The Oriental Grocer
By Paul Tan
Mark didn't tell his parents many things. Whatever for? Besides, he didn't really have the right vocabulary to express the nuances anyway.
When he was thirteen and having a miserable time in the local comprehensive, he hit a schoolmate in the shins with a hockey stick because the boy a mouthy, freckled white troublemaker had called him Chink with sweet and sour balls. The headmaster, who was half West Indian, was sympathetic but action had to be taken Mark was suspended from school for two weeks. He fibbed that he had passed the headmaster's note to his parents and hoped nobody would check. Nobody did.
He spent those two weeks hanging out at the mall and at various playgrounds, taking special care to steer clear of the Chinese takeaways, and in fact, most Oriental looking people, because in Norwich, all the Chinese residents knew each other. He was successful; his parents never suspected a thing.
Sometimes Mark felt almost sorry that his parents were so guileless, so easy to dupe.
Weng was livid. He strode into the shop and called loudly for Queenie, who was squatting in the corner stacking cans of bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms. It was a quiet time of the day and there weren't many customers. Queenie stood up and greeted her husband.
He blustered in Cantonese, "I can't believe it! There are two boys in the alley yes, the one just round the corner smoking weed."
Queenie squinted her eyes. "Are you sure?"
"Of course, I tell you I could smell it from so far away. Stinks to death! I hope nobody is selling the stuff near here. All the wrong types of people will hang around here. Definitely bad for business."
Queenie nodded. But in reality, she thought her customers were not so easily fazed, given that there were only a few Chinese grocers in Norwich (in fact, in the whole county of Norfolk) and their convenient, central location.
But she knew better than to challenge Weng when he was on the warpath. She wanted to ask if they should contact the police but was stopped by a customer at the till with a basketful of groceries. The female customer looked like one of those Filipina nurses who had started working at the new hospital opened in the outskirts. She looked uncomfortable, even if she probably didn't understanding Weng's rail, Queenie thought.
Her husband continued, "I should have approached them and asked them to get lost and do their dirty business elsewhere." As he bellowed, Mark ambled in, lugging his bicycle tot the back of the shop, where the stocks were kept.
Queenie chastised her husband. "Choi! You better not invite trouble. They could be gangsters."
Weng poured himself a mug of Chinese tea from the Thermos flask. He took a violent gulp and muttered, "I don't know what's happening to this country. In Singapore, when you took drugs, even a few grams of marijuana, they put you in jail and give you a good whipping with the rotan." He emphasized the Malay word for effect. "That's what you need to stop this drug nonsense in this country."
Mark suddenly piped up. He had been leaning lazily against the deep freezer, listening quietly. He spoke in English, "Yeah, but do these harsh measures work? I think that they only drive dealers underground and create a black market. Then that jacks up prices and pushes hard core drug addicts into committing more crime."
"So what do you suggest then, young man?" Weng countered, in English as well.
"They should just legalise the soft stuff. What's the big deal? It's proven to be not addictive. As for those addicted to hard drugs, the NHS should just give it out free. This way, you can make sure addicts don't share syringes and that they aren't getting drugs which has been mixed with harmful chemicals."
"Harmful chemicals? The drugs themselves are causing the harm!" Weng glared at his eighteen-year-old son. What kind of rubbish were they teaching him at the local college?
Queenie was tense. But she remained at the till listening while pretending to sort the international calling cards in the drawer. An ugly scene was imminent.
Mark persisted, "It will cost the country less in the long term."
Weng reverted to Cantonese and raised his voice one notch, "Cheh! What do you know? You're still so young; you haven't even been out of the UK. I don't know where you get these rubbish thoughts. You listen to me, I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice!"
He stopped and glared at his son in a strange way.
As if reading his father's mind, Mark said with a shrug, "Hey, don't look at me like that. I've never tried any of that shit, ok?"
Of late, Mark seemed to be causing his parents more grief than usual. But he couldn't help it really, could he?
When Mark told his parents that he was bringing his girlfriend home to dinner, they were pleased. They preferred he spent his evenings at home rather than drinking with his mates from the Hollywood Bowl, where he worked part-time. Having your son's friends over, he discovered when he was young, was obviously a good way of keeping tabs on your kids.
But when they found out she was a white girl, one of his colleagues from the bowling alley, they were less than enthusiastic.
"Aiyah, why must you date a gwaimooi?" Queenie pleaded. "What about that nice girl, Auntie Lindo's daughter who plays tennis?"
"No, didn't work out." Mark didn't have the heart to tell his mum that Sarah, Aunt Lindo's girl, had declared to her friends that she was lesbian. "And mum, gwaimooi is racist, you know."
Queenie ignored the accusation. "Hai, so many nice Chinese girls around. You could have picked any of them to go out with."
"There aren't that many in school, you know. And we're definitely not in Little Newport Street, London. Didn't you say that when you can't get prawns in the market, fish is also good?"
Mark realised later that his last rhetorical question was a low blow. Not that anything he said, or didn't say, would have placated his parents anyway.
Anyway, if they were so bothered about whom he dated, where did they not set up shop in a city with a larger Chinese community, rather than white-bread Norwich? Given that mum and dad were always waxing about their old homes, hell, why in the world did they even leave their native countries?
Queenie and Weng had hoped that Mark would speak and write a Chinese language well. That was why they sent him for weekend classes when he was in middle school. Weng would have preferred him to learn Mandarin, the official language of one fifth of humanity, he told his wife but there were no affordable group lessons available. So they settled for Cantonese, which was what they spoke at home.
Mark's spoken Cantonese proved adequate, if not fluent, though he often found himself tongue-tied or using English words when he talked to his parents. And try as he might, he simply could not pick up the writing, to his parents' disappointment. The calligraphic strokes appeared a disorderly jumble and it didn't help that there were so many of them to memorise. Hundreds of them! Maybe he was dyslexic when it came to Chinese characters. Queenie didn't understand what he meant. But surely things would be different had they stayed in Asia, she thought.
Queenie and Weng had never intended to come to the UK twenty years ago. It was practically by default. Weng didn't want to relocate to Hong Kong which he found too chaotic and polluted while Queenie said the hot and humid weather in Weng's Singapore gave her throbbing headaches. A third country had seemed like a good idea and the UK offered the right balance of the exotic and entrepreneurial possibility.
They drifted to Norwich in pretty much the same diffident manner. They could not agree - London's Chinatown, Queenie's preference, or Edinburgh, where Weng's cousin ran a launderette.
When Mark was still a young boy, they flirted with the idea of relocating but it never materialised. They had become too settled in their niche, as marginal as it was, having built good ties with their customers and suppliers. Besides they were increasingly worried about crime and racism in the bigger cities.
Weng's theory was that the more ethnically diverse the city, the higher the crime rate and the more unhelpful the police. For all their differences, this was something both husband and wife readily agreed on.
But even in Norwich, they encountered the odd incident. There was the one time when a bunch of lads drove by as they were closing up. Chanting "Fu Man Chu! Fu Man Chu!", they hurled eggs at their shop. Weng shook his fist at them, as Queenie, nearly in tears, stared at the two ugly splotches on their glass frontage. But at the end of the day, it was just egg, easy to clean up, and the lads didn't really threaten any physical harm. Weng tut-tutted as he rinsed the dishcloth, "What a waste of egg! Don't these young people know children are starving in Africa?"
But here was no time or inclination to brood; they had a livelihood and a son, their precious only child, to raise. There was no other way to run a business then to boldly tell customers you exist and that you sold fresh quality Asian produce.
Even so, Queenie thought invisibility, which came almost too effortlessly in social settings or among crowds, was reassuring, quite a good thing actually. Outside the shop, she sometimes felt invisible, like a ghost.
Mark couldn't explain it. When taunted with a racist comment, even in jest, a short, angry fuse was ignited. He was rarely cowed. Usually he responded verbally, with a torrent of vulgarities good enough to shut people up. Only occasionally, did he have to throw a punch or pick a fight.
It was certainly not what his mother recommended. She insisted that he bit his tongue, kept his head low and swallowed the abuse away. Not the best survival tips in the real world, he thought.
Yet when he was with Emily, he found it almost endearing when she teased him, calling him "my little triad boyfriend" or when she referred to his flaccid dick as dim sum, before giving it a gentle nibble.
Emily was such a game girl, she was. It could be in the back of her old man's car, or in the bowling alley storeroom during lunch or even once in the dense foliage of Mousehold Heath, but she was always up for a good time. He was happy with Emily; she made him laugh and feel as if he was a part of something larger, a real community perhaps.
She was a little vain though, constantly checking her hair in the mirror and fretting about her weight or make-up. He, on the other hand, wasn't comfortable with mirrors. No big deal. It made him feel self-conscious, that's all. And obviously, he told himself, lads just weren't supposed to be so vain obsessed with their appearance.
He really liked Emily. Maybe he would move in with her, once he got a full-time job, perhaps at the bowling alley. He didn't want to go to the university, which he thought was over-rated and full of middle-class twats with posh accents. Certainly he didn't want to be in debt or beholden to his parents, after they paid for another three years of school. He would tell them at some point. Perhaps when the exam results come out, he thought.
Queenie and Weng could barely hide their disappointment when they eventually met Emily. The couple did not look compatible at all. Emily was thick-hipped, with an ample bosom, accentuated by her tight spaghetti-strapped top. Standing next to her, their lanky son with his angular chin and smooth face looked like a child she babysat or chaperoned.
Neither did Emily's comments during dinner help endear her to Queenie or Weng. She asked if the vegetables were cooked because she found them so crunchy. When Mark explained that Chinese stir-fry was unlike English cooking, which boiled veggies to death, she remarked, "Oh, I'm not used to it. But I'm cool with it."
She found the Sichuan chicken with dried chilli too hot and dropped a huge dollop of ketchup over the delicate steamed crab. Even if she was constantly apologising for her untrained palate, Weng found his son's girlfriend slightly false. His questions to her about her life plans left him with the impression that she had no ambition, no foresight. He was sure she was not a good influence on Mark.
Queenie regretted bothering to prepare such nice Cantonese food. Maybe we should have bought fish and chips from Lim's takeaway instead, she thought, resignedly.
Mark was slightly annoyed that his mum felt so self-conscious about her spoken English, that she limited her utterances to "We have nice weather today, yes?" and "Eat, eat, have some more." He knew she was capable of more, having heard her with their regular customers.
This meant that his dad monopolised the conversation at the dinner table, prating on about the subtle wonders of true Chinese food or making sweeping pronouncements about soccer hooliganism and terrible reality TV shows where everybody was so desperate to become a celebrity, no matter what.
He made a weak joke about how Norwich and Singapore should become twin cities.
"You know everyone says Norwich is a Fine City, it's a phrase one of your famous white chaps came up with."
Emily nodded. Queenie looked attentive, even though she had heard this joke before.
"Well, Singapore is a Fine City too because they have so many fines there. You get fined for littering, for spitting, for not flushing the toilet and so on!"
He guffawed loudly. Emily allowed herself a small titter. Mark cringed in his seat and stared into his bowl of boiled apple and pork soup.
Well, at least Emily seemed to be enjoying most of her food, he thought. She even asked for a second helping of longan tofu dessert and appeared intrigued when Queenie pointed out the translucent fruit, "Dragon's eyes, you know."
The mood lightened after dinner when they adjourned to the living room. Weng suggested catching a Jet Li movie on one of the cable channels and seemed pleased that Emily didn't mind that it didn't have subtitles. "Oh, I'm sure I can follow the plot," she said breezily. "Besides Mr. Yip, you don't really need to know the language to appreciate kung fu."
It was past eleven when the movie ended. His parents retired, leaving him and Emily to drink a few pints while listening to his dad's old Sinatra records. Emily whispered, as they disappeared upstairs, I thought they were gonna be strict traditionalists, but they're right, regular folks, aren't they?
Regular? Mark wasn't so sure. They were always displacing their hopes on him. He was sure his parents felt they deserved better, that they shouldn't be hawking spices and pickled vegetables in a modest grocer in Smallsville for their entire lives. But neither did he want them to invest all their energies and project so much of their unfulfilled dreams on him. Hmm, but then, he thought, maybe that's what regular folks do.
Queenie was awakened by the sound of giggling downstairs. The bedside clock flashed 2.30 am. Was Emily still in the house? She sat up slowly, careful not to wake Weng lightly snoring beside her.
She was having such a nice dream about a trip they made to the Great Yarmouth seaside when Mark was about five. It was such a lovely summer day and she remembered how frightened Mark initially was by the Big Slide on the pier but how he eventually begged to go on it again and again. It was one of her favourite memories
Then it hit her in the dark bedroom. That fuggy, musky smell. She knew what it was immediately. Her first instinct was to wake Weng up. But then she counted to ten and the panicky feeling subsided. She decided not to. Besides, maybe it's something else, maybe it wafted from somewhere else.
The last thing she wanted was another fracas. She had tried hard to maintain the family harmony, but she failed. Weng, in the last few years, seemed more irritable, more fixed in his hard-headed ways while Mark, her precious Mark-chai, seemed to be drifting from her. He used to be such an obedient, loveable boy.
She tiptoed out of bed and opened the bedroom window an extra inch. Then she walked towards the bathroom across the landing and deliberately coughed, softly so that her sleeping hubby would not be roused but loud enough for the kids downstairs to hear. Then she clambered back to bed, after shutting the bedroom door behind her quietly, with a worried expression on her face.
Moments passed. She cocked her ear and heard the front door open. She assumed Mark was walking his girlfriend home. Never mind, she reminded herself, if things are not perfect now. Next year when Mark-chai goes to uni, he'll enrol in a law or medicine course, he'll do very well and make his ah pa and ah ma proud. Then after graduation, he'll get a good job, find a nice Chinese girlfriend for a serious relationship, not like this red-haired girl, get married, have beautiful children and give us so many happy years to look forward to
She turned on her side and faced the full-length mirror in the bedroom, away from her sleeping husband. She thought of the bendy mirrors on the Great Yarmouth pier and smiled thinking of how cute Mark had looked that day in his sailor suit and little cap, melting ice cream cone in one hand. She remembered him in front of the mirrors, knitting his brow, perplexed at the incongruity of his distorted image was he even wishing it away? as the crowds of tourists, almost entirely English, swirled around the three of them.