Pai Hsien-yung was born into a prominent mainland family in 1937, the son of the famous warlord-general Pai Ch’ung-hsi. He spent his childhood in Kweilin and later in Shanghai. He received his high school and college education in Taiwan, graduating in Western Literature from National Taiwan University in 1961. He received an M.F.A. from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, after which he taught Chinese at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In i960 Pai founded the literary journal Modern Literature (Hsien-tai wen-hsüeh) with the help of his contemporaries and, with minor interruptions, has been its publisher ever since.
Pai Hsien-yung has been recognized by critics as the most talented Chinese writer of his genration. His promise as a writer was established while he was still a college student. His first story, “Madam Chin” (Chin ta-nai-nai), was published in 1958, after he had completed only one year of college. Pai Hsien-yung exhibits extraordinarily keen insight in his portrayals of characters, especially of women, and their mutual relationships. His most moving stories are to be found in Taipei Residents (Taipei jen, 1971), a collection of stories about the demise of Chinese mainland exiles in Taiwan. Most of Ρai’s other stories are to be found in the collections A Celestrial in Mundane Exile (Che-hsien chi, 1967), Wandering in the Garden and Awakening from a Dream (Yu-yüan ching-meng, 1968), and The New Yorkers (Niu-yüeh k’e, 1974). Since 1974, a few stories have been published singly in newspapers and magazines, and the serialized novel Outcast Son (Nieh-tzu) appeared in Modern Literature (1977-78, nos. 1-5). A collection of his stories in translation, Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream: Tales of Taipei Characters, is forthcoming.
“A Day in Pleasantville” (An-le-hsiang te i-jih) was first published in 1964 and was included in the collection The New Yorkers.
ON THE OUTSKIRTS of New York City, there’s a suburb called Pleasantville, inhabited by six or seven thousand upper-middle-class commuters. These commuters bring home quite a bit of money from the City, so, accordingly, they’ve got one of the highest property taxes in the nation. In the mornings, early, about six o’clock, all kinds of beautiful big cars pull into the parking lot of their train station. Men, thirty to fifty years old, step out, wearing Brooks Brothers suits with shiny tiepins and cufflinks. In one hand they’re carrying a black briefcase, in the other, a local newspaper, rolled up. They see each other, they exchange a pleasantry or two, a few tidbits on the latest Harlem riot or who hosted the Democratic campaign cocktail party in Washington . . .
The train pulls up, they slide in the doors like a school of minno ws. Then off to the heart of the City, Manhattan; riding in their climate-controlled cars like a billion other businessmen.
Pleasantville’s like any big-city suburb, designed by an architect who must have learned his style from hospital operating rooms. The air is clean, the streets are clean, the houses and trees are clean. Not a pinch of dust. It looks almost as if the health department had come in and disinfected everything, killed every last little bit of bacteria.
On both sides of any street are lush green lawns, trees full of green leaves. An unusually beautiful and healthy green. Probably this is because of the way they soak the ground with chemicals. In fact, their leaves are so green and so shiny and so healthy looking, they sort of look like the plastic flowers and leaves that people sell in dimestores. And the lawns are neatly trimmed and each so exactly the same height as the next one, that you’d swear everybody had bought their lawns in the carpet department of Macy’s.
And of course, at one end of the town is the standard shopping center with its A&P (We Have Branches Throughout the Nation!), Woolworth’s, a barber shop with two barbers, and a small theater that only shows old flicks. So, while the breadwinners are all off in the City, the housewives of Pleasantville drive up in their latemodel, luxury cars to run an errand or two. Now, Pleasantville is a very small town, but still the housewives take care to dress well and don’t forget to make up before appearing in public. At the shopping center they push their baby-carriages, carry their bags full of detergent, milk, peas and Coca-cola, and chat in the parking lot about their sons’ summer camps, their daughters’ sweet-sixteen birthday parties, or last night’s TV shows. Then, after a few minutes of such pleasantries, they disappear again into their shiny Fords or Chevrolets.
In Pleasantville, on White Pigeon Hill, at the end of a cul-de-sac, live Yi-p’ing and Wei-ch’eng. Their street connects the small hill of the neighborhood with the highway that runs into New York City, and of course their street is quiet, wide and clean. The pavement is a light grey. A sort of odd light grey that, if you ever bothered to examine it, you might notice that it looks a lot like a dried-up river, full of stagnant grey water.
White Pigeon Hill has a special quiet to it. You can’t hear wind, you can’t hear people, only now and then, the sound of a car door shutting, like a pebble thrown into the dead river. An instant of noise and then the quiet comes back. Though, very far away, you can hear the sounds of cars on the New York highway speeding back into the City. They make a sharp noise, the tires on the pavement. But it’s a twenty-four-hours-a-day noise and always the same, so even if it’s sharp, it’s monotonous, and has long become a part of the quiet on White Pigeon Hill. Yi-p’ing hears it, now and then. To her it means that outside of White Pigeon Hill there really are people who run around and have things to do.
Now, it’s mid-winter, December. There’s no snow yet, but soon. The quiet is deeper than ever. It looks as if everybody has rolled up their green summertime carpets and brought them inside. What’s left of the lawn is dried yellow earth. Leaves are gone, elms in front of every house are just black skinny branches, and the slope becomes more spacious and desolate. The new-looking houses on both sides of the street all stand exposed: uniformly grey wooden structures. Roofs and sidings are of the same color, approximately of the same size. Registering the current trend, the houses are all split-level. The large windows, with white curtains trimmed at the borders, are closed all year round (climate control, of course). In fact, if you climbed to the top of the Hill and looked down, you’d see that there seems to be no one living in these houses. They look more like kids’ playhouses.
The playhouse that belongs to Wei-cheng and Yi-p’ing is on the right side, very close to the dead end. They could never be accused of being old-fashioned. In their living room they’ve got the most fashionable of arrangements: a sofa in the half-round, a kidney shaped table, some small tables and stools of irregular shapes, with a wonderfully refreshing color scheme, chiefly orange and white; long-necked lamps, looking like luxuriant tropical plants, weave in and out among the tables and chairs. The set-up is cute and colorful, but looks a little unreal, like something made with children’s blocks.
In the kitchen, all the most up-to-date built-in appliances are uniformly white: electric dishwasher, electric eggbeater, electric can opener, miscellaneous electric pans of all sizes. Against one white wall are the switches, all black and arranged row on row on row. Most of her day Yi-p’ing spends in this laboratory of a kitchen.
The morning is easy to while away. She prepares breakfast and gets Wei-Ch’eng off to the stockmarket, and then gets her daughter Pao-li off to school. She then goes shopping for this and that, washes vegetables and fruits; and then it’s noon. The first half of the afternoon slides easily too: letter writing on the dining room table to Wei-ch’eng’s friends and relatives; the month’s accounts, income and expenses; phone calls about the meeting dates of the PTA, or some church group, or other help-your-neighbor clubs. But every day around five o’clock, things start slowing down. It’s like the train’s coming into the station, and it’s on the track and moving and everything, but it’s going so slowly you can’t help but get mad and impatient. It seems as if it’s never going to get there.
So, between five and six every day, Yi-p’ing’s train is crawling. The housework’s all been done, the electrical gadgets are all switched off, dinner’s ready. What’s there to do? She’ll sit for a minute and smoke a menthol, stand up and take a taste of her oxtail soup; maybe move the bowls around on the table she’s already arranged, move them here—no, move them there—well . . . move them back. Walk to the picture window and watch the quiet grey white street, count the neighbors’ cars coming into White Pigeon Hill in the twilight. She’s waiting for Wei-ch’eng to get off work and pick up Pao-li from a neighbor’s home. It’s only when they come home that she can start the second half of her day.
It was when Pao-li was three that Wei-ch’eng began his run of luck, making a fortune in the stock market. When this happened, they moved from their New York apartment to a house in Pleasantville (bought, not rented). It was Wei-ch’eng’s belief that the small-town environment was simple and clean and appropriate for a child’s education.
They are the only Chinese in Pleasantville. Yi-p’ing doesn’t know how to drive, so most of the time she stays home, or stays within the neighborhood. Because of this, over the five years that they’ve lived here, she’s gradually lost contact with all her Chinese friends in the City. On weekends, Wei-ch’eng says it’s family time and refuses to go into the City. He says he needs to rest. In the summer he takes Pao-li to the amusement park near Pleasantville to go swimming or boating. In the winter, father and daughter put on snow-suits and go shovel snow or make snowmen. Yi-p’ing doesn’t like sports, doesn’t like the outdoors either. So whenever Wei-ch’eng and Pao-li go romping, she usually doesn’t join in. Sometimes she’ll go along, but just to stand off to the side and watch their jackets.
Wei-ch’eng tells her, try and get into the swing of the neighborhood social life. So she tries; she joins the bridge club. But her game’s no good. She tries joining a reading club, but what can you expect? She can’t read very fast in English, and she can’t keep up with the conversation.
On Sundays, the neighbor ladies used to ask Yi-p’ing to go to church with them. Yi-p’ing wasn’t religious, but Wei-ch’eng said to her, “You see how the housewives of White Pigeon Hill get all dressed up and go to church? You are the only one who doesn’t dress up and who stays at home. When people notice this and talk about it, it doesn’t sound very nice.”
So Yi-p’ing bought herself a white gauze hat, and on Sundays she puts it on and goes to church.
They’re the only Chinese in Pleasantville—Yi-p’ing and her family—so the American housewives of White Pigeon Hill are always falling all over each other trying to be nice to her. They’ll call her up on the phone and talk about this and that, speak in their must bubbly tone of voice, try to treat her like a special guest. They really do want to please her, so they pretend they’re fascinated with everything Chinese—what the Chinese wear and live in and do and eat. And then some of the ladies are afraid Yi-p’ing won’t know what’s going on in American life, so they take her under their wings and point out all the subtleties of American customs, as if they were the official foreign hostesses.
And all of it makes Yi-p’ing even more aware that she’s Chinese and different. So she moves with even more care, subconsciously playing the role of a stereotyped Chinese. At parties, she puts on her Chinese dress, hangs a slight smile on her mouth, and, in a gentle tone of voice, adds her part to the conversation, politely answering the same questions over and over.
After a while, when the ladies would come over and invite her somewhere, she’d give her grateful regrets. She didn’t like playing the Curious Chinaman; it exhausted her. And she was tired of coming home from parties and needing an aspirin to get to sleep.
In China, Yi-p’ing had studied home economics. She had wanted only one thing: to be a good wife and a good mother. But when she got to the United States and married Wei-ch’eng, she started to discover that the golden rules of conduct she had so carefully learned in China were pretty useless for White Pigeon Hill. Like the dictum that the wife should aid the husband: Yi-p’ing’s husband was so capable, she felt there was nothing at all she could do to help him. He was a wizard at the stockmarket; nine times out of ten he would win big, so he had plenty of clients and business was always running smoothly.
Yi-p’ing, on the other hand, didn’t know a thing about stocks and wasn’t even interested in learning, though, whenever Wei-ch’eng began showing off his expertise, she would sit there and pretend to listen with enthusiasm.
Wei-ch’eng was awfully Americanized, and this sometimes made Yi-p’ing uneasy. But whenever he saw her uneasiness, Wei-ch’eng would start into his lecture on the need to adjust. So even in her own territory, the housekeeping, Yi-p’ing had to listen to Weich’eng’s criticism. Was this right?
And Pao-li didn’t make things easier. She was a real daddy’s girl, and had been since she was a baby.
“Wei-ch’eng, don’t do that, you’ll spoil her,” she often had to shout, in a tense voice.
But Wei-ch’eng would just say, “Don’t worry, Pao-li’s a good kid,” and he’d smile and seem completely unworried.
Pao-li would seize the opportunity to scold her mother, saying “Mother’s bad,” in a perfect New York accent.
Up until Pao-li was six, Yi-p’ing insisted on her speaking Chinese; but after two years in school, the mother lost control. Pao-li rebelled, refused. Her friends all talked in English, even Wei-ch’eng when he was at home often spoke English with her. Yi-p’ing struggled and scolded and worried; but after a while Pao-li couldn’t even remember her parents’ names in Chinese.
Yi-p’ing was the product of a traditional upper class family in China; hers had been the strictest of educations. So she wanted to do the same for Pao-li, to train her to become a well-bred Chinese lady like herself. But things have not turned out that way at all. The year before, when Pao-li came home from summer camp, she stepped off the train wearing the jeans Wei-ch’eng had bought her and sucking a lollipop. She ran towards Yi-p’ing and called out in a loud voice “Rose!” which was Yi-p’ing’s American name. Yi-p’ing was stunned, and rebuked her on the spot. Pao-li said that in summer camp lots of kids called their parents by their first names. Yi-p’ing answered, “In a Chinese family, this never happens.”
But Pao-li was Daddy’s little girl and not Mother’s. This was a joke when Pao-li was a baby, but it had become less funny and more real as she grew up. There always seemed to be some sort of a secret pact between Pao-li and Wei-ch’eng. The two seemed always ready to give moral support to each other. They had the same interests, like sitting in the living room on the carpet every night after dinner, watching TV, and talking about the programs. Yi-p’ing thought most of the shows were childish and meaningless, but they liked them, and laughed and talked together. Usually Yi-p’ing sat up on a chair behind them, watching vacantly. She wanted to join in the chatter, but didn’t have anything to say.
So here she was, at the dead hour of the afternoon, staring out the kitchen window at the grey and white street, listening to the sharp noise of the cars on the highway to New York, and waiting impatiently for Wei-ch’eng and Pao-li to come home, to end this hour of vacuum, and to start the second half of her day, the half in which daddy and daughter shared their secrets, the half in which she, Yi-p’ing, would sit looking vacant and left out.
“How come the light’s not on?” Wei-ch’eng came in the front door at six-o’clock sharp. Pao-li followed him, hopping and jumping, and carrying Wei-ch’eng’s briefcase. Wei-ch’eng was wearing his new high-fashion coat; his hair was just cut (two sharply cut hairlines running behind each ear), and on his face, he was wearing an appreciative expression for the wonderful smells that came from the kitchen. Pao-li wore her bright red corduroy suit and white wool hat, the one with the red pompom. She wasn’t a very pretty girl — she had a big mouth and her nose was a little flat—but her eyes were big and round and very black. Bright eyes, that darted back and forth, almost like a monkey’s; lovable eyes.
She came in the house, threw her daddy’s briefcase on the couch, and her own bookbag too, and climbed up on Wei-ch’eng’s lap to share a few secrets. He stroked her cheeks; “What’s up, sweetheart? Why’s your face so red and cold?”
Yi-p’ing was dishing out the food. “Pao-li, go wash your hands and get ready for dinner,” she said.
Pao-li didn’t move. She played with Wei-ch’eng’s tie and said to him quietly, “I was playing hide and seek behind the hill.”
Yi-p’ing turned her head sharply, “I heard you. You were playing outside again. I told you you can only play indoors; your cold’s not better yet.”
Wei-ch’eng pinched Pao-li’s red nose and laughed. “Mother sure has sharp ears. Let’s not talk about it any more. Go wash your hands.”
Pao-li jumped down from Wei-ch’eng’s lap and ran into the bathroom. Wei-ch’eng opened up the evening paper to look at the stock reports and said to Yi-p’ing in a soft voice, “What’d you do today, Rose? Did you play bridge at Mrs. Jones’s?”
“They asked me to go, but I didn’t want to.”
“Northwest closed at 34, Delta 28, G.E. 40.3 . . . they’re all up. I just bought two hundred shares for the Chang family, the ones on Park Avenue. They sure made a big haul. I guess their fortunes are on the upswing. Mmm, what delicious smelling ox-tail soup”
He threw down the newspaper, went over to the bowl of soup, and breathed in deeply. Pao-li came in and yelled, “I don’t want ox-tail soup!”
“Children should learn to eat everything that’s given them and shouldn’t be picky,” Yi-p’ing said severely. She remembered when she was little, she had hated the awful bitter melons. Every day her mother had fixed them, just to train her to eat them. She didn’t stop until Yi-p’ing said she liked them.
“I don’t want to eat ox-tail soup!” Pao-li sat in a chair and yelled loudly.
Wei-ch’eng said, “It’s OK, darling. This is a democratic country and we believe in freedom. You don’t have to eat the soup if you don’t want to. You could have a bottle of Coke or something.” He got a tall glass and poured her some Coke. “What’d you do in school today? Tell Daddy, won’t you?”
“Well, this morning our class had an addition competition.”
“How’d you do?”
“I was Number One!” Pao-li said proudly.
“Really?” Wei-ch’eng was proud too. He had always said Pao-li had a scientific mind. “When she grows up, she’ll be a female math Ph.D.” he always said. “Tomorrow Daddy’ll go into town and buy you a reward, OK?”
“We also made Valentine cards at school,” Pao-li said, blushing.
“Oh, who was your Valentine?”
“I’m not telling.”
“Is it that fat boy, David?”
“No, ‘course not.”
Yi-p’ing smiled and said, “Oh, Mother knows. Is it Daddy?”
Pao-li blushed, squirmed; her big eyes were bright and happy. Wei-ch’eng laughed, took Pao-li’s face in his hands and gave her a kiss. “Oh, Daddy’s your big Valentine, you’re Daddy’s little Valentine. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” he said.
Yi-p’ing broke in harshly; “Pao-li, Lolita’s mother called me this afternoon and said that at school you pulled Lolita’s hair and made her cry. Now why did you do that?”
“Oh, Lolita’s a dirty pig,” Pao-li said, gritting her teeth.
“Pao-li, you mustn’t call your schoolmates that kind of name. How could you pull someone’s hair?”
“Well, she said I’m Chinese,” Pao-li blurted out, and both her cheeks turned red.
Yi-p’ing put down her chopsticks and said in a softly strained voice, “Pao-li, Lolita is right. You are Chinese.”
“Well, I said I’m an American and Lolita said I’m lying and she calls me Chinaman.”
“Listen, Pao-li, you were born in America; you’re an American citizen, but Daddy and I are both Chinese. You are our child, so you are also Chinese.”
“I’m not Chinese!” Pao-li screamed.
“Pao-li, you mustn’t talk like this. Look at our hair and skin. It’s different from Americans’. Daddy, you and me, we’re all Chinese.”
“I didn’t lie. Lolita lied. I’m not Chinese, I’m not Chinese!” Pao-li screamed and stamped her foot.
“Pao-li,” Yi-p’ing’s voice began to shake. “If you keep this up, I’m not going to let you eat.”
Wei-ch’eng broke in; “Rose, let’s finish dinner and then we can talk with Pao-li about this.”
Wei-ch’eng stood up and walked toward Pao-li. He wanted to comfort her, but before he could, Yi-p’ing stood up, pushed herself between the two, grabbed Pao-li by her hands and picked her up from her chair.
“No, I want to give her a lesson now,” she said. “I want Pao-li to always remember that she is Chinese. Pao-li, listen; you say this after me: ‘I am a Chinese!’”
“I’m not Chinese, I’m not Chinese!” Her feet were kicking and her struggling body was twisting.
Yi-p’ing turned pale and shouted in a tremulous voice, “You must say after me: I-AM-A-CHINESE!”
“I’m not Chinese! I’m not Chinese!” Her screams sharpened.
Yi-p’ing let go of one hand and slapped Pao-li on the cheek. Pao-li stood stunned, then shrieked, hopped up and down, and started crying hysterically. Yi-p’ing raised her hand and was about to hit Pao-li again, but Wei-ch’eng grabbed Yi-p’ing’s arm and released Pao-li.
Yi-p’ing jerked her arm away from Wei-ch’eng. She was dazed for a minute or two, then a feeling of faintness rose in her. She hunched over the sink and threw up all the ox-tail soup she had just eaten. Wei-ch’eng helped her into the bedroom, laid her down gently. He sat by her and said in a muffled voice, “We have to educate our child, but this isn’t the way. Pao-li’s only eight, how can she understand the difference between Chinese and Americans? All her schoolmates are American. Of course she feels she’s an American too. Rose, to tell the truth, Pao-li was born in the U.S., she is growing up in the U.S., after she grows up, all her living habits will be American. The more she can adjust to her environment, the happier she’ll be. I know you’re afraid of her becoming American because you yourself don’t want to be one. But do realize that’s your own psychological problem. If you transmit this problem to the child, it’s not fair. Certainly you want Pao-li to grow up to be a psychologically healthy person who can adjust to her environment, right? OK, so don’t be too upset. I’ll go get a tranquilizer for you. After you take it, have a good sleep.”
Wei-ch’eng poured her a glass of water, gave her a Compoz, then turned out the light, closed the door and went out. Yi-p’ing lay in the darkness. Her whole body felt as if it had gone somewhere else. She couldn’t move. Cold tears trickled out of the corners of her eyes. And from a crack in the door, Yi-p’ing could barely hear Wei-ch’eng and Pao-li talking.
“Mother’s so bad, she’s bad.”
“Shh, Mother’s asleep. Don’t raise your voice. It’s eight o’clock, our TV program’s about to start.”
In a minute the sound of the TV came alive, the voice of the Winston cigarette commercial, the same one they heard every day, exactly the same:
Winston tastes good
Like a cigarette should