“What Did You Talk About for an Hour with the Old Mother?”

Four Generations

I had some good friends in China but now I know that my best Chinese friend was the old woman in this photo holding the little girl in blue on her lap. She was my friend Zhu’s mother-in-law, simply called, “the old mother.” She was born on Hainan Island, did not speak Mandarin, Cantonese or English. She lived with Zhu and Fu in their one room apartment. Luckily, when their baby was born they got a bigger place to live.

I cannot fully explain our friendship. We just liked each other. One evening I went over to find Zhu. She wasn’t home. I didn’t go back to my apartment, I stayed some time with the old mother looking at movie magazines (in Chinese) and arguing about female beauty as we looked at one movie star after another. I know we were joking. I said I liked every Caucasian actress and she told me all of them were ugly, but especially Ingrid Bergman. We howled laughing. I don’t know why or how, but it was funny in exactly the same way to both of us. All of these women — Asian and Western — were millions of miles away from us.

I liked spending time with her and my friend Zhu always said, “What do you talk about? You have no common language?” I think the truth is that we simply liked each other. I don’t think that’s always a rational thing, that we like someone “because of this and that.” I think sometimes heart speaks to heart.

We were invited to the Old Mother’s village on Hainan for Chinese New Years. The government gave us permission to go. We went on a ship down the Pearl River to the South China Sea, then across the Gulf of Tonkin to Hainan Island. We were in the bottom of the ship with other Chinese passengers. My bunk was 6 inches away from a florescent light that was on all night. When someone asked the old mother why she was traveling with foreigners she said, “What foreigners? This is my son,” she pointed to Jim, “they’ve been studying in America for a long time.”

The saga of that journey is for another post, perhaps, along with other stories about our time on Hainan. But for now know that we made it to the village of All Beauty, Fu’s ancestral village. We even got a rides all the way there (amazing). When we got off the lorry that was our last ride, we had a quarter mile walk to the village. The Old Mother was quite bent from arthritis in her spine caused by the unbelievably hard and colorful life she’d lived, including a stint as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in WW II. A few yards from the village she stopped. She slowly forced her back to straighten. She took my hand in a gesture of affection, possession and support and forced herself to walk the rest of the way with her back nearly straight. She would not lose face in front of her relatives this way.

We stayed for a week, and the last night, after a delicious meal, the whole family sat in the main room. Everyone was tired from a week of festivities and conversation and showing the foreigners around. We sat in the dim light of a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. The old mother held my hand. I noticed that people were dozing. The little kids were already asleep. “Sleepy,” I said gesturing around the room. “Sleepy.”

The Old Mother looked around and understood me. “Hoile,” she said. Hainanese for “sleepy.”

“Hoile,” I repeated.

“Sleepy,” she said.

9 thoughts on ““What Did You Talk About for an Hour with the Old Mother?”

  1. It’s one of the funny things about living in a country where you really don’t speak much of the language. I dated a Russian guy who didn’t speak any English — and I didn’t speak Russian or Hebrew … yet somehow, we managed to have a good time. We might have gone on to a real relationship, but he was much more religious than I could ever be. Yes, even in your OWN religion, religion can come between you. But not speaking the same language? Not such a big problem.

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