When someone had a new baby child in my Mom’s generation, he or she was always given a nickname with some diminutive meaning implied. For example, I was called Da-Mao which literally means big hair, and, when Dean was born, he was called Xiao-Mao, or small hair. Since hairs are tiny, whatever gods or spirits had power would not be jealous or interested in taking them away, which would deprive the parents of their happiness. As child death was common at the time, this was one way to ensure the safety of a precious child. For a girl, words like small, tiny, obedient, “peas”, or even ugly, could be used in the nickname.
One event, which happened when I was three and a half, is still very clear in my mind. I am not sure whether I remember it or whether my mother made sure that the event would be imprinted in my memory forever. The fact is that I remember very little about the years of my life before I was eight. For example, I do not have much of an impression about escaping into the caves whenever the Japanese planes came to bomb the city, which would have been on many, many occasions, sometimes up to 24 hours a day. The event I am describing happened in Beipei, north of Chongqing, about 25 miles outside the city. We lived in a compound of several families. In the back of the compound, there was a small hill, or a large dirt pile; I am not sure which. One day, we, Dean and I, or Xiao-Mao and Da-Mao, were both playing with some other kids in the neighborhood. Mother told me that we were playing well there for quite a while. In theory, my mother could see us from her kitchen window. Next thing I heard was: “Da-Mao, where is Xiao-Mao?” My answer was “he’s down the hill!” Mother later repeatedly told me “how stupid could you, not know where your brother was”!!! The truth was I knew exactly where he was, I just failed to tell her earlier. As Xiao-Mao had fainted and was unconscious when he rolled down the hill, it took several days in the hospital for him to recover. Fortunately, in later years he has demonstrated repeatedly that he is a much smarter person than I am. Otherwise Mom would have reminded me more often about this incident in the backyard.