She couldn’t sleep. It had been a horrible day. A day that felt like it was going out of its way to tell her that she wasn’t right for the world. As if she had been the subject of a poorly lit reality show about Asian transsexuals, as if the movements of her day had been broadcast on television for the world to judge. Which, if she was being honest, was the kind of show she would watch. She told herself the day was over and none of what happened mattered anymore, night had fallen and shrunk the world to a manageable size. She was home, alone in her apartment, safe from the judgement of others. Nevertheless, she was spun, the aftermath of feeling terrible all day was keeping her up. She gave up on trying to sleep and wrapped herself in the fogginess of the hangover left by her panic, and prepared to let the late night slip away into TV shows and junk food. Absent-mindedly walking into the hall toward her bedroom, supplies in hand, she felt a little less awful than she had before. Behind her in the kitchen, the fridge made a sound like a VHS tape rewinding. She had a pot of piping hot macaroni and cheese from a box in one hand, to be happy, and a glass of water in the other, to be healthy. She also had a jar of bamboo shoots in chili oil tucked under her arm, to be safe. She didn’t want to have to go back to the kitchen once she got settled in bed. Wondering what she would try to stream on her laptop, she stepped on The Creaky Spot in the floor. There were many creaky spots in the floor, but this particular spot cried out like a tape recording of bat sonar mangled by an ailing tape deck. She had complained to the landlord, who had come repeatedly to her apartment, doing all his own repairs. Drilling extra screws into the floor or banging it with a hammer. Generally being Present and Useful. But The Creak persisted. The flooring needed to be replaced, probably the subfloor as well, and that was more upheaval and more time with her landlord than she was prepared to deal with. After his last attempt to fix the floor, she called him, and, with her most excited voice, proclaimed that he’d “miraculously fixed it”. She marked the spot with tape and walked around it.
Tonight, she had no capacity to focus and stepped squarely on the tape mark. The Creek startled her and she dropped the jar of bamboo shoots, which made a noise almost as loud as the floor. The jar slammed down and rolled out of the hall into the living room. “Damn it,” she whispered under her breath. The loud noises late at night made her movements smaller, her voice hushed. She followed the rolling jar of bamboo into the blue TV light of the living room and stopped, frozen. There was a TV on. And someone was watching it. The panic of the unfamiliar at a time and place where everything should be certain spread throughout her body like a wave, radio static in her blood. And as quickly as the static came, it vanished, a signal coming into focus. She knew exactly who she was looking at.
As a child, she hated him. He embarrassed her. She had a singular and negative understanding of him. She guarded stories of him from everyone she could, crafting beautiful falsehoods of him, presenting the Chinese-Canadian grandfather that her white teachers and friends wanted to hear about. Stories about a happy, grateful immigrant who was always trying out Canadian things, like ice skating, beaver tails, or camping. But Gung Gung was not grateful, and he hated Canadian things. It was cold here and the food was tasteless. Most of all, everyone seemed to think he was stupid. Something she didn’t realize until years after his death. She knew she would never understand exactly what he had felt. Another way they were isolated from each other.
He was miserable. He blamed everything on Nai Nai or Ba Ba. He would hardly speak to Ma Ma, punishment for resistance to some long ago decision of his, the specifics forgotten, the nearly inaudible hiss of vehement disdain remained. As far as he was concerned, Ma Ma was not to be trusted. When she was a child, Ma Ma was always working nights and Ba Ba was always travelling for work, so she mostly stayed with Gung Gung and Nai Nai. That meant that most mornings, after waking in her small cot, she walked out of the small office in her grandparent’s apartment into the living room where Gung Gung would be snoring on the sofa, buried under the mess he’d stayed up all night making.
Nai Nai loved to have her there, telling her about relatives or the women she was meeting at work. Every night, Gung Gung would erupt in the Shanghai dialect she could not understand, an ash cloud warning of the inevitable flow of anger. Nai Nai’s shoulders would stiffen, her face would become serious and she would brace for the coming flow. It was never clear what the source of the anger was, the subject shielded by language. Gung Gung would come to whatever room she and Nai Nai were in and combust whatever conversation was happening with his voice. Nai Nai would retort angrily, move the battle away to another part of the small apartment, away from her. She never knew if Nai Nai won the arguments or he did. Or what they were fighting about. Protected from knowing, she remembered these moments viscerally, creating new meanings each time the memories replayed themselves. Reruns with grainy voiceovers, narrating a natural disaster. She asked her family to teach her Shanghai dialect once and everyone — Ma Ma and Ba Ba, Gung Gung and Nai Nai, all told her not to bother with a Dying Language. A contrary child, she said that millions and millions of people spoke it so it couldn’t be dying, and everyone changed the subject.
She knew she would never understand exactly what he had felt. Another way they were isolated from each other.
She became terrified of him. No matter how regular his outbursts, they always startled her. Once, late one night while he slept on the sofa, she woke in her small cot to the sound of him dreaming. Confused and scared she walked into the living room as he was asking someone to pass him a jar of bamboo. His sleepy words slurred and unfamiliar. Not realizing he was conversing in dream, she padded across the apartment into the kitchen, the vinyl bottoms of her footed pajamas shuffling on the tiles, and got him a jar of bamboo shoots in chili oil from the fridge. Walking over to her sleeping Gung Gung, she put the jar on the coffee table in time to hear him say, “Aiyeoh! Do I look dead?” Frightened, she ran back to the cot in the office, and the memory quickly blurred into her many memories of him.
Tonight, what should have tipped her off first about what was happening in the living room was that she didn’t have a TV. But, plain as the jar of bamboo on the floor before her, there was a huge cathode ray TV with a convex screen across from the sofa in her living room. It had two dials, one to change the channels, and one to adjust the picture. The TV sat on a shelf with glass doors on it, the kind that open and close with little magnets. It had black wooden sides. Probably particle board. She knew the man on the sofa, but couldn’t process his presence right now. In front of the TV was a coffee table covered in newspapers. There were pants on the floor. Not her pants, but his. He was sprawled out on the sofa, his sofa, in his underwear, escaping into the TV glow. North York, 1991, inside her 2017 Montreal apartment.
Gung Gung’s sofa was a brown velour, unfathomably dirty and covered in newspapers, ageless food stains, indistinct packages, and pants. Gung Gung was eating chou dofu from a jar with a fork, watching a historical Chinese war movie. The TV light across his face gave his features a dynamic quality, like wind across the surface of the sea. She looked back at the screen. Warring States period? Three Kingdoms? She could never tell the difference. She couldn’t see the hair styles of the actors, that helped sometimes. She stood in the living room in a daze.
“Xeoh An! Come watch this. Very important history!” he yelled at the TV, startling her back into the moment. But what moment is this, she wondered, when a dead man and his sofa shows up in her apartment. She looked across the room to the window. Montreal outside. She looked back at the furniture, her grandfather. North York inside. Even the walls looked like the walls of her grandparent’s apartment.
”Why you here?” he demanded as he scraped the last of the dofu out of the jar and raised it to his mouth, drinking the juice. He wiped his chin with his shirt. She breathed in slowly, scratching the back of her left hand with the nails of her right.
He sucked his teeth in disapproval, “Aiyeoh. You never talk. Your hair is so long. You look like a girl.” “I am a girl, Gung Gung,” he stared at her for several moments. “This would only happen in Canada. My only grandson! Come sit.”
She walked over to the sofa and pushed a pair of his pants and a few newspapers onto the floor and sat down, still holding the pot of macaroni and cheese and her glass of water.
“What is that?” he asked, pointing to the pot.
“Mac and cheese.” She said, “And water, it’s important to stay hydra-”
“-ted, especially under stress,” she finished, passing the pot over to him. He took a mouthful from the pot and shook his head.
“No taste! Ugh. Give me the bamboo.” Happily, she put the pot on the table. she’d been looking forward to eating it and had no desire to share. She got up to find the jar of bamboo. behind her, men were cut by swords or impaled by huge spears, forever caught in a loop on her Gung Gung’s TV.
Growing up she always thought he was incredibly rude, always saying “Give me!” to demand one thing and “No use!” to cast another aside. In her twenties, after he passed away, she enrolled in Mandarin lessons and realized that “Give me” was a direct translation, as was “No use”. She entertained the idea that he wasn’t rude, but quickly concluded he was rude in any language, not because of his grammar, but because of the way he had treated everyone, often publicly.
Tonight, he was as gruff as always, but there was a vulnerability about him that she couldn’t place. Perhaps it was just that she had aged or that there was nothing he could do to her family anymore. Maybe it was that seeing him now, he looked so much like her after a terrible day. Eating and escaping into a program, late at night. She handed him the bamboo.
“Ha! No lesson about manners? What happened, Xeoh An, you used to be polite!” He teased, loudly. He was always loud. In her braver childhood moments she would try and lecture him about manners. She learned all about manners in school and at lunch hour. Useful things like she wasn’t supposed to spit all the bones from her fish onto the table and she wasn’t supposed to say “Gimme!” any time she wanted something. He would just laugh at her when she’d tell him he needed to mind his manners. The TV raged on.
“…Warring States?” she ventured.
“Aiyeoh! No! Three Kingdoms! Very important history! How you not learn this? Your father is so stupid, teaching you nothing.” He took a mouth full of bamboo. She took a mouth full of macaroni. They watched the TV.
After what could have been hours or minutes he turned to her.
”Xeoh An, this night, why are you here?” His voice, though very loud, was unusually soft. She stared blankly at him. His softness made her suddenly angry.
”Why are you here!?” she yelled. He laughed, and to her surprise, answered.
”I cannot sleep. Too much worry.” She was too startled at his sudden vulnerability to hold onto anger. Watching his face in the pale glow of the television screen, she noticed it was shifting, constantly changing. It was not a trick of the light. Looking closer she saw that his hair whitened and blackened, and his face tightened with youthfulness and weathered with age. It was happening so quickly and constantly that she couldn’t focus on any particular moment in his life.
”Gung Gung… your face…” She whispered.
He laughed loudly, “Here, I always do this.” He continued to snack on the bamboo.
“Here? What do you mean here? We’re in my apartment!” She looked around.
“This is my chair.” He retorted, mouth full.
“You are dead.” She said matter-of-factly.
“Aiyeoh! Do I look dead?” He shot back at her. She had no response. How was she supposed to know? She watched his jaw move as he ate. Tonight, he was simultaneous, all instants of himself beside her on the sofa. He put the bamboo jar down.
“Xeoh An. You are worried and cannot sleep. I am worried and cannot sleep. To me, you are my grandson sleeping in my apartment. To you, I do not know what I am. This happens when you are worried and cannot sleep.” She sat back in the sofa. He made it sound so simple. Today had been particularly bad. For a moment he looked young, almost like her Ba Ba.
“Did Ba Ba ever come here?” She asked.
“Once. He saw me and kicked the TV. I had to buy a new one. Then he went outside.” He turned to face her, his features shifting through his ages while his eyes and the thin worried line of his mouth remained constant. “He was not glad to see me, your father.”
She sat with this idea a moment, a full cycle of Gung Gung’s ages, before responding, “Why should he be? Why should either of us be?” She watched his face, blending time and processing her truth. She saw remorse. It was impossible to tell how long he had been here. He slipped between sharp features of youth and the timeworn subtleties of age in seconds. Gung Gung alone on the sofa, eternal. A penance of solitary comforts.
As she stared at him, the clanging swords and grunts of fighting and death stopped for a moment as someone made a speech on the TV. The battle was over.
”Change the tape, Xeoh An.” She got up and walked to the TV stand and pushed on the black metal corner of the glass door. The magnet popped and the door opened. All the tapes were in a jumble, some of the cases were empty.
“What one?” She asked.
”Any.” He answered. Looking at the mess of tapes, she sat in front of the muted TV, the silent static dancing in front of her. None of them were rewound. Ba Ba hated it when she wouldn’t rewind the tapes. Once, when she was a child, he had Gung Gung bring over a box of unrewound tapes, and made her sit in front of the TV, rewinding each one. She spent a strangled weekend in the ultramarine blue of the rewinding screen. Holding up a tape to read the label she noticed her skin shifting in the light of the TV. It looked like trick of the static, but the more she focused on it, the more she realized that like Gung Gung, she was shifting in time.
“Gung Gung,” she said without turning around, “why are none of your tapes rewound?”
“Because recently you have not come back,” He said calmly. Had she been here before? She watched her shifting skin, in this place, a spiralling together of North York and Montreal at all the ages she would ever be. Perhaps her father came regularly to smash the TV, and she, to rewind the tapes. Each of them playing out their roles, letting themselves be known, singularly. With the tape in her hand, she turned to face Gung Gung. She was back lit by static, age spots moving on her hand, white noise on her skin. She took a deep breath, possibly many, and spoke.
“Tell me a story. Tell me a story about Ba Ba, when he was a kid”. He looked at her, cycling through his ages, his form seeming to settle on a younger age than she’d ever known him. He looked like her father, so much more in this state. She guessed he was probably in his early thirties, her Ba Ba would have just been born. He stared at her. There was no way for her to tell if she’d done this before. She moved her hair out of her face and noticed her form settling as well. An old woman now, she listened to her grandfather tell her about her father as a young boy.
jia qing wilson-yang is a mixed race trans writer and musician living in Toronto. Her novel, Small Beauty (Metonymy 2016), was a finalist for the 2016 Writer’s Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize, and is a finalist for the 2017 Lambda Literary Transgender Fiction prize. Her website is www.littleqing.com.
Illustration by Jesse Zhang