Taiping Bright and Clear
Mother asked the question I had been dreading all morning when she finally admitted that we were lost.
She started with a sigh: “Lost again. I just have such a terrible sense of direction. So, you still a lesbian?”
“Unfortunately, I am still seeing Meena,” I said, stressing words where appropriate. “I can’t just change who I am, you know, much as I’d love to.”
“Oh, really? You used to date boys, in secondary school. Now you date girls. So, if you can change one way, you can change the other way, right?”
“Maybe we should stop,” I said, not wanting to meander further down unfamiliar little mud roads. But my mother misunderstood. Her lips clamped, and her butt shifted on the driver’s seat. The car moved on. Pebbles sent flying by rubber wheels hit the underside of the old Proton Saga and clanked gratingly.
So, you still a lesbian?
Mother, tapping the steering wheel, told me to help her find our way. Annoyed that she had been predictable enough to ask what I’d dreaded her asking, I said: “If Dad were here, we wouldn’t be lost.”
“Well, we’re going to see my parents, not his,” she replied.
“He always drove before,” I shot back, and was immediately unsure of my point.
Outside the car was an army of orderly rubber trees, each ringed by neat diagonal wounds that bled dirty white, like the rubber in my pencil box when I first learned to write.
“You think those are the same trees we passed earlier?” Mother asked.
“I think we should ask that woman for directions.”
If Dad were here we wouldn’t be lost.
Mother looked at the advancing figures and shook her head. “She’s Malay.”
“So? Why should she know where a Chinese cemetery is lah?”
“If we were in our taman and this woman asked you where the nearest mosque is, wouldn’t you be able to answer her?”
Mother slowed the car. The woman paid no attention, but her goat looked at us briefly. I cranked down my window. Squeaky.
“Kak, can you tell us where the Chinese cemetery is?”
She looked up, her face impassive. She lifted a finger, twisted her body, and pointed. Then, wordlessly, she adjusted her tudung and prepared to leave.
“Nice goat,” I said.
“Goat? What?” her eyeballs pushed out. “Not mine lah. Why would I have a goat?”
We wound our way up hilly slopes and weaved through rows and rows of gravestones, some more erect than others. The sun scorched us. Mother carried the fruits, incense, and cold roast pork. I carried large bags of folded paper money, fingers massaging the lighter in my pocket.
We wound our way up hilly slopes and weaved through rows and rows of gravestones, some more erect than others.
Mother walked in front and got us lost among the tombstones. She sweated and swiveled her head about, trying to find my grandparents.
“Ow!” She stubbed her toe on someone else’s gravestone. A Mr. Szeto’s.
“Sorry,” she mumbled to the dirt ground. She turned around to look at me sadly. “You’re right. If your father were here, we wouldn’t be lost.”
Her concession made me feel so guilty I almost believed that she had said it to play victim. But her bowed back reminded me that I had been rude to her when she had called me almost every night during my last year at university. She had wanted to talk about the divorce and her menopause, but I’d had no patience for her then. I did not want to be reminded of being a woman.
Her concession made me feel so guilty I almost believed that she had said it to play victim.
I took a couple of quick steps and held her elbow. “I see them, over there.”
Like every year before this, I silently rememorized my grandparents’ names and swore never to forget them. Grandma’s name was much more vivid than grandpa’s; the paint had not had as much time to chip away.
We went through the motions, and it was hard to tell how upset I felt, traditions being the great neutralizer of emotions in my case. Around us the hill swayed and slid with the combined weight of all its graves. Mini pyres burned elsewhere, lit by other families. Each family followed its own customs: some ate fruits meant for the ghosts lingering about, while others warned against touching any food. Grass tried to grow everywhere and over and under everyone.
The swimming fire and smoke finally made my eyes water. Lifting my arm, I beckoned Mother to join me where I sat on the neighboring gravestone.
We went through the motions, and it was hard to tell how upset I felt, traditions being the great neutralizer of emotions in my case.
I told her about that day when I was all alone in our old house. Rain hammered on the zinc roof of our neighbor’s chicken coop, and the racket somehow made me conscious that I was bored. I started rifling through my father’s filing cabinet. You know, the one he keeps our tax stuff in—I looked at Mother. She shook her head, and my disdain rose again. How clueless she had been, about her own life.
There had been reams of mortgage documents, electricity bills, bank statements, train schedules such things. And underneath them all, wedged against a back corner, was a black plastic bag with handles. Inside I’d found about a dozen VCDs. Their covers showed me what my father desired sexually, and when I came across the schoolgirls in uniform I had to think about my blue pinafores. How could I have not?
I told my mother how I sat down in front of our TV and watched most of Dad’s collection. I told her that I’d found myself turned on, and when I got up to go to the bathroom I’d looked down to see moist patches.
It was a horrible story. I didn’t deliver the punch line, but it was there, evident and blatantly false: I was lesbian because of Dad. I watched Mother’s face. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to see. Only later in life would I learn to regard my preference of anger over sadness as problematic. Right then, surrounded by graves, all I wanted was for my mother to hate my father.
I didn’t deliver the punch line, but it was there, evident and blatantly false.
Mother got up and went back to the grave we were visiting. She closed her eyes and started whispering to her parents, and suddenly I was terrified. What would I do when it was my turn? I was ignorant of the ceremonial steps to be performed in cemeteries.
On our way back, we got lost again. For the fourth or fifth time we passed the rows of rubber trees, more orderly than graves and human lives. I didn’t stop Mother when she started telling me all about Taiping, as if I were a tourist. How it almost became the capital of Malaysia, before the honor went to another little town at the cross-streams of two dirty rivers. How Taiping had fallen from glory, now hosting the population size of a city but possessing the infrastructure of a small town. How that confused its dwellers, made them unsure of how to gossip, how to be friendly, what kind of food to like, whether to be full of hope or devoid of it.
A car pulled up next to us, and its driver asked if we knew how to get to the clock tower, “the oldest one in the country.” Mother, suddenly cheerful, said: “You’re going the wrong way. Gostan, gostan!”