Hai Lan’s Idea


Hai Lan and his father climbed out of the sampan (boat) carrying a basket of fish.

“Such a hot day to fish,” Hai Lan said, wiping his sweaty face. “And such hard work! All day since before the sun we worked, and only these few fish have we to sell.”

“It will be better tomorrow, my son.”

“That is what you always say, my father. But it is not always so.”

“The fish we catch buy us food and shelter,” Father reminded. “What more can one wish for?”

“I wish for an easier way,” Hai Lan answered.

Father laughed. “There is no easier way, my son. Nothing worthwhile is easy.”

Silently the two walked to the marketplace, but Hai Lan’s mind was full. I am tired of the scorching heat on my head and the blisters from fish nets on my hands, he thought. There must be an easier way!

They soon reached the market and traded their fish for vegetables and rice and bamboo shoots. Then they started for home.

“Wait!” Father said. “There is the old storyteller. Let us hear his tale. It will give our minds rest.”

But Hai Lan’s mind could not rest. He didn’t even hear the old man’s story.

A storyteller! he thought. That is much easier than being a fisherman. All the old man does is sit on his bamboo stool in the shade and talk while people drop pennies in his basket. That is what I want to be—a storyteller!

Hai Lan was so excited he could hardly keep from running home. When they finally arrived at their mud and straw hut, he could barely sit still through dinner.

“I will make my father proud,” he said to himself. “I will make us rich! I will buy us a nice new house so we will no longer live in a hut. And Grandfather’s eyes will regain the sparkle they lost when he became too old to go out with us on the sampan. Now he will be able to spend his old days in comfort.”

“What is wrong with the boy?” Grandfather asked Father after they had eaten.

“I do not know,” Father said. “He has acted strangely ever since we stopped to hear the old storyteller at the marketplace.”

“He must have told a very good story,” Grandfather said, smiling.

Father shook his head and said, “It was only about the fishing wars. I do not know what is wrong with the boy.”

Hai Lan wanted his plan to be a surprise. He waited until time for bed and then said, “Father, I think I need a day of rest. Tomorrow I do not wish to go on the sampan.

“Then how will you earn money to go to school?” Father asked.

“I can earn it another day.” Hai Lan smiled as he thought of his surprise.

“Let him go,” Grandfather said. “He is restless and needs a change.”

“But I need his help,” Father protested.

“I will go with you tomorrow,” Grandfather promised. “These old hands have not forgotten the feel of the sampan sails or the fish nets.”

Father sat silently for a moment. Finally he said, “All right, my son, but only for one day. I do not want a lazy son.”

Hai Lan lay on his bamboo mat and listened to the sounds of night as he thought of the many things he would buy.

The next morning while it was still dark, Hai Lan heard the men leave, but he did not get up. He knew that storytellers could sleep until long after sunrise. Their work did not begin until the market opened and the streets were crowded.

Already, he thought, I like this new work.

Much later that morning Hai Lan got up and dressed in his finest suit of clothes. He ate a bowl of rice, took a basket and bamboo stool, and left for the marketplace.

He found just the right spot next to the bamboo shop where all the tourists came. There he put his stool in the shade, placed his basket by his feet, and waited for the people to gather. He waited and waited, but no one stopped. Suddenly he realized that the people did not know why he was sitting there.

“Stories, stories from this storyteller,” he called just like the old storytellers. “Stories for your ears to hear and for your lips to smile at.”

“Oh, look!” a lady cried. “A little boy storyteller.” She stopped to listen, and then one by one others stopped in the shade too, until finally a large crowd had gathered.

Hai Lan smiled as he imagined all the pennies the people would drop in his basket. He sat back on the stool, tilted his straw hat back as he had seen the old storytellers do, and began to speak.

“Once upon a time …” So far Hai Lan had done just as the old storytellers, but suddenly he realized he could not tell their stories. That would be stealing. He must tell his own stories. But he had none!

“Once upon a time …” he said again, but he could not think of a story.

“Once upon a time …” he tried once more, but still he could think of nothing.

“That is what you said,” a man shouted, and the crowd began to laugh.

Hai Lan felt his face grow hot, hotter than the sun shining down on the sampan. His palms began to perspire. He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and began again.

“Once upon a time … a … a … there was a man.” Hai Lan could not think of anything more.

“You should wait until you are a man,” someone shouted, and the crowd roared with laughter as they picked up their baskets and left.

Hai Lan’s eyes stung with tears of shame, but he held them in his eyes. It would even be worse if now he were to cry!

“I thought it would be so easy,” he said to himself as he pulled the straw hat down to cover his face. “But Father must be right. Nothing worthwhile is easy.”

Being very careful to walk behind the shops where few people could see him, Hai Lan went back to the hut. He put the stool and empty basket back and quickly changed his clothes. Then he went down to the river to wait for Father and Grandfather. Soon the sampan drew near.

I hope they will never know how I have shamed them, Hai Lan thought as the men stepped out of the sampan.

“Hello,” Grandfather greeted. “What a wonderful day it has been!”

Hai Lan looked in the basket, expecting to see it filled with fish. “But you do not even have as many fish as yesterday,” Hai Lan cried.

“Oh, but it was wonderful just to have the nets in my hands, to move with the rhythm of the sampan, and to feel the marvelous sun on my head,” Grandfather said.

Hai Lan could see the old sparkle had returned to Grandfather’s eyes.

It is his work he longs for, Hai Lan decided, not the comforts money can buy.

“I will tell you something, my son’s son,” Grandfather began. “There is nothing like good work to make a man’s soul happy.”

“I will remember that,” Hai Lan said, forgetting his shame as he thought about his grandfather’s words. “And I am ready to go out with my father tomorrow.”

“That is well,” Father said. “One day for my father is good, but he is too old for two.”

“Together we will work hard and catch many, many fish,” Hai Lan said. “You will see, my father.”

And Hai Lan bowed his head and vowed that he would always work hard and make his father proud to have such a son.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Virginia Sargent