World and Town by Gish Jen

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Prologue: A Lost World

In the Chinese town of Qufu, in Shandong province, is a forest of thousand-year-old cypresses; “jumbled up at their feet” are “acres and acres” of orderly graves, 2,000 years of descendants of Kǒngzi (Confucius). His mound is the biggest (10 feet high) and most distinct, of course, and set apart from the others. It is little more than an “eminent pile of dirt.”

Even now, Hattie Kong, a sixty-eight-year-old American citizen, remembers the site. She grew up in Qingdao, a nearby cosmopolitan port city once occupied by the Germans and now known for its “charming Bavarian architecture.”  She can picture her mother, a former missionary who was disavowed for marrying a Chinaman, standing in front of the “anti-monument” and trying to get eight-year-old Hattie to appreciate the spiritual aspects of the site.

Modern Chinese people are more interested in new things than old, wondering if women should really have to obey their husbands as children were expected to obey their parents and why only the male Kongs and their wives are allowed to be buried here. (Unless the men are bald; then they are not allowed to be buried here either.) Nevertheless, Hattie grew up learning to sweep her relatives’ graves every spring and on other commemorative days.

When Hattie was fifteen, her father’s mother proudly announced that they had found someone willing to marry Hattie despite her mixed blood. Later, Hattie’s mother adamantly proclaimed that Hattie must have a choice about who she marries. Hattie’s father wore Western clothes, took English lessons, and agreed with his wife; however, two months later he stopped wearing Western clothes, stopped eating Western food, and stopped reading his Bible.  

When Hattie heard, decades later, that the graveyard had been desecrated by the Red Guards, who robbed the graves and even stole the dirt in the mounds, she had nightmares. She was sickened to learn that the villagers she once knew well had helped these ravagers destroy “thousands of years of tradition.” Years later, someone would inform the Kongs where all the bodies were if they wanted to reconstruct the graves.

The ravagers spared Confucius’s broken steles (tall tombstones). Some claim to have gotten some of his bones, although they disintegrated within a few days. Hattie, a former researcher and biology teacher, knows this is “hogwash.” Confucius was her ancestor, but she thinks he was an obsessive compulsive misogynist and “a nut.” He did, however, speak about sincerity, humility, integrity, and goodness. He was a “godless fundamentalist.” Family English lessons continued, five hours a day.

She and her parents broke from those “old ways,” and when she looks in the mirror now she sees her “parents’ youth and hope.” Her husband Joe’s ashes were sprinkled from a hang glider, and her best friend Lee’s ashes were dug into a peony bed. Hattie wonders where she will be buried when she dies. Her only companions now are her dogs, so perhaps she will be buried in a pet cemetery.

Hattie I: I'll but Lie and Bleed Awhile (Pages 11-20)

Last week a Cambodian family moved in down the hill from Hattie Kong. Riverlake is an old, all-American town, but things are changing now with the arrival of people from other places. Hattie has lived here for two years, ever since Joe and Lee died at almost the same time. (She thought she should have gotten some kind of discount at the crematorium.) Hattie is still sometimes “lonely beyond words.”

Hattie lives on an open, cleared knoll; the Cambodian family is moving onto an awkwardly placed parcel of land down the hill that is barely cleared and nearly always wet. Hattie watches as two halves of a trailer, the Cambodians’ temporary home, drive by down the hill. Inside one of them, she sees a “tea-skinned pipsqueak of a thing with a swinging black ponytail and a shocking-pink jacket” clinging to the trailer’s kitchen. Her job is to keep everything from falling out, but Hattie can see the girl is not strong enough to do her...

(The entire section is 15,952 words.)