Growing up, family gatherings were a scarcity, taking place only before a cousin went off to college, or after a loved one passed away. On this occasion, the latter was true. How unusual it was to have all the Mak siblings and their children together in one room! Every reunion felt like a leap in time, cousins growing taller and more mature, uncles developing wrinkles in places there once hadn’t been, hairlines crawling a bit further back from their shiny foreheads.
Some things remained constant, however. The unspoken but clear and apparent competition between every adult in the room was unchanged, rather inappropriately despite the family member missing from the table. “Hou-Ming is into acrylics and sketches these days, a rare talent just like his father,” an uncle notes pridefully, slapping the rather scrawny Hou-Ming on the back. “I don’t know Hou-Ming,” uncle Rob muttered, arms crossed, picking absentmindedly at his nails, “Art is not so reliable. A degree in business or medicine is better.” An aunt had died recently, her children seated across from me with low hanging heads and moist eyes. How ridiculous it all seemed. Even now, my family refused to drop the long-standing principles of stoicism and self-control. What a time for the men to argue about inheritance distributions and the property taxes to follow!
As clamor and chaos ensued the room, I shut my eyes tightly. I tried to picture my aunt in my mind, fists tightening in frustration. Why couldn’t I remember? Eyes still welded shut, I heard my uncles yelling amongst each other. “What now?!” I wanted to scream, “Isn’t it enough that your shouting is drowning her away from me? She’s slipping away!” “Remember, remember, remember,” I chanted to myself in a desperate mantra.
And for a moment, there was utter silence.
I could feel her tracing soothing patterns across my back, her floral scented hair tickling my neck. “Suk-Bing,” she whispered, “You’re treasured.” She held me tighter, squeezing her arms around my shoulders, and there was only a moment for a chaste kiss behind my ear.
And all too soon, the havoc and commotion at the dining table resumed.
The aunties swooned over their carefully groomed trophy children; the ones that hung like decorative stockings along a mantle, taken out of storage once a year, to remain displayed for only a season before dusted off and put away. “Mei-Mei is joining another orchestra group next Spring,” one gushed, “All parents say this about their children, but she must be a musical prodigy! Just last week winning first place in composition.” She finished the appraisal of her red-faced daughter with a smile and slight flick of the wrist for added effect. Auntie Hui-Ling presents the right hand of her own daughter, a sparkling diamond positioned over a thick diamond-studded band adorning her fingers. The room uproars in words of encouragement and
pride, “Gong-xi! Gong-xi! When are you having children?” Hui-Ling smiles crookedly in victory. A new marriage is quite an event, her daughter would be most cherished this year. Half-listening to the conversation taking place, I shifted clumsily on the plastic chair covering that stuck to my thighs, pinching my skin. All eyes were suddenly on me, their imploring stares impossible to shake.
“And Suk-Bing, what about you?”
My eyes flickered to my mother’s; I was afraid to disappoint. What could I say? “What an embarrassment,” my mother would think to herself on the car ride home later. “How unfortunate for Siu Fan, with a daughter like that…” the aunts would banter among themselves. And I knew that there was nothing for me to tell them; there was no scholarship, no impressive accomplishment, no dazzling, promising opportunity to show off. A small, strangled noise left my lips, my vocal cords hoarse from my silence. “Aiyah!” someone yelled, “enunciate!” Clearing my throat, I made another attempt.
“I like folding paper cranes.”
The aunties exchanged sorry glances, looking pitifully at my mother, her eyes downcast and ashamed. After a moment of silence, the bustle and banter resumed as if I hadn’t spoken at all. From under the table, I felt Gung-Gung reach for my hand, interlocking his long, bony
fingers with my clammy ones. “Suk-Bing,” he whispered to me, “I see you. I know your worth. In each crane, you fold in your hopes, your dreams, your wishes.”
I found solace in my Po-Po and Gung-Gung, whose temperaments had softened considerably over the years, after a lifetime of regrets and mistakes. With open arms and hearts warm with affection, they loved me unwaveringly.
I laid on my uncle’s beat-up leather couch, poking my fingers through holes in the pillows, having finally been excused from the nightmarish atmosphere in the dining room. Po-Po shuffled over to my spot on the couch, pale-pink, sequined house slippers dragging across the tiled floor noisily. She swung me across her lap, balancing me belly down over her knees. Turning around to face her, I reached up to her cheek to trace a smile line with my finger.
“Tell me a story Po-Po.”
She smiled toothily, carding cold fingers through my hair, and pointed to a series of framed watercolors on the wall across from us, the first depicting several delicate birds splayed amongst gently leaning branches.
“Sparrows,” she murmured, “They spend their lives in the trees. Leaving their mothers, they search for a mate and build a nest of their own to raise young. There will be days when the sun bathes the sparrow in its warmth, and sometimes there will be stormy days instead. But the
sparrow doesn’t worry; she knows that the sun will return just as quickly as it left. When it thunders and pours, the sparrow remains unmoved. ‘There is no fear!’ she exclaimed, ‘The sun is rising!’ Soon the frost arrives, blizzards and harsh winds leave behind soot and ice, caked in her feathers. And still, she perseveres, unchanged, and unrelenting.” By now, the aunties had finished clearing away the dishes, sitting with carefully closed knees, and neatly tucked skirts on the arm-chairs surrounding us, listening intently.
Growing into oneself. That’s something undeniably painful. Po-Po was right though, about the sparrow. Winter came and went, and the sunny days did too. The sparrow grew steadily wiser and more confident with time. She molted her juvenile plumage, and in its place grew the much thicker, more mature silken feathers. She learned to brave the sleet and hail, unchanged and unmoving. Remembering her grandfather’s words, she willed the paper cranes to fly. She kept within them her most sacred dreams and desires, that they might rise above the wind, soaring across the sun, into someplace far, far, away.
I folded a crane with clean, white paper, it’s elegant, sloping neck pointing towards the sky. “Suk-Bing,” I whispered to it, “You’re treasured.” I watched as it began to fly, dancing effortlessly with the breeze, soaring higher and higher, before disappearing from sight altogether.
Written by Alma Mark Fong
Edited by Rebecca Choe