artist, college professor, museum board director and educational software developer


Kirk Ke Wang


My friends may not know that when sending me a Happy Birthday greeting, they also send one to my sister. We were both born on the same day (April 26th), and she is my only sibling but 2 years older.

On birthdays, we naturally think of our birthplace and mother. I was born in Shanghai, China and my mother was a principal of an elementary school when we moved to another city.

Here is a true story shared within my family, yet reluctantly talked about.In my mother’s school, there was a temporary worker. No one knew his real name, but we all called him “Old Gu”.

Old Gu was a peasant from the countryside. When the season was bad, he came to the city as a temporary helper, to make some money for his family to survive until next harvest.

People familiar with China’s history know this. There are two classes in Chinese society, the city people and the country people. Their lives were night and days. The city people enjoyed the state jobs, free education, free medical care, and food rations, particularly during the old days in 60s and 70s. The country people do not have any income other than selling their crops. If the weather did not corporate, what waited for them was hunger, not to mention the care for the sickness. Country people took over 70% of China’s population then.

It seemed that the situation was bad and Old Gu stayed in my mother’s school for several seasons.

Old Gu was probably only in his mid 30s and a father of 5 children. It was a time before China enforced the “One Child” policy. The burden of life etched on his face like a 60-year-old man. He was skinny with a slightly hunched back. My memory of him was a sunburned dark face and a pair of big hands cracked by thick calluses.

Old Gu was quite. He had a habit of rolling up his gray trousers up to his knees while working, like a farmer in the rice field. He shadowed all over the school, cleaning the floor, moving the trash, repairing the tables and chairs, helping in the kitchen…

In the city, for the birthdays, children usually get special treats with the sweet cakes made of sticky rice. In my mother’s school, they always stored some sticky rice for the special occasions.

One day, the cook in the kitchen saw some of the stick rice was growing green mold and dumped them in the trashcan.

Maybe because Old Gu worked in the city, he learned the concept of celebrating birthdays for the children. At the end of the day, he asked my mother if he could take home those throwaway-molded sticky rice.

My mother said, those rice were rotten and it was not good for the health. Old Gu begged that he would wash them well and cooked them thoroughly, so his children would taste the sweet cake like the city kids.

With sympathy, my mother agreed. Old Gu was exuberated with smiles seldom seem before. He stayed extra longer that day and moped the floor extra clean!

Old Gu didn’t come to work the next day.

Old Gu didn’t come to work the day after.

Old Gu didn’t come to work for a week.

About two weeks later, Old Gu finally appeared in school with two red eyes bulged like eggs. He chocked and murmured that his children had food poisoning and he could not afford to call the ambulance to send them to the hospital.

I was told later that they all died.

Old Gu took his stuff and left.

We never saw him again.

My sister and I celebrated many birthdays together thereafter. When eating the birthday cakes, I often thought of Old Gu and his children who I never met.

(Both my sister and I later become teachers for high education. She received her PHD from University of Chicago and currently is the Dean of the College of Education and Public Health at a major University in NYC.)



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