The plastic chair beneath Elena scrapes loudly against the uneven cement pavement when she stands. The chair is bulky, cartoonish in its attempt to mimic a being greater than itself—there is an outline of Rococo somewhere in there, but eroded, dumbed down in favor of blunt, mass-produced edges—and she is distracted again by that thought, by the primitiveness of this First World nation, where even in funerals for someone like her grandmother, they can only bring chairs like these.
A gong clangs. Elena resists the urge to flip back her hair. It is stifling, the smoke spewing out by that long row of incense-sticks, even though the funeral attendees are standing on the other side of the canopy. The canopy itself is larger than her high school auditorium, made of nylon and stained a deep peach-pink. There is a yellow circle smack-dab in the middle, and filtered sunlight rains directly over Third Uncle’s bald patch, where tiny silica sweat beads glitter darkly against his oily, dyed-black hair. The gong clangs again; the Taiwanese priest—shifu?—someone leads his merry band of gray-robed, middle-aged nuns to the beginning of a whiny, nasal song that wraps around everyone’s senses like a boa constrictor, slowly squeezing out their last bit of sanity.
Elena was instructed to keep her head down for the next thirty minutes, or something like that, but now she chances a quick scan of the tent. All of the attendees’ heads are dipped, like little puppets with strings temporarily slackened: the picture of piety. Then one of the guests yawns: the representative of a local government official to whom her grandmother must have had some tie or another in the past. She sneaks another look around, then wonders if anyone would notice if she took out her phone. She has an English project due in three days, and she is three points away from breaking her perfect GPA.
Next to her, her mother shifts her weight impatiently to one side, and Elena lets her neck slacken. Her mother shifts her weight back, as if in approval, and Elena can feel, nauseatingly, the perfect picture of mourning lapping against their three-dimensional form, sweeping them back into its midst. The winding, tinny song drones on. How her mother can stand there in perfect solidarity with the rest of this crowd, Elena cannot understand. She knows how her mother suffered under her grandmother’s torrent of abuse, against this little Vietnamese-American woman (yāojīng, comes the echo of something deep in her childhood), whose nationality ought to have made her one of the countless nannies and domestic workers that litter the island, but who instead
charmed away the brilliant fourth son with her pretty little Vietnamese face.
Ahead, smoke from the incense curls gray and delicate from the mound of wrapped, neon-bright offerings for the deceased. Large rings of thickly weaved flowers, set upon metal easels, circle Chinese characters Elena no longer knows how to read. (Her eyes skate over the tall, square picture of her grandmother: stern, younger than Elena remembers her ever being.) Great heaps of lilies, platitudes in pastel, enclose the perimeter of the mourners. The flowers blast perfume into the tent, and the incense’s clean, grassy-sweet, faintly dizzying scent struggles weakly against the miasma.
All wasted, Elena thinks. Her grandmother hated any sort of flowers, but especially lilies. She knows—she remembers—in those shiny, wavering memories of life before preschool, she looked up at her grandmother and asked about a trip to the Taipei Botanical Garden, and her grandmother replied—
Second Aunt coughs, daintily, hollowly. Elena’s mind darts to sympathy. Second Aunt—tall and frail like a supermodel, carrying with her a professed elegance—has been ill, Elena knows. (The woman looked fine at the start of the reunion dinner last week, sweeping through the banquet room in her lacy red designer dress with her husband and two daughters in tow, but she was coughing as soon as she faced Elena’s father.) Second Aunt and her family live in Malaysia, occupying a semi-major corporate position at an East-Asian branch of Coca-Cola or Nestlé or Unilever. Elena has glittering childhood memories of Second Aunt, mostly impressions now, of the woman’s coolness, her competence and rationality. She had never spoken a word against Elena’s mother. Elena was disappointed when her father noted before breakfast one day that Second Aunt may not be present at the funeral due to an illness—an unspecified illness.
But here—the chime of a tuning fork against the soft center of her, present then gone in a second, like many fleeting thoughts. Elena plucks experimentally at her mind to match the note, but there is only dissonance, and she gives up her search, especially amidst the nasally, piercing song of the monk and nuns.
Her concentration sags, then, to her cousins. She knows very little of these creatures, compared to the cousins on her mother’s side of the family. Most of her paternal cousins are too old anyway, though there are two her age. One is Yahua, Third Uncle’s daughter. She keeps her hair long, her posture straight, and her skin translucently pale. She wears her discolored “Chenal” shirts like it is the latest fashion. She is meek among the adults, but she embraced Elena like a sister at the Taoyuan International Airport then tried to tease out shared childhood memories of which Elena had no recollection. Elena could not help but flinch away. She could not help but feel what she can identify clearly as snobbery when she saw those Chenal shirts; could not help but feel disdain when, in conversations of broken English on Yahua’s part and broken Mandarin on Elena’s part, Yahua smiled that happy, childish, vacant smile. It disgusts her, yet search as she might, there is no reason for this disgust. Elena wants to like Yahua, to partake in that glow of shared adventures and sisterhood, but she cannot. Her lack of comprehension does not torture her, not really, but it points to something she knows is lacking in herself when she answers in monosyllables to Yahua’s jittery questions about Life in America.
Then there is Renée, Second Aunt’s eldest daughter by six years. Happy Renée, jewel of the family, blessed to attend Berkeley in two months. Her triumph sets Elena under immediate scrutiny: let’s see what our Fourth Son’s little daughter—native to America more than Renée—can do—
(Laser-straight, the gaze of her grandmother’s portrait aims through the first rows of mourners at Elena, as if in warning. Elena becomes conscious again of the pinching, warbling song.)
Now angry, she searches for those knotted symbols that seems suddenly ubiquitous in the tent. Why does one learn Chinese anyway? Elena decided, at the age of eight, that the answer to that was unsatisfactory in comparison to the daily reminder of how much of the language she was forgetting. She rebelled; her parents ultimately acquiesced. She knew how to read a newspaper article when she was five; now she cannot tell Chinese from hieroglyphics.
She asked her father once, carelessly, at twelve, What was so good about Taiwan? when that world, which had secured her, wrapped her tight in its warmth and love in her early childhood, had rotted into rags with the passage of years. Her father withdrew. He laughed soundlessly, breathing out venom. No, nothing at all. Why else would we leave our country? America is so much greater. There was nothing there at all, nothing. Nothing but—Then he tossed her notebook against the wall. It was the only violent act he had ever committed in front of her.
It was the hunger, she would later think. Not just the physical—they were collecting food stamps those first few years—but also the hunger for rain; for those always-rumbling streets and tall, claustrophobic buildings; for the open, direct, messy language of Taiwanese Hokkien, or even just plain Mandarin; for the seeming smallness of space where, if you just stretched out your arms, your fingertips would graze the coast and your chest would touch the Yu Mountain—but at the same time, all of your countrymen would embrace back.
A muscle in Elena’s throat jumps as she suddenly, unconsciously, clenches her jaws. No. She has decided already: she doesn’t know Taiwan. What she experienced was just a slim slice of the capital city of Taipei in the first six years of her life. She fights against this feeling of possession; she is to be unaffected, whole. Taiwan will not claim kinship with her. For too many years she has bled it out little by little, the memories of rain-washed streets and skittering motorcycles, the wrinkled leather face of the dumpling-store owner who smiled at her as she hopped alongside her father to kindergarten, the marvelously foreign design of the Taiwanese Presidential Palace. Yet its gentle touches linger still—
That was Taiwan then, she tells herself. Colors are always more vibrant in childhood, and something has grayed since then. Taiwan is less dirty, as part of the typical national effort to scrub away every inch of dirt in anticipation of foreigners and their cash. Taiwan has also become lankier, strung together by the network of LCD and semiconductor development, pulled up by taller buildings and taller highways. The lack of available land pushes the people together, like the tectonic plates that pinched together this bud of dirt on top of which live twenty-three million people.
Last Friday, First Uncle and Third Aunt—both childless—whisked off that youngest generation of the family, the wǎnbèi, aged eight to twenty-nine, to the Muzha Zoo. Elena had placed on this trip token upon token of tentative joy. A decade’s worth of photographs, videos, and Facebook posts had fanned rather than tempered the desire to see this splinter of her family. And there was her young cousin—the five-year-old Xiaosun, First Aunt’s son, a living, breathing, chattering child who was born and grown in the time Elena had spent on the other side of the ocean. And for some time she felt a part of them all, whole, when Yahua pressed two hands on a milky, peeling window of the Taipei Metro, squealing at the sight of her and Elena’s former elementary school. It comprised several blocks of marble-white, multi-storied buildings, holding tightly within itself a certain silent dignity even as the school was quickly pushed behind other taller commercial buildings. Elena did not remember anything of it, having only attended for four months, but she could almost pretend she did as Yahua chattered lightly on about the teachers, the elementary school playmates who had grown up by her side, and memories.
Elena has decided. She will discipline herself to remember First Uncle and Third Aunt by their kindness; her awkward male cousins by their jokes and paternal teases; her female cousins, including Renée, by their perfect, gentle laughs; Yahua by her enthusiasm; and little eight-year-old Xiaosun by the delight in his eyes as he clapped at bubbles created by vendors near the panda exhibit. This is just how the memory should remain: soaked in sweetness. She will erase the contempt. She will erase the disgust, fueled by a desperate necessity to be superior, to show that woman that Elena has survived and grown up better than she ever could in Taiwan. She will not recall her momentary weakness, when she pushed farther and farther into the opaque screen that separated her and her cousins, as she clawed at it with helplessness, as she begged entry. She will forget that quiet wish that she had lived their lives.
That night, long after the sun dipped below the boiling earth and the full moon popped into the sky bloated and pale yellow, Elena pushed apart First Uncle’s spare blankets and searched for the warmth of a mother’s hand. She felt she might burst otherwise, might shove through First Uncle’s small apartment and demand of her father, Why did you banish us? Why do I feel as though my birthplace is trying to spit me out like a foreign kidney? But she could not find her mother. She heard the voices, instead, of First Uncle and her father.
The song of the nuns and the monk tips up a pitch. It startles Elena. It matches, somehow, an earlier tune, the chime of the tuning fork that was lost—found again, now, while the consonance jars apart other sensations, searches for other matches in the discordant space of her consciousness. (She finds herself looking at the portrait of her grandmother.) There comes a sudden jump of the crescendo, and a piece of the past resurfaces: that reunion dinner again, when her father tried to pay the bulk of the bills—him, her father, with his bare paychecks—and then Elena sees it, the thing she had dismissed as workings of her own imagination, the instant flare of those gaseous shadows from those shimmering designer-suit shoulders, roaring high into the chandelier ceiling—was it contempt, or was it jealousy?—intertwined, inextricably, with the words of First Uncle last Friday night: The rest of our siblings are unhappy with your share of the inheritance; you have to understand… Elena does not want to know this. She pinches her eyes together, as though physical action can fend off anything.
An old photograph slips its way into her mind, past the turmoil. Colored in yellow monochrome, it features a wooden house topped with a grassy roof and a large, rusted wheelbarrow that rests against its flank. Barren, upturned soil covers the land in all four directions, interrupted only by the sky.
Your grandfather grew up in that house, Elena’s grandmother said.
Elena was three or four or five then, could picture nothing of a reality beyond the city, and knew “houses” as towers that conquered the sun. The rest lived in storybooks.
Of course they are houses. A long, long time ago, before you or your father was born, houses looked like that for everyone in Taipei and the rest of Taiwan—for those who could afford it, her grandmother answered. I married your grandfather when he was just starting his construction company—but he grew sick and then lame. When he died, I took everything upon myself.
Elena bloomed with awe. She looked at the photo and compared it to the giant, gleaming office building her grandmother now owned.
Yes, I did, her grandmother replied, carelessly; her calligraphy brush glided across the table with effortless elegance. I built us up from that to what we have now. But you are an intelligent girl. You will do better, won’t you, when you enter the company?
All those years, Elena thinks (she lowers her head again), without a syllable of communication to your son, for a fluke of a disownment. Her grandmother included them in her will after all. What did she do that for? It is impossible that the woman regretted firing her fourth son and terminating his lease for marrying a foreign woman. Like the steel-and-glass building that bears her husband’s name (the company building no longer gleams as brightly as before; it has been overshadowed by other companies that sprung from Taiwan’s fertile economy), her grandmother was absolute. Her actions were premeditated; her firing Elena’s father came as no one’s surprise. The rest of her family followed her lead—most of them reluctantly, forced away from blood by her relentless tyranny, Elena believed. Still believes. She still believes. Yet they were included in the will. Yet her grandmother still looked after Elena, when she could not bear looking at her own son. It was no use, either way. Elena’s family ran to America when her father’s permanent residency was approved. It was no use.
Yet the will. Why pull in Elena’s family with a will? Why hand them money only when they cannot refuse, when it is pressed upon them with the weight of her death? What sort of amends did her grandmother believe this to be?
Two years ago, Elena made the mistake of denouncing her grandmother in her mother’s presence. Her mother’s open palm—wet with dishwater—struck Elena’s cheek and flung soap suds into her hair. In the lecture that followed, her mother spoke not a single word about Elena’s grandmother. Instead, the subject was Elena, who was too arrogant, who was too controlling of things she had no power over, and who made too much of an attempt to understand the affairs of adults. Elena had screamed back: she was a teenager now; she wasn’t a child, no matter what they thought of her; she understood, no matter how young they thought she was. They traded such words for a good hour or more before her mother broke apart, clutching Elena’s head to her chest and stroking her long, black hair.
Which half of Elena’s mother did her grandmother hate more—Vietnamese, or American? It must have offended her grandmother’s senses—her mother must have been a mongrel in her eyes—and what did that make Elena, exactly?
Ahead, her father stands near the end of the first line between Third Uncle and Second Aunt. The tuxedo he wears looks as heavy as obligation, as weighty as love. The song is dipping into its final refrains, each syllable stretching more and more slowly, until they reach into a small infinity. The mass of lowered heads stirs, puppets awakened by their strings.
Elena and her grandmother used to take weekly trips to the Longshan. Elena held her grandmother’s cold, soft hand in that memory—or a composition of many memories. Her grandmother pointed to the name of the god or goddess. She allowed Elena to carry her own bundle of lit incense sticks, said Elena was too old for praying with just clasped palms; Elena can still feel a tingling on the back of her hands where the ashes dropped from the incense-sticks and burned her skin. At each shrine, her grandmother instructed Elena to repeat prayers for good health and safety of their entire family as well as the continuous soaring of her grades. They dropped one incense stick into the large, ornate metal ash pot, and smoke from the incense carried their wishes to heaven.
When I die, her grandmother said, as cool and dignified as she was for all other instructions, you, your parents, and your uncles and aunts must follow the proper burial rituals to dispose of my body, do you understand?
Confidently, Elena replied, I won’t have to, Ahma.
Oh? And why not?
Because you will live forever.
Those words shocked laughter from her grandmother: crooked-teeth, gaping, breathless laughter—the only that Elena has ever witnessed from her.
From the moment her father, with the telephone loosely cradled to his chest, informed Elena of her grandmother’s death, Elena had believed it to be impossible for her to mourn.
Yet she is crying for that woman.
“Latent in Translation” by Margaret Chen appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Margaret Chen was a UC Berkeley student. “Latent in Translation” is her first published work of fiction. The characters in the story in no way reflect her loving relatives.