This week’s Translation Tuesday features the work of Badai—an indigenous Taiwanese writer. “Homecoming” probes at themes of reunion, service, and loss through the eyes of a young man torn between the traditional ways of his family and the projects of the nation-state. Juxtapositions between the mountains where the protagonist lives and the flatlands with the military bases, government projects, and different linguistic groups are drawn into tension. This tension is extended for the protagonist as roads, schools, and parks show the growing homogeneity of the national culture. Pride in one’s service—to family and to the state—are complicated things for young men and women. Moments like those expressed here show the complex interrogation that the short story form provides. Here, the interrogation revolves around one’s implication in the changing social fabric of Taiwan.
A young man was on a bus, heading home. His name was Dumasi. Dumasi had already transferred buses once; this was the second leg of his journey, and he was forcing himself to nap because he still had the final leg ahead of him. The bus would drop him off at the last stop, and then he would hike for two hours up mountain trails. Not that he felt the slightest bit tired. Every inch of him was bursting with the excitement of returning home. Nonetheless, he shut his eyes to rest.
A voice said: “Hey, mister bus driver, this is my stop!”
Dumasi opened his eyes: there was a middle-aged man walking unsteadily up the aisle, laden with bags and bellowing good-naturedly in the direction of the driver’s seat. For Dumasi, the sight and sound of this man was deeply familiar, comforting even—from his broad shoulders to the way he spoke Mandarin with a thick, mountain-man accent.
Dumasi reached down to his luggage and ran his hand along a bulge in the bag. Good—the two bottles of sorghum liquor he’d bought for his homecoming were intact—all was in order. Father will be so happy, he thought to himself.
His thoughts drifted back a year, the last time he had a home-leave visit. He remembered the look on father’s face as he took his first ever sip of Kinmen sorghum liquor—he’d looked surprised, and delighted, and he couldn’t stop saying how good it was. Dumasi smiled.
The previous month, father sent him a letter, with the help of Lawa, a girl who lived nearby. Father dictated, she wrote down the words, and the letter was sent. It said:
All is well at home—there is a family of mountain pigs living near the corn field. I plan to hunt the old pig once the young ones are big enough to forage their own food. I will roast the hind legs and keep them ready for your homecoming feast when you finish your military service.
This year’s corn didn’t yield much, not just because of the mountain pigs—there are monkeys too, and they come into the field to eat. Your mother planted some vegetables to make up for the corn and round out our meals: tong hao greens and some Sama. When you get home, you can eat as much as you want.
Thinking of that letter now, Dumasi had to swallow back saliva. How long had it been since he last tasted wild pig and mountain veggies? His army service lasted for two years. During that time, he’d been like a wild monkey caged in a zoo. All he had to eat was the stuff they gave him, and his turds never had that mountain veggie sweetness that they did when he was at home.
The bus pulled over, stopped, then pulled away again.
Dumasi’s excitement spiked and ebbed, and when it spiked he couldn’t help himself—he just had to open his eyes, just for a few seconds. He noticed the road—it seemed much wider than it had been a year ago, and it had been resurfaced with asphalt and painted with lines on the sides and in the center. It felt reassuring, to see the eye-catching new road markings on those windy mountain roads.
This goes to show, he thought, the senior officer in his army unit had actually been right. The government really does care about indigenous people. Here was the proof—they had built a brand new asphalt road all the way up here, in the remote, high mountains.
An intriguing feeling took form inside Dumasi, a new feeling—he felt that giving up two years of his life for his nation was the right thing to do.
He had once resented the army, and the obligatory national military service, which took him away from home and deprived his parents of the care and support of their only son. But now, he felt sheepish and regretful for ever feeling that way, especially for the time when he threw a fit and cried bloody murder and racism when another boy in his unit, who—like him, was an only son, but unlike him, was Han Chinese and from the lowlands—was allowed to finish his military service early and go home after not even a month. For Dumasi’s little protest, he’d been locked in a guardroom for twenty-nine days. But now, he was starting to think that even that had been merited, and a just punishment—after all, the national government is looking after his people so attentively. He was sure that once he returned home to his village, everyone would be very proud of him for completing his service.
And then there was her . . . would she be proud of him?
Lawa, the neighbors’s girl—she lived twenty minutes away from his family’s house. She had always been a good student, a straight-A’s beauty. Without being aware of it, his pulse had quickened, and he felt himself blushing. He didn’t notice the bus stopping, and only came to his senses when he realized the bus driver was looking back at him, and had been for a while, politely, but pointedly.
It was a weekday, and he was the last passenger on the bus. He got off and waved goodbye to the bus driver, even though they hadn’t exchanged a single word during the journey. Suddenly, Dumasi became aware of something else. It seemed that the newly resurfaced asphalt road did not end here as it once had, but kept going, further and higher. Several cars passed by the bus. He was perplexed—had he got off at the wrong stop?
But no, he could see the familiar cluster of tall fir trees, and the little row of wooden houses, and the familiar faces of the families who lived there, and the little shop in front of the bus stop with the gap-toothed shop-owner, who he could hear speaking with the same old croaky voice. If there was one thing that wasn’t quite the same, it was the cars that swept past and smart-looking new concrete buildings in the distance, which didn’t quite fit their surroundings.
He walked past the wooden houses, and saw that someone had given a fresh paint job to the tatty, peeling walls of the local elementary school branch. The walls had been painted in a pattern that looked like his parents’ clothes, but when you looked closely, it wasn’t quite the same pattern.
Wow . . . Dumasi thought happily, it really does look like the government is properly taking care of us now as fellow citizens—it seems like lots of people here have money now. Tomorrow, I’ll bring father and mother to see all this.
But what if . . . could it be that his parents might also have been properly taken care of? A beautiful image flashed through his head.
The shame he felt about not being there for his parents for the last two years began to lighten, and a frisson of excitement ran through his whole body. He didn’t notice the stares of the people driving past him in their cars, curious and detached, like visitors at a zoo. He hoisted up his big military duffel bag on his shoulder, which was printed with the words “protecting the nation and serving the people, honoring home and family.” He crossed the asphalt road, threading his way between several fir trees and onto a narrow path—he wanted to fly in a straight line, straight up to his family’s courtyard home.
It was now afternoon on the narrow mountain trail. Clouds had descended among the trees, where they turned into fog and filled the forest. Cold, wet air, and the smell of decaying leaves and branches mixed with animal musk and fur—it all lifted Dumasi’s mood even higher.
He remembered father telling him that when he was a little boy, what he loved more than anything was to go out on foggy days with Dumasi’s grandfather, because thick fog is where you are most likely to encounter lost animals. It was also his mother’s favorite weather for foraging wild greens—she said they become especially sweet and crisp in the fog.
Dumasi was making his way up the mountain, hugging a ridgeline. Within an hour and a half, seven or eight houses came into view—he had arrived at the entrance of the village. His head filled with images of the sumptuous food his parents would be preparing for the evening meal, because after all, that’s what the letter of a month previous had promised. He imagined Lawa, too, at his family’s house, waiting for him. She knew he was coming back, because it was she who had penned that letter. His heartbeat shot up once more—he felt as though his heart could be about to jump up into his throat.
Through the thick fog, his feet carried him quickly and surely towards home. Eventually, at the edge of his vision, where the fog begins to thin, a figure of a person emerged.
“Father! I’m home!” Dumasi called out, excitedly. “Wait . . . is that . . . isn’t that Lawa’s father? Where’s my father?”
“Gone. Your father and mother were taken ten days ago. The police came and got them.”
“This place is a National Park now—it officially opened a month ago. They arrested your dad because he killed a wild pig, and your mum because she was picking wild plants. I knew you would be coming back here, so I waited for you, to tell you. Now, come with me to my house and have something to eat.”
Everything went white for Dumasi, as white as the thick fog that enveloped him.
Dimly, his mind began to process things he had just seen. Monkeys, sitting on the roof of his family’s house—tearing up his home’s tree-bark roof tiles. And the unusually tall weeds crowding the trail. And there was nobody else in the village, only Lawa’s father.
In a daze, he picked up his backpack. The backpack was grassy green, with white lettering printed on it that was barely legible in the dense fog: “Protect Our home, Defend Our Nation. Love Our Villages, Love Our Home.”
“Where’s everyone else? How . . . what happened? What about the government . . . serving the people?”
Dumasi walked woodenly behind Lawa’s father, his backpack scraping the muddy ground, leaving a broken furrow in the dirt. He walked past his family’s little bark-tiled house again. Several of the perching monkeys lifted their heads to look at him. One of the monkeys didn’t even look up, just pulled up another tile, and tossed it away.
Translated from the Taiwanese by Saul Thompson
Badai is a Puyuman novelist/cultural worker from the Damalagaw tribe in Taiwan. His short stories are mainly about how indigenous people in Taiwan adapt to the contemporary Taiwanese society. Badai won a Golden Tripod Award with his first novel, Sorceress Diguwa (2007), and has since been awarded many others, including The Literary Award for Aboriginal Authors Writing in Chinese, Taiwan Literary Award and Wu SAN-Lien Literature Prize. He has published ten novels, a short story collection, and two academic books.
Saul Thompson is a freelance translator and interpreter. Saul has translated and published six books of different literary genres from Chinese into English, including Cry for Life by Zhang Yawen and Hollow Mountain (Vol. 1) by Alai. Saul received his BA degree from the University of Cambridge’s Chinese Studies Program, and an MA from the University of Bath’s Interpreting and Translation Studies. He has been inspired by the translated works of Nicky Harman, Howard Goldblatt, and David Hinton.
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