The Night Market
My last evening in Taiwan, my father wanted to show me Shilin Night Market. We rode the subway, transferring at Taipei Main Station for the northbound red line. Saturday night, the market was jammed with people strolling up and down the arteries of the main thoroughfare. Baba and I dragged along with the crowd, pausing here and there to browse the wares. We'd made up from the fight in the car driving down Yangmingshan yesterday, at least for now. He'd promised to rethink the new university contract and seriously consider coming back to the States for good.
The air was saturated by the scent of grilled meat, custard pudding and red bean pies, propane fumes and human sweat. Deep house music pumped out of every other storefront speaker, as vendors shouted into megaphones pointed at the passing hordes: Two-for-one ladies cotton underwear! Genuine leather sandals for men! Motorola flip phones unlocked here! DVDs! CDs! Come take a look!
At the food section in the back of the market, Baba stood in line to order us bowls of oyster vermicelli while I staked out seats at the communal tables set up in the center of the stalls. We dipped into the noodles. The oysters floated on top, fat and glistening like polished jewels.
"Listen, mei. There's one more person who wanted to see you before you leave," Baba said, between bites.
I asked if it was another relative. If Baba sensed my irritation, he didn't show it.
Before this trip, I hadn't seen my father in two and a half years, since he took this job. In the last week-my spring break-I'd barely spent any time with him alone. Every day, another banquet dinner with dozens of cousins, uncles and aunties, family friends who asked if I remembered them from the last time I visited the island, when I was just a kid.
"You can call him Uncle Lee," he said. One of his college buddies, my father explained. For a second, he looked like he had more to add. "He's been a good friend to me," he said finally.
"That's him over there now." Baba lifted a hand and waved.
The man waved back and made his way to our table. He moved with the compressed energy of a wrestler, his chin slightly down, arms swinging deliberately, as if ready to grapple at a moment's notice. Lee wore a red tank top with a cartoon duck printed on the chest, the hem tucked into a pair of tight black jeans, an FOB outfit that would've caught stares back home, but here he looked cool, I thought.
"My baby daughter," Baba said.
"Uncle Lee," I said in Mandarin. "Pleased to meet you."
"Sit down, sit down!" He offered his hand to me, and I shook it. "A big lady, tall like Old Shen here."
"She takes after her mother more than me-"
"I should hope so, with your teeth," said Lee, and they both laughed. He extracted a blue handkerchief from the nylon fanny pack around his waist and wiped down his face, which gleamed with sweat. "Much hotter here than LA, right? And it's only March." He gestured toward the empty Styrofoam bowls on the table. "You like Taiwanese food? Even the broiled intestines in the vermicelli?"
"My daughter eats very well."
"Wah! Like you, then." Lee jabbed a finger into my father's side.
"Uncle Lee, have you eaten yet?"
Lee smiled. "She's quite mature. Good manners." He glanced at my father approvingly. "All foreign-born girls not this way. Sometimes you hear stories about overseas children."
I felt my cheeks warm under Lee's scrutiny.
"And your Mandarin isn't bad," he said. "I thought your father was exaggerating, going on about 'My daughter Jane doing this and that, memorized the periodic table when she was only twelve, super number one classical piano.'"
"My mother stuck me in Saturday Chinese school for years," I said. "Baba bribed me with McDonald's."
"Lee and I used to compete in the university badminton courts," Baba said. I was glad for the subject change. "When I moved back here, I went looking for a game at those same courts, and I saw him there, believe it or not."
"In our college days, the girls crowded the bleachers," Lee said. "Just to catch a glimpse of your father in those white athletic shorts."
"Lee! Don't make up stories."
"Sometimes he even played bare chest," Lee said, grinning. He pantomimed pulling off his shirt with a flourish of his arms. "Quite a scene you created, brother."
"Not me," he replied. "You must be remembering someone else, Lee."
"Don't be so modest," said Lee. "Your father was the school prince."
Baba shook his head.
"We all knew he'd be the one to go to America."
"I was lucky, that's all," said my father.
"Luck!" Lee exclaimed. "You're brilliant. You worked hard-"
"I made certain choices," Baba said. "Left or right-"
"Like deciding to move back here," I said, with more force than I intended. "And stay here," I added. "Or was that luck?"
A silence. Then Lee laughed lightly, a sound almost as if he were clearing his throat. He exchanged a look with my father, and I saw something pass between them, the wordless language adults believe only they know how to speak. My father was silently apologizing to Lee: My daughter is a moody, sensitive girl prone to bursts of emotion, and something about these old stories puts her in a sour mood. She's in her last year of high school but still a child. Still childish. I'd better get her home.
"The university students your father helps are the lucky ones now." Lee's eyes fell on me, and I forced a smile to my lips. I nodded, pretending to agree. But the way he spoke about my father in the old days gave me the creeps. I couldn't imagine Baba like that at all-someone the girls swooned for? Who was that person?
The job in Taiwan was only supposed to be for one year. And sure, there'd been emails, and phone calls when the hours aligned. But why hadn't he come home to visit?
He left the summer after my freshman year. Before that, Baba had been out of work for I didn't know how long; at some point when I was still in junior high, he'd been laid off from his job at Boeing out in Long Beach. Mah was selling houses, out every weekend at showings, wooing clients over dim sum, managing contractors in every suburb in LA County where Chinese-speaking families lived: Alhambra, West Covina, Torrance, Cerritos. All I remember Baba doing during that time? He stayed in bed and read comic books. He'd dug them out of a cardboard box in the garage. Sometimes I sat next to him with my own reading, a novel assigned for English class, or an issue of Sassy borrowed from Fiona, my best friend. The pillow smelled like Mah's face cream, even though she'd started sleeping in the guest room. "Because Baba snores," she'd complained.
Weekdays, he didn't get dressed or ever leave the house. No more badminton at the park on Saturday afternoons with the other church dads, and he stopped accompanying Mah to Sunday service at First Chinese Calvary over on South Street. He wasn't acting like a normal father anymore. I was in the ninth grade and embarrassed about everything, including this.
One Sunday afternoon, the church dads showed up unannounced. They dragged Baba out of bed and forced him into the shower, chanting, "Jesus loves you! He will provide! Praise Him!" Crowded outside the bathroom door, they sang a rousing hymnal while Baba cleaned up, their voices ringing through the house. They came the Sunday after that, and again on the third Sunday. They wanted Baba to get back to himself, and this was how they thought they could help, with earnest harmonizing, shouts of Hallelujah, wreathing my father in God's holy spirit.
It didn't work. After they left each week, Baba crawled back into bed, surrounded by his comic books. There were volumes stacked on the nightstand, a few tossed on the ground. One time, I flipped through a copy. All those hours of Chinese school homework, that dreaded calligraphy notebook with pages of black grids, and I could only understand about half the text in the comics. The illustrations filled in the rest. A teenage boy wakes up on a Taiwanese fishing boat with amnesia; he'd survived the typhoon but remembers nothing about his past.
What finally helped, I guess, was finding another job. He and Mah told me together in July that year: Baba was moving to Taiwan for a position at his alma mater, working to secure overseas internships for their engineering grads. I can't remember who packed the suitcases or if I rode along in the car to LAX. Just that one day he was gone, like nothing.
Sophomore year, I picked up smoking menthols from Fiona. I turned sixteen. Failed my driving test a bunch of times before I gave up. Baba didn't come home that summer like he'd said he would. Mah explained that he'd signed on for another academic year. I asked if they were getting a divorce. "We need his salary for your college," she said. "Don't be ridiculous."
As if to make up for his absence at church, Mah threw herself into her devotionals even more vigorously than before. She hosted Friday night Bible study at our house once a month. Not long after Baba left, she bought a huge Jesus painting and hung it on the living room wall, above the black leather sofa with the rip in the arm. A crown of thorns rested on His head, and rivulets of blood flowed down His temples. Jesus's soft blue eyes gazed over the furniture-the matching leather love seat to the side, the walnut-and-glass coffee table decorated with a white doily at its center-and landed on the upright Yamaha against the opposite wall, where I took my weekly piano lessons.
Junior year, I learned to drink soju and beer with my friends. Another school year passed, and then it was summer again. I was seventeen. I asked Mah if Baba was coming home. Instead of answering, she said she was switching me to a new piano teacher.
Ping was a grad student in music composition and performance at CalArts up in Valencia. Mah had heard about her because another girl under Ping's tutelage kept winning first place at piano competitions and junior talent shows all over LA, South Bay, Orange County. Mah wanted Ping to work her magic on me, too.
Last August: the first time Ping came over to give me a lesson, I caught a look of horror in her eyes when she saw Mah's huge painting of Jesus. I was caught off guard-He'd been hanging there for so long I sort of forgot about it-but when Ping's eyes met mine, she gave a bighearted, booming laugh. I laughed, too. She looked back at Jesus, then again at me. She wiped tears from the corners of her eyes and shook her head. It was the first time an adult (Ping was twenty-four, she told me later, when I asked) had ever used that secret language with me, telling a joke without words. We sat down at the piano, me at the bench, Ping in the chair beside it. She wore a plain black sweatshirt over green cargo pants, and black ankle socks on her feet. Large, docile eyes set wide apart on her round face gave Ping the appearance of a curious goldfish. When she pushed up her sleeves, I saw that her arms were covered in tattoos. I'd never imagined someone from China like that, the doomed way Mah talked about the Communist mainland: starvation, corruption, pollution.
Senior year now. I turned eighteen in March; only sixty-four days until graduation. Two years, seven months, since the last time I saw my father. I had to come here to find him. Nine days together in Taipei, finally. To invite him home.
I shifted in my seat, peeling sweaty thighs off the molded plastic chair. Lee's presence irritated me. It was my last night in Taiwan-couldn't Baba and I have spent it alone, just the two of us? There were things I wanted to talk to him about, like when exactly he was planning to return to LA, to Mah, and to me.
I wondered if Mah had been one of those girls watching my father at the badminton court. Neither of my parents had ever been forthcoming about the early days of their romance. I'd tried to ask about it, but they only ever gave me desultory answers, claiming there'd been nothing extraordinary about their courtship.
I asked Lee if he knew my mother back then, too. Before he could answer, Baba's cell phone jingled. "Her ears must be itching," Baba said, flipping the phone open.
Lee took out the blue handkerchief again, shaking it in the air a few times before refolding it into a neat rectangle. He turned away from us and blew his nose violently, his eyes squeezed shut.
On the phone, Baba repeated my flight info to Mah. He promised to follow Taoyuan regulations and get me there three hours ahead of the scheduled departure time.
"What we're doing now?" For an instant, his eyes slid toward Lee. "You want to talk to her?" He handed me the phone.
"Hi, Mah." She asked what foods we'd eaten today, and I listed them for her, everything at breakfast, lunch, dinner, the night market. After a pause, she asked if I'd had a good time. I said yes.
"You still want to come back, right?" She gave a soft laugh. "Fiona called yesterday for you. I tell her you're not home yet." What time was it in LA? Fifteen hours behind, so it was Friday morning there. My mother must have been getting ready to leave for work.
"Did you cancel Ping for this week, too?" I said. My lessons were on Friday afternoons.
"Oh!" Mah cried. "I forget. I have to call her-"
I promised one last time to get to the airport early, and then we hung up.
"Heavens," Lee said. "Don't be late for this, don't forget that-I bet you can't wait to go off to college and get away from all the nagging."
He was right, but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction by agreeing.
"You look so much like her." Lee's unwavering gaze made me uncomfortable. "It's almost like being back there again, twenty years ago."
So he did know my mother, before.
"You're going to have to find a new badminton partner, Uncle Lee," I said.
"I see," he said. "Of course. You miss him."