村里那些老了的老人们 – These old people back home who ‘got old’ – English

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The year is over, it is time to let go of a few things, but some things just can’t be let go of. They are always there before your eyes, never giving you a moment’s quiet so that you can return to business as usual. One such issue is those old people back home who ‘got old’.

In my hometown, when someones passes away, we don’t say that they ‘died’ or that they ‘left this world’, but that they ‘got old’. It’s understandable that old people should pass away, and we probably use that same expression when we talk about young people who die by accident, because of some sort of taboo.

Over the previous years, when I returned home for Spring Festival, under the big locust tree, in front of the old mill, in the school yard, in short in any place where the sun shone, you could see something like thirty villagers wearing thick cotton jackets or traditional tunics, with a long pipe in their mouth, gossiping about whose children returned home with the most amount of money, or whose daughter has been kidnapped.

In the countryside, although not many people use micro-blogging or SMS, rumors true or false still run faster than the wind. These men are not bigwigs in the village committee, but they’re better informed than most of the great committee members, and there’s always news that these great members haven’t heard yet. It’s the same thing as with the city media , you only hear past and processed news, but you never hear about issues you really care about.

Every year when I return to my home village, I prepare one or two packs of cigarettes which city people would not consider to be ‘high-quality’, and I lie against the wall, soaking up the sun, gossiping with these old men. For instance: gossiping about where the funding for the re-forestation project ended up this year; gossiping about the collapse of the canals beside the wheat fields which almost turned our village into two villages; and how much of the money for restoring the village road went into the pockets of the village secretary. They all know that I’m a reporter in the city, and they hope that through me they will be able to get some sort of reaction to the local corruption.

From working in the media, I know that there’s a particular focus on exceptional and sensational events, while minor issues are not even worth mentioning; but in the eyes of the people in the village, these are big issues, and so there’s nothing I can do. I can only look at them with my own eyes, and write them down inside my heart. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to publish these stories, but when I think more about it, even if I can publish them, then what? I can’t help these people solve their problems, even publishing their stories in the People’s Daily would be pointless. Besides, if the village leaders are offended, their situation will worsen, and that’s another real problem.

When I returned home this year, perhaps because it was a cloudy day, or perhaps for other reasons, there were hardly any old men to be seen. There were only unfamiliar young faces wandering around, which made me feel as if I had picked the wrong hometown to go back to. My mother introduced me to various people; ‘he’s the head of such and such family, she’s the daughter of such and such’, but they were all names I’d never heard before. I only knew the names of their parents, and I could only just recall the shadow of a face from the depths of my memory, which quickly faded away.

I did not take out the two packs of cigarettes I had prepared. I passed by the decaying wheat mill several times, and did not see a single familiar face. The old people from the upper and lower parts of the village didn’t come to their usual meeting place: there were a few people who would wander around the front entrance, but it just didn’t feel right. Indeed, when I returned home, my mother told me about old Wan Cheng, who lived at the foot of the mountain; his neighbours had already moved into the house of the village chief’s eldest sone. Very few of the existing homes still have old people living in them.

I just remembered how, a few days ago, I was standing next to my father, taller than him on his crutches. He was holding a small red box in his hands. It was the MP4 that my 88 year old aunt had just given him. When he was alone, sitting on the big stone next to the front door, he would listen to Shaanxi opera. At that time, I thought, why did my father not go look for these old friends of his. The idea flashed through my brain, but I didn’t get to the bottom of it. Now, it suddenly made sense: old people had left the village one by one, and my father got lonelier and lonelier! Only the tragic and desolate cries of Shaanxi Opera could relieve his loneliness.

I remember ‘elder’ Wan cheng, (older men in the village are referred to as ‘elder’), I remember the talented carpenter Li who lived by the river, and I remember Liang Haoyi who used to give us lessons; they were celebrities in this small village, but they’ve all passed away now, like a leaf when the autumn wind blows, gently falling off the tree, without making a sound. There is no-one to write their memoirs, and no-one to sing their praise. They came from the soil, and returned to the soil. In the words of Xu Zhimo, “I came gently, and left without taking a cloud”. Although these lines do not speak about life and death, they’re still, in my opinion, the best way to describe the life of these old people form my village.

Maybe, after a few years, no-one will remember that such a group of people lived in the village, even their own children and grand-children might forget what they used to look like. But it is a piece of history, faces and relationships that existed for a period of time in that place. These people used their insignificant lives to go on pumping the spirit and incense of life through the blood vessels of the land. Who will remember them touching the cement beams – still there today, but brand new back then; or who will remember the meaning of the village men’s profound teachings about the first Chinese character.

I know that within a few days, migrant workers will start their return journey, that the village will feel more empty and solitary from their departure, and that silence will return after less than two weeks of temporary liveliness. The village will also return to its old appearance: miserable, desolate, dilapidated, grass growing higher than most people at seven or eight different crooked angles, and unseen rabbits stalking the grounds of the collapsed courtyards. But this is not true desolation, true desolation comes from the human heart.

As the old people leave one by one, and more and more people choose to spend New Year in the city, who will remember village life? In a so-called ‘people-oriented’ society, the unfavourable plight of ‘empty nest’ villagers is admittedly concerning. But because they still cling to their old, rotten bodies, they also keep watch over this piece of land, which almost everyone else has forgotten. The truly frightening thing is the day when our entire village will become an ‘empty nest’. When the village is empty, its heart will also die.

There is no hope for a nation with no memory, and a man who does not know where he came from has no tomorrow. If our ultimate objective is a tidal wave of development in the cities, where does the road lead for increasingly forlorn villages? This is not as simple a problem as finding how to more more money, or increase financial security.

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Source : My1510

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org