Last Wednesday was the twenty-third day of the Twelfth Moon and for the Chinese, the beginning of New Year celebrations. My father took down the poster of the Kitchen God in a gesture of sending him up into the heavens to meet with the Great Jade Emperor.
My father was born in Manchuria, and there it was customary to send the Kitchen God into the sky, riding on horses made out of sorghum stalk. The god had been watching the household all year long, a witness to squabbling, gossiping, lying and perhaps stealing. Before the god’s effigy, temple and horses were set ablaze, sticky candy would be pressed into his mouth to keep him from tattling on family members when he appeared before the Jade Emperor. (The Kitchen God would return precisely at noon on the last day of the year.)
16"x22" gouache. Adult nonfiction, "The Kitchen God" from "The Odyssey of a Manchurian" by Belle Yang. Harcourt Brace 1996
Next Wednesday will be New Year's Eve. and I know when my parents feast on huo guo, “fire pot,” my father’s eyes will invariably grow misty, thinking about the time when he was hungry as he trekked one thousand miles to escape the Communists or when the locusts swarmed across the provinces, eating up millet, sorghum, wheat and rice (and all my father had to eat were locust). Or the hunger due to floods and drought. And the empty stomach because of war.
In the past two hundred years (almost as long as America has been a nation), the Chinese have suffered wars and upheaval: First Opium War, Arrow War, Taiping Rebellion, Sino-Japanese War, Fall of the Qing Dynasty, Civil War, Japanese Invasion, Soviet encroachment in Manchuria after the Japanese surrender, more civil war and the violence the Communists set upon their own people. My great grandfather died in the greatest famine known to mankind, unleasehed in the late 1958 by Mao Zedong's misguided Great Leap Forward which pulled farmers off their land.
Two days ago, I took my parents from Carmel to Ranch 99 in Cupertino, a supermarket filled with Chinese goodies, bringing them home with two shopping cart loads of food which included sixty luscious baozi, meat-filled steamed bun, roasted pig ears, and watermelon seeds to crack while telling winter tales. They had more than enough to accommodate the holiday which will last 23 days (until Lantern Festival, the fifteenths of the First Month).
"I sleep well when I think of all the food in the refrigerator," my father says as he puts his head down on his pillow, "but during famine time it was hard to fall asleep. The more you thought about the lack of food in the larder, the more hungry you got." My parents’ pantry and fridge are crammed beyond logic but this makes them feel cozy, secure and happy. It’s that layer of fat, the hoard of goodies that will barricade them from the cold and hunger they knew all too well in their youth.
BWT, this is not the Year of the Rat. It is the Year of the Mouse. An unfortunate translation.
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