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Diamond Hill by Sonia FL Leung and Read by Muriel Hofmann

2017-10-01

Diamond Hill by Sonia FL Leung and Read by Muriel Hofmann

2017-10-01

My parents had an arranged marriage. Father fell fervently in love with Mother at first sight. But his love was never reciprocated.

Growing up, Mother lavished most of her love on my elder brother and treated him like the man in her life. It was partly due to gender preference, but more so because of her discontent with Father. It was her way of telling him that he could never be as close to her as their son.
Elder Sister tried to avoid the chaos of our family by staying away whenever she could.

Younger Sister was the youngest and loveliest, so she could get away with anything.

As for me, I was a shadow in front of Mother. It was as if she had to direct her antagonism – her disastrous relationship with my father, her stress at work and of raising a relatively big family – against someone. And that one had to be me. Being a dark-skinned, super sensitive and most Father-like daughter, I became her target.



One day Mother came home from work and began cooking. I was in the upper bunkbed doing my homework, directly underneath me was Brother watching TV. Mother started talking to him, “You know son, they think I’m stupid.”
“Er, why?”

I could barely hear Brother’s mumbling over the background noise of the TV. Putting down my homework, I peeked at them from my bunk.
 
“This morning, our assembly lead asked me if I knew how to write my name!”

She sounded like she was about to cry, then continued, “If they would only know – I was a teacher who had taught Chinese to hundreds of students!”
She was crying I knew, since the hot oil on the wok in front of her was sizzling from meeting her tears drops. This violent sizzle was followed by the guang guang noises of the spatula striking the wok.
I hurried down from my bunk and asked, “Ma, are you ok? Can I help you with anything?”
“You, go away!” she brandished the spatula and shouted. I froze.

Brother gave me a quick look and a smirk. His eyes said, “Who do you think you are?”

He walked toward the kitchen, stood on the second step and faced the side of Mother who was inside the kitchen. There was no space for him to go in. He stretched his hand, reached out to the dish on the stove, picked up a slice of pork and slid it into his mouth. I drooled.
Mother calmed herself. She turned to him and said, “Oh son, you must be very hungry now. I’ll finish cooking soon.”
Mother talked to Brother as if I were non-existent. I was hungry too, ravenous in fact. Pressing my lips together, I shut my eyes for a long minute to prevent tears from coming out.  But they stung behind my eyelids and formed a hard painful lump in the back of my throat. A feeling of worthlessness gathered its power and seized my stomach. It hastened upward into my lungs and heart. And it ran further up into my brain and embedded itself there for good. I wanted to scream, but found neither strength nor voice to fight.
 



In 1984, my parents – a doctor Father and a teacher Mother – migrated to Hong Kong with my two elder siblings. Two years later when I was twelve, the Chinese government permitted my younger sister and me to reunite with our family in Hong Kong.
My parents knew they would not obtain those same jobs in China. They were fully aware that Hong Kong was a British colony, which would not honor their professional qualifications.
But they still chose to come mostly for financial reasons. As China was going through a major economic reform, the money that my parents made with their respective government positions was much less than their friends who were entrepreneurs. And then, there was this problem that our whole family was located in the poor, mountainous prefecture of Da Tian, which literally meant “a big paddy field”. My parents feared that our hu kou, “household register” would be permanently trapped there.
Relocating to Hong Kong was our golden way out. But unlike the commercial world, once you relinquished your job with the Communist government, there was no return.
As factory workers, my parents’ monthly salary was HKD1,000 each. This was twenty five times greater than their salaries as a doctor and a teacher in China. The cost of living was much higher in Hong Kong. Still, the surplus was significant. The economic gain helped my parents to compensate the loss of their high social status in this city. With the financial superiority, they could visit our hometown with sumptuous “face” that they still held the lead over their siblings and friends.
 
However, the meagre income that my parents made in Hong Kong meant they could only afford to rent a small place for the six of us. They found a subdivided hut in a slum. The area was ironically called Diamond Hill.
The half hut we rented had an old rusty iron gate with peeling claret paint on the ground floor for entry. Two steps led down from the gate into the only room. There were two tarnished iron bunkbeds, a brown wooden closet, a gloomy looking bedside table with a mirror on top, and a weary, bulky TV set. Besides the furniture, our living and dining area had the width of about a person with open arms. We dined with a folding table and chairs, and put them away after each meal. We watched TV, did homework, reading … in our respective beds.
Within the room, next to the gate, another set of two steps led to a dark corner. This corner was beneath a steep staircase of the other half-hut renter. The corner was our kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen had a stove and a sink next to it. The bathroom was a narrow strip with a squat toilet; we stood on its sides to take a shower.



My father’s defense mechanism was to retreat into himself. He didn’t mention anything about work. In fact he seldom spoke at home. He only shouted when he was drunk. Like a time bomb, he could go off anytime. When he came home late from overtime and ate by himself, he would
sit next to the table and take a few drinks. I stayed in my upper bunkbed and suppressed my urge to go to the toilet. Visiting toilet meant that I had to squeeze through the edge of the table where he was sitting. The attention I would attract or the trouble I might cause him terrified me. But  the more I stifled the impulse, the more urgent, frequent it became. I despised myself.
 
During Father’s weekly day off, he would go to the cinema most of the time. He would buy a ten-dollar ticket that allowed him to watch movies all day. The movies ranged from crime to pornography, from western to eastern. It didn’t matter. So long as it could keep him away from reality – his unrequited love for my mother, his denigrating factory work, his family burdens – he devoured it. And that was what he did on his days-off, week after week, spending all day alone inside a dark cinema watching movies.
And then one day, he discovered the exhilaration of horse racing and started to pay plenty of attention to the racing section of the newspaper. He studied the horses like he had once studied the characters in the great novels when he was young. He kept sharp pencils by the bedside    table and made enthusiastic, extensive notes on the paper about the horses, their             conditions, winning and losing records. Looking at his scribbles, they reminded me of some comments he wrote in his diary after he read those novels. Except now the scribbles were
figures mainly. He gave up on words, gave up on his intellectual self. He became an excessive smoker, drinker and gambler.  When he gambled, he second guessed himself. He bet on many different horses in one race and often lost. And he lost big. When he won, he won small because of his thin betting. But like many gamblers, the small winning was enough to keep my father hopeful.
Father was very proud of his winnings. When he won, he would come home smiling. Since this happened rarely, I felt awkward when he smiled. I was not sure whether I should smile with him or rather weep because finally something made Father happy. And on those special occasions, he might bring home with him a white plastic bag that had a polystyrene box
with siu mei, “Cantonese barbecue meat” in it. Sometimes, if he won a bit more than usual and if it was in the right season, he might even come home with a bigger black plastic bag that had
 
fresh Shanghai hairy crabs in it. He was very pleased with himself and liked to share with us by

ga sung, “adding a dish” to our dinner.




Drama used to happen when Mother was cooking. It was an early winter evening, I was in my upper bunkbed reading or daydreaming. Brother was sitting in the living area playing Gameboy.
Guang. The rusty old gate was opened. Father sprinted down the steps and leapt into the room. In an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice, he told Mother:
“Wailan, look what I’ve bought for us all. It’s sweet, tasty crab! We can all enjoy it tonight!”
Like a little boy, he raised high of a bag of live crabs (I could hear the slow, vague wavering of their claws inside the bag). Father had a broad grin on his face. His eyes were twinkling, eagerly anticipating Mother’s praise.
Neither giving a slightest glimpse to him nor to the bag of crabs, she replied: “Yeah, it’s your favorite food. You’re sure to have a fine feast.”
Her words might as well have been a bucket of ice water poured violently over him. His face turned green. He froze for a moment or two. Then he ascended a step towards the kitchen, chucked the bag of expensive crabs into the small sink next to Mother’s left elbow. He put down his other bag, took out a pack of Marlboro Red and a lighter and headed back out the gate.
 
Once he disappeared behind the gate, Mother gave an exaggerated, loud sigh. She then winked at Brother and signaled him to come closer to her.  In a quiet and scornful voice, she said, “Oh, your father is such a cranky creature! I can’t even joke with him a little!”
Haha, she and Brother shared a short, derisive laugh.

I rushed down from my bed, pretending to search for something inside the closet. But I raised my head and gazed at the gate time and again. Father’s shoulders were heaving in anguish. He faced a malodorous drainage ditch and dragged hard on his cigarette. He had no place to go; no friend to talk to. He didn’t drink outside because he didn’t want to get drunk and became a laughing stock to others.
Father finished his cigarette and immediately started another one. His shoulders stopped heaving. He put his left hand into his trousers’ pocket and leaned slightly on the edge of a short, cracking grey wall next to the drainage ditch. The greyness of the wall had largely turned dirty black; damp, green mould grew over its dank expanse. The height of the wall was only up to Father’s shoulders. And then it looked as though he didn’t know where to put his head or what
to do with it. He tilted it to the left and then right and then left again from time to time. I wished to sit on top of that wall and let his head pillow on my lap.
Instead, I turned and clambered back up to my bed.
 
The Sun and Moon On October 25

On 25 October my grandma passed away and I remember the sun felt peculiar.

Sitting in front of a computer finishing up my essay, I received a call from an unknown number. It was my father calling with my cousin’s mobile. “Your grandma passed away just now. She left with peace.” He said with expected calmness.

I wasn’t sure what to say.Though the last few days I have been visiting my grandma at the hospital. We all had it coming.

A bridge of silence between the two phones.

“So, should I come home and have dinner?” I asked,initiating a conversation -- wanting to make sure if he was truly calm, perhaps I will hear him swallowing his tears.

“Yeah. Come back for dinner. Same time, be back at eight.” he replied, calmly.
We said our goodbyes like every phone call, only to ask if I will be back for dinner. Some yeses and some no-es without asking anything much.

I hung up the phone and I looked around, only to see students buried in their keyboards. Each type, each insert and backspace counting down to a deadline for an assignment. Counting down and counting down. In that moment suddenly realising the world simply does not stop for the death, rather, death only accelerates life with a torturing speed. Death somehow disguised as the teeth of a wheel, grinding your delicate face. And when death touches you, you mistaken that as the plain polluted air.

I walked out of the dim computer room only to be stung by the toxic sun. Where does the deceased go? For I have never heard grandma said how she would imagine afterlife would be like hence I could not equip myself with sufficient imagination. Instead, I stood still, gazing at the clouded sun from afar.

I could only look at the peripheral halo and imagine my grandma lingering there, watching me. I could not make sense of her rays, whether it is blessing my skin with warmth or roasting me with curses.

Like they say, “I wish she is  now in a better place.” A silent better place where her life story is played backwards, each second each frame, counting up counting up. Every frame only to
 
celebrate and commemorate her once infinite youth. Her vitality will soothe her wrinkles and her loosened skin. The dark freckles on her cheeks will undo themselves and burn brighter than the sun that I was staring. The sun ray stung me again but brought me back to my presence. I paused to ponder if she is, the sun or just the toxic dust shrouding it, blocking my vision.

The traffic light turned to a neon green, signalling me to walk towards the metro station heading home.

*
The metal gate was left half-opened, for better ventilation. I knocked on the gate, peeking through the slanted crevasses -- some dishes were already served. The dinner table was just next to the door. We had a tiny yet self-sufficient flat.

“I’m coming. Wait a second.” My father talk-shouted from the kitchen. I heard a bunch of vegetables sent to the heated wok, the sizzling sounds quickly silenced by the moisture and steam it released. My father opened the gate. I said my greetings to my father, suddenly recalling my grandma lectured me on mannerisms while twisting my ears. I stole a quick glance on my father’s expression to see if my greeting to him have induced any sadness. It was just his stern ordinary expression. He quickly drew his back to the kitchen -- the vegetables were burning.

It was a dinner for two -- my father and I. I sat on my usual spot readily as my father landed the final dish, stir-fried broccoli with beef slices. Served together was a dish of tomato scrambled eggs with chopped spring onion dices. Three little dishes for two person, just enough. I turned on the TV and switched to the cooking show. We started eating -- never critiquing  my father’s cookery, we just eat while we watch the competitors of the cooking show produced their delicate dishes within an hour limit but condensed into a five minute dose of screen-adrenaline.

I scooped a little mountain of rice into my mouth together with some scattered pieces of scrambled egg -- pretend it was the delicate dish I was tasting. Every dinner we had to turn on the TV, let the judges merciless commentary override and fill up the silence between the two of us. It has almost been an agreed strategy between us to not to talk about life or anything in
general. There’s an old Chinese saying, “No speech in eat, no talk in sleep” -- a Chinese virtue of keeping silence. But the TV was loud.
 
But my grandma passed away today, how can I succumb to this silence anymore? His back turned against me, with his bowl in his hand, eating with the television. I could not see his face. Was he grieving, mourning? Or was he like me, trying to make sense of “death”?

The TV screen glitched for a brief second, creating a momentary gap of silence. I envisioned the ghostly spirit of my grandma returned and joining us for dinner. Her blurry limbs now charged by the exact silence that conjured her. She sat across me, silent like the no-name women, wielding her chopsticks in mid-air, asking me to return her voice and story. She became only visible to me. Staring at me, she signalled me to ask my father.

“You’ve never told me anything about grandma really.” That was not technically a question but a confrontation birthed from fear. I was suddenly aware of my crudeness for catching my father off guard.

“I just assume you know. Like... you feel things.” He quickly responded. I could feel -- but only of him shutting out any “unnecessary” conversation. He pushed a few buttons on the remote, the TV howled louder. My grandma’s gaze set dead on me, her mouth murmuring something in weak emotion. I could not read her dead lips but I knew she wanted more from me, more from my father, more from her son.

“I know, but how were you raised? Did something happened?” I pursued. Only saying this I realised I had nothing but a blank page, not even a random scribble of my father’s history.

He did not stop eating. He then told me a brief story without stopping, not to give it any unwanted weight and moral.

“Your grandma lived a double life -- to the four children she is the dragon lady but the quiet subservient wife to your grandpa. The fact that me being the eldest boy in the household directly puts me into the role of succession. Your grandparents gave me most of their resources -- education, travel, even later when your grandpa died he passed on the fabric company to me. It was the most reasonable thing to do, in a Chinese kind of way speaking. The other siblings resentment and jealousy grew throughout the years, hated me for being the eldest son, for have taken up most of the resources.”

He quickly summarized, then swallowing a mouthful of rice, continued eating.

“Your aunties uncles are crazies. Especially your auntie Kuen. Even back in the days when girls were not allowed to go to school, I remembered your grandpa still tried sending her for education. But she messed up. She didn’t cherish what was given to her and later dropped out of
 
school and grew more hostile and distant from the family. She got an accountant job, married someone but divorced three months after they moved in together. She has been single ever since. And she blames everything on me, just like your uncle. After grandpa died, they fought like dogs over your grandpa’s will and heritage. Bunch of crazies.”

“Do you think you are part of the reason for making Auntie Kuen the way she is?”

The question rushed through my lips, part of my mind immediately regretted asking. I was also enthralled because, at last, I am restoring history from my oblivious childhood. A hungry void finally being fed at last.

My father hesitated with a look of surprise.

“Why should I feel guilty? I said she has messed up. Your mother and I have always kept your crazy aunts and uncles away. There was simply no need to know or to make contact with such people.” My father quickly drew distance.

I wanted to keep asking, but suddenly aware myself almost interrogating my father on the dinner table, for answers he was trying to hide, perhaps I was still too young to comprehend. I became the interrogator I once feared of becoming. I wanted to ask if he thinks grandma and pa were good parents or does he think of himself as a good father.

Though truth at times hurts but when you set it aside and leave it be, the wound would no longer hurts but stings you with immense curiosity. A confused curiosity torn between healthy mourning and pure melancholia. Was I doing the “right” thing? To fix the incurable history. To look at the other side of the story and return their voices? Or am I trying to befriend with the ghosts and enemies or to simply destroy this peaceful silent between what is distant and me.

I wanted to stop asking myself.

*
After picking up the plates and the leftover food, i tied the black apron around my waist while having a good look on the dirty dishes, almost admiringly. Through the stained pan and wok, one could have guessed what was served at dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I rather enjoy washing dishes for its therapeutic reasons. I had a clear memory of my mother holding my hand getting
 
gunk blocking the water, she said, “every dirty thing can be cleaned,” as now I see the bubbled water creating a gentle swirl.

Strangely I always relate washing dishes with my gay identity -- the common gay jargon “it gets better” equates to my mother’s lesson as if to agree being gay is dirty. To my family, it indeed is. This dirty big secret stained the plates with red ketchup, yellow mustard, green celery chunks -- left unconsumed, wasted, swirling in the bubbly water. I put my hand in the greasy water and purged the blockage into the thin plastic bag with subtle disgust. For I have a secret story that have been shackled by the white-noise of the cooking show, waiting to burst out in any moment, with pride. It then transformed into a pickle side-dish served along the dishes as a topic of concern, of love and of friendship. Yet I could only see them flushed to the waste by my own hands.

Using the wire brush, scrubbing the pot with brutal force. “Will truth ever be revealed to me? Will my story, ever be revealed, told and retold to my children to my closest ones?” I thought to myself. The blurry silver moon hung low through the wide kitchen window. Yet I saw the sun. My grandma was there, tracing the outlines of the globe, veiled by a silver silky fog. She have gained her voice and intelligence over the moon and incarnated as a silent warning. Her grey fog danced a riddle for me to guess. No more guessing! Grandma what is the answer. What is your moral you are teaching?

I untied the black apron and hung it on the back of the door, only to see my father napping on the couch in the living room, possibly dreaming. What was he dreaming about? Seeing the edge of his lips motioning, I couldn’t stop myself to wonder if he was haunted by grief.

I realised I have always been asking myself these questions they have at last reemerged and broke the water surface. But at the same time I have so many prepared answers to be questioned, to be revealed.
 

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