Andrew Pei

Dilemma


     In the famous Jingshan Park of Beijing, a breeze was swinging the willows to a gentle dance. As a thin gossamer-like mist was rolling in from a nearby shooting fountain, Yang sneaked out from behind a stone bench where his grandparents, aunt and uncle were sitting and chatting. When he was only a few feet away, they all turned their heads, almost in unison. Instead of on him, their gaze was fixed on a mysterious girl who was holding his hand and her own breath. What he then said to his grandpa widened everyone’s eyes.

     “Grandpa, this is Akiko, the girl I told you about last time.Should I invite her to go home with us, or should I send her back to her hotel?”

     A taut silence descended. Yang saw his grandpa arch an eye brow,crease his forehead into a deep frown, and slowly rise to gaze up at him levelly as if he were a total stranger. In his grandpa’s unblinking eyes, Yang read the unuttered question: Shouldn’t you know that this family will embrace no Japanese?

     Yang did know that at the age of 83 his grandpa was long past the days when his heart would skip a beat at the sight of a beautiful girl. However,Yang was sure that Akiko’s lush lips, luminescent skin, oval face, long-lashed eyes, and a dancer-like figure would impress any man regardless of age. He was almost sure that his grandpa would joke about his having an eye for beauty if Akiko had no Japanese blood running in her veins. He brought Akiko with him this time, hoping that her natural beauty and goodness would impress his grandpa so that his hard feelings would abate. Yang figured that if his grandpa was willing to learn even the tiniest bit about her, he might get to like her enough to disregard her ethnic origin. However, his heart sank as he was alert enough to notice his grandpa’s headshake, a headshake that could speak of nothing but disappointment.

     Yang would never have confronted his grandpa if his genuine love for Akiko were not at stake. A year ago he met her at Stanford University where they took the same eastern civilization class. He was 22, and she 21, the golden age for romance.They happened to sit next to each other on the first day, and gradually moved on to studying in the library, eating in the same cafeteria, and spending a lot of free time on the beach watching ocean waves and dreaming about building a future together. Three months ago when he came back to Beijing to visit his grandparents, he truly believed that he would thrill them with the news of his having an Asian girlfriend, only to be flabbergasted to learn that his grandpa was an intense Japanese hater.

     He couldn’t brush aside the unexpected opposition because he cared about his grandpa too much. Before immigrating to the United States at the age of eight, he had been indulged by his grandpa. He remembered piecing jigsaw puzzles,learning children rimes, visiting his favorite zoo, and raising a puppy, all with his grandpa. The two of them had been like two souls in one body in spite of 60 years between them. Every time Yang came back from the United States, he could peel a few years off his grandpa’s wrinkled face just by showing up. But this time to salvage his future with Akiko, he calculated his moves like a chess champion. He had to make his grandpa understand how love was consuming Akiko and him.

     He was fully aware of Akiko’s awkward position. He knew that she craved acceptance, but he also knew that her heart was racing, that her skin was crawling, and that she was afraid of making an eye contact with anyone, yet couldn’t help stealing glances at them all. If he were Akiko, he would pay to be able to read everyone’s mind, but at the same time he would flinch at the prospect of knowing exactly what was turning around in their minds. He touched her hands that dug the nails into her own palms,a pathetic sign of his moral support. He remembered his favorite Chinese novel A Dream of Red Mansions and wondered if Akiko was as ill-fated as the central female character,whose love was snatched away as she was dying.

******

     Yang’s composure was thinning as he realized that it took his grandpa much longer than expected to wear off the initial shock, an ominous sign of a brewing rejection.Until this moment,he had never imagined that his close-knit family would ever have to go toe to toe with its own members. Now he was afraid that either he would break his grandpa’s heart, or his grandpa would kill his love for Akiko. Whatever the result, they would both lose. He could blame the circumstance, but that wouldn’t make him feel any better if the bond between him and his grandpa ended up being fractured beyond repair. Although he exhaled a huge sigh of relief when his grandpa didn’t send Akiko back to the hotel immediately, he had a hunch that his grandpa’s sympathy for her would go only this far.

     No one uttered a word on the bus that was winding through the streets where liveliness was emitting itself to the fullest. It passed the famous Tiananmen Square, a must-see for visitors, but no one was looking out the window, not even Akiko who had never been to China before. No one made an effort to lighten the somber mood while they were walking toward home in a single file from the bus stop, with Grandpa leading and everyone else just restlessly following. Silence continued to stretch even after they all took their seats in the living room. Grandpa plopped down on an armchair; Grandma edged into one end of the sofa, leaving the rest of it for Yong’s uncle and aunt. Young quietly settled on the carpet, about ten feet from his grandpa; Akiko was sitting on her own heels, the Japanese way, right behind Young. The clock hands crawled at a snail pace, and the imminent uncertainty dragged. They all knew who should break the silence.

     The sun was slowly setting, and a wind just began to pick up some loose tree leaves. Two of them even knocked onto the living room windows. No one really paid any attention to anything outside; everyone’s mind was tumbling, and the waiting was tortuous. Finally, Grandpa took a deep breath before he unlocked his tongue.

     “Sometimes peopledosad things for the best reason. What’s going to happen in this room at this very moment is not going to be cheerful, but it has to happen.”

     Young saw the worry lines on his grandpa’s forehead deepen and a massive weariness tug at the corners of his mouth. He felt Akiko’s hands tighten on his back and knew by instinct that she wished to have more than just one pair of ears even if she could speak Chinese very well.

     “Yang, do you remember the story I told you? I was too shaken to make my point clear. Now it’s high time that I finish what I didn’t finish last time. You wait here. I have something to show you.”

     As Grandpa dragged himself into another room, Yang began to recall the story that passed through his grandpa’s trembling lips three months ago.

******

     It was the spring of 1942 when a unit of Japanese troops attacked a small village in Heilongjiang Province, China. They set many houses on fire and captured most of the villagers who failed to flee. Among the captives were a man in his mid-twenties, his sick mother, his 18-year-old sister, and another young woman of similar age. The commanding officer and his soldiers interrogated him, believing him to be a key member of the local resistance force. Wanting to pry military information out of him, they went as far as pulling off his fingernails and burning his chest with cigarette butts. The poor man fainted times again only to be revived with cold water for more torture. The Japanese failed to get what they wanted because he was the wrong person. However, they thought he was just loyal to his people, so they struck at his family to break his resolve. First they grabbed his sister and began to strip her. Just when they were about to tear off the last stitch over her body, she broke loose and plunged herself head on into a nearby red pine, barely managed to avoid the shame. Then the Japanese tied his ailing mother to the same tree with her daughter’s limp body at her feet and began to lash a whip on her.She screamed, gasped,and dropped her head to her own chest when the burning whip landed on her the third time. Foam spewed from her mouth, and sweat beaded her face. She took one final look at her son and died of a heart attack, caused as much by the whipping as by the sudden death of her daughter. The poor man had been shrieking the whole time without being able to save his loved ones. When a Japanese soldier raised a gun at the other girl, he was too terror-stricken to beg for her life. The trigger was pulled, and she dropped into a pool of her own blood without groaning. The young man passed out and didn’t wake up until hours after the scene of horror.

******

     Yang was trying to make a connection between this story and what was about to happen now, and his gut feeling told him that whatever his grandpa was going to show him would startle a weak heart to a standstill. The living room was 25 feet by 20, and through the two big windows a red glow was pouring in. However, neither the spacious room, nor the twilight beauty could lighten his heart that felt suffocated. Even if he could brace for any shocking revelation, he worried about Akiko to the point of doubting the wisdom of bringing her along. She didn’t have to go through this. It was he who persuaded her to join him for the trip, and now she was made to feel like a person expecting a pardon for something she was not even guilty of.
The hodgepodge of the conflicting insights was still troubling him when his grandpa staggered back and set a cloth bundle on the tea table. Seeing that his grandpa was too shivering to untie it,Yang sidled up and gingerly did it for his grandpa. What met everyone’s widened eyes were a woman’s dress with profuse blood stains, a man’s shirt badly shredded, two fingernails, and a bullet shell.

     Yang looked up at his grandpa whose vein at the temple was throbbing, whose low whimper between chattering teeth was checked but still audible, and whose face turned ghostly white. He knew his grandpa had something critical to tell him, but nothing could come out of his mouth, as if he was getting choked by some unutterable words. When the old man’s face was drenched in cold sweat, Yang’s uncle and aunt jumped to their feet and half carried him out of the living room.
Yang’s careful trip plan didn’t include a response to this. He was prepared for his grandpa’s opposition, butnot for his physical agony. A sense of guilt surged, and an urge to say or do something forced him out of his seat like a shot. But hardly had he taken a step when his grandma pulled him back.

     “Sit down, Yang. You don’t want to go see him right now.”

     He saw her turn toward the bundle and scrutinize the items one by one. Her creased face and gray hair bore all the reluctance.His eyes stopped blinking when he heard her whisper more to herself than to him: “I shouldn’t be the person to unfold the stories behind these things.”

     He already feared what he was about to hear.

     “Yang, last time when your grandpa told you about what happened in that village, he didn’t get to say who those victims were. It’s time to let you know now. The tortured young man was none other than your grandpa himself. The girl who was shot was his fiancée. You can tell who the other two were. His fiancée was in that blood-stained dress when she died. That bullet was the one that pierced her young heart. Your grandpa was in that shirt when he was tortured. Those two fingernails were torn off from the thumb and index finger of his left hand. Now you know why he was so choked in rage and grief. His insides must be ripping him apart now. To recall everything in details is like having the horror occur a second time.”
Yang’s mouth fell open and his eyes squeezed shut; he felt chilled to the marrow of his bones. But before he could deal with his own pain, he heard a muffled sob from Akiko and realized that she must have put the appalling details in personal context. Maybe her sincere condolence and sympathy went pouring to his grandpa as if he were her own grandpa. Maybe for the first time, history walked out of textbooks into real life that hurther like a burning iron.Maybe for the first time, she felt ashamed of being Japanese and shuddered at the realization that her love for Yang, genuine and innocent as it was, was nothing but a taboo for this family. Yang rubbed her back and fumbled for words, but couldn’t find the right ones. A bone-deep fear was consuming him just as much. What if he had to break up with her to save his grandpa? What if he wouldn’t back off in spite of his grandpa’s past? Could he have peace in a nuptial knot with Akiko if it meant that his grandpa had to be sacrificed? Sharp as his brain was, all the answers he was desperately seeking were eluding him. 

     He was dumbfounded when the truth slowly dawned on him: his grandpa’s family had been wiped out. He could visualize the horrifying scenes and hear the ear-piercing screams. For a moment, he became his great grandma who winced to catch her breath each time the whip came down; he became his grandaunt who was fighting to keep her clothes to her body; he became his grandpa’s fiancée who saw her own blood oozing before she hit the ground; he became his grandpa who went in and out of consciousness. Now he understood why his grandpa’s hatred for the Japanese was so deep-rooted. It was all personal.
Fidgeting in his chair, he listened in mute terror to the labored breathing that came through the wall. He turned toward his grandma, the very person who could tell him everything he didn’t know about his grandpa, the very person who might be the salve this family needed at this critical moment. Unless he could get some wise counsel from her and put everything in perspective, whatever he ended up saying or doing might backfire even more.

     He looked into her watery eyes that didn’t dodge. It went without saying that she desired a peaceful old age for her husband more than anything else. What Yang was wondering was if there could be any more room in her heart for his happiness which conflicted with his grandpa’s. Did his grandma have a magic wand that could inject hope into a hopeless situation?

     “Grandma, I’ve never been so troubled. What should I do?”

     He saw his grandma lift her gaze on him and fix it on Akiko. He then heard her say quietly: “It is just as unfair for your grandpa to accept this Japanese girl as it is unfair for her to be rejected.”

     “I can see that, but I don’t want to choose between Grandpa and Akiko. How can I keep them both, Grandma?”

     After a long pause, he heard her say: “Yang, you have to work this out by yourself.”

     “But I’m stuck and don’t know what to do.”

     He watched his grandma blow a hank of grey hair out of her face; he then felt her gentle squeeze on his forearm.

     “Listen to your heart, Yang, and follow its guidance.”

     Yang looked toward his grandpa’s room. His heart was pounding fast. He could clearly hear it; what he was struggling to figure out was its message.

     His grandma left to join his grandpa, allowing the deafening silence to resume. The carpet beneath him was getting warmer, whereas the blood running through him was freezing cold. He turned to face Akiko who had already broken into an uncontrollable sob. Slowly, he held her gaze, where he saw longing and fear. That was when he realized that although a lot had changed, one thing remained intact: His fate was hers; they could only survive this together.

     He chose his words very carefully: “Akiko, do you love me enough to love my grandpa in spite of this?”

     His nose twitched when she nodded over streaming tears.

     “I can’t thank you enough, Akiko. I’m not going to give you up; nor am I going to give up my grandpa. My grandma told me to search my heart, and I did. It tells me that there must be a way to prove that love can melt hatred.”

     With that he stood up, pulled her up from her sitting position, took her into his arms, and locked his lips with hers.

The End

 

 


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