Huyen Thai Quotes in Unpolished Gem
“Have you thought of a proper name for the baby yet?” my grandmother asks her son. She has nothing but disdain for those parents who do not give their children Chinese names. Did they really think that new whitewashed names would make the world outside see that yellow Rose was just as radiant a flower as white Daisy?
When I am a bit older, I don’t know whether [my mother’s] answer is a lament or curse: “Just wait till you get older and have a mother-in-law like mine. Then you will understand. You will understand.” What will I understand? I wonder. Suffering? There are far better things to understand than the inconsolable hardships of life. Constantly sighing and lying and dying—that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it.
Or perhaps my word-spreading is also the only way to see that there was once flesh attached to these bones, that there was once something living and breathing, something that inhaled and exhaled; something that slept and woke up every morning with the past effaced, if only for a moment. That there was a good beginning, and in this good beginning the stories would come like slow trickles of truth, like blood coursing through the veins.
My grandmother was possessed of healing powers, or so it was claimed by those who knew her back in Cambodia. Five sons, people exclaimed—seven children, all of them so bright! Of course, everyone chose to forget about the first two babies who died, because they were just girls.
When it came down to childrearing, they were her children, he had nothing to do with such prosaic things. Fathers were only there to plant the seeds, it was mothers who did the watering and the fertilizing. Of course, the paternal influence would occasionally return to lop off a few leaves for good measure, and smirk for photographs in front of his prize garden, but he made sure to leave immediately afterwards in case the cumquats only glowed orange but were black inside. It was never the pa’s fault if the kids went bad.
“She’s built like a boy,” said my grandfather, “and now you’ve given her that terrible name. She’s going to grow up like a boy if you’re not careful, and then no one will want her. Who wants a girl always running about this way and that? Keep that child still, and stop calling her Little Brother! What do you think it is—some kind of joke? Do you think it’s funny hah?”
My grandmother was meant to be a part of me forever, so that I would always know that there was a life before me, and a life after me. My grandmother and her stories. What would I do without them? She asserted my existence before I knew I had one—before I was conscious I had a life beyond the present—and she told me my childhood. “Agheare, when you were small you could recite long Teochew songs and poems.” “Agheare, when you were small you could speak in Cantonese.” It seemed as if I could do anything when I was small. We slept in the same bed, and it was always warm. Now there would be no one left to remind me of my roots, no one to tell me to be proud to be part of a thousand-year-old culture, no one to tell me that I was gold not yellow.
At Footscray Retravision, there was a propensity for some mainland Chinese to refuse to buy items made in China. Whenever they said haughtily, “O, zhonggno zuo de wo buyao”—I don’t want anything made in China—I couldn’t help myself. I would ask with salesgirl innocence, “But sir, aren’t you made in China?” Of course, I always had to feign that little giggle that sounded like two brightly coloured balloons rubbing rapidly up against each other. Unlike my younger sisters, who grew up in tastefully bland pastel dresses, I had spent my childhood with a grandmother who packaged me into padded Mao suits and made me aware that I had to defend myself against all the other blandly dressed banana-children—children who were yellow on the outside but believed they could be completely white inside. My grandmother had warned me that those children grew up to become sour, crumple-faced lemons. I now believed her.
Then, four weeks later, I decided that one of the little ones had to go. It was time. I imagined they were quivering in their cotton-wool padded prison, I was so excited. But when the drawer was opened—horror of all horrors, worse than finding my fortunes furtively stolen—ants spilled out and the bunny had melted and the goo that gushed from the eggs had wrecked my box. I didn’t care about the ants that would crawl up my arms, I pulled the whole drawer out of the cupboard and dug my hands in deep. While Alexander and Andrew watched, I started pulling out each egg one by one—or what was left of them—trying in desperation to find one that was not insect-infested, trying to sort through the foil and frustration, not wanting to believe that these squished tragedies were once my pride and joy, the things I had looked forward to most in the world for more than four weeks.