Mother Sings a Song
You’ve left your body.
Glammed up like a Miss Chinese Toronto pageant girl, from above your tulle gown against the tattered wooden stage looks like the frothy foam on a cappuccino and your head is a mistake in the design. What’s the cool thing to wear while singing an old-fashioned ballad at a high school talent show? When the song is in Mandarin?
Another question: will you now die of shame? You’ve just belted the first bars and, at first, no one in dim theatre reacts. Sure, your voice is thin, but you sound crisp. You’ve hit the right notes.
The boys in the front row laughed softly at first, slouched behind their hands, or used their baseball caps to cover their faces. One let loose a snort and then their collective guffaws exploded, sudden and unstoppable like a wave. You don’t know what to do so you sing on. The best part comes when they try to warble along to the chorus — “Knee When Woe Ayeeeee!” — botching the truest words of love you know into their English sounds.
Panicked, you clutch the mic stand like it’s the only thing holding you up and you wonder why you thought it a good idea, ever, to do something so different.
The first time you hear this song, you’re five and your mother is getting ready for date night. Dad’s taking her somewhere he likes called The Keg, where Canadians go. You and your mother are in your parents’ bedroom at 134-Summitcrest-Drive-Richmond-Hill-L4S1A9, a line you proudly recite without pausing for breath to your kindergarten teacher, the cashiers at Loblaws, and kind, smiley old women on the street. You were born in Hong Kong, but that, to you, is incidental.
You sit on the carpet floor by her feet with your toys and watch her. She fixes jewels like berries onto her earlobes and applies lipstick with an expert glide. You test the movement too, puckering up against the plastic head of a Lego man. The voice from the speakers rings sweet and true like a lullaby.
“Like this.” She flattens her lips together, pulling you onto her lap to show you in the vanity mirror. She smells like flowers after rain.
“Where you learn that?”
“I told you before, silly girl. From all the makeup I wore when I sang.” She had been a club singer in Hong Kong, knew how to dab her silken cheeks with just the right amount of rouge. “If I hadn’t come here with your dad, I’d still be dressing up every night.”
She sings the song now in her full voice, brushing her hair and you notice, for the first time, how moon-pale she is. In your kid-brain, she becomes your idol and you can’t wait to grow up to be just like your mother.
She is not much of a mother. Your friends’ moms drive you girls to and from Hillcrest Mall, make tuna casseroles and green salads, tell them they are gorgeous angels. You’re fourteen now. You can spot these differences.
Because, well, your mother has always been a terrible cook and hasn’t cared to learn. On the rare occasion she tries to make dinner, you feel obligated to help. This time, it’s squeezing the excess liquid out of rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, bloated and bobbing in stained water. She hacks ginger, scallions, carrots and cabbage leaves into uneven strips, arranging them to in a pattern train of yellow, green, orange, green.
The phone rings: “It’s Daddy!” you yell to her. He tells you he won’t be home for dinner, but he will be checking your math homework that night, so you’d better have it ready. He is always busy with work and meetings, the sort of things that adults who go are responsible have to do. Your mother is not like that. When she hears the news about your dad’s meeting, she stops cutting and says, “Come on. Dinner at the canteen.”
Which is really a Hong Kong-style café with linoleum tables you go to so often the women there know your order: Chinese barbecue pork on rice and a black cow ice cream float for you, and for her, fish ball noodle soup she never finishes.
To puncture the silence, you babble on about your friends’ vacations in Cancun or the Bahamas, and why couldn’t you all go to a resort instead of back to Hong Kong — smelly, sweaty Hong Kong — every summer?
“We have family there.”
“Can’t we skip just once? Just one time,” you reason.
“You know I hate the sun.”
“But Hong Kong is sunny too!”
She sighs. “A fish cannot drown in water, no matter how much it doesn’t enjoy the feeling.” Something in her tone stops you from pressing on.
Late that night, you hear angry, muffled voices. A door slams. Footsteps pad down the stairs. You tiptoe down to the kitchen too. To get water, you say in your head.
Your mother’s noble profile imprints against the silver glare of the living room window. You don’t understand why she is upset or how to fix it. From the hand that holds your water cup, you can make out traces of the mushrooms you squeezed, earthy-dark and sunken. You’re relieved that you, not her, are stained with the odours.
That’s it! you think. The poster from the bulletin board next to your school locker reads: Got Talent? For One Night Only. All you have to do is learn how to sing.
She likes the idea too, though she will not teach you. She hasn’t sung in ages. She finds you weekly lessons at an instrument store, sits in the padded room with you. She keeps her driving gloves on along with the long cardigan but beams enough to make up for the shade.
Nearby, Pacific Mall is a maze of stalls selling every kitschy Asian thing. You two go to look at CDs. It’s worlds apart from the malls you traipse through with your friends. You don’t quite fit in at those places either, where they giggle and decide to get their ears pierced on a whim. “Oh my god, let’s all do it, we’d be piercing sisters for life!” they had implored but you said no. You held their hands instead, knowing the hell you’d face if you return with an unauthorized puncture.
But at Pacific Mall, your difference is quiet and profound. You look like everyone there, even the posters of singers plastered on storefronts though the words on them might as well be in alien script. The chirrup of Cantonese is only half-comprehensible to you. Everywhere you go, you’re a key that fits but doesn’t turn the lock.
Your mother buys a CD of old love songs. “From my youth,” she says. “Those wondrous days. You know some of them.”
In the car, you try to sing along, drawing from memory. She corrects your pronunciation.
She asks which English pop song you will perform at the show.
You tell her it’s a secret.
“You Canadian children.” She shakes her head in amusement. “Doing everything your own way.”
After your song ends, you don’t remember how it went, or how you left the stage upright, but as you go, people are snickering or staring with wide eyes and gaping mouths. It’s as though some unruly bird had blustered in and should apologize for the shock.
In the blinding hallway, you make out the blurry outlines of your mom and dad. They are out of their seats. You wonder if you are going to get scolded. You wonder if she is embarrassed.
Your mother reaches for your face and her hands are wet and it’s then you realize you’re crying. The false eyelash has half-fallen off your right eyelid, patching your vision of your mother’s alabaster face; she peels it off and presses it into your hand.
On the ride home, no one talks. No family reconciliation plays out like on American TV. Your dad doesn’t extol lessons on fortitude and gutting it out in a firm but gentle voice, and your mother doesn’t insist that she is proud of your no matter what. They stare straight ahead at the sky draining its colour.
But she is calm. After a while, she rummages in the glove compartment. A CD slips into the stereo.
From the speakers comes the song. The pure, ringing voice, so different from what yours was on stage, is comparing her unwavering love to the quiet moon. It fills the silence in the car created by years of thwarted conversations.
And your mother, she begins to hum. It sounds like melodic breathing. Like exhaling after holding her breath in always.
You roll your window down, let the breeze fan your cheeks dry. Eyes closed, you float inside the comfort of her voice, streaked now and then by scraps of traffic din.
You don’t watch as you let the eyelash flutter out the window.
Dawn Lo is a Hong Kong-Canadian writer living in Singapore. She has an MA in Creative Writing from LASALLE College of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, The Malahat Review, PULP Literature and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.