‘Ah BuKien wants to discuss Aghere for her son,’ my mother announced to my father over breakfast one morning. They spoke as if I wasn’t there, but they expected me to eavesdrop. This woman, a family friend of my parents, had been intent on seeing me marry her son ever since she had lain eyes on me as a shapeless pre-pubescent in my mother’s hand-me-downs. My father laughed. Ha, the absurdity of it. He thought I was too good for Ah BuKien’s son. ‘That crazy antiquated relic thinks she’s still living in Confucian times,’ my father sneered. ‘She doesn’t realise that in this modern era parents don’t arrange their children’s hearts for them.’
Oh, I remembered the woman well. Once we went to her double-storey house in the centre of Footscray—the house she built from selling rice noodles. Every time my parents drove past that colossal mansion sitting smug between the dilapidated Victorian dwellings, they would point out the window and say, ‘Look, there’s BuKien’s rice-noodle house.’ The day my parents decided to visit, I knew that it wasn’t because they were particularly fond of seeing her. They only wanted to see her house. Ah BuKien had no problem with that arrangement—it was well established that Asian acquaintances only ever visited each other to see their new homes anyway, just as it was an established rule that Asian youth never called their parents over the telephone just to chat. Any departure from these tacit protocols would arouse deep suspicions.
Ah BuKien was more than happy to give us her sedulously self-critical tour. ‘See this,’ she said, pointing a finger at a breathtakingly beautiful Chinese wooden table. ‘My husband insisted that we buy it. I said to him, “Oh you stupid man with your tragic countryside tastes, this looks like a godforsaken coffin I wouldn’t even put our ancestral relics’ toenail clippings in!” But the peasant insisted that we buy it and do you know how much it cost? Do you? Have a guess. Guess.’
And so the rest of her house tour went on this way, with Ah BuKien lamenting the cost of every item her husband had insisted they purchase but first making us guess the price. My parents made sure their ‘guesses’ were sufficiently low enough but not too low. After Ah BuKien hurled out the real price, we all feigned courteous cardiac arrest and my mother would exclaim, ‘Wah!’. ‘Wah indeed!’ cried Ah BuKien.
Later, in the car driving home, my mother chattered endlessly about Ah BuKien’s abysmal taste and how shamelessly she showed everything off. ‘And what about that carved coffin-table?’ my father would exclaim. ‘Her husband really is such a peasant.’
‘I thought it was quite beautiful,’ I said all of a sudden.
‘You just watch it,’ my mother warned me, ‘you’re beginning to acquire peasant tastes too’. My parents abhorred anything ‘oriental’, anything that reminded them that we would grow up yellow and there was nothing they could do to save us.
I had never met Ah BuKien’s boy. The day we visited her house, he was away being tutored. He had tutors for every subject. Ah BuKien showed off her son in the same way she showed off her assets. ‘Woe, the school system here is not that good,’ she told my mother one day.
‘But sister,’ my mother said (it was obligatory for my mother to call the older woman sister), ‘I thought you sent your son to a private school.’
‘I did.’ But the boy didn’t make it into medicine. She was incensed that she couldn’t even pay his way into the course. ‘The boy is a retard!’
Indeed, I wanted to add, and this is the autistic boy you expect me to marry? I didn’t even know his name. I only knew him as ‘Ah BuKien’s son’. Her rice-noodle boy—quivery, white and malleable, made exactly like her pasta. I was resolute in hating him. Even if he were Adonis incarnate I would feel the same contempt towards him.
His sporting trophies were all lined up behind glass, in that heavy house of his. And his report card was mediocre in everything except physical education. That too was displayed behind the cabinet. I hated him even more—this was the type of boy who never gave me a second glance in high school, with my braces and ankle-length kilt. Except when they needed work from me. I suspected that he probably hated me too. That is, if he knew of his mother’s intention. With all the pressure he was under, I wouldn’t be surprised if her precious son was one of those boys who smoked pot behind the gymnasium in his blue blazer, going through life tormented by Oriental Oedipal agonies.
When we were about to leave her house, Ah BuKien said to my parents, ‘It is a pity you couldn’t meet my son today.’ Then she squeezed my cheeks until I could feel blood vessels erupting. The Cambodian Chinese liked their young girls to have cheeks as red as monkeys’ bottoms. Already, she was endeavouring to mould me. Soon she even progressed to pinching me while I was at work.
At Footscray Retravision, there was a propensity for the Mainland Chinese to refuse to buy items made in China. Whenever they said haughtily, ‘o, zhongguo zuo de wo bu yao’—I don’t want anything made in China—I couldn’t help myself. I would ask with salesgirl innocence, ‘But sir, aren’t you made in China?’ Of course, I always had to feign that little giggle that sounded like two brightly coloured balloons rubbing rapidly up against each other. Unlike my younger sisters, who grew up with tastefully bland, tailor-made white and navy dresses, I spent my childhood with a grandmother who packaged me into padded Maosuits and made me sufficiently aware that I had to defend myself against all the other blandly dressed banana-children—children who were yellow on the outside but believed they could be completely white inside. My grandmother warned me that those children grew up to become sour, crumple-faced lemons. I believed her. That type manifested itself where I worked.
One day, I was explaining the functions of a Walkman to a customer when I felt someone twist the bare flesh of my upper arm. It hurt like hell. I turned around and there was that face—fierce eyes tattooed with permanent black liner, lashes sharpened with mascara. Every time she blinked, her eyes looked like two stygian insects in their death throes. ‘Aghere!’ she said in a too-loud voice, ‘are you working here for the holidays?’
No, I’m just loitering about trying to pinch something for my dope addiction. I’m intending to sell some to your tormented boy too. My pimp will be here any moment now.
‘Yes, aunty,’ I replied, ‘can I help you with anything?’ I looked at her and knew she was one of those crude Asian mothers who tenaciously picked their noses in public—her nostrils were cavernous. I wondered what product she was enquiring about. Whatever question she was going to ask, I would direct her to another sales assistant. My Walkman customer was getting impatient. I looked at Ah BuKien expectantly.
‘What was your year twelve result?’ she asked me.
I then realised that the product she was after was me. She was assessing my desirability for her son—it was a sick kind of transferred lasciviousness. Returning to my customer, I feigned indifference to her scrutiny, but secretly I relished the thought that if she was searching for my child-bearing hips she wouldn’t find any.
Back at home, I told my parents with indignation about The Pinch. ‘She’s just fond of you!’ they laughed. Hell, if that was her way of showing affection, I wondered what she would do on my wedding night if she had her way. Probably hand her son a whip. She would make sure everyone attended her son’s lavish banquet. I would be dressed in the same style as the Footscray wedding cake, crammed into a dress with too many frills, too much embroidery. No tasteful marzipan icing for Ah BuKien. No, I would be artificial cream fashioned into inedible roses. I would at least match their house.
And of course, true to established custom, I would have to move into Ah BuKien’s household. Ideal daughters-in-law were meant to suffer stoically, but I refused to be the moribund butterfly, fluttering about helplessly, smashing Ming vases to sever some veins. I would not kowtow. My mother suffered for a decade under the rule of my grandmother, and she would not let me forget it. ‘I hope that when you get married, you get a mother-in-law like the one I had!’ she would yell whenever she wanted to throw the killer-curse on me.
I suspected that my mother was colluding with Ah BuKien. Both of them were plotting my descent into docility. There were generations of stupid women conspiring against my liberty, and there was no escape. When I was only a few months old, my mother cut off my eyelashes, believing they would grow back thicker and longer. She must have done it while I was asleep with a pair of nail scissors. As a baby, there was already a fault with me.
My mother was forever telling me to be careful. ‘Careful’ translated literally in Chinese means to have a ‘small heart’. I refused to have a small heart. ‘Why do so many boys call you?’ my mother would ask after some boy had telephoned me. ‘You’re growing to be like Melanie.’ My cousin Melanie was the family slut. There had to be one, and she was the first to develop large breasts, so she got stuck with the role.
By comparison I was still hermaphrodite-shaped. Nonetheless, Ah BuKien wanted me to go on a holiday with her son. ‘Absolutely not!’ retorted my father when my mother told him with relish, ‘You know what she’s after.’ My father understood what it was like to have parents arrange things for their children. In Cambodia, my grandparents arranged a marriage for him with a girl who had a ‘good’ family background. He didn’t love her and had no intention of marrying her. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for her. I felt sorry for the poor girl. Her entire family had died under the Khmer Rouge. After the Pol Pot years, she followed my father all the way to Vietnam. ‘Trailed behind him’ was the way my mother put it, with a complacent scowl. ‘What a disgraceful thing to do, following a young man around like a dog, when you were unwanted. Did she have no shame?’
Shame could be worse than death in my family, as I discovered. ‘In Vietnam, when I was courting your mother,’ my father told me one night in the car, ‘I met your mother’s eldest sister. And there was something very wrong with her. She could not talk to anybody. And everybody ignored her—none of her sisters would even acknowledge her. She didn’t smile at all. She looked blank. I visited your mother often—and your auntie, once attractive and bright, was always that way afterwards. Blank. She was only young.’
I knew this was going to be a didactic story. ‘What was wrong with her?’
‘She fell in love with a man your grandmother didn’t approve of. His family had a bad reputation.’
‘So what happened?’ I was intrigued. I didn’t know much about my eldest auntie before, the only sister whose number my mother didn’t keep in her phone book.
‘Your grandmother beat her one night. And that’s what made her go crazy.’
I wondered what my grandfather did while this was happening to his eldest daughter. I couldn’t understand how any mother could beat her own child into lifelong depression just for falling in love with the wrong boy.
‘She slept with him,’ my father told me.
I didn’t see my eldest auntie much, but ever since I could remember, the family had always referred to her as the ‘crazy sister’. In all the years I had known her, I didn’t think she was mad—but she was the most dejected person I had ever met. That beating three decades before had drained her of life. In photographs, she never smiled. Her face looked as if it were made of limp rubber. At family get-togethers, she was ignored. I remember reading the phrase ‘life unworthy of life’ somewhere. That was how my auntie was treated. There was no compassion for her—not even from her own family. I imagined that my grandmother would have told my auntie so many times in her youth to be careful. Not in the concerned ‘don’t get hurt’ sense, but in the ‘don’t you dare bring shame on the family’ sense.
‘Be careful?’ I wanted to retort. ‘Mother, you risked gouging out my eyeballs when I was a baby just so I could blink at boys! And now you’re telling me that if I don’t be careful I am going to turn out a slut?’ The Cambodians have a saying: ‘A girl is like white cotton wool—once dirtied, it can never be clean again. A boy is like a gem—the more you polish it, the brighter it shines.’
Their plan was already working. Whenever I was alone with a boy I could not stop the guilty look over the shoulder. It became a reflex. I was already turning into the timid ingenue devoid of all personality that Asian women considered the consummate ideal. My head-swivelling compulsion unsettled most boys. ‘What’s the matter, Alice?’ What could I tell them? ‘Nothing, Benjamin, just checking to see if my parents are charging up from behind to attack you with a cleaver’ or ‘Don’t worry, Andrew, I usually convulse from the neck up when I am in love.’
My family expected me to keep my eyes tightly shut until I was filed down to fine femininity. Anything I did of my own volition would shake up seven generations of dead ancestors and irrevocably damage the souls of the following seven. I couldn’t care less about these stupid ancestors who were so resolute in crushing me. I dreamt of doing something that would make them turn in their graves and squish a decomposing eyeball.
This miscegenating rebel was doomed anyway. I was besotted with Edmund Johnson in my literature class. Tall and gangly Edmund: a Daniel Day-Lewis in paler hues. He had a liking for pure Chinese girls, not ones with origins from disease-ridden Third World countries who couldn’t even speak Mandarin. Yet he must have seen something ‘exotic’ in me. He probably ‘liked’ me in the way tourists were fascinated by the idiosyncratic charm of impoverished Asian villages. They were only there on holiday. He was a stupid tourist of the heart, I thought, he could be duped into liking anything ‘foreign’.
I didn’t realise until it was too late that he really did like me. By then I was crushed. Feeling too ugly, ungainly and undesirable for any boy, and devoid of all personality, I was just about ready to give up. Ah BuKien persisted with her insidious bartering. My parents ignored her entirely.
Every time we drove past that big white house in Footscray, I looked the other way and thought about Edmund. He had won a scholarship overseas for a year. He would literally be getting on a plane above me and going far far away to a place where he could date purebred Mandarin girls with flaccid names like Peach Blossom and Lily Bloom to his heart’s content.
I spent my summer holidays working at Retravision. One day there came a second pinch.
‘Oh auntie,’ I said dully, still deep in my depressive torpor, ‘what would you like?’ Suddenly, my mother, who had also come to visit me at work, spotted Ah BuKien. They went to greet each other. I waited, pretending to dust electrical appliances so I could edge nearer to listen in on their conversation.
What does she have to say? I wondered. That her husband bought her son and me a king-sized coffin of a bed? That she’s paid for her son to study law or business?
‘Oh, how are you, sister,’ my mother asked. ‘How is your husband? How is your house? How are your children? How are their studies going?’
Ah BuKien seemed to have lost her verbal virility for once. She didn’t want to answer. Finally she sighed, ‘My son doesn’t go to school any more.’ I was stunned. In the ensuing silence, I pretended I was dusting a toaster.
‘So what is he doing now?’ my mother asked.
‘Working at the factory.’
‘What! You mean your rice noodle factory?’
There was another silence. Then my mother responded quickly, ‘Oh, it’s good that he is already able to help you earn money! My daughter is a great woe to us, she has five years of law to go!’
‘Well,’ Ah BuKien finally said, ‘she may not be earning you money now, but wait until she graduates!’
‘Ah BuKien and I were just talking,’ I heard my mother say to my father a little later. ‘Her boy is already helping her earn money at the factory.’
‘Oh, what a useful young man he is turning out to be!’ smiled my father.
I was incredulous at how skilled my parents were at this pretence. I knew they saw that there was no redemption for the boy. Suddenly, I felt very sorry for him. His mother had truly moulded him into the Consummate Rice Noodle Boy. Yet she had firmly built him up to believe that the quiet, dark-eyed salesgirl at Retravision was his birthright, while my mother was bent on convincing me that, by disposition, girls were quivering martyrs. The deep sad irony of this finally sunk in. If I believed that I was so ungainly and undesirable, there would be no need for me to be forever careful. I could go out at three o’clock in the morning and loiter around that suburb with the name that sounded like a coarse podiatric disease and nothing would happen to me. Ever. No news headline would read, ‘Young seventeen-year-old rebel violated and killed in Footscray.’ I would be free.