Flower Dew Water and Opium
Around this time, we check how much Flower Dew Water there still is in the bottle from last summer. Mosquitoes are coming out. Every Chinese knows this fragrant water is useful.
My great aunt worried my uncle. Not because she was nearly deaf but because she did things others didn’t do during those times.
Customarily, the visitors were always offered to wash their faces and hands upon arrival. She did this much more elaborately. My uncle, her son, would bring us warm water in an enamel basin. She would trot in her bound feet to fetch the long-neck bottle, tilt it, and let two drops of Flower Dew Water moist her finger tips. She would dip her fingers into the water to feel the temperature, “There, now you can wash your face.”
Those washed faces of mine were the most radiant because they were fragrant.
My uncle would murmur, “Clear water is good enough.” She never reacted. He always sighed.
All over China, we used Flower Dew Water to repel or ease mosquito bites. She used it to scent my face. That was exciting but also worrisome. Liking it felt wrong.
Perfume was an abstract word to us, surely something bad, because it was associated with women who were corrupt, who made money without earning it through earnest work. Therefore, it felt right that they paid back by doing hard labor. That’s how we were taught.
After I graduated from college, I worked as a translator. One day, before a delegation left, one of the people handed me a half bottle of Opium. “Very good smell.” He said.
My mother thought only people out of their wits would ever name something “opium”. Both of us thought the smell was awful. I was 21.