by Daniel Emlyn-Jones
My great-granddaughter Mong-dai hadn’t been herself for over a year. Previously a bubbly teenage girl, she was talking little, picking at the food she once enjoyed, and her usual flurry of ace grades at school had slid into mediocrity. Her mother Ah-fa took her to the doctor, took her to the school head teacher, prepared her favourite foods and piled them high on her plate, but nothing helped. My granddaughter Ah-fa is a kind woman who does her best, but neither she nor anyone else thought to do the one thing which Mong-dai needed: for someone to sit down with her and properly ask her what the problem was.
I was planning to invite her over for dinner to do just that, when I found out quite by accident one Saturday morning a week before Chinese New Year. I always breakfast in the Vivo City food court at the harbour front. It’s a fifteen minute journey on the MRT, but I like the place; not too busy at that time, with a cool spacious feel. I used to go there with my husband years ago, so it also holds good memories. From my favourite seat there, I have a good view of the world passing by. Some people my age are blind as moles and deaf as snakes, with brains to match (I’ve tried playing Mah-jong with some of them), but what the Gods take away with one hand they give with the other, and I’ve always been sharp as a sword. Sitting there every morning you get to know the various people who pass by at that time. A suited man rushing along with his head so far back he looks as if he’s waiting for dumplings to fall from the ceiling: a back problem I suppose. A Malay woman with a very large and beautiful collection of headscarves: in many years I haven’t yet seen the same one twice. An angmo man who never has anything except SetA breakfast with Kopi O Kosong. Into this mosaic on that particular Saturday morning Mong-dai appeared, together with someone else. They tried not to be seen, but the problem with young people is they have no guile, and as I say, I’m not your average gaga old woman.
At that moment I knew precisely what the problem was, and what I needed to do, and decided to speak with Mong-dai at the Chinese New Year party I was hosting for the family the following week. The maids had been busy preparing food since the early hours of the morning, but I sent them out of the kitchen so that I could talk to my great-granddaughter alone. The kitchen’s the best place for women’s business I feel.
“Nothing,” she said when I asked her what the problem was. Her skin was white as a sheet, and so tight on her bones I was alarmed to see the shadow of the deaths-head in her countenance.
“You’re a very bad liar,” I said.
Her eyes swelled with tears.
“You’re a lesbian aren’t you?”
Her mouth gaped open like a fish and her face flushed red, unnerving in one so white a moment before.
“Don’t look so surprised. I may be over ninety but I’m not an idiot.”
“But how did you know?”
“I saw you kissing a girl behind a pillar in Vivo City. You certainly made my breakfast more interesting. A school friend is she?”
“Poh poh!” She fell into my embrace and shook with sobs, the poor child. The nosey maids put their heads around the kitchen door to see what was happening, but I shooed them off.
“Don’t tell my parents,” she pleaded.
“You’ll have to tell them sometime.”
“But they want me to marry. They keep going on about it. ‘When I’m married this…’ ‘When I have children that…’ I have plenty of friends who are boys, but I’ve never liked them in that way. I can’t bear to disappoint them.”
“Parents want all kinds of things for their children, but they can’t always have what they want. It’s your life, not theirs…I suggest we tell them now.”
The girl shook her head, terrified.
“I won’t make you, but it would be a good time. Get it out in the open. Better than the news spreading by whispers. I wouldn’t want to give that old gossip Batsum the satisfaction.”
Mong-dai nodded hesitantly, and I led her by the elbow, dazed, back out to the living room. I’ve been hosting a Chinese New Year party since 1950, and a large contingent of the family was there. I have five children, fourteen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, so it was quite a crowd. I banged my stick on the floor for silence. I like doing that.
“My great-granddaughter has something to say.” Her whole body was shaking. I felt sorry for her, but I also knew it was the best way.
“I’m…a…a…Lesbian.” She said it too quietly, and none of them heard. They started prattling again, and there were several cries of ‘what?’ I banged my stick on the floor again.
“I’m a Lesbian.” She repeated, slightly louder but still too quietly. Only Batsum heard, and the woman looked as if she’d won 4D.
“She says she’s a Lesbian!” I yelled. “Are you all deaf?”
The effect was amazing. The whole room turned into a crowd of gaping goldfish. Even children too young to know the meaning of the word gaped at the gaping of their parents. Annoyingly they were gaping not at Mong-dai, but at me, and I knew their impudent thoughts. They were wondering how anyone as ancient as I could possibly know the word ‘Lesbian’. I was like a Buddha in the clouds to them. Where did they think I’d spent all my life, in a jade palace on the moon? The Japanese occupation of the island hadn’t exactly been a Yum Cha outing, and I could have told them stories which would turn their blood to ice.
My granddaughter Ah-fa was the first to say something, but unfortunately it was an incoherent wail of denial. I love her to bits, but at that moment I felt like slapping her.
“How do you know you’re Lesbian?” Ah-fa’s husband, Mong-dai’s father asked. He’s a mobile phone manufacture, with little interest in anything else, and if you don’t think that’s a disability, try sitting next to him at dinner.
“She got a letter from the ministry,” I snapped. When you get past ninety, you really begin to lose your patience.
My third granddaughter Ah-Ling then started going on about the bible, saying that it condemns homosexuality, and we should too. She suggested that my great-granddaughter go for conversion therapy. The stupid woman should never have converted from Buddhism, and I told her a thing or two.
“The national library are pulping books about gay penguins and gay swans, just so this kind of thing doesn’t happen!” said auntie Batsum.
The husband of my fifth granddaughter then started going on about statistics, explaining that in a family of our size, the probability is that at least three people are gay. Everyone started looking at each other and wondering who the other two could be. They were like a bunch of stupid gaggling geese, and I banged my stick on the floor to silence them.
“I love my great-granddaughter,” I said. “She’s been wasting away this last year because she’s been terrified what we her family would say, and what we’d do when we found out she is a lesbian. I intend to support her, and I want you all to do the same. I know you well, and feel sure that you will be kind. If any of you decide not to support her, then that’s your decision, but don’t bother coming to my Chinese New Year party next year.” I gave those stupid women Ah-ling and Batsum a good glare at that point.
I was pleased to see my first daughter Ji-mui come over and give Mong-dai a hug. A few others did the same. I then ordered the maids to serve the food, and we all sat down for the Chinese New Year Banquet. As we ate, the conversation moved onto other subjects. Mong-dai’s father started going on about the latest mobile phone. The man doesn’t have a clue. His daughter comes out to him, and all he can do is talk about the latest Samsung Galaxy Arena. Then Batsum began boasting about her big shot heart surgeon son working in the US. He earns a million dollars a year, has a mansion in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a Mercedes, five beautiful children, and a glamorous and successful politician wife. I’ve never had the heart to ask her why such a hot shot son can’t be bothered to spend Chinese New Year with his own mother. My third granddaughter Ah-Ling then had a gripe about the price of prawns, someone else went on about some new company exporting air conditioners to Texas, and I got on my hobby horse about the rules of Mah-jong.
At the end of the feast the maids placed the Yu Sheng on the table. This is a salad served especially at Chinese New Year:
“Congratulations on your wealth! May all wishes be fulfilled!” we all shouted.
I added raw fish to the salad: “Abundance through the year!”
Pomelo was added to the fish: “Good luck and smooth sailing!”
Then pepper: “Attract wealth and treasures!”
I poured oil in large circles: “Make a 10,000 times profit on your investment! Many sources of wealth!”
Carrots were added: “Good luck is approaching!”
Shredded green radish: “Forever young!”
Shredded white radish: “Progress at a fast pace! Reaching a higher level with each step!”
Peanut crumbs were sprinkled: “May our houses be filled with gold and silver!”
Sesame seeds: “Prosperity for the business!”
Yu Sheng plum sauce was poured: “May life always be sweet!”
Golden flower crisps were scattered: “Floors of gold!”
We all stood, gathered around the plate and plunged our chopsticks into the pile of ingredients, grasping great clumps of the mixture and raising them high above the dish before letting go: the higher the grasp, the greater the good fortune which would befall us. My great-granddaughter retreated from the table, but I gently held her arm and brought her back to the plate. She put her chopsticks in and tentatively grabbed little pieces of the salad.
“More! Higher!” I said, and she grasped more of the mixture, raising it higher and higher above the dish. She was no longer shaking, and I was pleased to see an expression of determination behind the fear in her face. I looked to my granddaughter Ah-fa, her face now smeared with mascara-tears. She would be in denial for a while, but I could feel in my bones that it would be alright, and when your bones are as old as mine, they get pretty reliable.
Editor’s Note on Yu Sheng:
Yu Sheng is not the first time Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit.
The following work by Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit: