2019 Open Division: 2nd Place
January. Look back on how your Asian mother raised you, shake your head, and think, Well, that’s not going to work with your new blond step-kids.
Accept the four year old’s hugs awkwardly but with gratitude. This is a nice thing. Right? It’s supposed to be a nice thing?
Lie down at night beside your new husband in your new shared bed and listen as his breathing slows in the dark. Think about tomorrow, when all your boxes will arrive containing the movable remnants of your old apartment. Start listing everything that will have to be stowed away somewhere safe, so they don’t get broken by the kids. Goodbye, Chinese tea set from your grandmother in Wenzhou. Goodbye, precious law degree in a far too breakable frame. Goodbye, old life.
Start reading Frankenstein.
February. Brace yourself. The eight year old has just returned from school, torn off her school jersey and trainers and tossed them all over the lounge. Try not to think about what your mother would have done if you’d ever just chucked your things all over the floor. Hide your bafflement when Ryan enters, looks at the discarded uniform, then keeps blithely walking, spinning his key ring around his finger. Really? Nothing? He lets his children leave a mess everywhere? Is this a white person thing? Is this how white folks raise their children?
Or is this just how people raise their children, when those people are not your mother?
Realise later that you don’t know the answer to those questions.
April. Invite your parents over for dinner with you, Ryan, Ryan’s parents, and the kids. Wince when Ryan’s mother reveals the meal she’s specially prepared for your parents. Of course. It’s a stirfry. What else do you serve Asian people. Continue wincing when the kids turn their noses up at it, literally shoving their plates away. Instead of insisting that they eat what they are given, Ryan boils some poisonously red saveloys and parks the pot in front of them with the tomato sauce bottle. “Eat up,” he says. Watch your mother chew on a burnt green bean. Her polite smile conceals nothing from you. You let him feed them that? Mummy’s smile says.
Do not react. He can feed them whatever crap he wants, because they’re not your kids. You are just their parent’s wife and have no jurisdiction here.
May. Smile sweetly when a senior partner at work asks you to make him a coffee. When you explain that you don’t have time as you’re about to head out to court, he says, “What are you going to court for? I thought you’re just here to help with filing.” Realise he’s mistaken you for the new student intern, Anne, who’s half Korean. Keep smiling. “You have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good,” you hear your mother saying. Work twice as hard not to bite his head off.
June. Watch the kids run screaming around the house. Glance desperately at the clock. Another hour and a half until Ryan comes home. Resist the urge to go to your bedroom and hide. Tell yourself you can do this. You can look after them. And that kids running around is normal, even though you don’t remember ever doing so. But then, you were a little Asian nerd. These kids… aren’t.
Sit down in front of the TV with Frankenstein and watch the kids inexplicably gravitate towards you, like iron filings to a magnet. They want to watch Inside Out. Eventually give up on your book and start watching with them too. It’s a pretty clever movie, actually. A good way to talk about emotions. Let the eight year old play absently with the hem of your long cardigan while the two of you discuss Sadness and Joy.
Laugh hysterically when you ask Ryan to pass you some fruit to slice into your breakfast muesli and he says, slyly, “Eat up, cannibal,” and tosses you a banana.
Hold Luke in your arms until he stops crying. Put him back in bed. Go back to sleep.
At work, while chatting with Anne at morning tea, notice that senior partner see us, and point. “Oh!” he says. “There’s two of you?” He laughs. Then leaves. Exchange a look with Anne and start the weary, only half-amused discussion you’ve had with so many other Asian Kiwis. Yes, we wryly acknowledge, there’s two of us ‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside’ bananas here. “Though Mum’s Korean,” she says. “Do Koreans count as yellow? Do I actually qualify as a banana?”
“Are you asking if you’re Asian enough?” you reply.
Immediately Anne starts singing “Am I Asian enough? Ooh ooh…” to the tune of the Dragon song. Don’t bother stifling your giggles.
Walk the eight year old to school. Realise you’re enjoying holding her hand. “I love you Jenny.” “I love you Maddie.” She lets go of your hand and skips into her classroom.
September. Say hi to Kelsey, Ryan’s business partner, at the hair salon. She’s just come in for her wash and cut—probably hopping into the seat I’ve just vacated. “Urgh, I’m so sunburnt from yesterday. I’m too pale for all that sun.” Sympathetically wince when she shows you her peeling shoulder. Ryan and the kids come into the salon to pick you up. The kids hug Kelsey. She’s like their favourite aunt.
Kelsey’s hairdresser spies her with the kids. “Ah! These are your little ones?” he asks her. “Oh my god, your babies are so gorgeous. And this must be your husband!” Try not to react to all of this. Hold it in.
Kelsey, bless her, is smooth and tactful. She says brightly, “Actually this is my business partner and his kids. They’ve come to see his beautiful wife after her hair cut. What do you think, guys? Doesn’t she look amazing?”
Smile weakly when the kids say you look pretty. The adults say nothing. You all know why white Kelsey was seen as the wife and mother, and not me. You have to work twice as hard to be seen as half the parent.
Try to explain to Ryan why the incident with Kelsey was so upsetting to you. Fail. Watch helplessly as the discussion becomes a fight. “It’s not Kelsey’s fault the hairdresser got the wrong impression!” he snaps. He doesn’t understand.
Don’t bother wiping your eyes dry when Anne finds you in a bathroom stall during lunch break. Tell her everything. Watch Anne’s face change, become intent as she turns and tumbles your words in her head. “You know,” she says, “my mother once said to me: you don’t really know your husband. I mean, she did say this after she divorced my dad, so, you know. Pinch of salt and everything. But still. You don’t really know your husband. Maybe…” She waves her hands indeterminately. “Maybe your husband doesn’t really know you either. And maybe the part he never really gets about you is your Asian part. But, like, that’s not really his… fault? Like, how can they understand?” She shrugs. “I’m not making much sense. I’m just saying… he may never understand what it’s like to not fit. And you may never fit. And, well… you guys just have to find a way to be together anyway. Somehow.”
December. “I bought you a wok,” Ryan says. He bangs it down on the kitchen counter. Red Tefal, non-stick. Jamie Oliver certified. He looks at me as if expecting praise.
“I didn’t ask you to do that,” I say.
“I’m trying to do something nice for you,” he says. “So you can feel at home.” He says this mockingly, echoing words I’ve shouted at him over the past three months.
He walks away to greet his children, spinning his key ring around his finger. I think of my grandmother’s tea cups, genuine Chinese heirlooms passed down by generations of my family. Locked away in a cupboard, in the dark and dust.
Dinner. Saveloys. The children, covered in tomato sauce. Ryan, at the opposite side of the table. Remote. Foreign. An exotic, unreadable mystery.
Finish reading Frankenstein. Hold in your heart the scene when the creature, the freak, looks in on the peasant family through a hole in the wall of their home. He peers in through stolen, monstrous eyes, drawn to the warmth and light that he himself doesn’t quite understand, and to which he will never belong.