By: Cindy Patten, Nanaimo, Canada
Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
“Day 6: Travel to Xia Yi Village,
one of the Rotten Leg villages and meet with survivors
of anthrax warfare.”The itinerary sounded fascinating
and mysterious to my inner historian. This was the day I had been
most intrigued by since becoming part of Canada ALPHA' s Study
Tour for teachers. It was the rarest of opportunities to experience
living history as we traveled mainland China learning about one
of the twentieth century' s most horrific chapters of war history:
the Japanese invasion and occupation from 1936 to the end of World
At first I maintained emotional distance from the
litany of suffering, my spirit buffered from true compassion by
bland historians' lectures and waxing textbook discussions.
Day 6 was to be my wake up call. Armed with the “bare
necessities” (bottled water, sunscreen, antibacterial wipes,
toilet paper, journals, pens, digital cameras and local translators),
we boarded our luxury air conditioned coach after a buffet breakfast.
Bound for Xia Yi, we were absolutely unprepared in spirit for journey
ahead: to listen to survivors bear witness.
For over an hour we jostled at frightening speed
along potholed roads, groaning collectively as we hit deep, spine-jarring
ruts. As we approached the ancient village of the Yi family in a
filthy billow of dust and fumes, the bus driver honked mercilessly
at waves of wheeled, pedestrian and hoofed traffic, miraculously
parting them from our path as did Moses the Red Sea.
It felt like we were traveling into China' s
past. Sunshine pummeled sturdy women bearing huge woven baskets
overflowing with lush greens. Weathered men wrangling fantastical
farming contraptions belching evil, viscous smoke chugged serenely
through undulating rice paddies. In the distant haze stooped
farmers dotted the crop land, heads shaded by conical bamboo hats
worn in this part of China since antiquity. We passed humble
clusters of crumbling brick and mud homes lavished with intricately
carved decaying wooden trim and capped by graying bamboo roof tiles.
Clucking chickens scratched viciously at the red dirt while every
variety of squash entwined delicate green tendrils along splintering
gates and disintegrating dwellings. Vibrant heaps of unspeakable
refuse breathed moistly with a life of their own as clouds of obese
flies droned sluggishly about the spoils. Brilliant orange
blossoms lit up the scabby roadscape like tiny fires.
The narrowing dirt roadway was designed for carts,
not four star coaches. When it became impossible to wedge
further up the lanes without nicking corners from Qing dynasty homes,
we disembarked into a weedy courtyard which also served as a vegetable
patch and chicken run. Yellow cobs of drying corn were strung
in bundles from roof tops, away from hopeful beaks. In the
phenomenal heat I half expected to see popcorn kernels exploding
into the stratosphere.
I had anticipated the survivors being the main attraction
and was momentarily puzzled to realize that instead we
were. Itching, mangy dogs and snaggle-toothed old women fluttering
paper fans to combat the shimmering heat gazed upon us with great
toothy smiles from peeling wooden doorways. As we wound through
the uneven alley into the heart of the village, amused and bedazzled
children pointed and laughed openly at our sheer size (L, XL and
XXL by Chinese standards) and color (white-pink-red). We quickly
snapped photos, wanting to remember what we ascribed as their innocence.
In retrospect it was our own naiveté that we were preserving.
The community meeting place was the venerable Yi
family shrine. It was an ancient wooden temple, open air,
with large red painted logs supporting a high ceiling. Tall
narrow tables, warm bottles of water and small rickety chairs awaited
us. Lopsided electric fans and one gleaming Western toilet
had been installed for our benefit. I slumped into the nearest
seat, panting slightly at the heat, humidity and humanity.
Around me was packed to bursting with chattering villagers and lusty
media who were intent on committing our experience to photographic
memory by the gigabyte. The din of their enthusiasm was overwhelming,
like the roar of a jetliner during takeoff.
We fell silent as a handful of senior Chinese, smiling
and composed, shuffled to the front with immense dignity. Our senior
translator announced that they are the last of 255 from this enduring,
gritty village who were infected by plague, typhus, glanders and
skin anthrax some 60 years ago by the vicious Japanese military.
One venerate woman wore short, impish pigtails and
her lambent smile dimmed the sun with its positive wattage.
As a young child she became infected from a tiny scratch while helping
her parents in the fields. Rolling up tattered trousers to
the knee she revealed the hallmark of anthrax poisoning: flesh as
black as charred wood. Her legs were rotten, skin sliding
from bone. Filthy cloth strips could not conceal the green infection
that oozed from her swelling shins. As governments at all
levels have done little to provide medical or political amelioration
for these simple village survivors, her primary medical treatment
is green tea leaf packing because she has limited access to expensive
antibiotics. Pain has kept her bedridden for the better part
of six decades, yet she made the arduous trip by foot this day to
tell us her story. When asked how she keeps her spirits up,
she grinned gorgeously and responded, “I have a good son!”
Another time-worn survivor had glanders. Her
face was rotting away; her remaining lips curled into a permanent
rictous around graying teeth. She hitched up the back of her
shirt to show us the extreme hump of her spine and the ridge of
vertebrae, poking razor sharp against parchment thin brown skin.
During one of her frequent dizzy spells caused by the infection
she tripped and fell, cracking her backbone. Because of her
extreme disfigurement she was not able to marry and over the years
there was no one to help. In the twilight of her life she
anguishes in pain and solitude, and sometimes considers suicide.
I just want someone to love me and take care of me before I die,
”she hoarsely beseeched Jing, our student translator in the
local Chinese dialect. We watched Jing' s classically lovely
young face twist into tears as her heart broke for this woman.
Although we were not privy to that particular exchange until later,
our own hearts hammered in synchronicity with outrage and our breath
came fast and shallow with collective grief for her tortured existence.
Numb and confused after the testimonies, I spent
some golden, facile minutes playing with the irrepressible village
children. Many had dressed up especially for our arrival;
the girls in particular in lacey white frocks and simple but snazzy
hair frills. They were beside themselves with joy when I drew
hearts on their hands - squealing xin, xin” (heart,
heart) to each other in delight- and I found it easy to let them
plant sprigs of happiness in my own heart despite the dank stain
of inhumanity that lingered in my soul. On the worn path back
to the bus I spotted a tiny canine ragamuffin. The matted
grey puppy languidly regarded me with one sleepy eye from the shade
of a tree, no doubt pondering if it was worth an effort to act cute
in exchange for the potential payoff of delicious smelling potato
chips from my pack. I was eventually dismissed with a great
doggy chuff: too hot today. My stomach lurched with
the knowledge that this would be a descendent of the same dogs that
had eaten by necessity from the piles of human corpses left to putrefy
in the streets during the ravage of Xia Yi.
With shocking alacrity we were out of the past and
into the present: returned to the civilization of an instant gourmet
hotel lunch, cans of cold, carbonated beverages and mechanically
cooled air. We discussed the plight of the survivors in private
groups of two and three, our gestures and exclamations animating
our expressions of sympathy and disbelief. The morning already
seemed - thankfully - surreal.
Later that evening, Jing worked to cultivate our
blister of ignorance into veritable nub of awareness. With
tears streaming down her flushed cheeks she searched for words to
help us comprehend our shallowness of understanding. “You
say that the children in the village have such beautiful smiles.
Well, that' s all they have to give you! They have nothing
else, nothing at all!” Usually gentle and soft-spoken, she
addressed us with an uncharacteristic vehement passion.
My grandmother lived in this province when the Japanese
soldiers came, ”she continued, choking with emotion.
“They never found her village so she did not experience what
these people lived through. If she had, I would have been
one of those smiling children today with nothing. I could
have their life.” She swiped at a wisp of hair stuck
to her dampened forehead and suddenly I could imagine her as one
of the children I had seen, living in the tiny village that smelled
of rancid sewage and garbage, smiling in excitement at my
foreign-ness. The picture brought tightness to my chest as
I absorbed for the first time: something as simple as
a battery of soldiers trespassing left instead of right on a grassy
path between villages 60 years ago provided intelligent, articulate
Jing a life of privilege instead of poverty. There but
by the grace of God…
As a privileged foreigner, the survivors' accounts
reaffirmed for me that which I already knew from university classes:
atrocities of war are outrageous and unfair. I also began
to comprehend what only experience could teach me: the face
of dignity and depth of resiliency lie dormant and untested in those
of us lucky enough to live in the right place and era. I often think
of the first survivor' s parting words for us: “I love
you, you love me! Despite overwhelming obstacles she lives
her life fully with love and family and continues to believe that
she will be cured. Lifelong grace and forgiveness and hope
supercede the impact of war and suffering and disease; this, truly,
is the culture of peace cultivated through unfathomable forgiveness.
The message is clear to me: if she can embrace her life with
such love and exuberance, then it would be my shame not to.