Wednesday, August 23, 2006
By Argus Lou
The first sign of trouble came when father dropped a platter of starters. Mother had asked him to help her bring the dishes out of the van to the picnic rug. He had been reluctant but she insisted that men should at least help with the serving if they didn’t do the cooking, packing, unpacking and cleaning.
My jaw dropped a split second after the pewter platter fell, spring rolls and roast pork ‘coins’ going hither and century eggs and water-chestnut ‘pouches’ going thither. All my favourite appetizers – gone! I wished I were a dog; I’d be on my hands and knees on the grass lapping up the spilled goodies and wolfing it down in no time. Which Ding-ding, Uncle Jeh’s Shih Tzu began doing, before my Bruno, a huge black canine of indeterminate ancestry, loped up, nudged Ding-ding aside, and finished the job. The little fellow yelped and nipped Bruno in protest but was no match for the bulldozer of a dog.
“Lucky fella!” squeaked Grandfather, rubbing his rotund tummy exposed by his rolled-up red T-shirt. “Year of the Dog indeed! Ha ha ha.”
“Sorry, everyone. See?” Father turned to Mother. “No good can come from enlisting manly labour for such feminine tasks.”
“Pah! If you helped out often enough at home, like Jeh, you’d be less awkward doing it – less chance of dropping the whole production, no?”
Father was quick to change the subject. “Sit down, sit down, everyone! Ah, Jeh, stop fussing about already. Everything looks perfect; we’re only going to mess up your presentation when we dig in.”
Every other year, we have the unique tradition of eating our Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner in a different place. This year’s picnic in the Lake Gardens on the edge of town was Uncle Jeh’s suggestion, of which father hardly approved. Heh, heh, a dim view of dim sum in the park, I reckoned. My middle sibling, Sher-Win, and I loved the idea though. So did Grandpa, who was prancing about with the dogs – probably tempting fate to give him a heart attack.
Two years ago, my mother suggested camping in the jungle, which we foolishly agreed to. It turned out to be a disaster because it rained and then the leeches came out to eat us. We ate our new year’s eve dinner hurriedly and came out of the rainforest looking like the war wounded, what with patches of blood on our jeans.
“Grandpa, grandma, Pa, Ma, Uncle Jeh, eat rice!” Sher-Win and I chimed the pleasantries expected of ‘well brought up’ Chinese teenagers. As for Sher-Dai, our tomboy of an eldest sister, she mumbled the meal salutations self-consciously, not looking at any elder in the eye. Is that what it’s going to be like when I turn 21? Hope not!
“Good children!” Grandma briefly flashed her over-white fake front teeth. “Everyone, eat, eat!” You could see she wasn’t comfortable sitting on the ground but she didn’t complain.
“This fish is perfectly steamed, Dil. Succulent and firm. Bravo!” Grandpa congratulated my mum on her impeccable culinary skills. Dil is short for daughter-in-law, his prized private joke. Ma opened another outsized vacuum flask and we had Peking duck with crispy skin to complement the cabbage with abalone and dried oysters.
The sun was setting quickly as it is wont to do in the tropics. Harmless little flying bugs buzzed about in the golden air while nasty mosquitoes, like enemy helicopters, waited to swoop down for their crimson evening meal. We habitually brushed our elbows, feet and ears every few seconds – just in case a mozzie had alighted silently.
“Jeh, when you going to bring home a girl, so we get another daughter-in-law?” Grandpa unexpectedly asked. Only Pa, Ma, and we children knew Jeh’s predilection for pretty men. Pa, Ma and Sher-Dai studied the stripes of the picnic rug while my brother and I looked expectantly at our dear uncle.
Even more unexpectedly my father spoke up: “Pa, your neck is going to lengthen if you’re still waiting for Jeh to bring home a bride.”
“Once and for all, accept the fact that your younger son does not like girls.” I thought Pa’s deliberate enunciation of the last few words was unnecessary and jarring.
Grandpa’s spluttering and coughing got us all alarmed. “Look what you did!” Ma scolded Pa, tapping his wrist with the back of her chopsticks. Sher-Win got up to whack Grandpa on the back, expelling a grain of rice from the old man’s bulbous ‘prosperity’ nose.
“He gotta know sometime. What’s the point of us pretending Jeh’s normal?”
“I’m not abnormal!” uncle protested. “Gayness is part of nature. Why can’t you just accept that?”
Mother tried to soothe Jeh. “Yes, yes, we know. It’s all good.” She rubbed her temple; I knew she was getting one of her frequent headaches again.
Grandma finally piped up: “You mean, you mean to say Jeh is really a homosexual? Tay,” she addressed Grandpa, “I knew it all along. But you refused to believe me.”
“Aaargghh!” Grandpa finally found his voice. “Why did you all not let me go to my grave with just a bit of doubt as to whether my younger son is gay? Why did y’all have to confirm it? Hai-yah!”
Sher-Dai, probably desperate to change the subject, blurted: “I’m joining the Army. And don’t any of you try to stop me!”
“What!” Pa exclaimed. “The Malays will eat you up alive. Don’t you know there are only three percent Chinese in the Army?”
“She’s strong; she can take care of herself,” Ma said quietly. I knew she didn’t approve of Sher-Dai’s decision but she always let us be who we were.
That was the last time we had a reunion in an unusual locale. Ma died of brain cancer before the two years were up and Pa did not have the heart to continue our little tradition. After the first year of mourning and non-celebration, it was just sedate reunion dinners at home from thereon. Sher-Dai carved an illustrious career in the Army; she reached the rank of colonel and she never got married. Uncle Jeh, on the other hand, ‘married’ his French boyfriend the year after Grandpa passed on.