  Not all of them are made with silk, which is expensive.  I don’t know if today there are still two men weaving cloths at the loom where I was in Kun Ming or whether they have been replaced by factory workers.  I do know it was a magical experience to see the cloths and see them being made.  

As for my mother’s qi pao, my sister and I both at one point tried to put it on, of course, but it didn’t fit either of us correctly (my shoulders were a bit broad, my waist wasn’t tiny enough and the bodice was definitely too loose).  My mother had a figure to be envied, and my sister and I joked that certain traits skip a generation.  We asked our mother to put it on, but she modestly declined, even though I’m quite sure it would have fit her.  Perhaps she wanted to keep the memory of her having worn it only on the day of her wedding.  

My sister now keeps my mother’s qi pao.  Even if I like to tell myself that material things don’t matter so much, I realize that certain things do, especially because they represent a piece of someone that is part of us – in this case, a memory of the vivid, beautiful woman that my mother was and what was precious to her.

The Life of A Concubine

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden Palace), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden City), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

“Shroud”

The ancient emperors had hundreds of concubines who were not allowed beyond the confines of the palace. Sealed off from the world, the women were captives for life.

Long nights,
in bound feet,
I dream of my
Majesty ap-
proaching.
When I walk,
I sway as a
willow sways,
delicately –
And the locusts
come, lustful
and horny, their
violent wings
covering the
gnarled limbs
of this old,
bowed tree.

I am copying this poem as I wrote it more than ten years ago after hearing a story about how a concubine, in ancient times, was put to death with her lover after their affair was discovered.  Under punishment and threat of death, these lovers took great measures to hide their affections for each other.  Her lover was a performer with an opera troupe that frequented the imperial court, so the two had the opportunity to meet from time to time.

After hearing this story, I was very curious. I asked, “How many concubines did the emperor have?”  The Chinese emperors had many concubines, numbering from the hundreds to thousands.  But what was the life of a concubine in the imperial court?

Traditionally, a concubine to the emperor was brought to the attention of the court because of her beauty or status.  She was not considered officially married to the emperor but was recruited to the court to bear the emperor sons and to entertain, usually at a young age.  Once a concubine was taken inside the palace walls, she had to leave behind her family, her friends, her familiar ways of life and was not permitted to see her relatives or friends or leave the palace without official consent. The parents would agree to give up their daughter in exchange for a secure life for their child.  However, giving up a daughter to be a concubine to the imperial palace was usually a heart-breaking affair, as it was considered a parting for life.  The concubines’ activities were generally overseen and monitored by the powerful eunuchs.  Of course, sex with any one other than the emperor was strictly forbidden.

Before the emperor would visit, a concubine was required to bathe and be examined by a court doctor.  With hundreds or thousands of concubines to choose from, a concubine was considered lucky to have a visit by the emperor.  Many of them, I was told, throughout their lives in the palace, barely had any contact with the emperor at all.  They had their own rooms, and their daily activities were filled with making themselves up, sewing, practicing various arts and sharing their time with the other concubines in the palace.  

There were varying ranks of concubines, and many of them engaged in ruthless struggles for power.  Indeed, there were some concubines who managed to become very powerful.  The most famous were Ci Xi and Wu Ze Tian who were very shrewd and eventually became two of China’s Empresses and rulers.  Still, for many concubines, they had to wile away their days, presenting themselves as best as they could and many leading very lonely lives.

A True Story – How My Mother Became Interested in My Father

When my mother was in college in Taiwan, one day she looked at the chalkboard and asked her friend, “Who’s writing is that?”  You see, Chinese characters tell a lot about a person.  It’s a bit like drawing, and it can reveal many things about you – whether you’re playful, imaginative, disciplined, strong in different ways…  It turns out that the person who wrote the characters on the chalkboard was the T.A. in her class, my father.  And this is how my mother first became interested in my father – because of his handwriting.  

My mother and father came from very different worlds.  She was a social butterfly.  She had many suitors from China and Taiwan and from different places around the world.  They called her the “Black Rose” because she didn’t have the white, porcelain skin of classical beauty and because when a man tried to woo her, they would most likely be hurt.  She never lacked any confidence, and I think this is what made her truly beautiful.  She was a very kind, honest, generous, fun-loving spirit, but also immensely gracious.  When I was young, I was very shy around boys.  She told me, “Why should you be afraid or embarrassed?  When a boy looks at you, you should think or pretend they are nothing to you.”  But she advised that if I truly liked a boy, I should keep myself at a distance.  She said, “If you show your interest too soon, the boy will not like you so much.  But if you keep your distance, he will grow fonder.”  

At any rate, my mother, who had so many men courting her, eventually fell in love with my father.  Her mother objected because my father was poor.  He could hardly afford to eat and ate many bananas, which were cheap.  He had passed the rigorous exam to enter Taiwan University, but he could not afford the tuition.  Because he could not afford books, he studied what he could from books in the bookstores.  He tutored a young girl, took the exam again and passed, and her father eventually offered to pay for part of his tuition, and this is how my father came to be a student at Taiwan University.  

My father never told me these stories.  He is rather silent about his life, and much of what I learned about him came from my mother.  For seven years, my mother could not marry my father because her mother objected, but eventually she got the blessing of her father.  During this period, her mother passed away at the early age of 44 from stomach cancer.  After they married, my mother had a much harder time of things.  She didn’t even know how to boil water when they were married.  And the first dinner she made for his friends was a disaster.  She put a chicken in a pot and just let it cook and cook, and by the time his friends arrived, it had been in the pot so long that the chicken disintegrated so that they basically ate soup (with the bones).  

My mother was an amazing woman.  By the time I was a child, she was in America, sewing our clothes (she was also very talented in knitting), cooking delicious meals every day, taking care of the bills, taking care of the children, working here and there as a data processor or in the local library.  She wallpapered our entire dining room and one of our bathrooms beautifully.  I don’t know how she did this by herself or where she learned how to do it.  After coming to America, she had few possessions.  My first baby crib was apparently a cardboard box, and my parents truly struggled to make ends meet.  But my mother loved my father immensely.  The only person she loved more than my father was God. (She went to Catholic school in China.)  Her English was never as good as my father’s, not nearly, and she struggled with this all her life.  

They had few possessions, but there was one thing she kept in a bank vault.  These were the letters (aerograms) that my father wrote her every day after he came to the U.S. to study for his PhD.   It was not easy at that time for Chinese people to come to the U.S., and so my mother and father were separated for more than three years.  But every day, he wrote her a letter.  And my older sister who was only a baby at the time in Taiwan would jump with joy every time they got a letter from my father and say, “Papa’s letter!”  These letters were the most precious things to my mother, enough that she would keep them in a bank vault, and my sister and I now have them but, unfortunately, with our limited Chinese, we have a hard time reading and understanding them (especially because many of the characters are written in cursive letters).  

When I noticed later that my mother’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s, my father did tell me something.  My mother practiced my father’s handwriting.

Tale of a Fisherman (“The Lottery Ticket”)

My father told me a story when I was little about an old man who had a hard life.

P1040543

There was an old man who lived in a hut by the sea.  He was very poor.  One of his few possessions was a fishing rod, which he used to fish for food.

The old man walked to town every morning, hauling heavy baskets of grain over his shoulder to sell in the market.  The only luxury the old man could afford was to buy a lottery ticket every week.

One day, the old man checked the board in the public square.  He looked in disbelief because he realized that he had the winning numbers.

He got so excited that he dropped his grain and ran all the way home. He was jumping and kicking his legs together…  And then he took his fishing rod and threw it out to sea because he didn’t need it anymore.  

He kept his lottery ticket in the fishing rod.

My dad was slapping his knee in a fit of laughter.  

This story actually made me feel very sad and almost made me want to cry.  

I asked him, “Why is this funny?”  

My father said, “Because… because it’s irony!”  

Later, I realized why my dad thought this story was funny.  He had had a hard life, too.  He had seen war.  His younger brothers were tortured and put into re-education camps. His mother passed away soon after he left his hometown as a teenager to look for a safe place for them to stay.  His brothers were turned into peasants, smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, were skinny and looked old.  My father was much luckier and eventually came to America and became a history professor.

I think my father found humor in tragedy because he saw that life can be unpredictable.  No matter how much you may wish for something or strive for good things or how hard you may work, sometimes unexpected and even bad things happen.  He liked to say to me, “Don’t expect success.  When you do something, it should be without regard to success or failure.”  I suppose the story was also a lesson on being overcome by one’s emotions.

To be honest, to this day, I don’t find this story to be very funny, but I still love it.