“Get out of here! You’re not welcome!” Two white men whizzed by from behind me in a Ford Ranger while I was sauntering back home from the grocery store here in White Rock. My black hair blew gently in the wind, a few strands swept before my eyes. I could’ve wept like a melting snowflake, making it all the more poetic. Last Chinese New Year, I moved again, to this beautiful place where I can be, but not belong.
“Nut-free policy?” My mother raised an eyebrow when she read the notice I left on the ground. I was visiting my grandparents in Taiwan during a summer break while still in elementary.
“Yeah,” I squeaked, “Adam, Neil and someone else are allergic to peanuts. I think, like, they’ll die if they smell one or something.”
My maternal grandfather, Lee, was seemingly intensely absorbed in his heated conversation with the TV. “I’ve never heard that before,” mused my mother, as she started cleaning up the mess I made while unpacking. “Foreigners are so strange.”
Lee stopped shouting at the TV for a bit and took a drag on his cigarette before looking our way. He swirled a glass of Kaoliang and grabbed a few roasted peanuts off a plate.
“Dad, stop it.” My mother glared at him. “No one smokes indoors anymore.”
“I DO,” boomed Lee, grinning, then returned his focus to the TV.
The British forcibly paid in drugs to the Ching Chang Chongs in exchange for their tea, silk, and porcelain—Cha-Ching! It’s for all logic—against all ethics. My paternal great grandfather, the son of a scholar-official of the Qing dynasty, would die from a heart attack at twenty-five when he quit smoking opium too abruptly. The Opium War saw the Chinese crash to a low that only a fentanyl high of the Downtown Eastside would know.
White Rock is, as yet, relatively free of yellow locusts: those who’ve ravaged the housing market for locals. Since moving here—having also been priced out of the city—I’ve been getting the ever-increasing looks of muted disdain.
“Do—you—go—to—school—here?” A lady working at Safeway enunciated each word slowly to my brother and me.
“Oh, not here. I go to UBC,” I replied, assuming she meant White Rock.
Her sharp blue eyes opened up a little, she made a funny face, and looked to my brother.
“I teach,” my brother felt compelled to reply.
“Oh…” she said shrilly, no longer exaggerating her pronunciation, “You teach?”
“Economics,” he replied.
“Oh…” she sneered.
Perhaps they’ve seen one too many Canada Goose-clad students racing down the street in their Porsches. With house prices having quadrupled in price these last few years, rent hasn’t been merciful either. Many are simmering with resentment at the sight of uncouth new money pouring into this once serene city.
When I was packing for yet another move, my friend came to help.
“Their money’s dirty. Most are from exploiting workers back home and through other corrupt means,” he said, indignantly.
“Laundering shit here and taking over!” He worked in the real estate business.
I tossed him a can of iced tea from the fridge in fear that his tomato face was about to burst.
“They’ve got no ethics! None!” he continued. “I literally cannot deal with them anymore!”
Look, I don’t dance now / I make money moves / …If I see you and I don’t speak / That means I don’t fuck with you / I’m a boss, you a worker bitch / I make bloody moves
Cardi B’s song started playing on the radio.
“Well, there you go,” I tittered. “That’s capitalism for ya.”
At the moment I’m writing this, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” is playing:
Lashes and diamonds, ATM machines / Buy myself all of my favourite things (Yeah) / …I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it / I want it, I got it / I want it, I got it /…Whoever said money can’t solve your problems / Must not have had enough money to solve ’em
Scratch the female empowerment gimmick; let this be the anthem of those buying out Vancouver.
Thank you, next.
Maybe those inundating Vancouver are now just capturing the logic of capitalism that their predecessors had suffered at the hands of some hundred years ago. Maybe they are the hybrid of the Protestant Ethic and the Struggle Session, wielding the sword of capitalism in one hand and the hammer and sickle in the other. Communism has never been born of a prosperous nation, only a devastated one.
Lee came out of the Second Sino-Japanese War with impaired hearing, lopsided shoulders, a crooked back, and a limp from two bullets lodged in his bone. A 58% sorghum liquor called “Kaoliang” became his go-to remedy for all his ailments ever since fighting the Japanese soldiers in freezing temperatures while he wore straw sandals. He claimed that Kaoliang killed bacteria—and feelings. I can, however, only confirm that it gave him a Rudolph nose.
China, the Central Kingdom, as it’s called in Chinese, has been off-centre for more than a century or two—a blip in history. She was drugged by the British and French in the 19th century and subsequently plundered, massacred and raped by the Eight Nations at the turn of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution shattered five-thousand years of culture and wisdom; the Chinese had since been mocked as the “Sick Man of East Asia.” Perhaps, in a feeble way of retaliation, at best a crumbling nation could do to retain some pride, Westerners and the Japanese, alike, were etched into the Chinese psyche as the “foreign devils.” Peculiarly enough, in the hating of Westerners, emerged a yearning to be Westernized; yet those Westernized are, in turn, scorned as “fake wannabe foreign devils” or “bananas,” if you will.
A battered dragon—a fettered heart—a walking contradiction. I was one of four Chinese-Canadians in my class in the early 2000s.
“I can only speak English,” announced my classmate, smugly.
He was the descendant of a Canadian Pacific Railway worker who had fled Canton after the crippling effects of the Opium War. The other two didn’t know Chinese either, and yet their parents had been recent immigrants; the parents would make it a point to strictly talk to them in their broken English. Some would commend them for adopting Canadian values fast.
They were proudly white on the inside, but painfully yellow otherwise: a banana—a euphemism—a compliment.
Lee’s deafening voice made it so that he was barely aware he was half-deaf.
“SPEAK UP!” He’d often yell to others.
He was never deterred from smoking two packs a day even after an X-ray showed that his lungs were completely black. Only in his eighties did he experience a week-long bout of pneumonia.
“You’re gonna die if you continue to smoke like this!” My grandmother, Lin, nagged, as she piggybacked him out of the hospital.
“GOOD!” yelled Lee.
He lived until ninety-one.
He held in his tears when the bamboo stick slashed his palms. His grandfather had been disciplining him for slacking off in his studies. In a fit of petulant rage, he ran away, planning to make it a day of adventure, and his younger brother giddily tagged along. By that evening in 1938, Japanese troops had invaded An’hui and before they had realized what was going on, all sections to their home were blocked.
A year later, his brother was bombed to death by the Japanese.
“I was deceived…it was my fault.” Lee would often mumble after drinking, but he seldom said more.
He was pronounced dead twice in the next decade. He once mentioned that his friend had saved him by dripping the juice of a loquat in his mouth; as for the other time, he could not recollect.
When the Japanese Imperialists retreated from China in 1945 following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the brigade Lee was a part of disbanded on the spot in Shanghai due to a lack of funds from the Kuomintang (KMT) aka the Nationalist Party, which was the Chinese government at the time.
He squatted by the streets—a veteran now—but more so a vagabond. In order to just have something to eat, he started to do shuoshu (storytelling) in teahouses, which is essentially busking.
When he had saved enough for a train ticket going home however, he lingered on for another while; he had no brother nor his ashes in tow. By the time it had been eleven years since he last saw his parents though, he cared no more and began his journey home.
“HEY, WHAT’S THE MATTER?” Lee hollered along with the rest, craning his neck to see better. He could barely push through the crowd at the train station. It seemed as though the train had shut down.
Lee was suddenly yanked by his collar from behind.
“Get out now!” said a hushed voice.
Lee turned around. It was a former fellow soldier from another brigade.
“Now!” The man urged. “The Commies are about to seize this place!”
It was 1949—the Communists had won the civil war—and Lee, dazed, boarded the last troopship, under an alias, that fled the Mainland. Whatever had happened, he became one of the six hundred thousand soldiers to retreat to Taiwan under the KMT.
In the years that followed, people in Taiwan were ordered to sever all contact with the Mainland because amidst the White Terror led by Chiang Kai Shek, the KMT leader, anyone could report you as a Communist spy, and almost every alleged spy was executed. It was Chiang’s catharsis for realizing too late that many of his major subordinates were, in fact, Communist converts or undercover agents.
The veterans brought along all the accents and dialects of the Mainland as well as all the coarse habits from a decade-long war. Dogs and snakes were considered delicacies and compared to rock-hard steamed buns, tree bark, rodents, and blood-soaked noodles, anything edible a luxury.
In elementary, the smell of lukewarm Chinese dumplings coming out of my Thermos had the whole class pinching their noses. My mother was against my having “Lunchables” or sandwiches on icepacks for lunch because, traditionally, Chinese people did not eat cold meals. “They’re bad for your health,” my mother would say. It had something to do with poor circulation and stagnant Chi when you ingest cold food. I’ve always liked dumplings though… just not when it was for lunch.
“Oh God! You’re so Asian!” my peers snarked all the time.
I am, but I also felt what they meant.
At the end of the school year, while cleaning, I found two peanuts sitting inside my backpack.
“Did you do that?” I confronted Lee the following week when I flew to Taiwan.
He was humming to himself, with a cigarette in one hand. He snickered.
“Y’know, my classmates are going to die if —” I continued, whipping out the evidence of his crime.
“Did they, though?” he asked, amused, swiping the stale peanuts off my hand; he chucked them into his mouth.
I drew in a breath, thoroughly grossed out, though not forgetting to think of a good comeback for my squabble with this old rogue.
“Get outta here,” he waved me off, sitting back on his throne across the TV with his eyes closed, massaging the acupuncture points on his wrinkly and bony hands. “You lil’ phony foreign devil brat!”
I’ve always lived amongst foreign devils. They’ve been my peers, teachers, neighbours, colleagues, friends, and confidantes.
Lee failed to pick up the local dialect and didn’t start a family until he was in his forties; even then, he was sure he would be returning home. No one was to touch the two suitcases beneath his bed. For decades, he was prepared—and only waiting on a nod from Chiang.
Half a century later, Lee, muddled, was still in Taiwan puffing on cigarettes, drinking Kaoliang, and eating roasted peanuts with his few and far between metal-coloured teeth. When the time came that people could write to those in the Mainland, he had heard from relatives that his grandfather, father, and mother had all died. While still alive, his mother had supposedly gone blind from crying too much.
Being immobile and demented in the last decade of his life, Lee wore seven layers in the sweltering heat.
“So cold,” he muttered all day, especially when my grandmother changed his clothes and wiped him down. He swapped Kaoliang for sweet things like sponge cake and mung bean pastries—things he never used to like.
“Hey, Grandpa, look at this.” Nudging him, I showed him a property on the MLS listings of Vancouver I was browsing, mainly to see if he was still responsive.
His murky eyes and distant stare said enough.
Like always, he started making hocking and hacking noises, patented by old Chinese men, who all have a mystical source of phlegm that flow like the fountain of youth. I sighed at his unresponsiveness and returned my attention to the screen then sighed again as I witnessed the house prices shoot up—not unlike those at Insite.
“I’m gonna be homeless!” I bemoaned to my computer as I proceeded to lie on the floor, theatrically writhing in anguish.
“HAH!” Lee bellowed suddenly with his trademark surround sound soldier’s voice.
I jumped. He beamed as though he were capable of clear thinking again. He raised his trembling hands to wipe his perpetually watery eyes that were turning blue as the days passed.
“Home is where you are.”
He coughed out a cloud of smoke and—for a moment—disappeared behind it. The dragon has only just opened its eyes, yet its glistening glare has already cornered me to the edge of the White Rock Pier; though it, too, has now collapsed, sending me adrift in the ripples of the sea—on and on to places Grandpa hasn’t seen.
February 2019 in B.C.
Raine Lee is a Canadian writer. She is an English Literature major at the University of British Columbia. She was born and bred in Vancouver and is of Chinese descent. Her parents are first-generation immigrants from Taiwan.