Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Oppression, disabilities and our children

Long, long ago we knew we needed words for what is truly precious in the times of oppression — and there were, and will be, many times. No one knows how, but we fashioned the following word: 滫. We took one of the characters for water, 氵and added to that a character used for the people,亻who, like the picture, work with hoes and hammers. We then said, let us show we cherish the word by crowning the character with part of the word for name — or first honoured place — 名 or part of the word for many or abundance: 多.

We then thought, let’s show we truly celebrate this word by adding another character, 月, moon. Moonlight: a time for many festivals, including magical and sacred ones. Finally, we placed these precious sound-pictures together and made this new word, 滫 xiu, which is what the leftover water from cooked rice is called. Though it may have been forgotten, we thus gave xiu such a cluster of meanings. See, we have composed it with working people, honoured name, moonlight, and anointed it in water. And we know to those who have known little hardship it is such a mundane thing for such a carefully crafted word, a vessel brimming with memory and heartache. We are told other languages do not have a word for such a leftover thing.

This is because even that water which remains after the rice has been removed still contains precious nutrients, our xiu for our elderly and our little children during the hard times, the harrowing. Though we may be starved under the hand of tyrants, and there have been countless of them, our faces carry the reminders of the harrows, the deep cuts in fields for our food.

Xiu: a flicker of energy, like that faraway, hungry starlight, in the last trace of pot water. May we not even waste one dribble of our xiu, though it has also come sometimes to mean filthy slops.


I teach a young girl whom I have given the name, Xiu Xiu. The remaining water from cooked rice. The Chinese often repeat twice their endearing nicknames for loved ones, maybe to show that person is treasured, and therefore her name deserves being repeated every time it is said. Xiu xiu (pronounced “show show”) is far braver than many of the other nine-year-old girls in my class.

I tell her I have given her the name because she likes to “show”. Xiu xiu always wants to display what she can do, to try out new English. When I ask the kids to come up for a new challenge, like identify one word among the many on the blackboard by throwing a magnetic dart at the word, or to throw a tennis ball through a hoop at the designated word, Xiu Xiu always immediately raises her “hand”. She will catch the ball with her “hands”. Although Chinese children are strictly taught to only write and draw with their right hands, Xiu Xiu can only do this with her left hand. Because her right hand is missing. There is a stump ending at the wrist. Xiu Xiu is the only disabled child in the class and in the 22 classes I currently teach (with over 1 000 children).

On Spelling Bees she cannot wait to rush up to the board and re-create or unwrap the new jewels she has discovered: strawburries (No, Xiu Xiu, strawberries), liprary (no Xiu Xiu, library), bookshop, (well done Xiu Xiu). Then, asking her in Mandarin: “What’s the difference between a library and a bookshop?” She replies in English, the words excitedly jumbled, a jangling necklace of beads: “Library no money, mmm … bookshop … money, you buy!”

Of course I need not state the record China has on the abuse of human rights. Nor, surely, how their disabled are often ignored, left out with the garbage. Out in Che Fang I have seen the elderly and crippled shuffling along, holding onto a wheelchair or an ancient pram as they cannot afford the dignity of an A-frame or walker. The pram and wheelchair-holders are the lucky ones.

Sometimes I caress between my fingers an imaginary necklace, on which are a series of crucial lessons, a personal mantra. The latest is my little girl wonder, Xiu Xiu.

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