My earliest recollection as a child was when I was five or six. I remember the sun setting behind the mountains of our small village. It was still early but, because the mountains were so near, darkness descended quickly. I was always afraid of the dark. A foolish child’s fear, but fear nevertheless. Even now, as I look back, I wonder why the fear I felt then seemed so pervasive.
Our family was very poor. My parents and older sister were out in the rice paddies all day. It was hard, grueling, back wrenching work. Once I remember putting up a fuss demanding that I be allowed to help. My father picked me up in his arms held me and looked deep into my eyes. “Do not hurry the fates, my son, your time will come too soon.” He nuzzled me with his face, his long mustache and beard surprisingly soft on my young face. He smiled, but his eyes seemed sad and as distant as the end of the dirt track that threaded its way up the mountain. My mother, too, seemed Å patted my head and gave me a handful of coloured beans to play with.
“Don’t you lose those,” my sister scolded, wagging her finger like an old woman of seven. “Half are mine. If I find any missing you will be sorry.” She scampered after our parents while I sat in the centre of the room on the worn burlap mat. I was alone again. No one to care for me. Ours was a village that lived on the edge of starvation, and all the able folk were in the fields. I dropped the beans onto the mat and they scattered into a starburst pattern. In fact, that was my main entertainment on those long dreary days. I would imagine what the pattern the beans made looked like: a fox; a stern face; or, perhaps, even one of the apple trees that grew wild on the crest of the hill above our tiny two-room cottage. When I wearied of naming the bean patterns I would curl up for a nap in the corner, my corner. My dreams were filled with strange sounds and visitors. Often I awoke with a sense of fear deep in my gut. It was fear not hunger, even though I would not have any food until my family returned.
Young as I was, I instinctively knew when to expect them back. I hurried to pick up all the beans, remembering my sister’s warning. I was proud of myself because I had thought up several new names for the bean patterns. I planned to amaze her with my creativity, since she did not think I was too bright. I put the beans away in a small tin cup, brushed the burlap mat with the semi-toothless bristle broom and sat cross-legged to wait.
I waited a long time. From the doorway, I could see the rice paddies were empty. The village was quiet and, oddly, no one was stirring. The sun had repeated its daily ritual of disappearing beyond the mountains. The dark was approaching and I was aware of the nagging fear invading my mind and body. I waited at the doorway until it was totally dark and finally returned to the centre of the room and sat down. The only sound in the blackness was the wind whistling through the apple tree branches and my soft whimpering.
Just after dawn, something, a noise or sound, woke me. I sat bolt upright, not breathing, straining to listen. The soft wind from the night before was still blowing. But then I heard it plainly. “My friends, are you there?” The words sounded strangely stilted. It was Chinese but with a decidedly strange male accent. “Hello, anyone there?”
I ran to the door and peeked carefully around the door jamb. Down the road in the centre of our small village were a man and woman. They were strangers in both dress and visage. In response to my lonely night and seeing these newcomers, I suddenly burst into tears. The strangers ran up to me. The woman gently took me into her arms and held me, soothing me with strange words, while I continued to weep. Then she spoke in Chinese. “You are safe now. This is my husband John and I am Jeanne. Are you hungry?” I stopped my crying for a moment and nodded.
“My father and mother and Pui Ling did not come home,” I said in a whisper and although I wanted to continue, my throat ached with such sadness that I could not speak. The woman, Jeanne, squeezed me in comfort while the man handed me a sugar bread. My eyes must have widened in disbelief because we rarely had such delicacies and, when we did, it was only on very special occasions.
“What is your name?” John asked. “Is there no one else in the village?” I shook my head as I busily attacked the sugar bread. “My name is Chang Wing Fai,” I finally managed, my mouth full of the taste of the sugar bread.
When I had finished, they gave me another sweet and took me outside. I held on to Jeanne’s hand tightly. The three of us walked up to the four apple trees. The sun was now high enough that our side of the mountain was alight, while the deep crevice of the valley bottom was still shrouded in darkness. It was late spring and the blossoms on the apple trees were out in full bloom. Some of them were gently blowing about in the breeze. Jeanne pointed to the blossoms and said something in her native tongue to John and they both looked back to the village and the valley beyond. She squeezed my hand again.
“In my country, it is very much like it is here,” she said smiling gently. “Mountains, valley and apple trees. As many apple trees as you have rice paddies here. I wonder who planted these four?”
“Wing Fai,” said John, “It is difficult to speak of what happened last night. Your family, all the families, it seems, were taken away, except for you. It is a government thing. You will come back to the Mission with us and I promise we will try very hard to find your parents and sister.” One of the pink apple blossoms fluttered by and landed on my nose. I brushed it away, or was it the tears I tried to hide? At that moment, I grew up a lot and, as the fates would have it, I was never to see my mother and father and Pui Ling again.
It was a long trek back to the Mission of St. Anne in the city of Sun Wei. The non-denominational mission was run by John and Jeanne Robiceau who were originally from Quebec, but whose families had moved to British Columbia when they were teens. They met and married and through their church became interested in the foreign missions. Eventually they came to China and had been here for ten years. It had been hard work, made harder because of the political climate. Foreigners were looked on suspiciously, but they survived because of their determination and deep commitment.
The gate to the mission house courtyard, had two fierce looking dragon heads on each side, which looked extremely forbidding to my young eyes. I was glad to get by them and into the comparative safety of the courtyard. No sooner had we entered the courtyard, then we were surrounded by laughing children who ran up to us in welcome. Unaccustomed to a crowd of new people, I grasped Jeanne’s hand and tightened my grip. Sensing my fear, she scooped me up into her arms and quickly brought me into the front entrance while calling over her shoulder, “This is Wing Fai. He is tired now, but you will all get to know him later.”
We entered a small office where I noticed several strange items. On the wall, prominently displayed, was a large wooden object with two intersecting members. On the vertical member was the figure of a half-naked man who appeared to be in great agony. His arms had been tied somehow to the horizontal member. His body was bloodied and he wore what appeared to be a spiked helmet. I wondered if he was a vanquished warlord. On other walls were pictures of men and woman with glowing faces and some of the warlord without the helmet and with a radiant face. None of the faces were Chinese and I assumed they must be relatives of my protectors.
While I was peering about the room in awe, John had seated himself in front of a small square box which sat on a table. He reached around to the back, which was visible to me, and touched a black button. Almost immediately there was gong like sound and a crackle and John’s face lit up from a reflection that came from the front of the box. I was immediately drawn by my curiosity to find out where the gong sound had come from and why John’s face showed a kind of flickering light. Did he have a tiny altar to some god in the box and was the flickering light a candle to that deity? I moved slowly from the back of the box around the table and all the while John was tapping the fingers of both hands very gently on the tabletop.
“Come, Wing Fai,” he said encouraging me with a smile, “You can watch me work. Jeanne will get us a proper meal and then we will explore your new home. Are you comfortable?”
I nodded, even though I did not quite grasp all he said, because his thick accent made it difficult for my young ears to fully understand. He sat me on his lap and now I could plainly see the front of the altar. It was a marvel to me, a ‘picture made with light’. My young mind deduced that he must have many candles inside the box. I could see strange symbols and tiny shapes that John manipulated with the tapping of his fingers. He tapped not on the tabletop but on a tablet of buttons. Each button had a symbol and, when the button with the symbol was pushed, the symbol appeared as if by magic on the picture made of light.
“Ping guoi,” I shouted, pointing in recognition. “Ping guoi.” The multi-coloured apple fruit was plainly visible at the bottom left hand corner of the box just under the picture made with light.
“That’s right, Wing Fai, an apple. Now look at what I do. If I press this button and that button–ping guoi.” On the picture made with light there appeared a copy of the apple on the box with the exception that is was black. John showed me again which buttons to touch and with amazement I created the same black apple. I continued making apple after apple on the picture made with light which, I was told, was called a screen, until the whole screen was a mass of black apples. It was my introduction to the Macintosh Classic, and, unknown to me at the time, was also my first computer lesson.
In the intervening years since my first face to face meeting with the Macintosh, I would work on newer and more powerful Macs, but there was always a soft spot for my little Classic. After growing up in China with my adoptive parents they managed with much trouble to send me to their home land where I attended the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. I lived off campus in a small flat in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, much prized by Chinese immigrants. When viewed on a map, Richmond looked like the head of a dragon, a good omen for the newcomers. A bonus was the “rich” in the name Richmond, also considered a good omen.
I visited the Okanagan Valley in the British Columbia interior, where my adoptive parents grew up, and saw for myself what had attracted them to the part of China they had settled. It was indeed reminiscent of that far away village on the mountainside where they had found me. After graduation, I decided to settle in that beautiful valley and expand my knowledge of agriculture in relation to growing fruit trees, and apple trees in particular. Studying and learning about apples on my Apple computer somehow just seemed right.
This article is fiction. The fact that you are reading my words right now shows how blessed we are by our easy access to many aspects of technology, of which the computer and the Internet are just two. I have a fascination with how people far removed from our so-called “modern world” cope with things we take for granted. This article was written to explore how a young person who had never experienced modern technology might relate to it on his own level.
Ralph J. Luciani