Excerpt from 'Going Home' by Lōa Hô (1932)

Lōa Hô (1894-1943)

Lōa Hô (1894-1943)

If a product is not up to standard in the factory you still have the chance to fix it, but if it makes it all the way to the market and customers don’t like it, it’s useless and will get thrown away. That’s how I felt when I arrived home after graduating from university, like a reject. It was an unpleasant homecoming.

Several days after I got home I lost the courage to go out, because every time I did I met relatives or friends who would say, ‘Congratulations, you graduated!’ Which I found terrifying, because it would remind me that I had left the factory and was en route to the market. In the first few days, of course, I was happy to be reunited with my family after a long absence. I didn’t yet feel lonely. But soon I was used to being home again and realized all the adults in the family were busy, and that most of my younger brothers and sisters were still in school. Playing with the youngest, who were not yet old enough for school, made me happy, but it was embarrassing when I tried to discipline them, because they would always start crying. I really didn’t know how to comfort them. Even playing with them, I often made them cry, which opened me to complaints from the one who was actually responsible for taking care of the kids. So I just sat around at home and felt bored and useless.

Over a decade of student life had distanced me from my family. And when I went out I was like a guest everywhere I went. People were so polite it made me uncomfortable. To them, I was like a new product on the market people don’t trust. My fear of rejection only intensified.

Ever since I left home, I had always come back for the summer vacation a few months every year. Why did it feel so different now that I had graduated? Ah! Now I knew why. Kids all came back for summer holidays and would form their own circle with their own games and entertainments. No wonder I now felt alienated from regular society. This year there were five graduates including me. But they were no longer free from responsibility like during our student years. I couldn’t get together and hang out with them. It was the first step we had taken into society, only to discover that the proclivities of ordinary people were so totally different from ours. There was a yawning chasm between regular society and us, or at least me. The more afraid I was to go out the more bored and useless I felt.

When the boredom couldn’t be dispelled I thought of my childhood playmates who hadn’t gone to college, or even completed their schooling. My friends! The ones who tossed tops with me, or flew kites, captured crickets, picked up snails – where were they now? I heard some of them were dead. Dead? How could death come for someone so young? Death shouldn’t make me feel sad, I told myself, for no one can avoid it. Most were alive, of course. One had won a prize in public school to my envy but was now working as a porter and pedlar. The first time I saw him in the street I feared he’d be ashamed, because to me it seemed he had no spirit of self-improvement; if he did he wouldn’t go and do such low-class work. I tried to avoid him, but then he saw me, too. He greeted me very warmly, without any shame. This surprised me, and made me ashamed, as if I was small-hearted.

Another playmate got who knows what lucky break and struck it rich. It wasn’t all luck, though; he was really keen on self-improvement and was now a gentleman. He hadn’t been

a good student and had been underestimated by his teachers and peers alike. His effort in acquiring social status deserved respect. But when I met him in the street and called out to him, hoping to catch up a bit, he was cold, like he couldn’t be bothered to waste his precious time on me. Or like he was worried that a conversation with me would sully his dignity. Obviously, he cut the conversation short. His misunderstanding of my intentions made me laugh at myself, as if I’d been fawning over him.

Aside from the two I saw on the street, there were a few I still remembered but did not meet: like A-pho the champion swimmer, funny-looking A-iōng who could make such good paper kites, and goofy-looking A-tai who still called his dad ‘Daddy’ in his teenage years. They came to life again in my memory.

Every time I came home on summer holidays, the time would fly. Worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself to the fullest, I’d spend my time in idle entertainments. Now, I was much more inclined to wander around and observe the world, which seemed different from when I was younger. I didn’t

hear the little gongs that announced the arrival of the dessert tofu pedlar so often anymore. Some other pedlars had disappeared, like the guy who set out his stand to sell silky smooth black ‘sandwiches’ with the white filling, the old fellow whose ancestors had come from Tiô-tsiu in China who sold salty, sour, sweet – various kinds of fruit preserves – and liked to joke around with us kids, and sugar cane Pêng, who set up in front of the temple. I remembered, too, the sound of the bah-chàng hawker Mr Chhiu, who could be heard from miles away in the night. I guessed these people had all died.

Translated by Darryl Sterk

Anthony Bird