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“Your mother is calling you.” One of the boys sensed the vibrations in the air. I was in the middle of playing marbles. Serious marbles with three of my neighborhood friends. Mother had found another excuse, I thought, to interrupt my joy and summon me home. I was enjoying myself. What did I do wrong this time? Was this another ploy to belittle me in front of my peers? Or was she effortlessly following her maternal instinct, like autumn leaves sailing in the wind.
“Your mother is calling you,” someone repeated it loudly to me.
“Who?” I said, taking the nudging seriously. Who else could be calling my name, Ngulan-dea.
“She’s coming…better get moving,” another voice joined in. Mother was many years older than most mothers in the village. I could either tarry and finish the game pretending it was just a sick dog barking in the air, increasing her anger, or haul my fingers and ass home without any delay, for my own good.
Quickly abandoning my playmates, I hurried home like a bullet train. Might as well. I was losing my marbles. One at a time. Big and small. To my playmates. Not a good day for me.
I tried to keep my personal marbles intact, despite a sudden insight of the imminent crisis that was unraveling before my eyes. Oooh Shit! Three times I cursed. Damned! Only once, whimsically. The conundrum was of my doing. I knew I had done something wrong, hiding it from my brother because it was his favorite toy in the house.
Approaching the front of the house, her voice had shifted from scolding to punishing, suggesting the gravity of the situation. Sooner or later I would appear involuntarily before her to answer a few delicate questions concerning a certain gross misconduct. And there was only one niche in the house I could seemingly hide from her wrath. Under father’s opium bed in a room downstairs that served as father’s opium den. A place where he would smoke opium and conduct his business with his opium friends from the village. All men. I had been there before. I mean the bed. There was room for ten kids my size under the bed.
In many Chinese homes in the village where I grew up in Malaya (located slightly north of the Equator), a standard size bed has four sturdy poles for a mosquito net and stands
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about three feet high. With plenty of room for hiding or storage underneath. A mosquito net was a must, since almost all Chinese houses did not have screened windows or doors. And mosquitoes were our frequent unwanted guests, attacking us and annoying us with their monotonous singing.
And because of the perennial tropical heat, many villagers preferred a cool reed or bamboo mat on wooden bed. Mattresses are too hot, they complained. They don’t breathe easily like the bamboo mats, they added. Carved wooden pillows, blocks harder and taller than soft-cushioned pillows, were favored by older people.
Mother was standing stiff and adamant, guarding the front entrance to the ground floor—like one of the fierce-looking concrete lions flanking the front steps to a Chinese mansion—with a slender but a lethal stick in her right hand. In a blink of an eye, I had traveled to Egypt, witnessed the wounds inflicted on the Israelites by the Egyptian taskmasters (reliving my favorite Sunday school stories) and returned to wait for the slashing by mother’s deadly stick. I felt like someone marooned on a deserted island alone with mother. Brother and his wife were upstairs in a different planet listening to some Chinese music from the Philips radio. Eighth auntie and her children were in their kitchen at the back of the ancestral house. Grandfather had left this house he built to eighth uncle and sixth uncle (my father). Each family had a separate kitchen. And sister must be watching gleefully from behind a wall somewhere, thinking, “Sorry your butt is going to get it this time”.
I was to face the music all alone.
“Bad woman…evil…sell her sarong…gamble…whore.” That was the ugly picture mother would paint of my blood mother. Mother had her reasons, right or wrong, true or false, for putting me in my place. Why was she so hateful of my dead mother? She repeated it like a mantra as I flew by her, seeking immediate refuge under father’s opium bed.
Villagers gossiped that mother was never happy with my adoption. My adoption was like an imposition on mother, a sort of cruel and unwanted punishment for someone in her early fifties. She had already raised three of her own children. She had endured years grieving invisibly over an unfaithful husband. Father’s dalliance with women was accepted, not glorified.
Only father and he alone knew why he abandoned mother and ended up with a mistress. Having a mistress or concubine is as old as Chinas itself, from the imperial families down to the commoners. There could be a number of reasons why concubinage—this overtly male prerogative and behavior—has withstood the test of time. It is said to benefit both
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men and women: women’s magnanimous social attitude or public endorsement encourages it. Furthermore, a strong belief in male progeny views it as a viable solution if a wife is barren, and concubinage, not divorce, brings satisfaction to the man, keeps the family intact and saves a wife’s face, allowing her to maintain some dignity and her established position as the rightful wife, thus perpetuating her dependency on a man.
It is often said among the Chinese, a smart Chinese wife, having failed to conceive or produce a son, following ancient custom, would suppress her libido and plead with her husband to take a concubine for the sake of producing a son, someone to carry on the family name.
Mother’s life wasn’t made any easier by father’s infidelity and now an additional two mouths to feed: my sister and I.
I was reminded of my early months in the village, conspicuously in the opium den with father; how I was raised by an opium smoking father. Father would take care of me at least during the day when the rest of the family were out tilling the soil for tapioca or sweet potatoes or catering to the needs of the pigs, a vital source of the family income. Yes, the sweet smell of the opium den. Replicating the scent of showy white magnolia? It was not. I was raised here. Father could kill two birds with one stone single-handedly, tending to my needs—few—and the needs of the opium smokers—few—who frequented the den.
I was a lovable, cuddly baby, according to father’s paying guests. The dense opium smoke, saturating the air, probably had something to do with my being a quiet, sweet-natured baby. Lying each day that close to the operation—inches away—I might as well have been smoking the opium myself. The effect was immediate—the mind and the body in a blissful dreamlike state, sauntering in the Garden of Eden. The reality was I spent countless hours on a hard wooden bed with father and his gentle cohorts in crime. That might conveniently explain why the back of my head was asymmetrical. There was seldom any light in the den other than the oil lamp sitting in the middle of the bed, aiding in the final processing of the opium over a small concentrated flame before a smoker, lying on his side, would smoke and inhale it through the bowl of a long pipe directly over the flame. As a baby, my head would naturally turn to the source of the light, the oil lamp
next to me, just like an indoor plant turning imperceptibly to the source of light in a room. Since nobody had time to straighten my head, I faced the lamp sideway for a long period of time—days, weeks, months—and the back of my head inevitably became asymmetrical. The result? An imperfect head. I never asked and nobody cared to explain why my head wasn’t perfect or normal like the boys in my neighborhood. I often wonder what would a barber say or think each time he cut my hair?
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It was a small—though temporary—consolation that mother’s stick was short and thin. Her favorite instrument of punishment was readily available in the kitchen, where there were always thick and thin, long and short, straight and crooked, pieces of twigs and small branches from our own rubber trees, used for kindling and cooking. Wood-burning stoves, some small, others mammoth, all concrete, were commonplace throughout the entire village. Portable charcoal burning stoves, in the absence of firewood, prevailed in towns and cities. We had two that father used exclusively for cooking and processing opium. Charcoal was abundant but expensive.
I was wrong. Mother was small—smaller than I was—but agile, trailing me like a shadow. A broom with a long handle came charging violently at me under the bed, like a hungry rooster after a worm. I surrendered fast. I could not handle pain like sister, a born stoic. I came crawling out, crying and screaming for succor. Tears of remorse, however swift and natural, were not enough to mollify mother. Not even a barrel of cold water could lower her temperature. Switching to a stick she had used earlier, she went after my legs and butt, hammering me all over like a crazy maid beating on a dirty rug. By now the whole village must have heard of the commotion. Such cries and screams had never been heard before.
Before mother could voice the nature of the crime I had allegedly committed and inflict further her deadly wounds on my fragile body, eighth auntie suddenly appeared like a thief in the night. She towered over mother by quite a few inches. More like Goliath over David. An imposing woman, stout and square. I knew if I could scream like an insane tortured man, she would always come to my rescue because this was not the first time she had prevented mother from strangling or killing me. I clung to her for life, sobbing uncontrollably. No one could accuse me of crocodile tears. Mother’s arms, like tentacles, were swirling in every direction. My body was still beyond her reach, shielded by the Rock of Gibraltar. Like a bulldozer, she nudged mother away from me and snatched the instrument of death from her quivering hand. Down the years I could always count on auntie to prolong and save my life from harm. From mother’s deadly wrath.
I felt a sense of victory over mother in the presence of my aunt. The smell of triumph over mother was intoxicating.