Excerpt of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
(Page 10 of 15)
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In those days, we lived in a three-story Tudoresque manor on Rue
Massenet in the French Concession of Shanghai. This was not in the best of the
best neighborhoods, not like Rue Lafayette, where the Soongs and the Kungs
lived, with their villas and vast, multi-acred gardens, croquet lawns, and pony
carts. Then again, we were not the kind of family to rub our bountiful luck into
the faces of our inferiors. All in all, our house was still quite good, better
than most people could say they live in, even in comparison with today's
multimillion-dollar San Francisco homes. My father's family had a longtime
cotton mill business and the department store Honesty, which my grandfather had
started in 1923. It was maybe one degree less prestigious than the department
store Sincerity, and while our store was not as large, our merchandise was just
as good, and in the case of cotton goods, the quality was even better for the
same price. All my father's foreign customers said so.
He was a typical high-class Shanghainese: absolutely traditional
in matters of family and home, and completely modern in business and the outside
world. When he left our gates, he entered another realm and adapted himself to
it like a chameleon. When necessary, he could speak in other languages, and the
accent was absolutely particular to the tutor he had chosen for reasons of class
distinction: the English was Oxford, the French was Right Bank, the German was
Berlin. He also knew Latin and a formal kind of Manchu into which all the
literary classics had been translated. He wore pomade in his sleeked-back hair,
smoked filter-tip cigarettes, and conversed on subjects as wide-ranging as
riddles, the physiology of different races, and the curiosities of other
cuisines. He could argue persuasively on the mistreatment of China in the Treaty
of Versailles and compare the political satire in Dante's Inferno with Tsao's
earlier version of A Dream of Red Mansions. When he stepped back through the
gates of our family home, he reverted to his private self. He read much, but
seldom spoke, and truly, there was no need in a household whose women worshipped
him and anticipated his needs before they ever occurred to him.
His foreign friends called him Philip. My brothers' English
names were Preston and Nobel, which were auspicious, sounding like the word "president"
and the name of the prestigious prize that comes with a lot of money. Sweet Ma
chose the name Bertha, because my father said it was close-sounding to "Bao Tian,"
and my mother had been known as "Little Bit," which was how she pronounced the
Western name Elizabeth, which my father had given her. My father called me Bibi,
which was both a Western name and short for Bifang, the name my mother bestowed
on me. As you can imagine, we were a worldly family. My brothers and I had
English- and French-speaking tutors, so we could receive a modern education.
This also gave us secret languages that we could use in front of Sweet Ma, who
knew only Shanghainese.
One time, Nobel reported that our Bedlington terrier, whom Sweet
Ma detested, had left a small offering in her room"Il a fait la merde sur le
tapis"and because the pattern in the rug masked the appearance of fresh fecal
deposits, our stepmother could not figure out why every room in the house stank
until it was too late. The boys had a fondness for adding surprise elements to
Sweet Ma's vials of medicines and snuff bottles. Caca d'oie, collected from
the scummy shoals of our goose pen, was a favorite because it encompassed the
trifecta of disgusting things: foul, slimy, and bilious green. To hear them tell
me what they had done left me laughing helplessly on the floor. I so miss my
More often, however, my brothers were not at home to buffet
Sweet Ma's assaults upon me. Whenever I sat before the keys of the piano,
Sweet Ma recounted my mother's poor musicianship as a possible cause of mine.
I defended my mother once, telling Sweet Ma that my father had recently told
some guests that she "could make Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu sound like
fast-running water in a spring brook."
From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.