His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.
And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.
Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.
Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.
As day slipped into night, the boy snuggled under star-patterned blankets on the mattress on the floor, in the bedroom that he, Kor Kor and Mama shared. He looked up at Mama as she sat by him, legs crossed, her large frame arched as she looked at her son, stroking his hair. Her fingers reached in between the strands, pockets of hair sprouting from the vivid mind of the child. The ceiling fan whirred constantly, producing a hurried, contrived flitting of the wind. The boy used to be afraid that the quick, loud wind would cut him, like a paper cut he received two years ago from a Peter and Jane book. But Mama assuaged him of fears known and to be found.
Outside, street lamps lit up the dusty night; their amber glow made the streets look warm even in the middle of the night. The public park right opposite was empty, cloaked by tall angsana trees lofty like the apartments surrounding the park. Perhaps if one drifted out one could feel the little wind — that was dispersed by the scattering of buildings and thus had waned in power — that would come and greet the skin at the back of the neck.
But Mama was not to let anyone out so late at night. Stray dogs roamed about. An occasional rag-tag bunch of teenagers would also pass by, returning from watching soccer matches in mamak stores. Groups of industrial and construction workers who were supposedly from Bangladesh would also hang about around park benches to enjoy the open night.
Mama would not let danger enter the household or befall her kids. They stay inside.
Now, with nothing but the constant, lulling swirls of the ceiling fan drowning out irritable background noise, she spoke.
Let me tell you the story of
The boy who left but never came back
Long ago, there was a boy who left home. Home was warm and filled with riches. It teemed with star fruit wonders and mangoes that left the boy with scratched knees but no stitches. The eternal swell of heat defined home. The heat was so wavy that one could see strands of invisible air ballooning and contracting, teeming with energy. The boy could discern the swelling air through careful attention, like the pipit bird that constantly catches grain and grasshopper nymphs, that watches warily the unpredictable, hovering giants that tread near tufts of grass and dirt paths. The boy could see light, distorted and snaky with the swollen air. Refracted shapes once still and invisible now move about.
The boy left home because he wanted to learn. The world he grew up in could not offer knowledge that would spool his dreams. To leave the shores of the straits was to leave the fat warm languor for unknown yet thrilling lands, lands far away that were shaped by dreams. These dreams were packed into gently enclosed parcels, shipped everywhere. Dreams telling someone like the boy that he could do anything. That he could shape the world. Carve his own.
What did these dreams look like? Well, they were gilded. A breath of glittery air, like that imagined when the boy exhaled after sucking on mint drops bought at the dollar store. The air that was cold yet exciting, as it was different from the usual hot air that he breathed in. The dreams of being able to shout from one end to the other, all kinds of things, without being leered at. The dreams of hopping down the street, bright-eyed and smiling, and resonate with the world, unafraid, authentic.
The straits, the world that the boy left to carve his dreams, was not entirely welcoming. The boy could not with all his might cry out to his world the little gem that he was without risking his world from crumbling. Without feeling stuck in its lard-like heat waves and forceful torrents. He became restless. He felt like nothing in his world was worth treasuring. It was convenient then that dreams arrived from a faraway land, wrapped in a parcel, right at his doorstep. The parcel contained a ticket to this faraway land built from gilded, cottony dreams.
But the boy, after arriving at this promised land, enraptured by the glittery, cottony dreams, able to bounce and hop, and scream and shout, started making himself a new home. Soon, the trail that led from the straits to this land faded. The boy stopped visiting his family in the straits. He started a family of his own in the far away land. He convinced himself that his kids would be able to see and feel the same dreams that he saw and felt; the dreams he couldn’t find in the straits.
He never came back to visit. Not even during Chinese New Year, when his favourite peanut pastries and coconut cornflake cookies waited sealed in Tupperware jars. A tear formed, but lay concealed in the dark. Soon it took flight and dissipated in the swirling winds. The fruits of Mama’s dreams were still premature.
When dreams were young
Mama rushed from her room to the kitchen. She joined her sister, Tai Zhe, who was fanning the stove fire that crackled and chortled out charcoal embers. She twirled Tai Zhe’s lock of hair before Tai Zhe swat her hand, afraid that her hair might have veered too near and caught fire. Nestled atop the fire was an earthen clay pot, which contained grains steeped in water for dinner. Sam Zhe was stir-frying some gai lan, drenched oyster sauce and dancing garlic bits. The wok clanged as Sam Zhe deftly stirred the stems soaked in crackling oil. The flames underneath clawed the blackened underside of the wok as Sam Zhe constantly lifted and reoriented the wok itself, the loud noise dampened by the evening drizzle, which also wet the brick pavements by the drain just outside the kitchen door and offset the heat being produced by the fires. The water vapour though was trapped and the air humid, in and out.
‘We’re almost done. Call Baba out,’ said Tai Zhe. Mama set bowls, plates and chopsticks on the teak wood table on the other side of the kitchen, placed in front of two shelves of worn books – Gung Gung’s journals he brought with him from China. The ancestral book, the genealogy that traced family bloodlines resided there. She left the kitchen for Gung Gung’s study room, a small space stuffed to the brim with books, some of which accompanied scattered manuscripts on his desk. She prepared to wince at the cigarette stench, which seemed almost perpetual, hanging over the study room. Gung Gung sat reclined in his armchair, mulling over the Kwong Wah Yit Poh newspaper that had sharp, thin strokes for its title’s characters. His face simmered as he circled editorial mistakes with his pencil. His veiny hand dropped the pencil onto the desk as he dialled the phone to offer harsh censure to the news company he was so disappointed with.
‘The Chinese word should be treated with utmost respect and care. This is a disgrace!’
He realized that it was actually six and everyone had already left work. He picked up the cigarette from the ashtray with its stubs and mounds of ash and inhaled swiftly, the amber glow flowing up the stick towards his mouth, burning the roll into ash; a puff of grey escaped his heavy lips and floated and dissipated around him. He noticed Mama and proceeded to squash the cigarette in the ceramic ashtray, squelching the ember at the end of the cigarette. He lit an incense joss stick with his lighter, intended to deter mosquitoes, usually prevalent during the monsoon season, but now to mask the smoke stench from his daughter.
‘It’s dinner time,’ Mama said.
Gung Gung nodded. Mama looked at his eyes, their deep sombre shades, and wondered. Was Gung Gung happy? Those eyes had seen wars, battles. Fallen comrades. Allies turned cadres and split sides. They had seen his first daughter taken away from him; she remained in China while he fled. Fled to this middle of nowhere – the straits. The eternal hot and damp, then hot and dry, the constant torpor. In this nowhere, on this land of red clay, he had to make a new home. He had to start a new family.
He drank and smoked a lot. Mama wondered whether he drank and smoked to forget. Whether he wanted to let go. If there were ghosts that never left him. Ghosts of his first daughter, of his first wife. His lips were usually sealed, but he breached his silences just as he let go. His inebriated state was gloomier than his sober, grim self. He clung to Mama during those times, hoping that she would never leave him.
When he was not drunk, Gung Gung was disciplined. He was a general of the Kuomintang, and his skills transferred to his new job, as the headmaster of a Chinese vernacular high school, where Mama was a student. Every member of the family was expected to hold and use chopsticks properly. Every child was expected to scrape down the ceramic pot of cooked rice, eating all the hardened, burnt bits (although this is considered a delicacy now with claypot rice).
There were times when Mama saw Gung Gung happy, like when he went to the cinemas with her. Gung Gung brought her, his favourite daughter, to watch black and white films with him, from P. Ramlee’s classics (he isn’t popular now) to imported Western dramas. As Mama gaped in awe at the moving pictures, she also saw his face by the flickering light of the cinema. Just as the film was abuzz with campy action, so was his face rife with expressions. He’d laugh and smile uncontrollably, uncharacteristically; he’d point to her objects in the film and teach her, objects of curiosity to her, about horses, cars, airplane. Otherwise, he opened up nothing of himself. He even told his children not to speak a word of his past to neighbours.
‘We can’t trust others,’ he said. ‘They can rat me out. And then we would be in trouble.’
Silence kept them alive through World War II, when the Japanese defeated the British and rolled over the straits. During this roil, Gung Gung kept his family inside, forbidding them from ever leaving the house unless told otherwise. Japanese soldiers knocked on doors and inspected anti-Japanese elements in the Chinese communities at Kuala Lumpur. They were concerned with donors of the Kuomintang and Communist causes. They sought to cut the diasporic support systems that buttressed China.
Gung Gung withheld his anger. It was probably a miracle, or the Buddha’s intervention, but the family house was not raided. The Japanese soldier that knocked on the door, answered by Gung Gung, saw nothing in Gung Gung’s eyes – they were dark, sombre spheres, but no malice or threat. Wells of pain within his eyes the soldier could discern; he left abruptly after stiff, formal greetings. Gung Gung went into the study room and burned through a cigarette or two, before promptly picking up the ashtray and launching it onto the floor. The ceramic tray hit hard and shattered, while the ash it contained fluttered and drifted in the air, before descending to bury the cement floor and ceramic fragments in dust. Even in exile, he was confronted with opportunities of betrayal. The silences he held onto let his own people die, suffer and to be violated, and here he was, stranded in the straits of nowhere. Mama hoped and dreamed that she could pry apart the curtains that hid his thoughts. Did he find happiness in the straits where he fled? She wanted to see through his silences. Peek into what lay in the heart of his grim sadness.
Mama also hoped to start a family of her own, one that, with enough love and thought, would never break apart. With enough care, so that her husband, her children, she, would not be like Gung Gung.
Dreams still unripe
Titi exclaimed, ‘I got accepted into the US!’
Was it time yet? Mama and Baba kept watching the television. Ka Hou Yuet Yuen was showing a pivotal climax right now – Hor Ma’s family was being torn apart by Yan Hung, Hor Ma’s ex-husband’s current wife, who filed a lawsuit to claim Hor Ma’s bakery. Mama’s eyes were focused, her heart racing. Would Hor Ma’s family survive this ordeal?
Titi was slightly disheartened that his parents showed no reaction. Unperturbed, he went on reading the acceptance letter. He would get no financial aid. His father would have to pay back-breaking amounts of money for him to study in the US. Titi walked out of his room and told Baba the news. Baba and Mama shifted their attention to him. They thought that it was unrealistic for them to pay that amount for such an education. Titi understood, but was nonetheless saddened.
‘I guess I can apply to other schools.’ He walked back, sulkily, into his room.
Was it time yet? Mama thought. For him to leave the nest? To leave the straits, the straits that may have claimed her father’s happiness; the straits for which he tried to make himself home, for which she now tries to make home for her family. So soon, and the family may be apart again. She thought of Gung Gung’s first wife and daughter. Can I ever keep this together?
Hor Ma’s family huddled together, hands clasped as they awaited hearing from the judge. Tears were flowing from Hor Ma as she felt inundated with the love her family was giving her. The family stood together for their modest mooncake bakery that was being threatened by Yan Hung.
Baba and Mama talked about Titi’s college acceptance. They talked about it with their cousins. Studying abroad will be a great opportunity, better than the rut that was the public university system here. The college he got accepted to was one of the top in the States, their cousins reassured them. After much consternation, Baba agreed to take a shot. Baba and Mama wanted the best for their son; here was the opportunity. Baba and Mama told Titi the news.
Titi was excited, but he kept his nerves in control.
‘You have to remember us, what we fought for you. You have to remember that Baba worked hard for you,’ said Mama. Titi nodded and said nothing else but thank you.
Titi wondered if he had to fly to the other side of the world to study. Was it worth burdening his family, worth taking the risk at another appeal for financial aid or fail trying, bootstrapped for the next four years? A parcel wrapped with confetti travelled all the way to the doorsteps of their home; gilded dreams were promised on the other side. Titi gulped, staring at the swirling fan overhead, its blades slicing through streaks of light entering from outside the window of his room, the still night occasionally pierced by a mosquito hovering by the ear or a motorcycle streaking past the empty streets.
Mama thought nothing but for the happiness and success of her son. She wanted her son to grow into a bright young man. Baba and Mama wanted to give him all they had, so that he could be all that the family could never have been. To be able to step foot in a renowned college. To graduate from university and get a degree. They wanted him to achieve his dreams, whatever they could be.
But dreams could be manufactured. They could be gilded, parcelled with confetti and sent towards the doorstep. They could create desire when none existed. In this case they already did.
It wasn’t just dreams that his parents were concerned with. They wanted him to be free, to have a choice. They wanted him to be able to move as he pleased. Not to be forced to evacuate and flee China. To not have to work on handyman jobs, as bank clerks and delivery-men to pay for rent and siblings’ meals. To not have to say yes or no and sacrifice oneself for the desires and needs of others. They wanted him not to be haunted by his past, not to be chased by ghosts, not feel stuck in the straits. For the straits, warm and filled with riches, is also filled with pain, such that the aged have learned to swallow the bitterness and bear pain with laughter. With sarcasm over disasters. That’s how they survived the straits.
That same night, Mama couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking.
You have to remember that we’ll be here in the straits. In the eternal warm, the seasonal dry and wet. The cackling geckoes, the droning mosquitoes. You have to remember that we’ll be here, enclosed within concrete skyscrapers. That we would always be there for you, waiting for you. That I would be torn if you never came back. If you settled. But that it may all be worth it if you were happy in the end. That if you were happy I would be happy. But I would still be sad because you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be in the straits with the family. You would be off somewhere far in the gilded lands, where we won’t be able to see you. Gone
Kar Yern Chin is an aspiring writer from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He will soon graduate from Williams College, USA, and move to Boston, USA. He is interested in narratives of immigration, identities and movements, and postcolonial histories of food and nations. He dabbles in poetry and other random stuff in his creative work-in-progress site strandedstraits.blogspot.com, and tries to write fiction whenever he can.