He joined the Korean War in 1950 when he was 20 years old. A bomb caused him to become deaf in one ear. For the rest of his life, he could never tell whether people were shouting at him or merely making their voices louder so he could hear what they were saying. I am not sure if he was gentle by nature or it was just because he could not hear. Whenever I saw him, he was always smiling. When he smiled, I could see his two fake silvery teeth. At that time, I did not think of these two teeth as a wreck. Instead, I thought they were glorious indicators of people who had fought in the war. My grandfather indeed thought that the Korean War glorified him, though the evidence was not the teeth but the medals he won. He put all his war medals in a box. The iron box with his collection was still in the first drawer of a cabinet next to his bed.
The material used for these medals was cheap and all the details are coarse. All of this made these medals feel as though they lacked solemnity. Looking at them, did not drag me back to a war scene, but made me wonder who inscribed the Chinese characters on their back side. My grandfather’s softness made me unable to think about how brutal the war was until my mom told me that he once killed her dog.
He was sharpening a knife in the garden. He noticed my mother’s dog was sick. He went inside and returned with a rifle, shooting the dog to death. What frightens me is not that he killed the dog, but that after he killed it he put the rifle beside his feet and continued to sharpen his knife.I have never asked him whether he had killed a person.
There is another soldier in my family who participated in the Vietnam War, Uncle Hu. Unlike my grandfather, his participation in the war was not glorified. It is instead a secret he must carry to his death. He was a spy during the war. When he came back, he had to promise that he would not speak of his job to anyone under any condition. This was because the Chinese government wouldn’t admit that they ever had spies.
So when I would ask him, “How is Vietnam?” He would say, “The areca nut is hard. Always stuck between people’s teeth when you eat it.”
His marriage to my aunt was an “accident”. When he returned from the war, he was the right age to get married. His parents were my grandparents’ neighbours. They decided to arrange a marriage for him, but they did not force him to marry anyone in particular like the stereotypes in film. My grandparents allowed him to peep from the garden and see which daughter he would like to pick. He wanted to pick my mother, but didn’t have enough time to recognize who was who, since there were many daughters. My grandparents knew that he liked my mother, but they tricked him. They realized that my aunt was the least beautiful among their daughters, so her chances of getting married would be the slimmest. They decided to give my aunt away.
My uncle Hu is shy. He was uncertain if my aunt was the one he had noticed in the garden and thought it would be inappropriate to ask her. So he never asked anything about it until they got married.
One day, he finally asked my aunt,“How many daughters do your parents have, exactly?