My Grandmother's Language - Fatboy Zine 4 / Antenne Books
Do you remember when I would feel unwell, you’d place your rough watery hands on my back. Shaking loose small drops of white flower oil. You’d knead and roll your weight into me. A cold heat would seep through my skin. The sound of your jade bracelet would rattle alongside my heavy breathe like the percussion of a requiem.Can you tell I am feeling unwell now Mama? You were never really proud of who I was in England, perhaps because you never really knew him. I’d stripped of him in the bathroom. A heavy shower would rain through me, washing away any traces of British Identity. Not once have I heard you say my English name. To you I was not that, I was your grandson.
I’d constantly photograph you. I would hold up your picture like a mirror. You would push away the magazines I would bring back from England shouting “Why me, I’m so ugly”! I never told you how beautiful I thought you were. Your hair was constantly changing. Soft currents of grey, white and silver floated around your head in the spring months. When I was younger your hair was permed. Tight curls would frame your small face. I’d watch you place one small felt ribbon within your curls. You would always finish this routine by softly patting both of your palms over your head, as if crowing yourself . First prize to Hong Kong’s new beauty queen. I even liked everything you wore. A tiny pantry like wardrobed stood by your bed. It was filled with shades of purple cardigans. Raison, Prune, Dry Salty Plum. Ingredients to dress a Grandma. In the evening you’d wear white cotton pyjamas decorated with blossom flowers.
Their petals would roll down your sloping back. I would rest my head on you. Your hand eventually brushing me off and I too would glide, float, roll all the way back home. Is there a word in Chinese for when leaves fall off trees and they land back onto earth? I often felt like that leaving you. We would go to the wet markets every morning. Miniature earthquakes would erupt under my palms as I clung onto your wheelchair handles. Another off road adventure for us. Eventually your mode of transport got so old that all your grandchildren chipped in for a new one. We unveiled it to you like a brand new car and I was your chosen chauffeur. Your tiny fingers pointing to whatever direction you wanted to go in. “is this your grandson”? market sellers would ask ‘yes, he comes all the way from England every year” This was better then any job I had back in London. My Chinese was never strong enough for you.
Going back to Hong Kong was an act of re- finding my mother tongue. But conversations or language were not needed in this relationship. Our relationship was not formed by the tellings of your past or feelings. I didn’t even know your name. This relationship was like no other, it was built by presence. Something I have reluctantly learnt through the repetition of my father’s actions. Is this what Chinese Love is ? Did you teach him that ? To cook, to feed, to be near? Do you remember how I’d run to you if I’d heard you walking down the stairs, offering my hand to make sure you wouldn’t all. How I’d bring you a tray of breakfast, tea with buttered toast and microwaved sausages. A seven year old’s attempt at a gourmet meal. I’d wait for you if we were walking to fast, I am still waiting for you, but I am currently learning how to walk ahead of you.
So what do I do now. I find myself rubbing your oil on my chest before I sleep. I am burning incense so I can smell you. I am eating too much because my father does not have the words or the language either. My mouth is full of food, swallowing emotions so they do not have to be shared and eaten amongst others during family meals. I smile and mask a heartbreak by asking for seconds, clinging onto a childhood that’s departing. I am wishing I could return to you and feed you like I once did. It’s not till I am in your room alone, where my words feel too heavy. Where I sit alone with a grief that weighs on me like tropical heat. Where no words leave me, just a heavy breathe burning out my throat. I realise this is as close as I’ll get to you. So I rest my head on your pillow where we once laid. I close my eyes, waiting to feel your hand on my back. I won’t say a word or speak a sentence as you know I have come back for you. You do not need my words or language to know that. I am finally fluent, speaking a language you once taught me.
It’s always sticky in Hong Kong. It hits me as soon as I take my first step off the plane. I go to Hong Kong twice a year. It’s a ritual of mine. My dad use to finance the trips, he felt bad after mum died. But I come here on my own terms now. He still covers the taxi fare though. It’s a forty-minute ride home. I don't sleep, the chill of the air con keeps me awake. Instead, I wrap myself with my mother’s hoody I stole from her closet. It’s a sailing hoody. No, we didn't own a boat, but my mother liked fancy things. She collected chandeliers and chaise lounges so people would know of her success - not bad for a takeaway shop owner! But it's my time with my grandmother in the village I love the most. It’s late when I arrive. A faint outline of my grandmother’s house emerges, her lights are off. So I make my way to the pink flat. It’s where her visitors stay. I flick the switch, the bulb clinks with excitement. Dust and cockroaches.
I’m awakened by construction trucks, bulging with building materials like pregnant women. The sound of their labour wakes me. I make my way to my grandma’s still in my boxers (my dad will tell me to cover up later). I don't care though, I can be whoever I want here. I’m greeted by the view of hollow cement flats. They look like skeletons, visible now in the morning light. There are new ones every year. They’ll eventually grow up to become shiny new builds fed by inheritance money. I reach my grandmother’s front door, skipping over the elevated doorstep (an old tradition to keep the ghost out). I see the family memorabilia still adorning the place. I guess she holds onto things like I do. A small red phone lays quietly beside rows of graduation photos. They all stand proudly as if you were witnessing pageants at the beauty contest. They act as evidence of her success. She’s waiting in the corner, staring into nothing. Her face smushed up by her watery fist. She looks up, I embrace her as if she’s bigger than she is. She’s happy.
My jet lagged morning is welcomed by an afternoon nap by my grandmother’s side. There’s a struggling air con system that’s older than me. It vibrates loudly like caged frogs awaiting their slaughter at the wet market. I lay there watching her sleep. I can smell her - Lotus oil and dust. Her old room in England still smells like that. The fan’s friendly breeze serves it to me. There’s always the feeling of a mosquito caressing my skin. They battle the fan’s typhoon like winds, struggling to land on me. It reminds me of that summer three years ago. A typhoon halted my flight back from Tokyo, causing even the best of pilots to struggle through the turbulence. I walked hours home drenched in rain, but I didn't care, I was in love then. My Grandmother was so happy when I returned. Jumping out of bed “You’re back, he’s back, he’s okay!’ I love that feeling, the one when someone looks forward to your return. On my Grandmother’s bed lies a sippy cup and a call button. She presses it. BEEP! BEEP! In rushes my aunt, tending to her mother’s every demand. She looks exhausted. “Toilet” A fragile trip to the dimly lit bathroom. I grimace as a scene replays in my head - my mother cradled in my father’s arms, a wedding-like journey to the bathroom. She looked tiny then. I wait in the living room, barefoot, toes tapping on the cold blue tiled floor. I distract myself with the exhibitions of smiling family photographs hung on the wall. Summers with Grandma in England.
My Grandma use to live in Caledonian Road. She would look out the window, screaming as my grandfather would leave in a taxi. Another Family. After he passed, I could tell she was lonely. Death and our culture don't seem to mix well. My mother’s face was cut out of all the family photos as if she had never existed. I too, screamed when she left. We don't speak of such things. So I’ve been coming back ever since. My thoughts are interrupted as she finally emerges from the bathroom. The song of her walking stick begins. Followed by the slow tempo of her slippers dragging heavily along the floor. She finally lands on the seat next to me. Smiling and panting like a soon to be retired opera singer. Her hand trails under the back of my shirt. She begins to scratch my back, I can feel her rough, dried palms against my skin. One of my favourite feelings.
I spend the whole afternoon lying next to her, only to move when we’re both hungry, like true dogs. My Cantonese is limited and her English is non-existent. She proudly quotes “Piccadilly” and “Bus to Camden”. I applaud, she smiles like a child that’s done well in school. I want to say “I love you” but I don't. My culture makes that sentence feel weird. Simply presence is a form of love in my family. She tends to me the whole afternoon as If I were a baby. Her baby. She looks at me as if I were helpless. I get covered with a duvet, told to fall back asleep. She’s merely repeats to me what she hears every day. When it gets to 8 pm I finally leave. We’re both washed, fed, and dressed for bed. I dig my way into her sandals, my toes flooding off the cliff edges of the sole. We both laugh. My dad scolds me “stupid boy!” I always wear her sandals even though they’re far too small. They remind me of my mum's shoes I would play with when I was young. I wave goodbye, prolonging my departure. I walk back to my flat, dragging my feet through the crops of building sites. “I hope my flat isn't like that, I’m nothing like those new builds’
The Life and Death of a Fish
You should go to a wet market. It makes you feel alive. You see all types of fish there. Real fish, big breams, beautiful bass. They arrive in foam boxes wrestling, spilling out their own life source in desperation. Goldfish watch from their plastic bag balconies, pacing around like concubines in their Hanfu. Amongst the chaos, gloves are being pulled on like midwives before a delivery. Knives glide up and down releasing scales like sprays of white and silver confetti. The climax of an ending. Blood follows, trailing down their bodies. A shower head sprays away the act, a crimson river runs down the drain. They had swum freely like gods, only to spill out their guts on the day of judgement. Honesty never looked so gruesome. They will take their final resting place on our dinner plates - dressed in whatever satisfies us. Their bones will be gifted to our pets. Remembrance won’t take place, it never does, as we will journey the very next day to pick another. After all, we have become the gods.
A Rooster's Funeral
My mum was the year of The Rooster. She was just like one too. Loud, smart, plucky. A barefoot girl from rat tails village. She had migrated to England eventually owning the town’s most celebrated Chinese Restaurant. Customers flocked to their tables, pecking away at spring rolls and her cheap prices. Her three eggs hatched into three children, all to become farmers for her business. This was better than the rice fields she would squawk. I remember the day she told me, I curled under her wing. Safety. I miss that feeling. She never did fly, but I’m learning for her. A year later her feathers began to fall out. One by one they littered our living room floor. Two years later I went into her room, her skin was cold. A flightless bird. She never had a Chinese funeral. I always wondered what it would have been like
A Broken Marriage
Most of the time I feel alright about what I did. Some things give me a pang, like whenever I see woman like me. Well, the old me. Stop. You were only a child; you didn't know what you were doing. I had walked down the village, my chicken feet hands crossed over one another. I hated that jade bracelet; it would feel heavy like the humidity and responsibilities that awaited me. I would have never been able to carry those sons he would have wanted. My jade bracelet snapped when I left him and moved to England, my grandma said they do that when something bad is going to happen. The jade took the damage, not me. I saw him last year, he has three boys, one wife and one mistress. Her jade bracelet looks tight, she’s grown too big for it. If only I could break it for her.
Pieces of porcelain splashed along the kitchen floor like sharp frozen waves. I had woken the house, most importantly, my father. My dad was a kind, gentle man. Until you broke something of his, a common practice of mine. I would break his heart 10 years later. Not intentionally, but I had to tell him the truth. Now I was on my knees, picking up tiny shards with my chopstick fingers. Fiddling with pieces like those westerners I’d serve at my dad's restaurant. Nervously looking up, there he was, holding a broom. My mother would have hit me with it, instead my father herded me aside like some shepherd. He began to clean my mess. My siblings watched from the stairs, they sauntered around the pieces, dodging injury. Adult arms glided down like necks of cranes. Their beak like fingers reached the surface of the kitchen floor, effortlessly plucking the last of the shards. I pushed myself against the wall with my childlike shame watching my family clean the mess as I tucked away my bloodied toes.
“He’s a traditional man, thats why he collects traditional things, but you like to break things, don't you?”