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 brothers!
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.
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