I was listening to a Chinese pop song on an airplane recently, called “此刻你心裡想起誰” (“Who Are You Thinking of Right Now”), and I thought about the time right after college, eight years ago, when I was living with my dad in Hong Kong and he was throwing one of his many tantrums, exasperated that I still wasn’t paying rent.
“I should have never brought you into this world,” he said. I told him I would move out.
The next evening, I was waiting for a bus under the Canal Road Flyover when he called to apologize.
“I love you,” he said. “You can always stay with me.”
I barely remember my waigong 外公, my mother’s father, so barely I’m not sure if my image of him is merely from the few photographs there are of us: he gaunt, in pajamas, lying on the couch in the house in Seven Hills that my grandparents bought with whatever they had left after moving from Indonesia to Taiwan to Australia. He was ill.
When my mother talks about him, she talks about when she was little, when he was a doting father who walked her and her sisters to the local swimming pool in Bandung. He would walk up the hill as they rode in the bechak he hired but was too heavy to ride in, or he would take them on autumn nights to the old Dutch teahouse at the top of a hill so they could look at the moon. When my mother talks about her father, she either talks about this period or about the long rest of his life, which she writes off as depressed, self-pitying, and destructive to his relationships with his wife and his sons. She talks about the time she opened his liquor cabinet in the house in Seven Hills and threw out everything, even the good whisky, how he didn’t protest but still found a way, this recent Chinese immigrant to Australia who spoke little English, to either catch a taxi to get more liquor or have it delivered to the house in Seven Hills. And [End Page 78] she talks about how she now knows it was no use, how she feels guilty, even, for throwing away his good whisky. Sometimes, she says, things are just bad.
I often remind myself that 外公 died when he was sixty-six, which is how old my own father was four years ago. We were in Taipei, which would have been sometime between 1986 and 1988. He was born in Bandung, sometime between 1920 and 1922. He died in Sydney. My mother didn’t go to the funeral.
I was behind. I had brought Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul to Istanbul, but days later and already so many miles gone from Istanbul down one of the old Orient Express routes to Belgrade, I was still less than halfway through, still hadn’t cracked the spine of a book about the city I had just left. It rested on the bed I had just made; I am not one to object when the train staff come in and make your bed for you, but when they don’t, when the carriage is rolling and the view in your window keeps changing (when I woke up the next morning, there was snow layered all across Bulgaria), there is something soothing about pulling down the sofa so that it becomes a bed, about tucking in the bedding and putting the pillowcase on the pillow. It’s like you are in this magical house on wheels, and it can move from place to place and transform from a sitting room into a bedroom with the flick of a few latches here and there.
I can’t be sure, but I believe my dad called while we were still in Turkey, before we crossed the border and Bulgarian officers banged on our doors and yelled at us and pulled us off the train for our passport checks, something close to the way I imagine it might have been done decades ago, if, of course, you could have crossed the border then. I was in bed already, with Istanbul...