Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Lever Scale 3

A Lever Scale 3
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- While helping harvest the first rice crop of the fifth year after his mother's death, De-san suffered an attack of malaria.* He lay sick for four or five days, during which time he went to see a Western doctor just once.** He paid two yen for that one visit. He was better after the visit, but his limbs were not strong enough for work. Yet it's harvest time. Every farmer was busy. An industrious De-san, though weak, dared not stay idle at home to nurse himself back to health. So, despite pain, he went to work in the field one day. When he returned home from work after nightfall, he felt ill at ease. He slept until midnight and had an ague again. When he could not get up on the following morning, he thought he could not afford to see a Western doctor again. Well, he thought, the pay he could get for three days' hard work wasn't enough to buy a dose of (Western) medicine he could take. He just wondered where he could earn that much money to spend on his medication. At the same time, he could not continue to lie sick. So he had some medicinal herbs brewed. He took the concoction for which he did not have to pay, as well as very cheap Chinese medicine. The stopgap medication wasn't altogether inefficacious. An ague came back once every two to three days, but in the end, he ceased to have any malarial relapse quite a few months later. But his belly was swollen. Some said he had a swollen belly because he had taken too many medicinal herbs. Others said his taking Western medicine caused what was known as a swollen spleen. De-san could care less. All he cared was that he could not go to work. That's what he was worried most. While De-san was sick, his wife couldn't but leave home for work. She had to leave her two children crying and sobbing at home in chorus with the moaning of her husband. The family was forced to have one or two meals a day. They were not starving to death but all of them soon suffered malnutrition.

The two children, in particular. Fortunately, however, she did not get pregnant.

It wasn't until after the end of that year when De-san was capable of doing some light work again. He needed some adequate work as the weiya or behgeh was soon to be celebrated.*** He was afraid that he could find no work when the New Year arrived, because there was no piecework for anybody during the long New Year festival. He knew he simply had to stock enough foods for the family to last at least a half month. He worried all the more. He was scared.

*Two rice crops are harvested a year in most rural villages in Taiwan. The first crop is leaped around October.

**The Japanese introduced Western medicine to Taiwan shortly after the beginning of the last century. At the time of Lai He's writing, most of the poor ethnic Chinese on the island took cheap medicinal herbs to cure their diseases. A schoolteacher's pay was less than 40 yen at that time. A pieceworker made about 30 to 40 sen (100 sen to a yen) a day.

***Weiya in Mandarin and Behgeh in Hoklo or Amoy (尾牙) literally means “last supper.” One definition of Ya is yamen (衙門) or government office. A feast was held at yamen on the second and sixteenth day of every moon on the Chinese lunar calendar. It is known as ya-ji (牙祭), the second logogram meaning “celebration” or “to make offerings.” The yamen's last supper took place on the sixteenth day of the last moon or 13 or 14 days ahead of Chinese New Year's Day. The custom was later adopted by merchants and shopkeepers with employees.

The Lai He Fiction serialization, sponsored by the Council for Hakka Affairs, is provided by the Central News Agency.

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