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We Two Alone

From “The Night of Broken Glass”
A finalist for the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, whose jury included Booker Prize winner Marlon James
Published in Let’s Tell This Story Properly: An Anthology of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize
Nominated by the New Quarterly for a 2016 National Magazine Award
I met my mother for the first time when I was six. I say “mother” because that was what I was expected to call her, and did, though in fact she was my stepmother. My real mother died of tuberculosis when I was five. A year later my father came home with a new wife. He had been studying international law in Chicago despite already having a Ph.D. in political economics from the University of Munich. While he was gone I received a series of brightly coloured linen postcards of the World’s Fair: the Hall of Science, the Avenue of Flags, the iron lattice towers of the Sky Ride. The theme of the fair was A Century of Progress. That’s where my father met Grace.
It was a windless, thick-aired summer day in Changsha when a motorcar saddled with steamer trucks pulled up in front of our house and a woman in a white blouse, wide-legged trousers, and large round sunglasses climbed out. She was beautiful, which made me sad for my mother and scornful of my father, and she looked too fair to be Chinese. As it turned out, she was half Chinese, born of a Chinese father and a German-American mother. That, along with her clothes and her beauty, made her unlike any woman I had ever seen. My father had secured a large two-storey house on the outskirts of town and staffed it with half a dozen servants, all in an effort to make his new wife comfortable, but as soon as they arrived he was stricken by all he had not foreseen. The house had no running water, and despite the need Grace refused to use the privy, which had no seat and emitted at that time of year an audible drone. After pleading with Grace in hushed tones, my father ordered Old Chao into town for a portable commode, a trip of at least three hours. For the rest of the afternoon my new mother paced the courtyard, smoking one Lucky after another, which made her seem feral and caged.
[. . .]
Needless to say, Grace was unhappy in China. Though my father had no particular desire to leave, he began to eye the foreign service. When the Governor for whom he worked recommended the post of First Secretary in the Chinese legation in Austria, my father accepted for Grace’s sake. We arrived in Vienna in June of my tenth year, after a three-week voyage on the Conte Verde through Saigon, Singapore, Madras, Bombay, Aden, and Port Said, and at first everything did seem better. The city was glorious with summer, and everywhere open air orchestras paid homage to the old masters, which made our lives seem set to music. Many nights my parents put on tails and gown and went to balls and receptions, living at last the life for which they were meant.
But it wasn’t long before Grace again felt stranded. She could no more distinguish der, die, and das than she could first and second tones. Then, in the spring, German troops goose-stepped through the Ringstrasse, just blocks away from our townhouse. The crowds that greeted them were lusty, adoring, as was I, my schoolboy fantasies of soldiers and guns come to life. My father did not raise his arm but he didn’t stop me from raising mine. That night, in a scene that would soon become commonplace, hoodlums took to the streets, smashing the windows of certain homes and shops. Thereafter, walking to and from school, I passed storefronts marked Jude and Nicht arisches Geschaeft and blocked by baby-faced men in jackboots and flared helmets. As a visible foreigner and part of the diplomatic corps, my father felt undeterred and often went into these stores despite the piercing glares — and once, an arm held stiffly against his chest. For my mother, annexation was yet another rung of descent in a private tragedy. She chided my father for bringing her to a Nazi-occupied country. His answer: Better the Germans than the Japanese.
At the end of October, thousands of Polish-born Jews were rounded up and sent back to Poland. When a seventeen-year-old boy learned that his family was among those languishing at the border, unwanted by either side, he walked into the German Embassy in Paris and pumped five bullets into the viscera of a minor German diplomat. Two days later, Ernst vom Rath died of his wounds. The seething of the Germans, checked so long as their countryman clung to life, would now be unleashed. This was what my father knew when he came home that afternoon.

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Home Sickness

Grandpa was only halfway through his college degree in Japan when Japan's fifty years of colonization of Taiwan ended in 1945. Taiwan was "gloriously restored" to the Chinese motherland. He went back to Taiwan, and worked hand-to-mouth for a while, then sold a few fields and took out a mortgage to buy a three-building compound with a covered walkway in front and an ornamental arched façade. He converted it into an inn. At the time, the town was a supply station for a mine. It was prosperous for a time, and a lot of travelers came and went. There was a need for it.Grandpa said this had been his dream as a student in Japan. He'd been a stranger in a foreign country, and knew what it was like to feel homesick. He wanted to open an inn where travelers could make themselves at home.In fulfilling his dream, Grandfather had grasped the tail end of the town's prosperity. The first ten years, business got worse and worse. When he'd finally made back his investment, the mine closed. The town economy was now mostly based on supplying produce to the city, and there were fewer and fewer people passing through.The first, and oldest, phone in the inn was installed when business was at a low. You could call in or out, but few did.Several years later a branch provincial highway went through, finally lifting the torpor that fell upon the town with the closure of the mine. And the business had a second spring.Grandfather's joy was in in his brow. He followed the trend and changed the old phone for this second one with a rotary dial. It was his baby. In those days, Grandpa was one of the few with the means to invest in home electronics, with a choice of style and colour. The lock for the phone hung at his waist until, in his extreme old age, he gave it over to you for safekeeping.The phone was a way of showing off, you know, something the neighbours fought to see. At first, he let them dial for free, as there weren't many people making calls. And they maintained decorum. They touched it and smiled, sharing in the excitement.Later, he started charging a fee, as people were taking advantage. Not all of them, though. There was this one farm widow who would come in to call her son, who had gone to work in the city after graduating from junior high. Maybe she didn't want to let her feelings show with Grandpa standing there, so she always kept it short. "Anything wrong? Good. Bye." She was an old neighbour who didn't take all day, so he didn't charge her. He even encouraged her to talk a bit more, but she always politely refused, said thanks.Her son went to work on a sand dredger, and when he was back on shore, he'd call Grandpa to ask after his mom. Grandpa'd tell your father, who was her son's classmate, to ride his bike to the field and ride her back. Maybe because this time the person on the other end was paying, they talked a bit longer. But she mostly responded to her son's questions, saying little herself. Later on, the sand dredger sank into the sea near Okinawa, and no survivors were found, like the stuck cover on the proverbial pot. The mother went crazy, ran to the inn, lit incense, knelt in front of the phone, and jerked the incense up and down, paying her respects, over and over.All this happened before you were born. Grandpa took you to see the field where the old lady worked, but it had gone fallow. Who knows where she was buried? All you can do is play a onsoling scene in your imagination: her face just lights up when your father arrives on his bicycle by the side of the field to tell her her son's on the phone. "Hop on, I'll give ya a lift!" Perhaps that was what she was what she wanted most of all, to see someone who reminded her of her son?

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Red Oblivion


The last time I saw my father, he seemed all right — really, he did. He was his old self: a tiny, quail-like man with the gleaming eyes of a guy half his age. We were headed to the bank, the sky white and misty, the tropical air touched by a slight chill that people on this side of the world consider freezing; Ba was walking even faster than usual. The sole of his shoe came loose and slapped against the sidewalk like an old flip-flop, while he just continued on, navigating his way through the crowd of pinstripes. “Ba, let’s get you some new shoes.” I tried to pull him into Marks & Spencer, but he shucked off my hand with a fidgety shake of the shoulder.

I followed him beneath the billboards of enigmatically shaped handbags, past the shops on Queen’s Road, a sea of diamonds and metallic objects glinting and floating by on the edge of our vision. A watery reflection came into focus and I barely had time to recognize myself before the crowd jostled me forward. The side- walk seemed to be shuddering, everyone elbowing past, barking into phones. But my wily father had no trouble weaving his way through it all as I struggled to catch up.

After cutting across Grand Millennium Plaza — space opening up enough to breathe, around the ornate fountain — we made our way along Des Voeux into Sheung Wan. Although the neighbourhood had gentrified in patches, it still had the old money exchanges and remittance shops with faded red signs and tarnished gold currency symbols. Dry goods stores here and there, big bins of dehydrated mushrooms, scallops, and shark fins before the open windows. “Where are you going, Ba?” Grabbing his arm, I gestured at a storefront with rows of bright runners and plastic sandals awash in fluorescent light.

Ignoring me, he kept right on walking. We wended our way into the narrow side streets, past the herbal medicine shops.

Once when I was a kid and had a bad cough that wouldn’t go away, even after antibiotics, Ba had taken me to one of these places. We sat at the time-worn redwood counter, the walls decorated with bright paper fans and posters of ox bones and folk legends. After taking my pulse, an old man, who looked like a gravedigger, served me a cup of tea the colour of sewer water and not much better tasting. But my cough had cleared up.

“C’mon, Ba, let’s just get you some shoes. I don’t have all day here.”

His hand slipped into his pocket, fingering the wad of cash always there. Not because he was on the verge of buying anything, not because he was afraid of being pickpocketed. Ba has simply always liked the tactility of money. It’s like satin to his fingertips.

We weren’t far from his old office, so he ought to have known the area well, yet he seemed puzzled, disoriented.

“It’s right around here — I know it is. ”

Probably, the store was long gone. It was a different, older city he was always seeking, remembering.

Finally, we ended up at Wing On department store, where I encouraged him to try on a pair of black Rockports, but they were too expensive, in his view. He picked up a pair of electric-blue sneakers with three gold stripes along each side, similar to the ones my high school boyfriend used to wear, twenty years back.

They were on sale — hallelujah — this being the real reason they’d caught Ba’s eye. And they were comfortable, he claimed. Not that he’s ever put much stock in comfort. His own or others’.

I remember thinking that at least in sneakers, he’d be unlikely to slip.

Or maybe it’s just easier for me to remember things that way. Me, the sweet, caring daughter, patiently cajoling the old guy, impossible as ever, yet strangely endearing in his stubbornness. Electric-blue sneakers and all.

In reality, on that day, I probably saw him as nothing close to endearing. The self-entitled frugality, the insistence on his way or the highway, the past he’s always seeking to resurrect and wear like a badge of honour — all these things would have driven me crazy, his small, inescapable presence casting shadows over my mood.

But in seeing us in a soft, forgiving light, in telling myself these tales that make us seem more like a normal family, I’m doing what my sister’s long accused me of doing. I’m like a child seeking enchantment in repeated stories that take on the weight of truth only through an act of imagination.

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