Summer Reading. In my humble opinion those two words go together like peanut butter and jelly. What else is summer FOR? I am aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way. The faculty summer reading assignment at our school this year was a simple one: read a work of classic literature. This assignment was made during the last few days of post-planning and it led to much discussion. Sometimes people get MORE stressed out when they have choices than when they don’t.
At first I thought I’d read something from the Middle Ages or Renaissance since that is the time period I teach. I did find and read an excellent book about Dante, but since I was going to China I decided on this:
It turned out to be an excellent choice.
If I am to be honest, I must admit to being nervous about going to China. I am western through and through–three quarters German with some Anglo-Saxon and a tiny bit of Native American mixed in. I have studied very little Chinese history. I need to correct that.
Pearl S. Buck was a missionary kid. She lived not far (by China standards) from the city where my son and his family live and work. Reading this book changed my outlook. Even after going to China I did not love it. I did not love it because I did not really enter into it. I ate the food, rode in the taxies and on the trains, shopped in the grocery stores and malls, even ran on the streets, but I did so as a foreigner. At one point when we were out shopping my son turned to me and said, “Do you hear that child yelling over there? She is pointing at us and yelling ‘foreigners.'” He grinned. It was weird, but it was also good. It’s good to have the experience of being in the minority. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean I grew to like it. When I landed in Chicago it seemed strange and yet lovely to look around and realize I was surrounded once again by people who look just like me. Part of me was ashamed. Through The Good Earth, I entered into China in a way I never could have done otherwise. I read the story of a man, a human, just like me. I read about his family, his desires, his successes and his failures, his strengths, his weaknesses, and his faults. For 300 pages I shared his life. I loved his wife. I got exceedingly annoyed with him, but I forgave him and cheered him on. I shook my head over his children and worried about the harvest.
Going to China helped me to picture the things I was reading about. One day I went on a cultural field trip with the faculty and staff from the school where my son works. We had to walk from the school to a bus stop in the pouring rain. It rained most of the time I was in Wuxi, so when Wang Lung’s fields spent a year under water, I could completely understand why. I also had an idea what it would look like. This is a garden in my son’s apartment complex after several days of rain:
That day we visited an ancient town within Wuxi, Dangkou. There I walked through houses with courts just like the ones described in The Good Earth. And I walked across bridges over canals
and peered into houses that were not more than huts with three rooms, just like the original home of Wang Lung.
When I read about the starving time in the book and the way Wang Lung and his family survived by traveling to another town and living in a make-shift dwelling outside the walls, I had a point of reference for that as well. The guest room in the apartment looked out over an unused area of the apartment complex. When these vast complexes are being built, migrant workers come in and live in temporary housing on the grounds. After construction is over, the buildings are moved, but the foundations and there and a few areas still have a roof. There were people living in what appeared to me at first to be a landfill. The longer I was there and the more I looked and watch, the more I actually SAW.
If you look closely, you will see, especially in the bottom right corner, the neat rows of a garden. Gardens were all over this piece of land. The good earth is still feeding needy people even right in the middle of the city.
When Wang Lung went to the temple, I could picture that as well. This is one we visited in downtown Wuxi.
One of the most heart wrenching events in the book happens when Wang Lung’s family is surviving the famine by living in the southern city. He manages to make a little money by pulling a ricksha and one day a foreigner gives him a gospel tract. No one in the family at this point can read. There is a picture of Jesus on the cross, but they do not know what it means. They ponder it for a while, but don’t know what to make of it. “…Wang Lung was fearful of the picture and pondered as to why a foreigner had given it to him, whether or not some brother of this foreigner’s had been so treated and the other brethren seeking revenge. He avoided, therefore, the street on which he had met the man…” My heart cried, “NO!” as I read these words and I wanted to cry because by this time I loved Wang Lung and I wanted him to know.
Literature has a way of breaking down barriers that even travel cannot, for travel takes us to another’s home, but literature takes us to another’s heart.