There is a fig tree in the center of our family courtyard. It has been with our family for generations, providing basketfuls of sweet-fleshed figs year after year. Celebrations are held under its peridot shade – announcements, birthdays, weddings and baby’s full moons. Even festivals, all based on the waxing and waning of the moon and the transitions of the seasons. Gifts have been made, exchanged and opened while the leaves rustle their gentle song. Laughter and dancing mingle with grief and pain.
It is a medium-sized tree with a thick trunk and heart-shaped leaves, spreading outward to form an umbrella. Ficus carica, under the Moraceae family. Wu hua guo. I love the sound of it, rolling it with my tongue and savoring the texture of the words with my senses. The taste of the figs is often accentuated by the enjoyment of the word-sounds – I am the only one in my family who can taste words and I cherish my little gift. Of course, when I bite into the pinkish heart of a ripe fig, nobody knows the joy, except myself.
Oh, the edible fig tree is an interesting plant, its fruit pollinated by the fig wasp and considered a flower, an inflorescence. Fruit without flower. How miraculous it is. We collect basketfuls on good years, providing sustenance to the entire household. We eat them fresh, dry them or preserve them for later culinary or festive use. We sometimes serve them to relatives and guests during the New Year period, accompanied by fragrant jasmine tea and tasty family gossip. Or we boil them into herbal concoctions for the soothing of sore throats and strained vocal chords.
Then the war comes and everything changes.
It is the Sino-European Territory War and it is 2376.
A long time now, China has asserted herself as a World Power, having annexed several key countries, including pretty much of Southeast Asia and some parts of Africa. The annexation had been done way before I was born and when I was growing up, China was already powerful.
I am the descendent of Chinese immigrants. My ancestors migrated to Southeast Asia in the late 19th century and set down roots in humid tropical countries so different from their temperate homeland. It was until the 22nd century that one branch of the large family I belong to decided to go back to China and re-establish themselves as a clan. The Chinese government calls us “returnees”. It always makes me feel like an alien, like something out of old science fiction movies with adorable E.Ts. Besides the word tastes like hard plastic and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth and mind.
We flourish with the peace and stability. My great-great-grandfather planted the fig tree with a fig fruit apparently brought over from his garden back in Singapore. The fig tree grows as we grow as a family, in size. We are a mélange of people, Chinese with other races thrown in because the 20th-21st centuries saw a period of inter-marriages. I myself have blue eyes and black hair, brown skin and a Chinese name with the direct translation of Little Peace. The name I give myself is Cassidy, Cass for short.
The war comes suddenly, with a proliferation of arms, angry words and broken treaties. Somehow, one of the Federated European Union countries has found that it is sharing a tenuous (and economically fertile) border with China and has raised a political ruckus about it. There is a spate of weapon technology, a lot of saber rattling and posturing between the governments. Someone utters the wrong word and all reason is lost.
We have spent days preparing our household for the war, stocking the bunkers with sufficient supplies of food (vacuum-sealed, canned and preserved) and water (bottled and expensive). The fighting seems to be concentrated outside, near the border areas. The threat of aerial bombing is very real, because we can hear squadrons making fly-pasts over the city. We attempt to send messages to relatives living in China and elsewhere like Singapore and the neo-ASEAN states. The mood is nerve-wracking, tense. I hate the feeling.