It seems that every time I visit my parents – and perhaps it is because those times are becoming rarer – I am inspired to write about it.
The noise of visiting my family and the change in my posture, tone of voice and laughter never fails to provoke bemusement as I drive away again. As music blares out from my scratchy speakers, I edge further away from that strange creature who is mostly me, but louder in tone and quieter in opinion, more easily irritated, blander but more generous with my loving.
Today I am greeted by one of my nieces, Grump. She is standing behind the fly-screen door as I pull my little red car onto my parents’ front lawn. I call out to her joyously as I get out of the car, slamming the door shut while waving. Grump shrieks, turns and pelts down the corridor screaming my name and wailing like a two year old banshee. In turn, Bouncer runs in the opposite direction (towards me), also screaming my name but more happily. He bursts through the screen door saying – I opened it for you! And I thank him and bend down for a kiss. Another nephew and a niece also come running out and I feel as if I have a welcoming party, all at knee height. The older niece – Princess – proudly displays some new pink thing and I murmur something that I hope she will assume is approval. Spiderboy is prattling on about his swimming classes. Although there are only three of them I feel as if I have walked into a bewildering crowd of yapping, nipping insects.
As I walk into the lounge room, the Teenager is lying back on my father’s recliner chair with a blanket over his head. I kiss him on the forehead, which he hates and I know it but it is my attempt to keep him grounded. The Teenager never knows whether I am going to treat him as an adult or a kid, an equal or a nephew. Honestly, I never know either. I delude myself into thinking that he appreciates the uncertainty. At least someone occasionally treats him as an adult. The Drama Queen is asleep in one of the now empty bedrooms; empty since all my siblings and I have deserted the family home, which nevertheless seems fuller now than ever.
One of my brothers-in-law is sitting on the couch watching some Saturday afternoon sport. I greet him in passing as I move into the kitchen and dining room. Ba is in the middle quietly and determinedly eating while all around are my brother, sisters, brother-in-law and sister-in-law – a chaos of conversation back and forth across the table, in English and Vietnamese. I look around for my mother as I say hello to everyone. Before I see her, I sense Um ushering me towards the dining table. “Yes, okay. I’m eating, of course I’m hungry.” I say impatiently instead of greeting her like I intended to.
There’s nowhere for me to sit. The table is covered in food – raw beef, prawns, fish and calamari, a steaming hotpot, bowls of vermicelli and platters of fresh vegetables. I go outside to find the foldaway chairs and come back with nothing. I stand around uselessly for a bit until my grandmother comes. Grandma exclaims about how wonderful it is that we are all here and how festive it is. She also tells me to sit and eat, in a similar tone to my mother’s. When she says it, it just amuses me. I obediently go to search more intrepidly for extra chairs.
When I return with two stools, my siblings have rearranged themselves so that additional space opens up between Ba and my brother, the Black Belt, and between two of my sisters. I pass the stools over and take my seat beside my father. I am hemmed in now and I have forgotten to get myself or Grandma dipping bowls, plates and chopsticks. The Black Belt is deep in rolling a transparent vermicelli roll so I ask one of my sisters who is presently refilling the food on the table to get me all the necessary equipment so that I can fulfill the dutiful daughter role of eating ravenously.
Two of my sisters – the Accountant and the Big Boss – are planning their future business together and are discussing when and how to do pamphlet mail-outs. The conversation ebbs and flows, children interrupt with tears or demands and other conversations (like how busy at work I am and how slowly my sister-in-law’s (the Banker’s) new building is progressing) intersect. Someone is always at the bowl of water, softening the rice-paper wraps and someone else is usually dropping more raw food into the steamboat which is the centrepiece of our family lunches. Ba reaches across me as I am making a roll and I dodge his hand and continue. I also dodge conversations and placate Um about my partner not being present. The Black Belt and I chopstick duel over a prawn in the steamboat sauce to his wife’s and Um’s affectionately disapproving glances. I win because the duel is rigged – the Black Belt always lets me get the nicest prawns even though he pretends not to.
Grandma keeps murmuring about how festive it is and how tomorrow she is going to an uncle’s house for crab. Ba asks if this uncle invited her over and she says calmly no. Ba tries to dissuade her and will later ring this uncle to tell him Grandma will be visiting and expects crabs and Ba will tell this uncle where best to get them at this time of year. Grandma is becoming senile and Um complains about her to us the same way we complain about Um to each other.
The Black Belt and the Banker leave early, to take the Teenager and the Drama Queen to some sporting event. Their youngest, Wide-body Camry, eagerly and cheerily waves goodbye at all of us and departs before the rest of his family. The Black Belt tries to get my brother-in-law’s (the Technician’s) attention to move the car. It takes a while and the chaos level increases as the logistics are negotiated but eventually, they are gone. Other noise flows into the gap, the youngest Grump and her older sister Princess now hungry. Spiderboy and his younger brother Bouncer are still full of hyperactivity and would not eat even if you had the energy to force-feed them.
Throughout all this Ba and I eat, participating in the conversation but blissfully unaffected by all the waves of childhood drama; Ba because it has never been his role to muddy himself in the child-rearing arena and me because none of them are mine. I stir them up (especially Grump) but their demands are met by another.
After the Accountant, the Big Boss and I clean up, we all sit in the lounge room, chatting. I listen to Um tell me the story (for the fifth time) about how she and three of my aunts mistook some other Asian girl with long hair and glasses for me. It was only when one of my aunts said, “Now OTT is a lawyer, she drives a really nice car.” Um said (knowing me too well), “She must have borrowed it or something – that’s not her kind of car.” Um looks over and, thankfully as my mother, she realises that the girl in the nice car is not her daughter. It’s a hilarious story she says. I try not to tell her that she has told me already but I blurt it out in annoyance as she begins to repeat bits to make me laugh. I didn’t really find it particularly funny in the first place.
Ba has fallen asleep even with the kids screaming and three conversations going on around him. I gently wake him when I leave, squeezing his arm. I also give Um a kiss – to show her that I love her even though I speak to her so disrespectfully almost all the time. As I am pulling away in my little red car not very suited to up-and-coming-very-rich-lawyer, Um rushes up with fruit from the garden – guava and dragonfruit – and a bag of Vietnamese veggies like spinach called ‘morning glory’. I take it and drive off waving, promising to be there again sooner than last time. The tunes of Augie March draw me back into the outside world, which seems somehow drab and less real then my truest home – my family.