Friday, July 16, 2010

The Meeting, 赴會, FICTION by Taiwanese writer LAI HO, translation by Joe Hung, with rewriting by Dan Bloom

The Meeting

Part 1

“The train will be coming soon,” I thought to myself as I got closer to the train station. “I'd better hurry!"

I walked faster because I wanted to make sure I would not miss my train. Of course, I knew I had arrived at the station grounds about five minutes ahead of time, before the scheduled departure, but I wanted to make sure I would make it.

On this day, the station was crowded, and as you can imagine, it took some effort to
reach the ticket counter, where I promptly bought a ticket and breathed a sigh of relief. I was going to make it, after all. No need to worry now.

The gate to the
platform was still closed, however, and a bunch of people were milling in front of the gate, waiting to go in and board their train. Not everyone wanted to wait in a nice, orderly line, so the station clerk was quite busy trying to get people to queue up properly.

I guess I'm what you'd call "an educated person," at least I like to think of myself that way. So I was a bit hesitant of getting in the middle of all those people pushing and shoving their way in the line, that's not my style, so I waited patiently in the station lobby and entered the gate and then the platform only when most people were already on board their train, which was headed south.

I was going northward in a different direction to where most of the farmers and peasants were going. Their train, headed south, was going to be a very crowded train, for sure. Many of the passengers were on a kind of religious pilgrimmage to a local temple in Beikang. Many pilgrims were carrying bags of ghost money and incense sticks, and their
travel bags were festooned with banners and tiny bells as befits a traditional religious even like this in Taiwan.

It seemed to me, from my perspective, that most of these pilgrims were
farmers and agricultural workers. You could see it in their faces, in their eyes, in their clothes. Their faces were tanned from the hot sun of southern Taiwan and they looked the part. Religion was important in their lives, and going to Beikang to pray to the gods was more than just an outing. It was a true pilgrimmage. So what if it was all a bunch of silly superstition? It served a purpose in their lives, I knew that.

Me? I was going north, on my way to attend a meeting of the Taiwan Cultural Association. Unlike the noisy southbound train and its crowded carriages, my coach was quiet and there were few people on board.

I took a window seat, and began settling into my thoughts as the train
started up and moved out of the station. The scenes outside my window, the farm fields, the fish ponds and fences, the distant hills and mountains, it was all pleasant and comforting. But I remembered also the people
on that other train going to Beikang and I thought of how hard their lives were, working so hard for their Japanese masters in this colonized Taiwan. If I could help them, at this meeting I was going to, what could I do? Lobby the government to get rid of those silly religious superstitions? No, they needed that stuff, I guess.

Part 2

Ah, what about the issues in the past? Weren't quite a number of resolutions passed and many slogans coined at meetings of the cultural association in the past? Was there any resolution put into practice? Well, take superstition for instance. It wasn't abolished. On the contrary, it not just persisted but showed signs that it was prevailing. Alas, I didn't dare recall what had transpired in the past. Moreover, abolition of superstition per se doesn't seem practical. If it were really abolished, what could we offer those superstitious worshippers — like those backpacker pilgrims – to draw comfort from? My continued thinking of the riffraff at the railroad station made me self-abstracted and dejected. I was dull-wittedly sorrowful. Then I thought of my trip to attend the meeting of the association. Wasn't it just the same as the trek of those pilgrims to Bakkang? “Hey, there's a report of so-and-so association holding a meeting of its board of trustees at such-and- such town,” a gentleman-like Japanese talked to a gentleman-like Taiwanese. The Japanese let the Taiwanese have a look at his newspaper.

“Ha, at such-and-such town,” the Taiwanese said. “This Mr. Sai can really make a speech,” he added. “He is a real gasbag.”

“What the hell is the purpose of this association?”

“I am not quite sure. I've heard it demands that people be given their due rights.”

“Taiwanese?” the Japanese passenger asked.

“Well,” his Taiwanese fellow passenger said, “there's no rule limiting membership to Taiwanese. It stands to reason then that anybody who thinks he is deprived of his rights may certainly join.”

Absent-mindedly, I just happened to hear the conversation between the gentleman-like Japanese and Taiwanese fellow passengers of mine. But their conversation jarred on my nerves. I attentively lent an ear to their continued dialogue.

Part 3

With the support of the great masses, the cultural association could go on campaigning for a better life on Taiwan. The situation, however, is not quite favorable. The reason is simple. Most of the members of the association are college graduates who have returned from Japan to their homeland. They are bourgeois intellectuals, who have been roused to action by the tide of the times. Not so strongly resolved to serve the public, they are not ready for a vehement struggle against the Japanese rulers. All they do is to hold a lecture meeting from time to time to tell people what their civil rights are. Beep. Beep. Beep. My train was whistling into a station while the two fellow passengers of mine, one Japanese and the other Taiwanese, were still talking to each other about the meeting of the cultural association I was scheduled to attend. The train came to a stop amidst the hustle and bustle on the platform. I got off, and was jostled out of the station in the crowd of passengers at the end of their journey.

I had to change trains to get to my destination. So I went to a smaller railroad station next door to take a smaller train. There I met a comrade of mine, who held a first-class ticket for the smaller train. I was traveling third class, and as we couldn't sit together, we exchanged greetings and got aboard different cars of the smaller train. The third-class carriage was very much crowded. Practically all the passengers were farmers and laborers. There wasn't anybody looking like an intellectual.

I was a little disappointed, because I thought I was not going to listen in to a conversation similar to the one I had heard between the two gentleman-like Japanese and Taiwanese. My attention was diluted, of course. I felt sleepy. It was with luck that I could find a window seat. Soon I felt my eyes heavy. Somnolent, I heard an idle talk between my fellow travelers. It was a very unpleasant talk. I opened my eyes.

“F-k his mother,” one of my fellow travelers cursed. “I've got nowhere to tell my woes!”

“How many hectares you have to till?” the other asked.

“One hectare and two fifths,” the first passenger replied. “I had to reclaim the land more than three years ago. I could start planting rice only this year.”

“Did you go ask for help from anywhere? Those in your village couldn't think of a way to help? What those Noso guys tried to do for you?*”

“They've got nowhere. My paddies were taken over (by my landlord). Once done, there's no recourse. It's not easy to revoke that (government) decision!**”

“Didn't they tell you something still could be done for you?”

“F-k his mother,” the complainant cursed again. “He (one of the Noso guys) would come to me like an ogre, ordering me about. Isn't that even worse?”

*Noso (農組) is an abbreviation of Nomin kuminai (農民組合), a farmers' association.

**A farmers' association, organized in a sub-district by the Japanese, was supposed to help tenant farmers. The complaining tenant farmer started clearing the land for rice planting for a landlord, but could not get help to avoid paying a ghastly rental.

Part 4

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