Pacific Odyssey:

Book II: China

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Learning

 

 

How in the world am I going to explain this? Diego thought desperately, and took a deep breath.   Explaining in English, since they seemed to understand a little of that language, he said, “I had to disguise myself…on a ship… to destroy cargo that was bad for China,” Diego tried to explain simply.   He sighed, that sounded so asinine.  “I was caught and I had to jump overboard.  Then you found me.”  He paused and looked intently at Leiching and then at Xian.  “I swear by the Holy Mother of God, I am not a pirate.”            

Xian gazed at him, studying this Englishman, feeling something that disturbed her belief- and she rebelled against that.  He was a foreign devil, one of those hated barbarians.  Why would he want to do something good for China?  His eyes held no deception in their depths, his demeanor, no haughtiness.  But still, she had to think about the children.   She looked at the mask in her hands.  No one but a bandit would wear a disguise.   

“I believe him,” Leiching said.   

She turned toward her husband, her mouth set in stern disapproval.  “I do not, but I will defer to your judgment.”  She paused, drawing in breath through clenched teeth.   “Remember, though, my husband, that if he harms the children, that it was your decision,” she said.  

Leiching nodded.  “I understand, but hear this, my wife . . . if I thought this man was a real pirate, he would have been over the railing already.”  

Xian turned to Diego, “English, my husband feels you are telling the truth.  I do not.  You harm my children, and I will kill you myself,” she said to Diego in English, showing him her knife.   

Xian thrust the mask back at Diego, who had been listening to the exchange, not understanding any of it, but knowing that they were arguing about him.   As he took the black cloth, Diego nodded, feeling a partial relief.   At least he was not going to be tossed back overboard just yet.  If they understood little of the rest, they understood what he had said, and Leiching, at least, believed him when he denied being a pirate.  Bowman had told him that pirates did operate in Asian waters, which was why the China Star had cannons on each side of the ship.  It seemed the Chinese liked pirates as little as did the British, and Xian was determined that he was a pirate.  He hoped that he could somehow make the woman believe him.            

“Wang Leiching, I thank you for helping me.  For saving my life.”  Diego stiffly rose to his knees and executed what he hoped was a good kowtow.  When he finished, Xian's gaze was unreadable, but her eyes seemed a bit softer.  Obviously, his kowtow was acceptable.    

Xian reached over and touched the shirt.  “My daughter fixed this shirt for you,” she said, a slight frown on her face.   

Diego smiled.  “I thank you both for your . . . hospitality,” he told Xian, hoping that they understood him.  Xian pointed to the older girl and he assumed she had been the seamstress.  He thanked her personally and she beamed.  Then the girl handed him a pair of pants that had similarly been altered.  Xian snorted and Diego could only assume that the job had not been done with her permission.  Again, the Californiano thanked the woman and her daughter.  With a bit of help from Leiching, Diego rose to his feet and walked behind a screen where he changed into the more comfortable pants.  He was still stiff and sore, but the numbness was gone and he felt as though he might possibly survive.  

While he was changing, Eldest Daughter went to the little stove and served up bowls of steaming rice with pieces of stir-fried fish and vegetables, and round rice balls rolled in sesame seeds.  When Diego returned, Leiching was served first, then Diego, then Xian and the children.            

Diego looked around the low table for a fork or spoon.  All he saw were the two long ivory-colored sticks the younger daughter had handed him.  Vaguely, he remembered the kidnapped Chinese prince owning a pair of sticks like these.  Leiching was clearing his throat, and Diego looked up, embarrassed by his inattentiveness.  At a little shrine or altar, the man bowed and said something.  Diego waited quietly, his head bowed in respect, for the family to finish what seemed to him to be a pre-dinner prayer or ritual.  While they were doing this, Diego silently said a fervent prayer of his own.            

The older boy, who looked to be about sixteen, picked up a pair of the little sticks and showed Diego how he held them in his hand.  Then the young man picked up his bowl, and holding it near his mouth, started eating the rice with them.  It helped that the rice was somewhat sticky and clumped, but when Diego tried to hold the utensils the same way, his rice became very elusive and cascaded back into the bowl.  Rubbing his still stiff fingers, he looked at his supper in consternation. The little boy said something, then gently took the sticks and placed Diego’s fingers around them the correct way.  This time he was able to get his fingers and the sticks to work properly.  “By the Saints,” Diego exclaimed softly.  “I might yet be able to do this.”  He smiled his thanks to the little boy.             

The conversation ebbed and flowed around him like the water around the Chinese ship.  It reminded Diego of times at home when family and friends were gathered together in a congenial atmosphere.   He pictured a meal in the sala with his father, Sergeant Garcia, Don Cornelio and Moneta.   It was so vivid, even to the laughter and the clinking of the wine glasses as a toast was raised.  Suddenly, the last of the rice stuck in his throat and he bowed to excuse himself, making his way to the deck.   Looking to the east where he presumed California would lie, Diego remembered that when he had been at the university, he would occasionally feel pangs of homesickness, but never anything like the knife sharp longing for home that was filling him with anguish at this moment.             

He felt a presence at his side.  “You look to your home?” Leiching asked softly in English.  “England is that way.”  He pointed to the west.            

Diego shook his head.  “No, my home is that way,” he said pointing to the east. “California is my home.”  Leiching looked puzzled.  “California is in Spanish America,” he further explained.            

“You are not English?” the fisherman asked.  “You speak English.”            

“I am a Californiano,” Diego explained. “I speak Spanish first and then English.”            

“California is far away?”  Leiching asked next.  Diego just nodded.   “Maybe in Canton- Guangzhou- you find your way home,” he told the Californiano. “We will be in Canton in about four days, maybe a little more.”            

“Thank you, Wang Leiching,” Diego said gratefully.  “And thank you for believing me.”            

“You are welcome.  My wife still doubts, but I think she believes you a little bit,” Leiching replied with a smile.  He watched the lowering sun with his foreign companion.  “Do those from your land only have one name?” the fisherman asked.  “Or are you known by more than just Diego?”           

“The rest of my name is de la Vega.  I am Diego de la Vega y de la Cruz, the son of Alejandro de la Vega,” Diego said.   The little boy had followed them on deck and was asking his father something.  His father spoke to him in Chinese, then he turned to Diego, chuckling.            

“Youngest Son says that he was right.  He told Eldest Daughter that you were not English, you were from somewhere else.”  

“You have a very smart son.”

Leiching beamed at the compliment.  “Youngest Son wants to know if you have brothers and sisters,” the father asked for his son.             

“No brothers and no sisters.”  The boy took his hand and said something solemnly.             

“He says that it must be hard to not have brothers and sisters.”            

Diego was touched by the sincerity of the little boy.  “Sometimes it was hard not having someone else near my age to talk to or play with, but most of the time I was very happy.  My mother and father loved me very much and taught me much as well.  And I had many friends.  Please tell Youngest Son I am touched by his concern.”            

In response, Youngest Son took him by the hand and led him back into the family room.  His mood was lifted somewhat by the concern of a little boy he barely knew.

   

 

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By the next morning, Diego felt almost back to full strength.  When he got up, he saw that Eldest Daughter had already started breakfast.  It was rice served with some kind of tortilla-like food made with eggs, vegetables, and fish cooked in a small pan.  She bowed to him; he reciprocated.  She giggled.  

“The younger bows to the older, not older to younger, Diego,” Leiching explained as he entered the room.             

Diego laughed.  “I’m sorry, I have had to learn so many new things recently.    I feel stupid sometimes, not remembering everything.”            

“You learn quickly.”  Leiching complimented his guest.  “You have now learned some Chinese and how to act politely in our society.  And I have learned more English.”            

Xiexie,” Diego said.  “Thank you.”  He pondered a moment, remembering the impromptu language lesson of the previous night.  “I am thinking that some words are the same in many languages, except I say them wrong.”  Both men laughed, remembering when Diego had tried to use the Chinese word for Youngest Son’s mother and had been informed that he had said it at the wrong pitch and was talking about a horse.  That had taken a great deal of signing and pantomime to get Diego to understand what he had done wrong, but in the end they had had a good time with his mistake, even Xian, who had not scowled at him this morning when he bowed to her.             

After breakfast, which Diego had found to be delicious, he concentrated on seeing what he could do to restore his gloves and boots after being soaked in seawater for so long.  They were dried stiff and had a film of salt crystals on them.  Leiching suggested for want of anything better, to try fish oil.  The stuff had a strong odor, but Diego decided that it was better to have them fit well and smell bad, than to smell good and fit atrociously.              

He worked the oil into the gloves until they were supple enough for him to easily hold and use his saber.  Youngest Son watched in rapt attention as Diego went through some fencing moves.   The Californiano also used a little fish oil on the sword, and hung it and the scabbard on hooks to dry.  It took a little longer to get the boots in shape, but eventually they, too, were flexible enough for him to wear comfortably.   

At times during the day, he helped Eldest Son and Second Son with the sails. They were set at a different angle on the mast then the sails of the British ship had been, but the principle was the same.  At other times, he stood at the helm and watched Leiching maneuver the ship through the seemingly endless sea.             

Most of the time, however, the two younger members of the Wang family took it upon themselves to enlighten Diego in the rudiments of Chinese culture and language.  Chi… eat,” Second Daughter told him.  

Fan . . . food,” Youngest Son said.  

Chi fan?  To eat a meal?” Diego asked, venturing into the realm of experimentation.

Shi . . . yes!” Second Daughter exclaimed.  

Diego pointed at himself.  Xiansheng,” he was told. Gentleman? he finally figured out what the word meant.  He pointed Youngest Son.  Didi . . . younger brother,” the children said.  

Mei . . . no,” Diego shook his head, he did not want to know classification or title.  He wanted to know what the word for man, male was, but he didn’t know how to ask.  Youngest Son gave him a puzzled look.  Diego started making motions with his hands, giving Bernardo’s sign for a woman.  

Second Daughter’s face lit in comprehension.  She pointed to herself, “Nu.”  Then she pointed to him and Youngest Son, “Nan.”  

With a great smile, Diego pointed to Youngest Son and quipped, “Shao Nan, Little Man.” 

Da Nan,” Youngest Son pointed at him and declared, making motions.  Diego realized that the little boy was calling him ‘big man.’  When he saw that Diego understood what he had said, Youngest Son began laughing and the rest of them joined in.   

For three more days the lessons continued, whenever Diego was not helping Leiching and his elder sons with the sails or the fishing.  At times he had to go on deck to let his mind clear of the confusion of trying to assimilate too much, too fast.  During one of those times, he and Leiching stood at the railing watching the dolphins frolicking at the bow of the ship.  Diego asked a question that had been on his mind.  “I am curious.  If I’m not being too bold, where did you learn to speak English?”             

“Before I got married, I worked as a servant in the household of one of the British Trade Commission officials,” he explained.  “I learned some English and earned money to buy a fishing boat and get the bride price to marry Xian.  But until you came, I did not have a need for speaking English.”  

The language lessons continued and by the end of the third day, Diego felt he could converse and make himself understood.  What was even better, he felt confident that he understood most of what the others were saying. 

In the afternoon of the third day, Second Daughter limped into the next room and brought Diego some tea.  Diego had noticed that Eldest Daughter and their mother also hobbled around the ship.  It had been something that he had wondered about for the past two and a half days, but had feared offending anyone by asking something that may be a taboo subject.  His curiosity got the better of him, though.  “Second Daughter, why is it that you and your sister and mother all limp?”  He had noticed, also, that all had very small feet and wondered if there was a correlation. 

“Our feet have been bound as is customary,” Second Daughter replied, making signs to make sure he understood what she meant. 

“Why is such a thing . . . customary?” Diego asked, also supplementing his questions with hand signs.  

“It just is, Xiansheng Diego,” she answered.  “No one would marry us if we had large feet.” 

Why not, he thought, but he chose not to ask that question aloud.  “But is it not . . . painful?” he asked instead. 

“As Second Daughter said, it is a custom,” Xian said from the doorway, a frown on her face.  “And it is better for there to be a little pain and be desirable then to have no pain and be lonely.” 

“And all nu to have this done?” he asked as politely as he could, not wanting to undo the small amount of trust that Xian seemed to have for him now. 

“Yes, Diego, except for barbarians,” Xian replied, her tone indicating finality. 

“Xiexie,” Diego said.  “I was only . . . curious.   I meant no . . . offense.”  He wondered at the barbarity of putting someone through such pain and misery for the sake of desirability. 

“That is how one learns,” Xian said, a slight smile indicating that there had been no offense taken.  

When he went up on deck, late in the afternoon of the fifth day of his sojourn on board Leiching’s boat, sailing vessels could be seen in the distance and Diego felt a small thrill of excitement in the assumption that they must be nearing their destination.  At last he might be able to start the journey home. 

As he watched the sun set, Second Daughter and Youngest Son found him and pestered him to tell about his home. As simply as he could, he told them about the de la Vega hacienda, the rolling hills, his horses, the blazing sky, and his father.  At times, he had to also use hand signs, but they understood.   Heaving a deep sigh, he thought how it seemed forever since he had been on a horse.  

A sharp cry brought him from his reverie; Eldest Son and Second Son had landed an exceptionally large fish and were having difficulty bringing it in.  Leiching was struggling with a fish of his own and couldn’t help.            

Diego motioned to Youngest Son to get his gloves; while he ran to grab the end of the rope the young men were struggling with.  Xian and Eldest Daughter came and grabbed on also.  Youngest Son brought the gloves and helped Diego get them on.  Taking a tight hold on the rope and drawing it around his waist, he became the anchorman.  With the traction that the soft-soled boots gave him, he was able to draw the rope back steadily.  He had seen sailors on the China Star catching and hauling in fish to supplement their diet, and he, himself had done some fishing, but this one had to surpass them all.  Even with all of them on the rope, the fish thrashed and dragged at the line with a strength that astonished him.  Diego figured this creature had to be the size of a horse.  

The boys were chanting something to give cadence to their efforts to pull the fish on board, and Diego found himself repeating it with them.  A half an hour later, they all drew in the biggest fish that Diego had ever seen. It was a shark, but one that was more than twice the size of any that he had seen during the voyage.  It wasn’t as large as a horse, but it appeared to be the size of a half-grown colt, at least.  He had previously thought tales of such large sharks to be rum-induced delusions.  When he approached it to get a closer look, Eldest Son grabbed him by the shirt and jerked him back. The fish began snapping and thrashing, and Eldest Son and his brother quickly killed it with harpoons and clubs.  

“Sharks continue to thrash and fight for life even out of water.   These kinds of sharks can take off a hand or foot even out of the water, Diego,” Leiching informed him, having landed his own fish and joining them to inspect this one. 

Diego paled slightly.  “Ai, I was very fortunate when I was in the water,” he said softly.   

“Yes, you were.  Your ancestors were watching out for you,” Leiching agreed. 

 

 

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