It Was Familiar, Yet It Seemed Strange - E. D. James

Olivia watched the others head out of the office to drown their sorrows in the local bar. She knew that after a few tears and heartfelt rememberances they would laughing and recalling the good times they had shared with Audrey. It was not the way that Olivia dealt with such things. She put her head down and got back to plotting the data from the Arkhara Crane project that had been left on Audrey’s computer. This had been her way since her mother left Olivia and her father when she was nine. She’d spent that first devastating summer at the family compound in Wisconsin. The man who tended the grounds there was Chinese. There weren’t many people around most days that would hang out with a nine year old and she couldn’t stand being cooped up in the big old house. So she and Wang Lung, they called him Henry, spent many days with her trailing along behind him as he did his chores.

One day he asked Wanda, Olivia’s nanny, if she could go with him to pick up supplies in Baraboo, the closest town to the compound. On the way they took a side trip to the International Crane Foundation. Wang Lung’s ancestral homeland lay along the shore of Poyang Lake, the largest body of freshwater in China. Poyang is the wintering grounds for millions of birds, including the Siberian Crane. Wang Lung’s family had treasured the Cranes the inhabited their farmland in the winter months.

As they drove through the gates of the Foundation sanctuary, Olivia heard the rattling k-a-r-o-o-o of Cranes for the first time. It was a sound both familiar and strange. It made the hairs on the back of her arms stand up in the humid summer air. As they walked through the pens and looked at the Cranes from around the world who were threatened and Olivia listened to Wang Lung talk about his family’s farm and how it had been taken from them during the time of the Red Guards she became very sad.

“Why is life so hard?” she asked him.

“Why do you think like should be happy?” he answered.

“Isn’t that the way it should be?”

“In China we have a saying, Chi Ku. Eating bitterness is the American way of saying it. Chi Ku means that we will only find true meaning in life through hard work and discipline.”

“And if you work hard will you be happy?”

“There is no heaven in China. There is only more hard work.”

Olivia looked up at Wang in that moment and her nine year old mind opened and saw a man who had lived such a hard life, losing his entire family, still working hard and he seemed happier than all the people she saw at the clubs and parties that her mother and father attended. She decided then and there that Chi Ku would be her path.