Back to Issue Thirty-Six

Gwah Ju



Gwah ju: to miss someone or to hang something

Four Junes since my grandfather’s funeral, and I still gwah ju Yeye around my neck like a scarf. I look right at the place I saw him last. My mother told me to give Yeye a kiss on the cheek, for luck. I thought my kisses too precious to be given away to grandfathers like charity. I gwah ju my arms around his stomach. Does that—

“Look Right”. White-paint eyes on dusty pavement demand it of me, but the American inside me refuses. In Hong Kong, I can only look because no one fed me the right words to go with my English thoughts. I am never right, not in Hong Kong. Yeye didn’t mind that about me.

Nothing in Hong Kong is right. Lines at food stands hang left. People on escalators stand to the left. At intersections, I look left before I walk.

A dump truck honks drunkenly and swerves to avoid swiping me off the low curb. The grimy metal siding exhales with the bad breath of freeways around the street corner. The pissed-off driver, sweating through his yellow-gray tank top, hurls obscenities at me. “Lay maang-gah? Soh po. Mmm sik kay!” Are you blind? Crazy lady. Don’t know how to stand right!

Behind me, the wall of pedestrians snicker. Their left-handed country has the upper hand. Nothing in Hong Kong is right. Without Yeye, it is wrong.

I heed the directions on the pavement. I look right. I look right. I—

Look, rites. Black smoke billows into a gray-white sky. A prepubescent boy with floppy bangs rings the gong as a family in black carries their boxed-up dead down a dead-end street. They exit an ugly temple with broken air conditioning and stumble into the thick tongue of summer heat. It’s bad luck to look right at them, but the kid has the same build my brother had four summers ago. When we laid Yeye to rest, my uncles wore suits that had only witnessed white and red weddings. The heavy smell of their sweat wrenched my gut as our whole family circled the block for the ritual. I’d borrowed open-toe black heels, two sizes too small, from my mother, and I lagged behind the group, watched as my uncles struggled to keep a slippery grip on the metal handles of the coffin. Never one whisper of how the body smells.

Every street corner in Hong Kong looks the same to me. The lychee stands smell of Yeye’s goodbye the last time I saw him in Tai Wai, and his ghost waits with me for red lights to go green. Look.

Right there, I ate with Yeye last. We shared a boat of curry fishballs, brisket stew, a basket of lychees. Yeye’s hands clutched two bottles of Coke. He handed one to me, and his words smelled of the fish market, of metal in the blood running rivers from the butcher’s floor, staining my white-soled sneakers. Then he put me in a taxi headed for the airport, my two bags packed, but only with clothes I brought, no souvenirs. Flying home to San Francisco means flying with suitcases that reek of my grandmother’s jasmine tea and black herbs that take two weeks to air out. I began collecting things from Yeye’s Tai Wai, from Hong Kong, after Yeye died.

My father takes me to Yeye’s final resting place, a columbarium, a cubbyhole on a shelf shared with thirty strangers. I look right below my eye level at Yeye. My father and my uncles paid good money so Yeye wouldn’t be on the floor. I look, right at the name of the place Yeye was born, at the lines and squares carved in marble that is his name, all the characters I never learned. I do not have the right to read. I look right at the picture of Yeye, and I wish to write myself right and give Yeye a goodbye I want to remember as our last. I do not have the right to grieve.

Back on the streets, Chinese characters on signs flatten under the suffocating humidity. I do not have the right to breathe. Right-angled square figures melt to hieroglyphs of elbows and knees. On the bottom of the sign, the English only teaches me how to pronounce the Chinese. They do not tell me where I stand.

I only loved Hong Kong when Yeye waved goodbye from a street corner in Tai Wai.


Steffi Sin is a Chinese-American writer from San Francisco, and her work can be found in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere. She is Nonfiction Editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review.


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