Friday, January 16, 2009

At the Crossroads : Of Tradition and Change

Chignon
Chi Chun

When Mother was young, she would weave her tresses in to a long thick braid. During the day she wound it in to a shell-like spiral and piled it high on the back of her head. Evenings she undid it and let it hang down her back. When I slept I would snuggle up close to Mother's shoulder and playfully wrap my fingers around the tip of her braid. My nose was continuously assailed by whiffs of "Twin Sister" hair oil mingled with the smell of her hair. Though the odor was rather unpleasant, it was part of the security I felt in lying by Mother's side, and I would fall quickly off to sleep.
Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, Mother would thoroughly wash her hair. According to rural custom, hair could never be washed on ordinary days as the dirty water would flow down to where the king of the underworld would store it up to make one drink after death. Only if the hair was washed on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month could the dirty water pass harmlessly out to the Eastern Sea.
So on that day, all the women in the village let their hair hang loose to dry over their shoulders. Some of the women with flowering hair were as beautiful as vineyard fairies, others as hideous as monsters. Take my fifth uncle's wife for example-a squat, withered old hag. On her nearly-bald head she used black ash to draw in square hairline, and then painted her scalp pitch black. Thus when shampooing her hair, the charcoal was completely washed away, and out shone the half-bald, shiny crown of her head, fringed with thin wisps of hair fluttering down her back. She would hobble to and fro helping my mother fix dinner. I never dared glance her way.
But Mother's raven hair was like a length of satin falling over her shoulders. When a breeze blew, locks of shorter hair would sometimes sweep against her soft white cheeks. She would squint, gather the hair in her hand, and smooth it back, but soon another puff of wind would pass by. Mother was near-sighted, and when she narrowed her eyes in a squint, she was remarkably beautiful. I thought, if only Father were at home to see Mother's glossy black hair, he certainly would go out and buy a pair of sparkling diamond hair clips for her to wear. Mother probably would have worn them a while, then, embarrassed, have taken them out. That pair of diamond clips would then become part of my headdress when I played bride.
Father returned home soon afterward, bringing not the diamond clips, but a concubine. Her skin was white and delicate, her head of soft cloud-like hair even blacker, shinier than Mother's. The hair on her temples seemed like folded cicada wings half-concealing her ears. Her hair, brushed back and knotted in a horizontal "S" chignon, covered the back of her head like a huge bat. She presented Mother with a pair of emerald earrings, but Mother just let me play with them, though. I thought she was probably saving them because they were too nice.
After the family moved to Hangchow, Mother didn't have to work in the kitchen anymore. Frequently Father would want her to come out and entertain guests. Her sever hairstyle really seemed out of place, so Father insisted that she change. Mother asked her friend Aunt Chang to style an "Abalone Fish" for her. At that time, the "Abalone Fish" was the style old ladies wore. Mother had just turned thirty, yet she wanted to look like an old lady. When the concubine saw it, she would only smirk, while Father would constantly wrinkle his brow. Once when we were alone, I quietly implored, "Mother, why don't you also do your hair into an 'S' twist and wear the emerald earrings that Auntie gave you?" Mother replied solemnly, "Your mother is a country woman, unsuited for that kind of modern fashion. How can I wear such fancy earrings?"
When "Auntie" washed her hair, she would never select the seventh day or the seventh lunar month. Within one month she washed her hair many times. After washing, a maidservant standing to one side would lightly swing a large pink feather fan to and fro. Her soft hair would float out making me feel light and dizzy. Father would sit on a sandalwood lounge chair puffing away on his water pipe. He often turned around to look at her and his eyes sparkled with laughter. "Auntie" dressed her hair with "Three Flowers" oil, and the perfume floated in all directions. Then she sat straight up facing the mirror, and entwined a glossy "S" chignon around her head. I stood to one side, entranced. She handed me a bottle of the "Three Flower" oil and asked me to take it to Mother. But Mother just put it in the back of the closet saying, "The smell of this new hair oil turns my stomach."
Mother couldn't always trouble Aunt Chang, so she styled a taut “Abalone Fish" herself. It turned out about the same as her first twist. Father didn't like it; even I thought it was awful.
At that time, "Auntie" had already hired a Mrs. Liu to dress her hair. Mrs. Liu wore a huge red bamboo pin in her hair and puffed and panted as her large duck feet carried her short plump body along. She came every morning at ten to fashion all different kinds of coiffures for "Auntie"-the "Phoenix," "Feather Fan," "Entwined Heart Twist," "Shallow Tail," etc. She was always changing the style. The coiffures accentuated "Auntie's" delicate skin and willowy waist, which more and more drew delightful smiles from Father. Mrs. Liu advised Mother, "Madam, why don't you dress your hair a little more fashionably?" But Mother, shaking her head, pursed her thick lips, and walked away without saying a word.
Soon afterward Aunt Chang brought a regular hair dresser, a Mrs. Chen, to Mother. She was older than Mrs. Liu, and had a huge flat yellowish face with two protruding shiny gold teeth. At a glance one could tell she was the kind of woman who liked to gossip. She would ramble on about people from old Mr. Chao's elder daughter-in-law down to General Li's third concubine, all while dressing Mother's hair. Mother sat wilted on her chair, not uttering a single word, but I listened with great relish. Sometimes Mrs. Liu and Mrs. Chen came together. Mother and the concubine would sit back to back in front of the breeze way and have their hair dressed. One could hear "Auntie" and Mrs. Liu talking and laughing; on our side. Mother just sat resting with her eyes closed. Mrs. Chen brushed and combed with less and less vigor, and soon quit altogether. I distinctly heard her tell Mrs. Liu, "This antique of a country hick-she still wants her hair combed and dressed." I was so angry that I cried, but didn't dare tell Mother.
From then on, I stood on a low stool and brushed Mother's hair into the simplest "Abalone Fish." I would stand on tiptoe and watch Mother in the mirror. Her face was already not as plump and radiant as when we lived in the country and she hurried about in the kitchen. Her eyes fixed on the mirror, she gazed at herself absent-mindedly, never again squinting and smiling. I gather Mother's hair a lock at a time and brushed, but I already knew that one little yellow willow comb couldn't brush away Mother's heartsickness-because from the other side of the breezeway came floating across the occasional tinkling sound of Father's and "Auntie's" laughter.
After I grew up I left home to pursue my studies. When I returned home for summer and winter vacations, I would sometimes dress Mother's hair. I gathered her hair together in the palm of my hand and felt it becoming sparser and sparser. I remembered back in my childhood when on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month I saw Mother's soft raven tresses flowing over her shoulders, her face filled with joy, and I couldn't help but feel heartbroken. When Mother saw me return home, her distressed look occasionally gave way to smiles. No matter what, the happiest time was when Mother and daughter were together.
When I was studying in Shanghai, Mother wrote to say she had rheumatism and couldn't lift her arms. Even the simplest twist came out all wrong so she just cut her sparse locks off. I clutched her letter in my hands, and as I sat bathed in desolate moonlight beside the dormitory window, I cried in loneliness. The late autumn night breeze blew over me and I felt cold. I draped the soft sweater that Mother had knit for me over my shoulders and warmth crept over me from head to toe. But Mother was old now; I couldn't always be at her side. She has cut off her thinning hair, but how could she trim away a heart full of sorrows?
Soon afterward, "Auntie" came to Shanghai on business and brought me a picture of Mother, I hadn't seen her for three years-her hair had already turned silvery white. Saddened, I stared dumbly at the picture, yet had no way of pouring out my feelings to "Auntie," who stood before me. Almost as if sympathizing with my thoughts of Mother, she rambled on and on about Mother's present condition, saying her heart was weak and she was troubled again with rheumatism, so she was not as strong as before. I bowed my head and listened in silence, thinking that it was she who had made my mother unhappy all her life. But I didn't hate her anymore, not even a little bit, because since Father's death, Mother and "Auntie" had unpredictably become friends in their mutual suffering. Mother had stopped thing her long ago.
I looked at her closely. She wore a gray padded cloth gown, with a white flower tucked in her hair. Her nape no longer was draped with the rich and versatile "Phoenix" or "Entwined Heart" twists of days past, but was covered by a very simple "Banana Roll." She didn't apply makeup, and appeared sad and lonely. I couldn't help feeling unlimited pity for her, because she wasn't a woman like Mother, contenting herself with a tranquil life. Having followed Father close to twenty years, she had enjoyed honor and wealth, but once her support was gone, her feeling of emptiness and loss was even greater than Mother's.
After coming to Taiwan, "Auntie" became my only relative, and we lived together for many years. In the breezeway of our Japanese-style house I watched her sit by the window brushing her hair. She occasionally pounded her shoulder blade with her fist saying, "My hands are really stiff. I'm truly old now." Old-she too was old. Her black hair, like a silken cloud in those days, had now gradually thinned out, only a wisp remained, and that was speckled with gray. I remembered the days of their rivalry in Hang chow, when she and Mother sat back to back in the corridor, having their hair coiffure, not exchanging a word. In a flash all that was past. In the human world, what then is love and hate? Old decrepit "Auntie" had finally started on a vague journey in an unknown direction. Her life at this time was lonelier than anyone else's.
Startled, I stared at her, and remembering her lovely horizontal "S" chignon, said, "Let me brush it into a new style, all right?" But she gave a nervous little laugh saying, "What do I still want to wear fancy styles for? That's for you young people."
Can I stay forever young? What she had said is already more than ten years past. I'm far from being young anymore, already callous and wooden toward love, hate, greed, and foolishness in this world. The days with Mother slip farther and farther behind me. "Auntie's ashes," too, are deposited in a lonely temple somewhere. What, after all, is eternal in this world, and what is worth being serious about?

35 comments:

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