Tek Tek by Y. S. Lee
2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Y. S. Lee has made the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Tek Tek.
The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will be announced on Sept. 22. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and will attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.
You can read Tek Tek below.
When I was 20, my grandmother asked me to drive her to the hairdresser. This was not our routine. I was only in Vancouver for a short visit, otherwise lived 4,000 km distant. I didn't even know where to find the car keys. The last time we'd gone out, just Ah Mah and me, I'd been a child and she'd navigated public transit with the narrow confidence of the non-English-speaker. This bus, not that one. This stop and no other.
We set off in the Jeep. Three blocks later, we realized that we had no common words for "left" and "right." I knew "straight ahead," for some reason
but between her subtle, last-minute finger gestures and my ignorance of the route, we spent some time driving in circles and giggling. Finally, she chopped her left hand sideways, a big, blunt slice unlike her usual movements.
she taught me. And then its partner,
We finally got to the salon, still grinning. It was the closest I'd ever felt to her.
She was educated in Chinese-language schools, although I don't know for how long. It wasn't common, in her day and place, for girls to learn more than was needed to manage a household. Education cost money.
When I missed the introduction to long division in Grade 4, I asked her for help. She could tell me what numbers to write down but not why, and after a couple of questions she drifted away. Our relationship existed in acts, not ideas. It was built over meals and chores and the ceremonial visit to Kiddie Kobbler each August — solid and reliable and largely silent.
The scraps of language we had in common were Teochew, a Chinese dialect from eastern Guangdong. I spoke maybe 40 words, archived from when I was a toddler and we all lived in Singapore. She had about the same number in English, learned after emigration, deployed only when absolutely necessary. In Chinatown shops and restaurants, she spoke Cantonese. At home, she followed a Mandarin soap opera. But I don't know how fluent she was in either of those languages. I had neither the words to ask nor the comprehension to listen.
She was the last native Teochew speaker in my family. Teochew doesn't appear on UNESCO's atlas of endangered languages, but within the diaspora, people worry that it's falling away. Cantonese is much more widely understood, while Mandarin expands its reach as the Asian lingua franca. When Ah Mah passed away, the language died for us, too.
Her husband and children all spoke English at home: in the British colony of Malaya, an English-language education was a strategic business investment. They must have been noisy, this extrovert lawyer and four children with their music lessons, dogs, friends, hobbies. And nearly all of this happened in English, unless they were speaking to the servants. Or to her.
In the long decades of her husband's retirement — in Vancouver, where she had few friends — she relaxed by reading the Chinese newspaper, watching her soap opera, practising tai chi alone in the garden. Later, in an apartment with a view of English Bay, she tracked the movements of ocean freighters from day to day.
While she was dying, it was sometimes hard to see past the clouds of words that swarmed her like midges in spring.
Her husband or sons accompanied her to appointments to translate, then reviewed matters at home. The Teochew I heard then was utilitarian — a scant patchwork of verbs and anatomy and dosages, stitched together with English and filler words in two accents. She would listen, nod, acquiesce. She never seemed to have questions.
During my last visit, I witnessed one conflict. She had a collection of jewellery that she almost never wore — I picture it containing jade, diamonds, yellow gold, the kinds of things you'd expect of the daughter of a goldsmith and the wife of a retired barrister. She wanted to give them to her children while alive. Had already divided them into four small bags, hand-sewn for the purpose, each name inked in faint ballpoint. They were white bags, the colour of mourning, although perhaps this was coincidental. When her husband refused to let her distribute them, there was a loud argument between him and his elder son, who is also my father. I allowed myself to be pulled into it. I wanted her to be free to offer her last gifts, her inheritance, maybe pieces her own father had designed and made. 20 minutes later, we were in tears. Except my grandmother who, stone-faced, said,
Bo siang kang Never mind
She never mentioned the jewellery again.
Before that visit, I told myself that I wasn't expecting a wholesale change of character: fond anecdotes, gleaming insights, pithy advice. But I was, really. As we pushed her through botanical gardens in a rented wheelchair, or sat with her over tea and fragile cookies, she remained quiet. Ah Mah carried out her dying with the same stoicism in which she'd lived. That trip to the hairdresser remains the only time we laughed together.
Later, I realized that this hunger for tenderness was mine but not hers: perhaps a western thing, a time-of-plenty thing. Traditionally, the purpose of daughters was to marry into their husbands' families. From birth, they were members of other clans, outsiders who had to be housed and fed until marriage. I don't believe this was precisely the case for Ah Mah — she was attached to her sister and at least one brother, who lived continents away — but the broad structures of cultural tradition still shape family bonds. The subtler shades of her loyalties to her parents, the daughters she bore, her son's female child, remained hidden from me. I asked myself, "How much does love have to do with emotional intimacy, anyway?"
In the decades that my life happened to overlap with hers, I believed that the distance between us was language. If only my parents had stayed in Vancouver. If only I'd retained more Teochew. That blank space lay beyond a border for which I had no passport.
But listening to our family speak afterwards of her life — all English, English, English, because not one of us could memorialize her in her own language — I think I was mistaken. I think her language was observation, and acts of care, and quiet duty. I think the border was not a border, but a barrier. In what we did and heard and saw, we knew Ah Mah as well as she permitted.
Le chia pah bueh
Have you eaten
I'll feed you
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About Y. S. Lee
Y. S. Lee's fiction includes the YA mystery series The Agency, which was translated into six languages. Her poems appear in publications such as Event, Room, Rattle and the Literary Review of Canada. Her poem Saturday morning, East Pender Street was longlisted for the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize. She lives in Katarokwi (Kingston, Ont.).
The story's source of inspiration
"I miss my grandmother deeply, but I'm not sure how well I knew her. I wonder how a fluent common language would have deepened our relationship."
The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.