We called him Ye Ye, which means Maternal Grandfather in Mandarin. A quiet, peaceful man, he spoke very little. When he did, each word was carefully delivered in his soft Chinese cadence, as if they were precious pearls he was offering us.
Ye Ye and his wife Lili swam out of China in the fifties, clinging to inner tubes, determined to start a new life in America. During my frequent visits, I studied the many old photographs on the wall, especially one with Ye Ye wearing a red scarf and holding a sword.
“What was it like, running from the Chinese soldiers and escaping on the inner tube?” I asked one day. Weren’t you afraid of losing your life? Of being shot, or drowning?”
He was silent for a minute. “What is life?” Do you know what it means to fully live?”
The soft question came out of nowhere, and I studied him carefully, unsure how to answer. Only nineteen at the time, I had very little experience to draw on regarding the meaning of life.
“I’ll tell you an old story,” he said. “Long ago in China a priest was walking in a forest high on a mountain near his monastery. When he came to a steep cliff, he paused and looked out over the valley far away. Looking down, he was startled to see a pride of lions pacing down below, huge hungry yellow eyes staring up at him intently. Grateful they couldn’t climb up the cliff, he turned away and started back to the monastery.”
“But suddenly he was confronted by 4 large lions prowling in the path before him. He backed up slowly, step by step, and the lions moved forward, their muscles rippling under the sleek golden fur. When he reached the edge of the cliff, the lions below began to growl in deep rumbling tones. Which way to go? There were only two choices for him. He looked down at his feet.”
“There he saw a thick vine growing by the cliff and snaking its way down the sheer precipice. Perhaps he could shimmy down it and wait the lions out by hanging onto the vine. As the lions on the path moved in on him, he bent and grasped the heavy vine and quickly made his way down the rock. The lions below roared, and the lions above peered down with angry yellow eyes. He clung to the vine with shaking hands.”
“But alas! One of the beasts up above began gnawing at the vine, tearing and ripping each braided strand one at a time. Desperately he looked around for another means of escape. The vine was close to snapping. The priest looked to his right, and there beside him within reach was one single huge, red strawberry growing out of the rock. Looking down he saw the restless lions waiting. Looking up he could see the vine almost ready to snap.”
“Without hesitation he reached for the strawberry and popped it in his mouth.”
jhg journal 12/72