Excerpt of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
(Page 12 of 15)
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I came along in 1937, and Sweet Ma was there to witness my
dramatic arrival. "You should have seen your mother when she was nine months
pregnant with you. She looked like a melon balanced on chopsticks, teetering
this way and that. . . . Early in the morning, that's when her water broke,
after making us wait all night. The winter sky was the color of spent coal, and
so was your mother's face. . . . You were too big to come out between her
legs, so the midwives had to slice her nearly in two and pull you out like a
fatty tapeworm. You weighed over ten pounds, and you had bloody hair down to
I shivered when she said that.
"Bifang your mother named you, though heaven knows I tried to
persuade her to choose something else. Good-reputation jade' sounds like an
advertisement poster, in my opinion, what pleases the ear of those who don't
know better. Bifang, bifang, buy your bifang here!' Ha, fang pi would be a
better name to call you, a fart, yes indeed, that's what you were, all right,
a stinky little fart that shot out of her bottom."
Sweet Ma held up a hairpin for me to see but not touch. "She
named you Bifang because your father gave her this ugly thing to commemorate
your successful birth." It was a hairpin with a hundred tiny leaves carved out
of bright imperial-green jade. Within the branches were peony blossoms made of
tiny diamonds. The shining hairpin, when placed in the hair, suggested a
glorious spring. Upon seeing that hairpin for the first time, I knew why she
named me Bifang: I was her precious jade, her budding treasure, her glorious
Sweet Ma tried to change my school name as well. "I like the
name Bibi," I said. "Father calls me that."
"Well, there's nothing good about that name, either. It's
especially common. Your father had a Dutch customer whose wife was named Bibi.
He asked the Dutch lady if that was an unusual name in her country. And she
said, Heavens, no. "Bibi" can be French, it can be German, Italian even, so
really, it is found everywhere.' And your father clapped his hands and said
there was an expression that meant exactly that: bibi jie shican be found
everywhere. If it was found everywhere, he said, to be polite, it must be
popular, very much in favor. To my way of thinking, if it's found everywhere
then it must be a common nuisance, like flies and dust." The day Sweet Ma said
this, she was wearing my mother's hairpin, the one she said was so ugly. I
wanted to pull it out. And because I could not, I said in my strongest voice
that I had already chosen Bibi as my school name and I would not change it.
Sweet Ma then said if I was old enough to choose my name, I was old enough to
know the true circumstances of my tiny mother's death.
"She died of excess and dissatisfaction," Sweet Ma divulged. "Too
much but never enough. She knew I was your father's first wife, the most
respected, the most favored. No matter how many sons she had, he would probably
one day turn her out the door and replace her with another."
"Father said that?"
Sweet Ma did not confirm or deny. Instead she said, "You see,
respect is lasting. Fondness is passing, a whim for a season or two, only to be
replaced by a new fancy. All men do this. Your mother knew this, I knew this.
Someday you will, too. But rather than accept her situation in life, your mother
lost all control of her senses. She began to crave sweets. She couldn't stop
eating them. And she was thirsty all the time, drinking like the genie who
swallowed the ocean and spit it back up. One day, a ghost saw how weak she was
in spirit and entered her body through the hole in her stomach. Your mother fell
to the ground, twitching and babbling, and then she was still."
In my made-up memory, I saw my tiny mother rise from her bed and
go over to a pot of sugared black sesame seed soup. She dipped her fingers to
taste if it was sweet enough. It was not. She added more lumps of sugar, more,
more, more. Then she stirred the hot, dark paste, tipped bowlful after bowlful
into her mouth, filling her stomach to the level of her throat, the hollow of
her mouth, until she fell to the floor, wet and drowned.
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.