“Ah, bu neng mei guanxi!” the old lady said, then proceeding to speak a few more words which I had difficulty in understanding individually; only understanding the context through her gesture and manner of speech. I believe she said “Just tell me what you want, I can help you find anything!”
And then she began to point her fingers on every ingredients on the rack; inside the jars, the boxes and on the roots; and explaining to me in her perfect Mandarin of every herbs uses and descriptions.
“Mei shenme! Xiexie. Wo meiyou shuo Hanyu! Wo shi Huaren, danshi wo shuo Yingyu!” I again desperately tried to deny her offer, only to make her judge my more-than-broken Mandarin which I had only learned from school. I said to her “I’m a Chinese, but I don’t speak Mandarin. I speak English.”
The old lady smirked a little, and I have reasons strong enough to believe that she laughed at me inside. Nevertheless, she didn’t bother to help me anymore.
“Aiya,” she said, “better I just sit down. It’s a shame Chinese people don’t speak Chinese anymore. Cannot be helped. Suddenly everybody wants to speak English. What a waste.”
That words made way into my heart pretty fast; and stabbed it instantly. Suddenly I am ashamed of myself.
“Ma, sorry for disappointing you!” again I asked forgiveness from my late mother. If mother did know what had happened to me, maybe she herself would attempt suicide and be resurrected as a hungry ghost in her afterlife.
My mother and I ran away from China when I was very small, when I could barely talk. She never taught me Mandarin; which I was eagerly wanted to learn. Instead; she sent me to school. She said she couldn’t speak Mandarin; only a little. She said that our family was Cantonese.
But my mother inherited something from her mother. The ability to write and read nushu; the women language of China. Which only the women use and understand. Right now, only one living woman could write and read the language.
My mother only talked in English with me; she worked in the embassy before she was pregnant with me. She never talked about my father – whom she said is the ‘perfect Chinese gentleman’, a ‘high ranking scholar’. If you asked me now, how a perfect Chinese gentleman look like, I won’t have a clue. I don’t know it myself.
My mother died when I was twelve from lung cancer. I was then adopted by a Malay family. And when I was 22, my foster parents married me away to my husband; an Arab religion school teacher.
My husband taught me how to be a good Muslim, a great wife and a lovely Mother. And the third year of our marriage, we were blessed with a daughter. At this point of life, I don’t think I could remember my mother’s face anymore, which makes me kind of sad. But I saw my daughter as a reminder of her, universe way of telling me my mother is still alive, her descendants are alive with memories of her.
My daughter resembles me more than she resembles my husband. Her small almond eyes, her fair skin. It’s easy to tell – my husband is the exact opposite of me. Looking at her face, I recall my own memories of my mother; I recall her good intentions for me and her hopes in raising me in this foreign land I have learnt to call home.
But I was never grown up to be the grace Chinese woman like my mother did and wished me to be. I never and would never wear cheongsam on a daily basis like her. In fact, I have transformed to be a perfect Malay bride; a woman who cooks gulai ayam and asam tempoyak ikan patin and wears kain batik 24 hours a day.
And my daughter and daughters after her would always follow my steps; they would have my skin and eyes as a Chinese, they would inherit my husband’s religion and they would practice the customs of the Malay. I don’t have any strong feelings of this; except the fact that I am sorry my mother would never be able to tell me how she would feel about this.
After I came back from the herbs shop, I stared at myself in the mirror. I stared at my hijab wrapping my round Chinese face, and I smiled. I pulled open the drawer and produced a bracelet; the only heirloom of my mother; a green jade bracelet.
My daughter will have this one day; the reminder of who we are and who our ancestors are. And the daughter after her would inherit the bracelet from her. And they would be reminded of how far have we changed, how far have destiny brought us. And with that thought, I am so contented. I am happy to be a Chinese, a Muslim, and a Malay by custom. I feel liberated to have my own identity. And no, I don’t have conflicting values for having so many redundancies. I know where I stand, and I know who I am, and I want my daughter to feel the same way as I am.
That night, I dreamt of my mother. She smiled at me and kissed my cheeks. “Mei mei.” She said gently. And I cried like a little girl, for now it has been decades since somebody called me by my nickname. And now looking at her face, I began to remember how she looked like. “I love you.” she said, handed me the green jade bracelet. And I woke up, looking at my sleeping husband and my daughter.
And I know it was a blessing and a recognition from my mother, she was happy that I am happy with my life, my family, my identity – my destiny. I never dreamt of her again after that night.