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From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number 8, 1980

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 11:10 PM






Precious
          by Darrell H.Y. Lum

      On Mama's bureau in a gold frame, almost hidden by the baby and graduation pictures is the yellowing picture of Goong-goong when he was young. Sometimes I bend all the other pictures over to take a good look at you, Goong-goong, behind that glass, standing before your blackboard of Chinese writings holding your pointer in both hands at your waist. It looks like all the other pictures of Chinese men taken long ago: short hair mowed with wide margins around the ears, serious expressions and black eyes in the middle of pale, smooth complexions: like railroad men, like rice farmers, like gamblers, and storekeepers and bankers. Only the blackboard and the pointer and the white shirt buttoned to the top show that you were a teacher. You must've been real strict in school, Goong-goong. You taught the advanced classes and were the vice-principal by the time I started first grade Chinese school, when I was already in the fifth grade American school. I was the second oldest girl in a classroom of first graders. The oldest was cousin Naomi. She was almost in high school, ninth grade. Naomi was always cracking her gum and everyone was in awe of her. Try as I might, I couldn't crack my gum. I ended up chewing so hard it hurt my teeth. Naomi could whistle through her teeth, too. Naomi used to sneer at everybody and boss them around, me included, until I let her cheat when she had to go in front of the class. I let her borrow my book with all the pronunciations written real small in the margins. The teacher was so impressed with Naomi's sudden brilliance that she asked her to do it again. When Naomi did it again perfectly, the teacher gave Naomi a speech to memorize for the assembly that week and gave a lecture to the class about how hard work always pays off. Only the smart guys and the goody-goodys got to memorize speeches. You got money for going up in front of the whole school on Fridays and reciting something in Chinese. It was pretty dumb. Every assembly we heard the same old speeches: something about the colors of the flag, something about the four seasons of the year and another one about obeying your parents.
      "Tsien tsang, pahng yau, gok wai . . . teachers, parents, and friends. There are four seasons in the year: winter, spring, summer, and fall. . . . "
      Naomi made me help her write it all down in English. Not what it meant, but how it sounded. I don't think Naomi even knew what the speech was all about and when her turn came, she raced through the whole thing, blurring all her words together. She grabbed the envelope afterwards from Goong-goong and ran off the stage before he could shake her hand or announce her as the third place winner in the first grade. It never mattered that there were always only three students giving speeches. Goong-goong still announced it.
      Naomi let me hang around with her after that. I remember once Naomi told me, a-matter-of-factly, "You seen a dead body? We seen 'em at recess next door at the funeral parlor."
      I almost said, "Not! Wow, man!" Instead, I assumed Naomi's posture and said, "So. I bet wasn't open. You just seen 'em put da coffin inside da ma-ke man car."
      "Not. I seen 'em. We went by da back part. We thought might have food. We seen 'em. Da coffin was open."
      "Wasn't"
      "Was!"
      "Wasn't, show proof."
      "Ask Da Kine, she seen 'em too."
      Da Kine was Pearlyn. She wore thick glasses and bobby socks. She was smart but kind of chicken when it came to things like corpses.
      "Da Kine, you went see ma-ke man?"
      Pearlyn only blinked, her eyes became big behind her glasses.
      Naomi shoved her a little, "C'mon, you saw, yeah? You was behind me!"
      Pearlyn just blinked faster.
      "See," I said, "you never see nutting."
      "Naht, Da Kine seen 'em but she too chicken fo' tell. . . Gimme some ice cake."
      "No-no, I just got 'em." I held on to my chunk of frozen syrup in the paper cup and scraped protectively at it with my wooden ice cream spoon.
      "You going join kung fu today?" Naomi asked, taking a swipe at my ice cake. I dodged her swinging arms like a prizefighter and continued to eat.
      "Maybe."
      Naomi was already in the intermediate class in kung fu. She was promoted faster than the others because she was bigger and stronger than everyone else. I wasn't sure I wanted to join if Naomi was going to be the one to help the instructor check the beginners.
      "Come. I going help da see foo check da beginners this week."
      I had seen how they do it. You had to hold a stance for ten solid minutes without moving and the helpers came around and tried to topple you over to see if you were doing it right. They could come and whack you in the chest or in the legs at anytime. If you fell down they made you do pushups, boy style, on your fingertips.
      "C'mon, Da Kine going come, yeah?" Naomi elbowed Pearlyn.
      I looked at her to see if it were the truth. She stopped blinking and eyes wide said, "No, no. I not going. I going take moon harp lessons. I not going kung fu."
      She turned and left us, as if staying would somehow force her to go to kung fu class.
      "She not going," I said.
      "Of course she not," Naomi said as she faked with her right hand and grabbed my ice cake with her left.
      "Punk!" I felt the tears well up in my eyes but I was determined not to cry. "Punk, gimme back!" The teacher looked up at the other end of the playground. Naomi took a big bite of the ice cake and handed the cup back to me. "I just wanted little bit," she said keeping an eye on the teacher.
      The teacher started toward us talking Chinese and waving her hand. Naomi tried to act cool but she just stood where she was and swallowed a lot. I stood with my mouth open and my ice cake tilted, red syrup running over my hand down my elbow and dripping in sticky plops onto my slippers.
      Pearlyn had come back behind the teacher to see what would happen. Her eyes started blinking and her mouth formed a silent, "A-hana-koko-le-le."
      It was Miss Chang, the young teacher who hits with the ruler. She had been our substitute teacher once, the time Naomi had called her "Butterball." Naomi had spent that morning in the back of the room alternately cracking her gum and her knuckles and being pretty sassy. At first, Miss Chang had ignored her but after one loud "pop" followed by the "praaack" of knuckles, she looked up. Miss Chang spoke in Chinese first, hard and fast and pointed to the rubbish can. Everybody could figure out that she was telling Naomi to spit out her gum. But Naomi acted dumb and cracked her gum once more and said, "What?" Miss Chang picked up the yardstick and swept it down in a whistling swoop. You could tell that she had handled one before.
      "No eating gum," she finally said. Naomi strolled to the rubbish can next to the teacher's desk. She gulped one big gulp and took one final chew and hacked up a huge throat-clearing croak that started from somewhere way down in her guts and ended up in the middle of Miss Chang's rubbish can, all foamy with a hunk of pink bubblegum in the middle.
      Miss Chang looked surprised and finally swooped her yardstick through the air once more and sent Naomi back to her seat.
      Naomi winked at me on the way back and just past me said, "Whata Butterball," softly.
      Miss Chang had heard. She came charging down the aisle like the swordsman in the movies and gave Naomi a backhanded crack with the yardstick that resounded with the smack of flesh being hit, hard.
      I remember the whole class looking down, thankful it wasn't our rumps under attack. Thankful it wasn't our yelps of pain and surprise. Miss Chang's steady strokes of her backhand alternated with her muttering, "But-tah-ball. . . but-tah-ball, ai-ya!"
      So I'm sure Naomi wasn't about to act sassy around Miss Chang. Miss Chang stopped halfway across the playground and called to me, "Pray-shuss, you please ring the recess bell. Recess is over." Naomi relaxed.
      "I'll do it for you, Precious," Pearlyn offered. She already had the stool from the office and was headed toward the electric box high on the wall of the office building. I didn't know why Miss Chang picked me to ring recess bell. Usually the teachers asked the goody-goodys from their classes to take turns ringing the bell. Like Pearlyn.
      "No. I going do 'um, Da Kine," I told Pearlyn. I sort of pushed her off the stool and gave her my ice cake to hold. I saw Naomi leaning on the wall by the office making frantic motions to Pearlyn to eat my ice cake while I was up on the stool.
      "You gonna had-it if you eat," I threatened.
      "Okay Pray-shuss, you press only one short and one long one," Miss Chang instructed, then turned and headed toward the office. I'd never figured out why the ending of recess was a short and a long. I just figured that I wasn't likely to get to ring recess bell again so I went for "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits."
      Naomi stood up straight and stared at me when she heard it. Da Kine was petrified, she let more of my ice cake drip to the ground. It seemed like the whole playground had stopped playing and looked at the bell. "Dum-de-de-dum-dum . . . dum-dum." I thought it was pretty funny and everyone else seemed pretty happy that the bell did that, but Goong-goong, who spent his recess in the classroom behind the office, stuck his head out of the door and looked straight at me, still perched on the stool, "Oi-jai, you don't play with the bell or I dah-dah." The playground was quiet. It was as if Goong-goong had scolded everyone.
      "Dah-dah." Spank. Everyone had heard that Goong-goong spanked with the paddle. We all began to walk quietly back to our classrooms.
      "Oi-jai, Oi-jai, Loved One, dah-dah!" Naomi teased. "Oi-jai, you Goong-goong's Loved One, dah-dah!"
      They said you were strict in your class, Goong-goong. But I don't think you used the ruler or the paddle on anyone. You must've been strict by giving mean looks and making marks in your grade book in those hard Chinese words that even the smartest guys in class couldn't read. But I don't think you ever hit anyone, except maybe when you were young, like in this picture, like Miss Chang in the first grade. And even then, I'll bet you only hit when you had somebody real bad like Naomi.
      I'm still a little afraid of you Goong-goong, looking at this picture. You always seemed so old, big and wrinkly and old. And everytime you smiled at me, those yellow teeth outlined in gold would flash and those bony hands would beckon. They were hard hands with big, thick nails that could peel an orange quickly, keeping the peel in one piece. That was the only time I would stand between your knees and reach up to tug at your belt loops to beg for a slice of "chiahng." And you would tantalize me slice by slice . . . cleaning each one meticulously of peel, then separating the meat from the skin, taking out the seeds before finally offering it to me. I was ready to cry by the time each slice came.
      "Dough jay, dough jay," I always remembered to say thank you. It made you so happy to hear me say something in Chinese, you'd smile even wider and hurry with the next slice.
"Smart girl, goot girl, yahk chiahng."
      And every year, you would lead all of us up to the cemetery to bai sun, to bring offerings to the graves. The boy cousins would have to lug a whole roasted pig up to the grave of some uncle or cousin or distant relative.
      I used to hide behind daddy's legs and clutch his pants until you would beckon for me. "Oi-jai" you would call and hold out a calloused hand. You would take me in those old, bumpy hands and would try to get me to kneel in front of a stone with only Chinese words on it. No English, not even the numbers . . . all Chinese. I didn't know whose grave it was. I remember just watching the fat, red candles burn. They didn't have string wicks, just a stick in the middle that burned and cooled into a red pancake. And the punks, incense that kept its ash for a long time, like a burning cigar forgotten in an ash tray.
      I'd only squat in front of that stone and let you form my hands into praying ones and you'd dip them three times and pour a little bit of tea and whiskey on the ground.
      "Gwai, gwai . . . goot girl, goot girl," you'd smile and reach in your pocket for a lee-see, a quarter wrapped in red paper. I'd grab it and run back to hide behind daddy's legs. All the aunties and uncles would be laughing but I know it was over when you held out that red lee-see and said, "Goot girl."
      After the ceremony, we took the food offerings and the pig back to your house and you would put on your apron and sharpen your cleaver on the whetstone in long scraping strokes that would make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. All of the grandchildren would stand around and wave at flies with ti-leaves and watch you chop up that whole roasted pig. Occasionally you would look up from your butchering and chop up a flake of crispy skin into half a dozen pieces to hand out to us. One by one we would approach you, take a piece and murmur, "Dough jay, Goong-goong, dough jay."
      "Goot-girl, goot-boy. Dis sill gee yook. Roast pig. Goot eat, yeah?"
      Naomi was always there, too. She would dare me to touch the pig's tail or the pig's nose or the pig's eye. She'd push me toward the curlicue tail and say, "Go, go you scared cat!" And she'd poke at the tail with her slippered toe.
      After awhile some of us would begin to inch up on the pig stretched out on the large wooden tray and reach toward the nose. When our tentative fingers were almost to the pig, Naomi would shout, "Da pig teet' going eat you up!" And all of us would shrink back and begin to look anxiously for our mothers.
      Goong-goong would stop his chopping and glare at us all. Cleaver in his hand, he'd growl at Naomi, "Ah Choy! Goong-goong dah-dah! You be goot-girl, now!" Naomi would stop teasing and we would obediently begin waving our ti-leaves again.
      When we went to visit you and Popo you used to tell us "dah-dah," when we ran too close to your radio and your writing desk. We used to sneak and grind some ink from your writing desk and use your brushes, Goong-goong. We used to paint war pictures. Airplanes and tanks shooting bullets and making explosions. I think you must've known who it was. But all you ever said was, "Dah-dah, Goong-goong going spank! You be goot girl."
      And Popo always made me serve you tea before I could go out and play. You would be sitting hunched on the floor in front of the old radio, one knee up, listening to those Chinese programs on Sunday afternoons. And I would have to carry your teacup with two hands and say, "Goong-goong, yum cha. Drink tea, Goong-goong." I would have to wait until you finally looked up and took the cup from me.
      "Goot girl, goot girl," you would say, taking a sip. You'd pat me on the head and I'd try to squirm out from under that big hand. Sometimes you'd give me a lee-see or peel an orange for me but most times you'd turn back to your radio. Once I turned it to rock and roll and you got mad. You took twenty minutes to tune it just right, back to the Chinese station. Did you know it was me?
      Popo misses you Goong-goong. Sometimes when I look in on her when she's sleeping, I can tell when she misses you. She sleeps on your side of the bed. Other times she stays pretty much to her side of the bed. I don't know what to do or say to her at those times. I cannot talk Chinese. Naomi is always better at comforting Popo than I am. She can't talk Chinese either but she can just go and sit and talk English to her as if Popo can understand every word she says. And even if Naomi and Popo don't understand what each other is saying, they say more to each other than you ever said to Popo or to any of us.
      The only other thing I remember is being dressed all in white: white dress, white crinolines, white panties, white socks, white shoes and marching around your coffin with a candle. I kept trying to look at you but the bier was too high and everytime I craned my neck to look, I tilted the candle. Some wax dripped on my new white shoes and I remember looking at the spot and saying, "Ow." I don't think it really hurt. I just thought it might have. I didn't cry.
      There were lots of people there. And all the aunties were crying loudly and everyone was sad. But I didn't cry, Goong- goong. You never did "dah-dah" me. I'm not crying now, Goong-goong. I sorry I never learned Chinese very well but you never talked to us except to say "goot girl" or to threaten "dah-dah". And you never did "dah-dah" anybody, Goong-goong. You never sang us songs or told us stories or played chase master. And I only have this picture left, Goong-goong. And there's only you saying, "Oi-jai, Goong-goong dah-dah! You be goot girl."
      And that's not enough Goong-goong. Not enough.



* * * * *

BIO: Eric wrote this about Darrell at the time:

     Darrell H.Y. Lum is the first local Chinese writer to publish a collections of short fiction and drama. Over the years, many other local writers have published in a variety of magazines, but most of these have faded in libraries and bibliographies.
     But "Beer Can Hat" is being performed as an Artists-in-the-Schools dramatic production touring the public schools. Mimeographed copies of "Primo Doesn't Take Back Bottles Anymore" are circulated and taught in college and high school classes. And Darrell Lum himself is continually asked to perform his own unique renditions of these and other pieces.
     His readings are filled with characters, with local characters we remember from growing up in Hawaii. From the "da bull of da school" to the corner newspaper boy, to the eighty-one year old Chinese Popo, we are asked to enter our own world, to take a closer look at our own lives, and through joking and laughter, teasing and crying, we can re-experience our lives as art.

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