We’re nearing the end of the academic year. The collective rumble of chairs being lifted above the ground reverberates around the school as the sound of chatter slowly crowds the air. Students throng along the corridor, making their way to their classes before the next bell rings. In the classroom, buzzing conversations about vacation spots bloom across the room. I turn my head and look between the grilles of the windowpanes, observing the people outside.
‘What about you, heading anywhere this December?’ A friend asks, nudging me.
‘Oh. I think Hong Kong, probably.’
‘Going to see your mom again?’ He asks. ‘She works there, right?’
‘Yeah, she does.’
‘It’s nice that your family always visits during the holidays,’ he says.
I nod my head.
‘What about you? Going anywhere?’ I reply, redirecting the question.
Later that year, we find ourselves taking cars, trains, and planes from Singapore to see our mother and her family. It’s only my second trip back since visiting as a child. On the plane, I ask Fanny whether she has any memories of when she visited as a child.
‘Yeah,’ she pauses, unplugging her earphones. ‘What about you? Recall anything?’
‘Well, I remember mother always got us Wang Wang milk from the grocery store and we never got tired of it.’
‘I think I know what you’re talking about,’ I say. ‘It comes in a red can, right?’
She nods her head. ‘There was also this park with a huge lake beside where we lived. We’d walk by that place every day,’ she says. ‘I doubt they’re still living near that park, though.’
I don’t remember anything she says, but I can imagine it vividly.
When we walk out of the boarding gates, we spot our mother and her sister flailing their hands in the air, catching our attention. I greet my mother with a hug.
‘Son! Daughter!’ She exclaims, dragging Fanny into the hug. ‘It’s good that you both arrived safely.’
When I remove myself from her embrace and turn to face my yi-ma, I feel compelled to do the same to her. I smile and raise my hand to wave at her, but she instead takes me into her arms. I look to my mother for help, but she only widens her eyes expectantly, beckoning me to hug her back. My yi-ma’s clothes are puffy and warm, and I tighten my grip around her.
‘You were only a baby when I last saw you,’ she says, releasing me and rubbing my shoulders. Fine lines form around her temples and cheek as I sense her kind eyes examine my face from top to bottom. ‘Welcome back to Wuhan, nephew.’
The city ushers us with a series of hairless scraggy trees and wet grey snow set aside the road. An overcast of smog obscures the cityscape, causing buildings to appear silvery and grey from a distance.
‘This whole area used to be nothing but an empty plot of land,’ my mother says at every corner. ‘It’s like they pasted these buildings from a sticker book.’
I rest my arm on the rolled window – feeling the wind tousle against my hair as I observe the landscape. None of the childhood visions I recall agree with the country that unfolds before my eyes.
From the shoe cabinet, yi-ma grabs two pairs of rubber slippers and places it before Fanny and me.
‘Here, wear these,’ she says. ‘So your feet stay warm.’
We thank her and proceed into the house. Behind us, our mother slips into a pair of slippers already sitting beside the shoe cabinet. The apartment is spacious, with a decently sized living room and a toilet in the hallway leading into two bedrooms. The furniture and the layout of the apartment look contemporary but modest.
‘Careful not to wake up your jiajia, she’s still sleeping.’ My mother says.
‘Don’t listen to your mother,’ yi-ma says dismissively. ‘Your jiajia sleeps like a log. Not even an earthquake can wake her.’
Yi-ma shows us to the bedroom at the end of the hallway. There are certificates, gilded medals, and picture frames arranged nicely on the wall racks just above the bed, and I think I recognise the little girl in the photographs.
‘This bed here can fit two people,’ she says. ‘Your mommy has been sleeping here since she arrived last week. Who wants to join her?’
We agree to let Fanny share the room with our mother. She crouches and dislodges her luggage to reveal an indeterminate spread of items – clothes, toiletries, and local snacks are some of what I can make out. Standing in the bedroom doorway, yi-ma calls my name and gestures at me to follow her to the living room.
She’s standing beside a bed that’s placed perpendicular to the sofa.
‘I’m sorry there aren’t enough rooms in the house to fit all of you.’ She says apologetically. ‘Do you mind sleeping on this bed?’
‘Oh no, I don’t mind. This is okay,’ I reply promptly.
She continues to express her regret, but I insist I’m fine with sleeping in the living room. She’s bought a brand-new bed frame and sheets in anticipation of our arrival. It’s tied in a linen ribbon, sitting on the naked mattress. The bed frame is made of a light-coloured wood, it’s sturdy and low to the ground – and I can’t help but imagine her picking it out from a furniture store.
How much did this bed cost? Did you not know we were only visiting for a week? I want to ask.
In the dozy light of the early morning, I wake to the sound of life happening around me. Amidst the starting of stoves and the honking of cars, I catch snippets of conversation. The voices are spoken in Wuhan dialect so I can’t pick up on what is being said. I sit up on the bed and find my mother speaking to an elderly lady on the sofa.
‘Ah! Your grandson is awake!’ My mother turns to me, beaming.
I greet them with an uncontrollable smile as I wiggle my feet into the rubber slippers. My grandmother is wearing a patterned parka with purple dots, her wavy silver hair combed back. She raises a hand from her lap and gently pats the area beside her. I sit next to her and wrap my arms around her back.
‘Jiajia, I missed you.’
She gently strokes the back of my neck and replies in a thick accent, her voice low-pitched and slightly hoarse. ‘Good boy,’ she says repeatedly. ‘Good boy.’
In my head, I scour my rudimentary command of the Chinese language and try to come up with a response, but I don’t know what else to say to her – my Chinese is limited, and so is hers. We can only smile and hug each other.
I feel her pat the back of my head, again and again.
We spend the next few days visiting all the popular tourist hotspots – celestial pagodas which in every detail look exactly like something out of a historical drama, scenic lakes and otherworldly park trails lined with golden autumnal trees.
My mother seems to smile a lot more in Wuhan. She’s ebbed into a more relaxed role, letting her elder sister handle most situations and be a real host to us. In a famous restaurant known for its Beijing specialty dishes, the four of us – mother, yi-ma, Fanny, me – share a medium plate of Peking duck. While the chef slices and separates the crip skin from the meat in front of us, yi-ma explains to us that this dish used to be served to Chinese emperors.
‘The two of you know how to eat Peking duck?’ She asks.
Fanny and I lock eyes and shake our heads.
‘Nonsense, this isn’t the first time you’ve had Peking duck. Your father used to bring us to eat it in high-class restaurants all the time,’ my mother insists.
Yi-ma laughs and says, ‘We can teach them again, it’s no trouble.’
She wraps the duck skin in a thin crepe, along with some sliced cucumbers, garlic and scallions. We grab our porcelain chopsticks and try to emulate her every step, though I choose to leave out her liberal portions of cucumber. My finished product is loosely wrapped and nothing like yi-ma’s one, but I enjoy it all the same.
‘Meimei, try this,’ yi-ma says, dabbing the Peking duck she folded into a saucer of hoisin sauce before raising it onto our mother’s empty plate.
Our mother makes an appreciative sound and reminds us to do the same, ‘Try this sauce.’
I jab my remaining bite into the dark sauce, completing the final step.
The next afternoon, yi-ma takes our mother to the nearby supermarket to prepare for tonight’s dinner, leaving Fanny and jiajia and I alone in the apartment.
‘Should we join her?’ Fanny asks me. She’s lying flat on her stomach, scrolling through her phone on her bed.
I uncork an earpiece from my ear and shrug, ‘What is she watching on TV?’
‘No idea, you should go check,’ she says.
‘Just go check,’ she demands.
I stuff the dangling earpiece back into my ear and redirect my attention away from her.
‘Look,’ she says, sitting up and putting her phone down. ‘You better go, or I’ll tell mother you’re being a bad grandson.’
‘You’re already nineteen years old and still running to our parents for help,’ I snap.
Suddenly, she’s scrambling for a pillow and launches one right in my direction but misses badly. I pursue the pillow and just as I’m about to throw it back at her, she widens her eyes and points aggressively in the direction of the bedroom door.
‘Don’t you dare,’ she murmurs, stretching her words.
I slip into my rubber slippers and exit the bedroom. Jiajia is sitting in the middle of the sofa – still wearing her purple patterned parka, hands placed on her lap. Her eyes squint upon noticing me and she smiles.
I’m careful when I walk towards her and tender when I sit beside her. When we were younger, my mother used to tell us stories of our predecessors. The women in my family were factory workers. They’d spend hours in poorly ventilated warehouses weaving fabric to prepare for the winter, all in hopes of earning a little bit of profit. During the spring festival, when people would often make pilgrimages back to their hometown to honour their ancestors, they’d help the community prepare congee and mustard greens to cleanse the body. In the face of immense reverence, I feel compelled to be precise and gentle in my actions.
I follow her gaze to the television; a variety game show is playing. She says something in Wuhan dialect that I can’t decipher – presumably a comment about the show, and I make agreeing sounds.
Shortly after, Fanny walks out of the room and joins us and we exchange a brief glance. She sits on the other side of jiajia and the three of us stare at the television screen for the rest of the day. Occasionally during commercial breaks, I’ll lean back on the sofa and look at them both. It feels as if we’ve always done this, and will always do this.
Our mother seems relieved to be reunited with our extended family. In a restaurant draped in engravings of gilded phoenixes and flowering cherry blossoms, we enter a private room divided by wooden partitions. We’re introduced to many family members – aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews – people our mother used to talk to on the phone, people she used to tell Fanny and I stories about.
My cousin, XiaoYuan – who is already an adult in her late twenties – has the biggest impression on me. When she introduces herself to us and I’m able to place a name to her face, for a moment I can visualise my memories clearly. Perhaps it’s her light pink parka or her thinly framed glasses. Her features are modest and unassuming, yet they seem so distinct and familiar to me. My mother used to tell me a story of how XiaoYuan used to babysit me; she’d take me to a nearby park and let me ride around in a kiddie ride while she painted the landscape of a large wintry lake on canvas. When I ask whether she recalls this memory, she says, ‘Yes, you were such a cute boy! But they used to get so angry at me for doing that.’
I’m surprised to hear this. ‘Oh no. My mother never told me that part of the story.’
‘It was mostly my mother who was mad at me. She’d say things like “what if a stranger came and just grabbed him away? Why can’t you be more responsible?”’ She says, using her hands to accentuate her story.
Fanny and I are both laughing as I make sounds of acknowledgement.
‘I kept trying to explain that you would only ride circles around me and that I’d notice if the sounds of your wheels suddenly stopped,’ she says. ‘I’d never let someone take my cute little nephew away!’
After a customary family photo, we take our seats around the table and settle down. Our relatives begin asking us the questions you’d expect them to ask: our age, things we enjoyed doing, our grades in school, how we were handling the Wuhan weather. My responses are patchy and scattered, as I try to hide my limited vocabulary behind a series of smiles and nods. Fanny’s Chinese had always been better than mine, so the answers she gives are more elaborate.
The dishes enter one at a time, and the large glass turntable soon starts to crowd with hearty servings of meat and soups and vegetables. My mother once mentioned that in China, people overorder as a form of respect to guests, and that having leftovers signified luck and fortune because of the abundance of food. Although the leftovers are usually packed after the meal, I still find myself emptying my plate as a natural instinct – the echoes of my dad pulsating near the back of my skull. Better finish your rice if you want to find a pretty wife in future. Yi-ma lifts a portion of braised pork onto my plate and asks me to eat more, and I smile at her.
As the evening wears on, pools of grease-splattered gravy and stray strands of noodles stain the nude tablecloth. The adults exchange words in rapid succession across the circular table. Conversations about the economy, protests and corruption in the government soon congest the room. These discussions never gain much traction, though, as the elders often cut in to ask about their families and the weather instead. Towards the end of the evening, the dense food begins to thicken and coagulate, long after the last portion has been spooned out.
When we return to yi-ma‘s apartment, I quickly dress down into more comfortable clothes and sag into the couch – feeling the effect of tonight’s dinner weigh heavy on me. Fanny joins me on the couch and we take turns channel surfing, giving unnecessary commentary to any nutty-looking game shows that are unfortunate enough to be judged by the both of us. Meanwhile, the adults attend to other matters – a faint ambrosial scent emanates from the kitchen, voices emerge from the bedroom and water patters in the toilet.
We eventually come across a particular dating game show where candidates are asked to step on stage to face the families of six other candidates of the opposite gender to try and convince them that they are worthy to date their child.
‘This looks like a nightmare,’ Fanny says. ‘Why would anyone do this?’
We decide to settle on this channel and watch as each hopeful contestant seeking true love gets shot down by mothers and grandfathers on national television. During one of the commercials, a boy sitting in a park drinking a canned beverage catches my attention. It looked just like any other commercial until I noticed the colour of the can he was drinking from. I quickly nudge Fanny, prompting her to look up at the television to confirm my suspicions.
‘This is Wang Wang milk, isn’t it?’
‘Oh yeah,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe they still have it here.’
We both agree to make a trip down to the grocery store to get our hands on our favourite childhood beverage before we fly back to Singapore. Suddenly yi-ma comes wandering out from the kitchen with a tray of warm red date tea and asks what we’re watching.
‘Yi-ma come sit with us,’ I say. ‘Do you know a drink called Wang Wang?’
She hands us each a warm cup and settles into a corner of the couch. Her face lights up when she finally recalls.
‘Ah, yes, I know,’ she says. ‘Do you both want to drink it?’
‘Yes, I remember we always drank that when we were here as kids,’ Fanny replies.
‘In that case, I will get it the next time I shop for groceries,’ she says.
Yi-ma is still on the couch with us when the commercials have run its course and the game show resumes. Whenever a parent makes an absurd comment, we burst out laughing. On the rare occasion a contestant finally prevails and is able to walk off stage holding the hand of their new sweetheart, we swoon. I can’t help but feel bad that our mother isn’t here to share the joy with us. I want to knock on her bedroom door and invite her on the couch, but decide against it each time I hear laughter of her own coming from behind the door.
Nearing the end of the episode, our mother emerges from the bedroom, still in the same sweater and white jeans she wore to dinner.
‘I’m going out for a while, going to be back late.’
‘Where are you heading?’ Fanny asks. ‘It’s already so late.’
‘Just meeting some old friends.’ She says as she’s putting on her boots. ‘One of you should go shower first, sleep earlier tonight.’
Before any of us can say anything, she’s halfway through the front door, leaving behind only the sound of jangling keys.
For the first time, I realise that our mother has an entire life away from us, with people whom we’ve never met or even heard of – people she knew and forged connections with years before either of us were born. It is a thought I find impossible to comprehend. A thought that leads me to question which country she considers her home.
I step out of the shower – wet feet and foggy-eyed. The living room is quiet and undisturbed. After completing my night-time routine, I wander to Fanny and our mother’s bedroom. Fanny is on her phone kneeling beside the bed, her elbows resting against the mattress.
‘You can bathe now,’ I say.
I join her on the floor and rest against the bedframe, a position my back is familiar with by now.
‘Is yi-ma asleep?’ I ask.
‘No, she went down to feed some cats.’
‘Cool,’ I say, hugging my knees. ‘What do you think mother’s doing?’
‘Fanny,’ I say. ‘Do you think she’s happier here?’
The next morning when our mother has returned and is soundly asleep, I gently twist the door’s silver knob and find Fanny already awake. We cautiously circle the room looking for evidence of where our mother last left her purse. Our eyes sparkle when we finally spot a glossy red object obscured beneath a rubble of snacks and souvenirs.
‘How much do we need?’ I whisper.
Fanny holds up two fingers and I assume she means two hundred yuan. In the same heap of mess, she runs her hands in it and comes up with a notepad and a plastic ballpoint pen from Singapore Airlines. She scribbles on the notepad and sticks it on the pillow beside our mother’s head.
‘So they don’t go searching for us,’ she says.
With the cash in hand, we put on our winter coats and decide to make a break for it.
‘Are we sure this is ok?’ I ask.
‘We’ll return the money,’ she says. ‘Now stop dragging your feet and let’s hurry back before lunch.’
The weather seems colder than usual. The winds in Wuhan are dry and unforgiving as we fight the morning currents. We’re tempted to pull our hoods over our heads but decide against it to blend in with the weekday crowd.
On the way to the park, we walk past squatting men chain-smoking in front of unopened shop houses, old women wearing patterned parkas similar to the ones jiajia would wear convening around market squares, and tides of locals along sidewalks rushing to work on feet and on bicycles. Sometimes, in these moments, I like to imagine there’s a version of me somewhere that experiences this routinely, and I wonder if he’s happy.
We notice the people on bicycles slowly transition from locals to tourists, signifying the end of our journey. It’s a relief when we finally catch a glimpse of the large lake obscured by bordering trees. We locate the bike rental store, determined on joining the masses on wheels roaming down a winding path of fallen auburn leaves. We approach the person at the counter and they bring us deeper into the shop to pick our bicycles. We’re presented with a standardised collection of yellow, red and white options to choose from. Fanny grabs one closest to her while I opt for the red one.
The sun appears to be a couple of hours away from reaching its crescendo – its beams diffusing through the leaves to produce a gentle and toasty daylight, despite the chilly weather. We join the perpetual rotation of cyclists wandering down the lane wrapping around the vast lake. The water is so still I can see the reflection of the trees and the surrounding structures of the other side in it – it looks as if a whole other city exists underwater. Suddenly, I’m reminded of my cousin XiaoYuan and her painting and I wonder if she captured the same reflections in her work. Did I notice it then? Did I also think it resembled a city underwater? I don’t recall, but I know I’ll see these reflections again very soon.
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