Question: What was life like in China?
Pop: When I was little, I used my left hand and not my right. So I got hit for using the wrong hand. And that kind of made me nervous, and when that happened I stuttered a little bit. That made people even madder.
March 7, 1922
Ninth day of the second month,
eleventh year of the Chinese Republic
Lung Hing Village, Southern China
My father was a dragon. Lung Gon was his name. And he came from a village of dragons.
But I wasn't the least bit like him.
When I forgot myself, I naturally used my left hand. I kept forgetting to use my right hand. That was the correct one.
There were a lot of practical reasons for me to use my right hand. For one thing, I wouldn't bump whoever sat next to me at the dinner table and make him drop his rice bowl. Some superstitious folk thought left-handed people were sneaky. A few even swore it brought bad luck when you used your left hand.
But when I used my right hand, I had trouble writing. My brushstrokes went all over the page. When I used my left hand, the words came out fine. Only I couldn't do that. I had to remind myself to use my right hand all the time.
The winter rains had let up, but the air still felt damp. Everyone felt drowsy that afternoon. The New Year's celebrations had tired our little village. Even my teacher, Uncle Jing, was droning more slowly than usual.
I thought it was safe to use my left hand to write with while Uncle Jing's back was turned. But then a fly buzzed around his head. When he twisted to swat it, he saw me.
I knew what would happen next. It was as sure to come as a sunrise, and as sure as our rooster crowing at that sunrise.
"You must always write with your right hand!" Uncle Jing scolded in his shrill voice. "You're the son and brother of Guests! Do you think any of them do such an awful thing?" He always taught with a bamboo rod in his hand. It began to twitch eagerly, like a dog's tail.
No one ever let me forget that I was the son of a Guest of the Golden Mountain—or America, as the people there called it.
Most of the time I spoke clearly. But when I got nervous, I stuttered sometimes. Before I recited a lesson, I always rehearsed it like an actor. And I had to keep telling myself to stay calm. However, I would get so worried that I stammered even more.
If I stuttered at school, my classmates would laugh and Uncle would get mad and hit me. If I did it at home, Mother would scold me. Sister would look disappointed and tell me to try harder.
I had finally gotten to meet my father two years earlier, when I was seven. He had brought my older brother Yuen home to get married. Father had told me at that time that I shouldn't stutter anymore. But it seemed the more I tried not to think about stammering, the more my tongue tripped. Even though my father and Yuen had gone back to America, I still tried to obey him.
"I'm s-s-sorry," I barely managed to say to Uncle. "I f-f-forgot."
The rest of the class rocked back and forth with laughter. Of all the students, I was the only pupil from my clan, even though the school was our village's. My brothers and cousins had all left to find work overseas. The five other students came from neighboring villages. Two of them didn't own desks, so they sat on the dirt floor.
"What did your father tell you about stuttering and using your left hand?" he huffed.
I didn't say anything. I didn't trust my tongue.
Uncle Jing answered his own question. "He'll blame me when you're the one being stubborn and willful. One stroke!" The bamboo tipped in a slow circle, as if Uncle was loosening up his arm. "Put out your hand."
I heard a commotion from one end of the village. Uncle and the rest of the class were too involved with anticipating the beating to notice.
Miserable, I extended my hand across the desk. Over many years, the wood had soaked up the fragrance of all the ink spilled on it. The desk belonged to my family. At the end of the term, old Dip Shew would have to carry it home to our house. He was a poor cousin we had hired to take care of our fields.
Uncle's fingers brushed the back of my neck. He was still used to reaching for a boy's queue. In the old days when the savage Manchus had taken over China, they made all Chinese males wear their hair in long queues. The queues were a symbol of the tails of the horses the Manchus had ridden when they conquered us. Now that the Manchus had been driven away, we didn't have to wear our hair long. Now there wasn't anything to grab.
I made the mistake of smiling.
"Five more for being insolent!" Uncle yelled.
The bamboo rod swished through the air. The pain lashed my hand, but I bit my lip. The other boys were grinning. I couldn't expect any sympathy from them. They always liked it when I got punished, even though I had never done anything to them. They disliked me because my family was rich from the money Father and my brothers sent home.
Uncle hit me even harder this time. I think he wanted to see tears.
I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
My sister appeared in the doorway. "Excuse me," she said. Sister was eleven years older than me and had practically raised me; Mother had been busy with all our family affairs. "Father's home."
Excerpted from The Dragon's Child by Laurence Yep Copyright © 2008 by Laurence Yep. Excerpted by permission.
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