Fourteen years after moving to Canada, I am finally able to afford a 1,800 square-foot house. It features four bedrooms, four bathrooms, two family rooms, one living room, two kitchens, and one storage room. Despite the ample space, only two people, myself and a renter, occupy the house. It is unfortunate that my father never had the chance to see my home and the life I built for myself in Canada. He passed away in China three years after my departure from the country, and I was not able to be by his side when he was dying.
Memories flooded back to me as I thought about my family’s living conditions in China.
The scariest story I heard when I was a child wasn’t “Painted Skin” or “Embroidered Shoes”, but the story of my mother being stung by a scorpion. It was one summer when she was only eighteen years old and remembers having a mosquito net hanging over her bed. One night, while she was sleeping, she turned over and was stung on her back by a scorpion. It was the most painful experience she could remember. Mother said the pain was not only excruciating, but the venom lasted for a long time. Her back swelled up for weeks and she was bedridden for an entire month, nearly dying. The scorpion had also paid a price. He was crushed to death.
From that day on, scorpions became my most feared arachnid. Mother was extremely lucky to have survived; if it had been me, I would have died for sure.
I suspect that the scorpion came back to life seeking revenge, because Mother had told me when she was little, she and her siblings used to play with scorpions by tying a lampwick to their tails and lighting it on fire. The flame would burn on the tail, causing the poor creature to frantically spin around, trying to catch the flame until he was eventually burned to death. One thing I’ve never be able to figure out is how they could tie the lampwick to the scorpion’s tail without being stung. Mother had three older brothers and one older sister. I guessed the “we” in her story was actually her three brothers. She was likely an onlooker. I could never imagine a little girl daring to play such a game until one day when I was still in primary school.
I grew up in a residential area on a college campus in mainland China. Those one-story gray brick houses were identical duplexes, with four rooms in each suite. Father was an associate professor so we were assigned such a unit. (During the Cultural Revolution, Mother always emphasized the word “associate” because when possessing knowledge was a sin, the associate professor was a lesser sinner comparing with a full professor.) We had two connecting large rooms, one of 18 square meters and the other of 14 square meters, as well as a single room of 8 square meters and a kitchen of 6 square meters. I was told that when I was two years old, Father went on a business trip and bought me a toy bear riding a tricycle with an umbrella. When wound up, the tricycle would run around and I would chase it from the 18-square-meter room to the 14-square-meter room and back again, giggling all the while. Unfortunately, I have no memory of such a happy time.
From my earliest recollections, the 14-square-meter room no longer belonged to us. The college had assigned it to another teacher. The connecting door between the two rooms was sealed off with a bookcase against it at our side. My toy bear was also nowhere to be seen. Later on, the college made us move to the worst location in the same housing area. There was a brick public garbage dump across from our yard, which was as big as a house and was right against the campus wall, like an ancient balefire tower. The garbage dumpers could climb up from the exterior stairs, reach the top and drop the garbage down the “well” located in the center of the tower. The “balefire tower” only had three walls, leaving a big opening on the outside of the campus so the garbage could be taken away from outside. As if facing a garbage dump was not bad enough, there was a public toilet next to the dump. Fortunately, a small patch of bushes blocked the entrance of the male side so we didn’t have to see men going in and coming out of the washroom.
This time not only was the 14-square-meter room given to someone else, but the 8-square-meter room was also assigned to a worker named Ma Er. His wife and children lived in a nearby village. Ma Er lived alone on campus during the week and went home on Sundays. Perhaps because Father was just released from the Cowshed, he wouldn’t dare protest. So this least desirable suite was assigned to our family.
Like many Chinese people of that era, our family of three used the 18-square-meter space as our bedroom, living room, and my father’s study. During winter and summer breaks, when my sister came home, she had no place to stay, nor did our visiting relatives. So Mother built a cooking area in our yard using corn stalks and mud. The makeshift shed had a stove that could burn twigs, dry leaves, straw, and corn stalks, which allowed us to save coal for the winter. Mother also converted the 6-square-meter kitchen into a bedroom. A double bed was placed against the window and we only had about two-feet-wide space to walk around along the side of the bed.
Gradually, I found the garbage dump was not as dirty and scary as it first appeared. It even had a certain attraction because my friends and I could climb onto the top and see the fields and villages in the distance.
Shortly after we moved to our new home, the college administration banned the use of the garbage dump because the peasants outside the campus wall complained. After the last of the garbage was cleared, a fourth wall was built to seal off the dump. The opening on the top of the tower was sealed off, and the steps were removed. We could no longer climb the tower and look into distance. The structure beame a doorless and windowless dead room.
No one but Mother had taken an interest in the situation.
We could only use our mud hut for cooking in the summer. In the winter, we had to use a coal stove inside and our 18-square-meter room so it gained another function: a kitchen. This made the house smoky and dusty. Also, the coal we had to buy burned quickly.
One day, Mother formally requested Father to apply to the college to give us the abandoned garbage dump to use as a kitchen. All they needed to do was cut a door on its southern wall.
Mother didn’t dare ask for a window.
Father reluctantly submitted the application.
To my surprise, the application was approved.
After the door was cut, Mother took me to inspect the inside of the dump. With one glance, I was scared out of my wits. It was dark and damp. Small piles of leftover garbage were here and there and fat scorpions were crawling around everywhere. I dashed out of the door while shaking. I wouldn’t have guessed that Mother went inside our house and came out with a huge glass jar and a pair of tongs. With no protective gear and wearing only cloth shoes, she stepped into the scorpion-infested dark room. I watched in horror through the door as she calmly caught the scorpions one by one and put them in the jar, while telling me that dried scorpions were a type of Chinese medicine. Because they were typically hard to catch, they were quite valuable.
For two days, Mother snatched scorpions and filled two large jars with them. While some people may be afraid of a well-rope after being bitten by a snake, Mother’s experience of almost being killed by a scorpion seemed to have no effect on her. I began to believe her story about playing with scorpions as a child. I even felt that had she been born in wartime, she might have been able to lead an army.
When there were no scorpions left, Mother handed me the two tightly sealed jars and asked me to donate the scorpions to the local Chinese pharmacy. We were all poor back then. The clothes Mother made for me were always three sizes too large so they could last for a long time. Forget about styles. The legs of the pants flapped like flags in the wind. Wearing patched clothes was also commonplace. But with Mother wanting to donate the scorpions, it was the most natural thing to me.
There was only one Chinese pharmacy in the area, located three miles away at the train station. Every summer, my friends and I would find cicada shells in trees. We normally could collect a few jars of them over the course of the summer. I always donated my collection to the pharmacy. But this time was different. I held the two large jars tightly while constantly reminding myself: don’t drop the jars, or the scorpions will escape and I’ll be in big trouble. Finally, I arrived at the pharmacy and placed the two jars on the counter before running out. The uncle in the pharmacy shouted out: “Wait, let me weigh them for you!” But inspired by the spirit of Uncle Lei Feng, I dashed out of the store. A sense of pride rose in my chest, gradually expanding and carrying me all the way home as if I was on the clouds. This was our family’s contribution to the Society.
The room was finally cleaned up by Mother. I wouldn’t say it was spotless, but one couldn’t tell it was once a garbage dump. It was at least 10 square meters in size. However, we soon discovered the roof was leaking. The stairs leading to the roof had been dismantled. How could we get up there? There are things even Mother can’t do, but it doesn’t matter, Mother had Father to fall back on.
I don’t know how their negotiation went. Father eventually agreed. One day he brought home a bag of asphalt and a ladder. We piled the asphalt in the middle of our little brick path and mixed it with water, like when we made coal balls. We then placed the ladder against the wall next to the dump. Father held the ladder with one hand and the asphalt bucket with the other, with a wooden stick inserted in the bucket. He climbed up shakily. I held the ladder for him below while praying: Please don’t fall. Don’t fall. Father was already past the age of knowing his fate with silver hair and wearing deep myopia glasses. When he climbed to the top of the ladder, he still had to stand on the wall and step over the brick rail of the tower to reach its roof. You should know that the top of the wall was not flat but bulging like a bread loaf. To prevent people from climbing over it, sharp glass shards used to be embedded on the top of the wall. Fortunately, almost all of the glass shards were smashed by the wall climbers over the years. To me, climbing over the rail of the tower was the most dangerous part. Only a Kung Fu Master was fit for such a feat. I believe this was probably his first time for doing such work. I suddenly felt sorry for him. My poor father. His hands were for holding pens and books, not for balancing on the bulging top of a wall with an asphalt bucket. Thank God that Father not only didn’t fall, but also miraculously repaired the cracks on the roof. Maybe miracles do happen under high pressure.
Because our new kitchen was too dark, Mother made a stove right next to the door. With no chimney or window however, the smoke couldn’t escape. Everytime Mother cooked, she had to open the door wide and desperately fan the smoke out while coughing and tearing up. After many failed attempts, she had to give up the new kitchen and go back to our mud hut to cook. For the garbage dump my mother had spent so much time and effort to clean and catching scorpions, and the roof my father had risked his life to repair, we could only use it to store junks.
 These are the two well known horror stories in the 60’s and 70’s in mainland China. Painted Skin is a story in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1640 – 1715), a writer during the Qing dynasty. Painted Skin later was made into a movie in 1966 and again in 2008.
 A typical detention center/labour camp in China during the Cultural Revolution.
 Lei Feng (1940-1962): a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army who was the object of several major propaganda campaigns in China. The most well-known one in 1963 promoted the slogan, “Follow the examples of Comrade Lei Feng.” Lei was portrayed as a model citizen, and the masses were encouraged to emulate his selflessness, modesty, and devotion to Chairman Mao. The authenticity of the story, however, is questioned widely in the post-Mao era.
 Means age fifty.
Born and raised in China, Tong Ge moved to Canada in 1988 to pursue her master’s
degree. Since 2012, her writing has been published in various publications including
PRISM International, Canadian Stories, Ricepaper, Academy of the Heart and Mind,
FLOW Magazine, Vineyard Poetry Quarterly, and Polyglot Magazine. In addition, her
personal essay Movie Night won the first prize in the true stories category for Canadian
Stories in 2014, while Hug earned the First Honorable Mention in the same category in 2015.
Her script In Broad Daylight secured the 7 th place in the script category for Writer’s
Digest Writing in 2022. Tong Ge was also a finalist for several other awards such as
China China Book I in the unpublished novel category of the Eyeland Book Award 2021,
the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards 2021, and the Retreat West Novel
Competition 2022. Tong Ge’s highly anticipated debut novel, The House Filler, will be
published in Canada in October 2023.