Lau Seng-hian, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Linguistics, National Tsing Hua University
(Translated by Tenn Nga-I)
Every morning Dad rose before the sun
Picked up his lunchbox
And rode his old bike down to the riverbed
Where he worked hauling gravel
At night I’d wonder
What was in Dad’s lunchbox
Every morning my brother and I stuffed ourselves with steamed buns and soymilk
Dad must’ve had an egg in his lunchbox, at the very least
Otherwise, how’d he haul gravel all day?
It was still dark one morning
When I slipped into the kitchen and opened
Dad’s lunchbox: no egg
Only pickled white radish and rice with shredded yam
Works of literature portraying parent-child relationships and themes of paternal love are often highly dramatic. Famous examples include Ronald Verlin Cassill’s short story “The Father,” Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and even Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” in which a boy expresses his feelings of love and awe for his father as they dance around the family kitchen. However, in Xiang Yang’s “Dad’s Lunchbox,” a Taiwanese (Holo) poem that also portrays a son’s admiration for his paternal parent, dramatization, plot, emotion, and voice are all deliberately understated, the poetic language simple and moving.
“Dad’s Lunchbox” doesn’t describe the working-class father in detail – the first stanza simply states that he awakens every morning before sunup and rides his bicycle to a streambed, where he works all day hauling gravel. Poet Xiang Yang writes from perspective of a curious child still too young to understand much of life. The son knows this father needs to keep up his strength to work as hard as he does, and assumes that his lunchbox must at least contain an egg.
Taiwan’s postwar Taiwan economy was a shambles. For middle- and lower-class families, a chicken’s egg was a luxury item, a holiday treat or a restorative for women who had just given birth. The poet writes: “Dad must’ve had an egg in his lunchbox, at the very least.” The child’s innocent voice hints at the family’s poverty, also implying that he’s aware of how hard his father works – all things considered, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the man to fortify himself with a daily egg, especially since his two sons enjoy a full breakfast of steamed buns and soymilk. Against this backdrop, the poem ultimately achieves drama in the last stanza. One morning, the boy arises before his father, steals into the kitchen, and peeks into his dad’s lunchbox, hoping to find out what nutritious foods give him the energy to toil the whole day through. But the lunchbox contains “Only pickled white radish and rice with shredded yam.” In the postwar era, families economized by cooking shredded sweet potato with rice, and pickled white radish (daikon) was a common household condiment. Nonetheless, the lunchbox is opened at the end of the poem not to call attention to Taiwan’s postwar economic distress, but to show what up to now has been expressed only indirectly: The father’s deep, abiding love for his family.
“Dad’s Lunchbox” doesn’t rely on rhyme to achieve effects, but in the last two lines “egg” (nn̄g) rhymes with “rice” (pn̄g), adding a finishing touch that brings the poem to a climactic and effective conclusion, the sounds echoing on in readers’ minds. Written in 1976, the work heralded a revival of Taiwanese-language (Holo) literature, which had long been suppressed in the postwar period. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, we can observe the limitations the poet faced in writing in Taiwanese, as well as his consideration of reader needs in selecting Chinese characters to represent Taiwanese (Holo) words and concepts.
Xiang Yang (1955- ) is the penname of Lin Qiyang, a native of Lugu in Nantou County. The writer holds a doctorate in journalism from National Chengchi University, and has served as editor-in-chief at China Times Weekly, deputy director and chief editor at Independence Evening Post, and chief editor at Nature quarterly. In 1985 he took part in the University of Iowa International Writers’ Workshop. He has also served as board member and general secretary of the Wu Sanlian Historical Archives Foundation, Executive Yuan government affairs advisor, secretary of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, and president of Taiwan P.E.N. Currently he is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Education’s Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture and permanent council member of the Republic of China Modern Poets Association.
Xiang Yang has written essays, modern poetry, literary criticism, and children’s literature, but is known primarily as a poet. In high school he served as chief editor of a poetry publication, his Taiwanese (Holo) verse and ten-line poetry winning him a place in Taiwanese poetry circles. In 1976 he published The Gingko’s Hope, his first poetry collection, and has also issued the poetry journal Sunshine Collection. In recent years he has devoted himself to “Internet poetry,” and has set up a number of personal websites. Xiang Yang is one of Taiwan’s most experimental contemporary poets.
Chaos (2005), published sixteen years after Affairs of the Heart (1987), his previous poetry collection, is Xiang Yang’s most representative work. In the period between the two collections’ publications, the writer rose from assistant chief-editor to editor-in-chief at the Independence Evening Post. After enrolling in a journalism doctoral program at National Chengchi University, he spent the next nine years alternating between roles as teacher and student. More than a record of the twists and turns in the poet’s life, Chaos also documents the social and political unrest that has marked Taiwanese society since ending of martial law.
Xiang Yang’s essays are both rational and emotive. Beginning with The Wandering Tree (1979), he has published a total of eleven essay collections. In his critical writings, such as Drafting a Cultural Garden (2008), he is a strong exponent of nativist consciousness, a touching lyricism implicit within his rationality. In the field of children’s literature he has published Chinese Myths (1983), a collection of stories, and Child in the Mirror, a book of children’s poems, and has also translated Japanese poet Mado Michio’s The Elephant’s Nose Is Long (1996).
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2283
|Anthology：||Selected Works of Taiwan Poets, No. 58: Xiang Yang|
|Author：||Xiang Yang (Hiong Iong)|
|Language：||Traditional Chinese (Holo)|
|Translator：||鄭雅怡 (Tenn Nga-i)|
|Publisher：||Tainan City: National Museum of Taiwan Literature|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010468836|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Unpublished Translation by the Literature Toolkit Project|