Read Her Father's Daughter Online
Authors: Alice Pung
Tags: #Alice Pung, #Her Father's Daughter, #Unpolished Gem
Published by Black Inc., an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd
37–39 Langridge Street
Collingwood Vic 3066 Australia
email: [email protected]
Copyright © Alice Pung 2013
First published 2011
Cover design by Peter Long
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.
ISBN for eBook edition: 9781921870897
ISBN for print edition: 9781863955904 (pbk.)
Dedicated to Dad and Mum
I said to my soul to be still and wait without hope
For hope would be hope of the wrong thing
Wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing
Yet there is faith
But the faith and the love and the hope
Are all in the waiting.
His daughter is coming home. Well, not exactly home, but back to Australia. It panics him whenever any of his children are far away. She has been gone nearly three months – the first time she has lived outside the country. And to think that less than a year ago he had made such a fuss when she went off to Perth, on the west coast, for three weeks to edit a book. ‘Why do you need to go so far to write?’ he had asked her. But there was nothing he could do. She wasn’t a child anymore. Still, she called home every evening for the three weeks she was there. In China, she is not so diligent. If three days pass and he has not heard from her, he will assume the worst.
His daughter is in a different country and she will get herself into trouble. He just knows it. He has a feeling. He remembers at the airport a woman with a baby in her arms, carrying two suitcases, waiting to board the same plane as his daughter. He saw his daughter offer to carry one of the bags, just as she was about to pass through the boarding gate. He was too far away to call out to her, and he felt ridiculous. It was only a domestic connecting flight and there was no death penalty in Australia. But he worried about drugs. Why did she do such stupid things? And now she was in Beijing, living in an apartment by herself, writing. Why did she have to go so far away to do that? With modern technology and an imagination, she could look at the country through the internet. He remembered when she showed him Google Maps before she left, and how to roam the foreign streets to find Peking University where she would be staying. It was incredible – you could even zoom in on the red and white tennis courts. ‘Can you see people too?’ he had asked.
‘Of course not, Dad. Don’t be silly. What do you think this is for, surveillance? They’re satellite pictures.’
Well, why couldn’t she just see the world through these satellite pictures? It was safer. She could watch movies. Why did she think people invented such things? They said that a desktop was a dangerous place from which to view the world, but it was also the safest spot for the watcher.
He wants her to live a life where she will not be harmed by anything more than the occasional paper-cut. He is pleased she has a job she can do safely ensconced within four walls. If she wants to write, then he will give her stories. Why did she need to go overseas to find them? But there is so much to occupy his mind now, and no time or desire to plunge a hand back into the past to pull out details. He wishes that he had photographs, but he owns nothing that is older than 1980. Everything in his life before then has been taken, lost, wiped out.
‘Australians are strange,’ he remarks to his daughter over the phone the next time he calls her room at the Peking University guest house. ‘Why don’t they buy insurance? How can they think that safety and peace of mind are expensive?’ Their conversations across continents are often confined to things he has read in the newspaper.
‘I don’t know,’ she replies, ‘but I can understand why they stayed to defend their houses. Some of them were over sixty. They might have felt it was too late to start all over again. It was their family home.’
People want to hear stories of great horrors and triumphs. His daughter’s stories so far seem to be about small things. He wants her to write about the glories of a civilisation that once claimed to be the heartbeat of the world, and how proud she is of having ancestry from the Middle Kingdom. Instead she writes about taking a bus to go strawberry-picking on a farm outside Melbourne, and about his wife Kien learning English word by word from his youngest daughter’s school books. What is the point of telling a story if it is only about things that happen every day? They are so easily forgotten. She needs to see the world through a larger lens. But what does he know?
To live a happy life, he believes, you need a healthy short-term memory, a slate that can be wiped clean every morning, like one of those toys he bought for his daughter when she was young – an Etch A Sketch. If you turned it upside down and shook it, your art disappeared.
Every time she calls home, these are the sorts of things her father thinks she needs to know: ‘Always lock your doors, and always look behind you when you walk through a doorway. Did you hear that a Korean boy and a Chinese girl jumped to their deaths from their Sydney balcony when an intruder followed them into their flat with a knife?’
‘Wear earmuffs. Your Uncle Kiv told me that when the Cambodian refugees came to Canada, their ears froze off during the first winter. They had never felt snow before.’
‘Buy a face-mask to ward off the pollution.’
‘Don’t go out when it is getting dark.’
She imagined walking through the ancient city, touch entombed in gloves, hearing buried beneath earmuffs, smell suffocated behind a white paper mask and blinkered eyes watching for wayward cars and potential rapists while wonderful things like the Temple of Heaven passed her by.
I hope nothing happens to you
seemed to be the secret wish behind every phone conversation. Yet to stop bad things happening, you had to stop anything happening.
The next time her father calls, he tells her about the bushfires raging through Victoria’s summer, while she is in the middle of a frozen Beijing winter. The fires are reported in the
, but not on the front page because of the everyday man-made horrors constantly happening here. Mines are collapsing, schools are tumbling down, trapping only-children inside. Milk for babies is poisoned, killing more only-children.
‘Staying and defending your home is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,’ her father rails. He feels let down: Australian democracy should be infallible. ‘Why does the government let them stay and defend?’
When she was seven, her teacher advised that if ever their house burnt down, they should save the family photos.
‘Ridiculous,’ her father replied when she reported this to him. ‘You don’t save the photos. You save yourself. And then perhaps the money and the gold. That is all.’
If their house burnt down, she knew her father would not stray from his word. Leave it, he would command, no matter what they clung to. They would grab Alina to stop her going back for her guinea pig. But Dad would not tell Mum to let go of whatever she was holding onto, because Mum, like Dad, had been through this before. They knew what to do. Mum would be clutching small bags of gold and wads of money, things that could easily be carried in the hand to start over.
In her childhood she had grown up with survivors – weary-looking men and women who took sewing home or made jewellery or worked in factories, people who did things that didn’t involve much talking. First, they didn’t know much English, and second, they didn’t talk about these things with people who would never understand. But among themselves, it was different. Her parents and their friends greeted each other not only with ‘How are you?’ but also, ‘So you survived the Black Bandits?’ That last question was a question that did not need an answer: the answer was right in front of their faces, in the breath that came in and out. And finally, the question they had all asked each other in their previous lives, but which now took on an extra weight, like something still to be digested in the stomach: ‘Have you eaten yet?’
So when she was eighteen, she began to research how not having any food kills you slowly. She learnt about the body breaking down its own tissues and muscles to keep the heart and the nervous system thrumming away. She read about ailments such as anaemia, beriberi and pellagra, which sounded more like the three Graces in a pidgin language than the effects of vitamin deficiency as a result of starvation. There was even a word for the sense of exhaustion that comes with being starved: inanition.
And then she stopped.
She thought of her grandfather – her father’s father – dead of starvation, her two cousins buried alive, half her relatives wiped out, the whole of Cambodia reduced to one extended bony arm begging for a bowl of rice. This was her heritage. No wonder her father didn’t want her to see it. Her parents were born in Cambodia, but her grandparents were from China. So she would begin this new book on a bus instead, in her grandmother’s hometown, as all such heart-starting stories of homecoming should begin.
In her flat in Beijing, she writes the first sentence.
This story begins on a bus.
This will be her prologue, set in Chaozhou, the Tide Prefecture, in the Guangdong province. While she is on her writing residency, her father has given her the names of two places to visit: Pulin and Jieyang. He has never been there himself, but he thinks she should go and take a look at the birthplace of his parents. Yet the two names mean as much to her as Tukums or Jékabpils. It is like opening an atlas of the world and pointing to any two towns in the same region. Still, she perseveres:
This story begins on a bus. The bus rolls down dirt roads, and when it stops, she will disembark and scoop up soil and kiss the land of her ancestors and tell the world how good it is to be home at last.
The reader is not there with her; she can say whatever she likes. But the ground, as she can see, is salted with spit and dotted with dog-shit, and it is not even soil. It’s just dust.
‘How do you feel?’ her Guangdong friend Peina asks her. Peina knows she is here to write about her heritage. ‘You must have some special feelings about returning to your ancestral hometown. I can tell by your face.’
In reality, she is only squinting because some dust has blown in her eye.
All the windows of the bus are open, in this bus that is not really a bus. It is more like a minivan, crammed with far too many people. She doesn’t feel anything except squashed. People are packed in like last-minute socks in a heaving suitcase. The lady conductor reminds her of her mother or perhaps one of her aunties. ‘Ay, ay, your stop has arrived!’ she says with a smile that is missing two teeth, and extends an arm to pull her out of the bus and eject her onto the street.
There are half-burnt buildings and dogs running about. Children in their school uniforms – polyester tracksuits of primary colours – are climbing on top of what look to be rubbish mounds. She watches this, surprisingly, without any smear of sadness. She has seen more miserable children howling in toy stores in Australia. These kids in Jieyang probably know the limits of their unfulfilled wants. They can see the corners of their universe, even though they have probably known for a while that the earth is not a flat square block and that heaven is not a circle floating above them.
She sees families pulling children along in wheelbarrows, to the lake. She sees lives of wood and splintery faded plastic, held together by string and nails and glue, like the toys being sold in the small stores in the streets. She sees old ladies telling their grandkids to stop pointing at the foreigners. She realises she can understand almost every word they are saying, but nothing is familiar.
‘Who are they?’ some kids down the street ask each other when they spot her, Peina and her British friend Katie walking through their narrow laneways.
She smiles. ‘How are you?’ she asks them in Teochew.
They run shrieking with laughter down a narrow alleyway, their schoolbags knocking against their polar-fleeced legs.
Now comes the part where she is supposed to write that she feels home at last, and that seeing these beautiful children in her ancestral hometown, who look so much like her, makes something pop in the centre of her chest.
But she can’t lie.
It doesn’t happen.
Her words can’t bridge the distance between what she sees and what she understands, and the further she travels, the less she feels close to anything. In fact, the more she sees of modern Chaozhou, the more the world her grandmother had told her about recedes. Details are replaced by their newer modern versions: Fergie and Eminem blare from shopfront speakers as she wanders through the streets late at night, looking for the promised river, the radiant river of Jieyang, which is meant to be a short walk away. Yet all she seems to find are stores and more stores: merchants selling fruit in bags and on sticks. Vendors selling bras shaped like soft soup bowls, and people peddling trays of pirated DVDs.
What would life have been like if both sets of her grandparents had never left China, never had their babies in Cambodia? If it were not for the stab of poverty and the blunt force of war, she would probably have been born in this town, pulling along two small cousins in a narrow barrow. She would at least know the limits of her world.