After that long series on the Korean martyrs, I’m going to do a few short series to get back on schedule. First up is a collection of stories from the 1980s focusing on light, mundane topics such as school children, The Dim Sum Anthology, by Nong A (阿濃的“點心集 ”). Reading a little more of the background to this collection of short essays, I’m not sure the title of the anthology is actually referring to desserts, but it’s the best I can do. Nong A wrote for a time on the education page of the Hua Qiao Ri Bao, 華僑日報, a newspaper dedicated to high school and college news. When a new editor came to the helm of the paper, Nong A was then asked to write short, education-focused essays. These essays were later published in at least three anthologies since they were so popular, the first of which was compiled and published in 1980. Selling over 200,000 copies, these anthologies are often read by middle school children in Hong Kong.
This particular anthology I am reading was published in 2012 and runs 262 pages with a very cute cartoon cover sketches and some sweet paintings on a few of the interior pages. A copy can be purchased here:
The anthology is split into 8 sections of single page essays running about 5 to ten paragraphs in length, and each section is color coded on semi-glossy paper with beautiful calligraphy and lightly printed hearts and cartoons softly framing the text on each page. It’s a very high quality publication; the section title pages and table of contents are very beautifully colored and arranged, so the book is clearly meaningful to the reading public for such effort to be put into the design.
This time I’ll cover the first four sections: school writings, student-teacher writings, mother & father writings, and son & daughter writings. Part 1, “School Writings,” has 18 essays and opens with the essay “At the Window.” This essay is about a student who is sitting by the classroom window, not listening to the teacher’s lecture. The unnamed student is lost in his daydreams and is distracted by things outside of the window, such as bugs and firetrucks. The teacher tries calling on him, but the entire class’ attention is now drawn out the window too!
In the essay “Morning,” Nong A describes a rainy morning where the elementary school age children come in and are afraid that traffic will delay them arriving back at home on time after school. The school decides to let them out early due to the weather and the crowded transportation system.
In “Eradication,” the author describes a time when they were a young child during a dangerous epidemic of cowpox and maybe smallpox too. Two students suffering from these illnesses were in class, and everyone curiously examined their symptoms, though Nong A tried not to be so insensitive and embarrass the ill students. Later when becoming a teacher and relating this epidemic, Nong A was also wary of the possibility that someone in the class might be ill with these diseases and didn’t want to cause them lose their dignity through careless discussion. However after decades of teaching higher level classes, she never encountered more students with these diseases. She reads in the newspaper that smallpox took ten billion lives, but now it has been eradicated around the globe.
The essay “The Staircase” shows teachers gathering up their stuff and going out to the staircase after the class period ends, describing how the staircase connects the playground to five other stories; most of the essay describes how the age of the teachers makes taking the stairs more challenging for them and that they have to pause often on the way to the top floor because they are easily out of breath.
The last essay I’m going to review out of this section is “The Beard.” It describes a holiday TV item on the school switching to a new educational method that has created a lively situation there. The headmaster, teachers and students all appeared on the spot, and the big news is that the headmaster has grown a beard. The essay gets into how stylish his beard is and how only some of the teachers and students who had beards wore them in such a fashionable way. The students tell Nong A that they really liked the atmosphere of the school because of this new freedom.
Part 2, “Student-Teacher Writings,” has 32 essays, and the first we’ll look at titled “On Stage” kicks off this section. This essay is about student participation in the school choir, the harmonious impression the students give that can’t easily be attributed to things like the music or teaching alone, and the happiness of parents and teachers after watching the students perform.
In the essay “The Gift,” the day before Christmas, the students decide they don’t need to bring their bookbags because there will be a carnival at school. On the day of the carnival, every student looks in their gift envelopes, which are given to them to motivate them to work hard. However, the teacher doesn’t give envelopes to class troublemakers.
Another interesting essay, “Tears and Mathematics,” starts off describing what time Nong A rises and goes for the train to make the first class and what time Nong A goes to bed in order to get a full seven hours of sleep at night. However, Nong A’s oldest son regularly has a substantial amount of math homework that delays Nong A’s bedtime, which gets them both upset since Nong A isn’t in a great mood that late at night and can’t seem to get the oldest son to comprehend any explanations Nong A might give. The son can’t make it through about 20 of the 100 questions assigned as homework and needs Nong A’s help to complete. Nong A ends up shouting at and scolding the son, which makes him burst into tears.
The last essay I want to look at in this section, “Enemy,” mentions how on the first day of class, Nong A unknowingly makes enemies of some of the students. These kids don’t listen to the lesson and disrupt the class so others can’t either. The teacher wants to punish them, and the kids always seem on the verge of a fistfight, though one never starts. On the day of an examination, Nong A comes to appreciate these students better.
The book’s next part, “Mother & Father Writings,” has 17 essays. The essay “Loss” is about parents enduring the birth of their daughter and seeing it as a sort of liberation. Each of the child’s milestones, like starting to walk or crossing the street, is also seen as liberation. However, when their daughter is old enough to be independent and work a job, the parents feel a sense of loss. More fierce emotions are stirred as the father gives away his daughter in marriage.
“Rough Hands” talks about a small conflict between a friend’s wife and young daughter that pops up when they go with a neighbor’s wife to shop at the market. When the little girl is very interested in their trip, the neighbor takes her by the hand. After they return home, the little girl comments how much she liked the neighbor’s hand since it was soft, unlike her mother’s rough hands, which she doesn’t like. The mother tries to explain how her hands became rough after years of work, but she ends up thinking back to her own childhood about the time when her grandmother tried to warm her during cold weather with her rough hands.
The last essay in this section that I want to look at is “Manners.” This essay notes that everyone scolds children who lack manners, yet there seems to be an observable difference between what is considered bad manners in children when compared with adult behavior. The example it gives is the use of the phone word for “hello,” wei (喂). Children say it to each other, adults say it to other adult friends, adults say it to children, all with no problem. But when children say it to adults, it is considered impolite.
The last part I want to cover this time is part 4, “Son & Daughter Writings,” which has 15 essays. “Fathers” relates how as they enter school young children see their fathers as important personalities that they adore, especially young boys. Their father is their role model. As the school years progress, the father’s position starts to decline until he is despised and his opinions are considered “old.” Only when the children themselves have their own children does their opinion of their father take a turn for the better.
Nong A does talk some in a few essays here about classical and popular writings. In this section, the author references Dream of Red Mansions, and two of the essays in this section reference the holiday for Wang Sima and his work, the four-panel manga Niuzai which ran for a ten year period. I’m not going to delve into those essays, but here is a link showing some of Wang’s work on Niuzai:
Next time I’ll finish up this compilation. It really seems to be a nice, light selection of readings that would be good for intermediate level Chinese language students.
Part one of a two part series