Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Place to Stand

A Place to Stand by Kim Rutter (3rd =) I’d never really thought of China much. It kind of didn’t come up around Hunter’s Corner, not once Wong’s Vegge Shoppe closed down and the hos moved in from across the motorway, and the pakeha families started leaving and I had to concentrate a bit harder on avoiding the repercussions of being the wrong sort of brown at a school where being the right sort mattered. It’s different now of course, especially down in old Papatoe with the Vietnamese bakery and the Indian dairy and the acupuncture clinic and the noodle shop duking it out with the loan sharks and the Polynesian bargain bins, but back in the day we were pretty much it in terms of local slopes, and I hated it. I was sitting on the back door step, spine against the jamb and chin on one knee while my grandmother squatted on the kitchen floor and pounded garlic and chili and dried little fishes into a fetid paste that looked and smelled and inevitably was going to taste like baby shit. With each blow of the stone pestle, she railed against the moral failings of South Auckland tarts in general and me in particular. “Skirts up here!” Thump. “People see everything!” Thump. “Ai yah!” Thump. “You get disease!” Thump. “And baby!” Thump. Not that I’d ever given her cause to worry, you understand. The bros at school weren’t exactly lining up for my special blend of plain. An explosion of black coarse hair, styled with a home perm best described as Warhol meets Einstein… don’t judge - it was the eighties, okay? Sheesh, give me a break. Hooded eyes, dirty dishwater skin and freckles sprinkled liberally over a lumpy six foot package. “Sturdy welsh legs” said my da. “All the Evans women have thighs like pit ponies.” Thanks Dad. Did I mention the glasses? It was a package that meant I didn’t have to work particularly hard to defend my seventeen year old virtue, and to be honest, I was pissy about it. So I there I was, wedged in the doorway, gnawing on the cuticle of my left thumb and brooding about the fact that a freakish ability with calculus is a stereotype, not a consolation for a lack of any boy action, and when I tuned back in she had segued into a nostalgic reminisce about the challenges of birth control in a post-war kampong. “..only one condom between them. Your aunties had to wash it after each use and hang it on the line to dry.” “PorPor, stop it! I’m not listening! Lalalalala, my fingers are in my ears, not listening….” Surprisingly she did stop. And when I looked up she was crying. “Lin, I want to go home.” The ferry cast of from the Hong Kong China Ferry Terminal at half past five in the morning. The journey was going to take five hours; across the South China Sea, past Macau and up the Pearl River to Taishan, in the heart of Guangdong, which I guess put us on a slow boat to China. We nearly missed the boat of course (story of my life really). I had severely underestimated the amount of time required to extricate a slightly bewildered and extremely crabby old lady from a budget hotel in on the Island and get her and her luggage to Kowloon before dawn. (What is it with elderly Asians and awkward parcels tied up with raffia string anyway? Why can’t they have suitcases like everyone else?) When I finally muscled her up the gangway and into the main cabin, PorPor attempted a desultory scold and then, exhausted by several days of screaming at immigration officials, lay down on a faded blue vinyl banquette and immediately began to snore. I slumped next to her and took stock. Obviously, I hadn’t expected home to be Taishan (famous, according to my slim English language guide book, for being the birthplace of Chinese volleyball). I thought home for PorPor was Singapore, where according to family legend my father met my mother at a dance at the Tanglin Club on a stopover en route to a fabulous engineering career with Shell in Indonesia. He was a scholarship boy from the valleys, off to make his fortune out East. She was a party girl in the mold of Holly Golightly, demonstrating makeup in a department store during the day, watching too many American movies at night and looking for excitement and romance and a happy ending of her own. He was instantly swept off his feet by her exotic World of Suzy Wong glamour. She thought he was Gregory Peck. He thought she was as beautiful and delicate as a porcelain doll. She thought he was rich. Within the space of a week they had sold the last leg of his first class ticket to his respectable job (courtesy of his soon not-to-be employer) and fled reality by signing on as crew on freighter (second engineer and cabin maid respectively). They lasted as far as Auckland, where she was put off for slapping the captain when he politely suggested she actually do some work. By this stage of course she was pregnant and hating it. Both of you, what were you thinking? Mum, had you never heard of birth control? Or did you jam your fingers in your ears during the shared condom story too? Anyway, Dad stepped up, knuckled down and got a real job. And when the baby came, and things got really ugly, they sent for her mother. So roll on seventeen years, and if you had asked me, and many did (no, I’m not part Maori, not part Samoan, not even part Spanish, though I quite like the idea of flamenco dancing and castanets; no, I’m not denying my turangawaewae, just don’t have one, but thanks for asking) I would have said that I was Eurasian, and that crazy Asian lady was my grandmother and yes, she’d lived with us all my life. But I wouldn’t have told you about the county of Taishan in the Sze Yup province of Canton where flood and famine and war and disease and poverty had been endemic for one hundred years. One hundred years where men had left the province and travelled to Malaysia and California and Australia and Canada to work for money to send back home. I wouldn’t have told you about the hard winter in one small house, in one small village, when the mother died, and the big sisters died, and the little brothers died and the overseas money stopped arriving and the uncles and aunties had no more to give. That was the winter when the brother dressed his little sister in her warmest clothes and put her in a hand cart covered in a quilt and started to push. And I wouldn’t have told you how those two got to Singapore, or how the brother kept his little sister fed and safe until she grew up and got married and had daughters of her own. I wouldn’t have told you how the brother, in the time just before the war, was stricken with homesickness and went back to the village and then was trapped, first by the Japanese and then by the Communists and was never heard from again. I wouldn’t have told you that there was a trail of tears that led directly from Papatoetoe back to that village in Taishan, because I didn’t know, not until PorPor started to cry that day in the kitchen in the old house in Carruth Rd. The ferry slowed and rolled slightly as it left the sea and started to follow the Pearl River up into the delta. PorPor slept on, twitching from time to time with the movement, in the manner of an old dog chasing rabbits in her sleep. I went topside and leant over the rails on the foredeck and looked across the water at China. When I was small, one of my aunties sent us a present from Singapore. It was a small glass box with a black lacquer frame (slightly cracked on the back, but you really couldn’t tell), and inside was the most beautiful Chinese scene I had ever seen, painstakingly carved out of cork. There was a mountain, a pagoda, a bridge, two cranes and some willows; fashioned in the minutest detail and clearly the work of an artisan without peer. That box had pride of place in our house, even after Mum shot through, and it wasn’t until I was searching the Hong Kong discount souvenir shops the previous day for a present for Dad that I realized just how valuable it really was. And now, as I peered out over the river it became clear that its worth as an accurate representation of its country of origin was suspect too. Or to put it another way, where was my damn pagoda? Where were the willows? Where were the bloody cranes? I felt cheated. All I could see was farmland and industrial buildings and fiendishly ugly houses, all jumbled together in a town planner’s nightmare. There were plumes of black smoke escaping from factory chimneys, and concrete drains discharging into the river. After about an hour, I did see a mountain, or what was left of one. It was being quarried, and all its natural contours had been chiseled away to leave straight terraces of bleak exposed rock. Workers in coolie hats swarmed all over it, carrying rubble in baskets, and then it was gone. I went inside to forage for breakfast. I have always had trouble talking to foreigners. Bleeding accents, fractured grammar, pulverized idiom – I feel like I’m a first responder triaging conversations in the aftermath of a teenage suicide bomber, trying to pull the least injured words from the rubble so some kind of meaning can survive the devastation. I know I’m behaving badly. I talk slowly, in words of one syllable, and very loudly, apparently under the delusion this will make my meaning clear. Afterwards I’m left with post traumatic communication syndrome and something that feels suspiciously like a dash of survivor guilt thrown in for flavor. So instead of feeling grateful when the skinny little guy with teeth like slabs of Milky Bar and polyester walk shorts a size to small tried to catch my eye, clearly excited by the chance to practice his English and help the big nose order food, I cut him dead and lurched on with my rudimentary Chinese. I was under the impression I was asking for chicken rice but the general hilarity all round the dining room when I’d finished ordering didn’t fill me with confidence. I repeated myself, and the steward rushed off, sniggering slightly, only to return a few moments later with a live chicken, which he presented to me with a flourish. Options were few at this point. I drew myself up to my full height, wrapped my dignity around me like a shroud, thrust the steward some yuan and stalked out with my chicken tucked under my arm. “Wait, wait! Chicken girl! Hang on a mo!” Well, that was unexpected. Walk-shorts-guy from the dining room was jogging after me, waving a bag and talking Australian. “I thought you might like… I guess you and the chicken are probably still a little hungry, right?” I glared at him, but took the proffered bag. Pork buns. My favorite. “So what’s with the accent?” Okay, too rude. “And thanks for the buns.” “No problem.” His name was Kenny Ng, and he lived in Melbourne, and he was making a trip to inspect his family Christmas tree light factory. It was lucky I met Kenny, as it turned out. He was the one who told me that the ferry didn’t actually go to Taishan, and that we’d have to clear customs in Gong Yi and then take a bus for another hour or so. He also offered to look after the chicken. I liked Taishan. I liked the little crocodiles of school children with their red neck kerchiefs. I liked the heroic revolutionary statues and the giant pictures of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong and the guy with the eyebrows who turned out to be Li Peng. I liked the old colonial style shop fronts and the street of cobblers. I liked the wide avenues full of bicycles. I liked the men and women, mostly older, in their communist pajamas. What I didn’t like was the way they stared. Not the furtive, corner of the eye glances I got in the street back home either, or the aggressive “what you looking at” stare the cool guys at school had perfected, but real head turning, jaw dropping, crashed-my-bicycle-I-was-staring-so-hard staring. Those cute little school kids would peel off their crocodiles and skip behind me down the street waving their arms in the air. Plump housewives would call out to get me to look their way, and when I did, they’d laugh. Youths with squints and surface-of-the-moon complexions would sidle past me and whisper sotto voce suggestions that I was secretly relieved I couldn’t understand. PorPor however had no time for Taishan. First thing the next day she had me on a bus to Chunglao If Taishan was the county big smoke, Chunglao was, she was pretty sure, the market town closest to the village. The problem was we didn’t even know if the village still existed. The solution turned out to be simple. I merely stood, gormless and large, at the spot where we got off the bus and sure enough every one with nothing better to do was inexorably drawn in my direction to find out what my business was. At which point PorPor pounced and asked for news of Lee Chien Ming of the Lee Toi family village, born in the year of the Fire Rooster. No one knew, but someone knew someone who might, and someone else ran to the school to get the headmaster (to this day I have no idea why) and then we had an entourage and we were on our way. Looking back on it, I can see it was my fault. I should have asked her, what did she think she was going to find there, seventy years after she left? I should have known, as we drove past crumbling entrances to dilapidated villages she couldn’t recognize, and as she dredged her memory for words in a dialect she hadn’t spoken since she last saw her brother, that she was searching for a home and a family and a country that only memory could find. I should have tried to prepare her for the moment when we finally found a place that seemed to fit, and an old crone (who was probably younger than her) tottered out of an enclave of rotting hovels and claimed to remember. But I didn’t. So I held my grandmother’s hand as we walked up the shallow hill to the overgrown grave that may or may not have belonged to Lee Chien Ming, and we cried together. And then she wiped her nose on her sleeve, and took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “Finished here.” she said. “I want you take me home.” And I did.

No comments: