Setting Out: The Education of Li-Li

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9780965141338: Setting Out: The Education of Li-Li

a novel by one of Taiwan's leading writers

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About the Author:

Tung Nien was born in 1950 in Keelung, Taiwan, where his novel Setting Out (1993) and the sequel to it, The Bodhisattva of Pen Yuan Temple (1994), are set. In all, he has published four novels--one of which, Last Winter, has been made into a film--and three collections of stories. He has participated in the International Writing Program at Iowa, and he is, at present, managing director of Linching Book Company, one of Taiwan's major literary publishers.

Mike O'Connor recently returned to the U.S. from more than ten years of Chinese studies and work as a journalist in Taiwan. He lives with his wife, Ling-hui, in Port Townsend, Washington. His books of original poems and translations include The Basin: Life in a Chinese Province and The Rainshadow, both from Empty Bowl (Port Townsend); When I Find You Again, It Will Be in Mountains and Colors of Day-break and Dusk, selected poems of Chia Tao (779-843), both from Tangram (Berkeley).

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Ch. 1: Birds Singing

My father doesn't like the school in town. He says that although it's important for kids to do well on their middle-school exams, it's better if a school offers music, art, physical education, and other subjects more in touch with Nature.

For this reason, I transferred to another school, out of town. My mother also changed schools, but she's a teacher.

Mother and I also moved to a new house. It's a large, empty house in the suburbs, a country house people aren't using just now. It's very near the sea, though not so near to school. It will take half an hour to walk to school. The public bus is faster, but Mother says the buses don't come very often.

Father says he can come to see us a lot. Sometimes--usually on Sundays--we go back to our house in town. I like living out here. There are lots of kids in the neighborhood, and we can run and play just about anywhere. I often hear birds singing, and in the morning, from within our courtyard, I've spotted a tree squirrel.

Ch. 2: First Day

Today was the first day of school. We left very early and waited on the road for the public bus. After a while, we saw a whole bunch of kids walking to school. Mother said we should also walk.

We walked beside a small river (I don't know where it starts) that flows past the wall of a big factory. It flows slowly there. The level of the river is quite a way below the surface of the road, sometimes about the height of one person and sometimes the height of two. It's hard to tell how wide the river is because there's so much tall razor grass growing on the sandy shore. The river looks muddy and shallow. At one bend, it flows under a bridge, and then the road runs along the other side of the river. That's where the projects start, row upon row stepping up the mountain slope. All the houseshave black wooden walls and big black roof-tiles. Lots of kids were coming out of them as we went by.

The river flows along another section of road and enters a tunnel where the water runs fast and loud. Near this is a large factory gate, and outside the gate are railroad tracks. The road, after a railroad crossing, slowly gets steeper, leaving the tracks below and the river, below that. The banks of the river at this point have become mountain cliffs, and the river most of the time is hidden by woods or thick grass.

The road then passes through a city wall, like the ones in our history textbook, that kind of wall, and gradually goes downhill. Beneath the hill are other housing projects. We met more kids going to school and adults leaving for work. Here we left the road by going down some steps, crossed over the railroad tracks, followed along a small road with a low wall, and then walked over the river on a big wooden bridge. The school is in a hollow of the mountain.

Ch. 3: Brain Training

In trying to keep this journal, I don't think it's possible to write down all the things that happen in a day. Mother says, "Without experience a person cannot acquire knowledge." I'm not clear about what she meant. I finally explained it to myself this way:

To gain knowledge, you should do many things yourself. Your eyes have to see many things, your ears have to do lots of listening, and both your mind and body need lots of exercise. You must read many books, see many sights, listen to others, and also listen to music, all kinds of sounds, and ideas. You want your intelligence to be refined, sensitive. I think this is what my mother meant.

Writing a diary or journal is very interesting, though writing for a long time really tires me. Mother says to think of it as a kind of brain training.

Ch. 4: Important Points

There is no way I can write in today's journal all about yesterday or today. There are just too many things to write down each adequately. I wrote about things along the way to school the first day, but then I didn't have enough time to write about the things that happened at school the same day.

There are too many things to write about each completely. Even to write about something completely can never really include everything. Mother says writing about the important points is best. Important points carry the significance, she says. But what is it that has significance? To have significance is to have value or worth. I'm still not clear. In this world, except for money and happiness, what other things have value?

*********************

Ch. 32: We Can Gamble One More Round

The class leader at noon changed into new clothes. The clothing was small and didn't fit him. He looked very handsome, however. We boys all felt he was handsome and everyone praised his clothes. The class leader was very happy. Who could have known that several girls from Harbor Bureau and First Villages--including pretty Chen Shau-wei--would tease him in front of everyone and would say to his face, "That's girls' clothing," and laugh.

After they said this, the rest of us suddenly understood and began laughing, too. The student leader then became very unhappy.

I believe none of us had any spiteful intent, except Chen Shau-wei. She competes with the class leader in every class for first and second ranking, and she never wins. No matter what we may think, though, I truly can't understand the reason our student leader was wearing girls' clothes.

"I think the clothing is his younger sister's," Mother later said. "Did you also laugh at him?"

"I don't know. I guess I laughed along with everyone else."

"Li-li," Mother said, "I hope you understand that the children of these poor families always have a very difficult time maintaining their self-respect."

*******************

The grocery store was located at a point where five roads converged. Under big banyan trees, brick buildings of the village crowded both sides of the main asphalt road. In addition to the grocery, there was a rice-husking building, a farm-tool repair shop, and family farmhouses. Beyond this red-brick settlement, the endless Plain of Lanyang stretched out like a gold-colored sea.

When the proprietor of the grocery store gave Li-li a packet of brown crystal sugar, he asked, "Haven't I seen you before? Where do you come from?"

"Chinshih Village."

"Oh. And who is your grandfather?"

"Yang T'ien-k'uei."

"You must be the son of Pau-ch'i. Your face resembles hers."

The proprietor's wife then asked, "Is your mother Pau-ch'i? Yang Pau-ch'i?"

Li-li nodded.

"Oh, so that's it. You really do look like your mother. She and I sat across from each other in public school. Did your mother also come back to Ilan?"

Li-li shook his head and said, "I...I came by train on my own."

Leaving the grocery store, Li-li followed the asphalt road a while and then turned off into the fields, taking one of the raised paths that serve as boundaries between paddy plots. A stream flowed beside it. He figured that the stream must go to their village. The water made a sighing and sucking sound. Farther along, on the stream bank, a grove of bamboo whipped in the wind. Surrounding him were undulating waves of rice.

He wondered, "Is this what they call a bumper harvest?" With a sigh of appreciation, he thought, "Everywhere there's so much golden light."

"Let me pass, let me pass," a brusque, hoarse voice snapped behind him. The voice belonged to a withered old man in a big hurry. He wore a broad-brimmed farmer's rain hat with two or three strips of bamboo missing, a yellowed white shirt, and faded black shorts. He carried two woven rectangular baskets of dried fruit, snacks, and fresh fruit--one basket suspended from each end of a flat pole that balanced on his shoulder.

The baskets wobbled even when he stood still.

"This is a very strange man," Li-li thought. Watching the peddler's backside, he saw that his calves had protruding veins, and that he wore no socks.

Also, his toes stuck out of cloth shoes. Suddenly, Li-li cried out, "Are you going to Chinshih Village?"

The man turned partly around, wrinkling his sad brow, and said, "You said something? What village? Chinshih Village? Later I will, I will, I will. I'll get there, later." And with that, he rushed over a bamboo bridge that spanned the stream, and he disappeared into the rice plants.

From whichever direction the throbbing racket of the threshing machine came, the birds, stuffed with rice, were chased out of the rice paddies to high-tension lines strung from the tall transmission towers that straddled the fields. From there they sang the abundance of the season.

Finished with walking the path between paddies, Li-li finally had reached the outskirts of the village. At a great distance away he saw his grandmother standing in the courtyard of the old farmhouse, holding a parasol, and shielding her eyes with her hand to look about.

"Ah," said Li-li, making an energetic leap upward. His head barely cleared the tops of the rice plants. He hollered, "Over here, Grandma, over here!"

"I thought you might not be able to find the road," his grandmother said, taking his hand with the candy in it and drawing him into the shade of the umbrella.

"Just now I saw a strange man in the fields."

"What strange man?"

"An old scrawny man carrying dried fruit on a pole. Is he the sweetmeats peddler?"

"Looks like a monkey?" asked Grandmother, smiling. "People call him the monkey man because he was born with such ugly looks. Here, Grandma wants to give you this dollar. In a while he will come around to our rice-drying courtyard."

"Little Uncle?"

"He's in the fields, otherwise I would have him ride you on his bike to buy some candy. That would be faster than walking and would get you out of the sun sooner. Right now, though, everybody's working in the fields so he doesn't have the time. In a few ways, your Little Uncle can take you around to have some fun. But you must wait two or three days, so go find your Third Uncle. He has some good stories for you. Quick now! He's just come back. He's in the study reading or doing calligraphy."

Third Uncle's study smelled of ink. He was at the desk by the window, practicing calligraphy from a copybook. He had been away at college already two years, but the walls of his study were still adorned with images of persons that he admired, pictures he had cut out of books and magazines.

"Ah, my dear little nephew," said Third Uncle beaming. "I heard you took the train here by yourself, is that right?"

"I...yes," Li-li said. "I'm already in the fifth grade."

"Time goes fast," Third Uncle said looking down again to write a character. "How did you rank in your class this year?"

"I was second."

"Not bad, but a little different than first." Putting down his brush, Third Uncle extracted several small bank notes from his pocket, "I award you five dollars. Next time for first place you'll get ten. Wait a little while and you can buy something from the peddler; you can buy some candy."

"I saw that pitiful man."

"What pitiful man do you know?" Third Uncle asked, grinning.

"I...I know many persons," Li-li said, pointing to the portraits on one wall. "I know this one, this, this and this," Li-li said.

"They're all musicians."

"This one is what?"

"He's an economist, sociologist, and philosopher."

"What's an economist-sociologist-philosopher?"

"If I told you, you wouldn't understand."

"Oh," said Li-li, turning his head to look out the window.

Outside in the fenced yard for raising pullets, two or three groups of chickens were hiding under the guava trees. Bunched together in the shade of the trees, the chickens opened their beaks and puffed their cheeks in and out, breathing and panting. Clusters of ripe emerald fruit glistened on the guava trees. On the other side of the fence between two neatly stacked piles of rice straw, a curly-haired dog was lying flat and dozing. Beyond the bamboo, through a thin opening in the trees, rice fields fluttered and rose with tremendous brightness. The persons working silently in the paddy were largely hidden. Occasionally, from out of the noise of the threshing machine, Li-li could hear snatches of laughing conversation.

"Little Uncle is in the fields?"

"Uh-huh."

"Why don't you work in the fields?"

"I'm a scholar," Third Uncle said. "You and I are both scholars. Remember, we're descendants of those who passed the Civil Service Examination."

"I'd really like to go play in the fields."

"Of course, but the work part is only fun for a little while. It's the kind of work, in fact, that exhausts a fellow. You get muscle pain around the waist and your back aches. Really, it's not so much fun."

Amused, Third Uncle could not suppress a smile. "The weather is very hot. No matter what game you play, you ought to be careful of heat stroke while out in the fields."

Suddenly in the rice fields the noise of the threshing machine approached. A large group of small startled birds flashed into the air and flew away. In the sunny, blue, and cloudless sky, only a vague mist appeared at the edges. Then Li-li saw the marine-blue train, creeping silently across the horizon and, obscured in the mist, the dark green bamboo groves and red brick and tile of two villages--one just beyond the other. Without warning, as though he had leaped out of the landscape, the old peddler appeared, coming fast toward the village on a raised path between fields.

"There's that peddler."

"I didn't hear his voice."

"I just saw him," Li-li said. "He just came out of the fields."

"Indeed, he has arrived," Third Uncle said. "I want to eat a little flavored ice. Come on, we'll go get an ice."

The peddler went into the corner of the big rice-drying courtyard, put down his load beneath a tall wax-apple tree, wiped the sweat from his face with a bandanna, and began calling people, using a revolving bamboo-tube noisemaker fitted with a rubber band and striking board.

The sun was high over the courtyard of the farmhouse. Beyond the shade of the trees, the concrete of the courtyard radiated heat, and the newly cut rice, scattered and spread there, glared blindingly.

Lots of children, with thoughts of flavored candies and ices, scampered out from their homes. A number of fun-seeking young people also hurried out of the nearby fields. The peddler quickly emptied his ice bucket and sold some candy, dry fruit, and two pineapples. He rested for a spell and then started a gambling game for money with the high-spirited youths. The object of the game was to match thin iron strips painted yellow, red, blue, or white on their ends.

Li-li and Third Uncle sat on a platform which held a stone commemorative tablet, eating their flavored ices. The stone tablet platform was one of a pair at the front corners of the rice-drying courtyard. Originally scholars flew flags on the platform to show they had passed the Civil Service Ex...

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