by Elaine Chiew

Some children are raised on milk with a spoonful of fear.

Some children are raised on peanut butter, jelly and fear spread on white bread.

Some children are raised having never tried the monkey bars, skin their knees, gone swimming too deep, pull apart a gecko, or eat sweets until their stomachs hurt.

Before Gum San America, it was just Ma and me. In bed, with hands pillowed under my head, I’d listen to her fear stories. Did I know the legend of the Lazy Boy whose mother hung a giant cookie around his neck so he wouldn’t starve while she visited family? ‘Well, turned out he was so lazy all he did was stare at his belly button. He couldn’t even be bothered to raise the cookie to his mouth.’ Let this be a lesson; my mother’s eyes were full of warning.

When I reached puberty, she said letting boys kiss me will give me rabies.

‘I thought you get that from dogs.’

Ma deadpanned, ‘Boys are dogs. No difference. You grow up, you see.’

I developed a giant crush on the Indian boy who lived in the apartment block across the void deck. I’d watch him munch his chocolate chip cookies, his eyelashes as thick as a giraffe. When I finally screwed up enough courage to ask if he wanted to swing in the swing-set with me, we held hands. What with rabies and all, we didn’t kiss.

I was in college in America when my paternal grandmother died. This was the grandmother who minded that I wasn’t born a boy. When Ma travelled back with me as an infant to my dad’s hometown, this grandmother did not come out of her ancestral home. This grandmother did not pick me up. She did not pinch my cheeks. She did not call me “ugly”which is what you’re supposed to do if you want the girl to grow up beautiful.

This grandmother also blamed Dad’s death on Ma. His penchant for gambling, his drinking. They were her fault too.

I was bussing tables just to earn enough to call home. ‘Why can’t you send me the money to fly back for her funeral?’ So Ma told me the story of the girl in her hometown who didn’t know how to be thrifty and ended up losing her husband, her house, her dignity, even her houseplants. She was called “Pitiful Girl” for a while, and then they stopped.

I dropped out of studying Literature in graduate school. Went to law school instead. Got a job in Manhattan. Helped Ma immigrate. She now lives in New Jersey; spends her free time cutting out coupons for Tide detergent and free Corning Ware.

I am dating a white boy—David—whom I don’t kiss much; I don’t own any house plants; and I drive fast through Lincoln Tunnel in a newly-leased flashy red BMW to visit Ma. She says the same thing by way of greeting every time: Did I not know that there’s an average of 1.3 million fatal accidents on the road every year, an average of 3,000 deaths per day? Another fear story.

This visit, Ma tells me her uterus is diseased and needs to be cut out. Her hair is done up in a fancy bouffant. Her favorite mauve lipstick is perfectly applied. She’s gotten sophisticated living in America. She even knows how to google. Travelled on her own to places like Mystic and Bangor. Runs a closed group on Facebook for ladies who like bargain basement hunting. Her being sick is probably another fear story.

Over the next few months, I’m guilted to go to New Jersey often. Ma tells me a story of my maternal grandmother—really spunky when she was little—how she bested a thief by the river one day when he stole her flower shoes from her basket as she went to pee. Stories of my father, which she was reluctant to tell before. The roast pork chicken rice hawker stall he ran from a shophouse restaurant in Bedok, line snaking round the block it was so good.

My father died of lung cancer. His last days were excruciating.

‘How come you didn’t tell him fear stories? Could’ve saved his life.’

Ma pats my hand. ‘You only scare those you love.’

The operation is a success. But Ma gets thinner. She has no appetite. Her blouse hangs underneath the armpits. Her skin loses sheen. David says he wants to meet my mother.

On one of my visits home, I bring him. Ma’s eyes widen at his tall lanky frame, his handsome goatee, his smart jacket and tie. ‘Red hair man?’ The Straits Chinese term for all white men. David grins as if something is funny. Ma says between gritted teeth, ‘Too hairy, don’t trust this man.’ Fear gets her every time.

For dinner, Ma outdoes herself to make Chinese steamed garoupa and hong shau tofu. David pokes at everything with his chopsticks. The fish stares at us with dead eyes. Ma doesn’t eat but brings out a folder of documents. It seems my father, while alive, had invested in a tidy nest-egg of stocks, which have gone up in value. The Chinese comfort each other with money; after all that’s what you burn to your ancestors—paper money. ‘Your ba didn’t want me to feel alone,’ Ma says. Every time she added to it, she felt she wasn’t alone.

One of the ways I’d lived up till now is negation and denial. The flashy car. The legal job. The boyfriend with goatee. Always only a fraction of something. I stare at the portfolio and have a wild thought. I ask Mother if I could donate the money to a worthy cause.

She’s flabbergasted. ‘Are you crazy,’ she says. Her hands flutter around her abdomen, as if looking for lost love. I put my arms around her thin shoulders. It hits me suddenly: isn’t fear really the flip side of wanting to live too fully, living beyond your portion, living while afraid of being consumed by the fire inside?

That night, in the guest bedroom, David and I make wild, crazy love until the bed frame almost breaks. He nicknames parts of my anatomy but is especially fond of my belly button. ‘Shao’, he says, ‘burn’, when I know he meant ‘xiao’, ‘ little.’

I want to tell Ma a story of my own. Maybe it’s a fear story, maybe it’s just a story that needs to be told before it’s too late. A story about a girl made not of flesh and blood but of fire and wound, music and words. A story that tunnels within other stories to make a whole, like a chapel in our hearts. These stories dovecote, nested together, like mother and child.  

Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher. She’s the editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora, is forthcoming in January 2020 from Myriad Editions UK. Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore.