The Frog in the Well
a short story by Phoebe Cao
When Chang Qing was a young girl, her grandmother told her a story about a frog that lived at the bottom of a deep, deep well. The little frog had never stepped foot outside the well’s damp, slimy walls—and why would it? The well was safe and warm and comfortable, and there was never a shortage of water and tasty insects. The world was merely a coin-sized piece of sky above the frog’s head. Why would the frog want to leave its home, when it was already content with everything it had?
“I don’t get it, Amah,” Qing complained. “Why are you telling me this story?”
“Aiya, why don’t you understand?” huffed Qing’s grandmother. “This is where the old proverb comes from: jing di zhi wa. Frog in the well. It means someone is complacent, narrow-minded, unable to see the rest of the world. You would do well to learn a lesson from this!”
“But I’m not a frog!”
The elderly woman peered at Qing through dark, beady eyes. She considered herself wise in her old age, and to her the little girl was no different from the little frog. Sometimes, she found herself worrying over Qing. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the Chang family; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Qing’s parents were such good people, so great in all aspects, that Amah feared the child would let all that glory go to her head. That she would never care to explore the world beyond the well.
No, Qing would grow up kind and courageous, just like her parents! Amah would make sure of that. She couldn’t help her grandchildren with their homework, since she’d never learned to read, but she was determined to pass on all the knowledge and strength she’d acquired over the years. A respectable girl must always be humble, even if she was the daughter of an emperor.
While Qing’s father wasn’t an emperor, she still had much to brag about as a child. Compared to many other children in China, and even in her own school, Qing was extremely well-off. There was always food in her stomach, clean clothes upon her back, and a roof over her head. In fact, Qing often felt that she had been born to the wealthiest household in the community.
Qing rarely saw her parents, who were constantly occupied by their jobs. But whenever her father could spare time from his demanding work, he would always visit her. When he spoke, it was evident from his manners and speech that he was a cultured, educated man. If Qing closed her eyes, she could almost imagine her father wasn’t wearing a Mao suit, but an emperor’s magnificent golden robes.
Qing was in elementary school, and like most children her age, she wanted to feel proud about something. Often, she heard her classmates brag about their fathers, regardless of whether they were true or not, and wished for a tale of her own.
“My father is a driver,” began one boy, projecting his voice so that everybody could hear him. “He’s driven to the moon and met the goddess Chang’e. He’s even brought back mooncake for me to eat.”
“No wonder you’re so fat!” a girl scoffed. “My papa’s a factory foreman. The machines he’s operated are the best in the world!”
“My dad’s a healer!” shouted another. “He can bring dead people back to life!”
“Mine’s a social worker!” someone else chimed in. “He can speak a hundred different dialects, and he even gets to meet foreigners!”
As soon as she arrived home that day, Qing asked her grandmother what job her father had.
“Aiya!” Amah, who had been picking bean sprouts, set down the basket and squinted at the young girl. “Why do you care so much?”
Qing bounced up and down in excitement. “All my friends at school have amazing fathers, so mine must be amazing too!”
Amah frowned. “Are you not proud of your father already? Are you ashamed to be a Chang?”
“No, I just want to know—”
“Ungrateful!” Amah snapped.
Immediately, Qing scampered to the farthest wall of the small, stuffy kitchen, but once she was at a safe distance from her grandmother, she turned around again.
“Is Father a doctor?” she asked.
“Is he a lawyer?”
“What is he, then?” Qing demanded.
“You don’t need to know.”
“Yes, I do!”
“Your father is an army cook!” Amah grumbled. “Now shoo!”
As Qing left her grandmother, she lamented on the less-than-stellar news she had just learned. Her father, a cook! What a mundane, unromantic profession! While her friends’ fathers were busy sailing the skies, creating mechanical phenomenons, saving lives, or conversing with exotic foreigners, her father chopped cabbages and stewed meat everyday!
If Qing had nothing to distract her, she would have sulked for weeks about her father’s undesirable job, like so many little ones do when faced with such a disappointment. However, just days after the dismaying discovery, the principal of Qing’s school announced that a special guest would come to the school to give a lecture about career options, and everyone was expected to pay the greatest amount of respect to him.
The children buzzed with excitement. Even the teachers and staff members raised their eyebrows in grudging admiration. This guest was more than just special… he was a captain from the Chinese navy!
Due to this guest speaker’s impressive reputation, everyone—child and adult alike—collectively held their breaths as they crowded into the auditorium on the day of the long-awaited presentation. For weeks, the tiny auditorium had been vigorously scrubbed for the event until it was nearly spotless, and now it was adorned with colorful streamers and paper Chinese flags. The students squirmed as the teachers, harshly rebuking any noisemakers, seated them into endless rows of wooden chairs. Already, rumors had begun to spread amongst the children—rumors that were even taller than the tales they spun for their own fathers.
This “special guest” was a deity sent from the heavens by the Jade Emperor himself, and he had iron fists that could vanquish any monster. It was him, not Erlang Shen, who had defeated the legendary Monkey King. He had saved the lives of one million people and had defeated one million monsters. The captain was a perfect human being—the strongest and greatest man in the whole world, yet the kindest and most humble as well.
At long last, the whispers in the auditorium died out. All heads swiveled to the door as a tall, straight-backed figure stepped in. The crowd parted to make way for the figure as it went to the front.
True to his reputation, the man had a majestic aura about him. He donned the crisp, white uniform that only a navy captain was allowed to wear. A jaunty cap sat atop his head. Flashy buttons gleamed on the sleeves, and numerous, colorful badges were pinned on the lapels. A golden star shone upon each broad shoulder, brighter than the sun.
As soon as Qing saw the man’s face, she jumped to her feet, eyes wide with surprise.
“Baba! Baba!” she cried, oblivious to her schoolmates’ stares and her teachers’ frantic hushing motions. “What are you doing here?”
Qing’s father smiled at her and cleared his throat, preparing to begin the speech.
Obediently, Qing fell silent, but she couldn’t stop a delighted grin from spreading across her face. She was truly a special girl.
As many children know, there is a second part to the story of the frog in the well. One day, an ancient sea turtle paid the frog a visit, and the frog seized the opportunity to boast of the well’s paradisiacal luxuries. What in the world could possibly be better than the well’s cool water, juicy flies, and humid shade? Thinking of the ocean’s rolling waves and raging storms and the shore’s rocky cliffs and sandy beaches, the turtle laughed. What did the little frog know of the world outside the well?
Chang Qing, my mother, used to be a “frog.” She was a frog when she was a starry-eyed schoolgirl, dreaming about her future. She was a frog when she was a studious college student, poring over books day and night. She was a frog when she and my father came to the United States in the nineties with nothing but two suitcases and the clothes on their backs, ready to explore the world outside the well.
Though I have always regarded my mother as a “turtle,” wise and and infinitely more experienced than a “frog” like myself, no doubt she still looks to venture farther beyond the well. As do I. For as comfortable as my well is (and I do have quite a nice well, thanks to all my parents’ efforts), I will not grow complacent. Someday, I will climb up the walls of my comfort zone and explore the rest of the world—unlike the frog in the well.