Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ house consists of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, rice, broccoli with fungus, glass noodles with bean curd, and Tofurkey. My Gung Gung cooks all afternoon in silence, shuffling slowly around the kitchen in his blue slippers. My Poh Poh watches Chinese soap operas in the living room, the volume turned up loud enough so Gung Gung can hear the voices over the chop of his knife on the wood cutting board. Occasionally she will come up for a plate of fruit and ask a few questions about the meal, to which Gung Gung will wave his hands and grumble back in Cantonese. Patting her dyed black hair, she will return to the television and call one of our many relatives.
We arrive at five o’clock like we do every year. If we are even a minute late, Poh Poh calls our house to remind us that we are eating soon, even though she had called ten minutes previously. We arrive as Poh Poh brings the steaming dishes smelling of savoury meats to the table, barely leaving any room for our plates and bowls of rice. I sit below a black and white headshot of my Bak Bak, my great-grandmother, old enough that the photo must have been taken in Canada but young enough that I do not recognize the sea of grey hair that sits atop her head.
I have been a vegetarian for six years now but every meal we eat together, my grandparents point to the dishes and indicate which have meat or not. I’m reaching for the gravy when Poh Poh motions towards the bowl of broccoli.
“Broccoli have no meat,” she declares.
I wouldn’t say our dinners are silent. The sound of chopsticks scraping rice bowls and soup slurped on large white spoons echoes while sentences started as hands reach for second helpings lay scattered across the table.
“I’m moving to South Korea next year,” I say, putting my fork down.
Gung Gung nods while Poh Poh’s chopsticks entrap a brain-like piece of bean curd.
“Korea not safe. They communist in Korea,” Poh Poh says shaking her head.
“Ai,” says Gung Gung. “That’s North.”
“Oh. You no go to North.” She continues to shake her head.
“You can’t even get into North Korea!” My mom yells and shakes her head in unison with my Poh Poh, although for a different reason.
I’m not at home much anymore. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the two reading weeks my university affords me are the only times I make it back to my quiet town. But every time I am back, I try to learn a little more about my family history. I’m not sure what prompts this desire in me. Maybe it is the way I have to shout a little louder each time I see Gung Gung. Maybe it is overhearing Poh Poh and her sister discussing their medications as if they were trading cards. Maybe it is enrolling in Mandarin classes at school and remembering that I never had a conversation with Bak Bak when she was alive.
My family never helps with cleaning up, especially not my brother or father who naturally gravitate towards watching football in living room. If I try to help, Poh Poh takes the dirty plates from my hands. Instead I sit in the kitchen with its grease coated cupboards, spending an hour in the kitchen half-yelling questions to my increasingly deaf grandparents. How old were you? What year was it? Gung Gung is nine years older than Poh Poh but arrived in Canada in 1953. Poh Poh came later in 1960. How did you know each other?
“Poh Poh was a mail order bride,” my mom says from the dining room while flipping through pages of the Toronto Star. “Or maybe it was Aunt Mary. I think one of them was.”
I search for “Chinese mail order wife” on my phone and expect to see a Wikipedia page followed by scholarly articles and intersectional feminist essays. Instead I am led to page after page of websites among the likes of My New Chinese Wife, Sincere Asian Brides, and China Love Cupid.
“My brother know Gung Gung from China,” Poh Poh says as Gung Gung boils water for tea. “We write letters to each other and I come to Canada.”
“See?” My mom smirks into the paper.
Bak Bak died nine years ago at the age of 101. Near the end of her life she used to dig in the front yard of Gung Gung and Poh Poh’s house. Thinking she had returned to China, she dug for the valuables that she had buried the day she fled Canton with only her children. Sometimes they found her with dirt lodged under her fingernails and mud crusted on her jade bracelets. Unless it had rained the night before, the ground was usually too hard for her frail body to crack, leaving her knees and hands dusty as she struggled to get back to her feet. Other times they came home to her circling the bushes that lined the sidewalk, searching for the right spot as she asked herself aloud where her husband was.
On several occasions she left the house alone without a sense of what country she was in. Dressed in layers of oversized sweaters and patterned Chinese jackets, she shuffled along the sidewalks in her red slippers. Kind strangers jumped out into the middle of traffic to help her across the street when she crossed at places with no pedestrian signs, oblivious to the honks of angry drivers. Speaking no English, the only sound she made came from the pebbles that scraped the pavement beneath her feet.
As soon as someone realized she was missing, Gung Gung got in his car and drove around the neighbourhood. Poh Poh wandered the streets looking for her century-old mother, and usually found her down by the river. After several “escapes”, my grandparents installed what my mother dubbed “the Bak Bak lock”, several complicated locks on the front door that she struggled to open.
I don’t know the Cantonese word for great-grandfather because I’ve never had to use it. Nobody in my family knows what became of Poh Poh’s father. All we’ve been told is that he “died fleeing communist China”.
Poh Poh places the leftovers in plastic containers, ranging from actual Tupperware to empty margarine tubs. Gung Gung runs a toothpick through his teeth as his blue slippers shuffle into the living room to watch football.
“Why did you come to Canada? How did you get here? But why Canada, what was wrong with Macau?” I ask, growing exasperated by Poh Poh’s answers.
“We were from Canton,” Poh Poh doesn’t pause as she continues sweeping the kitchen. “We paid a lot of money to go to Macau.”
Macau. A city that has eluded me but lays one Google search away. I’ve asked about Macau many times to both Poh Poh and my Chinese friends and they all like to laugh and say it is the Lahsy Veghasy-Las Vegas- of China.
She leaves the kitchen to fetch a broom from the garage. “Poh Poh isn’t very good at this.” I complain and scroll on my phone, listening to the football announcer’s muffled voice. My mother sits in the dining room with the photo of Bak Bak looking over her, reading the paper with a concentration that does not suggest her knowledge of our family history, neither her refusal to share it with me.
I used to work at a clothing boutique on Toronto’s hip Queen St West owned by a Chinese lady from Hong Kong. She learned quickly to roll her eyes at the young girls who tried haggling over a few dollars for a t-shirt. When the store wasn’t busy, she sent me to pick up mushroom rice for her in Chinatown. On my first rice run, I entered the restaurant as a white family was walking out.
“They’re all so rude,” the father shook his head without holding the door for the customers behind him. “And the chicken balls weren’t even authentic.”
Inside the restaurant a thin girl wearing a Hello Kitty shirt, no older than 12, sat at the counter between a gold paw-waving cat figurine and fake jade Buddha. Her hair framed the sides of her face as she added up a bill on a stained calculator, oblivious to the waiters shouting behind her.
The Chinese Diaspora. Generations of immigration embodied by Chinese restaurants known best to their customers for fortune cookies and sweet and sour pork, both creations to satisfy the fork-wielding customer. The restaurant itself takes on the role of a parent, nurturing the immigrant child to grow to pursue the life it never had.
These are the children who grow up knowing the length of bus and subway trips rather than one-way boat rides. They have never buried their family heirlooms under thick layers of clay and left everything in another hemisphere. They may ask their grandparents their stories, but they fail when the conversations are held, in Gung Gung’s case, in a language learned at the age of 19 in a Canadian sixth-grade classroom.
Later that day I cried reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that her main character’s parents came from Guangzhou and Toishan, like my grandparents did. I felt something tightening inside my chest that was not guilt exactly, nor was it sympathy. The same night I read a poem by Nayyirah Waheed. “you broke the ocean in/half to be here/only to meet nothing that wants you.” I was not prepared to confront the fact that this nothingness could come from your own bloodline.
She comes back into the kitchen and puts the broom in the corner. She washes her hands in the sink and turns towards the fridge, but stops right in front of my stool.
“We paid a lot to go to Macau,” she repeats.
Macau: located in the south approximately 64 kilometers from Hong Kong. Under control by the Portuguese from the 16th century until 1999. The longest European-controlled colony in Asia. Officially part of China but an autonomous territory, Macau is one of the richest regions in the world. Home to the largest gambling centre and the fourth highest life expectancy rate in the world. The Lahsy-Veghasy of China.
“In Canton we got on boat,” Poh Poh extends her arms their full span, not even covering the full length of the fridge and the stove. “Very small. 6 of us: me, Bak Bak, Uncle Mike, Aunt Lucy, Uncle Tom, Uncle Tom’s wife.” She lifts her arms again. “We lay down in the boat and put sugar cane on top of us so they can’t see us. We hiding. We so scared. There are two men rowing the boat. They say, ‘if the soldiers find us they kill us. Throw us into the water. We drown.’ I didn’t hear but my mother and Uncle Tom hear. We so scared. They shaking. We rowing then we stop and police boat passes by. Many times. The police boat look but only see sugar cane so they keep rowing. They think it is just supplies. We thought we would die. Then we see lights of Macau on the water. So happy! They say ‘only half hours more’. I was so happy. We thought we would die. We paid a lot of money to go to Macau.”
I don’t notice I’m pinching my arm until I feel the moon-shaped indents in my skin a few minutes later. Poh Poh is looking at me, her dark eyes glistening, not with tears, but with a look I’ve never seen before.
“How old were you?” I say after a moment of silence.
“I was 10. Maybe 11.” She walks over to the fridge and continues putting away the Thanksgiving meal.
I wonder what her story would have been like had I been able to speak her language. Cantonese, the ancestral tongue that skipped my generation, only grazing my mother’s. English seems like a trap, molding her experiences into verbs and adjectives she can barely pronounce.
In the dining room, my mother continues to flip pages of the newspaper as if she hasn’t heard anything at all.
Last week I met up with a boy from my university who had returned from two years teaching abroad in Korea. I told him I was interested in doing the same, and while chewing the tapioca pearls of bubble tea he asked me why I wouldn’t go to China first. China, the place where front yards can double as treasure hunts. China, the place where the language is familiar to my ears yet I cannot pick out a single word. China, the place my family almost died to escape.
I didn’t explain why I’m not moving to China. He took no notice, rattling on about how beautiful Asia was with all its gorgeous women. I soon excused myself and never spoke to him again.
Poh Poh climbed out of the small rowboat on the shore of Macau at the age of eleven. Indents from the mound of sugar cane piled high on top of her and her sister’s boots were imprinted in red on her fair skin. She took several deep breaths, smelling fish in the air as she stretched her arms towards the black sky. The six of them smoothed out their layers of clothing and trekked into the darkness towards the city where they had a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor waiting for them.
The next day, Bak Bak hired a detective to find her husband. He had left Canton six months prior to their own crossing to ensure the route was safe enough for them to follow. Poh Poh thought that perhaps he had settled down as an elegant bachelor in the heart of Macau, spending his Friday nights betting on mah jong and his Saturday nights taking different women out for dinner. Or maybe he had buried himself under sugar cane on the wrong boat and emerged hours after pushing off the shores of Canton into the dazzling lights of the San Francisco harbour. They never heard from him again.
Hannah Polinski is a writer and undergraduate student in her fourth year of the BA English program at Ryerson University. She is currently based in Toronto and her work has appeared in local publications such as The Continuist.
The photograph features Hannah’s mother and grandmother. Image courtesy of the author.