The climate brought to mind with remarkable clarity how a lobster would feel in a vat of bubbling water. Hong Kong’s suffocating humidity made it hard to breathe, and before long, my polo shirt and even my shorts stuck to me like moist tissue.
Thousands of narrow towers stretched skyward to prism the velvet night. The conglomeration of huddled structures made it difficult to tell where one building ended and the next began.
The air reeked of exhaust. Cars, taxis, and double-decker buses honked and hurtled in and out of the heap of confusion going down the wrong half of the street.
We jostled our way through the crowded sidewalks and came to an intersection, where Uncle Chun-Kwok took hold of my arm. The reason became apparent when cars zoomed by as if at Daytona. On these streets, vehicles clearly owned the right of way.
The signal changed, and we started across. I caught my father stealing peeks at me like a cheap private investigator.
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t recall anything about my father. As a child, did I get along with him? Did we ever talk or was he like my stepfather, who spoke to me only when he wanted something? What was my mom’s relationship with him? Did they fight? Is that why she left? And how could he willingly let her go with his son to another country, another world?
I fought the urge to look at him.
My uncle hailed two cabs. Before we entered, he communicated with my mom. My father came to me, placed his hand lightly on my shoulder, said something, pointed at himself and rotated his wrist, indicating somewhere else. He tapped my arm twice, turned, and disappeared into a taxi that sped off.
Without looking at me, my mother said, “He need to go work now. He working late, but he say he want to take us for dinner tomorrow.”
We climbed into the waiting cab, Hoy in front, and my mom and I in back with Uncle Chun-Kwok. A steel mesh screen separated us from the driver, and I read the attached sign: “It is unlawful to smoke in the taxi.”
My mother tested her hand on the metal barrier, and it held firm. “Wow, see how they need this?” She shook her head. “Very dangerous here.”
My uncle lived in Aberdeen, a harbor town on the southern tip of Hong Kong. The cab let us off at what seemed to be an old office building in a business district with rows of closed shops facing us on both sides of the street. We entered a narrow, dingy lobby with putrid green paint peeling off the walls. It smelled of a musty gym and felt like a boiler room. At the elevator, Uncle Chun-Kwok greeted a shrunken, white-haired man hunched behind a rusted metal desk by the stairs. He must’ve been the guard because he stayed while we filed into the elevator.
We got out on the fourteenth floor and came up to a sliding steel gate. My uncle unlocked it and spoke to my mom.
“He say they really lucky. He buy one house, and his wife have the one next door. They have two together; not many people have that.”
He opened the barricade and we stepped into air-conditioning. A fan attached to the wall circulated cool air. A kitchen, the size of most bathrooms in America, stood across from a closet-like toilet near the front. Two rooms together at the end of the house, with a bunk bed taking up half the space in each, could fit inside my bedroom in San Diego.
A TV and a hexagonal aquarium sat on a counter protruding from the wall. The tank contained giant goldfish with bulbous eyes and vibrant colors. Above, a neatly lined row of books on a shelf. Higher, on a mantel, three ceramic figures, maybe a foot high, of long-bearded Chinese men—each with elaborate, ancient robes bestowing an air of importance. Still higher, enshrined on a wrought-iron stand, a framed black-and-white portrait of a man with even-cropped hair and studious eyes.
Beneath the counter, a large cardboard box of toys held board games and puzzles piled high. Folding trays and stools were stacked next to the box.
A woman in a light, short-sleeved beige sweater and dark blue shorts cuffed at the knees welcomed us with a smile. She wore a short, unadorned hairstyle reminiscent of a young Audrey Hepburn. My mother introduced her as Poi Yee, my aunt.
Aunt Poi Yee ushered us to a futon couch and waved for me to put down my travel bag. After we sat, she brought a folding tray and set out a large bowl of oval-shaped fruit protected by a rough skin the color of peanut shells.
My mom said, “Dojeh, Poi Yee.” She reached into the bowl, separated one of the fruit from a waxy vine, and peeled the skin to reveal a berry resembling a skinless, green grape. “I don’t know how to say this, but is good.” She handed it to me. “Be careful the seed.”
A unique taste, something between a grape and a kiwi, with a big pit in the middle.
From behind the door of a bedroom, two small heads, a girl’s and a boy’s, popped back and forth to spy on us. Seeing my aunt, they scrambled to their bunks, and she went into the room. My mother identified the ten-year-old girl as Jing-Wei and the seven-year-old boy as Ming, my uncle’s children.
Hoy and Uncle Chun-Kwok took seats on stools near the TV and immersed themselves in conversation with my mom. Though most of their words sounded like gibberish, I recognized some phrases.
Laughter spilled out in loud voices, and sentences ended with last syllables carrying like the close of a song. Body gestures also accompanied the words; the upper torso of the speaker leaned forward with hands and arms thrusting and sweeping in constant motion. The fully animated face—eyes, mouth, brow, temples, and even the constricting and contracting neck muscles—added emphasis to an idea or opinion.
Laughter notwithstanding, an American watching might have thought they were arguing.
Soon, their gazes shifted to me, and I had the distinct feeling the discussion was about to veer in my direction. I plucked another piece of fruit from the bowl.
Hoy asked a question, and my mother shot a quick glance at me before responding. “He ask what you do, so I say you work for school, right?”
I nodded. The details of being a vocational counselor aspiring to become a marriage and family therapist would bring up more questions than I wanted to address. I dared not mention my interest in writing to avoid being seen as frivolous or worse.
Hoy, his face unable to contain his grin, said something to my mom. My uncle added a comment.
She said, “They ask if you have girlfriend.”
My discomfort grew. How does one explain to relatives, upon first meeting, about a history of dysfunctional and destructive interpersonal relationships? Would they understand the term “codependency”? Somehow, going into my last two years of intense “inner child” work to deal with my unconscious self-sabotaging tendencies with women didn’t seem quite the thing to do.
They trained their eyes on me, the complete and utter silence colluding in the eager anticipation of my response.
“I’ve been dating someone.” I cupped the partially peeled piece of fruit in my hand and shook it like Vegas dice.
My mother told them, and Uncle Chun-Kwok said something to her.
“He say, is she Chinese?”
“Is that important?”
“’Course.” Her tone reprimanded me for having to ask.
“She’s Vietnamese. We’re just getting to know each other.”
The translation induced somber expressions, as if I’d announced the collapse of my business.
My uncle broke the silence, and they chuckled. My mother chimed along, and the three appeared to be having a royal time again.
She said, “They think you come to Hong Kong to find Chinese wife.”
My turn to wave my arms. “No, no. I’m just on vacation! Tell ’em, Mom. Tell ’em I’m just here on vacation.”
Ignoring me, they started again, jabbering and snickering with my mother a ready accomplice.
“They say you should marry good Chinese girl so she teach you Chinese.”
An avalanche of laughter, Hoy with his head back, blustering, Uncle Chun-Kwok holding his gut and slapping his leg in fits, my mom crowing, her whole body rocking.
I had been the butt of some good-natured teasing. Finally, the cackling subsided, and all I could do was shrug.
My mother shook a finger at me and said, “Aiya, msik teng, msik gong.” It meant, “Cannot understand, cannot speak,” and the room erupted again.