equivocality — Jeff Ngan's collection of thoughts, experiences, and projects, inspired by pretty much everything
23 Nov 08

Conversations With My Father

We’re stand­ing in his garage in our paja­mas, with win­ter coats on. After a short drive around the block to bring the oil up to tem­per­a­ture, he pulls out the bright orange dip­stick to teach me how to check the level.

Even though he’s never seen what’s under this hood before, he knows where every­thing is. Every noz­zle for every fluid, every con­nec­tor to every part. A sixth sense that all dads seem to have, like when a steak is cooked medium rare, and when the TV is just big enough.

This is the first time we’ve ever done some­thing like this. A strange sort of bond­ing I rarely had in my childhood.

Inside, I’m show­ing him how to use Photoshop, to take the wrin­kles out of his friend’s faces. Anything helps at this age, I suppose.

In my heart, I wish my dad had shown more inter­est in my pho­tog­ra­phy. I wish he wanted one of the prints I brought, maybe to show other peo­ple and say that he was proud of me. But he didn’t. And I say noth­ing because it’s one of those things that shouldn’t have to be said.

He keeps bring­ing up his dance part­ner. The per­son who called him to make sure I arrived safely from the drive. He wears two new ear­rings in pierc­ings that weren’t there the last time I saw him, a gift from her, and I won­der if “dance part­ner” is his euphemism for “mommy”.

I’m too scared to ask.

There’s no rea­son for me to stay more than a night, because there’s noth­ing more to be said.

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11 Jul 08

Kar-Ma

If you beat a dog, don’t be sur­prised if he runs away.

—let­ter to my uncle, March 2008

When I was a child my mom would always ask me if I’d let her live in a nurs­ing home. She would do this as a form of reas­sur­ance, a way of address­ing her inse­cu­rity about dying alone. To Chinese peo­ple, this is a fate worse than death. I under­stand that there may be med­ical con­di­tions or other cir­cum­stances that make it imprac­ti­cal for a fam­ily mem­ber to live in your house, but that doesn’t change the fact that being put in a nurs­ing home is like wait­ing to die.

At the time, I was too young to under­stand the grav­ity of such a ques­tion, so I would always reas­sure her, no. Maybe I even loved her at that point, and meant it. But I’ve since cut off all ties with her, and after the divorce, she has no one left. Her rel­a­tives lead their own lives, and she’s never had enough of a per­son­al­ity to make any friends. I’ve lived with her long enough to under­stand what a hol­low, empty exis­tence she has.

Now I’m old enough to know that she’ll die alone.

And that it’ll be exactly what she deserves.

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23 Feb 08

Hanging Party

I feel utterly intoxicated.

Reading poems around the piano

With a ham­mer and a lad­der, we hung my pic­tures tonight, care­fully decid­ing where to place each one to bal­ance the colours, the ori­en­ta­tions, the shapes, and the concepts.

Amongst the wine and the wood, the kids and the colours, we stopped to admire the art in the house. Adrienne dropped by to share her lat­est graphic poems with us, along with her alco­holic find­ings. “From The Desk Of” Penelope was writ­ten that day, dense and deep, full of details taken for granted. The words must write them­selves, I thought.

Thumbnail: Poem reading
Thumbnail: My fruit and body series wall
Thumbnail: Old fashioned side-table
Thumbnail: Akio
Thumbnail: A hammer and a poem
Thumbnail: Old style heater
Thumbnail: Frederic and Akio
Thumbnail: Nicole Beaumont artwork
Thumbnail: Akio on the ladder
Thumbnail: Wine, ice, and salad

Misun and I seem to share a kin­ship through our appre­ci­a­tion of expres­sion, some­thing I’ve never had with my friends. Not that there’s any­thing wrong with them, but I’ve always felt like they can’t relate to me when it comes to emo­tions or cre­ativ­ity. As I seem to be the cre­ative brother she’s always wanted, and she seems to be the sup­port­ive sis­ter I’ve always needed, we agreed to be adopted siblings.

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In a recent inter­view, Frédéric said, in his ebul­lient Parisian accent, that one of the rea­sons he wanted to open the Salon is to pro­mote dia­logue and inter­ac­tion. Perhaps it’s this hunger for dia­logue that con­nects us. He also men­tioned to me he was stressed out about being inter­viewed; being put on the spot made him freeze up. I told him I had the same prob­lem with pretty girls. “You’re affected by beauty”, he said, some­thing I knew, but not some­thing that every­one understands.

I left, feel­ing like I was a part of some­thing won­der­ful, some­thing greater than myself.

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18 Feb 08

My Mom Keeps Calling

And I keep hang­ing up.

The first thing she asks, non­cha­lantly like noth­ing has hap­pened, is whether I’ve eaten yet. This is some­thing thing she used to say at the begin­ning of every phone call. One of her old habits, to make sure I’m eat­ing enough.

I didn’t answer her ques­tion, but asked what she wanted. She told me she just wanted to see how I was doing.

She doesn’t get it. I don’t want to talk to her. I never want to talk to her again. Every call is a reminder of the wounds that haven’t healed.

It’s like hav­ing your rapist show up at the door with flowers.

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27 Dec 07

Christmas Observer '07

Another Christmas with Shirley and her fam­ily, although this time Bill’s fam­ily came down as well. I spent Christmas Eve night and Christmas day at their house, par­tak­ing in the Christmas expe­ri­ence with those who believe in the impor­tance of such a ritual.

Presents under the tree

We were wrap­ping presents (from “Santa”) until mid­night on Christmas Eve. The tree must have been raised the two feet off the ground to fit every­thing under­neath. Negotiations went on through the night as to what time to wake up, but the kids woke us up at 6:30 any­way. Looking back on the pic­tures of 2005, you can tell how much they’ve grown in just two years.

Loads more pic­tures behind the cut.

Read the rest of this entry »

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21 Dec 07

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

My dad called. After 14 months with­out contact.

Not that I wasn’t expect­ing it. He e-mailed me two weeks ago (flagged with the lit­tle red excla­ma­tion point to note that it was impor­tant), telling me that he was hav­ing a party on New Years. “Can you come and join us?”, it said.

“Us?”

Is he dat­ing now, I won­dered. Married?

I sat on this e-mail, unsure of what to say. A lit­tle while before this, Merv struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with me about fish­ing. I told him I used to go to this one fish­ing spot at a lift-lock in Peterborough with my dad, and it made me won­der what I would say if I ever talked to him again. He didn’t even know me when we were on speak­ing terms, how would he know me now? I’ve changed so dras­ti­cally in the last year.

We never left things off on bad terms. We just stopped talk­ing to each other, so there wasn’t any ani­mos­ity, on my part, at least. I never con­tacted him because I never felt like it, and I was expect­ing years to go by before he con­tacted me.

Then he called on the week­end. It took me by sur­prise. I thought e-mail was a way for him to stay dis­tant, while ful­fill­ing the min­i­mum parental respon­si­bil­ity. I had guests over and was enter­tain­ing and some­what charged up. He started talk­ing to me in Chinese, and I could only reply in English. It was too much for my mind, and I was too much on my guard. So I told him to call me next week.

And he did.

Read the rest of this entry »

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06 Aug 07

A Note On Chinese Titles

Both my Tai Chi teach­ers eschew the title of “Master”, and pre­fer to be called by their first names. As I’ve had it explained to me, even the true mas­ters feel like they need a cou­ple extra life­times to com­pletely mas­ter Tai Chi. This is what my teach­ers com­pare them­selves to, so I sus­pect they feel it erro­neous to use the same title, even though they’ve been teach­ing for decades.

I find it very awk­ward. In Chinese, the word “Master” or “Sifu” implies a teacher, not nec­es­sar­ily a level of skill.

When I was young, I called my cousin by his Chinese name, because I thought it was insult­ing to address him by his rela­tional title of biu dai for “mater­nal younger male cousin” (or “mother’s sib­lings’ son who is younger than me”). I thought the “dai” part referred to some­one as “under”, the way “junior” could be used pejo­ra­tively in English. The thing I didn’t under­stand was that it was appro­pri­ate, per­haps even more appro­pri­ate than address­ing him by name. I’ve since become privy to the com­plex rules of Chinese names and titles, espe­cially rela­tional fam­ily ones.

As a kid, the first thing you’re sup­posed to do when enter­ing a house is greet every­one — adults most impor­tantly — by their title.

People con­tinue this tra­di­tion though, and even as par­ents, they’ll address their elders the same way. It’s a way of rec­og­niz­ing and respect­ing the roles in the fam­ily. Even though my Tai Chi teacher is Occidental, I feel com­pelled to address my teacher as “Master”, instead of “Mike”.

And it’s hard habit for me to break.

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06 Nov 06

Rebel Son

Rana pulled me aside the other day and told me, I under­stand your cul­ture now. I under­stand your deci­sion.

She elab­o­rated on a woman at work who had sent her daugh­ter to live in China. It was soon after the baby was born, and the grand­mother assumed respon­si­bil­ity of par­ent. The mother never went to visit, only send­ing money for her upbringing.

That day, the grand­mother and grand­daugh­ter came to work, hav­ing flown into Canada to visit. No one at work had seen the child, two years old now. The whole time, she was ner­vous and shy, clutch­ing the leg of her grand­mother. When the mother tried to hold her, she wouldn’t budge, only cry­ing the rau­cous, uncon­trolled, unin­hib­ited tears of a child.

Rana told me this with sur­prise and con­fu­sion in her face. It was hard for her to believe that any­one could do this to their baby. I wish I could say that I was surprised.

This child was too young to know bias or bit­ter­ness. She only knew what she felt, a being of pure emo­tion. The woman who was sup­posed to be her mother was no closer than a stranger, and for the first time, Rana was exposed to this.

I’ve always con­fided in Rana about my own rela­tion­ship with my par­ents. She’s one of the few who really care, ask­ing me if there’s been any news on a reg­u­lar basis, espe­cially since I cut all ties. We never argue, but she’s never fully agreed with me. She always tried to give me a mater­nal per­spec­tive, being a mother of three her­self. I’ve admit­ted that I don’t under­stand what it means to be a par­ent, but that day, she real­ized that she never under­stood what it means to be a child of the Chinese culture.

It’s cold. It’s mate­r­ial. Most Chinese par­ents can only express their love with money.

In this way, my par­ents showed me that they loved me. They prob­a­bly think they did the best they could, but as a child of the North American cul­ture, I felt noth­ing. I never knew what it was to be loved.

And Rana said, You were the one who rebelled against this.

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10 Oct 06

Letter To My Mother

You didn’t know it, but for years I’ve come close to burn­ing the bridge with you. It was a heavy step to take, because in doing so, I knew that I would never be able to go back on such a dras­tic decision.

I appre­ci­ate all the finan­cial sup­port you’ve pro­vided. It’s been more than I can ask for. Unfortunately, what I wanted and needed the most was emo­tional support.

I’ve always played the role of the sub­mis­sive son. Your boy who’s always done what you wanted and agreed with what you said. When we exchanged tears on the phone in August, I let you know how poorly I was treated grow­ing up. I’ve always put up with it, but the way you acted last week was the straw that broke the camels back. I keep giv­ing you a chance, over and over. Seeing you over those few days was the last one. Even if you say now that you can change, the risk isn’t worth it. The poten­tial mis­ery, frus­tra­tion, and anguish you may cause me aren’t worth it.

Normally, I would be sen­si­tive about the tim­ing — the fresh divorce, the tran­si­tion — but I don’t care any­more. I’ve put my feel­ings aside my whole life. You pushed me too far, and now I have to con­sider myself.

Don’t con­tact me again. Not even if some­one dies. Any calls, mes­sages, e-mails will be ignored. This is not an easy or a brash deci­sion for me, a deci­sion I’ve made after cool­ing off and calm­ing down, but from my point of view it’s for the best.

You give me noth­ing but pain and money, and the money doesn’t mean a thing.

From now on, I don’t have a mother.

And you don’t have a son.

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06 Oct 06

A Place To Stay

Thumbnail: Scratch sand 1

Thumbnail: Scratch sand 2

Gua sha, or sand scratch­ing, he calls it.

I’m already sob­bing. The cul­mi­na­tion of another week of stress and lack of sleep. One dis­ap­point­ment after another.

With the bowl of a porce­lain Chinese soup spoon, he scrapes the mus­cles along the back of my neck.

This causes rup­ture of the small sub-dermal cap­il­lar­ies (petechia) and may result in sub-cutaneous bruis­ing (ecchymosis).

According to Chinese med­ical prac­ti­tion­ers, the inter­nal tox­ins in the blood are released and cir­cu­la­tion is improved.

Before con­tin­u­ing down my shoul­ders, he rubs on some Vic’s VapoRub. It lubri­cates the process, cools the skin to ease the burn­ing dis­com­fort, a mix of east­ern and west­ern tech­niques. The patch he rubs turns a muddy mix of red and gar­net, and from this he tells me that I’m work­ing too hard. I have to look after myself bet­ter. Relax every day. Take an hour to exer­cise or walk. The first step to a healthy mind is a healthy body. The colour indi­cates that I have a lot of tox­ins built up in my body.

The darker it is, the more it’s sup­posed to hurt, but I feel nothing.

I take a sip from the mug that he hands me, full of pale yel­low liq­uid. It burns going down. Flavourless, but maybe that’s just the congestion.

It’s spicy”, I mum­ble, no longer speak­ing Chinese. It’s too much on my mind. I need to express myself with­out limitations.

It’s just ginger-water. If you can’t take it, you can add some sugar.”

I don’t reply. The unas­sum­ing con­sommé raises the inter­nal tem­per­a­ture, killing the sick air. To quell the spasms in my chest, I take slower, deeper breaths. It doesn’t work.

I admire you, uncle. One day I hope to be a father like you.”

He breathes a short but heavy sigh. I can tell that these words pain him more than any­thing else I’ve said. He tells me, in Chinese, “Uncle doesn’t make a lot of money. I make sure I spend a lot of time at home”.

I like you, uncle. I hope that no mat­ter what hap­pens, we can still be friends.”

No mat­ter what hap­pens, you’ll always have a place to stay with us in Hong Kong.”

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01 Oct 06

Family Tied

Over ten years ago, I lived at my aunt’s house for about four months in the sum­mer. Much of my mater­nal fam­ily was vis­it­ing from Hong Kong, so every­one stayed there as a cen­tral location.

One day my par­ents had a blow-out. It was triv­ial, as always. As a result, from my mom’s side of the story, he went out with another woman that night. From his side, my mom tried to kill him with a steak knife. It cut his fin­ger to the bone when he was defend­ing him­self. The next day, with swollen eyes and a weak voice, my mom showed me the yel­low bruises down her arm. They had to be pho­tographed by the police as evi­dence before they healed. Two subpoena’s later and they were bet­ter than new, for the next few months at least until the next fight.

This is the last mem­ory I have of my aunt’s house. I haven’t been back since. Not until this weekend.

Now every­one from my mater­nal side is here, all my mom’s sib­lings and their respec­tive fam­i­lies. It started out as an act of com­mis­er­a­tion, to help her out dur­ing the divorce. Aunt, uncle, and son, aunt, uncle, and son, aunt and uncle. And then there’s me, with my mom. Without father. The only bro­ken family.

At first I think it’s just a coin­ci­dence. My aunt and uncle have the same vac­uum cleaner that we had, the same piano, the same brown cowhide cor­ner sofa. And then it clicks. Since the divorce, my mom sold the house after buy­ing out my father of the con­tents. Everything is stored here until she moves into her new house, from the base­ment to the fam­ily room, from the kitchen to the bathroom.

My child­hood is strewn across every floor. The fam­ily pho­tos. My old finger-painted, art­work from ele­men­tary school. My dad didn’t want any of it.

I need to get out of here.

I need to get the fuck out of here.

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10 Oct 05

Growing Pains

Thumbnail: Dry bacon

I caught my father after a shower. How for­mal the word, father. Like address­ing a char­ac­ter in some Elizabethan play. His hair was mussed, wild, even thin­ner than before. He’s been going gray since he was 15, and every cou­ple of months he colours it black again. It works for him, tak­ing at least ten years off his age. People don’t really know how old he is until he tells them that I’m in my twenties.

How scary it was to see him like this, like some crazy old fool with all his hair point­ing out­ward and uncom­posed, but still know­ing that he was still my sta­ble, strong, cold father. The thought that he may one day go senile, lose the viril­ity that he seems so des­per­ate to cling to, filled me with pity.

The bacon they serve me for break­fast is dry, dull, devoid of soft fat, or grease that pools in the waves of each strip. A result of his heart con­di­tion. No more cheese, red meat only once a week.

Thumbnail: Wrinkled hand

Even my moth­ers’ del­i­cate hands have deeply with­ered, though they remain soft from her atten­tive care, which include vary­ing sorts of designer hand creams and spe­cial­ized lotions that fol­low her every­where. My par­ents have long stopped wear­ing their wed­dings bands, but she wears one of my grand­moth­ers rings, a beau­ti­ful old-fashioned cut on a clamp mount, left to her in the will. I remem­ber my grand­mother pinch­ing my cheeks, hold­ing my hand, her skin loose but, like mom, sup­ple as a soft­ened chamois.

I see this ring on my mother, and real­ize that she’s get­ting older too.

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