Among the sellers with their ropes, cages, and water tanks were the sellers of little girls. Sometimes just one man would be standing by the side of the road selling one girl. There were fathers and mothers selling their daughters, whom they pushed forward and then pulled back again. My mother turned her face to look at pottery or embroidery rather than at these miserable families who did not have the sense to leave the favored brothers and sisters home.
All the children bore still faces. My mother would not buy from parents, crying and clutching. They would try to keep you talking to find out what kind of mistress you were to your slaves. If they could just hear from the buyer’s own mouth about a chair in the kitchen, they could tell each other in the years to come that their daughter was even now resting in the kitchen chair. It was merciful to give these parents a few details about the garden, a sweet feeble grandmother, food.
My mother would buy her slave from a professional whose little girls stood neatly in a row and bowed together when a customer looked them over. “How do you do, Sir?” They would sing, “How do you do, Madam?” “Let a little slave do your shopping for you,” the older girls chorused. “We’ve been taught to bargain. We’ve been taught to sew. We can cook, and we can knit.” Some of the dealers merely had the children bow quietly. Others had them sing a happy song about flowers.
Unless a group of little girls chanted some especially clever riddle, my mother, who distrusts people with public concerns, braggarts, went over to the quiet older girls with the dignified bows. “Any merchant who advertises ‘Honest Scales’ must have been thinking about weighting them,” she says. Many sellers displayed the sign “Children and Old Men Not Cheated.”
There were girls barely able to toddle carrying infant slaves tied in slings to their backs. In the undisciplined groups the babies crawled into gutters and the older girls each acted as if she were alone, a daughter among slaves. The one-to-two year old babies cost nothing.
“Greet the lady,” the dealer commanded, just as the nice little girls’ mothers had when visitors came.
“How do you do, Lady,” said the girls.
My mother did not need to bow back, and she did not. She overlooked the infants and toddlers and talked to the oldest girls.
“Open your mouth,” she said, and examined teeth. She pulled down eyelids to check for anemia. She picked up the girls’ wrists to sound their pulses, which tell everything.
She stopped at a girl whose strong heart sounded like thunder within the earth, sending its power into her fingertips. “I would not have sold a daughter such as that one,” she told us. My mother could find no flaw in the beat; it matched her own, the real rhythm. There were people jumpy with silly rhythms; broken rhythms; sly, secretive rhythms. They did not follow the sounds of earth-sea-sky and the Chinese language.
My mother brought out the green notebook my father had given her when he left. It had a map of each hemisphere on the inside covers and a clasp that shut it like a pocketbook. “Watch carefully,” she said. With an American pencil, she wrote a word, a felicitous word such as “longevity” or “double joy,” which is symmetrical.
“Look carefully,” she said into the girl’s face. “If you can write this word from memory, I will take you with me. Concentrate now.” She wrote in a plain style and folded the page a moment afterward. The girl took the pencil and wrote surely; she did not leave out a single stroke.
“What would you do,” my mother asked, “if you lost a gold watch in a field?”
“I know a chant on the finger bones,” said the girl. “But even if I landed on the bone that says to look no more, I would go to the middle of the field and search in a spiral going outward until I reached the field’s edge. Then I would believe the chant and look no more.” She drew in my mother’s notebook the field and her spiraling path.
“How do you cast on yarn?”
The girl pantomimed the method with her large hands.
“How much water do you put in the rice pot for a family of five? How do you finish off weaving so that it doesn’t unravel?”
Now it was time to act as if she were very dissatisfied with the slave’s answers so that the dealer would not charge her extra for a skillful worker.
“You tie the loose ends into tassles,” said the girl.
My mother frowned. “But suppose I like a finished border?”
The girl hesitated. “I could, uh, press the fibers under and sew them down. Or how about cutting the fibers off?”
My mother offered the dealer half the price he named. “My mother-in-law asked me to find a weaver for her, and obviously she and I will have to waste many months training this girl.”
“But she can knit and cook,” said the dealer, “and she can find lost watches.” He asked for a price higher than her suggestion but lower than his first.
“I knit and cook and find things,” said my mother. “How else do you suppose I think of such ingenious questions? Do you think I would buy a slave who could outwork me in front of my mother-in-law?” My mother walked off to look at a group of hungry slaves across the street. When she returned, the dealer sold her the girl with the finding chant at my mother’s price.
“I am a doctor,” she told her new slave, when they were out of the dealer’s hearing, “and I shall train you to be my nurse.”
“Doctor,” said the slave, “do you understand that I do know how to finish off my weaving?”
“Yes, we fooled him very well,” said my mother.
The unsold slaves must have watched them with envy. I watched them with envy. My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl; nor did I replace the older brother and sister who died while they were still cuddly. Throughout childhood my younger sister said, “When I grow up, I want to be a slave,” and my parents laughed, encouraging her. At department stores I angered my mother when I could not bargain without shame, poor people’s shame. She stood in back of me and prodded and pinched, forcing me to translate her bargaining, word for word.
the preceding is an excerpt from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston