(Excerpt from My Sweet Curiosity, Thistledown Press, 2009)
“Where’s Babá?” Dai Ling stood in the kitchen doorway, her eyes red and puffy.
“Sit down. We must talk,” Xian Ming said brusquely.
“Where is he?”
“Gone to the clinic. He was up at six. You want eggs, toast?”
“I’m not hungry.” Dai Ling headed for the back door, but Xian Ming blocked her way.
“No running away, Dai Ling.”
“I’m not. I’m going to see Babá.”
“Your Babá is too angry right now after what you told him last night. Sit down.”
Dai Ling sat reluctantly and Xian Ming placed a cup of steaming green tea in front of her and sat down next to her. She placed a cool hand over Dai Ling’s eyes. “You’ve been crying. Everybody in this house is unhappy.”
“He told you?”
“You can’t stop me seeing Talya. I love her.”
“Drink your tea.”
Dai Ling blew on her tea and sipped it gingerly.
“Do you remember China, Dai Ling?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You were already two years old when we left. Tell me what you remember,” Xian Ming insisted.
“I remember Grandma Geneviève,” she said, shrugging sulkily.
Grandma with her cloud of curly red hair and her French accent. Dai Ling remembered sitting on her knee, watching whisps of smoke curling into the air from the cigarette that dangled from Grandma’s hand. She had felt an unaccountable sadness and wriggled to get free.
“I remember sitting on the grass, a big grassy field, everything green and golden, the sun warm on my skin . . . ”
“Sounds like Zizhuyuan Park by the Beijing Zoo . . . ”
“There were no animals. There was a pond, lots of screaming kids, huge trees reaching into the sky …”
“Ah, Riverdale Park. Already in Toronto. I took you there every day. You played with the other kids, splashing each other in the water.”
“I wish I’d been born here!” Dai Ling burst out angrily. “I hate it that I can’t remember where things happened!”
“If you’d been born here you wouldn’t have known your grandma.”
Xian Ming’s mother, born Geneviève LaCharité in Montréal in 1942, had been a student of agriculture and a passionate Maoist. The Little Red Book was always on her desk, and when Geneviève wasn’t studying she was engaged in passionate cafeteria debates on Maoist doctrine.
“Come to China,” she had urged her friends, “The country is in a state of dynamic transition, and we can help with our knowledge of agriculture.”
“But they’re starving since Mao’s forced collectivization of farmland,” her friend said.
“There’s no movement forward without the sacrifice of lives,” Geneviève declared, her cheeks flushed.
The name of Xian Ming’s father was not registered at the hospital in Beijing and she never met him. Geneviève raised her alone, refusing to return to Canada, and she told the child bedtime stories about her Chinese father. Liu Zhen, she said, was a pipa player. His four-stringed lute was like a honey-colored teardrop, the strings callousing his fingers long before the sharp-stoned earth marked him. He had fallen in love with the tall, red-haired foreigner, and love had made them both careless. Liu had already been taken when Geneviève discovered her pregnancy.
“Where is he? Where is Liu?” she asked in her fractured Mandarin. A young woman, proud of her English, said, “Liu is taken for special training in correct political thinking.”
“Your father is a hero of the Revolution,” Geneviève told her daughter. “He was betrayed by a jealous comrade and falsely accused of criticizing Mao Zedong. Now your father is serving a prison sentence, but one day he’ll come for us.”
Xian Ming couldn’t wait. She fell in love with Jia Song Xiang, a handsome medical student with intense dark eyes and a passion for democratic reform. Jia Song was in the forefront of the student protests at Bejing University. When he realized the danger he was in, and already married with a baby, Xian Ming became their passport to freedom. Five years before the massacre at Tianenmen Square he received a visa for Canada on the basis of his wife’s dual nationality. They landed in Toronto in the spring of 1984, with Dai Ling in her father’s arms, barely two years old. Dai Ling had heard the story so many times.
“Your Babá was too involved in the political struggles, Dai Ling. It was dangerous for us. And we thought it would be a better life for you in Canada, more opportunities.”
“I would still have been a musician if we’d stayed in China.”
“But you wouldn’t have had freedom. Here you can play with any orchestra you choose. And this summer you will travel with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada! Don’t destroy your career after all your hard work. This Talya is a crazy girl.”
“Ma, I love Talya. You don’t know her.”
“I know enough. I won’t invite her to eat in my house again.”
“Then I won’t eat in your house again!” Dai Ling shouted, sweeping her tea cup onto the floor where it shattered.
“Dai Ling!” Xian Ming exclaimed. “Have respect for your parents. You are our daughter, the only one. What about our grandchildren?”
“I can’t believe it,” Dai Ling said, on her feet now. “I come out to you as a lesbian and all you can think about is grandchildren and my career! As if lesbians didn’t have careers and children.”
“What?” Xian Ming’s eyes were wide with bewilderment.
“Lots of lesbians have children, naturally or by donor … or even by adoption.”
“But you are all that we have left, Dai Ling,” Xian Ming said, her voice thick with emotion. “Don’t make your Babá throw you out.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m moving out!” she shouted as the back door slammed behind her.
Maybe our difficulties are just beginning, Xian Ming thought, in this crazy country where my daughter is blooming like a hybrid. What happened? Where did we lose her?
Jia Song was waiting for her when she returned. As Dai Ling entered quietly through the back-door Xian Ming looked up from the stove. “Your father is in the parlour.”
They had argued. “Don’t send her away,” she’d begged. “You’re at work all day, but my life is here at home. Dai Ling’s comings and goings are what I live for. We must be patient. This will pass.” But a door had closed in Jia Song. He was determined. As Dai Ling entered the parlor he stood abruptly, knocking the table where the orchid rested, causing its petals to tremble. They stared at each other, then he spoke, his speech curt and cold.
“Have you thought about what I said to you last night?”
“Babá, please don’t cause a fight. What about Ma?”
“I’m moving in with Talya.”
“I will not allow this.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“If you leave my house I will disown you.”
Dai Ling stared in disbelief. “You can’t do that. I’m your daughter.”
“You are no daughter of mine. You are unnatural.”
“Babá! No! Please listen to me, I . . . ”
“I’ve heard enough. You must obey me. I am your father.” A vein beat dangerously in the centre of his forehead.
“You’re cruel. You’ve never been like this . . . ” She trailed off, suddenly afraid as she realized that she couldn’t reach her father. Their shadows chased silently around the room, Jia Song puffing like a dragon, Dai Ling running, running, laughing, I’m in love with you, Babá, remember? She began to cry, wailing like a child. “It’s like my uncle, isn’t it? You’re going to banish me like my Communist uncle!”
Jia Song lunged forward, his hand raised and, as Dai Ling cringed, he froze. He turned suddenly, threw on his coat and overshoes in the hallway, and left by the front door, banging it behind him.
Xian Ming found Dai Ling standing like a ghost. When she saw her mother she began to wail again and Xian Ming took her in her arms. “Your Babá is right. You must do as he says, Dai Ling. Forget this silliness.”
“No!“ She wrenched free of Xian Ming’s arms. “I’d rather give up the cello than give up Talya! This is my decision, mine, Ma. I’m twenty-one years old. Stop treating me like a child.”
She ran from the parlour and up the stairs, leaving Xian Ming standing alone amidst her trembling plants. As Dai Ling threw clothing and shoes, books and sheet music into a suitcase she tried to still her mind because she couldn’t bear to think of what was happening. It was unbelievable, shocking. When the case was full and she was struggling to close the zipper she looked up suddenly and saw her red shui pao, a gift from her Babá, hanging on the back of the door, sprigs of pale bamboo snaking up and down the sleeves and front panels, and on the back a long-legged white crane with folded wings and bowed head. As she took the robe between her fingers and spread it the wings spread too, and she imagined Babá’s head appearing round the door, the tenderest of smiles hovering at his mouth, and she, a little girl again, drawing the sheet up under her chin. She hesitated a moment, then grabbed it from the back of the door and laid it on top and closed the case. As she left the room she turned back, standing in the doorway. She looked at her narrow bed, the bedside table with the soft pink light she’d read by — biographies of Jaqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma, Lives of the Composers — the half-empty closet with dust balls in the corners, the window overlooking Xian Ming’s garden. I’ve slept in this room all my life, she thought. I never thought to leave like this, never.
Her mother would not look at her as she passed by the parlour door. Dai Ling saw her from the corner of her eye, hunched over, face in her hands.
Xian Ming turned the earth with her spade, a steady rhythm, broken each time she bent to shake the weeds free and toss them into her wheelbarrow. When she was half-way down the first bed she stopped, leaned on her shovel and looked up at the sky. She still caught herself imagining that Geneviève might one day walk through the door, her red hair flaming, hands moving in quick gestures, punctuating her latest story. When she was a child Xian Ming had been embarrassed by her mother. All the children had laughed at her, and they’d resented Xian Ming and her Ma because they were exempt from Party criticism — they were foreigners. She’d done everything she could to fit in and to disassociate herself from Ma. Was that how Dai Ling felt about her and Jia Song, ashamed of her immigrant parents? She began to dig again, her spade opening the reluctant earth, packed tight against winter’s cold.
She’d stopped feeling guilty when Ma died; the grief had cleansed her of everything. After that she’d been able to see her wild French-Canadian mother in Dai Ling, condensed and distilled, her flamboyant gestures reined in. She remembered the deep rich sound of the cello floating from Dai Ling’s bedroom window. Xian Ming had loved it when Dai Ling brought her cello home to practice. Mrs. Jordao, her first teacher, had said, “You must take her to concerts, Mrs. Xiang. Dai Ling has talent, but it must be encouraged if she’s to flourish.” She remembered their first concert, at the Toronto Symphony Hall, Yo-Yo Ma playing, and Dai Ling, six years old, on Jia Song’s knee, hardly moving except for the fingers of her left hand playing the air. When the music ended and everyone applauded, Dai Ling had been quite still. It was a minute before she had turned to her parents, her face filled with wonder.
Xian Ming knelt and filled her hands with earth. She closed her eyes and crumbled it between her fingers, feeling for temperature and moisture content. She had learned about the earth from her Ma, about how to place and feed a plant until it bloomed and bore fruit.
She opened her eyes and saw Dai Ling standing at the gate.
“Isn’t it too early for planting?”
“I’m preparing the beds.”
“Is Babá here?”
“He’s at work. You know that. You coming home?”
Dai Ling shook her head. “I miss you, Ma.”
“I miss you too. Very quiet around here.”
“Is Babá okay?”
“What d’you think? You are his life.”
“Can’t you talk to him, Ma? Ask him to forgive me?”
“Your Babá doesn’t talk. He’s a different man since you left. When I try to talk to him we fight.”
“I’ve invited Talya to come on tour with us.”
“Dai Ling! This is not a vacation. It’s a big chance for your career.”
“I know, Ma. Don’t worry. Nothing can interfere with my music.”
“Something strange about that girl,” Xian Ming said, “Something missing.”
“There’s something missing in all of us, Ma. Isn’t that why we’re here, to find the missing pieces?”
“Too much trouble in that family. Sick mother, crazy father.”
“Remember how sad you were when Grandma died? You should have gone to see her, Ma.”
Xian Ming looked up abruptly and stared at her daughter. She seemed about to speak but stopped herself, her hands gripping the handle of her spade.
“I remember how you cried when the letters came. You tried to hide it, but I knew how much you missed her.
“So many times I asked your grandma to come to Canada, but she wrote to me and said, ‘I’m waiting here for your father. I cannot leave my country.’ I always intended to go back and see her.”
“I know, Ma. I know you would have gone back if you hadn’t had to pay for my cello lessons.”
Xian Ming shook her head. “You coming in? Have some tea?”
“No, Ma. I just wanted to thank you.”
A sudden shower fell through the sun’s rays, transforming the garden into a crystal of rainbow patterns glancing off each surface. Xian Ming turned her face to the sky to hide her tears. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
“Good for the garden,” she said, wiping her face with the back of her hand, leaving muddy streaks across her cheeks and forehead, “Good for the earth.” She remembered how Dai Ling’s music, floating from her open window each spring, had warmed the earth as she turned it, how she had expected their ritual to continue, in rhythm with the seasons, how precious was each moment of her daughter’s life that escaped her own greed for repetition.