“The future will be fine,” my next-door neighbour said through her mask as we ended our brief conversation at two-arms-length distance on a garbage collection day in April.
Back in the house I resumed indulging in my perversely welcomed solitude.
Text message: “Hello! Best friend, how are you?”
Crocodile skin marketers. Message ignored.
Message persevered: “Your brother asked me to bring your shopping home to Canada with me.”
Oh, all right. I bought a wood carving in Singapore in December while visiting Zhiang. My brother was to ship it for me but first suggested I upgraded my flight. “Business, you can board with a house in your carry-on.”
“I travel light. That ‘house’ can take the slow boat home. Please.”
Now, who is bringing it?
“What’s your name?“
Bernard? Bern lives in Canada…?
I could almost see the dimple on his right cheek, his perpetually smiling eyes, his gentle manners.
Bern was in Singapore in February to give a talk on his book on Eastern and Western philosophies, coming home a week before lockdown. He and Zhiang caught up on their greys, packing in Singapore Chicken Rice, Satay, and my favourite, Sashimi. Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Architectural Engineering, cousins, sworn bachelors, retired, lost and found each other. They reminisced about their teenage fishing trip: fresh from the South China Sea the fish were wrapped in leaves, buried in the beach sand, and a fire lit over the ‘underground oven.’ In lieu of a wilderness gourmet, the cousins cooked up a storm in Zhiang’s kitchen for colleagues and friends.
I would have been there in February had the gods been kinder.
In 2001 I divorced John and settled back in Canada. Zhiang was happy for me, and said our Pa once confided in him with a sigh that in his heart and soul, Bern was his real son-in-law.
“You knew Bernard was named after his English maternal grandfather. You were overthinking about the taboo of cousins marrying.”
When I was studying for my Bachelor’s in England, Bern had graduated and was practising law in his relative’s firm in Singapore. I met John in my last year in London. His ambition to start his career in business upon graduation had moved the assistant in me to be his wife and personal secretary. His reticence about his family background was alluring in a strange way; he promised that it would be a good surprise.
If only I had stayed for my Masters, said my sweet brother in perfect hindsight, Bern would’ve asked me when he returned to Cambridge for his Ph.D.
Zhiang and Bern were 19 when they left home for their tertiary in 1965. Bern’s dad came to thank my parents for his son’s ‘extracurricular schooling.’ I was curious why the adult cousins did not socialize much until then. Pa explained that years ago Bern’s parents were tasked with delivering a wedding gift to a mutual friend’s daughter. The bride wrote to thank my parents for the fine gold bracelet, which was Bern’s parents’ gift, while my parents gave her the gold necklace and pendant.
“Why didn’t you clarify the matter on reading the letter?”
“It’s only money. What if the bride made an error? Then everybody would lose face. See?” Zhiang would lose his best friend and Bern would lose respect for his parents. That was why Pa’s questioning and justice-minded daughter was uninformed until the brothers had left home, and she had turned fifteen.
Ren zi Ju – Xin ben shan Thus said the Confucian Three Character Classic.
Humans are born good; circumstances in life mold their personality.
My Pa saw in Zhiang and Bern an intelligence well beyond their age. A retired schoolteacher of Chinese history and classics, a Confucian scholar, Pa was naturally obligated to instill in them a rounded education. Bern visited us on weekends and school breaks for ten years.
When Zhiang received a five-year Colombo Plan scholarship for an engineering degree in Australia, and Bern was accepted by Cambridge for Law, Pa was so proud that his nose puffed up like a balloon, Ma said.
Both of Bern’s parents worked in the colonial Shell company that the locals dubbed the Have All. Higher echelon employees of Have All were dubbed Have More who lived in fully air conditioned company houses, socialized in golf courses and clubs, and enjoyed a handsome retirement. Minutes across the river were the Have Less, those business populace with their ceiling fans and Chinese chess games.
“If Have More were to neglect cultivating their inner goodness there would be no value in their oil, turf, or club. Just a shell. The Have Less would have more if they cultivate their inner riches with dignity.”
“What are we, Pa?” My Ma, the breadwinner, was the reputable Chinese herbal doctor in town, a rival to the colonial government’s pain-killer dispensary and clinic.
“We are Have Books, approved by Confucius.”
“Did Confucius talk about the Have All?”
No. My Pa did. “Have All have nothing, just greed.”
Pa wrote down two Chinese characters: Greed. Poverty.
“See? They look alike, hmm? Tarn zi ping zi jiao.”
Tarn – greed, ping – poverty. They have different top radicals but share a similar leg – the same ending.
“Easy mistake to make in a hurry. I say, practise your Chinese character writing and learn to ‘see’ deeper.”
“But Pa! English is poised to be the world’s official language one day!”
Pa said I was a mule.
My Pa read English well but spoke it poorly. So, his mule of a daughter recited Portia’s speech on the virtue of mercy to demonstrate the musical rhythm of the language. Pa liked best the line, It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. A pity, however, that the Bard was unstudied in Chinese classics.
It was like one mule talking to another.
Toronto – Vancouver, our first Skype.
“We have aged, Bern!”
“Like wine, all for the good! You’re cheerful about it!” His dimple and smile suited him in maturity. Perhaps I could now ‘see’ what my Pa saw.
“Did my Pa advise you to study Chinese classics?”
“Not really. Remember he emphasized reading deep into all civilizations and histories whatever we do? And that what he taught us could only fill half a teacup? I passed that to all my graduates.” He even sighed like my Pa. I gave him a smile that I had denied him for eons.
“And your Ma’s Zhongzi!”
We digested our Zhongzi with a 2,500-year-old romance of a poet who died in the waves of political corruption, leaving his legacy in the sticky rice dumpling and the dragon boat rowing exercise. Taste buds and stomachs have tenacious memory nerves.
“Real man must learn to cook,” Pa said as he rolled out the yellow dough with a robust wooden roller for homemade noodles.
“If his wife were on a diet of Greek gods of war and Chinese immortals marrying mortal men, real man would not go hungry.”
“Read on, sweetheart, I’ll cook tonight!” Bern said to me, and Zhiang and Pa burst out laughing.
I feigned nonchalance, being exceedingly busy wielding the noodle cutter passed down from Emperor Qin’s era when immortals often appeared out of nowhere to aid the Have Less.
I was the kid sister assistant to most of their craft projects, even repairing bikes or making and remaking huge kites that kept getting sucked up into the heaven. I was in for Pa’s history lessons whether I understood them or not. But I had no penchant for Chinese chess, being no strategist. Once, when Bern was staring sadly into a bowl of Ma’s bitter herbal brew for his earache, I said I would marry him if he’d drink it up in one gulp (I was about nine). He relaxed his puckered face, quaffed down the black liquid and said, “I’ll go ask your Pa now!”
One day, Zhiang built a sprawling mansion with strong cardboards under an old gnarly guava tree in the neighbourhood. Bern and I, not wanted on the project, sat on a branch to watch. Bern was sixteen, tall and stout (and smiling). He wiped an overripe guava on his grimy shirt, and, taking a big bite, leaned over to kiss me. Mr. Guava and I lost balance and crashed onto Zhiang’s magnificent architecture.
“Who chose Ave Maria?”
“I did… Why?”
“I had to go outside the church to breathe.”
After the priest declared John and I husband and wife he waited for John to claim his property. John did not move. The priest lifted my veil and we waited; the guests murmured. The priest gave up and we proceeded to seal our fates in the divine book while the organist pumped the still air for a heart-pulling Schubert.
As we walked out of the church, confetti floated about with the angels.
‘Congratulations!’ Bern said. Pulling me up close he kissed me and whispered, “I won’t have forgotten to kiss my beautiful bride. What an idiot!”
Later, I asked John if he saw a Medusa when my veil was lifted.
“What’s a Medusa?” He was never amused by the Greek mythologies that I later tried to feed him, nor any other tales, metaphors, or satires that seemed to laugh at him.
“It’s not our Chinese culture to show emotion in public,” he said. “How embarrassing! Only a pseudo Englishman cousin would do that.”
“A church wedding is quite English, in fact!” I had to give up my pagan notion of a registry office wedding and convert. Even his widowed mother was not required to do so when she sent him to the Catholic school.
“I want God to witness our marriage.”
John’s family traditions were as uncompromising as those thousand-year-old eggs. He was brought up with the “fact” – a given – that women tend to cheat in a marriage. The real man must be on the alert not to be cuckolded. The breadwinner carries his family glory while his wife carries the household burden. A useful wife, without a question, should be quietly laying eggs, not cluck for attention, or, worse, poop and crow like a rooster.
My Pa also told Zhiang that John was like an over-tightly stretched drum. The reticent, unsmiling Economics guy with potential business prowess was bursting with so much pressure to win to glorify his ancestors. Being ambitious was fine but being unsociable and thin-skinned was not. Pa could not tune a drum.
Ilena and I met in our A-Level year. At recess we cracked jokes at each other as future wives: a child in each hand, a baby on the back, and a ballooning tummy, singing “Do your breasts hang low, do they wobble to and fro?” Ilena quickly said “Not me, that!” Her mom had advised marrying for security – a wealthy husband and no children.
When I told Pa that Ilena was going to Australia for further study, he said, “What would a No Book study?”
“A secretary’s course, maybe.”
Ilena came home from Australia a few weeks after my wedding, met Bernard at her friend’s dinner party, and followed him back to England. Zhiang and I kept this from Pa and Ma.
“I didn’t marry her,” Bern said quietly into the camera. “I said I was already married. She told me to forget you. But she soon complained that she was wasting away among my books and papers.” After three months she left to marry a tycoon from Hong Kong.
When I was planning the wedding, Bern had gone to America to consider Yale for his Ph.D. in Philosophy but chose to return to Cambridge. He would’ve asked me then, he said, if I hadn’t met anyone. He flew into our old hometown in Borneo a week before my wedding.
“I talked to your Pa and Ma, and your Pa said to ask you to cancel that wedding.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I thought you had chosen. I wanted you to be happy. Scandal…your Pa,Ma, my parents…”
“Too much philosophizing! ” Zhiang had said to Bern during their Singapore reunion. He said it was a shame that his scholarship had been extended another two years in Australia. If he had been home, he would have engineered an elopement. “A scandal loses its flavour after three days,” Zhiang asserted, “and everyone would be dying for a freshly stinking one.”
Days before the wedding I did feel an uncertainty about John, and about his family harrying us to tie the knot. (Our five-year family plan was later reduced to two years). My Pa was unhappy about the background noise that was John’s protective mother constantly demanding respect for herself. John told me years later that he too, had had second thoughts but had to save his mother’s face.
When our little family immigrated into Canada, Bern was still living in England. When we had to sojourn in Singapore, Bern was garnering a second Ph.D. to teach and write in Toronto.
“You can’t play chess with the gods and expect to move your own pieces.” John’s mother used to say that.
Ren Zi Zhu, Xin Ben Shan
Confound the circumstances. I had to begin to move my own chess pieces.
With our Canadian citizenships under our belts, I felt we were at last independent of ‘background noise.’ Soon, however, the Asian markets with China’s rigorous opening was beckoning to John. I laid down the condition for my move to be with him: we would be based in Singapore where my brother had been teaching in the university for several years. I did not foresee though, that I would be living like a pseudo single mom with two daughters schooling at the United World College. Like all expatriate women living in Singapore with their husbands’ job postings, my Canadian passport was stamped “Not permitted to work.”
John’s headquarters were in Indonesia and Malaysia; he was to become a phantom husband and father.
For volunteering in the Docent program on Asian arts and cultures in the Singapore Museum I received a token of appreciation, a little wood carving of a kitchen god. Seated in the ancient Chinese kitchen, the god would spy on the family’s conducts, and during the Chinese New Year report to the Heavenly Emperor in outer space. In a send-off ritual he was feted with rice wine and dim sum, and his mouth stuffed with sticky rice cakes. My Ma’s version of the folktale said that the Grand Secretary in the heavenly palace, recording millions of kitchen gods’ reports at year end, would listen to garbled accounts of human behaviours while pocketing on the sly a share of dim sum. “This household – no sin. Next!”
The kitchen spy was a prompt for the creative writing class that I planned to set up when my girls left my nest for their tertiary back in Canada.
I held up a picture of the celestial spy snugly wedged between my books.
“John threw it out on one of his occasional trips home. That was the last straw on the mule’s back. I shouldn’t have insisted on telling him the lore.”
“Hmmm…I bet that thing is now traveling with the Great Pacific Garbage…”
“Turning round and round, going nowhere like us!”
“I know where I’m going. I’d asked your brother, and he said to ask you…” He crossed his arms and stifled a chuckle. “Well, what ‘wood carving’ did you buy? We’re both sitting here in lockdown waiting to see you again.”
“I told Zhiang what I bought.”
“He guessed it’s a replica of his cardboard Angkor Wat under our guava tree.”
Strategizing cryptic messages and teasing riddles, both men were unaware that Bern had flown over ocean and continent with Guang Gong.
Back in school for a Canadian Bachelor’s after my divorce, I took an elective in Physics 101. Question for a glum professor: “Did our solar system once have two suns? World mythologies say…”
“Mythologies are garbage! Not science!” Down the garburator they went, gasping.
On my December 2019 Singapore trip, I revisited an Asian craft shop where its elderly owner had given fascinating talks in my Docent days at the Museum.
“Kitchen god? Old superstition!” The new shop owner grunted, sounding like Professor Glum II. He showed me an old magazine. “Mao Tze Tung was the kitchen god during the Cultural Revolution. All rubbish!” Posters of Mao’s face pasted on walls and stoves illustrated an article about malleable ancient gods.
“Hmm.” I then looked up to see a warrior figure in bright, Chinese opera costume behind the counter. His face was carmine coloured, his eyebrows locked tight, and his beard flowed like a river down his chest. With a poleaxe in his left hand and an admonishing gesture in his right, he was waiting for his cue to enter the stage and rebuke some errant fools in high alto.
“Guang Gong, god of justice.”
“He’s not a god! Just a strongman, Three Kingdoms, third century A.D., messy political times like now.”
“You live in Canada, how you know?”
“Canadians time travel, past, present, and future.”
Glum II laughed. “He became god after he died. Businesspeople prayed to him for business, police prayed to him to catch thieves, the thieves pray to him to keep the police away…”
Wait! Canonized Guang Gong, a perfect muse for my Spring 2020 creative writing class.
My hero was bubble-packed for time travel too. Glum II only shipped goods for business. “Canada, so-o far away!”
“Yeah, halfway to heaven already.”
Soon, Professor Bernard shall hear about my extracurricular exploration of civilizations not found in the tomes behind his academic firewalls.
Will he send Guang Gong to gyrate with the kitchen spy?
Garbage was born a science; circumstances molded its awkward life.
Our future will be fine.
Alice Y. Yong emigrated from Sarawak, Malaysia to Canada in 1981 with her young family. Her Southeast Asian Chinese cultural background and English education are the basis of her curious taste for diverse life topics and character studies in English literature. She is currently writing fiction based on her sojourning years between Canada, Europe and Asia. Her two nonfiction books published by Oxford University Press 1995/1998 (married name A.Y. Ho) are researched works on Southeast Asian cultures and histories. She received a Queen’s university BA degree in English Literature in 2007 after her first grandchild was born.