By Hannah Jingwen Lee
I tell you three lies on our honeymoon. You have no idea. Pools of sweat under your arms, neckline a deep red V blanching fingertips’ shape, you are too busy facing China head-on.
I buy you a succession of wide-brimmed hats, and you laugh at the figure in the hotel mirror. Without this, you say, I’d cook like a lobster. Curling around your ears, your hair bristles ginger.
I shrug my bare shoulders.
The first lie: to save face, because I already resent the statue. Golden and impervious, it has dug itself smugly into the hillside. You ask me who it is like I should know, like my skin is the right colour to confidently skim the display panel and straighten up with words in my mouth.
The camera lens is an eye, narrowing.
Zhu Bajie, I say.
Wow, baby. Who’s that?
An important general. Qin period, I think.
I feel the reverberating walls of the tiny, hot-sided row house. California, Sundays. My childhood. Watching Zhu Bajie – half-man/half-pig, glutton, lecher – move dimly on a boulder-like tube TV turned to the Mandarin channels. I grasp my knees as actors slip on animal masks, disguise themselves as old men or beautiful girls.
Breathless, I wait for the big reveal.
Mom pauses from pushing around a mop or bending over the kitchen counter. Based on an old Chinese novel. Journey to the West. One day, you should read.
Yes, Mom, I say, focusing on the subtitles.
Later, I examine your photos, seeing in my frozen face the notion of a snout.
The second lie: for convenience. At first, Fifth Aunt doesn’t have a human face. It’s cartoonish, grotesque. I do a double take. Then, ponytail cascading from a Mickey-eared baseball cap, she pulls down her novelty surgical mask.
You’re Meixi’s daughter.
She’s my age. I feel like a collection of heavy bones, a scaffold overlain with slack flesh.
You live in Orlando?
I wonder if I’ve heard correctly. No. Near Sacramento.
Fifth Aunt sighs. I feel disappointing. She points to her cap, her mask. I visited Disney World three years ago.
Oh. How was that?
Correctly gauging that her response will be beyond me, she taps it into Google Translate, shows me her phone screen.
In the grey silence of passing buildings, you squeeze my hand. You all right?
Fifth Aunt twists around from the taxi’s front seat, brandishes a bright screen.
FAMILY ALL HAPPY YOU ARE HERE. WISH TO SEE MEIXI BEFORE DIED BUT FATE IS LIKE THAT.
The third and last lie: of omission. It happens in the restaurant, which is lousy with family I haven’t yet met. I do the greetings: nods, smiles, half-bows over wrinkled hands. Fifth Aunt pats my shoulder.
I can’t stop the slow slide into dialect – from Mandarin, slippery at the best of times, to Hokkien: incomprehensible.
You have no language here, never have. You smile and nod at the shark-fin soup, the wood-ear salad, my aunts, uncles and cousins. By the fried noodles, your body sags in its wilted white shirt, fingers and fork grease-spackled.
Fifth Aunt praises my use of chopsticks.
BUT I HOLD THEM WRONG, I write.
LEARNT BY COPYING MOM AS A KID. NEVER QUITE GOT IT.
Fifth Aunt shrugs. She wants to talk about Disney World.
Sunburn warm and tender, you fan yourself. I imagine pressing cool, ghost-white handprints into you.
This table is an ocean. I do not touch. Not just yet.
Hannah is a writer from Singapore and is currently based in Manchester, UK. Her work has appeared in literary journals and was shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Prize 2020. She lives with her partner, too many succulents, and the cat that they’ll one day own.