Today was a wonderful day. We headed to the train station via taxi. My mother, as traditional Chinese mothers often do, boasts about my doctorate degree to strangers, acquaintances and friends alike. (This may seem sweet until you learn that she was unaware of what it was I was studying nearly until I graduated. I believe she only remembered at that time because she had to know exactly what it was she was bragging about. I’m not bitter). The taxi driver was not spared of this piece of information. Then of course, the questions came: “how old are you? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?” All of which my mother was happy to provide answers – some true, some not true. I just nodded and smiled so we can all save face. He is curious how a 31 year old female who has a doctorate degree in psychology (which has been received by tentative responses from most innocent bystanders of my mother’s prideful claims about me) is unmarried. They proceed to discuss the benefits of marrying later which I believe was in an effort to help me save face. Ah. Whatever. She tells him that things are different in America, that if you are willing to “tse ku” then anyone has a chance to earn a good living in the U.S. Tse ku. What she is saying to him is that if he is willing to work hard, then he can earn a living in the U.S. Tse ku literally means “eat poison.” I wonder when and how that became the expression for working hard. You must eat poison to work hard – working hard means suffering and pain.
I am not sure but I venture to guess that this ties into the Communist culture. My mother spoke to me briefly about Mao Tse Dong and what it was like to live in Communist China. She was born in Taiwan, like my father, so she has no lived experience of it. (Both sides of my family escaped the war by migrating to Taiwan). However, there is one person in my family who did not escape and was part of Mao’s re-education program. I am referring to one of my mother’s older sisters. In our family, we refer to her as “xin er yi ma” – the “new number two aunt.” She was an infant when my grandparents left Hunan province to migrate to Taiwan. At that time, my grandparents had two children. My “big aunt,” (which simply means the eldest daughter in the family) was able to walk on her own. My new number two aunt had to be carried. The lack of ability to mobilize herself was the sole reason she was left with her grandmother to live her life in Hunan province while my grandparents and my big aunt left to start a new one in Taiwan. I don’t know my aunt #2 but I have met her briefly once and noticed that she looked different than the rest of the family. She was shorter, darker skinned, and appeared weathered. Her features were sharper, more indigenous, than the rest of the 3 sisters. Going back to communism, my mother explained that Mao’s program took away freedom and motivation. People worked day in and day out and there was no merit, no reward, no recognition. My immediate reaction was depressive. It is no wonder why work is likened to eating poison. Living a life where you have to perform hard labor because it was expected of you without reward or motivation to do better feels to me like living death. Black and white images form in my mind of people working in the fields, returning home to drink or smoke, and knowing nothing more of what was beyond the great walls of communism. I get it now: tse ku.