Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Date Stones

◎ Xiao Qian

Before I set out for the US, a former schoolmate of mine wrote me by airmail, asking me in all earnest to bring him some raw date stones. They were not heavy in weight, yet I was curious about their use.

At Philadelphia, shortly before starting out for my friend’s place, I called him up. So when I got off the train at the destination, I found him already waiting for me at the station. It was about half a century since we last met, and we were now both in our declining years.

After hugging each other, he asked me eagerly, “Have you brought them with you?” I immediately fished out the date stones from my handbag. He fondled them in his palm as if they were something more valuable than pearls or agates.

Obviously he was just as childlike as before. When I asked about the use of the date stones, he put them into his pocket and replied by way of fooling me deliberately, “You’ll understand soon.”

It was really a beautiful mountain city. As we drove on, an expanse of rich crimson up and down the slope came into sight. In China a place like this would have been described as a maple city. After passing through several cols, my friend said pointing to a three-storied house amidst the maple trees, “Here we are.” The car turned into a lawn and when it was three or four meters away from the garage, its door automatically opened as if it recognized its own master.

My friend looked somewhat ill at ease when he told me this: At the time when he bought this big house, his children had all been at school. Now they had their own homes and jobs. His wife, a biochemist, was a dietician at a research institute.

After assigning me a room on the second floor facing a lake, he showed me around his back garden, which, though not too big, was exquisite and nicely arranged. The moment we sat down on a white bench close to a hedge, he asked me, “Don’t you find something here smacking of our native place in China?” At this, I noticed a weeping willow, planted by himself, on either side of a flight of steps as well as a water-lily pond in the middle of the garden. He said with deep feeling, “When I planted the willows, my son was only five. Now he serves as head of chief mechanics in a nuclear submarine. My daughter teaches at Harvard University. I’m happy with my family and my career. I own all modern household facilities I need. But I still feel something lacking. Maybe I’m a bit too foolish. How come the older I become, the more I think of my homeland. Now I fully understand the frame of mind of one residing in a place far away from home. I always think of Changdian and Longfusi. Every time Christmas is celebrated here in America, I think of the lunar New Year back in China. I can never forget the date tree in the courtyard of the house on Zongbu Hutong. That’s why I’ve asked you to bring me some date stones. I’ll try to plant them here.”

Then he said pointing to a jumble of rockery standing in a corner of the garden, “Believe it or not, the rocks, hand-picked by me, were bought by the kilogram. I drove dozens of kilometers away to haul them back in my car. Look, that’s Beihai in our home.”

Thereupon, we rose to our feet simultaneously and walked along a cobbled footpath beside the lawn towards the miniature Beihai. What a careful man my friend was! He had had the artificial hill inlaid with a clay pavilion and a red temple, with a white pagoda on top. He said he had bought the decorative objects from China Town in San Francisco.

He also told me that on a moonlit night he and his wife would sit side by side on the bench recalling how they had used to go boating on the Beihai Lake. Meanwhile, as I smelled the faint scent of the water-lilies carried to us by the breeze, I felt as if the beautiful scene of a Chinese lotus pond were flashing past my eyes.

The change of nationality doesn’t mean the change of national feeling. No other nation has such a strong attachment for the native land as we Chinese.