Updated: Dec 30, 2021
By: Sumay and Lihong McPhail
This is a story I have written largely based off stories of my mother's childhood of growing up in rural China.
Chapter 1 : Rice Planting
Sweat dripped down my forehead and landed in the water with a soft noise. I planted faster because I knew the more rice I planted was more food in my small belly. The only rice we would get for the year depended on the short 2 months of planting. An eel wiggled under my foot getting itself comfortable. I am used to it, so I let it stay there. My back was aching like crazy but my hands kept on planting. Faster and faster. Whenever I’m planting I imagine whatever is beyond these rice fields and ragged huts. Where people lived happily. With fridges to keep food from getting rotten. And billions of pigs to keep us fed forever! I was with all the other rice farmers but my mind was somewhere else, somewhere happier. I stopped to swat away the hundreds of mosquitoes swarming the rice planters. I gripped the seedlings as tight as I would allow myself to, because we didn’t have any extras. We were too poor. The sky was turning dark and I was glad. The moment the sky was pitch black I could go home and sleep. I am so tired because we are up planting the moment we see any hint of the sun. It seemed like the sun came a little too early today. But I wasn’t about to complain. The sun was the least of my worries.
Chapter 2 : Clean
Planting. And more planting. I’m sick of wishing for the day to end, only to wake up to the next and wish the same thing all over again. My daydreams aren’t as vivid anymore. I am studying more and more to get ready for elementary school. My parents wanted to send me to kindergarten but I know I’m ready to go to first grade. I won’t learn anything in kindergarten. My clothes are soaked through with muddy water and sweat. Tonight will be the night I look forward to all week. My family takes turns using the big wok we have to take a bath. I can finally wash away all the mud caked all over me. In the horizon I can see the sun slowly disappear. “Let’s go home now.” My dad yells to me, trudging through the water to go home. “Coming!” I start heading towards our house. My family starts bringing water from the well to the wok with buckets. My back is already aching from the day of planting rice but I help carry the bucket with my father to dump in the wok. My mother is building up a fire with dried rice stalks to heat the water. By the time the waters filled the bottom, my feet were completely covered with mud from walking back and forth from the well to the wok on a dirt floor with wet feet.
We start a fire using dried rice plants and put rocks in the bottom of the wok so we don’t get burned. I go first and start washing myself finally getting all the layers of mud caked on my skin to rub off. This is the moment I look forward to all week, but I wash quickly because I know pleasures such as this must be shared. I go to bed knowing it is the only night every week that I feel clean. It is wonderful to feel clean, but also separating, as if I have detached myself from the earth. I reach to the dirt ground and watch as it slips through my fingers. Maybe the world I always dream of, the world of always being clean, isn’t entirely the bliss I think it is. Maybe the people living in that world wish they live like I do. Then I realize that is silly. Who would possibly wish to be in the situation I am in. I am afraid. Afraid of being content and losing my anger and frustration of the situation I’m in, because that is my greatest source of motivation. To get out of here.
Chapter 3 : Hungry
A drought has hit. The whole town is worried. Worried we won’t have enough food from the harvest. Most everyone is poor. But our family is the poorest, and the looks of pity we get aren’t helping with the situation. We raise one pig, two geese, five ducks, and eight chickens to get our protein for the year. But we have to risk rationing their food so we can save up for the inevitable decrease in our harvest this year. I can see my parents' worry increase as the water in the rice fields slowly evaporates day by day. When they are around me they don’t pretend to be hopeful. We all know what is happening and none of us have the energy to put up a facade of positivity. I know daydreaming won't make our situation even better. When I lay down to go to bed I say goodbye to my fantasy world. I say goodbye to the fridge I know we’ll never have, goodbye to the pigs that keep us fed, and goodbye to being hopeful that such a world exists. It doesn’t. I let a couple tears escape my eyes before wiping them from my face and telling myself not to be foolish. I must be strong for my parents.
When we left the rice field today the water was only one inch deep. I hope there's still water left in the morning. I am thirsty, but in a desperate frenzy my parents used all the water we had left and drained it into the rice fields hoping to keep the crop alive. I am angry at their foolishness. I know the water won’t do anything. But I must respect my parents and not question their choices.
Chapter 4 : Desperate
The water is gone. Our crop has died. And the little rice we’ve managed to harvest will only last us three days. Everyone in my village is desperate and looking for anything edible to eat. My village is small with around 50 families all living in huts. We all have a few acres of land to farm, but it has become useless due to the drought. As the days go by, people start to starve. My family along with many others has started to eat tree bark and grass. Anything we can get our hands on that isn’t poisonous gets put on the dinner table. I am not looking forward to Chinese New Year. Usually we have a huge celebration and slaughter the pig we raise for meat. Sometimes I even get chicken bone soup! This year, I just hope we have something to eat. Thinking about Chinese New Year makes my stomach growl. It’s hard to do anything with the stabbing pain constantly reminding me that there isn’t any food.
Some of the people in our village have died from starvation. No one is giving their neighbors food in fear that then they would be the ones to starve. Instead of going out to the rice farms, we scavenge around for anything that is edible. When I look outside I see weary faces of parents looking for food, and children crying for the pain in their stomachs have become unbearable. Everyone is miserable and desperate.
I have not finished this story yet but I hope to add to it in the future. A big thank you to my mom, Lihong McPhail, for inspiring me to take her stories and write about it!