The Spices of Life25 min read

Memories of a small town, by Yan Ge – translated by Poppy Toland


This piece is the second in a series of four translations of long creative non-fiction essays that first appeared in Chinese in OWMagazine (单读), translated in collaboration with Read Paper Republic. To support further translation such as this after the series ends, give now to our translation drive by donating to our Patreon page.


Not Carrying Money

Before Pi County New Town was built, the county town, Pitong, used to be so small it was like a yeerba – a sticky-rice bun filled with minced pork and greens – with all the townspeople squashed together snug but not stifled, knowing each other thoroughly, intimately. At that time, successful people were described as in the town as, “Folk who go out onto the street without a single penny on them and walk fast.”

This may sound like a good thing, but you can’t generalise.

My father was giving me a lift on his bike one day when suddenly, just past the West Gate of the city wall, we heard someone calling out to him. “Dai Wei! Dai Wei!” My father jumped in surprise, applied the brakes, and turned his head to the wonton shop across the road to see Third Brother Huang from South Street sitting there. “Third Brother, it’s been a while,” father said, a bit taken aback, leading me over to say hello. “Come on, address him properly. Say ‘Hello Uncle Huang.’”

So I called out to Uncle Huang, who responded with a half-hearted grunt, before turning to father, saying, “I’m really sorry Dai Wei, but I haven’t got a penny on me. I ate half this portion of wontons before realizing I’d forgotten to bring any money out today! Oh my days!”

It immediately became clear that his greeting had been a cry of desperation. Father gave Third Brother Huang the money he needed, and Third Brother Huang thanked him repeatedly saying, “Oh, dear how embarrassing, I’ll give it back to you another day.”

“It’s one yuan – there’s no need to pay it back!” With a wave of his hand, father and I took off.

This was just a case of your basic, unintended Not Carrying Money. But then there was Serious Next-Level Not Carry Money, which was more calculated.

One example occurred not long after father had graduated from Pi Teachers Training College and started his job. He was walking down the street, when he heard someone calling out his name: “Dai Yan! Dai Yan!”

Father turned to see his friend Qiu, who he’d known almost all his life, on the other side of the street. It had been a long time since they’d last met, and they were delighted to bump into each other, Qiu jumping up and down as he crossed the road, patting father’s shoulders and saying “Dai Yan! I’ve heard you’ve been doing really well for yourself!”

“I’m not doing that well, I’m just a teacher!” father said.

“You’re a teacher of the people, that’s an honorable profession!” Qiu said flatteringly.

They were both in their early twenties, neither of them attached, and they stood by the side of the road chatting enthusiastically, smoking a couple of cigarettes together as they caught up. “Hey, Dai Yan, it’s been such a long time. Come on – let me take you out for a meal!” suggested Qiu.

“You want to eat out?” Father looked a little shocked. “Qiu, you old dog, you hit the jackpot, didn’t you?”

Ignoring him, Qiu dragged my father to the Wang Family Restaurant by the East Gate and they both sat down, ordered half a kilo of braised pigs’ ears and began to eat.

They ordered a number of dishes, and a bottle of wolfberry wine, which they knocked back, drinking until the day turned to night. The two of them told drunken stories of back in the day, chatted about their current situations, and shared visions of the future.

At closing time, the restaurant manager came over. “Sorry to bother you, but it’s time to pay up– your bill is ten yuan and three jiao.”

Qiu reached his hand into his pocket for his wallet. At once, his facial expression altered theatrically. “Oh damn, oh damn. Oh, son of a bitch. Dai Yan! Damn! Do you happen to have any cash on you? How can I have forgotten my money…?”

It just so happened that Father had just received his paycheck, and the forty-one yuan and five jiao that he’d been keeping warm in his pocket was immediately reduced by a quarter.

He followed the streetlight-illuminated city wall back home that evening, the whole way thinking, “That bastard Qiu, calling out to me so sweetly, then treating me like scum! He was clearly taking me for a fool. Oh, but it was my own fault really, leaving the house with so much money. I won’t be carrying any money on me from now on!” He thought about the ten yuan and three jiao and felt a painful tug at his heart.

So that was why no one in town carried money. You could walk out the south gate and there’d always be someone you knew; you could eat dates at this person’s house, or have a glass of water at that person’s; you could make your way to the North Gate and back again, never carrying a penny.

Of course, that was before the New City was built.

After the New City came every new building tried to out-Western the last building. Instead of buying clothes from a street vendor, you went to the shopping mall; instead of eating at a roadside stall you went to a restaurant; and the the tea shacks were soon replaced with tea houses.

They said tea in the tea house cost 15 yuan a cup, a fact that scared the dickens out of many older village residents. But even more terrifying things were still to come.

One day, two business proprietors were sitting inside this tea house, a man and a woman. Bit by bit, their conversation started to ramp up into an argument.

“You watch what you say! I’ve got plenty of money!” said the man.

“You think you’re the only one who’s seen money?” replied the woman.

Unable to settle it, they both whacked their wallets down on the table and said, “Let’s compare! See who’s got more money!”

The other people in the tea house stared in shock as the two of them counted out the notes, one, two, three, four, five six. The man turned out to be carrying 3,700 RMB, while the woman had 4,200 RMB.

The man was flabbergasted – had he really lost to a woman?

After the tale of the money battle made the rounds of our village, everyone felt as if their eyes had truly opened.

“It turns out you should carry money when you leave the house after all, the more the better!” We only figured that out then.

Loud Voices

If you drive past Chengdu’s western Third Ring Road and follow straight down to the end of the Yanxi Line for twenty minutes, you will arrive at Pitong, the county town of Pi County. In the blink of an eye, the sky widens and the earth expands. Taking a deep breath of the country aroma, you feel a sense of belonging as your eyes finally relax once more.

Returning home there are three things to keep in mind: not to carry money when walking around, how salty the food is, and how loud people talk.

My father was the person with the loudest voice of them all. He was so loud that when he sneezed in the courtyard, the sound-activated lights would come to life in all the surrounding buildings, first floor to the sixth. He was so loud that when he called me to dinner from the doorway of our house, all the other kids would drop what they were doing and run home, too. He was so loud that when he chatted with my grandmother about household matters, my grandmother, who was over eighty, and didn’t have great hearing herself, would say, “Dai Wei! Can you please talk more quietly!”

They said it was because my father had become fat, which made his voice more robust. But I don’t know about that — I’d never seen him when he was still young and thin, and I certainly hadn’t ever heard him talk in an inside voice.

Eighth Uncle Zeng, who worked in the polytechnic college mailroom, was the person with the second loudest voice.  Every day after he’d eaten and had nothing to do, he’d stand in the courtyard doorway and depending on who he saw, he’d shout, “Third Aunt Zhou! You’ve come back from your visit!” or “Teacher Song, have you only just finished work? You’re eating dinner so late today!” or “Jiang Yanzi, there’s a letter for you – it’s from Guangzhou!”

Thanks to him, everyone in our courtyard knew all about each other: whether the Zhou family ate a plate of salted meat today, or the Wang family were making three portions of noodles tomorrow; as for fights and quarrels, or weddings and funerals, well, you can imagine.

He annoyed plenty, but lots of folks said it was thanks to him that our courtyard had never had any problems with thieves, and a many years later, when he left the mailroom, we really started to miss him.

There were also a few other characters that everyone knew for being especially loud: the knife repair man, the knife grinder, and the guy who sold mosquito, fly and flea repellent. At that time, everyone in our village spoke in this very standard Pi County dialect. To speak Pi dialect you had to stretch your mouth, bulge it full of air, roll up your tongue and then, with a clack, out came the sounds that we recognized – only then was ‘white’ really white, ‘black’ really black, ‘eating’ really eating, and ‘the state’ really the state. Every so often someone from Chengdu would show up, pointing their tongue and flattening their mouth, coming out with things like “have some food” in their reedy voices, which had us all cracking up laughing.

Of course, we knew that, “Speaking in a loud voice doesn’t make you right,” and sometimes we’d even tell one another to save our strength and speak a bit quieter. But if you tried addressing someone eloquently and elegantly on the street, they’d say, “What’s wrong with you today? Haven’t you had enough to eat? Don’t have the energy to talk properly? Come on then, let’s get some food in you!”

There was only one situation in which loud voices were not welcomed, which I learned when my father took me to the hospital to see the doctor. We were waiting in the corridor, we heard someone moaning and groaning from some way off. “Oh dear, oh dear. What agony!” For a long time everyone was craning their necks to see, eventually making out this man in his forties being led over. He seemed healthy enough and was decently dressed, but he kept calling out the words, “Oh dear, what agony, oh dear, what agony!” his voice booming so loudly it carried throughout the hospital.

Most people were prepared to endure it, but one wizened old lady went straight over to him saying, “Young man! You’re not a child – why are yelling at such a loud volume when you’re ill! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

The man looked astonished, and like a balloon poked with a needle, he let out a puff of air and fell silent. As we watched him shuffle off silently, my father said, “You see that, you gotta keep your suffering to yourself. Crying out ‘Oh dear,’ like that, you’re really asking for it!”

So that’s how I learned that bad news shouldn’t be shared in a loud voice, because only good things needed be spread around. That was why we liked to shout at each other. It was an unspoken rule; everyone in the county town had grown up this way. It was only after finishing high school, going to the city to study at university, graduating, finding a job, that I finally understood that speaking Mandarin in quiet, dulcet tones makes other people feel relaxed.

I also had to learn that when talking to people, you shouldn’t say, “My dad said,” “My aunt said,” or “Fifth-born Xie said.” Instead the appropriate expressions were, “I heard,” “A friend said,” or “Someone told me.” Out in the world everything was lackluster, vague and distant, which is what made it all seem so much more elegant, civilized and appropriate.

After long periods of time without seeing my father and mother, let alone folk like Third Uncle Zhang, Second Sister Chen and Forth Uncle Zhou, I’d return home once a year to find the sofa, tea table, television and fridge all unchanged. Sitting in the living room plugged into wifi, worried you might be missing something from the outside world, suddenly father (who was cooking in the kitchen) would holler, “Dai Yuexing! Hurry outside and buy me a packet of salt!”

And I’d jump in fright and couldn’t help but think, “My lord, father really is loud!”

The Remorseful Thief

In the past there were thieves in our village. On market days, as my grandfather was leaving the house, my grandmother would always stand inside at the window crying, “Be careful of your money, look out for thieves!”

This annoyed my grandfather, who was likely worried that the entire courtyard would now know he was taking money out with him. He’d turn his head and roar, “I’m not carrying any money with me, because I’m not planning to buy anything!”

But as he strode out of the courtyard gate and into the street, he couldn’t help but wonder whether he should take his money out of his trouser pocket and put it in his shirt pocket instead.

It’s hard to gauge people from first appearances, and that includes thieves most of all. Grandfather headed to the market, the streets thronging with people. There were people forging ironware, sharpening knives, selling herbal medicine, swapping eggs, selling chickens, rabbits and ducks; two steps on and he came across fermented rice noodles mixed with knotted intestines, dough being slammed to guokui cakes, sugar cakes being turned, and grandfather looked around him, distracted by all these things, saliva dripping from his mouth. Eventually he saw a stall selling sweet-water noodles and jelly and went over to order a bowl of yellow jelly. But when his hand reached into his pocket, as he tells it, that was when he realized that his money was no longer there.

Panicked, grandfather turned and headed back in the direction he’d come in. As he walked, everyone he saw looked like a thief. Oh dear, oh dear, he muttered as he searched up and down the road, all the way back home. Grandmother was in the kitchen washing swamp cabbage. “You’re back already?” she asked him. “Have you had lunch yet? If not, I’m just about to boil some noodles.”

“I’ve already eaten,” grandfather told her, and went into the bedroom, seething. He thought for a long time, finally figuring out who had stolen from him. He’d been around thirty years old, medium build, wearing a grey shirt, his face somewhat pointed, and his eyes a bit narrowed – he was the one. He’d bumped into grandfather as he was passing him, and grandfather was convinced that this was his thief.

It is said that a noble character will have his revenge, even if it takes ten years, and my grandfather was determined to catch this thief. He kept silent as he ate his dinner that night, and afterwards he went straight to bed. The next market day, he walked down those same streets, not taking in the unusual sights this time or thinking about what he’d like to eat; he’d gone there only to look for the fellow in the grey shirt. He walked around searching for him, until the faces grandfather saw started to blur in front of his eyes, but then suddenly there he was. The thief was wearing a yellow shirt that day, washed so many times that its color had faded, and he was carrying a plastic bag. He was standing in a hardware store doorway, craning his head to look inside.

Grandfather took two steps towards him and grabbed him. “You!” grandfather roared. “Last time you stole my money, didn’t you!” The guy in the yellow shirt jumped in fright, turned to look at grandfather and recognizing him, went pale. He struggled a little under grandfather’s hand but was unable to free himself.

Grandfather was about to drag him to the police station, onlookers immediately gathering around, and Yellow Shirt said, “Old man, please be gentle, I’ll give the money back to you. I’ll give it all back!”

He was a soft-hearted man after all, grandfather explained, and seeing how young the guy was, he wasn’t convinced handing him over to the police would achieve anything. “Fine,” he said. “You give me back the money then.”

The two of them walked down the side of the road, one looking for money to hand over, the other restraining him. Yellow Shirt fumbled about for ages, but all he managed to find on his person was five jiao. He looked anguished, his face distorted into a wrinkled-up ball. “Old grandfather, I’ve spent all your money, I don’t actually have any… How about this, I have a pair of shoes right here, if they fit you, you can have them, then we’ll be even.”

The thief opened the bag in he was carrying to reveal a pair of brand new leather shoes. Grandfather took them out to try them and sure enough they fit perfectly, so he wore this pair of leather shoes home.

Grandfather called this story “The Time I Got a Pair of Brand New Leather Shoes for Three and a Half Kuai” and we heard grandfather retell it a dozen times throughout our childhood. Each time he told it, grandmother emerged from the kitchen to scold him. “You mustn’t listen to your grandfather – he’s making it up. Where on earth could you find such a reasonable thief, stealing a pair of shoes and giving them to you to wear!”

“Pft! Don’t believe me then,” grandfather responded. “But I wore those shoes for years – have you forgotten? They finally fell apart last year!”

Every so often he would recall his good fortune, and his heart would fill with mercy. Grandfather realized that thieves didn’t have it easy. Most of them hadn’t had caring parents when they were young, they couldn’t read, they had no choice but to find a master and learn how to steal. Every day they’d have to cook for this master, and suffer beatings. They’d also have to train for their trade, studying for a total of seven or eight years before finishing their apprenticeship. Then they’d go on the streets to steal bags.

Stealing bags was really the dregs, because how many people back then actually carried money out with them? He’d get three kuai one day, one kuai the next, he might only get a measly six or seven jiao from a day’s pickpocketing, barely enough to buy a kilo or two of flour, or 250 grams of pig’s blood, and that would be it.

Grandfather told us that during the decade he’d worn those shoes he never ran into a thief once. Whenever he told the story, he’d be filled with remorse. “What a kind and friendly face,” he’d often sigh. “That thief could have done much better things with his life!”

Of course, not everyone was as kind as my grandfather. My father’s philosophy was, “Thieves steal, so if you catch one you should beat him!”

Most of the people in our village thought the same. I still remember walking down side streets, from South Street to West Street, and running into an unfortunate thief surrounded by a circle of people shouting, “You’re dead, thief! This thief is going to die! Beat the thief to death!” He’d be in the middle, covering his head, hunched over like a boiled prawn as he got dragged and kicked, looking like he really was going to die.   

Later, as I grew up, the roads in our village became wider, our houses taller, so more and more people started to drive about in cars. After that nobody went to market anymore; so there were no more street vendors, and things like this happened less and less often.

Walking down the street these days, you’ll rarely catch sight of a thief in the flesh, but that’s only because people are cleverer these days; instead of pickpocketing, they send fraudulent text messages, create fake bank accounts, or pretend that they’ve been hit by a car – there are so many ways to con money now that even five or six pages wouldn’t cover it.

It’s enough to make you nostalgic for those foolish and innocent thieves of the past, working so hard that they’d be covered in sweat as they pushed their way through the crowds, using a pair of tweezers to pickpocket four or five kuai.

Boiled Eggs

Before my mother was born, my grandmother got really sick. She couldn’t eat a thing, couldn’t sleep a wink, she just lay on the bed, her face covered with a towel, moaning nonstop. “Wang Huilan, get up, we need to get you to a doctor,” my grandfather said. But my grandmother said, “I can’t get up!” My grandfather, a grown man, was so flustered he didn’t know what do other than ask if she wanted to drink some water. Grandmother just grimaced and said, “Don’t worry about me.”

My grandfather sat at the foot of the bed, looking at the beam above his head. Around then my mother told me that they’d once had three babies die one after right the other. The tears had flowed, leaving their hearts like lumps of polished jade. This time grandfather was afraid that it might be too late for his wife. “Wang Huilan,” he finally said, “would you like me to boil you a couple of eggs to eat?” He knew that grandmother loved nothing more in the world than boiled eggs, so she might manage a couple of mouthfuls before she passed over.

“Yes, I’d like that,” she told him. “Boil me a couple of eggs.”

He managed to find three eggs in the kitchen, which he boiled, cracking them against the stove before peeling them. Putting the shiny white boiled eggs in a bowl, he took them in to my grandmother.

Grandmother sat up, taking bite after bite until she’d finished all three eggs, without even a sip of water to wash them down.

Once she’d finished, she lay back down and fell asleep. Not long after though, she woke up again and called out for my grandfather: “Yang Songlin! Yang Songlin!”

Grandfather leapt up from the foot of the bed flustered and asked, “Wang Huilan, what’s wrong?”

“I’d like another egg,” my grandmother told him.

Mom says that grandfather and my aunt went out into the neighborhood, where they went from house to house to borrowing eggs, bringing them back to boil for my grandmother.

“You should thank our East Gate neighbors,” my mother said. After grandmother finished 20 boiled eggs, she finally got out of bed and walked outside.

After they saved her life, grandmother naturally was even more attached to boiled eggs than before. Once, when I was small, I remember I caught a chill. It was a really fierce cold, with a headache and a fever. Grandmother said, “Come here, little one, I’ll boil you an egg. Eat it and you’ll be right as rain!”

“Mother! She can’t eat that!” my mother said. “She’s a small child, she can’t digest eggs properly.”

“Nonsense!” grandmother replied. “Eggs are just the thing she needs!”

After a few terse words between mother and daughter, grandmother finally offered a compromise: “Let her eat half an egg then! Just the yolk!”

So my mother boiled an egg and gave it to me saying, “Remember, you’re only allowed to eat half!” I obediently broke the egg apart, carefully removing the yolk and eating it all, leaving her the white to clear away.

Grandfather had passed away at around that time, leaving grandmother alone, so she came to live with us. My mother was well educated, but her mother was completely illiterate, which meant they could never agree on things like how to educate children. My mother would always say, “Mom! Come on! That’s just a bunch of feudal superstition!”

When she heard that, grandmother’s mouth go flat and she’d go and sit down in the courtyard to embroider a rattan stool.

When she’d finished she’d take it a couple of miles past the East Gate to Caojia temple where she would donate it, turning and turning her Buddhist rosary between her fingers the whole way. She also had an enamel goblet which she half-filled with rice and stuck scented candles in, praying to it morning and night.

Once, I remember Grandmother dropped a scented candle, scorching a section of the wooden bench. Returning home from work, my mother was unable to contain herself: “Mother, this is a courtyard for teachers’ families – you can’t just go around practicing feudal superstition, people will mock you if they see!”

“What kind of daughter are you!” grandmother retorted on this occasion. “If I don’t recite a few sutras now and then, how do you expect your father to be reincarnated into a good family?”

Despite these disputes, they were still family. Every so often a countryside woman would turn up at the courtyard with eggs to swap and my mother was always the first to run outside, scooping up all the grain and rice coupons, swapping father’s old spring and autumn shirts and sweaters I’d outgrown for a basket of round pink speckled countryside eggs.

My mother would then cook up a special dish for my grandmother: after beating the eggs, she would add cool water, sprinkle a little salt, and steam them in a bowl. Steamed egg pudding was grandmother’s favorite dish. The two of them would sit in the kitchen close together, a mouthful for grandmother, a spoonful for mother, until it was all gone.

When grandmother became less lucid and she’d often sit in the courtyard talking to herself. Whenever I came home early from school I’d take a stool out and sit by her side to read, listening to her muttering names. “Grandmother, who are you talking to?” I said. “Your uncle,” grandmother said, “and your father, your brother, your sister…”

She’d always had a good appetite, but at around then time eating became a struggle. She went to see the doctor, who diagnosed her with diabetes and gave her a list of things that she wasn’t allowed to eat, including eggs, because – as he explained – they were too high in cholesterol.

During my third year in primary school, grandmother was admitted to hospital. She had an IV drip in her left hand, while her right hand held her Buddhist beads, turning them one loop after another. When my aunt and uncle came to visit her, they cried, “Mother! What a hard life you’ve had!”

Grandmother looked right at my uncle and said,“Yang Songlin, I thought you already reincarnated! What are are you doing back?”

I was still very young at the time so I didn’t understand much of what was going on. I noticed that the adults had started to cry, but all I felt was a stomachache. I remembered grandmother saying, “I want to eat a boiled egg,” and my mother and aunt crying as they told her, “Mother, the doctor said you that you can’t eat eggs anymore.”

“Oh, but I really want a boiled egg,” my grandmother said, huffing and puffing.

In the end, my mother’s heart softened. She took an egg, beat it and put it in boiling water. She stirred it a little and made an egg and vegetable soup for grandmother to sip.

Not long after Grandmother ate the soup, she set off her final journey. I saved your life once before, Wang Huilan, the egg seemed to be telling her, but I’m afraid that this time there’s nothing I can do.


This piece first appeared in Chinese in OWMagazine and is translated in collaboration with Read Paper Republic. Featured image by David Boté Estrada and used under terms of Creative Commons license.