This happened in 1960s and it is a true story. I heard it when listening to the conversations between my parents and their friends when I was growing up. I also knew Sister Cabbage, who’s a mixture of old age and young passion, severity and naivety, reticence and outbursts. This is the story of her and her husband as a young couple. I didn’t know all the details since adults around me refused to explain all the details. However I pieced the story together. I only changed in those places that can make the characters unrecognizable even by the offspring of the couple.
Sandy City was called Sandy Points in 1960s when it was still a cluster of villages on the border of Mongolian steppe. Most people had already shed their nomadic life and adopted farming for centuries here, which was considered more predictable and more secure. Sorghum, potato, wheat, corn were planted in abundance. The vast grassland was gradually transformed to a farming community, a poor farming community but with relatively content people.
After WWII, there’s a new enthusiasm for scientific farming, scientific education, even scientific human relationship. Hardly anybody knew what these new terms meant, but since they were fashionable terms, people tended to accept them without questioning. One day, several young people arrived at Sandy Points. They were hardly older than teenagers. The group had a leader, who’s name is Hoa Kwee, but everybody called him Brother Kwee. Cabbage is his wife’s name and everybody called her Sister Cabbage–in those days, everybody married young.
Brother Kwee and Sister Cabbage grew up in Indonesia and the social turmoil in 1960s caused them to flee north. They probably took their escape too enthusiastically and didn’t stop their northern journey until they almost reached Siberia–if they didn’t stop at the Mongolian steppe, they could very well have gone further to the North Pole. They came to Sandy Points for a social experiment–to make a modern model out of the ancient sleepy community.
Soon after they arrived, they started to work. Brother Kwee and his teammates started to hold meetings to educate the men, while Sister Cabbage and her team of women started to hold meetings for women, give basic literary classes, and build a new school for children. The locals had never had such meetings before–they had only festival gatherings, parties, or Buddhist observations. The locals also never had anything that’s called school before. If somebody had wanted their kids to get educated, they usually sent their boys to a Buddhist monastery 100 miles away when the boys became teenagers. School was a new concept and a co-ed school with both boys and girls was an extra new concept. Every child, regardless of boy or girl, was going to school every morning. And illiteracy was said to be a shame and everybody was expected to read and write. The villagers had never heard of such a thing since there’s only one or two people who could read and write at the time in Sandy Points.
The arrival of this small group of young men and women–soon nicknamed “Squad” by the villagers–almost flipped Sandy Points upside down. The quiet villages were no longer quiet. Villagers’ relaxed demeanor was considered a demonstration of laziness. The ancient laid back attitude was no longer fashionable. There were books to be read aloud by one member of the Squad, meetings to attend, concepts to learn, and old concepts to denounce.
Controversies soon arose. Brother Kwee, boy-faced and enthusiastic, became a favorite figure among local women young and old. The women would follow him whenever they had time and find excuses to talk with him. His sonorous voice, talkativeness, charisma was so different from the dusty old reserved attitude of the men they had been familiar with. He was so fresh–no wonder he became so popular. Women would seek advice from him on all things and treat his words as sacred instructions.
Sister Cabbage couldn’t stand it and had quarreled with Brother Kwee regularly, but to no avail. How could one woman’s feeble strength fight the tidal wave of admiration? And the men in the villages were not too enthusiastic about Brother Kwee or his squad, but their habitual do-nothing attitude was so deeply rooted that they pretended that they didn’t care and tried to look away.
Another controversy was about children’s education. These wild steppe children couldn’t be quiet and they didn’t take their study seriously. Teachers and exams meant nothing to them. They refused to learn anything that was not fun or intuitive. They didn’t care if they handed an exam sheet with wrong answers or no answer at all, and they didn’t feel bad when they were scolded.
Brother Kwee and Sister Cabbage had a solution. They started to teach people to be harsh on their children and discipline them severely when they didn’t do their homework or didn’t get good marks in school. Most people didn’t listen. Or even if they listened, they didn’t follow. However there were several women admirers of Brother Kwee who took his advice seriously and in verbatim. The most passionate among them all was Arsh, who was a careless and headstrong person. She married a lazy and callous man Ardon in the village. Arsh didn’t like her husband, and didn’t enjoy taking care of her kids. To her, following Brother Kwee and attending meetings rescued her from her hopeless home life.
Arsh and Ardon had twins, one daughter and one son born one minute apart. It was quite rare to have twins like that. According to the Sandy Points tradition, the twin was revered as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Being a symbol was a good thing for the boy and the girl. People would give them food and clothes even if their mother didn’t care much and their father was often absent.
Ever since Arsh became a faithful disciple of Brother Kwee, she had transformed from a careless mother, whom the children felt tolerable, to a tyrant, whom the children felt unbearable. She tried to use her harsh measures to make the twin best students in school. Brother Kwee was very keen on this too. “What a good example it will make? It will be a testimony to my success.” He thought to himself.
One night, a big row started in Arsh and Ardon’s little house, which was built adjacent to other houses. The neighbors, roused by the noise, came in to help make peace. The mother had to be persuaded to stay calm while the crying children had to be soothed and appeased. The children were 10-year-old and they demanded to go back to their grandparents’ place. Brother Kwee came in too and severely scolded the kids for their disobedience and taught Arsh more harsh tricks to deal with her children. The negligent mother felt that her action was justified by Kwee’s theoretical supports.
The rest of the night passed peacefully. When the morning came, the twins were nowhere to be found. A search party was organized and all the dusty places of the Sandy Points were searched, but to no avail. The range of the search was enlarged for the next two days, and finally the children were found, but they were dead, obviously from hypothermia. It was not really winter yet, but the steppe temperature drops sharply during the night. The children were on their way to their grandparents’ place that was twenty miles away, but they never reached there.
The villagers were all in shock. Most of them felt very sad, some feeling even sadder than the parents of the twins. It’s an ancient steppe tradition that if their members are hurt, something has to be done. And something did subsequently happen.
In this place, the rain comes in spurts–a big storm in a short time, after which it can be dry again for a mouth. For this reason, every family has a big container outside to hold rain water. And the whole village would have one very big communal container to keep rainwater. Not long after the death of the twins, one day people woke up and found that Brother Kwee’s body was floating in one of the containers.
An investigation was launched and it concluded that Brother Kwee was drowned. It was ruled an accident–Brother Kwee must have slipped into the container at night when he came out to fetch water.
Sister Cabbage couldn’t accept this conclusion, but she couldn’t provide any detail about the night of the “accident”. She claimed that the villagers murdered her husband to revenge the twins’ death, but nobody listened to her.
She eventually moved to another steppe town and settled in a rural college to teach English. And guess what? She continued to advocate Brother Kwee’s doctrines of treating children harshly. Most people considered her a mad woman and didn’t listen to her, but there were always several bad parents who would listen. And she became the fixed feature among them and continued to exercise her evil tongue.
I met her when she had wrinkles all over her angry face. And her harsh eyes hid behind her glasses, examining people with suspicion and disconnection. There’s always a strange vibe about her. Children like me usually escaped as far away as possible from her.
“How about being nice to people? How about being a decent human being? Is that so hard to do?” I have always wanted to ask her.