I am a reluctant visitor to The Yangtze River, the water that gave my family tree life. Our hotel room is perched on a mighty bend with a commanding view from the balcony. Closing off the 21st century with a slide of the glass door, I gaze back into time to survey my territory, my heritage, my roots.
My paternal grandfather, ye ye, now in his 90s, fought for the Kuomintang as a teenager. Along with thousands of fellow Chinese Nationalists, he fled to Thailand to escape the persecution of the triumphant and fanatical Communist Party of China. Conversations about these traumatic and turbulent times were rare, but I remember snatches of conversation in which he described “paying a small fortune” and living like “a rat in the bowels of a ship”.
The uninhibited laughter of naked young children playing in the murky water below drifts up. Breathing in the musty evening air, I catch a hint of saffron in the eddying breeze. The muscular yellow river, bulging with sinews, twists along its ancient path; the aorta, the lifeblood of a proud but troubled country. Fully-laden ancient rice barges meander up and down the waterway in blindfolds like diligent dung beetles bearing implausibly heavy loads. Leathery water buffaloes nod their heads rhythmically as they make their way to the slippery sandbanks to wallow in the mud. Fluorescent fireflies perform a timeless dance in the billowing breeze, lighting up the dreary dusk.
Ye ye embarked on the proverbial road from rags to riches. No task was below him, no job too demeaning. The decades of sweeping the floors and loading the shelves in a traditional hardware store in Chinatown saved him enough money to propose to my dear, and now departed, nai nai.
An infinite sea of iridescent green rice paddies stretches out from the far shoulder, shimmering in the twilight as the wind swirls tantalizingly over their panicles. Tired lines of bent-backed farmers bearing bamboo baskets trudge between the quivering needles on their way home to their riverside huts.
My Chinese identity has been indelibly stamped on my consciousness since I can remember. The Chinese culture has been elevated to represent the absolute pinnacle of human achievement. China can do no wrong: its economy is destined to make it the world’s premier superpower and Mandarin is on course to be the lingua franca.
In the corner of the field, a pagoda-shaped temple nestles in the shadow of a misty terraced hill, a shaded sanctuary for those seeking solace and solitude. Demonic dragons with flashing tongues and are perched on the rims of the roofs to ward off evil spirits. Billowing clouds of incense spiral up to the heavens as they catch the whirling wind and the eerily mesmerizing voice of an erhu signifies the start of evening prayers. The reverberating chants of the monks blend in seamlessly as they commence their echoing incantations.
My younger self resented having to learn Chinese in addition to Thai and English. My three siblings and I had to endure twice weekly lessons from ‘Aunty Joy’, a leading practitioner of rote learning. She smelled of ginseng and sparkled in her traditional Chinese silk blouse, usually red or yellow, with embroidered images of dragons. Every lesson had the same rigorous pattern: phonics, character recognition, word-building, reading, and, finally, traditional calligraphy. Aunty Joy taught us about Confucius, a founding father of Chinese philosophy, and her expectations for us to treat all adults with unconditional respect and defer to their better judgment.
On the near bank of The Yangtze, a wizened old man makes his way to an old teashop carrying a bamboo birdcage containing a brightly colored song thrush. He lovingly hooks it up on a rail next to an assortment of ornate cages occupied by yellow canaries and red-chested songbirds. I can just make out the high-pitched melodic tweeting of the birds as they reunite with their feathered friends. The elderly gentleman, having deposited his prized pet, joins his brothers who are gathered around a stone table playing a game of mahjong. They slam their tiles down in triumph bearing gap-toothed smiles. A hunched-back old lady in a flowery apron waddles among the regular customers with an enormous iron kettle of steaming water, replenishing the wide-brimmed china cups with boiling water.
There are many aspects of Chinese culture that I simply adore: the deep love that resonates in the extended family and a profound connection between grandparents and grandchildren that is not always replicated in the West. The tonal language is rich and expressive, allowing a wealth of puns and clever word-plays. Chinese festivals are lavish, magical affairs, and, for me and my siblings, nothing surpasses the wonder of Chinese New Year which spreads lazily over three whole days and unites the whole family. In many respects, Chinese culture appears to be timeless, a tantalizing parcel of history which has been restored and cherished. I have occasionally come across anti-Chinese comments in the West and agree that China has a long way to go, especially in terms of human rights and democracy. Nevertheless, I am proud to treat Chinese heritage as a fundamental part of who I am.
As I watch the men blow and sip the surface of their tea, I imagine the jasmine leaves stimulating their taste buds. All of a sudden, the row of birds grows agitated and the occupants of the cozy shop forget their game and look wisely up at the darkening skies as one. Sure enough, a stiff gust of wind comes snaking down the Yangtze scattering piles of dried debris over the eddying current into a spiraling funnel. I arch my back to breathe in again the aroma of my roots as a small sprig of willow tree leaves floats up to my vantage point.
First Place: Aim Poonsornsiri, from Bangkok, Thailand for “Twisted Roots.” Aim attends Deerfield Academy and is in 11th Grade.
As an avid reader and keen creative writer, I have always enjoyed reading short stories from around the globe. This has allowed me to satisfy my interest in writing and cultural expression simultaneously. I came across the Writing For Peace contest while searching for online fiction with an emphasis on cultural diversity. I am particularly passionate about celebrating cultural identity and, at the same time, breaking down cultural and racial barriers so that we can live in a more harmonized world which encourages tolerance and respect for cultural and ethnic differences. I am deeply saddened that race is used by some to construct barriers rather than to recognize that diversity makes our world a much more vibrant and exciting place to live. Being nominated for the Writing For Peace award is a great honor as it recognizes the extensive work that I have invested in my short stories and acts as a tribute to my own cultural identity. It has inspired me to continue to delve deeper into my heritage and refine my writing style.
Aim Poonsornsiri is an 18-year-old student from Bangkok, Thailand. She has attended schools in Bangkok, Singapore, and the United States, where she currently attends Deerfield Academy. Aim comes from a Thai-Chinese family and has always been curious about her Chinese grandparents, who fled China shortly after World War II to escape persecution. This interest has evolved into a fascination with cultural diversity, which she has satisfied by personal research combined with extensive reading of fiction and non-fiction texts. Aim has attempted to express her mixed cultural identity through creative writing. Her works have been published in her school’s literature magazine: Little Brown House and nominated in her school’s award for excellence in the study of English: the Barclays’ Prize.
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