FEATURE PHOTO ADAPTED FROM Dave Weatherall on Unsplash
The fire ate loudly. It spit ashes everywhere as it gorged down our offerings. “The gods are hungry today,” my grandma warned. The fire burst in a sudden uproar, slapping its chopsticks down on the lady susan, demanding more. The offerings were for our ancestors, why were the gods taking what wasn’t for them? I tried to feed the flames a paper iPhone, but my grandma jerked my hand back.
“You are too greedy,” she chastised the gods as if they, too, were her grandchildren. We were burning paper for the dead: paper money decked in gold, paper houses five stories high, paper clothes to keep them warm. The heat was suffocating but my family didn’t budge from our huddle around the red fire bin. I could feel the gods all around us, stealing even our oxygen. The sparks landed all around us, soaked up by our sneakers. My toes squirmed at my newfound companions. I saw the ones lustful for life trying to inhabit my aunts’ bodies as soot nestling into their black, oily hair. I saw the lively ones dance around us in embers, like fireflies. But I was most aware of the vengeful ones, bellowing storms of smoke to swallow our bodies. I succumbed to the gods. I tossed the paper iPhone into their gaping mouths. The fire cackled in laughter. The flames circled the red bin one last time as the gods licked their bowl for any remaining scraps.
Why were they so greedy for things that aren’t theirs? It wasn’t until I stole my first stamps that I began to understand this story. I am just as greedy as the gods. I am just as greedy for things that aren’t mine.
At twelve years of age, my father was a collector of stamps. One night, with black scissors in his chubby hands, he flung open his father’s drawer of letters. It was time for excavation. He balanced on his tiptoes on the wooden study room chair and leaned up to the full moon. As the faint glow poured in through the metal bars on the windows, he stole his father’s stamps. It was clumsy work. It was heartbreaking work. He had a hard time detecting the exact borders of the stamps. The scissors were too big for him and sticky from previous use. He used both his hands to pry apart the reluctant scissor blades. Chomp, chomp, chomp. The scissors swallowed the envelope. Pieces of envelope that couldn’t hang on anymore scattered on the study room table. He took bold, wide cuts deep into the heart of each envelope. How could he have known that he was cutting right into yei yei’s heart? The twelve-year-old boy skipped away, treasures in hand, letters abandoned.
At fifty-seven years of age, my yei yei only had a drawer of letters left to tell him who he was. The words were the only evidence left of life before the family, Taiwan, the War, the Revolution. By the time he landed on the shores of Taiwan, he was forty and old, without even a single photograph or jade bracelet from home. And he would have nothing except the letters from home until his eldest daughter went to the United States for her Masters degree. From the States, she mailed the letters back the China. The words he scribbled, scratched out, and muttered over and over for the last thirty years. The letters were addressed to the place of his old home, not at anyone in particular. Yei yei had more faith in reaching an address than anyone in particular. The letters came back: some of the Chen family still presided there, but all his close relatives had passed: siblings, parents, most cousins. And how was he? They all thought he had passed during the War, too. Great to hear he made a life for himself in Taiwan. Yei yei told everyone he expected this and was now content. Now he could focus fully on the present. Taiwan was finally, truly his home. That day, yei yei let go of the self who was a treasurer in Chiang Kai Shek’s army in China. An intelligent, well read man. I don’t know that yei yei. That man is tucked away in the words of the letters. I wonder if yei yei gets worn out of living with people who only knew him as an old man.
By the time we were born yei yei was old. Not an adult to 撒嬌 to: I never tried to sprinkle affection onto the old man lost in thought on the chair with his gaping mouth. Not an adult to be 乖 to: I could never imagine his sparse eyebrows furrowing in disappointment or his freckled hands raised to discipline. And I certainly wasn’t eager for kisses from his prickly stubbles and his wrinkled chin. Not an adult to 懷念 while I’m away from home: I don’t embrace how his soft, white hair is being flanked by sesame black hair again in my thoughts at night as I think of home.
The stamp-stealing memory has become mine, not so much given to me rather than taken by me. I see my yei yei’s sobbing back trembling in his threadbare, cotton shirt. He is wearing boxer shorts for bed and his calves are smooth, like white radish. He makes no noises. The only sound is his tears traveling down the crevices of his nose and cheeks until they splatter on the words, blurring his memories of home. I see him from behind because I can’t imagine his face young. Even when I am given black and white photographs of yei yei standing tall and straight in his crisp army uniforms, all I recognized was the old man. I don’t know how to write yei yei in the first moments of finding his letters scattered, abandoned, and ripped apart. What were the letters without stamps? And who was he without his travels? I don’t know how he could go from discovery to rage to sorrow to compassion to forgiveness. But worst of all, I don’t allow him to feel pain and anger.
I want someone to comfort him. I put my father into the story: the boy crouching by the stairs, witnessing his father’s tears for the first time, despising his newfound power to hurt. But it’s not enough. It has to be me. I need to comfort yei yei. But I can never get my hands to reach out to touch the man I never knew, even in writing. Then why do I keep intruding on this memory that’s not mine? I don’t have a place here. This story belongs to yei yei.
There’s a memory that belongs to just the two of us. It was when I was younger. He was younger too. I believed that if I dug far enough into the earth, I would encounter the past. Because at seven years of age, past and present ran parallel: concurrent streams happening simultaneously. So, on my hands and knees, I scraped away at the soil with sticks and branches. After an hour of flurried excavating, I was interrupted by yei yei calling my name. An An, An An. I emerged from the cloud of dirt, irritated and despondent that I hadn’t reached the past yet. My eyes stung from the dust, my knees were infested with pebbles, my palms housed leaves that entrenched themselves into the folds of my skin… Yei yei took me home, hand in hand, and disciplined me to go shower. I looked up at the depths of his long, nostril hair, surprised that I could disappoint him. But after I came out of the shower, yei yei declared to everyone that I was a very 乖 girl. 乖, meaning a good kid. Guai meaning I am a granddaughter he is proud of. How can he say that with so much conviction when he doesn’t even know me? Do grandparents understand their grandchildren without needing to know the details of their lives? The only thing yei yei ever asks about my college life is whether or not I am eating well. When I tell him yes, I have food, I can cook, and there are a lot of Asian food options, he is assured. And who was I without my details: my passion for literature, my love for nature, my dedication to service, and my joy in journaling. Why can’t I know him this way– without evidence? I am reminded of that day every time yei yei’s eyes follows me around the house, taking in my life. In those moments, I believe that yei yei is the only person who truly understands me. I am grown now. My nails are clean of mud and my hair no longer smells of grass. But I am scared. I fear that I did in fact unearth the past as a child, but I was not the one who inherited it. The worms of the earth and the ghosts of the past squirm eternally in yei yei’s heart.
His name is Chen Qing Cheng. He is now a hundred years old. He uses a red pen and a ruler to underlines newspapers every morning. He tallies the cups of tea he drinks in a day on a little corner of his desk. He wobbles up three flights, lopsided from the weight of wet clothes in the red bucket, to hang his own laundry. He made me dictate the address of his old home in Sichuan onto a piece of paper, I still have it: 四川省重慶市黔江區金溪鄉 龍洞灣. When three silhouettes emerged by his door out of the blue and claimed they were his distant relatives, yei yei smiled a smile no one had ever seen. He paraded them around the streets and introduced them to everyone as his family from home. He invited them to lavish meals of sweet and sour pork, radish cake, and sweet rice balls. And when they asked for money, he handed them the full sum in clasped hands.
When I too finally became a stamp thief, I felt the joy and thrill of taking. I also felt the shame and regret of owning what wasn’t mine.
I don’t know why I have a duty to yei yei’s stampless letters. I won’t let them just throw the ravaged envelopes away after yei yei passes. I could mail them to his old home now that I have dictated his home address. But all the people who wrote the letters are buried in the earth now.
We burn paper for the dead: paper money decked in gold, paper houses five stories high, paper clothes to keep them warm. The heat was suffocating but my family didn’t budge from our huddle around the red fire bin. I could see the ancestors I unearthed all around us. In the fire my yei yei roars. Lashing at my dad for slashing his heart. Cursing me for scraping up the ghosts. Chen Qing Cheng, Chen Qing Cheng, Chen Qing Cheng. The ghosts who knew yei yei as more than an old man call out for him, cackling at the foolishness of life. One last time, back in the memory that is not mine. The moon shines too bright into the study room. I see yei yei from the back again, but he is not sobbing. He whips the wooden drawer from its cabinet as wood chips shower the study room. He lifts the offerings to the sky. Then, in one violent fling, he dumps all the contents into the fire. Feeding his letters, memories, and life to the gods. I run to him. This time, I jerk the old man by his white cotton shirt. He turns but it is my face staring back at me. My face is covered with dirt, my eyes sting of dust, and my palms are infested with scabs. I am burning his letters. The ancestors cackle. This time, it is at me and not at yei yei. I finally inherited the ghosts I unearthed. This is where I fit in yei yei’s life.
Ying-Ann is a recent Taiwanese UC Berkeley English and Social Welfare graduate. She was born and raised in Taiwan, grew up for ten years in Shanghai, graduated High School in Michigan, taught in Hungary for a summer, and is now residing in San Francisco, a city she adores. She is starting work with the older adults population, a population she has always wanted to serve having been raised by her Taiwanese grandparents.
From Ying-Ann: “This piece is to honor the images and memories of my childhood in Taiwan. And I have the precious Fae Myenne Ng to thank for this piece, as she instilled in me a radical skipping joy in writing and life. I had Fae as my professor for two classes at UC Berkeley, and she taught me to write sentences that can only come from me, trust my instincts, and always be bold and wild in my writing. I also want to thank Hannah, my first and favorite audience.”