• Lijing Cobb

A new ceiling

It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve. Which meant new paper ceiling. Which meant red envelope. Which meant new clothes. Which meant big meal. Which meant fireworks. Which meant inevitable drunkenness and fight.

I was raised in a “house” with two rooms. After you unlock the giant lock on our door and lift the big iron latch handle out and slide it right, you would give the left side of the double door a controlled push (holding onto the handle on the door firmly so the door doesn’t slam open), and you’d walk into our kitchen/living room/dining room, a roughly 10x15 rectangle. To the left there was a slightly bigger room that served as the bedroom for my parents, my sister and me until my sister was about 13 (I was 8) and way too big to be in the same room as my parents, at which point half of the right wall of the first room came down and my uncles helped my father build an extension to the space. Closer to the front door we now had a tiny kitchen in the dimension of about 4x8, which barely fit a sink, a small coal burning stove, a petite pantry that held our utensils and condiments, and a small bench for miscellaneous stuff. Further in was a bedroom for my sister and me, about 6x7, which accommodated a tiny bed, a desk, a dresser, and our family “horse pail”, aka the shit bucket.

This was the home where I wrote the stories of my childhood and adolescent years. While the majority of our meager possessions stayed the same over the years (the locking and unlocking of the giant iron latch on our door was the definition of an overkill. More a ritual than a necessity, not to stop thieves, but more likely nosy neighbors from waltzing in to find out exactly how little we had), on the eve of every Chinese New Year the ritual of house cleaning was carried out, which invariably included having a new paper ceiling pasted over the existing one in our living room/dining room, giving it a mildly fresh appearance. That is, if you looked up and not around. After dusting off what had chosen their abode on that 10x15 counterpart to our first mud, later concrete floor, my father would get on one of the two chairs my parents sat on (my sister and I sat on a bench), make sure that my mom was steadying the tame chair vigilantly, and start the painstaking process of pasting one piece of white paper after another over the existing layer. After what seemed like an eternity where my father shouted stern commands to my grounded mother to do his biddings, only to fail just shy of his exacting expectations every time, my father would climb down the chair finally and admire his handiwork. The new paper ceiling almost brought a thin promise with it, as if something new was about to take place with the arrival of the new year.

Yet every New Year’s Eve we simply got another layer of white paper to our ceiling, and that was the extent of the triumph our home claimed over the many evils of the past year. One year, a mischievous corner of our ceiling decided that my father’s good will of giving it another layer of paper and glue burden was not going to be tolerated, so instead of staying put to be re-faced, it de-faced itself by detaching completely from the ceiling. Behind the weight of the paper ceiling with many shades of white there was a big black hole, gaping at us, threatening to expand its territory.

My father fixed the hole. But now we all knew what was behind that white facade. On the following New Year’s Eves we feared the unraveling of the fragile front. At the same time, I started to stare at the paper ceiling with an unwonted fervor: what if the whole of it crashed down completely, hopelessly, smashing into a thousand pieces like porcelain, never to be pieced together, never to be pasted over again? What could be so bad that needed such shoddy coverage? I wanted to see the whole thing that they tried to cover up. For sure, there was a ceiling better than a crumbling paper one.

The paper ceiling survived my stay in that home. For 4 years I left home for college in a city 1 hour of bus ride plus 2 hours of train ride away, and another 4 years for graduate school in the US 3 hours of train and 20 hours of plane ride away. I no longer thought about how my mother still steadied the chair for my father to hoist up another layer of paper thin lies.

The completion of the paper ceiling signaled the arrival of a festive time. I would get a red envelope with lucky money to place under my pillow on New Year’s Eve and open it the next day to find out how much I’d gotten. I would have a new set of clothing to wear the next day. We would go to either one of our grandparents’ houses to have a huge meal with all our relatives. There would be fireworks lit up against the dark of the night. There would be tight-lipped greetings, one uncle egging another one to drink more rice wine, one wrong word, and a big fight. Always a big fight. Shouting and fuming that not even the explosions of fireworks could drown out. And my father was always in the thick of it, the ticking time bomb that went off and torched everything.

So much unhappiness waiting to leak out from that man. Like the corner of the paper ceiling that spoke the truth that year. A big black gaping hole. A father who lost his own father when he was only 32. A son who had two daughters of his own, 8 and 3. A boy so brilliant at school that he skipped a grade, but had to quit school to make money and support his family by working in the factory as a mechanic when he was barely 13. A brother whose two older brothers went to another city, so he became the oldest brother to his two younger brothers and two younger sisters. A man who married my mother, the oldest daughter among her 6 siblings.

A boy who grew up too fast. A boy who took charge too soon. A boy who faced a world that was brutal and uncompromising. A man who thought he was in charge of everyone in his family because he was the oldest. A man who worshipped his mother, a tiny woman with a blind eye.

A man whose timeline was all screwed up because he was born in an unfortunate time.

My father arrived in this world in 1947, to an affluent landlord family whose fortune was about to change drastically in a matter of a few years. In 1949 the Communist Party took power and the People’s Republic of China came into being. Chairman Mao, risen to supreme power from a peasant origin, touted the virtues of his class of people, and started waves of campaign against classes of people outside of his own, landlords in particular. Shortly after Mao took power, my grandfather’s lands were seized by the government and redistributed to the poor. My grandfather, a mild-mannered and gentle man, who loved me but died too soon when I was only 3, must have suffered quite an unrecoverable fall and shock: one day the owner of acres of land, money in the pocket, respect from bowed heads and lowered eyes; the next deplored evil landlord, penniless, persecuted, jailed, beaten, spat on by the lowest low of the social rung. The land reform that swept across the country in the 1950’s stripped him of not just his possessions, but all traces of his dignity. He was not a person, but the embodiment of an evil concept to be trampled on and beaten to death by any means necessary. My father, along with all his siblings and their mother, had to renounce their father and husband, one who they knew to be gentle and loving, but in everyone else’s eyes a monster simply because he had the misfortune of being born into a family with land. How my father must have witnessed the whittling away of any shred of dignity in the man that he looked up to and respected the most. Such a man was not even given the right to work for an honest living to support his family, so that his first son had to be sent away to earn money in an electric plant as soon as he was old enough (13 as well?); his second son given away to another family because he couldn’t feed the infant; his third son, my father, taken out of school at the age of 13 to make money; his fourth son, a cripple and therefore spared of much drama; his first daughter sent to the countryside for “re-education”, there to marry a peasant; his fifth son sent to Mongolia, a place where nothing thrived, for cultural re-adjustment, and marrying his own peasant wife after his return from nowhere; his second daughter, the last born, who held onto her virginity and “class” until the ripe old age of 29, finally forsaking her spinsterhood to marry yet another peasant man, who she bossed around henceforth.

Perhaps each one of these children, innocent of the crimes of their forefathers they never knew, served as a layer of the white paper that added onto the thickness of the paper ceiling covering up a black gaping hole. Each birth brought a faint promise of hope with the first loud cry announcing a new life, but ending up as one disappointment after another, each threatening to bring the ceiling down and exposing what’s behind.

So much unhappiness oozing out of everyone. To intervene as an intermediary in a fight between two of my children, I often say to both that it takes two to start a fight. My father didn’t start all those New Year’s Eve fights on his own. His siblings and in-laws had plenty of their own unhappiness to shout about and pick a fight with. Our home was not the only home that had a paper ceiling with dark secrets behind it. Everyone did.

Today, my father has been gone from this world for 10 years, my mother 6 months. The last time I spent Chinese New Year’s Eve in China was 9 years ago, in the same city where I grew up that was nevertheless completely unrecognizable because of the seismic changes that re-faced China during the 13 years I had been absent from it. A paper ceiling too? I don’t know. Today, for the first time in my life, I’ll be welcoming the New Year without a parent, with my children who we raise to be happy and kind, with my husband who toughed it out with me through all the past paper ceiling re-facing years. I think that we can finally retire the paper ceiling now, and reveal what’s behind.

Today I am done with paper ceiling, but I will put red envelopes of hope under our children’s pillows tonight. We will dress up in our fancy new clothes, and enjoy our feast. We will admire the beauty of the fireworks. We will get drunk on happiness and fight to be kinder to ourselves and with each other.

We will discover ways of how to put a new ceiling up together.

My dog of almost 11 years, who doesn’t stir for anyone except for his true master, my husband, came to greet me this morning at 3 o’clock when I went downstairs to boil water for my tea. I almost didn’t see him, but when I looked down he was there, quietly looking up at me. So I bent down to say hello, and rubbed his white fur gently. We shared a few secret words. I’m pretty sure he said he forgave me. Then I left to go back upstairs while the water heated. When I went down the second time to get my tea, he was there again. Once again we exchanged greetings, and he walked into the room where a water bowl had been, and started to lick the few droplets of water left on the tray. So I got him some water, and squatted down next to him to watch him lap the whole thing down his tiny body. I wonder how many times he had needed a drink but never bothered to ask me before. I wonder why he didn’t bark at me, like he usually does, whenever he absolutely needed something from me, water, food, an urgent pee.

I wonder if this dog, who has lived with me and known me for almost 11 years, knows that he can get water from me without barking now. I wonder if he can sense something in me that I desperately want to hold onto, and he’s vouching for my effort with his quiet support.

Last Chinese New Year, my family dressed in Chinese red that my mom and sister had mailed to us all the way from China.

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