The first thing that hits me is the smell. The heady aroma of coconut milk, Thai red chilis, and curry spices, so thick it makes the air feel heavy and sluggish, brings to mind Chinese New Year and various festivities. Barring annual celebrations, Ma rarely made her famous chicken curry, because it was a sweaty, sneezy, 4-hour affair, constantly watching and stirring the pot of curry lest it burns. But today is special because it’s the first time I brought Jay home to meet them.
Despite the threat of a sneezing fit, I had to venture into the kitchen and sneak a peek at the vat of hell. Ma stands tall on her stool, conducting her symphony of curry with her trusty ladle, while Pa stands at the sink, shirt off, peeling potatoes, his booming voice ricocheted off the walls about Fatty Weng’s increasing the price of potatoes again. “No wonder he’s fat, he’s skimming it off folks like us over some potatoes! And the price of fish too. Greedy bastard.” Pa says with a frown and shake of his head and dives back into peeling, the chunky potato in his hand whittled down by the wrath of his sharp knife.
As chief cook for the day, ma gets the honor to use the only fan in the kitchen, but the fan seemed woefully inadequate against the might and wrath of her curry. Even in her breezy garb – a sleeveless floral blouse and black Bermuda shorts, it was helpless against the heat, the hairs at the nape of her neck plastered against her skin, slick and wet with sweat. Pa notices her discomfort, and motions for me to switch the fan to its highest setting, but it seems to do little good in the enveloping heat of the kitchen. The fiery dish seems to have the same effect on her mood, and I know instinctively now is the time to back out of the kitchen. Quickly. But my radar must have been rusty because she pounces on me in a flash. “Stop standing here and go do something useful, like getting the table ready!” Ma barks, her jowl jiggling from the exertion. Not satisfied with this admonishment, she yells in Hainanese, the language she uses whenever she wants to hide her ugly thoughts from guests:
“You can’t even peel a potato well. God knows you are useless. Only a fool of a man will marry you. I wonder what Jay sees in you.”
Pa keeps his head down and his mouth shut, lest ma’s wrath turns on him. I look at him, but my usual bulldozer of a father avoids eye contact – it’s every man for himself when ma is in one of her moods. A thousand retorts go through my mind, my chest feeling tight and hot from years of keeping my mouth shut. It’s not worth it, let it pass, it’s not worth it, let it pass, I repeat to myself, as my mind recalls an all too familiar memory. An angry reply to my mother, an hour-long beating with her trusty rattan cane, the red welts on my skin a mark of her anger transferred and dissipating with each whoosh of the cane.
She can’t beat me now, but the mark remains.
From the corner of my eye, safe in the confines of the dining room, I spy Ma giving Pa a spoonful of curry to taste. “It needs a bit more turmeric, maybe some cumin,” Pa declares as he shuffles off to the fridge for more ingredients. Ma takes a sip from the piping hot spoon and concurs. He dusts the vat with a sprinkle of turmeric, while Ma stirs, the two of them working in symphony. Sip, dust, stir. Sip, dust, stir. Their backs to me, he gives ma a small squeeze of her waist, and she smiles.
As I observed through the crack of the kitchen sliding door, I felt like the interloper in their love story. As Ma has said multiple times, 生叉烧好过生你 (giving birth to Chinese BBQ pork is better than giving birth to me). At least BBQ pork can be eaten. I have often wondered why they chose to have me if she hated me so much. I was certainly not the boy that they hoped for, but I had the personality and audaciousness of a boy. Which was unbecoming of a girl. I was supposed to be an extension of my mother, not an independent human being with thoughts, hopes and dreams of my own. And this had to be stopped.
Grandma’s method of beating her with an iron whip till her fury was spent by the sight of my mother’s bloody form became ma’s tool of punishment as well. But in her misguided notion to protect me from the pain that she went through, she replaced the iron whip with a torrent of verbal abuse and caning. Her constant invectives and the angry welts on my skin throughout my childhood produced a wall of silence as my only shield of protection.
Jay looks at me with concern in his eyes. He may not know what she’s saying, but he senses my inner turmoil and distress whenever I am home. He slips his big, warm hand into mine and squeezes it, and I know I am safe. And loved.