Our homes are vessels in which emotions ebb, flow and shape our lives. In some cases, we look back fondly on the vessels that shelter us on the turbulent seas of life; in others, we gladly leave behind the tattered family dwellings of our past as we emerge into less ravaged territories. In Vessel, Cai Chongda reflects on coming of age in and taking leave of his complicated home in a rural fishing village in the Fujian province of China.
The words of Chongda’s great-grandmother echo deeply throughout the memoir. When her body begins to fail her at age 92, she tells Chongda, “Make your body serve you, not the other way around! . . . Your body’s a vessel. If you wait on it to do something, there’s no hope for you. If you put your body to work, you can start to live.” After his father suffers a stroke and eventually dies, Chongda must embrace these words as he becomes head of the household. It’s a role he’s hardly ready to assume, especially when it includes tasks like keeping his mother from swallowing the rat poison she keeps wrapped in a scarf in her bedroom, or comforting his sister when she breaks up with her boyfriend because their family is too poor to pay her dowry.
Never comfortable with his family responsibilities, Chongda leaves his hometown, first for university and then for a life as a journalist. He looks back on his home with a studied ambivalence as he tries to develop his own life and career. In the end, though, he accepts the lesson that so many pilgrims before him have embraced: “A home is not simply a structure that gives one shelter but a place you are linked to by blood and soil.”
Vessel sails briskly over rough seas, bobbing and weaving in stormy waters. It’s never smooth sailing, but Chongda’s candor and courage make up for the tumultuous ride.