The Spring Festival ends abruptly. Firecrackers catch fire and briefly turn to spirals of sand and torn scraps of papers on the ground before disappearing forever. Wine, liquor and spirits spill out of clinking bottles held by my father’s remote relatives and close friends. Mahjong pieces are pushed into new piles, and rearranged for yet another round though it’s late, and dark and everyone is a bit too drunk. The rooms are buried in ashes and clouds of smoke to which all of my father’s friends contribute with tiny puffs of what is cigarette nubs nipped between their fingertips.
I am a child, a college student, and worse even, I am a girl. No cigarette is offered to me. So I stand in the corner, disguised in the same floating toxins that others use to share their manhood, trying to be the daughter my father has always wanted me to be, the daughter that wants to be like him and keeps everyone’s cups filled with trunky green tea and lights everyone’s Chungwa cigarettes.
But I know I am not, and I do not.
It’s a few days before the start of the new assignments-riddled semester. I am packing my bag for school while calculating how far the money given to me by my older relatives might go into the relatively obscure US-Chinese venture university I attend in the southeast of China. I flicked through the thin thickness of the brand-new paper currency and coiled them into a small bundle before hiding it at the bottom of my knapsack. My mother warns me of how agile the thieves can be if they should sense the prize, and snatch it away from the front pocket of my pants. Its smell lingers on my fingers and makes me feel bad thinking of the next New Year, when I will finally become an adult according to my relatives’ collective definition, and will thus stop receiving money which from them, in retrospect, I don’t think I ever really deserved it—but then, that’s not why they gave me the money either—they might have to reciprocate the money my parents gave to their kids. I can hear the TV in my father’s bedroom, the voice of an overly excited news anchor telling some tired jokes. His piercing voice, the delayed sound effect and his compulsive repetitions of his own words seem to me to be the real joke. I didn’t laugh a heartfelt laugh, though, it’s not the kind of joke that tickles. It does, however, suddenly, strike me as odd. How quiet the yelling of a single man can be as it fills the hallway of my childhood home, in the midst of one of China’s largest national festivals.
But I don’t muse about this for long, because soon, I hear my father calling from his bedroom so my mother and I might all come to watch what may be the most Chinese of Chinese sports events: the table tennis finals. My mother, chooses, instead, to continue playing the same repetitive video game she has been playing for years, no updates, no upgrade, no teammates to discuss collaborative strategies—Spider solitaire with a green backdrop installed automatically on all Windows computers. My mother chooses as most people would, to not watch the rehearsed and expected national victory on a sport China has dominated without any real challenge, for years. I don’t have a choice though. I am my father’s one and only child, and though he often surreptitiously and even openly complains about how I am not what he would have liked, he never mentions my miscarried brother. Or, rather, the son he would have, would have liked to have had, had he ever been more than a male fetus not carried to term a full year before I was born. We are all either one of us has. And anyway, I like table tennis.
So I casually walk into my father’s bedroom and sit on the wooden floor beside his bed, whereas my father leans against the bed cushion facing the television. We sit without saying a word for a long time. No longer than usual, though. We spend a long time sitting in silence. So, instead, we watch the two Chinese athletes, Fang and Ma, having defeated all the previous competitors and inching ever closer towards the middle of the podium, stand across a table hunching over facing each other, as if they are playing a life-and-death game, the real, the final, the one and only match to determine the success or failure of all of an athlete’s endeavors. I stare at the little white ball bouncing back and forth and eventually disappearing in the flash of swinging paddles, in the backdrop, a buzz of swamping cheers and claps, when, suddenly, I feel my father’s hand on my shoulder as he whispers, “This year I gave your grandparents another two thousand yuan.”
This must be the twentieth time, I think to myself, and I sigh. My father hides these things from my mother so frequently I’ve started to think of it less as a secret and more as a hobby. Normally, he would deposit his paycheck into their shared bank account, which my mother controls. But not this time. And probably not the last time either.
“Why don’t you just tell her?” I ask him, looking at him only briefly before turning back to the TV. The commentator booming yet trembling voice echoing through our house as I guess it must also be echoing throughout millions of homes across my country. Fang was down by one point. But it’s hard to tell which athlete has the bigger fan base from the roaring auditorium. “Are you afraid?”
“Don’t joke around, serious issue.” My father doesn’t laugh about matters involving himself, though he will readily laugh at matter involving his colleagues, and anything involving me, “You’re heading off to school soon. I need you not spill it to your mother over the phone.”
“Pa, why are you even telling me?” I asked confused. Because, I thought, I couldn’t tell what I had not known, nor suspected there was anything to know had he not been the one to tell me in the first place. Which he clearly knew. But then, he also knew that I had not spoken with my mother a single time while at school either, so even the warning was unnecessary.
“Your grandfather wanted to tell me something, but only the way I am telling you this now. Last time when I came back, he kept walking around me, and your grandma said he never stood up from that comfy chair I got him for no good reason. So he kept walking, and eyeing me up and down, and motioning in the direction of his bedroom.”
Fang is up by two points, but I know it’s only a matter of time before the score evens out again. I bet Fang and Ma get the exact same training and it’s strange, in this way, to see them compete against mirror images of each other. “So what is it? Is it about the money?”
“Of course, your grandfather suspected that your cousin Taotao, is stealing from him again. Digging through his coat pocket while he pretends to be asleep.”
My father snorts when he mentions Taotao, then across his face a cold sort of grin flashes and there it remains as he begins to speak quicker and quicker.
On the screen the ball hits the near-end of the table and bounces out of Fang’s reach, but he takes a jump back in the direction of the ball and hits its back at the opposite side at an impossible angle and an impossible speed. The audience may not be visibly excited, but their cheers swell making a tremendous noise and then disperse and scatter quickly.
“That kid is never going to learn a damn thing as long as he keeps those friends. I spent so much time…” my father lays on his back and keeps his eyes on the screen, as if the score still mattered to him, as if he hadn’t told me this story a dozen times before, “…Feeding the village leader and talking up the army recruiter, you know?” I nod as if hearing the follow-up of a real-time news report. “Yeah, you know how nothing ever gets done unless you grease someone’s palm. And of course it never ends there. No! Words will never be enough to persuade these slave drivers.” I think of the money packed in my bag. I try to calculate how far it will last me this semester, how many palms my father has greased for my education, how many more palms I might have to grease along the way, how many English words I might be able to command to prove my eligibility for study and work and pay the price to stop paying extra for every little attention. “And when I came back from dinner, I told him what was what. Said to him that he better appreciates everything I’d just done for him. So ‘stay in the army,’ I told him, ‘Earn their respect, show them you are capable, like I told them you were, and it will all be worth it.’ And that dumbass, know what he did?” This is not a real question, and I am not expected to answer. “He nodded. Now, two years later, he insists on coming back! Why can’t he stay where he was? What is his business here?” Another question I expect to wait for the answer shortly after. “Probably hanging around with his old gang again. That incorrigible ghost of a boy!”
I feel nothing though I know exactly what my father wants me to feel. How badly he wants me to feel exactly like him about something which he can do nothing but feel, and feel, and tell me about it again, and again. That Taotao and I are sheep of different colors/two potatoes grown in different fields/have nothing in common and opposite examples which our cousins should know better which to learn from. That I should hate and better verbally express aversion towards Taotao’s guts and never act like him. I look away from the screen, straight at my father’s expressionless face. And for a second I wish I did feel something, wish the endless retelling had not worn out the infuriating novelty from the story. For a second, I want to do this one small thing for my father, like slipping him money behind my mother’s back and then swearing him to secrecy. I think about mustering the feeling, or contorting my face. But my father is neither looking at, nor listening to me. This is not a story to hear, so much as it is one to tell. So he keeps listing my cousin’s inconsiderate “accomplishments” that brought disgrace to us all, that we have no choice but to wear daily on faces. Topics frequently brought up during the family reunion at New Year’s Eve. How Taotao was once a good kid, a good student. How it all came down to his mother, to her “stealing” other women’s men, and other people’s money. How his father wasn’t blameless either, stubborn, impractical man dreaming of making it as a writer. “It all made sense,” my father explained, “they all had a hand in it, they all deserved a little for what they contributed.” That Taotao’s village friends, his mother’s boyfriends, his father’s stacks of WHO in unpublished handwritten drafts tossed into the dustbin. Everything, everyone, traced and tripped and wrapped in their own swarm of wasps, clueless of who pricked the nest, deserved and deserving for what they did or didn’t do, neither knowing nor considering the consequence.
The anchorman seems to get tired of his own enthusiasm and announces the half-time break, with the score tied on the screen. I think about the wasp-swarm of the Chinese one-and-only-child, one-and-only-way to live. I think about how Taotao made his own friends, his own choices, his own money braving the chilly midnight wind and pushing his father’s electric bicycle all the way to the pop-up black market of Quzhou. I look at my father with his eyes fixed on some inane advertisement while continuing to talk. And then down at my own hands, callused from years of writing class notes and homework since primary school. No chilly wind blows through the narrow windows of my aluminum alloy made home. Three bags of textbooks sit on my desk while I sit next to my father with perpetually blood-shot eyes from spending all my waking hours poring over books in a language that is not mine, not my father’s, not family’s, not Taotao’s, not my country’s, but maybe slowly becoming my own as the words I memorized and the essays I read buzz in my ears like black swarms of restless wasps, and I harbor impractical dreams of someday being a writer too.
While not listening to my father, I finally decide how to feel about it. Across China families watch a Chinese athlete win against another identical Chinese athlete, and I decide I’m proud of Taotao.