As soon as we get home, my dad starts on supper. He’s an awesome cook, works wonders with a wok. The first thing he did when he moved here twenty-five years ago was install a gas wok in the wall. It’s still there — massive, three feet wide, the kind you’d find in the back of a Chinese restaurant, which makes sense, because he spent his first ten or twenty years in Canada working restaurants. His food is so good you could sell it.
He pulls a giant chicken out of the fridge on a Styrofoam tray and makes it halfway to the cutting board before the tray cracks and the chicken tumbles onto the floor. Flecks of dirt on it like pepper. My dad plunks it into the sink, sees my face. “It’s just a little dirt,” he says, rinsing it off, annoyed, probably thinking what is it with this family and its health standards as he pulls the chicken out, his hands under its wings like it’s a baby.
With about an hour left in the workday, it’s time for me to go back down to the store, but before I do, I watch him tie up the chicken. If you grew up poor in the old country — any old country will do — it means you know how to tie a knot — out of grass, reeds, string, rope, animal hair, whatever. Nothing more useful than tying a knot to keep your cow, to keep your door shut, to keep your stuff together on a very long trip, to keep your memories. The chicken’s way too big for the pan, but in twenty seconds he makes it fit. My dad, the shoemaker, tells the chicken who’s boss.
Downstairs, I sit around bored for most of an hour then run for the four customers who come in ten minutes before close. I come back upstairs just in time to catch my dad at the table with his shoebox of pills and his shirt pulled up. His age spots, his gallbladder scar — purple, eight inches long — and the bottom two inches of his triple bypass scar. He applies the alcohol, fills a syringe with insulin, and stabs himself in the gut. One time, I asked if I could help. Why not? he said, and showed me how. It felt weird, like poking a pin through canvas: resistance then give. He winced. I pushed the plunger down and he put his hand on my head and shoved it around, a loving gesture. Do it faster next time, he said.
When my mom’s done the books, she comes up for dinner. The chicken, in pieces on a metal plate, smells really good but is a little too pink. Trina would have eaten it. I can’t.
Two minutes into the meal, I drop a chopstick then duck under the table to find it and see my mom’s already taken her shoes and socks off, her calloused, flaking feet hovering over the filthy floor. She’s kicking them together like a little girl. Up top, a pained expression, her eating face. My mom doesn’t eat for taste, she does it to stay alive. Probably wouldn’t eat if she didn’t have to. I grab a new chopstick and when I get back there’s a chicken drum on my plate. “Thanks, Ba,” I say.
His toothy, greasy-lipped smile, a piece of chicken in his hands. He sucks the meat off, happy as a clam. Then he gives my mom the giblets.
“Mo bei gnoa!” she yells. Don’t give it to me. The giblets stay on her bone plate, I watch them get cold. He tries giving her other food, too, and she keeps yelling “Ngoa ji gei loa!” — I’ll get it myself — but she doesn’t.
At the end of the meal, my dad complains about all the leftover meat. Best chicken in the world and most of it will be thrown out in three days. Indignantly, he picks the congealed giblets off my mom’s plate and eats them. Watching him chew it all up, I think of rocks and grit and coronary blockages. He looks back, astonished by my interest, like it’s the most natural thing in the world to be eating that stuff, then his face melts into a smile, a guilty grin — but what’s he guilty of? We smile at each other, hold it for a while. I get up for more rice and he swats me on the ass. Some dads hug you, support your decisions, tell you that they love you. Mine hits me, bites me, swears at me, shows his love with aggression. Love hurt, he calls this.
My dad has all kinds of good qualities. He knows about animals, he’s a really good cook, he’s got good business sense, strong emotions, and he works really hard. Plus, you should be there sometime when he busts out a poem, a bit of philosophy, or when he’s cooking and thinks he’s by himself and lets loose a song that’s sadder, more beautiful, than anything I’ve ever heard. The other thing about my dad, he knows who he is. Where my mom talks and talks about reading Shakespeare or Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle when she was a kid, my dad willingly admits to never having read a book in his life. He thinks he’s dumb. It’s far from the truth. You can’t build a store like this from nothing if you’re dumb, and reading books doesn’t always make you a smart or worthwhile person.
Probably the thing I like best about my dad is his stories. First thing I’m gonna do if I become a writer is publish them.
The last time I asked him for one, I said: “Tell me about that time you got lost.” He looked at me. “You know, that time with the guy in the chicken suit?” It’s one of my favourite stories.
“Wah, I follow him,” he said.
“How old were you?”
“Long about six, seven year old. I went to next town.”
“Like, you walked there?”
I pictured a caravan of children, or just my little boy dad, following an oversized chicken across a field and down a dirt road. The moment curiosity and glee turned to fear and dread, or the way those feelings mixed, then faded in and out.
“How did you get home?”
“Wah, I cry and somebody bring me home.”
Another time I said, “You caught a fish with your bare hands.”
“Yah,” he said and laughed at the audacity of it, the memory like a light bulb, his face a lampshade. “Eider me or Gnee Ba.” His favourite brother.
“Were you standing in a river?” I pictured them without shoes, feet gripping a shallow rock bottom, hands poised for a stealth move.
“No. You know, my village yau goa pond.” He made a circle with his hands.
“What, your family owned it?”
“No. Everybody, that whole village owned that pond. Everybody have share. You know, that big,” he touched his thumb almost to the tip of his finger, “the fish put in the pond. Later on, you know how big? That big!” He held his hands more than a foot apart.
“Wow! That’s huge!”
“It was so good,” he said slowly, emphatically. “We so hungry, we eat the head, eat the eye, eat the bone. You know, lo mai ne jip heng ga faan.”
I knew. He taught us that. Whatever meat you’re eating, put the juice on your rice. It tastes good.
“How’d you cook it?” I said. “Muy choy? Geung chong?”
“Muy choy, geung chong, haa deng.” He told me more — I wanted to picture the kitchen, the pots, the stove, what kind of floor, maybe it was made of dirt — and then he said, “You know, before, no meat. Just some fish, just some rice, wegetable.” The rhythm of his voice. I tried to capture it. Everyone’s voice has a rhythm.
I said, “No chicken?”
I knew. They tried raising them from chicks but they wouldn’t take. “Tell me about the pig.”
“Yeah, you know, umm … every year there was a pig?”
“Not every year.”
“Okay, but when there was one, every family took a turn to raise it, right? Like, every week the pig would go to a different family?” I imagined the pig bumping around inside their house against the furniture. “And then, you know, the Japanese came?” I was careful with how I put it. Maybe not careful enough. He didn’t say anything for a while, just looked down to the centre of the table. Then I saw his face change. I wanted to know and thought I had a chance.
“Well?” I said.
“Gegai mun kut oo yeh?” he said. He was angry, quietly angry, and maybe he looked older. Both were rare.
The first and only time he told the story, he said there was a scout. I picture him running down a hill as fast as he could to tell everyone the Japanese were coming. The villagers left, maybe to hide in forests or ditches, and they came back hours later to find the place ransacked, everything on fire or already burned. There was garbage everywhere, and the pig lay dead in a field with a hole in its side. My dad said that one time he told the story that he thought the Japanese were about to eat the pig when they got called away by their general. The villagers had nothing left, not even dignity. Or, well, they did have one thing: that dead pig. They ate it, probably thinking of how much more food there would have been in a few more months, how angry they were, and what they’d do if they happened on the Japanese again.
Another time I asked, “How old were you when your dad died?”
“Long about ten, eleven year old.” I wrote it down in my notebook. “You know,” he said, “he never have energy. Always have to —” and then he said something in Cantonese.
“What does that mean?” I say.
He said, “Wah, you know,” and raked the fingers of his left hand over his right arm. “To get blood mooing.”
“What, all over his body?”
“How did he die?”
“Wah, he diabetic people.”
“I thought he died because he drank too much.”
“Wah, coulda be that, too. You know, before, no test tape, no needle, no nothing. You know how people find diabetic? They look at the nil—”
I had learned a few months before in Biology. “Your pee has flies if you have diabetes,” I said.
“Yah,” he said, glad to be understood.
“So he probably had it. How about your mom? How old were you when she died?”
“Three, four year before my fadder die.”
“How did she die?” I said.
He used a Cantonese word I didn’t understand.
“You always said she had cholera.”
“Coulda be,” he said, nodding. Then he got sheepish. “You know, coulda be you think I’m crazy, but,” then he said more things in Cantonese. It took a while to figure out what he meant. My mom helped a bit, but it was mostly my dad talking and me guessing what he was trying to say. Turns out he and his mom had just gotten home from planting rice in their village plot when she sat down on the curb, exhausted — it was sunny and hot — and said, Look at all those dogs.
“What’s wrong with that?” I said. He told me, again in Cantonese, and I figured it out soon enough. “Oh, there weren’t actually any dogs there,” I said.
“Okay. No, I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“She so tired. She lie down in sleep. Nex few day, she sweating and sleep, dilehla, gnau.”
“Sounds like cholera,” I said. I went to the reading room and came back with my encyclopedia. It’s not great, just a single volume, but it confirmed hallucinations are a symptom. I told him that. I also told him how it’s transmitted.
“Oh,” he said. “Yah. Three, four day later, she die.”
“So fast,” I said. “That’s really sad.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said in the dismissive way he does when a fact is self-evident. He didn’t make a big deal of it, which I guess made sense, since it happened so long ago.
I’ve known a lot of my dad’s stories for years, but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the things he’s lost. He tells me things and I don’t know what to say, don’t know what he’d want me to say. We don’t talk about feelings. I ask him about his life, he tells me stories, but what can you say in response to that pain? I’m sorry? I can’t imagine what it was like for you? What was it besides sad? How exactly did you feel that loss? These aren’t questions I know how to ask him and not questions he’d be able to answer, I’m sure.
The last time I asked my dad for a village story, my mom sulked. “Gnoa m jongee gum sad,” she said glumly.
“But all good literature is sad stories,” I said. “Dickens, lots of Shakespeare.”
“Goagoa hai story,” she said. “Neegoa hai real.”
“Yeah, but that’s life. You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen.”
“What’s passed is past.”
“Yeah, but it shapes who you are now, don’t you think?”
“Still,” she said.
One time we were watching TV. The show was a romantic comedy set in modern day Mongkok. When commercials came on, I asked my mom, “So, uhh, before in Hong Kong, did you have a lot of boyfriends?”
She looked up and to the side, as if she was trying to figure out how much she should tell me. That sweet smile of reminiscence. Look at her. Of course she had boyfriends. “Yah. Kind of,” she said.
“How did you meet Dad?”
“Come on,” I said. “You had to have met somewhere.” I used to joke with Stef and Trina that it was in a Chinese tearoom. They met eyes from across the room, shyly started talking, and soon realized they couldn’t live without each other.
This secret smile on her face. She liked having information someone else wanted and the knowledge that she didn’t have to share it.
“Well?” I said.
“It’s not a big deal. Why won’t you tell me?”
“I don’t have to tell you,” she said. Her accent — a lot of China and a little bit of England there — and the way she overemphasized her words, the defiance, made it funny.
“But like, when you die, no one will know the story.”
“Baa la,” she said. Too bad. “I don’t need anyone to know.”
My mom lords it over my dad sometimes, how she thinks she’s so much more rational. She thinks she’s smarter because she knows more words and went to university and doesn’t believe in ancestor worship. She can’t go a single week without bringing up Shakespeare or Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle. She’ll correct his poems, his bits of philosophy. It’s three grains of rice, not three bushels, she’ll say in Cantonese.
I’ve asked her why she married him if she thinks she’s so much better. I wanted to see what she’d say, wondered how my mom, with her priorities and love of book smarts, ever looked at my dad — this semi-literate rube from rural Canada and a Chinese peasant village before that — and thought yes, him, when there had to have been more educated local candidates.
She told me it was because she saw he worked hard.
“What else?” I said.
“Well, did you love him? Did you think he was handsome? Was he nice to you?”
“Work hard is important,” she said. But imagine leaving your parents, your friends, your favourite place in the world, your whole charmed life of sock hops and warmth and Great Works of Literature and little glass bottles of Coke and Chinese desserts for cold and snow and racism and some uneducated guy you barely know. Just because he works hard. Seriously, is she some kind of martyr?
Melanie Mah was born in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and currently resides in Toronto where she is a freelance writer. A graduate of the University of Guelph MFA in Creative Writing, The Sweetest One is Melanie’s first novel.