Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.
BY ROBERT DIGITALE
Ng Sau Ping no longer has to worry about hiding in the mountains. The year is 1948, and she is almost 18 years old, a young school teacher in a village in southern China near Hong Kong. For eight years, from 1937 to 1945, Japanese soldiers occupied parts of China, including her home province of Guangdong. When the foreign troops would draw near, the women and girls like Sau Ping would spend their days hidden away in the mountains. But the Japanese surrender to Allied forces ended both World War II and the foreign occupation of China. Even so, Sau Ping has a friend from another village who for decades will have nightmares of the day when the soldiers chased after her but failed to catch her.
China remains engulfed in civil war. Communist and Nationalist forces have been fighting all of Sau Ping’s life, though the two sides suspended most of their warfare against one another in order to better oppose the Japanese forces. But after the end of World War II, the battle to control China resumed. To date the fighting has taken place mostly in the north. But the Communist forces are gaining the upper hand and making their way south. Old ways are about to end.
Sau Ping lives near what has long been China’s gateway to the rest of the world, and especially to the land the old timers call Gold Mountain, the United States. For 160 years the Americans have sent trading ships to Guangzhou, also known as Canton, and there they have located their oldest diplomatic post in China. The first Chinese immigrants to the U.S. – the men who labored in the Gold Rush and helped build the first transcontinental railroad – came mostly from Guangdong province. Chinese men long have traveled back and forth across the Pacific. Sau Ping’s own father traveled to the U.S. and worked for a time in the restaurants of Seattle. When he returned, he had saved enough money to take a partner and buy a building in Guangzhou. It included a store on the bottom and apartments on the floor above. But the partner later cheated her father out of the building.
Sau Ping has received a middle school education at the Toisan Girls Normal School in the city of Toisan, about a half-day’s riverboat ride from Guangzhou. During her last three years at school, the government supported her with a yearly subsidy of 30 pounds of rice. In return, Sau Ping agreed to work after graduation with three other teachers in a nearby village.
What are her dreams? She keeps them close to herself, but there is a young man, a fellow teacher. Perhaps she may have a future with him, there in Guangdong, near their families.
How strong is she inside? She is not even 18. She has yet to be tested.
One day her father sends word to her school. Come home, he says. You are to meet a man.
What does this mean? Sau Ping feels she has no choice but to obey. She walks the dirt road back to Toisan. After she arrives at her family’s apartment, her father sends her out on an errand. As she walks the crowded streets of the city, she is being watched. Unbeknownst to her, a man is taking his first look at her. He will decide whether he likes what he sees. If he does, he may let her serve him tea. Then what? That is up to her father and the man.
And Sau Ping? She will learn how strong she is inside.
My daughters first helped me grasp the true arc of this story. For years I’d heard only enough details to conclude that this was a story of boy meets girl in a far-off setting. But when my oldest daughter was about 18, she got a chance to write about the journey of her grandmother, Sau Ping. It was then I saw the story anew. What if you are a teenager and everyone you know is about to be taken away from you? And what if you are about to go to a land you do not know where they speak a language you have never heard? I’ve thought about my three daughters at age 18, and asked: How would they deal with such upheaval? How would anyone?
This is the fifth vignette in the saga of an American family. Next week: “Will She Say Yes?”
To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.
The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother