“Call Waiting” by Wiley Wei-Chiun Ho8 min read

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Illustration by Arty Guava

You wouldn’t think something I do every month would be such a big deal. But it’s a dreaded chore — every bloody time. Tonight, as the appointed hour draws near, my mood darkens like the over-steeped Tieguanyin I’m slurping while I make dinner. I drink the tea more for its namesake than for its taste, imagining myself becoming more like the Iron Goddess of Mercy with every pour.

I slam cupboard doors and hack at the tofu on the cutting board like it’s pork bone. As I stir over the stove, I brood. I’m a grown-ass woman with a grown-ass life in Canada, holding down a demanding job, managing a house and raising a child on my own. But to my mother in Taiwan, my independence spells failure. “No father around for your son, no husband to take care of you.” My mother still can’t utter the “D” word in public without first glancing around in case someone might recognize her. After my divorce was finalized, I stopped visiting my parents. Instead, once a month I call, teeth clenched.

As I scoop rice into bowls, I yell for my son to come to dinner. When he arrives at the table, my ten-year-old asks why I’m in a bad mood.

“I’m fine,” I say, “let’s eat.”

He screws up his face. “Ma-po tofu isn’t supposed to have cauliflower in it.”

“Just be grateful I make you good food.” Inward cringe. Shit. I’m becoming my mother. Except my mother’s guilt trip would include a long list of personal sacrifices. If I ever spoke up against her, she would shut me down with just two words: Ni gan! I’m jealous that my son dares to challenge me, even as I shush him.

“It’s time to call Ah-ma, isn’t it?” He talks to me like he is my equal. I study him as he eats, his ease, and wonder if the way he speaks to me is a sign of self-possession or disrespect.

“What’s the big deal anyway?” he says, working a spoon around the cauliflower for the minced pork and tofu. “You always talk about the same old things anyway. Work. Me. Why you’re not with Dad anymore.” He mock-yawns.

“Mind your own business and eat your veggies.” I chew on a chunk of cauliflower. I hate it when my kid is right. My conversations with my mother have become as predictable as Monday Night Ma-po Tofu, with or without cauliflower. I’ve even set up a reminder on my phone so that on the first Monday, at 7 p.m., gentle harp music floats through the air to remind me that duty calls.

When I bring the bamboo steamer to the table, my son reaches in for dessert. He plucks up a red bean bun, splits it open with a scissoring of his chopsticks, and gouges out the burgundy heart. I envy his ability to eat the best part first, instead of saving it like me. Steam rises from his energetic mouth as he sucks and blows out the heat. “I know! Let’s go to Taiwan this summer.”

“No,” I say a little too loudly. Panic stabs my chest. “I need to replace the garage roof. It’s starting to leak.”

“You’d rather fix the garage than see your mom and dad?” His brown eyes are wide and ready to stir up shit.

“Don’t you have homework to do?”

My son chews with a grin that registers triumph. When he finishes, he swaggers out of the kitchen. He knows he is excused from cleanup tonight because I need the space.

As I scrub the dishes, I close my eyes and imagine Zhudong, my birthplace in Taiwan. Even though I haven’t been in a few years, I can easily conjure up the dusty lanes and the narrow doorways that open into small shops which double as living quarters in the back. The locksmith whose small store smells permanently of heated metal. The rice shop next to him with the heavy sacks on the floor, the tops rolled open to show off dozens of short and long grain varieties. Then the shoe store with the racks of colourful sandals. The last time I stopped in to try on shoes, I had to walk past the crowded racks to the back where the shop owner was watching TV. His eyes were glued to the flatscreen image of the late 鄧麗君 Dèng Lìjūn, with her eternally youthful skin, warbling her heart out like it’s still 1975. In my sleepy hometown, nothing seems to change much. But I know it’s a mistake to think the places we leave stay still for us. Every birthplace must grow up.

Harp music cuts through my daydream. Duty calls.

I dry my hands on a dish towel and reach for my phone. Inhaling deeply, I select my parents’ number. Long echoes separate each ring. I start to fantasize that they must be out – a doctor’s appointment maybe or a leisurely lunch with old friends. The ones who used to praise me, their successful daughter living in Canada. I wonder what my mother says when they ask why I don’t visit anymore?

I’m about to hang up when I hear my mother’s voice.

“How good of you to remember us.” She is in a familiar mood.

“Hi Ma, how are you?” I sound grossly cheerful. Why do I always do that? Never mind that I competently manage my life, whenever I talk to her, I feel like a screw-up.

Ma’s diatribe is on autopilot tonight. No, she wasn’t well, thank you very much. She asks how my son is doing, then answers her own question, “How good can he be without his father?” She sighs dramatically. “My poor grandson.”

“Ma.” I want to scream but opt instead for a monotone. I recite the latest divorce statistics, reminding her that Taiwan’s divorce rate is fast approaching that of Canada. “It’s really not a big deal anymore. In fact, divorce rates correlate with the economic emancipation of women.”

Her voice shrills in my ear. “Are you saying it’s a good thing to be alone?” “It? You mean divorce? Why can’t you even say the word, Ma?”

“Would you follow someone who jumps off a cliff?”

“Ma,” I grunt into the phone. “We’ve been over this a hundred times. Why can’t you just accept it?”

“Why don’t you think about your child?”

“I am thinking of him!” I will my hammering heart to slow down. “He is fine. We are good.”

My mother snorts in reply.

“Like it or not, Ma, times are changing.” I hate that my voice is trembling, so I lunge for the jugular. “I’m curious, how can you wonder why I’m not like you when you abandoned me here?”

“Abandoned you?” My mother’s voice is suddenly a whisper. “How can you say that? Your father and I returned to Taiwan to work and support you. We gave you a better life in Canada, didn’t we?”

“What do you want from me, Ma?”

My mother doesn’t reply. I know I’ve landed on a pressure point because I can hear her breathing hard into the phone. I can’t tell if she is angry or sad, but she’s clearing her throat like she’s getting ready for one of her guilt trips. No, not tonight. I have enough guilt of my own. And I know my son is listening to all of this.

I imagine arriving in Zhudong, the taxi dropping me and my son off at the end of my parents’ alley. The old lane is too narrow to accommodate cars, so we will have to walk the rest of the way to my parents’ door, the wheels of our suitcases clattering along the cracked pavement. When the door finally swings open, will we exchange awkward hugs? Maybe shed tears of joy?

“Ma, guess what,” I blurt into the phone. “We’re coming to visit you this summer.”

A hoot from down the hall.

Silence on the phone.

“Ma?” I can guess what she’s thinking – how is she supposed to explain my long absence to her friends. “I know, what will the neighbours think, right? Well, this trip is not for them, it’s for us.”

My mother is clearing her throat again and again. When she finally speaks, her voice is loud but warm in my ear. “Don’t get ripped off. Make sure you find a good deal.”

 


Wiley Wei-Chiun Ho works as a freelance technical writer and blogs for North Vancouver Recreation and Culture Commission (nvrc.ca). Born in Taiwan, Wiley moved to Canada with her family when she was eight. She identifies as Generation 1.5, inhabiting that haunted space between the here and there-ness of places, cultures, and identities. She writes about her experiences growing up in a Taiwanese-Canadian “astronaut” family. Wiley’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines.

Lay Hoon aka Arty Guava is an Illustrator and Graphic Designer based in Vancouver. She grew up in Malaysia and spent most of her adult life in Singapore before moving to Canada. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering but chose to make a career switch after about 1 year of working in the field. Art and Design have always been her calling. She is passionate about culture, people, and nature and how these themes interact with each other. Her work is available at artyguava.com/illustration

 

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