Chinese Equivalent
E.P. Chiew

After mother's ashes were interred at the Buddhist temple at Lukshan, Father picked out an urn with swirling leaves and pelleted snow, Ming Dynasty-style, costing only one-thousandth of the price. Did I like it? Father always made sure to ask my opinion on matters of décor, appealing to my feminine intuition. I shrugged. I'd noticed an internal hairline fissure in the eggshell porcelain.

When we got home, Father lit incense sticks for Mother, and suggested a road-trip.  

Like what people do in America when they're lost?

Exactly. The Chinese equivalent of the great American road-trip.

Except I thought Father completely missed the point. American road-trips had final destinations. What was ours?

Okay with you, my pedigree chum? Father nicknamed me to instill a sense of precious identity, but it bred only irony, that ugly mongrel sister of wit. Sometimes, I hated him.

He took out two jute mats to roll up.

Are we going to be sleeping on that?

Rough it a little. No problem.

I didn't answer.

No problem, right, pedigree chum?  You with me?

How could I say no to Father — on top of Mother's death, there were funeral expenses, he wasn't making much teaching at the Teacher's College — and recently, he had been constipated, despite the morning tai-chi routines and the daily intake of papaya.

I wanted to say, go ahead, be a little ambitious, call Grandma Sloan in Connecticut. Ask her for help. It's not begging. We're family. She might even invite us to visit. I'd seen where she lived, those sepia photographs that Mother hoarded in a shoebox — a garden with a long, dissolute chain of perfectly-shaped octagonal hedges, a gabled house with a fountain in the courtyard. But without Mother, our link to America had vanished. Now Father was just a ripe old Chinese man with foreign pretensions and I his mongrel child, neither white nor yellow.

Father bundled the jute mats into the Austin. Took out a hemp-basket, tumbled in a blanket, a couple of bottles of Orange Fanta, a plastic-bag of lychees, and told me to make salami sandwiches.

We have no salami.

So, slap some Chinese sausages in between two slices of bread. Improvise. Father shouted a little.

Another Chinese equivalent? I, too, raised my voice.


The road in the countryside stretched out before us — dusty, yellow and incredibly potholed. The Austin cranked and bumped its way along. Our windows were rolled down, and a layer of dust peppered my face, salted my hair.

Chum, look. Father pointed into the distance. A Chinese wedding was in progress. The bride in her hoisted sedan underneath an embroidered vermillion canopy, jostled along by four bearers, the crowd pushing and laughing behind with gongs, cymbals, lanterns and banners.

The familiar sight saddened me. So, I said, Yeah, well, a greyhound pulling a jitney might be more interesting.  Father pursed his lips.

Later, we passed a flock of water buffaloes. A boy in a conical hat swished a crop.

Not quite greyhounds, but picturesque, he tried again. I gritted my teeth. Father saw.

For mongrels like us, anything purely Chinese became Kodak moments; we grafted quaint bumpkin sketches onto ourselves to pique Grandma Sloan's interest. Remember us, though Mother had estranged herself, remember us, we're your tentacled-family connections in China.

We stopped at a nice grassy patch for lunch. Not too far off was a shallow brook and a thatched hut advertising noodles. We both headed there at once.

A woman emerged from the dim depths, wearing a farmer's conical hat, her cheeks ruddy, her smile beckoning. She sold only one kind of noodles — cold buckwheat noodles with sliced lotus root. We ate two bowls each.

Afterwards, Father wanted to nap shaded by a grove of leafy bamboo. He rolled out his mat, and when he lay down, the crunching sound of leaves underneath his weight sounded like the susurrations of dead voices.

Don't go to sleep. I was suddenly afraid. Although the world was green and buzzing, there was too much silence.

I ate too much. I have to sleep.

What will I do?

Write a note to the leaves. Meditate. But don't wander too far. Or the boy with the buffaloes will want to marry you.

Go to sleep. But I must have fallen asleep too.

A terrible cracking, thundering, roaring filled our ears. It was a bulldozer — a monstrous alien raptor, huge and red, chomping its way downfield ahead of us. Three men strode  behind it, bare-chested, their shirts balled underneath their arms.

What's happening? Father said.

The bulldozer clanked and ripped and uprooted; young saplings snapped and got chewed up.

What a machine! I jumped up in rapture. I raced alongside, whooping.

Father stood with arms akimbo, watching me, perplexed.

The bulldozer bent and folded trees, bushes and undergrowth, leaving two banks of green and a flattened trail of sprawled chaos. I followed and picked up splintered branches, swishing them about, just like the boy earlier had done. And there was freedom in this.

Father shook his head.

Much later, the bulldozer rested, spent, its massive hulk like a deserted spaceship. Father chewed the bark of a tree, and I flipped pebbles. I thought of the mighty power of the bulldozer, the miraculous effect of artificial machine. I thought about man's puny greatness, an oxymoron. Strength was what we needed. Strength in abundance.

A yuan for your thought, Father said.

If you could be anything other than human, what would you be?

Father creased his brow. He thought long and deep. I'd be an ant.

An ant! What's the point of an ant? So helpless, toiling in vain for the glory of the multitude?

Isn't that Mao's legacy for us after all? He chuckled. What would you be?

I pointed at the bulldozer. Invincible. Havoc in its wake.

Father laughed. I like that. He toasted me with an imaginary rice-wine cup, and suddenly, we were the best of cronies, sifting thoughts under a bamboo cabana.

E.P. Chiew lives in London, England with her husband and two children. Her fiction has appeared in several publications, most recently in Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2008 and Hobart.

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Photo detail on main page courtesy of Umesh.

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