The Family Novel

By

My mother was still being breastfed when her father died. He was a refugee of sorts from mainland China, drunk, when he fell off a streetcar in Hong Kong.

*

My mother’s mother was left without a male heir. When her two daughters grew up, they would be absorbed into their husbands’ households. To gain the son she needed in her old age, my maternal grandmother went to the countryside and paid a pregnant woman for her unborn child. If this woman gave birth to a girl, she would refund the money.

*

I’m afraid I’m getting the story of my grandfather’s death wrong. Did he die in Guangzhou, where my mother was born, or in Hong Kong, where he’s buried? My mother told me the story once, in Cantonese. My father told me this story again, in English. My Cantonese is terrible, but now my father is dead. My mother’s English is terrible, but she’s alive. If I ask her about this, she will wonder why I’m asking.

*

My mother’s father was a Chinese version of a remittance man. His father, my great-grandfather, came to Canada to work on the railroad. His wage was a fraction of the white laborers’ and he was forced to pay the head tax, an entry fee for Chinamen only. (I assume he worked on the railroad because that’s why the Chinese came. My mother insists he worked only in the hotel business. He definitely paid the head tax.) He still became rich. Wealthy enough to support a son who never worked a day in his life. A dream come true, of sorts.

*

The closest I came to emigrating was grad school in New York. I studied fiction, but really I wanted to tell a story of myself as a sophisticate: someone with a past which promised a more auspicious future than his grubby present might indicate.

*

A boy was born and claimed as my grandmother’s natural child. To maintain that fiction, my mother’s birthdate was moved back a year. That would be the first time she gained a year.

*

Where do you get your ideas? My first visit to New York came as a child. We stayed with a great-uncle who lived in Chinatown. I have a dim memory of visiting the Museum of Natural History. I saw him again, fifteen years later, when my parents arrived for my graduation. “Your great-uncle was adopted into my mother’s family,” my mother told me. “A male heir was needed.”

It’s only occurred to me now, while writing, that it mirrors the story of my uncle.

*

My mother says she lied about her age a second time when she came to Canada. Her brother had moved to Canada earlier. He sponsored her older sister, who changed her mind about emigrating. My mother took her place. As in Chinese tradition, she had the same first name as her sister (only their middle names differ). Because of the disarray in record-keeping in China’s post-war era, she easily convinced a Hong Kong official to create a document with her sister’s birth year.

*

How old is my mother then? Her passport says she was born in 1948. She claims it was actually 1950.

*

Taking over an identity was not uncommon in China, or in my family. Birth records were shoddily maintained around the Second World War. On my father’s side, my grandfather assumed the identity of his dead brother in order to join the civil service in Guangdong.

*

In Hong Kong after the war, my grandfather’s stolen advantage was lost in the British colonial system. He could get nowhere in Hong Kong’s bureaucracy because he couldn’t speak English. He worked odd jobs. He sold shoes. He had no money.

*

My paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, was a philanderer. His affairs were barely concealed. He would take his children on stops to visit these “aunties” and then disappear into another room as his children waited. In him, I see a Wong Kar-wai adaptation of a Milan Kundera novel about a man who expresses his agency through adultery, lying to others to enact his truest self.

*

My great-grandfather, the father of the remittance man, became wealthy in part because of his land. He purchased a hotel that had been confiscated from a Japanese-Canadian during the internment. My mother remembers him visiting Hong Kong when she was a child. He promised her a share of his wealth. But her aunt claimed to know nothing of this agreement and took the entirety for herself when he died.

*

On Tomb Sweeping Day, we visit my father at Vancouver’s oldest cemetery. Afterward, we drive to the far end of the cemetery in the section once reserved for dead Chinese and Japanese, not so far from the World War I casualties, and pay respects to my great-grandfather. We normally find flowers at the site from the side of the family I’ve never met.

*

Before my father died, he had been hospitalized in the fall of 2008. In that private room, I saw him cry for the first time as he spoke about his impoverished childhood. Moments later, the subject changed to the financial crisis of that time. “Do you know who’s to blame?” he told me. “The Jews.” My father had never uttered an anti-Semitic word in my presence before. “You put a smart Chinese with a dollar in a room with a smart Jew, and the Jew will always leave that room with the dollar.”

*

How do I unyoke a moment that felt so singularly true with one so uncharacteristically distasteful?

*

My parents and I moved to Canada in 1977. For two weeks, we stayed with the uncle who my grandmother adopted from the village. In the years following our stay, my uncle fell out with his mother and sister, and I have not seen him since I was a child. It’s my mother who visits my grandmother in the nursing home.

*

When the woman whom I will marry, her son, and I moved in together, we found the perfect house two houses away from my first Vancouver home, my uncle’s old house. We charmed the landlady with this story, and that was how my own family started.

*

At lunch, a Chinese-Canadian friend tells the table that she can eat more than her slender form might suggest. I joke that it’s genetic memory. “We come from a famine culture,” she says in agreement. She adds that her brother was the person who would eat what was left on the table to save the family from packing leftovers. “We called him the Trash Can,” she said. Within my family, that’s my nickname, too. And her brother’s actual first name is the same as mine.

*

A favorite meal, countless times, was macaroni in broth with peas and shredded ham in the style of the Hong Kong diner. Western food for Chinese people. But once, when family friends moved to Canada, my brother and I were served spaghetti with ground beef and reheated sauce from a jar, while everyone else ate Chinese food. The spaghetti tasted like a badly overdubbed movie. A decade later, I tutored a Korean student whose mother would make me a plate of spaghetti. Because it was doused in Kraft Parmesan, I find it hard to get down. Growing up in an Asian household, we largely avoided cheese and its strong smell was still off-putting. To them, I was white as a polar bear. Actually, I’m white as rice.

*

My father only knew his birthday on the lunar calendar. It came in late December or early January. When he got his own documentation, he couldn’t be bothered to find his birth date on the Western calendar. As his birthdate, he picked May 10, 1945. With his typical insouciance, he claimed it was an old girlfriend’s birthday. Later on, perhaps with the help of the Internet, he learned that he was born on December 29, 1944.

*

In my father’s obituary, I used the May date so that the newspaper could verify his death with the hospital. On his name plate in the cemetery, we went with the December birthdate.

*

My father’s death was hidden from both his mother, whose passing trailed his by a year, and my mother’s mother. The last time I saw my maternal grandmother, she called me by my father’s Chinese name.

*

A high school friend’s father died after a cycling accident, a seventy-seven-year-old man whom the surgeon confused for someone in his fifties. My friend has taken on his father’s duty of calling his father’s mother every night. His grandmother cannot hold the news of his father’s death in his mind. When my friend calls, she assumes him to be his dad. Sometimes the conversation will go smoothly and quickly. At other times, the grandmother will break into Romanian, her native tongue, which my friend never learned. One night, my friend ended a conversation by telling her grandmother that he loved her. The old woman sounded noticeably affected on the phone. It might have been the first time she’d ever heard her son say those words.

*

“Of the so-called average man,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “one thing is fortunately certain: namely, that the average man himself is but a piece of fiction, a tissue of statistics.” But what about the average family? A polyphonous composition, its own false data issuing from each of its constituents, of a piece even in its own discordance.

*

My sixteen-month-old daughter looks enough like me not to arouse suspicion. Alone with her mother, or with her half-brother, the baby elicits statements upended like questions. “But she’s not white?” an Asian woman said to my wife, who is of Italian-American descent.

*

They fish around for my daughter’s ethnic provenance. Visiting her mother in Texas, my wife met a woman at church. Upon seeing my daughter, this acquaintance mentioned her friend who had adopted a baby from China. The unspoken question filled the ensuing silence before my wife offered her explanation. It would be impolite to refuse the bait.

*

My wife has kept her ex-husband’s surname to match my stepson. I’m secretly relieved she doesn’t take my Chinese surname, and all the double-taking that would follow it. The only time this choice has bothered me was when my daughter was born and she was listed under her mother’s first husband’s name in the hospital.

*

What I would like my daughter to know of my father, whom she never met, are scraps of memory. The times he would speak to me in bed, lying beside me. One time when I was seven or eight, when family friends were visiting, and I subdued my fears long enough to walk across a suspension bridge. I was terrified. That night, my dad lay down with me to tell me how proud he felt of me, how I was growing up. On other nights, I remember how scratchy his cheek felt when I kissed him good night before I went to sleep in my own room.

*

Every night, I make sure my daughter feels the whiskers on my face against her cheek. What you cannot put into words cannot become a lie.

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Rumpus original art by Max Winter.


Kevin Chong is the author of six books, including the new novel The Plague, a contemporary retelling of Albert Camus’s classic 1974 novel. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and kids. More from this author →