When affection was rationed as well as rice and soap

Zhang Ling, author of Where Waters Meet, on trauma’s trickle-down effect

I grew up in southern China during a period when almost everything was rationed: rice, meat, wine, cooking oil, sugar, fabric, even laundry soap. In fact, when I left the country in 1986, rice rationing was still in place. We were so used to the idea of rationing that it had become not only a way of life but also a mode of thinking.

We learned, very early on, to exercise self-restraint and conservation, doling out what little we had, including feelings and emotions, in a very sparing way. My parents, for example, had seldom, if ever, hugged my brother or me, or each other, for that matter, and kissing was a scene we only saw in rare foreign movies, usually the ones made in Albania, Yugoslavia or Romania, the friendly nations at the time. Public expression of love was strictly reserved for one person only, that is, our great leader.

Food scarcity was a dominant thread in my childhood memories. A supper with a meat dish happened only a few times in the year, on such occasions as new year, a wedding, or a special birthday. In a desperate effort to maintain the minimal protein intake for her children, my mother raised chickens in our barren backyard. She would diligently pencil-mark the date on the shells of the eggs to keep track of their freshness. One morning, I found her sprawling on the dirt floor, wailing like a mad woman over a leghorn that had been poached from the coop overnight by a skilled thief.

Our neighbours had their own creative ways of compensating for the meat rationing. I remember to this day the vivid and colourful curses hurled between two households when one of them built a pigsty right underneath the window of the other, the odours seeping through every pore in the walls. Yuan Feng’s (Phoenix’s) incessant cravings for food in Where Waters Meet are simply a reflection of what I witnessed as a young girl.

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The year I was born was marked by an event that would affect many lives in China – the Anti-Rightist Movement, a nationwide cleansing effort targeting, in general, naive and outspoken intellectuals. I was too young to remember the details of the actual campaign as it unfolded. Yet a few years later, when I reached school age, I began to enjoy, without realising it, a benefit – if such a tragic event could ever be said to have a benefit. Among those branded Rightists were outstanding scholars and professionals, the cream of the crop, so to speak.

Throughout my childhood and youth, I was surrounded by strong women. My maternal grandmother gave birth to 11 children

Some of them were sent as punishment to teach in primary schools in remote areas and small towns. My brother, five years my senior, had a Chinese teacher who was a nationally acclaimed writer, and I myself had a music teacher who was a graduate of the best music programme in the country. Young as I was, I couldn’t help noticing the sparks in their eyes when they started talking about the subjects they loved and excelled in, in contrast to the generally subdued manner in which they carried on their daily lives. To my innocent and impressionable mind, they were creatures from a different planet, ready to whisk us off to a magical land. Meng Long, the mesmerising, half-human, half-God English teacher in Where Waters Meet, is borne of my fragmented memories of youth, and I can no longer say which part of him is real and which part imaginary.

Throughout my childhood and youth, I was surrounded by strong women. My maternal grandmother gave birth to 11 children (in addition to a few miscarriages) through wars and incessant social turmoil. The fact that 10 survived to adulthood was nothing short of a miracle, as the infant mortality rate was very high in those days. With unbelievable courage, tenacity and a great deal of common sense, my grandma kept this huge family afloat amidst all sorts of social unrest and economic hardship. My mother and her siblings (boys and girls alike) all received a good education for that time. Ever since I was a toddler, I’ve heard the remarkable survival stories of the women in my mother’s family. The characters Rain in Where Waters Meet and Swallow in A Single Swallow have their roots deep in my heart. They just needed to wait for the right moment to sprout their first leaf on paper.

I remember a Korean War veteran, an ex-POW, who shrieked with terror when I, with my Asian face and white coat, entered the testing booth

After I moved to Canada, I completed two academic degrees and worked for 17 years as a clinical audiologist. Among my hearing-impaired patients were veterans of wars and refugees from war-torn and disaster-stricken areas around the world. War, trauma and their lingering effects on the human psyche are not things of the past. They are instead present, up close and personal – that’s what my long clinical experience has taught me.

I remember a Korean War veteran, an ex-POW, who shrieked with terror when I, with my Asian face and white coat, entered the testing booth. There was also a second World War veteran who broke into tears as he heard, with his first pair of hearing aids, the canary singing in the office. “The most beautiful sound I’ve heard since Normandy,” he told me.

I was once shocked by an ex-Russian scientist, an otherwise gentle soul, who erupted, seemingly unprovoked, during a casual conversation about housing prices in Pickering, a suburban town east of Toronto. Understanding came to me later when I learned that he was a Chernobyl survivor, and that he couldn’t bear the faintest prospect of living close to the nuclear power plant for which Pickering is known.

War and trauma are relatively easy to define, whereas their lingering effects, the spillover, as I call them in Where Waters Meet, are more elusive, less clear-cut, and often conveniently overlooked. The trajectory of Rain’s life, and the complex mother-daughter relationship, are just an example of such spillovers. Oblivion is the deadliest foe of humanity. Those words echoed over and over in my mind when I wrote this book.

Where Waters Meet by Zhang Ling is out now and published by Amazon Crossing