“Journey to the Midwest” is a retelling of my father’s immigration story in the style of the classical Chinese novel, "Journey to the West". Along the way, he and his companions, Family, Frugality, and Faith, encounter various demons and monsters like racism and poverty as they search for their new home in the Beautiful Country.
In the year of the Fire Snake, Hsiao Si, the fourth son of a house in exile left his family home on the Treasured Island to seek knowledge and fortune in the Beautiful Country. His father, the retired major general, and mother, the beauty of Anhui, provisioned him with enough for a year’s journey. They sent with him a jade talisman that contained a guardian spirit named Chia, who represented the blessings of his family.
To go west, he went east, across the Peaceful Sea, arriving first at the Gold Mountain like so many travelers from the Middle Kingdom before him. When he landed, a curse fell upon him that tied up his tongue, stoppered his ears, and caused written words to swim before his eyes. The gatekeeper to the West said that the curse was unbreakable, but if he labored long enough, he could free his descendants from its effects.
“Do you wish to stay?” asked the gatekeeper.
Hsiao Si said that he did.
He then journeyed overland to the ancestral land of the Caddoan Wichita, where he began his studies surrounded by jayhawks. There he met another guardian named Sheng, who taught him how to multiply the provisions sent by his family. But Sheng was vassal to a monster named Que, whom Hsiao Si had known back on the Treasured Island. Que was always hungry and would order Sheng to pay tribute out of Hsiao Si’s resources.
After the first year, despite Sheng’s valiant efforts, the provisions from his noble parents had run out. Hsiao Si was forced to petition a petty demon lord for work repairing the village arena. This demon lord was vassal to the archdemon, Pianjian, who delighted in setting people against one another. The petty lord hired Hsiao Si and other poor scholars who had no choice but to work for a pittance.
Within one day, however, one of Hsiao Si’s teachers, who himself had long ago come from the land of the great river in Africa, interceded to the local officials on his behalf. Hsiao Si was given more money and provisions, over which Sheng and Que were left to squabble for another year.
It was then time for Hsiao Si to continue his travels and studies. He traveled east again, this time to the former Iroquois Confederacy, long since subsumed by the Great White Empire. There he embarked on studies at a very ancient school, founded by a group whose name translates loosely to The Ones Who Tremble. He settled in a village of Black people, whom he had never met but had always been taught to fear by Pianjian and his lieutenants. They lived peacefully enough alongside each other, though everyone kept their own company.
It was in this land that Hsiao Si first met a priest of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The priest taught him the ways of the three gods in one, and eventually granted Hsiao Si a new guardian, Hsin, as a reward for his faith. Hsin lived in a clay pot and was a strict guardian, setting all sorts of rules and punishments to ensure that Hsiao Si could earn the promised blessings from the Father. Sheng and Que quickly assimilated to the new regime, but Hsin disapproved of Chia’s ancestor worship and wanted to send her away. Hsiao Si insisted that Chia be allowed to stay but promised to stop burning incense and spirit money in order to placate Hsin.
Hsiao Si also met his wife here in the great city of brotherly love. She was the youngest child and cherished daughter in a house of six sons, and she came from the Harbor City of the southern region of the Treasured Island. Her family guardian had joined with another mighty guardian, Chiao, to bring her and several of her brothers to the Beautiful Country.
Together Hsiao Si and his wife traveled through the heart of the Beautiful Country for several years before a daughter was born to them. They named her Hsiao Bao, for she was their little treasure. By this time, they had been granted citizenship and land on which to build a home in the Beautiful Country. Their guardians had grown old and were no longer needed for protection.
Bored, restless, and far from home, the guardians began to make trouble for Hsiao Bao. At birth, her parents had given her the jade talisman where Chia lived to protect her. But the jade had turned to lead, heavy around the child’s neck, pulling her inexorably toward the earth when all she wanted was to run and dance. Sheng grew ever more fretful, taking the child’s toys and food to offer to Que, even though the walls of their home were thick and strong to keep the monster out. And at just 6 years of age, when she was born again according to the ways of the Father, Son, and Spirit, Hsin put the child inside his clay pot for safekeeping.
But as the gatekeeper had once foretold, the child’s tongue was not tied nor her ears stoppered up. She could hear the spirits of the Beautiful Country calling her to freedom, and read books that showed her a world beyond the clay pot.
From birth, she had eaten meat and milk from the Beautiful Country, where there was so much food that not even Sheng and Que could steal it all. She continued to grow, even inside the clay pot, such that the sides of the pot pressed and pinched her head and heart.
Finally, after many years, the child grew tired of being shut inside the pot. With one arm, she pushed on the lid, which gave way surprisingly easily. She reached one arm out, then another. As she worked to free herself, her legs kicked and the pot shattered. Had it always been so fragile? At the same time, the chain holding Chia’s talisman snapped from the weight of the lead pendant.
The child stood cold and trembling in the open air for the first time. She longed for the protection of Hsin’s clay pot, but it was irrevocably broken. What would her parents think? She swept up the broken shards, but instead of throwing them away, put them into a box for safekeeping. Perhaps she could fix it someday.