photo of red lanterns by Maddy Watson

The Distance Between

Photography by Maddy Watson
Edits by Rachel Chopping

It had been one of the words I had studied in my Chinese script lessons, with red brush strokes gently carving the translucent parchment paper. 

 

 ‘Jiā’

Home.

 

As my fingers traced and drew the word, I noticed the small horizontal stroke at the top enveloping each edge of the bottom section. 

A little top hat, I thought to myself, a tiny roof for a home.  

Inside and underneath it, the family unit stood protected and embraced. I imagined each of the delicate brush strokes stemming from the vertical stroke to be like the venetian pattern engraved on a fallen leaf. Each connected and protected; they gracefully stood together. 

 

I held tightly onto the word in my heart when the real estate agent first showed us into our two-storey house in the south of suburban Sydney, complete with four bedrooms and three bathrooms. It even had a backyard with neatly trimmed hedges and a front yard lined with magenta geraniums. The yellow sunlight shone through, radiating a warm lustre and reflecting the beams on my Ma’s face. 

The house echoed the clamour of our clumsy footsteps. 

After having lived in a tiny government owned apartment for the first ten years of my life, this would be the place where we would build our own first home. Together. 

 

As the days swung merrily by, the unfamiliar spaces grew to become more normal, more ordinary. We grew into the new space quickly, like an old musky couch furrowing deeper back into the walls. My parents were too focused on working, finding a way to make ends meet and keep the family alive. This in combination with the lack of garden space they had known growing up in a run-down apartment in crowded Shanghai, meant that the flowers were never tended to, nor were the bushes trimmed. 

Often, I’d cry out in frustration to my Ma Ma, and demand to know why we never took better care of them or gave them the attention I thought they deserved. 

“Why can’t we keep the flowers alive?”  

“Can you even keep yourself alive?” my Ma would snap back in response. 

I think now that they simply never had the time to worry about frivolous things, like adorning their life with beautiful geraniums. They had, after all, grown up in Mao’s Communist China.

And so the magenta geraniums that once sat boldly in our front yard, soon crawled quietly into the space they occupied. 

 

***

 

At school, I found myself often wincing submissively in shame when the other kids at school asked what my dad did for work.  

Some proudly boasted, “My dad works as a lawyer.” 

Others beamed, “My daddy is a teacher.”

I quickly brushed aside the questions when they arose. I wanted a ‘white’ dad, who wouldn’t make me solve maths problems during my school holidays and spend my weekends jumping from a whole day of English tutoring on Saturday to Chinese school on Sundays. 

 

At home, I quietly listened to my Ba Ba’s coughing and wheezing as he suffered alone in the gloomy corners of the house. His lungs had given way because of all the smoking, and soon enough, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. With the smoking also came the dental care. One bad tooth infection would spread quickly through his entire mouth, until it ravaged through and left nothing but empty black holes. 

Each night, my Ba would brush his teeth hunched over the steel sink, pull out his porcelain set of teeth and plonk them into the jar of salt-water. He would smile at me with his lumpy gums, when he caught me watching curiously from afar, and I would hesitantly offer a toothy grin back.

The rare moments I did see of him were slipping past in the afternoon as he packed his fraying backpack and left for a night shift at the paper printing factory. The muscles of his face were still heavy with drowsiness from the evening before. There were barely more than a few meagre words exchanged – the uncomfortable silence was an unexpected guest that had somehow wedged itself in the empty distance between.  

His face had quickly grown sunken in, and half his eyebrows were missing. He, an already tall lanky man, had lost more than fifteen kilograms in the space of a few months because of the combination of the endless health issues and working tirelessly. His head hung low and his shoulders heavy; it would be a long night of labour at the factory.

 

One day, I had carved a smiley face in the flaky red bean pastry that my Ma had made. She neatly packed three of the pastries in my Ba’s backpack.  

“I was so tired from working and it was so dark outside,” he said to me the next day, “and then, I see the smiley lian. When I eat it, it also make me smile too.” He held my gaze steady through thick lensed glasses. 

It was such a meagre act, but it reminded him he was not so alone in this world. 

Whilst other dads played soccer on the weekends and their kids sat firmly on their shoulders, my Ba Ba’s shoulders carried the burdens of working multiple labour jobs to mend the tears of a struggling family. 

 

***

 

It was many years later when my parents finally saved enough money to be able to take us on a month-long holiday during the summer break of 2010. We didn’t do any of the regular things the other tourists did in the bustling city of Shanghai. 

My sister and I incessantly complained to our Ma. 

“Why can’t we be like normal families? Why can’t we take a holiday to Europe, where we can stay in nice hotels?”

“Yeah, I wish we could go to Europe,” pouted my sister, “even the Gold Coast would be so much better cos there are theme parks there.” 

“Ah, staying here is much cheaper, we don’t need to pay for hotels here.” she replied. “Going on holidays will be so hard.” A few moments passed, and she exhaled a long breath and added: “We have not seen your Na in such long time. She hobbles around this lonely apartment all by herself.”

 

As I lay staring at the concrete ceiling that was splattered with specks of mould, my eyes began to wander around the dimly lit room. The room smelt strongly of a burning incense that my Na said would heal anything, even the distance between a family. 

 The streetlights outside flickered in a constant motion, with the pale light casting shadows on my mother’s still face beside me. 

Here we are, I thought as I pulled the red woollen blankets closer to my face, the home-town of my parents.

 

To fill our empty time, my sister and I found ourselves sitting on the olive-coloured couch with our wrinkled Na, watching Chinese television together that I could only partially understand. From cartoons about courageous monkey kings, to poorly made crime shows, to Han Dynasty romance dramas; these were the stories that continued to captivate me. 

 

Over the dinner table, the stories continued to drift through. My Ba Ba chattered with liveliness to his friends and his sisters in smooth Shanghainese. His eyes creased with delight and his shoulders sighed in response as he relished on the foods he had grown up eating. An assortment of green leafy vegetables smothered in oyster sauce and meat encased in thin rice flour pastry. He gleefully slurped up the bone-broth noodle soup. 

This time, when he offered a smiled at me from across the room, the smile reached his eyes and creased the corners of his thin lips. 

All the while, my sister and I found ourselves bragging to our cousins about how wonderful Australia was. We reminisced about the balmy evening sunlight on the golden shores that we basked in, as opposed to the thick grey smog and pollution here. We boasted of coming home from Sunday Chinese school with a delicious pizza waiting for us every week for lunch. 

“Pi-zza is for rich people here!” my cousin cried out in between mouthfuls of rice, “It’s like a high-class restaurant because you sit down and they serve you. Do you know how many hours we’d have to work to be able to eat at Pizza Hut?” 

I caught my sister’s eye from across the table. 

They didn’t need to know that pizzas in Australia cost five dollars and was, in fact, fast food for those with little money.  

Perhaps, we were rich after all. 

 

***

 

Like the food, the world around me felt familiar but also foreign. People didn’t speak English, which meant that the words I wanted to speak only tumbled out clumsily.

I clung tightly on to my Ma Ma’s hand on the Metro Station, gazing at the characters that flashed up on each stop. She was agile and swift here, knowing all the right words to navigate us to this part of town and how to order all the foods from the street markets vendors. I, on the other hand, felt as though I was swamped in water and treading just enough to keep my head afloat.  I didn’t know how to ask for directions or even how to figure out how to catch the bus to the shops. I gulped and managed to fumble a few words that would immediately be drowned out by the engulf of the busy cityscape. 

 

“Korean or Japanese?” asked the old man sitting beside my sister and I on the bus, overhearing the muffled English phrases we snuck to one another. 

“From Australia,” I replied, as I reached up to touch the end strands of my black hair. 

His moon-shaped eyes stared curiously back at me.

 

***

 

When we had returned to the familiar pockets of suburban Sydney, the geraniums greeted us with a solemn sadness, and diligently retreated into their unobtrusive position. 

After all the five of us had lived in the cramped one-bedroom space in Shanghai, I vividly remember the feeling after setting foot back into my house. My house seemed to have physically expanded, as though it was much larger than when I had left it in my memories. The walls had grown, and the spaces fell quieter without the animated chatter of the rest of my family. 

My parents softly unpacked the assortment of Chinese ornaments they brought back and had haggled the sellers from the market with. A humble cabbage made out of jade, a bottle of Moutai and a new set of decorative chopsticks. The eclectic ornaments sat neatly in our red rosewood cupboard for display and would rest alongside our swimming trophies and the seashells we had picked up from the Sunshine Coast.  

The red shelves were soon filled with a multitude of things that spoke of dreams of a previous life, or perhaps it was the life they never had the chance to continue living. This was a corner of our home in Sydney that had created only but a mere semblance of the home they had packed up and left behind in Shanghai. 

 

As the evening gave way, the four of us gathered around the round table. We sat huddled over bowls of plain rice congee with chopsticks in one hand and clutching a steamed meat bun in the other. 

“I dreamed that we were all back there. Back home,” my Ma Ma faintly whispered, her face pale like thin pieces of billowing parchment paper. 

No one could muster a reply. I felt my lips tremble with unspoken words. I continued to concentrate carefully on each grain of rice in my bowl as I dug through the slush with my chopsticks, waiting for the silence to linger and fill the vast space around us. 

 

When the gathering dark fell like a curtain, I crept up the stairs to follow the dim yellow light that illuminated my parents’ room. From the smallest corner of the room, I could faintly hear weeping. 

 I caught a glimpse of my mother – she was hunched over, her head bowed and her figure prostrated. A faded picture of my Na hung on the left-hand side of her dresser. On the right, the magenta geraniums hung limply in a blue and white porcelain vase. 

 

She had missed 

‘Jiā’

Home.

 

 

 

 

 

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