A Stranger at the Family Table
“I find myself reimagining my grandfathers’ arrival at the docks in Singapore, an unknown place whose sights and sounds must have been inexplicably comforting nonetheless.” (Credit: Photograph from Hulton Archive / Getty)
I am in a taxi in Bangkok. My companion—European, white—speaks fluent Thai, but every time he says something, the taxi driver turns to me with the reply. I shake my head. Pom mai ben Thai. I’m not Thai. Not Thai. He continues to address me, not my friend. I am the passive conduit for this strange tripartite conversation.
I am in Nepal, in the hills west of Pokhara. A village schoolteacher insists that I am a Gurung, an ethnic group of sheep herders and soldiers. I’m from Malaysia, I demur. You sure? Maybe your father was a Gurkha soldier who fought against the Malayan communists. Later, I stare at my face in a mirror for the first time in a week: my cheeks are rosy and sunburned from long days trekking at altitude, my eyes narrowed against the brilliant light. In my eyes, I look like a foreigner—or rather, like a local. Maybe I am a Gurung.
I am boarding a Cathay Pacific flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong. The Mainland Chinese attendants at the boarding gate bid me goodbye in Mandarin, but twenty yards farther on, the Hong Kong Chinese air crew waiting at the door greets me in Cantonese. (Most of the other ethnic Chinese passengers do not get this bifurcated treatment, I notice.)
It has to do with my face. My features are neutral, unpronounced, my skin tone changeable—pale in sunless, northern climates but tanning swiftly within a day or two of arriving in the tropics. My face blends into the cultural landscape of Asia: east of India, my identity becomes malleable, molding itself to fit in with the people around me.
Sometimes, I wonder if I aid this process unconsciously by adjusting my movements and behavior to blend in—at a literary festival in Tokyo last year, I realized that I was nodding respectfully as someone gave me directions in the street, when in fact I didn’t understand a single word they said. I wonder if, on some level, I enjoy being mistaken for a local as much as I am frustrated that no one seems to know, or care, where I’m from. In some countries, like Thailand, where I can string a few basic sentences together, I find myself mimicking the local accent, which further confuses people. But it makes them happy, too.
Same-same like Thai people, they respond cheerily when my identity is finally revealed. They draw their index finger around their face: my face is their face. Same-same like me. Maybe it isn’t to do with our faces, but with our wish for everyone to be like us. We want the stranger to be one of our own, someone we can understand.
Both my grandfathers lived on the banks of wide, muddy rivers deep in the Malaysian countryside, one on either side of the thickly forested mountain range that divides the country in two. One was a shopkeeper, the other a village schoolteacher. One lived in Perak, in a small town called Parit, not far from Batu Gajah, in turn not far from Ipoh, the state capital; the other had a more peripatetic existence, moving from a series of remote jungle towns—Tumpat, Temangan—before settling in Kuala Krai, in the heart of the Islamic state of Kelantan, on the remote northeastern coast of Malaysia. One was Hokkien, a min-nan hua speaker from Fujian Province, the other from Hainan Island, the southernmost territory of China, almost halfway down the coast of Vietnam and a mere few days by boat across the South China Sea to Malaysia.
Both my grandfathers had, at some point in the 1920s, made the hazardous boat trip from Southern China to the Malay Peninsula. They were mere teenagers when they made the voyage, fleeing a China ravaged by famine and fragmenting into civil war. I doubt their families would have known much about China’s political confusion during the Warlord Era. They might have known that the Qing dynasty had recently come to an end, that they no longer had an emperor. But they would not have understood what it meant to live in the fresh ruins of a thousand years of imperial rule, would not have understood the intricacies of the increasingly bitter conflict between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang and the swelling power of the Communist Party. They did not know they were living in momentous times, an era to end all eras, the beginning of a novel whose middle chapters we are only just approaching today. Theirs was a time that would set China on a course to dominate the world’s imagination a hundred years later; but they would never see their country become the world’s factory, the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods, the world’s second-largest economy, respectful only of the might of the United States. In those few years, contemplating adulthood, they wanted only to escape crushing poverty.
And in those times the routes to salvation led, almost inevitably, to the warm, fertile lands that lay spread out across a vast archipelago south of China, where the Chinese emperors had established a centuries-old network of trading routes and an ancient relationship based on vassal and tributary states, with the ports of Singapore and Malacca at its epicenter. This was a place of promise, known to the Chinese as Nanyang, the Southern Oceans.
Sometimes, when I arrive in New York or Shanghai—old harbor cities that have drawn generations of immigrants—I find myself reimagining my grandfathers’ arrival at the docks in Singapore, an unknown place whose sights and sounds must have been inexplicably comforting nonetheless. The temperature: hot and humid, exactly the same as the long summers of their homelands. There will be no cool season here, no brief respite from the heat and the rain, but they do not know this yet. The landscape: broad-leafed evergreen trees and waterways, the proximity of the sea. Again, much like home. The smell: of wet earth and rotting vegetation; of food, of possibility. But, above all, it is the people who make them feel that they can live here. This is a British colony, but it is a city of free trade, then as now. Foreigners arrive easily, they find work easily; they stay. Built on the eighty years of Chinese immigration since the establishment of British administration and the development of natural resources by the colonial government, Singapore is full of Chinese—laborers, dockside coolies, descendants of indentured workers in Malayan tin mines and plantations, but also merchants and tradesmen, artists, writers. There are Chinese newspapers, Chinese shops with Chinese signs painted in elegant traditional characters, Chinese schools, even a Chinese bank—the Overseas Chinese Bank. My grandfathers are not alone, and in fact they are several generations away from being pioneers.
From here they seek out the person whose name and address they have been given. They keep it on a piece of paper, their dearest possession. All the other people on the boat have a similar piece of paper bearing the name of a relative, or maybe a person from their village who has left some time in the past and established a home somewhere in Nanyang. But where to go, how to find these contacts? No one is sure of the geography of this foreign but familiar place yet; no one knows how far Kota Baru is from Singapore, or whether Jakarta is closer to Malacca than Penang. Bangkok is somewhere north of here, but how far? They stand by the docks, figuring out where to go next.
Strangers, lost on a pier.
I am sitting on the balcony of my parents’ apartment in Kuala Lumpur, chatting with my father about his childhood. This is a rare occurrence. Not so much the chatting, though that is also a recent phenomenon, like an expensive luxury we have acquired in recent years, now that we are both older, less antagonistic. Gentle conversation between us, with no specific purpose or time limit, is something we are not yet fully accustomed to, something to be savored only occasionally, and with great care.
What is truly precious in its rarity is his talking about the past—about his past. We are modern in our views, outwardly even Westernized; but fundamentally, we are a traditional Chinese family, and this is no more clearly seen than in the way we interact with one another, in the things we reveal about ourselves. We do not admit weakness or sadness. Romantic heartbreak, depression, existential doubts—those are topics of conversation that belong to different cultures and younger generations, educated people who know about Freud and psychotherapy and organic vegetables. Vulnerability is shameful, even taboo; and in the spectrum of human shortcomings, poverty is the greatest frailty. All that is broken must remain in the past.
The harnessing of the customary Asian characteristics of discretion and silence to suit a contemporary middle-class existence is what marks us as both traditional and truly modern inhabitants of Asia. For this is what happens all around us, not just in Malaysia but the whole of East Asia. Now that we are rich, we do not talk about the past; to study history is backward-looking, and we are concerned only with the future. Maybe this is how China deals with something as monumentally, catastrophically devastating as the Cultural Revolution, I suggest to my father. (I am skirting around the subject of his own past for the moment: talking about someone else’s historic traumas might be a better way to broach the subject of his own life.) Perhaps the Cultural Revolution was so painful for the people who lived through it that it seems easier just to suppress memories of it than to digest all that it entailed, for unpacking all that baggage would fill their entire consciousness and leave them no space for anything else? So for them it’s easier just to rejoice in the riches they have now, the handbags and apartments and travel and education and restaurants. The past is painful, the present is easy. It’s a matter of practicality: they just want to get on with their lives.
“No,” my father replies. “It’s not practicality. It’s shame.”
His answer makes me pause. I’m not used to this directness, especially since it seems to contain a confessional undertone, a prelude to greater openness. As a child, I used to wish that we could be more frank and touchy-feely with our parents, the way American families were on “The Cosby Show” and other programs we saw on TV, but now I feel suddenly uncomfortable, as if I have intruded into a space that was better left unexplored. A part of me wants to reach for my iPhone and record what my father is about to say, but I don’t, I just sit there, waiting; there is a fragility in the air.
My father tells me about his earliest memories—of growing up with distant relatives in those remote towns on the edge of the northern jungles while his father moved around the country searching for work and his mother lived elsewhere looking after his younger siblings. She didn’t have the time or resources to look after him, the eldest of her four children, and he was by now just about old enough to live away from the family. He was seven, eight—no, nine, ten. He honestly can’t remember.
What he can recall is being on a boat from Singapore—yes, it must have been from Singapore—up to Kelantan, the far northeastern state where the family would settle. On the boat there were other recently arrived migrants from China and also India—Indian Muslims who performed their prayers and then shared their food with him. It was just some rice, but good rice, clean and white and nourishing, one of the best meals he can recall. He can remember my grandfather going away for weeks, maybe months, in search of work, can remember the time of brief abundance when my grandfather had a job and the family could afford to eat properly. He recalls the signwriting that my grandfather, a talented calligrapher, used to do as a sideline job to earn some extra money. For many years afterward, they would pass black-and-gold signs that hung above certain shops and he would recognize my grandfather’s elegant handwriting. He can remember, too, getting his first pair of shoes at the age of ten and feeling clumsy and heavy-footed. A few of these stories I have heard before; most I have not. He talks, also, about his half-sister, whom I knew but never well. As a girl, she was not deemed worthy of an education and was sent to work at the age of ten on the train between Malaysia and Thailand, where, urchin-like, she stole aboard and sold little packets of food to the passengers.
My father would give her a lift up and she would prise open the window with a stick and clamber into the carriage—a plan that worked well until she slipped one day and speared her arm with the stick. This I did not know.
Listening to him, I am struck first by how free of resentment he is at his difficult childhood. His stories are not of a deprived-but-happy variety, but neither are they full of the rancor you might expect of a person in his position. I remember, now, various conversations between him and his relatives—or, rather, members of the extended Kelantanese clan—on which I had eavesdropped without really meaning to as a child. Some of them, more open and talkative than my father, would discuss their underprivileged rural pasts with what I now recognize as a similar acceptance, a recognition that not everyone is born moneyed and comfortable. They are reconciled to society’s lack of fairness—its hierarchy, if you like—because their stories are underpinned with a natural assumption that they will progress through its ranks:
They will be educated, to some degree.
They will become more well-off, even if never properly rich.
They will live and work in a big city.
Their children will become professionals and earn healthy salaries.
Their grandchildren will grow up so middle class and affluent that the idea of deprivation will have no place in their lives.
“These are boring poor-people stories,” my father interrupts himself. “They’re not very interesting to you.” I demur, and press for more.
I speak Mandarin with a neutral accent, but my speech inevitably bears traces of my origins and education, of growing up in a household where my parents spoke to each other in the Minnan dialect of Fujian province (specifically with a Penang-Malaysian accent and vocabulary), to us in Mandarin, to their siblings in Hainanese (on my father’s side) or a mixture of Hokkien and Cantonese (on my mother’s side). At school in Kuala Lumpur, a city historically dominated by immigrant Cantonese-speakers, the only Chinese language I used was Cantonese, mainly of a slangy, coarse variety that consisted mostly of profanity; otherwise I studied in and spoke Malay and the local strain of English. With my cousins in rural Perak and Kelantan, I spoke a pidgin of Malay, Mandarin, English, and Cantonese. I became quite skilled quite young at modulating my speech to suit whomever I was speaking to. I knew what proportion of Malay or Mandarin or colloquial English to use, and in what situation, knew when to swear in Cantonese, knew when to be correct, when to be urban-cool, when to be country-direct.
In a country like Malaysia in the 1980s—multicultural, rapidly urbanizing, rapidly creating a wealth-based class system—you learn to switch linguistic and cultural codes. In our suburb on the border of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, its principal satellite town, virtually everyone had close relatives who still lived in the countryside; now, one generation later, most of those extended families will have moved into the cities.
I spent most of my school holidays with my maternal grandparents, who lived in a 1920s shop-house in a small town called Parit, in the heart of the tin-mining region of Perak. It was a happy, generally uncomplicated existence: my grandfather spoke only Hokkien and Malay; my grandmother (his second, local-born wife) spoke Hokkien, Malay, and exceptionally good English. They lived in the house with my uncle and aunt and their children, a large Chinese family in a largely Malay area. My relatives on this side of the family had an often-told, comfortably messy history. I knew where they were from, heard stories about my grandfather’s early days in Malaysia, knew how he met my grandmother. Toward the end of her life, she—unusually for a woman of her generation—told me how she felt about my grandfather, told me about her doubts about marriage and of wanting to flee, which of course she would not have done, as it would have been impossible; yet she had thought about it. It was a family whose past and present felt resolved—far from perfect, yet allied to a time and place that gave them a solid, rooted identity. And so I, too, wanted to fit in, wanted not to be seen as a prissy urban-dweller who didn’t know the ways of the country. I helped out in the shop—the kind of general store in a small town that sold school uniforms, soap, underwear—and pretended to be one of them. When old Malay ladies came into the shop to buy talcum powder, I affected a local accent, dropping all traces of city slang; when hanging out with my cousins I changed my cultural references, picking up on the same shows and music they were into (not the same as the ones my friends back in KL enjoyed).
But all along, I was plagued by a sort of anxiety, a low-level fear of something I couldn’t articulate until I was in my twenties: the knowledge that I was an imposter, that I would, at any time, be revealed as an outsider. A precious city boy. A nerd. A snob. Someone alien to his own family. I worried that they’d look at me and think that I wasn’t one of them; and that would be awkward, for them and for me, because most of the time I was definitely part of the family. What to do, then, with the sudden appearance of a stranger at the family table? By the time I was in my mid-teens and reading long novels, sustaining the right kind of vocabulary and slang in the countryside became harder and harder. The ideas in my head started to seem impossible to express with the language I knew I had to use to fit in—and occasionally I would let slip a word that betrayed me, revealed me as a fraud. (Once, when we saw a section of jungle that had been cut down to clear space for a growing palm oil plantation, I talked about deforestation.) I read Faulkner and Steinbeck in private, hiding the books between the clothes in my bag. My sister, older, tougher, more determined to escape, openly practiced Chinese calligraphy and French grammar in the shop, ignoring the customers who came in to buy a box of sewing needles and chat about the level of the river during the recent rains. She had staked her claim to a separate existence, was pursuing it honestly and single-mindedly. She was still in the shop, still speaking Hokkien and Mandarin, but her life was already detaching from that of our cousins and grandparents, like a slowly shifting tectonic plate breaking off to form its own continent.
The unease we felt was about the privileges we had—the education and opportunities that were making us drift apart from the rest of our family—but more precisely, it was about money and class and guilt. That was what none of us could say, for perhaps we couldn’t articulate it back then, when it was not yet clear just how an education could change our lives, when we did not yet know, in real practical terms, how a degree from Cambridge would make you a fundamentally different person from someone who shared your bloodlines and DNA but who quit a rural Malaysian school at age seventeen. The awkwardness we felt came from the same place as that which arises between me and my father when I ask him about his childhood: I want to be somehow part of his past, to be a part of his formation, but I can’t. The education I have had has made it impossible for me to go back there.
I remember reading, for the first time, Alice Walker’s essay about Cuba, and about her relationship with her father. I remember reading and re-reading and thinking it had been written just for me: “This brilliant man . . . unschooled beyond the primary grades . . . found the manners of his suddenly middle-class (by virtue of being at a college) daughter a barrier to easy contact, if not actually frightening. I found it painful to expose my thoughts in language that to him obscured more than it revealed.” The essay’s title, “My Father’s Country Is the Poor,” stayed in my head for days, haunting me in ways I couldn’t explain. I wasn’t African-American or impoverished, and yet I thought I had been reading about myself.
I also remember this: we are in my grandfather’s shop; he is writing numbers in a ledger and occasionally making small calculations on the abacus. I am arranging the coal-tar soap in neat rows on the shelves nearby, trying to appear uninterested in the conversation I’m overhearing. My mother is dusting the glass tops of the cabinets with a feather duster, as she must have done all throughout her growing-up years; and she is telling my grandfather about my sister ringing the week before, in tears, from Singapore. She had won a valuable Singaporean government scholarship and was now living with a bunch of other fifteen-year-olds in a dorm nearly a two-hour bus ride from Raffles Girls’ School, where she was receiving the kind of education my parents had always wanted for her. When we had visited the dorm, even my father, hardened as he was by a spartan childhood, had said, simply: It’s not very nice. Now she was homesick, lonely, studying crazy long hours just to keep pace with the most driven teenagers in Southeast Asia. Straight A’s every year or you lose your scholarship. She wanted to come home. My grandfather makes a funny noise—something like a laugh, only it doesn’t sound at all jolly. He is unmoved by this, finds it ridiculous. He had come to Malaysia as a boy with nothing but the shirt on his back; he doesn’t understand the meaning of homesickness. My mother tries to make him understand how my sister is feeling—it’s tough, she’s all on her own, the other girls are mean. And then my grandfather says, simply: “But we’re immigrants.” As if that explains everything. As if hardship and homesickness and melancholy and longing will always be a normal part of our lives.
As if we had no reasonable expectation for things to be different. In his easy acceptance of what he saw as his fate—just as my father had accepted his childhood—I suddenly saw how I would never truly be able to communicate with him, this kind, gentle man whose blood I had inherited, whose culture I had absorbed without question. Not even when I was older, and had traveled and learned about the world and its joys and sadness, maybe even experienced a tiny bit of what he had in his lifetime. The impossibility of any convergence between our respective positions became clear in that brief moment. He was an immigrant. I was a grandchild of an immigrant. We would never see the world in the same way.
This piece was drawn from “The Face: Strangers on a Pier,” by Tash Aw, which is part of a new series out March 1st featuring works by Ruth Ozeki and Chris Abani.
[The New Yorker]