Ankle-Deep Red Firecracker Papers
On the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, my handwriting looks strange. I have not written like this, in a notebook, for a long time.
By ‘this’, I mean writing and striking words out—aggressively I must add—and inserting new ones here and there. The result is a messy page. Even as I am scribbling this very sentence, I am aware that it may be crossed out.
This morning, I took the first train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Arriving at Hung Hom station near where I live at half past six to make sure that I would be able to buy a ticket for the 7:25 departure, I found a queue of people waiting to check in. They looked unhurried, unconcerned.
It was as if they had made the same trip hundreds of times.
Late November. Some people were wearing heavy jackets in anticipation of the colder weather across the border but some were still dressed in light clothes, holding on to the very last sentiments of Autumn.
A student of mine at the university where I teach once wrote a story about a conductor on the train to the afterworld. The passengers do not seem to know what is in store for them: they read books half-heartedly, doze off, chat to one another, have snacks. Life as usual. The atmosphere in the train is familiar and yet foreboding. For the conductor who is used to his job, seeing children is still upsetting.
Seated comfortably and waiting for the train to depart the platform, I was reminded of the story of the conductor and the death train. We imagine death and the crossing between life and afterlife in numerous ways, if not obsessively, at least dedicatedly.
The Chinese believe, among other things, that on the way to the netherworld, one must eat a soup that will make you forget all the events of your life. The soup, every drop of it, is made from the tears one has shed in their past life: tears of joy, sorrow, excitement, and gratitude.
Wouldn’t this make one remember even more?
Thinking of these stories, I sent a WhatsApp message to my sisters, telling them that I was on my way to Guangzhou.
I had meant to keep it a secret and not let any of my family know. Over the past few years, I have learnt to be very selective regarding what I tell them. If it’s something trivial, such as feeling a fever coming on or being slighted by an annoying colleague, I don’t bother. If it’s something very important, I delay telling them as long as possible.
They have enough on their minds: both my younger sisters—twins—are married and new mothers, while my parents, now grandparents, busy themselves babysitting the young ones. At night, they go to bed early, and the following morning, the cycle repeats.
Going to Guangzhou for the day to attend a writers and translators conference would fall into the category of ‘Trivial’. To put this in context: I have on other occasions omitted to tell my family about extended trips to Europe. Often they did not notice I was gone. I remained an active participant in my family’s WhatsApp group, giving the impression that I was always in the city, never away.
What would life be like if digital cameras had been widely used when I was a child? So many of my memories of childhood come from photographs untidily preserved in albums, now stored in a largely disused bookcase in my parents’ bedroom, just next to their bed. I embellish these photographs with invented details. I create little stories out of them.
I once invented my presence into an image of my two sisters playing in our first home. Even though I was nowhere to be seen in the photograph, I told myself that I was just hiding behind a cupboard.
Later, flipping through the pages of the album with my mother, she casually remarked that when that photograph was taken, I was not in Hong Kong—I had been sent away to live with my paternal grandmother in mainland China, as it had become too difficult for my young mother to take care of all three little girls by herself.
There is another photograph of my sisters and me standing on the concrete front yard of the compound in China where my father’s extended family used to live. It was Lunar New Year and the ground was covered with broken red scraps of paper, the remnants of firecrackers, which could be heard day and night.
I stood taller than my sisters, who were on my sides. This is worth remarking, as the finite number of years I was taller than them is now far fewer than the number of years they have been taller than me. And the number only keeps expanding.
We were wearing brightly-coloured overcoats, each a fat dumpling, although in the photograph the colours have been dulled by time, which has the power to dull everything but itself.
And the dresses were all overly long. My mother must have wanted them to last more than one winter. I was about four and my sisters two. That trip to China—the first we took as a family—was condensed into this one photograph. I remember nothing else: what food did we eat? Did I play with my cousins? Were we allowed to watch the fireworks? How many days did we stay? I wonder what happened to the negative.
I have realised, for a few years now, that it is unlikely that the family will ever again go to China together like we did when my sisters and I were little. We may each take separate short trips there for various reasons, but that’s about it. It will, I suppose, take the death of someone important in our extended family to reunite us on a train to China, everyone wearing black.
Now writing this back in my own home and rereading the previous sections, I can’t help but feel that the urge to text my sisters earlier this morning was childish. But they’d responded warmly, warning me of the rain in Guangzhou, and asking if I had a thick jacket on.
26 November 2016