Return to Places Unknown
A personal essay about tracing family history and looking for home by Janna Tay.
Did I ever show you the map of the Earth before the Ice Age? These dotted lines on the land are the coastlines today.
Water levels rose.
Yeah, because the ice melted. See this? My cousin and I huddle over his phone. He’s pointing to the north of Australia. And this? His finger slides to a mass joining China to Borneo. Zooms in. All connected. You could’ve walked. And if you were establishing a major city, where would you build?
Next to the sea.
Next to the sea. His eyes, shining. So much is buried, and seawater corrodes, so of course we can’t find it. The Great Flood. Someone knew what they were doing.
It appears in every story, you know, the flood —
Can’t find what?
He traces an area covered entirely by sea. Atlantis.
We get off the MRT in Chinatown. We had, coincidentally, found ourselves in Singapore at the same time, and so we were out for one of our typical late-night city walks.
Atlantis! he cries, pointing upwards. Clinging to a building’s edge, a sign: “ATLANTIS” in vertical neon. See? It’s everywhere.
When you come alive to an idea, it presents itself to you everywhere. Some attribute a higher meaning to this synchronicity; others think our pattern-hungry brains fall prey to frequency illusions and seek what we project into the world. What matters is that it happens. That there are parts of us beyond consciousness which need this, as I have needed this hour and not known it.
The people of Atlantis, he continues, discovered an endless energy source. A superior civilisation, wiped out by its own hubris. And the Library of Alexandria — all the knowledge, conveniently ‘lost’. Did I tell you about the 12-foot remains, ancient remains in graves, found in China? Giants. Explain that.
Suppose we could. Suppose you’re right and there were giants and endless sources of power, but all of it is now lost or obscured. What does it matter?
He leans back and shrugs. It doesn’t, really. Truth. So what?
I think truth counts for something.
But we’ll never get to it.
No, we can’t go back. Maybe that’s the point.
Maybe. I don’t regret it, though — the pull of it, the hours I’ve sunk into this. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I started wondering about giants. It’s what it does to you, the process of it. The hunt.
Here’s how it began. Four brothers moved from the coast of Fujian to four different towns in Guangdong. The fourth brother established the town of Liyang. Our line descends from his second son. Hundreds of years later, your paternal grandfather leaves in a boat for Malaysia —
My second cousin pauses. We sit in a dimly-lit food court in Singapore across a table he’s dotted with brown paper wrappings and ceramic coffee cups to outline the southern coast of China.
Hundreds of years later? I ask.
But what happened in between the fourth brother and my grandfather, my Ah Kong?
In between? He looks at me scornfully, a little defensively. You want to know? Go back to China.
Auckland, New Zealand to Kuching, Malaysia. 2018.
It was enough for me to be in Malaysia. When I was a kid, my parents’ hometown — the town in which I was born — was the only place we visited. They refer to Kuching as “home” and to trips there as going “back”. Having lived in Auckland since the age of four, the idea of “back” was the first suspicion I had that perhaps I wasn’t from New Zealand. (The second was racism.)
My parents saved their optometrist visits and dental work for Kuching. They asked for laksa paste, belacan and dried shrimps. They sent Sanitarium Cluster Crisps, Whittaker’s chocolate and promises of return.
But a return to what? It always felt like we were on an extended vacation — eventually the visa would run out and we’d have to go back. Except for me, there’s no such thing as “back”. My body shuts down in the humidity and heat. We go to dinner after dinner, paying respects to strangers who are related to me. To listen to my parents, so much of who I was seemed to be elsewhere. To arrive from elsewhere is to live forever gazing over your shoulder, to never be able to move forward without watching your back. But I was all in Auckland. Right?
Noon — I land in Kuching. After the heat, the language hits. In Auckland, our house was the only place I’d hear the turbulent mix of Hokkien, English, Malay and Mandarin; here, it’s the lingua franca. It’s the only place I don’t feel ashamed to hear my parents speak it. I feel, instead, shame at my inability to speak it back to them, despite the words passing easily into my head. My education is incomplete — it’s as if there are pipes in my brain that lie unconnected, and everyone pours in so much language for no return. With nowhere to go, the lines gather and gather until I think I’ll burst.
Liyang, China. 1940s.
Drought for months.
The son of a basket weaver is roused by his father pulling on shoes, setting out before dawn for the markets in the next town. As if one could outrun this famine. And for what? He catches his father’s eye but neither says goodbye.
A flicker on the opposite corner of the room. His older brother shakes out a small flame and tosses something through the window. He pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket and smooths it out on a narrow patch of polished dirt between the sleeping bodies.
Did I ever show you this? It’s a map in smudged black ink, worn well along the creases. He taps a small faded dot. That’s us. His finger traces a vast expanse before circling an island at the base of a thin strip of land. 新加坡. Singapore.
You’ve talked about it before.
Talk. He smirks. His cigarette flares. It’s more than that now. There’s a boat leaving soon. Coming?
We can’t stay. We’ll die like they did.
Two brothers between them, buried young. The gap between their years like a lake of dark water. This, the bridge.
But I can’t take her. It’s dangerous.
So don’t take her. She can come later.
He was the fifth son, recently married to the sixteen-year-old daughter of a neighbouring family. They had met for the first time on their wedding day, as everyone else did.
He’s silent. He can’t deny the desire to leave and find something more. Surely there was more than this — than weaving baskets and keeping shop and scraping a few coins together to stave off death. And for what?
Singapore is raw, untouched land. No one who goes ever comes back because it’s so good there. Soil so fertile you drop a seed one day and it sprouts the next, and I heard the other day — you know what? He takes one last draw on his cigarette, stubs it out, and places it gingerly on the sill. I don’t know why I’m wasting my energy trying to convince you if you’re too scared —
Kuching, Malaysia. 2018.
Dad, Dad. Ask him what year he left.
And how old is he?
I’d arrived earlier that morning in Kuching to find myself at a family reunion of more than 65 people. My aunts had invited multiple tiers of cousins and delayed the gathering a week for my arrival.
The fifth son would eventually become Ah Kong, my paternal grandfather, but he died before I was born. I had cornered instead my Dad’s cousin, this wizened old man with rogue dentures. He was a teenager when he got on the boat with Ah Kong. My father wouldn’t be born for another two decades.
It took a week. Over 500 of us were on the boat. We stopped at Singapore where we were held in a camp for a month. And then they let us go to Malaysia.
My father was volleying between Teochew and English. I understand Hokkien, but not Teochew — while the two dialects are similar, sometimes they’re too similar. Words that sound the same mean different things.
I tugged on Dad’s arm. Ask him why Ah Kong went to Malaysia. How come Ah Kong’s brother stayed in Singapore?
Because they were headed for different places. He was never going to stay in Singapore. His papers were for Malaysia.
My aunts and uncles pull their plastic chairs closer and ask what I’m doing.
Writing a family history, I say. They’re bemused, unsure whether this is an act of honour or outside scrutiny. Genealogy is important to them in order to understand where the individual sits in the web of ancestors. To address a relative by the proper title is to acknowledge the kinship relation which determines hierarchy and respect.
I’d never found it important. I was raised apart from such embeddedness. But for them, two bound by blood can never stand, even in name, without the other. Entanglement is the starting position. I say family and I say history without saying I’m looking for home. Perhaps they would’ve thought the three to be one and the same.
Auckland, New Zealand. 2000s.
It’s become my go-to in icebreakers. These fragments, inherited, feel unreal so I pawn them off as novelties sold for brief glimmers of acceptance. In the game of Two Truths and One Lie, make three statements about yourself and bury the lie.
I have six grandparents. Truth.
“Lie.” “Nah, it’s so out there it has to be true.” “But how do you have six grandparents?” “Some sort of remarriage, blended family thing. Like the Kardashians.” “I don’t think so…” “How many grandparents are you meant to have anyway?”
I explain that the usual number is four, that I have six because my mother was adopted by her uncle and aunt who were unable to conceive. In such circumstances, it was believed that adopting a child makes way for the couple to have their own biological children. But her uncle didn’t want to go outside the bloodline, and so her father had to give her up as his fifth and youngest child. That’s how her uncle became my grandfather — my Gung-Gung — and his wife my Ma-Ma.
It was the family matriarch, my great-grandmother Ah Cho, who forced their hands. Throughout my mother’s childhood, Ah Cho told her that since her birth parents had given her away, she had to behave or her new family wouldn’t want her either. Lie.
Why would she do that? I ask.
Mum shrugs. Probably thought I was better off being the only child in a wealthier family. I should’ve been grateful. I am grateful. You would’ve thought Ah Cho understood what it felt like, though.
She was adopted too. Sold to Malaysia from China as a child bride.
Maybe it means that she did understand. That’s why she was harsh. Truth? She knew what it took and saw it the only way she could. You were both doing your duty. If she survived, so could you.
Everywhere. All the time.
What happens at the end of displacement? I wish I could look back and see no gaps, no sunken ages. I wish I could trace my line to ancient kingdoms and say of a land that I belonged to it. But instead I’m an island-hopper, and my heritage is an intimate knowledge of local bus routes and Asian marts.
I have nothing true to pass on. In Kuching, I try to earn the fact that I look this way; in Auckland, I try to prove myself despite it. John Berger writes that “to emigrate is always to dismantle the centre of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments.” Home, he says, is the centre of the real, the place from which everything makes sense. “Without a home at the centre of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in non-being, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation.”
When origins are complex, explanations become elaborate. Mini-histories are divulged as small defences. I was born in east Malaysia but was raised in Auckland. My ancestors moved to Malaysia from China but we consider ourselves Malaysian Chinese, not China Chinese. But I have lived all my life in east Auckland and could walk you blindfolded through each crossing.
In all these places, I am the outsider and the prodigal. I ask my family for their stories, for the pieces of their lives so mundane they’re barely thought of. No one who is really in the family does this because they don’t need to, because it’s who they are — simply by living, the history is in their veins, their lives steeped in all that has come before. They are history; I am historian. Does this mean the line has died within me?
Kuching, Malaysia. 1990s.
Sometimes the dream goes awry and sometimes you don’t know until it’s beaten out of you. As when Ah Cho’s husband dies in a lorry accident on his way home and my mother’s fathers wake up fatherless.
It isn’t until after the funeral that my Gung-Gung begins to understand what this means for him. For three days, the body lay in the largest room of the house. Visitors came to light joss sticks, view the body and leave money known as “white gold”. He’d tried to push it down but still the dream burned.
He sees it in her face when he enters the kitchen.
When will you start? Tomorrow?
I can’t, he says.
Can’t? Her hands still.
I want to go to university. Her mouth hardens. This isn’t a new conversation but it’s the first time he’s felt it start to slip away.
Do you want us to starve?
“Your Gung-Gung was a dreamer,” my mother would say.
I can work and study —
It won’t be enough. Your father worked day and night and we barely have enough. Your study costs money.
I’ll work harder. I’ll go to night school. They can help —
“Head in the clouds. Lover of beauty.”
They’re children! You have to work.
“A strict man. He instilled Chinese values in us. Filial piety. Respect. Hard work.”
You would kill us all?
It’s not like that.
“He expected us to go to university. No question. He rapped my knuckles when I didn’t get a good placing in class.”
You would let your brother and sister die?
It’s not like that.
In the next room, the two younger children huddle together. For days, the house had been filled with the hum of visitors. It wasn’t the ruckus of celebration, like New Year when people would breeze in and out with red packets and delicate cookies. It was a lower murmur of sorrow and pity but it was noise nonetheless. After they’d gone, the house sagged with the silence of grief and fear. So the first slap was especially stark. A knife through fabric, the first rumble of monsoon season. That grey thunderstorm light. And the second and the third and the fourth came and came, but unlike the rain they felt each one as if it were their own necks and hands and knees that were beaten.
Kuching, Malaysia. 2018.
“Rambutan?” My uncle plucked several spiky red orbs off the tree, unseamed one, and threw the peel over his shoulder before offering it to me. At the base of the tree was a heap of shattered eggshells. “Good fertiliser,” he said. Good calcium. “Just throw the seed onto the ground.”
He walked me through his garden. Coconut, durian, mango, passionfruit, haphazard pineapples, lemon, longan, custard apple, something that looked like raspberry, something that looked like lavender. Was it lavender? It wasn’t lavender. He didn’t know what it was called. But if you put the purple flowers in a cloth bag and left it among your clothes, it kept the cockroaches away. So said his father.
I stumbled on the grass, coarse and uneven. “This was passionfruit,” he said as we ducked beneath a web of brittle branches which spiralled around low netting. “But a coconut fell and killed it.”
My shirt was beginning to stick to my back. Moving through the humidity felt like walking into the sea against the tide.
“We only have lemons and plums and a few persimmons we have to protect from birds,” I said. At our previous house, we had a wall of mandarins and a fig tree. But never anything like this tangle of fruits where you couldn’t move a metre without stumbling into sweetness.
“The birds only come for the custard apples.” The bigger ones were wrapped in plastic bags. He rescued an overripe one, split and swarming with ants, and hung it in the kitchen through the window. “Some you have to cut back so they can grow,” he said, crouching next to a bald-looking shrub. He picked something and handed it to me. A spiky cluster of bright berries.
Land so fertile. Imagine just falling to the ground and taking root and flourishing because seed and soil were so suited to one another, their kinship so deep. Here, I might have. Forever the thought of who I might’ve been. Fruits have seeds so the line spreads far, as if the plant wants you to pick a papaya, eat it elsewhere and discard the seeds on fertile ground. Sometimes I imagine this is how we sprang — sudden and without explanation in unaccustomed earth, however shallow. However miraculous.
Auckland, New Zealand. 2018.
Every house we’ve lived in has been cluttered with plants. There are the indoor plants, the ceramic pots outside, and the agave lining the driveway. Dad buys fruit trees from Plant Barn and defends them against birds and ants. When I was younger, he raised bonsai. He’s not much of a reader but I remember him buying books about bonsai, studying them carefully.
“All my plants will die,” he said before he left with my mother for Kuching two weekends before I did.
“I’ll water them,” I said, achieving a fifty-percent success rate. His method is to fill an old Sprite bottle to the brim and distribute the water amongst the house plants. A third for the large leafy one, a third for the small leafy one, and a third for the medium spiky one. None for the orchid. I did this in an uneven panic because the leaves had begun to brown, but soil takes time to absorb so it looked like I’d created a flood of small oceans. Outside, though, the whir of sprinklers.
Dad outside, early spring. He comes back in, rumpled and muddy, wiping sweat from his forehead and neck. It isn’t until the next day that I see it as I come down the driveway. The plants, bald and stocky, almost too short to throw shadows in the sun.
Kuching, Malaysia. 1960s.
This, I imagine, is how the orchard looked. This in the back of my father’s mind.
Ah Kong arrives in Malaysia on the island of Borneo and stakes out a plot of land next to a river and close to the sea. They grow watermelon, corn, rice, coconuts, cacao, oranges. They catch fish and shrimp and preserve everything in the sun. They raise ten children, of which Dad is ninth.
On the day she notices that the 300 orange trees have begun to fruit in their first year, my grandmother starts pruning. This isn’t good, she says.
Stop. Ah Kong rushes in, kneeling through the carnage to stay her hand. They’ll die.
Fruit this early will stunt growth.
What do you know? Leave them alone.
So she does. She does until he heads into town one weekend. And then she takes saw to tree, pruning all 300 within an inch of their lives.
“He was so mad,” said my dad, pulling his gumboots off, “he didn’t speak to her for months.”
“Did they survive?”
A laugh. “Yeah. We harvested five or six big baskets every two weeks. Served us well for six years.”
Auckland, New Zealand. 2018.
I’ve felt the pull of that story for years: her stubbornness, his denial. If you ask me where I’m from, I’m partly from that moment. And all of these moments that bleed into memory and mannerism, into the future.
For Taiye Selasi, it makes no sense to be “from” a nation, for the nation is invented. To be “from” anywhere is to know what it is to be embedded in its local life: the rituals, relationships and restrictions, following Selasi’s categorisation. These defy geography. Familiarity is a gradient, not a binary or a border. What will I pass on? Perhaps the better questions are Where have I been a local? What can I build from these fragments? I’ve been a local in my Auckland suburb, in my aunts’ houses in Kuching, in my friends’ London and Melbourne and San Francisco rooms over Skype. What Kuching food do you want to eat? my aunts ask when I land — a variation on Have you eaten? A way of saying Welcome back to a place you’ve never known firsthand, to arms you’ve only known occasionally.
I’ve spent most of my life on an Auckland peninsula headed by a cliff edge with rock-hewn steps and no railing. How perilous, I’d thought in the month prior when a string of relatives visited and we became temporary tour guides. I’ve never felt fully at rest in Auckland — only enough to reject Kuching for acceptance here. How perilous.
Yet how beautiful everything became, or at least how mine when I had to introduce every corner I’d taken for granted. “This is the marina and the ferry,” I hear myself say, but I see the sunrises and sunsets caught daily in my commutes. “A beach” (how Mum would pack char kuey teow in a picnic basket). “Lived where — this house? Eleven years” (the fear that things would always be this way, the fear that someday they wouldn’t).
Kuching, Malaysia. 2018.
They pick me up from the airport. “Things only go one way in this car,” my mother explains when the window won’t wind up. My father has to undo it from the driver’s seat. The radio volume only increases. The air conditioning only blasts. The seatbelts hang slack at the door. I’m in the backseat, unstrapped, rattling around as my father relearns a manual transmission. He tells me he stalled the other day; I believe him. The car tyres squeal when we round a corner. “It’s not illegal here,” he says, “to go without a seatbelt.” “Yes but it doesn’t make it any safer.” The next day, six of us pile into my uncle’s five-seater the way we did when the cousins were kids. In the back — me, my mother, her sister, my cousin born eight hours after me in the same hospital. The sisters in successive labour, neither hurting alone. No one slides an inch when we make a sharp turn, so tightly are we packed. Suddenly the feeling that nothing in the world can touch me.
Kuching, Malaysia. 2018.
We watch my mother pushing open the gate of her parents’ house. Sitting at the end of a short road, the house is marked by a red and white sign that bears the family name and peers from behind a spray of orange flowers grown unruly.
She has insisted we visit this house once more before we leave. She wants to rescue old photos. “Don’t be shocked,” she warns. The house is empty and has been robbed many times. Drawers lie open, their contents rifled through and overflowing. It’s sunny now but soon the afternoon thunderstorms will gather, darkening the house with grey monsoon.
The last time I remember being here, Gung-Gung was alive. He wore socks as he lay, skin and bone, on the couch wrapped in a blanket. I couldn’t go to his funeral but Mum told me of the body shrouded in this room, of the people who paid respects, the white T-shirts they wore while gathered around the black gravestone with golden characters emblazoned, how they exaggerated his age to increase his esteem. How they made him more than he was, perhaps to fill the silence now, to feel how alive he once was.
I learn later from Mum that he was beaten across the legs until he fell to his knees in submission. She finds a photo of him goofing around with my grandmother. Mum’s parents, having fun. “I didn’t know he did that,” she says. “I didn’t know that side of him.” To her, he’d been stern, then caring. He’d broken along the cracks his mother had laid into him, as my mother broke along the cracks he’d laid into her. In this house, I felt the temporal distance we spanned, how far she had come in order to return. He had grafted her onto his line in this house, had named her Dreaming Flower. Where was that dream now? It doesn’t make it easier, but understanding the line is a step in forward motion. It changes how you run — towards something instead of away from.
I find pictures of my brother and myself. Gung-Gung’s cursive hand scrawls across the back, all in Chinese except for our English names. What to do with these fragments? Sometimes you stay and home still moves away, and together you become mutually incomprehensible to one another. Sine waves in sync eventually fall into total opposition. I wonder if he thought as he wrote, I don’t know them, their hearts. Still, he wrote and called and asked after us. All that language for no return, and now I’ve come back too late. So much love from a distance I may never be able to span.
Auckland, New Zealand. 2000s.
Sometimes the dream doesn’t take the way you wanted. My parents met while studying in New Zealand, returned to Kuching to have my brother and me, and then moved to Auckland, away from their families. I was four; he was seven. It was in Auckland that he was diagnosed with autism. My parents struggled alone, and we grew apart in a way that happens when autistic children divert entire lives and make secondary parents of their siblings.
Although we visited Kuching every few years, I never got to know most of my relatives. I would never see Dad’s mother, my Ah Ma, again. That tiny, enterprising woman who felled trees and dissolved sugar over watermelons to sell them sweeter. In photos, she holds me on her lap, covers my hands with her own, bodies which have lost those memories, as pillows do, springing back with no knowledge of the night. But she lives on in the way she has marked her children — in their resemblances, in the ways they laugh, in my aunts and uncles who open their homes to me, not because they know me but because of who I am. Brother’s daughter. Son’s cousin. Mother’s granddaughter.
How strange to exist in the possessive, to have provenance. How strange to never have stood alone and known it. When I was little, I thought flat world maps neglected the other side of the sphere. I turned one over and found it blank. How had so many intelligent people forgotten to chart the rest of the world? No wonder we’d lost so many cities. And then I learned it was all there, that the ends wrapped around to meet one another. So when you run in a straight line away from any given point, you’re also running back towards it again.
Auckland, New Zealand. 2019.
He doesn’t quite believe it.
There, I say, zooming in. Kampung Rebak — the shore Ah Kong landed on and built a home, around which a community grew. The house was open to anyone: relatives, travellers, animals, strangers who’d lost their way. Kampung Rebak, the village my father grew up in.
We didn’t even have electricity, he says. They were fishermen and farmers with no fridges. Seafood and meat were packed in salt and laid out in the sun to dry. At sundown, the light moved to candles and oil lamps. And now the satellites have thrust his little corner online.
We’d visited with his sisters about eight years before. During their youth, the trip had been a six-hour boat ride from kampung to city. By car, it was two to three hours though it still involved a ferry. I was fourteen at the time and didn’t care about anywhere without air conditioning.
But things had changed. The house had been knocked down and rebuilt with smooth tiles, green and pink paint, electricity, running water. The river now met with a dam, so it was little more than a trickle. I think that’s what Dad was saddest about. That and how he’d begun losing the Malay dialect he’d grown up with. His sisters conversed with ease but the words no longer came to him. I know the feeling well.
All of this: mapped. Labelled.
I don’t think that’s our river, he says. Maybe it’s a different part. Ours was more of an offshoot.
It’s real when Google says so, but it isn’t his anymore.
Would you go back to Kuching? I ask.
There’s a photo of his parents, my Ah Kong and Ah Ma, with my cousins in Australia. They wear huge coats. Ah Kong stares grimly at the camera. Though they were supposed to stay for eight weeks, he wanted to return to Kuching after two because it was too cold. So they did. He would die there a few years later. Did they miss China? Does my father miss Malaysia? Would I miss New Zealand? Or do we simply go where the body feels most at rest?
For all the talk of “back”, there is no return. Loss itself is home. I can only sit here with him now and figure out how to move forward amid the fragments we hold and the ones that have slipped from our grasp. How to belong in the in-between.
It’s got a postcode, I say.
Google Maps makes everything more tangible but it also locks his memories in a historical dream-world. In Auckland, things don’t grow so easily. My father coaxes herbs from the ground but they keep dying. Or maybe crops die everywhere just as often but no one speaks of it. All we have is what we remember, and this we spin into myth.
Suddenly he yells my name.
What? What’s wrong?
The orchid! He’s up and out of the chair, legging it for the potted twig on the counter. Only it no longer looks like a dead branch balanced in soil. Pink buds dot its skeleton, and two have begun, nervously, to open.
I thought it was dead! he cries. It flowered once and then never again.
How long has it been?
Oh, gee, I’ve been watering it… maybe four or five years? I nearly gave up.
I certainly hadn’t watered it. Sometimes the dream comes back, not how you imagined but perhaps the way you needed. Sometimes things take root and grow.
He turns to me, his eyes shining. It’s going to be a good year, he says. A good, good year.
Kuching, Malaysia. 2018.
The torrent lightens. The rain dials down, sporadic and uneven as if through the gaps of two cupped hands. Somewhere, the memory of sponge and pail showers on hot concrete, the soapy run-off racing down the driveway to the drains. And somehow I’m certain it’s mine from the years I knew nothing but this place. A fragment I hold, a souvenir of that past self not stolen from dreams or photos or stories.
I’ve climbed into the driver’s seat, Dad in the passenger, Mum in the back sorting through photos taken from the drawers. We’ve travelled so far in geography and time just to circle back to the simplest of acts once taken for granted every Sunday: driving home from my grandparents’ house.
I don’t know when we’ll be back here, all three of us like this, but this biennial return has become its own anchor. We belong to this perpetual transit. And of those in-between spaces that carry us away but allow us to make our own way back, however changed we might be — we make our home.
Jalan-jalan, Dad says, let’s go. The road down from my grandparents’ gate is not long but it’s straight.
Start the engine, he says.
I start the engine.
Step on the clutch and move the stick into first gear.
Now the accelerator — gently — gently —
The engine revs.
Okay, take your foot off the clutch — slowly —
The engine chokes and dies.
It dies and dies until I move a few metres and then it dies when I try to change gear. It dies so often that we have to roll down the windows because the air conditioning is off more than on. Rain slips in.
How did we ever learn in this heat, my mother says.
My driving instructor would yell at me, she says, and imitates him in Hokkien.
I kill it all the way to the junction. And then Dad makes me reverse to the gate. A dog yaps, its whole body thrown into the task, as we backfire up and down, the car shuddering violently.
I’m terrible. This can’t be good for the car. Or that dog.
I give up, once I make it to second gear. Dad laughs, and we swap back at the T-junction. He turns out onto the main road and we make it home without stalling, the gear stick second nature to him once again
I don’t remember what happened the rest of that day, but I know every single bit of it is ours.
This piece was developed through Summer Fling, our mini-mentorship programme, supported by Foundation North.