It was the robes that set me off on the decision path that led to everything else. My mother and my sister Ruh were carrying them in from the car. Brightly coloured responsibility ceremony robes all ready for Ruh’s birthday the next day. Just like the robes I hadn’t gotten two years earlier for the ceremony I hadn’t had almost two years earlier. I’d thought I’d gotten over that disappointment. I’d spent that day on my own because everyone else had been busy, finally accepting that no-one was going to be coming with me and then taking myself off to the temple to make a donation from my pocket money and burn my incense on my own in front of a stern-faced priest.
I’m kid number eight and there are five more after me. That’s a lot of interests and activities and events to remember.
I held the door open for them and they swept in with their shopping, all happy excitement. Then I went upstairs to my room to look out my best set of clothes and polish my shoes for the next day.
I left my birthday present with the others as I went out to my gi class. When I got back, Mother was already fussing in a countdown. I walked through the door and was ordered, “You, shower, now!” As I went up the stairs I was followed by, “And then get ready to go to the temple!”
I was downstairs again twenty minutes later neatly dressed in my best clothes, the only black trousered figure in a room of traditional robes.
Mother stopped fussing over the set of father’s outer robe and shrieked at me, “What are you wearing?”
“My best clothes.”
“You’re supposed to wear your ceremonial robes!” She was almost screaming across the room at me and the rest of the family moved out of the way.
“They’re four years old and I’ve put on three inches.”
“You stuffed your face and got fat!?!” That sounded as bad as it reads in print.
“Up,” I corrected her, “not out.”
She settled immediately. “I’m sorry. You can wear…” She looked at my two older sisters who still lived at home, willowy like her while I’m blocky like father. “No, you can’t. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I tried. Several times. Other things were more important and you told me to be quiet.” I was careful to be neutral, not antagonistic or whining.
“Well, you can’t come dressed like that and it’s far too late to get you something else.” She’d decided a way ahead. “You can stay here and let the caterers in when they deliver the food for this afternoon. I’m sure you’ve got some work to do for Mr Heng.” Mr Heng tutored my siblings so they’d get scholarships. The family believed they were bright enough to be worth it.
“Mr Heng has never been paid to tutor me. I have no work to do for him.” A couple of my brothers nodded in agreement.
“Well, you can study for your exams next year, it’s not too early to start.” She nodded at me, satisfied with her solution.
“My finals were this year,” I corrected her as she began to turn back to my father. “We’ve just finished them and I’m waiting on my results.” I paused then added, unable to help myself, “You all keep telling me I’m stupid, so I expect I didn’t do very well.”
I left the room at that point as Hu, the older brother nearest to me in age, looked up from figuring on his fingers, saying in a surprised tone, “She’s right. It is this year. Oh, heck. Two years ago. I was the only one who didn’t go, wasn’t I?”
They came back in time for a late lunch, accompanied by the rest of the extended family. The length of their absence had already told me that they’d had the full blown ceremony laid on by arrangement for Ruh. I’d let the caterers in and watched them set up, but I’d decided that I didn’t think I could do the gracious guest thing at Ruh’s party so I took myself off to my room as everyone started getting out of the cars in front of the house.
Yes, I was jealous. Yes, I’d discovered I was still upset. No, I didn’t want it to be me instead of Ruh in the middle of this party. I did wish that I’d had a party like this when it had been my turn. My sixteenth birthday had competed with the provincial championship gi tournament, a couple of concerts family members had been playing in and one of my brothers being a groomsman at a wedding.
I’m not sure how much of what I felt when there was a knock on my bedroom door was surprise and how much was pleasure. It was my mother. “You need to come down to the party.” She had her being firm face on. “You’ll ruin it if you stay in here and sulk.”
I’d been crying, my eyes were wet, my nose was purple and, with complete disregard for anything else including reality, I was feeling both unloved and less loved than my siblings. “I don’t think I can behave in company at the moment,” I admitted. “It shouldn’t make a difference if everyone will just act the way they normally do when I do go to these things – if they just ignore me then everything will be fine.”
“We don’t ignore you.” My mother spoke firmly, positively.
“Which is why I don’t have robes to wear today, you’d forgotten which year of school I’m in and I didn’t have a responsibility ceremony.” I hadn’t opened the door the whole way and now I started closing it again. “I think I have less chance of ruining Ruh’s party if I stay in here.” I closed the door.
Kae was next. My eldest sister is a lot like our mother. Confident, determined and rarely not convinced that she’s right. Some of those are reasons why her husband loves her. “Have you finished sulking yet?”
“Can you explain why we don’t mark my birthday and the rest of you get what’s going on downstairs now?”
“Your birthday’s on at a very busy time of year,” Kae repeated something I’d told myself quite often.
“I know.” Then I added, “So, why didn’t you even call me for my last two birthdays? Even heaps late?”
“Ma and I were busy with the gi championships,” her reply was slightly defensive.
“Kae,” I almost started crying again, “no-one called for either birthday. I took myself to the temple for my responsibility ceremony. No-one wished me luck with my final exams. Then you do all this for Ruh. How would you feel if you were in my position?”
“That’s right. Everyone knows you’re beautiful and clever and talented and likable. You’ve never been on the outside hoping people you care about will like you anyway. Or had to face up to it when they don’t.” I slammed the door in her face. I’d felt my apparent maturity dropping with every word but I’d been unable to shut up. I locked the door not so much to stop anyone coming in but to stop myself rushing after Kae to apologize.
I ignored the next few knocks on the door, partly because I was crying again and partly in the hope that if I was left alone to get past the tears I could compose myself enough to go outside before the party was over to apologize to Kae without groveling, wish Rue a happy birthday and act like a normal person around some of the extended family. I’d managed to stop crying and I was drying my face when the door unlocked from the other side. Someone had involved the one person who could open every lock in the house, Father.
He opened the door wide as I stood up from where I’d been sitting on the bed. I was pleased that I’d hung up my jacket when I’d first come upstairs and my shoes were neatly tucked away. I don’t think anyone else had seen the inside of my room since I was twelve but now Father was standing inside the threshold and as many of the family who could were looking in through the doorway. Father looked around at the off-white walls, the unlined curtains, the faded rug on the bare boards, the furniture and bedcovers I’d had since I started school, the photo-poster of a bare to the waist Tai Ru Jin in a defensive pose across the room from a piece of calligraphy I’d bought at someone’s garage sale, and the light bulb that had been bare since the shade had smashed. “We truly meant,” he said quietly, “to redecorate this for you when you turned sixteen. I’m afraid time got away from us.”
“You can redo it in your colour,” suggested my maternal grandmother. “That would improve it.”
“My colour seems to be a dull olive sludge.” I gave a barking laugh. “I think I prefer this.”
“Oh,” my grandmother looked sympathetic, “that does make it difficult.”
“I’ve given the matter some thought,” that was Father again. “Our opportunities to make it up to you are very few. There’s your eighteenth and then your majority. And then there’s your birth prediction.”
“Oh?” I knew my birth prediction. It was very prosaic in a family where the sons are all being examined as potential reincarnations of an Immortal Scholar but I wasn’t prepared to embrace my predicted future just yet.
“Your happiness will come from your marriage and children,” my father beamed at me. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? I shall apply myself to finding you the perfect husband. You can have a nice big wedding, be settled in your own home and by, well not this time next year, the year after next you could have a baby too.”
I stared at him in horror. I couldn’t imagine why the “middle-aged bureaucrat” of my birth prediction would want to be married to me as I was. I wasn’t grown up enough. I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t interesting. My father seemed to be proposing a disaster and expecting me to be delighted with it.
“I’m hoping to get into tertiary school next year.” That was the truth. Even though I hadn’t been able to get my parents to sign the tertiary application I’d still put it in with my signature – I’d turn eighteen a month before the universities started and I hoped to pick up a place in the final sweep of offers.
“A final sweep place?” He raised an eyebrow at me. “I doubt that a place at any university I would countenance a child of mine attending would be available in the final sweep. No,” he smiled at me, “leave it to your mother and I, we’ll arrange everything. Wash your face now and come downstairs.” He swept away in a grand gesture, satisfied that he was engaged in fixing my world. Most of the family followed him.
Aunty Tael, my father’s sister, and her husband, Uncle Ebi, stayed behind. “Nai, your father means well,” she walked over and leant down to hug me, resplendent in royal blue and sea green, “but if he moves too fast for you, come and stay with us for the summer. My esteemed elder brother hasn’t quite conquered his tendency to talk at people instead of conversing with them.” She and Uncle Ebi gave each other a smile that made me think they were remembering the same thing.
I could have taken Aunty Tael up on her offer but I’d already decided what I was going to do.
I washed my face and went down stairs. I ate some food, talked to the relatives and kept the conversation on Ruh. I behaved. I smiled every so often and I helped clean up afterwards. When the relatives were gone and the house was tidy, I went upstairs and changed then went for a walk.
I went to see my gi master. Master Que looks like a villainous extra in a movie. His hair is too long and more than a bit wild. He’s got tanned skin, he’s sort of skinny, his squint almost looks like he only has one eye, he could bathe at least once more per week than he does and he smokes when he isn’t in the training room. The brown liquid in his tea cup isn’t always tea. His training school, where I seemed to be one of very few students, looked dilapidated from the outside.
Inside it was much better. The attentions of his cleaning lady showed and the training room was impeccably maintained. Master Que was in the kitchen slicing vegetables for his dinner when I arrived, a cigarette in his mouth and a tea cup of brown liquid at hand. “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow,” he’d taken the cigarette out of his mouth with the hand that wasn’t holding the knife. “Don’t you have a big party on at your place tonight?”
“That was this afternoon. Master,” the prospect of looking bad in his eyes was almost worse than looking bad in front of my family, “and I got upset about not having a big ceremony and a party when I was sixteen. I think I behaved badly.”
“Oh.” He took a draw on his cigarette. “Who did you kill?”
“Did you destroy the furniture, food and decorations?”
“Did you have a screaming temper tantrum in the middle of the party?”
“No. I went to my room, cried, locked the door and cried again. My father came and got me.”
“So you didn’t behave that badly after all.” Master Que puffed on his cigarette again. “You’re seventeen and a half and a bit. If you didn’t get carried away with your emotions and hormones sometimes, I’d be worried about you. So, why have you come to see me?” He recommenced chopping vegetables.
“I think that if we’re ever going to try the tournaments to see if I’m as good as you say I am, it has to be now.” He looked at me sideways, taking his attention away from the knife and vegetables for less than half a blink. “Father’s decided to find me the perfect husband. He’s talking about me being a mother in two years’ time. I’m worried he’ll decide my next birthday is an auspicious time for a wedding. Frankly, I’m in the mood to run away.”
Master Que took the cigarette out of his mouth. “Yes,” he agreed and blew a smoke ring. “It could indeed be time for a road trip.”