(Sophia Truong 三藩市)
The Act of Loving Others
“Ni hao!” Someone yells.
A car speeds past me, carrying with it the sound of a man’s rancorous laughter and the rumble of an engine being harshly reved. I flinch back, looking between the rapidly disappearing vehicle and the small, lumpy black plastic bag sitting near my feet, the sound of its contents smashing onto the harsh concrete still ringing in my ears.
My heartbeat thumps. One, two, three.
I inhale. My fists clench.
‘Ren,’ I think. ‘Have ren.’
My friend Sarah grabs my arm.
“Are you okay ” She whispers, face shocked and subdued.“That sounded like glass. That person-when they drove by-the thing they threw, it-it sounded like glass.”
I inhale again.
It is difficult to define the Confuscian virtue in layman’s English. When written on paper in the form of a single character, the word combines the character of “man” (人) with that of “two” (二) to symbolize the literal concept of “a relationship between two people,” or the “the act of loving others,” (仁).
Google translate, I’ve discovered, summarizes the virtue as simply “humaneness,” “benevolence,” or “empathy.”
I used to hear this word often as a little girl, sitting down at the dinner table next to my Gong Gong as my Poi Poi bustled around our kitchen. Over bowls of warm white rice and trays of fish slathered with black bean sauce, my Gong Gong would tell me tales of his childhood, of his home village in the poor Taishan region of Guangdong, where the weather never ceased to be anything less than sweltering, and mudfish was caught straight by hand from the river and eaten for supper that very day. There were dirt roads and dirt houses and a main square that held a tree older than the village itself, and every morning the villagers would be awoken by the dutiful cry of a proud, red-crested rooster.
“But I left China. Come to America.” My Gong Gong would always say, before switching from broken English to his native Taishanese dialect. “I came here as a paper son. I lived in poverty. And I had to learn how to practice the virtue ren.”
One practices humaneness, when one comes to America and is held captive at an immigration center on suspicions of having false papers. One practices empathy, when one is forced to learn English without any prior teaching, and is forever mocked for having a thick accent. One practices benevolence, when one lives under a false surname, for fear of being deported back to a poor village in Taishan for immigrating to America with the use of a fake passport.
One practices ren until the day one dies, and is buried on American soil, an ocean from a poor dirt village in the depths of Taishan.
I turn to Sarah.
I take in her brown eyes, her long black hair, the blue framed glasses perched precariously above her soft, rounded cheeks. I take in the width of her nose, the shape of her mouth, the little mole around the curve of her jaw.
I take in her distinctly East Asian features.
She looks back at me, then up, then down, her brown eyes darting rapidly, gaze scanning the empty street in wide, restless movements, searching and scanning for something. Someone. Anyone.
‘Help,’ her face seems to plead, ‘Help me. I’m scared.’
But there’s just me.
There’s just us. There’s just two little Chinese girls, standing on a desolate street corner, reeling from the aftermath of an attempted hate attack.
“I’m okay.” I tell Sarah. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re both okay.”
One practices the act of loving others, when one has something thrown at them from the window of a speeding car, and yelled at with the hostile use of the Chinese word for “Hello” as a way to mock their Asian heritage, when all one has done is merely walk down a street with a good friend.
One practices empathy, even in the face of shock and anger and rage and a need for a wrong to not go unpunished.
One practices ren, the virtue of benevolence and the act of loving others, even when others do not have ren themselves.
“Let’s not think angry thoughts.” I give Sarah a small, wry smile. “It’s done. Let’s just keep walking.”
Essay language: English (with the use of Chinese pinyin/words)
– Gong Gong = Maternal Grandfather
– Poi Poi = Maternal Grandmother
– Ren = Confucian virtue that describes the act of showing benevolence towards others.
Sophia Truong, San Francisco