LILY CHU has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. She is a Certified Medical Technologist and a Counseling Psychologist as well. She has taught at Lake Superior State University and New Mexico State University for a total of 30 years. Besides university teaching, research, and administration, she found her passion for creative writing. She has published eight books in Chinese and has been a regular contributing author to an English magazine, Friends of We Chinese in America. She is the President of the San Diego Chinese Writers’ Association and the President of the Overseas Chinese Women Writers’ Association.
by Lily Chu
I knew almost nothing about it, except that it originally came from Pakistan. I didn’t know its shape and size, its likes and dislikes, or whether it ever had any fears or dreams—an enigma, indeed, it seemed.
Well, let us start from the very beginning—in Pakistan.
The contract we signed, in order to work for the Asian Bank in Pakistan, contained a shipment clause which stated that we were entitled to a three-and-a-half-ton cargo space for furniture and personal effects. To both of us who were used to traveling light, this seemed to be an unnecessary waste.
We enjoyed ethnic colors and flavors wherever we went and would prefer to use native arts and crafts for our house decorations if we were to live in that country. We really could not think of any furniture and personal effects that we could not live without. Why did we have to incur such exorbitant costs, although not from our pocket, in order to ship our things across the ocean? We, therefore, used this allowance for all the academic books we could collect, and then donated them to a Pakistani university in Islamabad upon our arrival. One year later, our work was done and we were ready to return to the States. We once again found this three-and-half-ton of shipping allotment waiting for us. By this time, we had purchased several intricately hand-made Pakistani carpets, which were beautiful beyond compare. Of course, we had to ship them home with us. Since these carpets were not enough to fill up the cargo space, we wanted to think of something else to include.
One day, we happened upon a marble shop at the local market. There were marble slabs of various colors, from green to white, and red to black, all with interesting grains and patterns, and we quickly lost our heads right then and there. Before we knew what we were doing, we became the new owners of twelve boxes of pink marble that came from the quarry in Quetta, a place in Baluchistan, south of the Afghan border. Now, we thought, since we were crazy enough to buy these heavy boxes of marble to ship across the globe, we might as well go all the way and get some wood which we had always coveted.
The market was a bustling place filled with loud noises, honking cars, crowds of people, and small shops on both sides of the alley with goods spilled out onto the pavement. It was distinctly lacking women; only a few figures covered with black burqas from head to toe floated in and out of the market like ghosts. Not far from the marble shop in the market stood a wood shop. The stall was dark and small, with a few wood planks of different lengths leaning against the wall. The wood wallah (seller), an old man who wore a turban on his head and had an impressive big beard, told us that he could order any type of wood for us, as his warehouse was really the forest in the faraway mountains. He became visibly frustrated with us and thought we were crazy because we wanted to buy wood, but wouldn’t allow him to order a tree from the forest to be cut down. He thought for a long time, during which we drank obligatory tea and exchanged obligatory pleasantries, and the old man told us about this ancient Shisham tree. The log from this tree had been dried under the sun in the village for quite some time now; however, nobody wanted to buy it because a part of it showed signs of wood borer infestation. He told us that Shisham was a slow-growing rosewood tree from northern India and Pakistan and its hard, dense, red-hued wood had been highly treasured for fine furniture making throughout the centuries. If we would like to buy it, this wallah said, he could order it to be cut into thick planks.
However, he carefully added, as an ethical and reputable wallah would, that he could not guarantee that the planks would be completely free from wood borers, even though the log had been dried for a long time now and would be treated with insecticide before it was sold to us. If we shipped these planks all the way to the States and found borers in them, that would be regrettable.
We thought this wallah was so unusually honest that it was truly remarkable. We did not really mind if the wood we bought had been eaten by some borers. Now, with his words of caution, we began to worry if the borers we inadvertently transported into the States would eat up our national forests and lead to a major environmental disaster.
It was amazing how one single log could be cut into twenty-five long planks, and it was even more amazing how heavy these planks turned out to be. They were shipped by a truck to the Custom and Transportation Division. Soon afterward, a gentleman from the Customs Division came to visit and told us in no uncertain words that these planks were too heavy and bulky to be contained in the three-and-a-half ton container. We invited him inside our house and served him obligatory tea, and Harold spoke obligatory pleasantries to him in his native Urdu language, which obviously made a big impression. Harold asked him what kind of material the container was made of, and the gentleman said it was pine board. Harold asked him if we could build our own container using our Shisham planks instead of pine board. He stuttered for a while and said that nobody in his right mind would use such good wood for a container since the wood would be scratched and ruined during the transportation. We said that was all right with us. He continued to protest and said that the Shisham wood was very hard and would take a lot of work to be made into a container. Harold took out a hundred-rupee bill and asked, “Would this compensate for your extra work?” The poor fellow looked at the bill and could fight no more.
To our friends in the States, however, we were amazing people for transporting stones and wood from abroad. We eventually used the pink marble for the fireplace in our Sandcastle, an adobe house we built ourselves in southern New Mexico. When we sat in front of the dancing flames, the pink marble greeted us, its grains forming patterns and pictures reminiscent of the Himalaya Mountains and Punjabi plains. The Shisham wood, on the other hand, stayed in storage after my Harold applied a good amount of borer-killing solution to them. We found the sheer volume and the heavy weight of these planks simply daunting and did not know what to do with them.
Once in a while, some wood-loving friends would come to visit, and we would then take them to the storage shed to show off a bit. No one had ever seen this kind of wood; they would inevitably marvel at the sight of this dark-red rosewood, touching its interesting patterns and grains, and commenting that only walnut would have such unusually dark and hard texture.
We were happy to share our loot with friends; all our wood-loving friends carried some of the planks home, while the rest stayed in storage, gathering dust. There they stayed, for three long years.
Check out The Strangers for the whole story.