Consuming My Country

My home is not what I remember. Throughout university, I met people who saw the Philippines as a nation of insignificance. As nothing but a remote cluster of islands somewhere in Asia, its churches corrupt and its immaculate waters unknown. During my time in London, one of my students asked about my upbringing; as we munched on butter biscuits by the playground, stale crumbs dusting our laps, I told her about my country. “The Philippines?” she frowned. “Is that in China?”

Those moments of ignorance are now gone. More than three years ago, in a room overlooking the Arabian Gulf, I first feared for my country—what was once nothing to millions of people has been shoved into the spotlight, the pinnacle of conversations among taxi drivers and teachers, misogynists and mutineers, nurses and narcissists, cheaters and children. As I studied literature and theater in the Middle East, tens of thousands of deaths surfaced back home. Until now, the police continue to slaughter Filipinos without trial. Children and innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Human rights activists risk their lives to protest for freedom.

And I am oceans away as my country suffers.

*

When the media first began broadcasting the deaths, I made halo-halo. In the shared kitchen of my dormitory building in Abu Dhabi, I had one way to connect to my home: by consuming it.

Of all the desserts my country offers, there is nothing I find as quintessentially Filipino as halo-halo, a layered treat made of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and mix-ins of your choice, from plantains and tapioca pearls to jackfruit and sweetened beans. There’s no set method for making the perfect halo-halo—as its Tagalog name implies, you mix whatever you have layered in your serving glass, and somehow, as if by magic, the random assortment works. Throughout my childhood, I constantly craved the crunch of sweetened ice, the sugary red beans between my teeth, the explosion of jackfruit on the tip of my tongue. My parents would order their halo-halo with a piece of leche flan and a scoop of ube ice cream on top—now, I cannot have it any other way.

Although it is a staple Filipino dessert, halo-halo is most likely an indigenized version of kakigōri. Before the Philippines’ war on drugs and long before World War II, Japanese migrants brought this dessert to my country. The kakigōri in Japan consisted of shaved ice sweetened with syrup; the addition of fruit preserves and other mix-ins occurred after Japanese farmers settled in the Philippines and began experimenting with local offerings. Over time, Filipinos threw in other ingredients, from creamy caramel custard to bright purple ube ice cream. Nowadays, you can find variants of the same dessert in different Philippine provinces, from a version in Pampanga with creamed corn and pastillas de leche to a “spicy winter” halo-halo in Laguna topped with jackfruit and chili peppers.

As I crushed ice that day in my dormitory’s tiny kitchen, I contemplated these versions of halo-halo, how they had changed over time and taken on unexpected new flavors. In that moment, I thought about the version of my country that not everyone gets to see: a Philippines untainted by war. The Philippines I love is congested cities, chocolate hills, and rice terraces carved by farmers and the palms of God. It is hours of traffic and electricity cuts and the rice cooker’s song when dinner is ready. Fried fish balls sold by street vendors and jeepneys with a smiling Jesus painted on each side. Finding a sewing kit in a cookie tin and frozen leftovers in an ice cream container and leaving your shoes by the door before entering a room. It is remembering home every time I dig a spoon into a tall glass of sweetened ice. 

*

The day after I made halo-halo, I taught a friend how to prepare it. We layered the ingredients while discussing the dessert’s origins. My friend, who had grown up in Seoul, mused on the similarities between halo-halo and patbingsu, a Korean dessert made of shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and red beans. We ate near a television in the student lounge, the afternoon news droning on behind us. As a report of the latest deaths in the Philippines appeared, my friend struggled to speak, pity painting her face. I stared at the remains of my halo-halo, now a soupy mess of milk and melted ice. I wondered if other people would act this way around me. Would I change the topic if someone asked about the current events of my country? Would I feel ashamed to mention my origins, aware of how my country has changed since I left?

No. My home is not what I remember, no longer insignificant to the world. Despite my country’s flaws and my fear of returning to a place where no one is safe from a stray bullet, I am still Filipino. I admit there is a certain nostalgia I took for granted, a simpler time when my country’s name inspired curiosity, not sympathy. For someone like me, so far from home, my emotions are now as layered as my favorite Filipino dessert. I am glad the world has shown concern for the Philippines. But I am heartbroken too, for my country’s name has become synonymous with violence, a human rights disaster in the making. Fear trickles into my frustration. I am useless to my friends stuck back home. Guilt seeps into my shameful sense of relief. I am privileged to be somewhere safe with my family. As the daily news reports on the latest turmoil, I watch events unfold from afar, my despair mixing with a never-ending sense of helplessness. 

These feelings consume me as I consume my country. I fear that the world will always see my home as a place of violence and nothing more. I will speak with anyone willing to discuss its current state, and I will try my best as a Filipino who hasn’t been home in half a decade. But I cannot stand and watch as the Philippines is typecast yet again—I must continue to talk about my country, a beautiful mess beyond the ongoing chaos. The Philippines is my homeland, the only one I will ever have, and it is more than the fleeting topic of some short conversation. It is more than a trend or a news headline. Countries are always more than the wars that plague them.

Every time sweetened ice crunches between my teeth, I will think of the last time I visited my hometown. With the familiar drizzle of evaporated milk, the distance disappears and I return to the Philippines I remember. To the afternoons on my front porch with sliced mango, hands stained and the air sticky sweet. To the mornings preparing pineapples and papayas in a warm, hazy glow. To waking up in the middle of hot summer nights, shirt clinging to skin and throat aching for halo-halo.

 

Artwork by Katya Roxas

The Historical is the Personal — Reflections on Postcolonial Guilt, Mi Koo Buns, and Writing History

I did not know that the Mi Koo [1] buns I used to eat for breakfast at my grandfather’s house on Sunday mornings have a history. Smack in the middle of their bright pink skin, there are five gashes radiating from the center, forming a clumsy floral design. I used to peel the skin and slice the freshly steamed bun in half. The next step was to slather butter on both pieces. It would melt immediately into the fluffy bread, leaving a golden patch that came back to taunt me in the cold mornings of my adulthood. Now, I am years and seas away from the simple anticipation of an eight-year-old waiting for the butter knife while swinging her legs underneath the antique table.

*

While watching the buns of my childhood, now on a computer screen in a university library in Abu Dhabi, I am unsettled. I am doing research on the communist guerrilla army in Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) who fought against the Japanese and British imperialists during World War II and the Cold War. When the banned documentary first arrived via an email notification, I dropped everything to collect the DVD from an expressionless librarian.  He was stoically hunched over the reserves shelf, hovering his fingers over each title at a painfully slow pace until arriving finally at my order. Titled The Last Communist, this “semi-musical documentary” was made by Amir Muhammad in 2006. It was inspired by the memoir of Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, who died in exile in 2013 in Thailand. His last wish was to be buried in his hometown of Setiawan, Perak, located an hour and a half away from my hometown. The Malaysian government denied his remains passage.

But what have Mi Koo buns got to do with communist insurgents? Everything, the film argues. It takes us chronologically through Chin Peng’s life by visiting the locations he travelled through in his political career. There is no narrator. The storytellers are the shopkeepers, bakers, plantation laborers, vegetable vendors, tour guides etc. who speak about their vocation and occasionally, their relationship with the past. Reading the captions on Chin Peng’s life in relation to the documentary of the mundane, the quotidian reality I am familiar with becomes imbued with history. I learn that the Mi Koo buns of my hometown are famous for their unique floral design. “Only in Taiping,” the long-faced baker declares in Mandarin. How this design came about is less famous. Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.

Last summer, while interning at an Asian Studies institute in the Netherlands, I stumbled upon a book on the Malayan Emergency in the “free for all” bookshelf at the pantry. The Malayan Emergency: Essays On A Small, Distant War by Souchou Yao. Distant indeed. As a third-generation immigrant who grew up with middle class concerns, like how to get out of Malaysia, a failed revolutionary movement seemed completely incomprehensible, like the photographs and letters we found in my grandfather’s personal archive after he passed away. Bundles and bundles of relatives in China we know nothing of lay bound in rubber bands. A post-funeral gift from the dead. He left us no clues to make them legible.

*

“Where did your Malaysian accent go?” A close friend asked me after I came back from my first year at university. We were sitting at a café with sleek glass windows in Kuala Lumpur. “Give me a few days, it’ll come back.” Till then, he had to deal with speaking to a foreigner. I became very self-aware of my spoken English after that. Remember the lah’s, the meh’s the wan’s. Remember the Malay words, the Hokkien words, the Tamil words. In truth, I knew my Manglish had dissolved like salt in the sea. As I fill up my senior capstone proposal two years later, I bite down the anticipation of embarking on a journey to the juicy forbidden. I grew up learning that the communist insurgents were terrorists in an insignificant but unfortunate chapter of our national history. Like the methane of decomposing bodies, inherited memory somehow always finds its way to the surface. A trigger, like the subtle reproach of my friend, is the spark needed to start a forest fire. History is closing in on me, and no Western country can save me from my guilt.

*

“What is the archive for a memory that was decimated by colonial powers and actively suppressed to this day?” I asked my professor a few weeks ago. We had just read Arlette Farge’s Allure Of The Archives, in which Farge describes her experience of looking through police surveillance documents in 18th century France in the Paris Archives. They were incoherent transcriptions of splintered conversations and scattered observations. Farge notes with delight how these fragments capture what the archive itself rejects, and how this tension reveals “history as it was being constructed, when the outcome was never entirely clear”[2]. Enchanted as I was by Farge’s poetic prose, I could not help but be bitter. Fragmented as they were, at least the proletariat’s subjectivity was preserved. What about my grandfather’s? The historical has become the personal.

In The Combing of History, David Cohen writes that there are “multiple locations of historical knowledge”, and only by “recognizing the spacious and unchartered reservoirs of historical knowledge in present and past societies [can we] begin to think more clearly about the forms and directions of historical knowledge…”[3] As I start collecting the various fragments of a memory smashed by successful British and nationalist propaganda, I am finding that some of the richest locations of historical knowledge are situated within my memory. That surreptitious memorial plaque by the haunted waterfall my parents forbade us to swim in? It was actually built to honor the guerrillas who fought against the Japanese soldiers during the brutal occupation. The Chinese high school that was my mother’s alma mater? It was a school known for its communist sympathies, and where teachers would beat anti-imperialism consciousness into their students. The Chinese-concentrated area my mom and her siblings grew up in, and the constant subject of their nostalgic conversations? Just two generations ago, it was a concentration camp built by the British colonial government to isolate the communist guerrillas from their Chinese-majority support base. I am not recalling evidence or even anecdotes that are useful for my research topic. Rather, I am starting to look back and recognize the everyday of my reality as a product of a history that is worth paying attention to. In other words, I am an archive.

Like my parents, I was an inactive carrier of the memory of our civil war. Somehow, an alignment of random chance and privilege has caused a mutation in the gene of silence.  I find myself fervently gathering every insurgency-related fragment from libraries and archives around the world. The expressionless librarian might have caught on to my impatience. His fingers hover slower each time. But every time I open the book, or the document, or the DVD case, the ghosts rise howling. I hear the planes carpet bombing our tropical rainforests. I hear the wailing families forcefully removed from their ancestral homes. I hear the fading heartbeat of a husband bleeding to death at the fringe of the jungle, begging his wife to leave with their comrades before the enemy closes in.

But I have also been listening for the silences. I cannot force the mute Mi Koo bun to tell me its story, but the silence surrounding its incredible origin says something about how the censorship of the history it is associated with trickles down. The closed doors I keep encountering in my search for primary sources also speaks, albeit with bureaucratic language. “Special permission is required for materials related to the Malayan Communist Party at the Arkib Negara[4],” a Malaysian scholar writes to me. But if I stick my ear against the door, I hear fear. A fear inherited by the present government from the past government, who inherited it from the British colonial authorities, who shared it with their American counterparts across the ocean during the Cold War. A fear that was global in scale, local in its casualties. A fear that stretched across time, across subcontinents: evolving from the fear of a British ethnographer in India when confronted with identities he could not neatly categorize, to the fear of a contemporary Malaysian politician who cannot foresee how ethnic tensions will escalate should the narrative of our hard-won independence shifts. The fragments cannot be put back together, but writing about how they came to be hits back at power with the force of a million clenched fists, raised.

*

Sunday mornings at Grandpa’s were always a quiet affair. As a child, I revered and feared him. I would stare at him from across the table, Mi Koo bun in my tiny hands, while he cracked a raw egg into his rice. “That was how they did it in China,” mother explained, while peeling baked sweet potatoes, her favorite breakfast.

“You wasteful children,” he would growl from across the table when I turned away from my mother’s hand trying to feed me potatoes, “the sweet potatoes were all we had to eat in those camps.”

***

  • [1] A Malaysian-Chinese bread. “Mi Koo” roughly translates into Tortoise Bun.
  • [2] Arlette. Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 107, 113.
  • [3] David William. Cohen, The Combing of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 4-5.
  • [4] Malaysian National Archives.

Artwork by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, “I Still Face You”, 2015.

Through the Forest

My mother held my hand as we shuffled through the crowd.

“Be careful,” she said, noting the murky puddles of cooking oil and cabbage shreds on the ground.

The square was busy that morning, bustling with peddlers hawking their wares on the street, wagon conductors touting cheaper fares and bigger trunks. The sun was hardly bright enough to mark the day’s start, but people from around the town had already gathered here to conduct their various affairs. There was the rice cake uncle busy serving someone in the corner, the butcher aunty chopping chicken feet and throwing them in a bag, and me, trailing behind my mother as she cleared the way to the bus station, declining the many offers being pressed upon her.

It was July 2006, and I was on my way to visit my grandmother in Pasuruan, a five-hour bus ride from my tiny hometown Caruban. Every school break, my mother and I spent a few days in the countryside. My father took us to the square, dropped us off at the gate, and reminded me, while my mother was busy buying snacks and water for the ride, to protect her and myself on the bus.

“You’re a big boy now,” he said, fastening the straps of my yellow Pooh overall, “you need to beware of strangers, you understand?”

Before we made the journey, my mother always made sure that I brought a gift for my grandmother. It didn’t have to be anything big or expensive; a handwritten card or a drawing from my art class would serve the purpose.

“Old people love to be remembered,” she’d say, while also packing a few things: boxes of ginger tea and shredded meat, curry paste and tomato powder, and bags of red rice that she claimed would be good for my grandmother’s health.

I always looked forward to these visits and wondered what my grandmother would do if I was not there, helping her feed her ducks, walking along the riverside before dusk. My grandmother lived by herself on the outskirts of Pasuruan, where geraniums grow in the colder season. My grandfather, once a revered general in the army, had passed away in a war long before I was born. The idea of a time when my grandfather was still alive, a time before I knew what time even was, before my grandmother acquired gray hair and cloudy vision, always made me feel uneasy. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother being anything other than old. I wondered if she’d come to this world with wrinkles already, and sunspots across her face. The fact that she had once been a pretty lady, that she’d had plum cheeks and full teeth and fallen in love with a soldier younger than herself, I couldn’t begin to imagine.

At the station gate, my mother and I looked around to spot the green bus that would take us to Pasuruan, the one that had the word “Suryapati” printed all over it. One would imagine, since it was a fairly long ride, that Suryapati buses would be big and comfortable. But instead, these buses were often tattered and small to fit the narrow winding road uphill. The seats were grubby and had deflated foam. The windows were always foggy because the air conditioner was too cold. There was no toilet inside, so every now and then the driver had to stop at the petrol station or mosque or the side of the road to let passengers out.

Still I loved these long bus rides, loved watching the driver hoisting my mother’s packages onto the roof, strapping them safely under the tarpaulin. I loved the chatter between bored strangers, how I could sit back and see an endless expanse of paddy fields with cows chewing lazily on their cuds, crows brawling for fruit peels thrown by lunching farmers. I loved the fresh air and the anticipation that the journey brought for my grandmother’s sweets—sesame balls and coconut pudding and star-shaped cookies.

“Front seats, please,” my mother told the driver once we found the green bus.

“Ah, yes, Ma’am,” he said, his eyes flickering up and down her frame. “Two, but separate rows. Okay?”

My mother peeked through the doorway at the two empty seats, one on the left row, next to hands of bananas that couldn’t fit on the roof, and the other on the right, a single seat next to a window. She looked at me, debated for a while, and eventually said: “This time, Dayin will have to sit on his own,” referring to me in third-person to signal her trust, to accord me the respect of a grown-up and make me feel capable of being on my own.

She mounted me on the single seat next to the window, fastening me with a scarf around my waist. I looked at my mother as she settled herself in her seat, clutching her black handbag where she’d stored my gift for grandmother, this time a snippet of a poem that I’d written for my Bahasa class. There were many passengers behind us, and the one sitting behind my mother was a man, perhaps as old as my father, with a mop of curly hair and a dragon tattoo on his neck. He wore a pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt, the kind that my father would wear while doing dirty work, either fixing his motorcycle or pruning the garden. The man looked at my mother, then at me, with his big, cunning eyes, and in an instant threw his gaze out the window, as if startled by my staring.

“Clear the way!” the driver shouted at passersby, cueing the bus’ departure.

The machine began to gurgle, and everyone recited a prayer under their breath. I watched my mother solemnly close her eyes and raised my own hands to pray.

“Ya Allah, I hope I don’t get too hungry or get kidnapped. I hope Uti is baking cookies right now.”

At that point, being a nine-year-old, I had heard enough stories about child kidnapping and been trained by my parents to avoid risky situations with strangers.

“Don’t take any drinks from them,” my mother would say.

“If somebody approaches you after school and offers to drive you home, ask them what Baba’s last name is,” my father would chime in.

“But Baba doesn’t have a last name,” I’d protest.

“Exactly my point,” the quick reply.

In Caruban, children went missing for days, only to return at the end with a scar across their stomachs, one kidney gone and sold by the kidnapper. Some came back only years after they had been forced to beg on the streets, their bodies skinny as straws, legs amputated to prevent them from running.

My parents never held back on telling me the gory details of these stories. They brought me  news cutouts and turned up the television so I could see the danger threatening nine-year-olds like me across the country. Although they were persistent in convincing me that people were not always good-natured, they never told me that crime could afflict adults too. I was small and still oblivious to what people thought of women in our society: how they saw them as easy prey.

In the beginning, everything went normally. The bus pressed onto the uphill route, and my mother took out the sweet corn that she’d purchased from the square. Usually, we talked a lot on the bus: about my father and his work, about my birth and what I had been like as a baby. We discussed trees and bees that helped pollinate flowers, interesting lessons and teachers at school. This time, because we were sitting in separate rows, we had to make do with smiling across the aisle. She resigned to look at whatever she could with the bananas blocking her window, and I enjoyed my lovely views of the forest.

After my mother had fallen asleep in her seat, I began to notice something very strange about the man behind her. From time to time, he’d look over my mother’s shoulder, as if trying to peek at something that he couldn’t quite see. As in the case with my mother, who was sitting by the exit door, the window seat next to the man was also loaded with bananas, blocking his view of the forest. Whenever he looked over my mother’s shoulder, I tried to pinpoint what exactly he was doing, sticking his head out like that. Did he feel uncomfortable in his seat? Was he trying to keep an eye on the road? But why would he want to do that?

As we went deeper into the forest, we passed by the usual petrol station. By then, the bus had grown much quieter; most of the other passengers had fallen asleep. I steadied myself, still fastened to my seat by the scarf, and suddenly noticed the driver from the rear-view mirror blinking at me, then doing an elaborate gesture with his hand. I turned around and was rather surprised to see that the man behind my mother was also doing an elaborate hand gesture, his eyes flickering to my side.

In movies, a surreptitious sidelong glance like that was never a good omen. There was something going on. The man and the driver were onto something; otherwise, why wouldn’t the bus stop at the petrol station?

I shifted my body to the side so I could scope out what was happening. Still, as though he did not see me as a threat, the man behind my mother looked over her shoulder. What do you want to see, strange man? I asked myself. Then, as I recalled how kidnappers in movies often ask for ransom from parents in exchange for their child, my eyes landed on what I believed was the cause of the man’s curious behavior: my mother’s handbag.

Containing money and my gift for my grandmother, the handbag was not securely placed under my mother’s care. I looked outside and saw the trees running past me, as if the world was going backward. How would he do it? I asked myself. If the bus was moving this fast, and we were in the middle of the forest, how would he plan to escape after he’d stolen the bag? I glanced at him again; he was still trying to avoid eye contact with me. Maybe the driver will stop, I thought. Maybe he will run downhill to his hideaway place. But where would such a place exist? In the middle of the forest? Why?

I tried to recall all the things that my father had told me about forests.

“You see, if you turn your back on a lion, the lion will come and eat you,” his voice suddenly echoed in my head. “You need to keep facing the lion. Look him in the eye,” the voice said.

I couldn’t recall the occasion that had warranted such advice from him in the first place, but I turned my head anyway, aiming a steady, penetrating glare at the man. I felt the strong urge to wake my mother up but thought of how tired she must have been after staying up the night before to make tomato paste for my grandmother. I thought hard, while still keeping an eye on the man with the cunning gaze, about what I could do to prevent the crime. After ruminating for a while, I went with what I thought was the best action: rest my legs on my mother’s seat and use them to trip the man.

The bus suddenly took a right turn, and I saw vague impressions of buildings in the distance. The driver, snapping his finger, again used the rear-view mirror to communicate with the man in their secret code. I thought to myself: this is the time, this is where his hideaway place is. The driver had given him a clue that a village was near, that he could simply take my mother’s handbag and run away. I prepared myself as the bus decelerated, the man again looking at the exit door. Houses and lampposts were flashing past me, and my legs, resting on my mother’s seat, were as stiff as wood. As the bus eased to a slow halt, the man, putting his cap on and fixing his hair, rose from his seat and drew his backpack from the overhead compartment. He turned his body and saw my legs blocking the aisle. He crouched, put on a smile, and stroked my shins, looking at me straight in the eye. I glared at him like I was trying to threaten another kid in the playground.

“Hey, child,” the driver called.

But I didn’t flinch. I didn’t want to take my eyes off the man and give him a chance to slip by me.

“Oy!” The driver called out again.

The man, looking up at the driver, did another one of his elaborate hand gestures.

“Oy, boy!” The driver shouted even louder, startling my mother, waking her up from her sleep.

“Let the man out!” the driver called.

My eyes were still on the man, who then laughed, a rather gentle, innocent laugh.

“Ma’am!” The driver called my mother, who was fully awake now, rousing in her seat. “Your child is blocking the aisle.”

“Dayin, your feet,” she whispered, tightening her grip on her handbag. “Get off the seat.”

The man smiled at her.

“Sorry,” my mother said, apologizing to the man, who only nodded and produced a sound that I couldn’t quite comprehend, turning his one hand into a fist and sticking out his middle and index fingers, like a peace sign.

Seeing that I was still not willing to stand down, my mother pushed my feet off her seat and let the man out, the driver shaking his head and laughing behind the steering wheel. I watched him get off the bus and walk into a house with a huge mango tree on its patio.

“What was that?” My mother asked. “It’s not nice, what you just did.”

“He was trying to mug you! I saw him looking at your bag!” I replied.

My mother hushed me, showing a stern, reprimanding look.

“You’re being silly. The man was just trying to get out.”

The driver, who couldn’t stop laughing at our conversation, said, “My boy, my boy,” as if I was his own son. “Your son is funny, eh, Ma’am?”

My mother nodded her head and smiled.

“Sorry. He’s just a little tired.”

“No, I’m not!” I protested. “He was trying to mug you! The driver was in on it! They did the thing… the thing with their hands. He kept looking over your shoulders.”

The driver kept laughing, and my mother, too, somehow joined him.

“He was deaf, Dayin, he can’t hear,” my mother said. “You heard how he just spoke? That’s how deaf people speak.”

“He was not checking your mother, son,” the driver chimed in, “he was looking at the road to see if he’d arrived.”

Seeing I was not convinced, he added: “He was sitting next to the bananas, you see? He couldn’t look through the window. I just happened to have a deaf sister, so I know how to speak sign language.”

Instead of relief, anger boiled inside me. I felt betrayed; I felt like everyone was trying to make a mockery out of me, robbing me of my heroic moment.

“No, he’s lying, Ma. He was trying to mug you, I swear!”

“Hush,” my mother said. “What did I tell you about swearing?”

For the remainder of the ride, my mother and I stayed awake, me looking out the window and reflecting on the crime that had only occurred in my head. The driver glanced at me every now and then and chuckled, perhaps, at my misplaced suspicion. I wondered if he thought I was just overreacting. I wondered if he knew where I’d gotten all of my suspicion from.

Artwork by Thomke Meyer

The Withering of a Paddy Field

On the day my grandmother turned sixty-seven, we found her sprawled in her living room—eyes wide open, mouth gaping, hands half-clutching the golden knob of a wardrobe she was trying to open. Her floral blouse was smeared with coffee stains, and her body smelled of stale urine. She did not budge when we barged into her house, or tried in the slightest to resist the uncomfortable position into which she had fallen. She lay there, numb, and in total silence, head resting on the tiled floor, gaze glued to the ceiling.

Shortly after rushing her to the hospital, we discovered that her stroke had apparently taken a heavy toll on her body. Her legs and arms were paralyzed, and her throat was blocked, forcing her to feed solely on warm milk and intravenous fluids. She lost control over her bowel movements and would just wet her bed all night, making my father change her hospital bedding twice or thrice a day. I was fifteen at the time, and watching her body shrivel to just bone, her eyeballs seemingly bulge out of their sockets, and her cheekbones jut out from underneath her skin, was upsetting. I had never seen someone teeter on the tightrope of life and death before. My grandmother, who used to be so full of life, suddenly looked empty, hollow, ailing, dissolving. Taking care of her in the hospital was like treasuring an oyster that you know will never yield any pearl. All that lays bare on your bruised palm is just shell. Just shell.

Although the news of her condition came as a shock, my grandmother had actually started showing her symptoms quite early on. Her face, which used to glisten with a radiant, toothless smile, suddenly became sullen and slightly contorted: the right side stiffened whilst the left drooped low. Her gait also changed: she started bending sideways with her right shoulder crooked like it was weighed down by an imaginary, heavy sack of rice. When walking, she moved her trembling left leg forward a beat late as if she was testing the ground before climbing a stair, or as if her left leg was somehow shorter than the right that she needed time to firmly anchor her step. During my monthly visit to her house with my family, I would often catch her taking hasty glimpses at me from her bedroom window—her eyes squinting and her brow wrinkled in puzzlement—as if she was trying to remember my name or why there was a young man sitting in her living room. The most visible symptom of all was her stuttering: her clunky repetition of the word bagus, which she would say to praise my father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to my deceased grandfather. In her eyes, they both were one and the same. They even share the same first names.

In the beginning, my father kept neglecting the symptoms that I thought were mildly worrying. “Old age” was his go-to diagnosis, a perfunctory conclusion that sounded reasonable to me at first. My grandmother’s scoliosis, he said, was a testament to the years she spent working in her paddy field helping my grandfather cut, haul, thresh, and bag crops during harvest season. Her quivering left leg was perhaps due to the weakening phase of her body, which was common among people of her age. My grandmother’s sister, who was only two years younger, suffered from that tremor, too. It mattered not actually whether she remembered my name, for she always referred to me with my father’s name anyway. As for her smile, we had not seen it blossom for two years since my grandfather’s death; her glum visage was nothing more than a physical manifestation of her grief.

Where we live, in Indonesia, stroke—or brain attack—is sadly one of the leading causes of death among the elderly. One is said to have a stroke when the supply of blood to their brain is cut short, either because there is an accumulating blood clot that clogs their blood vessels, called ischemic stroke, or because the blood vessels rupture, leaking blood to the brain area and essentially drowning it, which, in medical terms, is named hemorrhagic stroke. For the most part, the latter type of stroke is usually the lethal one, accounting for more deaths than the former. In my grandmother’s case, it was the first one that slowly corroded her life; although in the end, what took her away was the second.

To think that my grandmother’s death caused an uptick in our country’s stroke statistics made me feel uneasy. For most people, their stroke is a byproduct of a bad lifestyle, which often includes smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, obesity due to unchecked binge eating, etc. But my grandmother stayed far away from that lane of self-imposed misery. Raised in an agrarian family that constantly forced her to do laborious work, she led a perfectly healthy and active life—at least until a few months before her last day. Her diet was always wholesome: low carb, high protein, with stewed vegetables. She never missed taking the vitamins that my father kept stacking on her bedside table. She always walked wherever she went, or rode her rusty bike if the place was unreachable by foot. She drank a lot of water and hardly added more than a spoonful of sugar to her tea: her life was seemingly destined to span a long period of time.

It was no sooner than my grandfather passed away that she started developing an addiction to coffee. All of a sudden, she breathed, excreted, bled, and became one with coffee. It was her fuel, her pretext to stay up at night and sit on her patio, doused in silver moonlight, overlooking the expanse of her paddy field where each grain screamed the name of my grandfather. Mur, Mur, Mur. It did not bother her that her heart was pounding fast. Instead, in a sickly plaintive manner, she would press her hand against her chest and intone a silent hymn matched to the thumping of her heart, her lover’s heart, the one that had stopped reverberating long ago, the one whose sound she could no longer make out, the one that made hers want to stop beating, too. We did not watch her weep that often, but we knew from her wistful gaze that she was silently slipping into an emotional tailspin, portending an impending crash that none of us could avert. She started retracting herself from social events in her neighborhood, stopped meandering along the riverside before sundown, lost her buoyancy and garrulity, and crawled inwards under her skin where no one spoke to her and where all she could hear was the dulcet hum of Mur, Mur, Mur.

Upon her arrival at the hospital, the doctor, whilst showing the CT scan of my grandmother’s brain, berated my father for not heeding the symptoms earlier, even more for letting my grandmother stay in her house by herself. He said that my father should have taken my grandmother’s speech impediment or her tilted posture as a red flag. Stroke, he explained, could become fatal if unattended. What would have happened if on the day she tumbled over, my father had not been there? With her throat clogged, she could have died. Her body would have rotted until someone finally smelled the foul odor and broke into her house. The graphic imagery that our doctor painted brought my father to tears. He should have stopped the coffee and stripped my grandmother’s home of any trace of caffeine. He should have just forcefully relocated her to our house. Staying put in her home alone was my grandmother’s idea. She had not wanted to leave her patio and her dry paddy field, deflecting any form of persuasion or compromise.

After the meeting, we learned that the risk of stroke is extremely high for people who resort to a life of idleness, which my grandmother gleefully embraced. The risk is even greater if the person also has high blood pressure or diabetes, in which case, the figure would double or even triple. My grandmother’s addiction to coffee, which caused frequent spikes in her blood pressure and which almost plagued her with diabetes, checked all the wrong boxes for her. Her unwillingness to engage with the rest of the world did not do her good, either. The doctor kept reminding my father how fortunate he was that his mother’s body could stave off the effect of caffeine, which, had it been inflicted on someone else who was just as old, would have given them a deadly heart attack. At the rate of five to six cups of coffee per day, coupled with very little food and a sudden halt to any form of exercise, my grandmother’s short-term immunity to heart attack was pretty admirable, though her body was not strong enough to evade a looming stroke.

Upon hearing this, my father became fixated on accusing her coffee intake as the main cause, excluding other possibilities. Blame the coffee, curse the insomnia, put an end to her silly addiction—it was his way of redeeming his mistake. Yet he knew, deep down, coffee was not the root of the problem. Nor was it the stroke itself. My grandmother was dying of grief. She had ceased to exist long before her body began to weaken. Time had stopped operating on her watch the minute my grandfather bid the world his goodbye. The doctor might have talked about how my grandmother’s loss of short-term memory (in which I did not exist and where all men were named after my grandfather) was the consequence of her malady. Her stroke meant that the blood vessels in her brain were jammed with plaque fragments. But these fragments were not initially formed in her brain; they were formed in her heart and later travelled to her brain. My grandmother’s heart, her swollen, stone-hard heart, the one she trained to drum every night—this selfsame heart was sending a message to her brain: how much it longed to blossom. How much it wanted the brain to stop reminding my grandmother of her lover’s absence. How desperately it desired the brain to envelop my grandmother’s consciousness in the cloudy memory of my grandfather and to drown itself in the sea of blood she used to share with him, the blood that made my father, that eventually made me.

And though none of us wanted it, the brain eventually acquiesced to the heart. The collapse, after two weeks, caused my grandmother’s blood vessels to burst and her blood to spurt, forming a puddle around her brain. Our doctor, seeing how severe my grandmother’s condition was, softly pleaded to my father to guide her in her farewell, in saying the kalima shahadat: I bear witness that none is worthy but Allah, the One alone, without partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger. My father was in tears, clenching his fist, but my grandmother, who could only mime the shahadat by blinking her eye, kept tugging on my father’s shirt. It was her last message, her way of explaining: she wanted to apologize for tumbling over on the day she turned sixty-seven. All she had meant to do was open her wardrobe, reach for my grandfather’s shirt—the one that looked like my father’s—and whisper into it the prayer she had been repeating in her head. Mur, Mur, Mur. I want to be home. I am not home.

 

 

Artwork by Madabhusi Raman Anand

 

On Writing in English

My relationship with English began with the need to forsake my origin, to renounce my identity.

Born in Indonesia, I was raised to be bilingual, speaking both Javanese and Bahasa Indonesia simultaneously: the former being my mother tongue, the latter the tongue that united my nation.

When I first began to read, I read only in Bahasa. Despite its integral function in my life, Javanese felt, and still feels, elusive. My grasp of it is rudimentary, even more so now with the language receding in relevance. In contemporary Java, no one writes in the original Javanese script anymore. We resort, instead, to the alphabet, to spelling words as they sound to the ears, to coining new ones along the way, making the language seem crude and structureless, arbitrary and provisional.

Bahasa, on the other hand, seems richer and more capable on the page. It is contained and systematic. Javanese, my mother says, is to speak and feel in. Bahasa is the language of debate and discourse, and what governs my interpretations of texts and theories. When I read my books in kindergarten, I liked to trace the sentences across the page with my finger, hoarding new words to decipher and memorize, to later use in my journal.

Despite our budding love, I refused oftentimes to speak Bahasa beyond what was required of me. I have a Javanese accent and I do not sound like people from the capital city, to whom Bahasa is ubiquitous. As a child, I used to accuse my accent of tainting my speech, of hampering my eloquence. When spoken, Bahasa feels foreign, as if denying me access. I belong to the language only on the page, in its written form. To communicate, to jest and to express my anger, I rely on Javanese.

When I began to write stories, I did so only in Bahasa. My stories were short at first, a page or two. Then gradually the plots grew richer, warranting longer narratives. Once finished, the stories would sit in my journal for weeks, undisturbed and unedited. The characters would at times demand revisiting, but I never saw the perks of sharing them, though one day I resolved to submit one of them for a class project, for which my Bahasa teacher showered me with compliments. She pronounced mine the best in the class and showed it to another Bahasa teacher, who, later that year, sent me to my first writing competition.

Throughout my early adolescence, I maintained this habit: writing in Bahasa while speaking largely in Javanese. My environment, too, helped me reify this habit so that there was a physical barrier: at school, Bahasa reigned; at home, it was trampled down by Javanese. The wall was not completely impenetrable but it was still there, like a thin screen of mist.

Once I moved into a boarding house for high school, a third language arrived to tip that linguistic balance. English, which used to be a mere subject I had to study for, a test I had to pass, suddenly assumed a growing significance in my life. In my semi-international school, it was everywhere, constantly engulfing me. It invaded my books and class presentations; it demanded an eight-hour relationship five days a week. My learning was done fully in this language. Knowledge seemed valuable only when transferred through the medium of English. In the first month of school, I grappled with words again like a child, translating terms, converting them as I would foreign currencies.

Because it was the key to my academic success, because mastering it was now vital, English became the subject I would study the most after school. I wanted to excel at it; I wanted to make no mistakes. Once a month, I would loan a TOEFL prep book from the library and do some exercises. On weekends, I would watch a series of American movies and learn new phrases, pretending, at times, to be an American boy sitting in a classroom, answering difficult questions in impeccable English.

Albeit pervasive, the language never interfered with my writing. I continued producing stories in Bahasa, sending them to contests, emerging as the first-prize winner. At a certain point, my short story was anthologized. The book arrived in the mail within a week after the announcement, and I kept it underneath my bed, within reach. My last name was misspelled, but my sentences were kept clean, preserved, uncontaminated. Although I doubted anyone read the book, it was still my biggest accomplishment, proof that my Bahasa, my grasp of the language, had not failed me.

With accomplishments and praise comes criticism. A judge from a writing contest I had participated in, a man in his forties, told me his opinion on my story. The piece retails the journey of a schoolboy who defies his Divinity teacher’s demand, and refuses to accept gender inequality prescribed in the Quran. The judge, having analyzed my story, said that my worldview was too pessimistic. He questioned my faith in God. At great length, he lectured me about the responsibility of a writer and their duty to promote change,telling stories that guide people to the right path, not otherwise.

At the time, I did not object to his principle. Instead, I, too, began questioning my own writing, realizing its impact on other people. I abandoned my pen and paper for a while, not out of despair or a grudge, but because I was overwhelmed by the burden of being a writer. I did not know if I was a writer or if I wanted to be one. I loved writing, and there was that. I never intended to ensnare other people in my fantasy world.

To distract myself, I devoted my time to school, to study Biology and learn English. By the end of my first year, I had taken my GCSE exams, won a debating championship, and become the Editor in Chief of the school newsletter. I accomplished all of that in English. The language became my vessel for achievements, and I increasingly depended upon it. When I applied for and later got a scholarship to study in the Netherlands, at once I severed all ties with Bahasa and Javanese. I had to live in English now, dream in it, and survive with it. There was no way around it: I had to immerse myself in the language and the world it represented.

For once, I was never leery of English’s dominating influence on my life. There was never a question of anti-nationalism or submission to the West. It was a matter of survival, of advancing my career. I needed the language, and the language seemed to embrace me. In my head, I was granted no other options.

But that isn’t necessarily true. I myself chose to apply for the scholarships. I chose to study abroad. I was the one who oriented my path so that English could make its way towards me. I wanted the language, and the language did not reject me. With each day the fact became more clear and irrefutable. After I dropped my Indonesian literature course and substituted it with an English one, from then on, I knew I was guilty of preferring the English language, of desiring its full embrace. From then on, I knew I was headed west.

Given this change, I stopped writing stories altogether. In the two years that I was abroad, my Javanese and Bahasa suffered immensely. I lost authority over my mother tongues, while at the same time, was kept at bay by the English language. I was getting better at speaking English, but my accent would impede my flow. I would read books in English but concurrently echo the sentences in Bahasa. I would tell a joke that in Javanese sounds funny, and nobody would laugh.

Incapable of originality, I resorted to emulation. I mimicked my native English-speaking friends and their accents. I consulted the internet for every sentence I typed on the computer. I resented handwriting exams because I could not make errors or scratch my sentences too often. I metamorphosed, in an instant, into a sponge, absorbing information and new phrases every minute, producing something only when demanded.

Even after my English literature teacher told me he wanted to grant me a high predicted score, I was still suspicious of my abilities. Almost immediately, I refused his offer on the grounds that it was too drastic a change from the previous year, in which I was quite possibly the worst student in the class. His kindness and enthusiasm flattered me, but I did not deserve it. I was not yet as fluent in English as I would have liked to be. I spoke three broken languages.

For years, from high school and all through my freshman year of college, I deprived myself of the joy of storytelling. By then, writing in Bahasa was no longer possible. I had forgotten most of the words, and my sentences sounded forced. Doing it in Javanese was not possible either: it was never in the picture to begin with. All I had was English, and how could I possibly write a story in a language I did not belong to, when my command of the language was far from  perfect?

The question startled me. I remember asking: but who has the perfect command of the English language, anyway? Who does the language belong to? The language has been dubbed a lingua franca, and it has permeated almost every culture, transcending countless borders. No one owns the language; anyone can access it.

Almost spontaneously, I began to read fiction again, more voraciously this time. Proust, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy — I read translated works by international writers who, without English, managed to change the world. I began to read works by English-speaking writers whose fantasy worlds were accented and unique: Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mavis Gallant, Andre Aciman, Indra Sinha. They reminded me that English is a no man’s land and I was summoned back to the world of writing.

In October 2017, I remember I wrote the first draft of my first short story in English. It is based on a true event, about a soldier who encounters a pregnant woman in a wartorn Medan in Indonesia. The process of writing it was exhilarating. I had to sit with this obscure portrait of somebody’s life in my head and intuit its meaning, a process akin to reasoning with chaos. I remember the joy of seeing the document and the many hours I subsequently spent on revising it. Since then, I have written many stories, none yet published. They sit in my journal like they used to, constantly revisited, waiting to see the light of day.

All fiction writers, as David F. Wallace once described, tend to be oglers. They lurk and stare, lurk and stare, trying to invent ways to give life a form and structure. Their nature as watchers, studying others from afar, necessitates the call for a reasonable distance: to remain invisible and yet incredibly present, to be able to retreat into a watchtower and survey the crowd below.

Writing in English, my third language, has allowed me the illusion of exile, a state of perpetual estrangement and anonymity. The language detaches me from the reality in which my stories are rooted. It is, in a sense, my watchtower.

When I am abroad, I am a foreigner, writing about a new reality, a new society, as an outsider looking in. When I am back home, writing about my people, I think in another man’s language so that even when my surroundings seem familiar, and the reality supposedly mine, I still feel reasonably distanced from it.

For a class project, I submitted the piece I wrote about the soldier and the pregnant woman to my college professor. I sat with her one day and she told me about how she appreciated the rawness of the protagonist’s character: an agnostic man struggling with the moral implications of killing enemies in the name of war. And when I was with her, I thought about the judge from my writing competition, what he would have said about my story had I written it in Bahasa. Would he think it defiant of Islamic values? Would he, again, question my faith in God?

Because English, in this globalized world, is a part of this interconnected network of cultures, it belongs to all and none of them. The language is not bound to a specific set of norms or values; it is free. In English, I too feel stateless, like a non-national. In English, I am a spectator, an onlooker. In English, above everything else, I am proud to call myself a writer.

 

 

Artwork by Kathy Buckalew

 

Porte de Choisy

“Bienvenue de chez moi!”

The tram doors open to a blustery Wednesday evening. My Malaysian friend has brought me to an Asian supermarket because she wants to taste her way across the distance to home and because I have very little money to eat. We are going to buy ramen and on the tram there, I stick my head in a novel while trying to calculate the maximum number of Indomie packets that will be affordable for two weeks. My friends crack jokes in the corner or scroll through Instagram, swaying from the poles in order not to fall.

Last night, I woke up at 4:34 with a scrabbling in my stomach. I gulped water and rolled over to sleep. The good thing about sleep is that you can will yourself into oblivion about anything real. I will not get eight hours again, ok. There is one frozen lasagne in my fridge and half a baguette in my bag today, ok. I have three pages of writing to finish tonight, ok. There are four tram stops to Chinatown now, ok. I study literature but life is also maths, ok. Maybe not Pythagorean theorems but the cashier counts out your change in French, ok. This ATM doesn’t tell you your balance in English, ok. Two flicks of mascara on your eyes so you cannot cry today, ok. 17 more days till home and your mother cooking for you again, ok.

Okay. Okay. Okay.

How many okays does it take to really feel ok?

I go quiet as we thread our way through apartment blocks and food vendors. I think my friends have become used to this but today, it’s not because I am feeling anxious or depressed, as I have nervously explained to them in past cases. I am watching my Malaysian friend practically bound across the concrete and zebra crossings and it makes me glad to see her find a sense of warmth, a semblance of her home in “the land of white people” as she calls it. For months, I have been reading her poems, unashamedly angry and desperately tender, as she writes about conversing with two old ladies near Porte de Choisy in her language, or eating with chopsticks, her everyday rebellion. I have seen her quietly write herself into a middle finger, aimed at the white boxes she’s had to tick all her life, again and again.

I have been ticking boxes too. Sometimes I become the box itself. A white box – grease-soaked cardboard flimsy –  of chilli chicken curry, made cheap with too much oil and too much haste, in a far-flung foreign country. For take-away, please. I walk ahead, looking up. The apartment blocks in Chinatown are off-white and look like stacked boxes. If I squint my eyes a little bit, they transform into a beige neighbourhood in an unimportant part of New Delhi. My stomach is scrabbling and I squint harder. So many boxes in the world, all I am doing is trying to make a home out of them.

On the tram, between calculating ramen purchases, my eye snagged on a few phrases from my novel, that come back to smart in my vision.

“That’s nothing! You’re just making yourself sad.”

“You’re just making yourself sad.”

That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!

Nowadays, if you feel something, it is nothing. It is fleeting, it will pass, it is temporary, it will not stay – therefore, it is nothing.

I too am fleeting in Paris. I will not stay. I have been fleeting in every country I have ever been in: the one I grew up in, the one I fell in love with, the one on my passport, the one where I was born. What am I, then?

That’s nothing!

If you theorize an emotion and put it in a box, it becomes something. If you put people of color’s feelings into an A4 academic document, they become something. If you tear down our historical temples and buildings, then come to marvel at our ‘exotic’ ruins discarded like wrappers, we become something – the Paris of the East, the Switzerland of India, the Venice of Asia or whatever else. After Van Gogh died, someone put his paintings in four-corner frames and only then they became something.
But weren’t they always beautiful on their own? Weren’t they?

That’s nothing!

Inside the Asian supermarket, called Tang Frère (I note the amalgamation of a Chinese and French word each, a space left purposefully in between, the latter word meaning ‘brother’), it is a labyrinth. Foreign symbols and labels surround me in flocks, stacks, boxes. I am overwhelmed. My Malaysian friend is skipping across the aisles, picking things out for herself. I shuffle through the foreign sea, trying to find the ramen. I wonder if there is a place like this for Indians, or South Asians at the very least, somewhere in Paris. I berate myself for not having made the effort to find it all this time. In my head, the symbols around me transform into familiarity – Haldiram’s snack packets, Kurkure, Dabur remedies, okra, rows and rows of Maggi noodles (the mildest flavor hot), Amul dairy, Britannia biscuits, chai, Everest masalas, even paan and somewhere wedged in between, incense sticks. My eyes close. For a moment, I think I might slide to the floor, so quick that nobody would see, a smooth, boneless fall through into the ocean.

That’s nothing!

My eyes shutter open.
I must be too hungry; this is no way to think.

That’s nothing!

Our plastic bags are full and the walk back is desperate. Bead by bead, restaurant after restaurant, follow on a string. What a beautiful necklace! My Malaysian friend seems happy.

That’s nothing!

Homesickness is something experienced by many but always felt so firmly as an individual, so very on your own: alone. It’s like birth or death. There is no one else in the world who can understand what my mother’s biryani symbolizes, walking through a street near Porte de Choisy. But I know, everyone has their own assortment of eggs in their basket, their own collection of pains they can turn over and polish, shamelessly consume, hopefully neglect,.

“Every step, there is a new kind of smell hitting you,” my Malaysian friend exclaims as we walk. She is right. Everything smells foreign, fresh, delicious, and my stomach is scrabbling, my innards like scorpions on sand. Through the windows, men and women lift heaving chopsticks to their lips; through the windows, people carry on and carry on and carry on, inside the apartment blocks, inside a box. I look around me before we near the tram, squinting. The thing is, even here, where another people try so beautifully, so naturally, to assert themselves in this city, all I can see is another place where I don’t belong. Again.

That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!

The tram approaches and we step inside. Here is another box, where we don’t look at each other, until, of course, we are home.

 

***This article is part of a larger, work-in-progress that will be published in a later issue.

Painting by Brendan O’Connell

The Head of the Table

I see them draping her bird-like body in a shroud. I see the men all in white, paying their respects to my grief-stricken uncle. Their voices are mere whispers — “our condolences”, “our apologies” — why apologize, I wonder? Should I wave my hand exclaiming to my uncle to accept their apology? Should he thank them? More whispers flood my ears, whispers that say “to God we belong and to Him we return”.

It is not the fear of death, nor is it the fear of grief; rather it is the time to grieve. In Islam we are only permitted three days to mourn, which means you have 72 hours to carry the heavy body through the various stages of grief. After the passing of 4,320 minutes you have to drop the body at the seventh stage: acceptance. There is wisdom behind it, I believe. Maybe God doesn’t want us to carry the body until our muscles ache and bones strain because we’re too fragile. Maybe we can’t be like Atlas; but instead of the world we carry a body, a life that was. Suffice it to say I grieve: I grieve for more than 3 days, for even more than 3 months. I smoke in heartbreak like a chimney. I let my grief punch me unconscious, skin me and wear me. I make my grief a human, I let it consume me. But how could I not? When she died with no warning sign. She was old, but not old enough to die. She experienced all of life, but not enough of it to tell you the difference between a peach and a nectarine – the variant is but one gene. She was my soul guardian, rather than sole guardian. She fed me, dressed me, hugged me and sent me to sleep. She encouraged me, scolded me, cautioned me and sent me to learn. She was the best half of a mother and the best half of a father.

My mind’s eye becomes blurry; the tears fog it up. The men, like an ocean of moonlight, line up for prayer in the mosque. In a sea of white I can’t tell where the line begins or ends. They pray, while she lies there also dressed in white. But her shroud is the white of pain. It’s the white of a once beautiful, dark eye becoming clouded with blindness. It’s the white of pale skin that’s never seen the light of day. It’s the white of broken porcelain.

Suddenly I’m in a room full of women, women in black with mournful eyes to match. The women sit together, huddling in the living room, whispering about the weather. Some try to grab the attention of a tearful eye with a funny story, while others stare pointedly at a relative they have never met before. But they all grieve in their own ways: some decide to pull you aside and share your grief for a millisecond, some grieve that you are grieving, while others come every morning for three consecutive days to dispel some more of their grief on you — in case your own grief wasn’t enough.

But soon, without you noticing, things start going back to normal. Like when the snow settles on the bottom of a snow-globe, everything else settles too. Suddenly your emotions feel a little less like a tangled necklace that’s choking you, and a little more like a ring that’s a size too big. Soon the family plucks up their courage and gathers again for lunch, except not in my grandmother’s house. She has died. But we are now in my aunt’s house, her eldest child. One by one, we all make our way into her house, we gather in the living room and wait for lunch to be served in the dining room across the hall. We kiss, we hug, and we high-five that one male relative who is too religious to remember that we grew up together. We joke about the time I peed in the closet playing hide and seek, we marvel at the latest news notification, and make our way to the dining room. We each pull a chair out to take a seat. Spoons, knives and forks orchestrate their clinks and clanks. A bowl of soup spills two seats down on my left, while a knife falls, clattering to the floor on my right. The salt and pepper shakers zigzag their way through different hands, while someone’s nephew cries for fries instead of fish, and a daughter yelps for a glass of that pink juice on the other end of the table.

Across the table I catch my uncle’s eyes gazing into the distance, lost. I question his state as he blinks at me, finally aware that I was speaking to him. “What?” he asks, as political opinions and comments about the weather are flung over our heads. “What are you thinking about?” I repeat. “My mother,” he whispers. Words float mid-sentence around us, comments are left limping, and breaths left held. Bewildered silence settles itself on the table. And I suddenly remember, I remember the grief and how my body felt like it was smacked into a pool of cold water. I remember how the pit of my stomach felt like an empty void. The cast around my heart shatters and falls hopelessly, leaving behind something broken. My eyes start clouding and I feel a shadow wave in the distance. I blink, folding my eyes into themselves and I focus only to see my grandmother sitting at the head of the table, with her golden burqa perched on the tip of her nose, waving for my attention. My grandmother, full of life, extending her arm for my plate, demanding to serve me more salad because I was looking too pale.

 

 

Artwork by: Kwang Ho Shin