Birds of Passage This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

October 21, 2017

after Maxine Hong Kingston


My father became a man the day he followed the orange-crested swallow into the mountain. He caught birds back then, like all the boys his age who were too young to farm or enlist in the Red Army. The call would echo through my father’s mist-shrouded village as the swallow tapered off into the mountain, its white underbelly and black wingtips shimmering in the sunlight. As my father scrambled up the mountainside in pursuit of the bird, the roots tore at his shoes and the rocks cut his face and fingers, but he kept climbing, eyes ever upward, a slingshot made from a wishbone swinging around his neck. The swallow would circle round and round the tallest peak, and my father followed it to such heights that the trees thinned and the stream that flowed through the village rice paddies became a waterfall. At that altitude, all other birds had disappeared. The clouds smothered the sky in a yellow canvas and the sun washed over the world as a warm, glowing yolk.


Even after weeks of climbing the mountain to follow the bird, even after my father had caught his breath and became accustomed to the yellow haze of the peaks, the only clarity was the swallow, its glistening blue-black tail feathers almost close enough to pluck. Climbing atop that cloudy mountain felt like being inside a dragon’s mouth of pure, sulfurous, yellowed breath, where my father would not know how many days or years had passed, as though he had followed the bird into some other realm where even time and his memories of his village could not reach him. Way up there, the mountainside became slippery from the thick mist and the winds threatened to carry him away, but my father held on, scaling higher and higher, though at a slower, steadier pace, until suddenly, without looking back – the bird just within reach – he would break clear into a white, cloudless, foreign world. When my father looked down, the wishbone swinging precariously around his neck, his village would have vanished under the mist.


---


“In China,” my father said, “I was the youngest of three. My two older brothers both joined the military; I was the only son to pursue an education. Because I left for America, your grandfather behaves as though I was never born.


“My village was located near the HuTouShan, a mountain shaped like a tiger’s head. By the time I was three years old, your grandfather had come home from fighting in the War of American Aggression, or what the Americans call the Korean War. He had been promoted to Officer during the war and then stayed on afterwards as a Minster of Affairs, for which he was awarded an apartment in a military courtyard. That courtyard was where I spent my childhood, at the base of the HuTouShan. In the summers, I played with the children of other military families, catching toads in nearby streams or stealing the paper off our parents’ cigarette packs to use as trading cards. I was lucky your grandfather had a prominent position in the military because many of my friends whose parents were not ministers did not even have enough to eat, so they spent afternoons picking up manure from oxen to sell as fertilizer, earning a few extra cents each month. As for myself, I spent countless hours up in the mountain catching and releasing swallows – but that was only when I got older, after both my brothers had left. 


“By the time I was eleven, many of the older children I played with had, like my brothers, left for the military. Of the remaining children, I was the oldest, and with your grandfather always away with the military, I stayed home to help my mother with chores. When the Cultural Revolution ended, I had just become old enough to be considered for the military, but its end meant the option of pursuing higher education also became available, so I spent the remainder of my youth studying for entrance exams, learning English from a tape recorder that garbled out harsh, flat tones. There was no longer any time for catching birds. After I left for college, my mother – your NaiNai – passed away from a lingering illness. It was just your grandfather then, alone in his courtyard with the village mostly empty.


“When I graduated from university, inflation was soaring and corruption plagued the government. This was back when the government still assigned everything – your occupation, your income, even the limits of where you could travel, which were restricted to your designated district. Nobody had enough money to buy the luxuries we have today – there was no market for anything besides the bare necessities of life, and it was common to see people wearing worn, oversized clothes that had been passed down over the course of three generations. In my four years at university, I only bought one pair of pants. Turmoil was on everybody’s minds, but for the students especially, all we could think about was revolution. We knew no other form of protesting, taught by Communist propaganda that only a total revolution could incite change, so we took up the government’s rhetoric against itself.


“I remember participating in a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. I was twenty-seven at the time, studying at a nearby graduate school and rooming with eight other students. Pamphlets and trash were strewn across the Square as students staged sit-ins from April until June. Colorful banners decrying “ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY” rippled under an overcast sky. Students huddled beneath blankets – many had built makeshift tents out of coats and sticks, and as chants of “ABSOLUTE POWER BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE!” echoed in the distance, I knew I could not stay in China for long. I wanted better opportunities for myself, but most importantly, for you.


“But I could not leave, you see, because my father believed it would be dishonorable – dishonorable to the military that had provided our family with a living, and dishonorable to my father, who had spent his whole life hating the American devils he had fought in Korea. I did not ask for his approval, and we did not discuss my plans. Even before the massacre occurred, I had already decided to leave.


“The night of the massacre, I did not leave my dormitory. Most of the victims were undergraduates, only a few years older than you are now. The next morning, I saw students cycling back with bodies stuffed into bike baskets, those limbs jumping over one another as the tires wobbled over empty rifle casings. The lobby of a nearby law school was being used to preserve a row of bodies so families could come to claim their dead. I saw wooden tables covered in thick slabs of ice, the corpses laid out on tattered blankets. All morning, people kept bringing the dead in straw carts, draped in linen like crumpled paper cranes.


“On my way home that morning, I remember passing newspaper display cases still standing amidst the rubble of shattered glass. A line of bullet holes ran in a straight line across one of the displays—right at chest level. I thought they must have been shooting to kill, despite the fact that the official propaganda told us the military had only shot to disperse the protesters. Soot and blackened shrapnel lay at the bottom of the glass displays, beneath the newspaper headlines reading “SOLDIERS SENT TO TIANANMEN SQUARE TO SCATTER RIOTERS.”


“When I finally told your grandfather about my decision to go to America – the land of opportunity, higher wages, better education, peace – he disapproved. I had just won a scholarship to attend a graduate program in North Dakota, but I remember your grandfather flushed crimson with anger and shame because he thought I was abandoning my family, my country. When I left for America the next morning, the streets still smelled of smoke, and he disowned me.”


---


It was shortly after my father replaced all the windows in our house that ErBai – my father’s second brother – decided to visit our family in Michigan, leaving China for the first time in his life. He looked young despite being ten years older than my father, who had already begun to wear with age – my father had already lost a kidney by then, and he was nearly blind from spending hours in front of the computer as a software engineer. ErBai had decided to stay at our house for the weekend on his way to tour California, and since my father had not seen his brother in nearly two decades, he immediately made reservations at the local Dim Sum restaurant. He reminded me not to bring up anything about my grandfather – address your uncle by saying ShuShuHao, and no rude questions.


My father picked the restaurant mainly for its decor: its ceiling was opulent in faux-Imperial gold replete with light-up blue cranes encircling red lanterns. When they finally greeted each other, they laughed at how much the other had changed – my father rounder and grayer, my uncle taller and more joyful. They were the same as they had always been in China, greeting each other with smiles that showed all of their teeth.


“How authentic is the food in America?” my uncle asked. “Surely Chinese food cannot be bested outside of China.”


My father assured him the restaurant was top-notch and waved over a waitress two tables away. “You can see how the servers are all Chinese. The food is cheaper back home, of course, but there is no rude service here or long wait times like in China. Even the bathrooms are cleaner! They have someone cleaning it every hour, every day!”


“I guess we will have to see,” my uncle laughed, tipping back in his chair. My father ordered two of everything from each cart that came by, the steaming pineapple buns and chicken’s feet glistening beneath the restaurant’s golden lights.


“How have you been doing for yourself?” my uncle asked as my father poured him another cup of tea.


“Very well. I have a very comfortable life here. I’ve even found a way to receive Chinese cable television, so I can watch the same news and soap operas as everyone back home.”


My uncle nodded and, apparently impressed, picked up a sliver of Peking Duck and dipped it in hoisin sauce. He offered a piece to my father, who refused because he could not eat oily foods with only one kidney remaining.


“But Peking Duck is your favorite dish!” my uncle exclaimed, who dropped the piece onto his own plate before plucking another piece of duck to put on mine.


“And I see my nephew doesn’t know how to use chopsticks! A consequence of raising a child in America, no?” my uncle stared at me as I clumsily lifted a dumpling to my mouth before dropping it, splattering soy sauce across the table. I blushed and stabbed the dumpling, then shoveled it into my mouth.


“No, I just haven’t used them in a while,” I answered in broken Chinese.


“He eats with a fork at home,” my father cut in. “But he knows how to use chopsticks.”


My uncle raised an eyebrow. “And his Chinese is so hesitant and uncertain! He articulates as if he has rocks in his mouth. Do you use Chinese with him at home? Father would be furious if he knew his descendants could no longer speak the native tongue!”


“We do speak it at home,” my father interrupted. He spoke quickly, as if he had to say everything at once. “It’s a small price to pay if he has a better education and a better life here; he has everything we did not have in China.”


“I see,” my uncle said, waving away my father’s interjections. But my uncle’s words still lingered in the air.


As we ate, my uncle asked if my father still practiced calligraphy. My father replied that he never got back into it after he left China, and I heard something buried within the lowered tones of his voice. My uncle had taught my father the art before leaving for the military at age sixteen. I imagined my father with stacks of ink inscriptions crumpled at the bottom of his drawer, hidden from his father, because a boy like him must only desire the glory of serving his country, of serving his surname. Perhaps by night, my father huddled in the darkness of the cramped room he shared with my uncle and practiced brushstrokes by candlelight. But he always ended up drawing birds, their red plumage heavy on thin, black branches, their shadows dancing in the dim flicker of the candle, my father humming softly to himself as he painted. His birds always flew towards the horizon, into the openness of a paper sky. Outstretched wings tapering off into the faint grey of washed ink, then into nothingness.


“Do you still raise birds?” my uncle asked. “Do you remember that man who used to visit our village with his six nightingales in that cage covered by a black veil? The birds sang the most beautiful songs because the man only let them see the light of day when he wanted them to sing for money. The moment you heard them sing, you wanted to buy them all with what little pocket change you had; you wanted to set them free.”


My father shook his head. “I’ve wanted a songbird ever since I moved here, because you could not catch songbirds back home on the mountain. They were too quick and smart. But I guess I never got around to it here. They remind me too much of home.”
Perhaps it had been my uncle who had introduced my father to catching birds, taking him on hikes up Tiger Head Mountain the summer before my uncle’s enlistment. My father would have helped his brother boil rubber to make the glue that would clump the feathers into scales. Then the two of them would dip pebbles in the glue before launching them with their slingshots, sticking the birds’ wings so they couldn’t fly away. When my uncle shot one and it fell through the trees, my father would have scooped it into his palm, stroked its soft head, and carried it home, where they bathed the swallow in warm water, massaging the glue from its wings. They raised nine swallows that way. 


Unable to stop my curiosity, I turned towards my uncle and spoke in rushed, garbled Mandarin. “What was my father like when he was little?”


“Your father was very mischievous,” my uncle laughed. “He would steal the other children’s book bags and throw rocks at the fish in the stream. And he was so lazy! His clothes were always on the floor, his bed sheets never folded. I always thought if he had joined the military, he would not have been so spoiled and irresponsible. He would have experienced real hardship. He would have had to eat a little bitterness.”


“What would you have done in my position?” my father frowned. “I was given the opportunity to go to university – it’s not my fault I was born later.”


My uncle sighed. “But you have matured now. I wish I could have seen you become the man you are now.”


They both grew silent as a waitress came over to refill the teapot that sat between them.


My uncle must have been the closest to my father; he was the only person my father told about his decision to leave for America, about his secret graduate school plans and the flimsy piece of mail he received one February morning informing him of his admission to the Computer Science department at the University of North Dakota. When they talked about the mess that was China, where futures were constrained with a military neatness, they did so in whispers. “You’re lucky you even get a choice,” my uncle would say, a few days before my father’s twenty-seventh birthday. Maybe my uncle was the one to convince my father to leave, to use the opportunity given to him to pursue a life beyond the farmland or the army. When my father left for America, my uncle must have burnt my father’s paintings – he knew my father wasn’t coming back. The papers would have curled in on themselves, corners first, as the delicate ink cracked then popped, the strokes melting onto themselves, the birds folding in before disappearing in a heap of ash.
After we finished our meal, my uncle wanted to see our house so he could assess the main indicator of how my father was faring in a land so far beyond their father’s influence. Since my father had recently changed all the windowpanes and frames – they were now luxurious spruce and cherrywood bordering insulated Plexiglass – the glass was so new that each window still had the sales sticker in the top left corner.


For twenty-five years the windows had been made from decaying oak, and the glass was permanently dirtied and fogged from sudden rains or quick changes of temperature, but my father had realized as he passed into his fifties that he had the freedom to choose luxury. Now he could finally gaze out the living room and see every detail of the lawn and trees, every blade of grass glinting in the sunlight as the branches waved lazily in the wind. Only in America, my father said. He had spent weeks comparing the prices of dozens of window companies, eventually settling on a company that employed mostly Hispanic workers. “Mexicans,” my father informed me, “are model workers. They are cheap and focused, almost as if they were born to do the job.” He sent me to “watch over” their behavior, to make sure they didn’t “scavenge through our drawers.” My uncle did not notice the windows when he toured the house. Instead, as we came in from the backyard, my uncle examined the tomatoes growing on the patch of lawn between our driveway and that of the house next door. Our neighbor, walking back from getting the mail, mistook him for my father.


“Mr. Liu, doing some gardening?”


My uncle looked at our portly neighbor with confusion. My father walked over and greeted him, exchanging pleasantries, but I could see a hint of annoyance on his face. His arms were crossed and he leaned back on his right leg, as if he did not want to get too close.


“This is my brother. He is visiting from China. He is much older than me, but his health is so good that perhaps he looks like a man my age!” my father laughed, but his lips were strained and his teeth hidden. “He cannot speak English, so I suppose that is a way to tell us apart.”


“If you two are brothers, then I wasn’t wrong to say ‘Mr. Liu’!” the neighbor chortled, nudging my father’s shoulder as my father stiffened. Before my father could reply, the neighbor exclaimed that he had to get back inside – he had a pot roast in the oven. As he turned back and walked up his driveway, his white poodle ran out of the garage and howled at my father, who promptly backed up onto his own driveway, beyond the limits of the dog’s electric collar. The neighbor lazily beckoned for the dog to return to the house and then disappeared into his garage. My father hesitated for a moment before explaining to his brother that my neighbor had simply stopped by to say hello.


As we walked toward the front door, I watched our reflections in the living room’s bay windows. Our silhouettes were especially well defined in the harsh afternoon light. Each of our reflections occupied a different windowpane, and as I approached the window closest to me, I noticed that fog was collecting at the corners again, but my father had yet to see.


---


The swallow, its plumage now blinding white – an unfocused blot on my father’s vision as the bird flew closer and closer to the sun – would finally come to rest on the outermost branch of a gnarled pine. He had followed the swallow to the mountain’s highest peak, and at that height, my father felt as though he could stand on the very clouds that had smothered him only moments before. But before he could clamber up the pine, the bird vanished. From the top of the tree came two shadows, their arms long and indistinguishable from the silhouetted branches. Their faces were familiar but my father could not remember where he could have seen them before, and they wore monkey-faced masks with cheeks covered in white lacquer and the eyeholes rimmed in orange. Both figures were richly dressed in traditionally embroidered tunics. Their masks were so clear, almost sparkling in the sunlight, that they appeared to be disembodied faces.


“It has been so long,” they greeted my father. Their voices were faint from behind the masks, almost as though my father recalled them from a long-lost dream.


“I’m sorry,” my father said politely, blinking his eyes to adjust to the light. “Have we met?” He thought he saw a familiar glint of an eye beneath one of the masks, but it was hard to tell. Everything – the masks, the sky, the sun – was so bright.


“Don’t you recognize your own brothers?” they laughed. “We were just about to sit down for a meal. Why don’t you eat with us and catch up? It’s been years.”






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