Over Thanksgiving break, each eighth grade student interviewed a grandparent, or other beloved elder, and wrote out the answers to some twenty questions about his or her childhood. When they returned to language arts class, they wrote extensive descriptive essays based on their interviews. Take a look at this interview from Abigail S.:
My paternal grandmother is Shin-Gon Shieh, nee Chen. She lives with my uncle, aunt, brother, two cousins, and me in a lovely house in Towson. Before she retired, Shin-Gon worked as a section chief in the Ministry of Health and Welfare. My grandma travels to Taiwan a few times year. She also flies to Vancouver, Canada, sometimes, because she has a house there. Shin-Gon loves traveling. She’s been to every continent except for Antarctica and Africa. In her spare time, Shin-Gon enjoys reading and making art. My grandma had already told me many stories of when she was a child, but this Thanksgiving I officially interviewed her and finally pieced her childhood together.
Shin-Gon was born on March 20, 1950, in Gongguan Township, Miaoli County, Taiwan. When Shin-Gon was three, her mother died of tuberculosis, so she mostly lived with her grandmother. Her father worked in a factory very far away, living in a dormitory and returning home every three months or so. Shin-Gon had two younger brothers, but they also died of tuberculosis, making her the only remaining child. She lived in a Japanese-style house with wooden floors, paper-sticker decorated doors, and tatami, mats of woven reeds. A silkworm factory was right in front of the house. Around the factory were mulberry orchards, where children would swarm in and out, using the trees as a maze or for hiding spots. The factory produced silk through a process fatal to the silkworms.
A silkworm with a white body contentedly chews on a mulberry leaf. As time passes, the silkworm grows wider and more translucent. It begins to cocoon itself in a silvery white thread, one continuous strand slowly coiling around itself until it is sealed off from the outside world. Now, if it had been born in the wild, it would soon become a moth and fly away to freedom. It wasn’t born free, however. Before it can fully develop into a moth, humans come and pluck it from its home. The silkworms are thrown into a huge pot of boiling water. The water loosens the thread so the string’s end can be found. The silk is coiled onto a spindle, round and round, until the strand is completely wrapped. The dead silkworms are put out under the hot, baking sun, to dry for future use as a traditional Chinese medicine.
In Shin-Gon’s day, many families were poor and didn’t get much to eat, so when the silkworms were put out to dry, children crept up, slowly, slowly, until they suddenly dashed forward, grabbed a handful, and ran off. The adults would chase them, but not for long, and the children, including Shin-Gon, would eat the silkworms as a snack, for protein. When it rained, portabella mushrooms would pop up everywhere, huge mushrooms that Shin-Gon would hunt for. There were streams, clear and transparent, with fish and shrimp darting around. Shin-Gon would bring netting, or just use her hands, to catch the fish and shrimp. The creatures were small, so she always let them go afterwards.
A grocery store was situated in front of Shin-Gon’s house, across the road. The store sold typical groceries, including candy and pickles, and also fairy grass tea, freshly brewed in a small tub. Fairy grass tea was made from the dried stem and leaves of fairy grass, a type of wild grass that grew on mountains. Shin-Gon did not have a regular job, but she sometimes looked after the grocery store if the owner was out, organizing stock and working as a cashier. In return, she was rewarded with a big bowl of fairy grass jelly, sweetened with honey.
Behind the store was a row of connected houses with doors from one house into another. Children would go to other houses to play, rarely returning home unless it was time for a meal. Shin-Gon played all day unless there was school, and she had no homework at all. After school, in order to get home, she would walk straight across a dam on moss in slippery water. Sometimes she would slip and get soaked. Shin-Gon lived in a very rural countryside. She had no shoes. In summer the cement road would grow hot, so Shin-Gon would glue slabs of cement or rock onto the balls of her feet and walk on tip-toes, so her feet wouldn’t get burned. There were no man-made toys, so Shin-Gon and her friends played with leaves. The leaves were long and slim, thick and hard. She would pull open the middle, just to make a crack, and stick it on her eyelids horizontally, pretending to be a cartoon character.
Shin-Gon understood words even when she was very young, two to four years old. Her grandmother was illiterate, but she would cut out the words in newspapers, glue them onto cardboard and give them to Shin-Gon. When Shin-Gon didn’t know a word, she asked others, and she always remembered what she had learned. Shin-Gon’s favorite game was asking others to test her on finding words. Another favorite was playing with cards. She played solitaire and memory games, winning frequently because of her good memory.
Shin-Gon’s intelligence helped her do well in school. In elementary school, first through sixth grade, boys and girls were together. The school was big, with fifty people per class and eight classes in every grade. Junior high school, seventh through ninth grade, had the same number of people per class but with ten classes per grade instead of eight. Shin-Gon’s favorite classes were math and Chinese, because those were the only tested subjects in elementary and middle school. On the main test, one hundred points each for math and Chinese, Shin-Gon got 190/200, meaning she only lost ten points total, an extremely high score. When Shin-Gon was in first grade, no one in her family, including herself, knew the report cards had rankings, in which she was first. No one knew until her father met with his colleague, who had had a son in second place in the same class as Shin-Gon.
Shin-Gon’s school uniform was a white shirt with a round collar and a knee-length blue skirt. The skirt had many pleated folds, thirty to forty of them. Every night, Shin-Gon had to fold the skirt neatly and put it under her bed, which was more of a mattress, so the creases wouldn’t disappear. When she wasn’t at school, Shin-Gon wore adult clothing that was already altered four of five times, because they were poor and didn’t have money to buy new material, except during Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year was Shin-Gon’s favorite holiday and also the most celebrated holiday in her neighborhood. At this time she would usually get a new shirt, new pants, a pair of socks, and sometimes shoes. Other gifts were also distributed, including lucky money. During the holiday, Shin-Gon had to re-glue and change the paper stickers on the Japanese doors. She also had to do her usual daily chores: sweep floors, wash dishes, and wipe tables. Her family raised chickens that were sold and never eaten by her family, but Shin-Gon did eat plenty of eggs. Chinese New Year was the only time she got to eat chicken, and Shin-Gon was the one to kill them. Chickens follow you if you have grain, so they were easy to grab. Once one was securely grasped, the wings were tied, along with its legs and feet. Shin-Gon would sit on a short stool, positioning the chicken sideways. One foot pressed down on its feet, one foot on its wings, so the chicken was pinned down. The feathers on the chicken’s neck would be plucked, to prepare for the knife to cut. Shin-Gon’s family had only one knife, a huge one that could be used for chopping. Once the neck was sliced, she could not loosen her hold on the chicken, for it would still wriggle around. A bowl containing a small amount of water would be placed below the chicken to catch its blood. Once it had weakened and stopped struggling, the chicken would be lifted so it bled out. The bowl would be set aside, allowing the blood to clot, to cook later. The chicken would be submerged in hot water so the wet feathers would loosen to be taken off. Now Shin-Gon would bring it to her grandmother to cook.
When it wasn’t Chinese New Year, Shin-Gon ate much plainer food. She had no favorite meals in particular, but a very delicious one was white rice drizzled with soy sauce and lard. She had no snacks unless she bought or stole them herself.
There were no televisions or movie theaters when Shin-Gon was a child. She and her friends would go to outdoor movies on fields with projectors and screens. These were adult movies, mostly romantic ones, not for children like them, but they still went. Shin-Gon did not listen to music regularly, even though she had a radio. It was only used when her father was home, for listening to pop music. To pass time, Shin-Gon read books, lots and lots of them. She didn’t like comics or anything of the sort. Instead she read translated novels, such as the Chinese version of Pride and Prejudice. Shin-Gon would walk to the library, get a stack of books, go back home, finish all of them, then go back to the library to repeat the process. She spent many summers that way.
When Shin-Gon was ten years old, she moved from Miaoli to Wudu, Keelung. She didn’t want to transfer to Dongyuan Elementary School for sixth grade. This was the first time she felt like an adult, because she had to wake up really early, at four or five o’clock in the morning, in order to take a train to school. Shin-Gon rode by herself on the train for one hour or so until it was her stop. Her teacher would be waiting at the train station for her and would drive Shin-Gon to school. At the end of the school day, the same teacher dropped her off at the train station so Shin-Gon could go home. This happened every day for one whole year until she graduated from elementary school.
My grandma thinks there is a major difference between now, the age of artificial things, and back then. Nowadays, products are not creative, even though we have so many supplies and materials. Before, there were lots of toys, but they were natural and extremely creative. My grandma thinks nature is full of interesting things – mushrooms, fairy grass, silkworms, chicken, fish – natural creatures in natural habitats. Now very few people have chickens for pets, and there aren’t many clear streams to fish in. When Shin-Gon was small she had no shoes, so she would run everywhere barefoot, letting nature fill her with imagination. To think she ate chicken only once a year! My grandma says that modern children know chicken nuggets, but not the chicken that died to become the nuggets.