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Summer season studying: Dandelion — A novel of motherhood and belonging, by Jamie Chai Yun Liew

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When Lily was 11, her mom, Swee Hua, walked away from the household, by no means to be seen or heard from once more. Now a brand new mom herself, Lily turns into obsessive about discovering out what occurred to Swee Hua. She recollects the spring of 1987, rising up in a small British Columbia mining city the place there have been just a few Asian households; Lily’s beforehand stateless father needed to mix seamlessly into Canadian life, whereas her mom, alienated and remoted, longed to return to Brunei. Years later, nonetheless affected by Swee Hua’s disappearance, Lily’s household is stubbornly silent to her questioning. However ultimately, an outdated household pal offers a clue that sends Lily to Southeast Asia to search out out the reality.

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That is the second in our Monday weekly summer season studying collection that includes the work of Ottawa-area authors.


My father’s older sister, Auntie Choo Neo, positioned rooster satay sticks on the yard barbecue. She shot a grimy have a look at Mom. Auntie complained that Mom didn’t prepare dinner the best way Father favored and infrequently referred to her as “Father’s light-skinned little one bride.” She advised mom to cease taking part in and begin cooking. Mom rolled her eyes behind Auntie’s again. My little sister, Bea, and I laughed along with her.

Auntie Choo Neo came visiting each weekend to prepare dinner dinner. It stung Auntie that we lived within the Heights. She and Uncle Stephen had purchased a small bungalow close to downtown Sparwood, a extra modest home than ours provided that there was simply the 2 of them. She visited weekly, hoping her presence in Sparwood Heights would elevate her standing, our Mom whispered to Bea and me. I requested Mom why Auntie wanted extra stature when she was already tall, with broad, sturdy shoulders. Mom replied that standing was extra than simply bodily, that Auntie needed to look wealthy, highly effective, and all figuring out. Each time she got here, Auntie Choo Neo proudly wore her kebaya Nyonya, a brightly colored, fitted, embroidered shirt paired with a batik sarong.

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I hopped off the swing and ran over to Auntie Choo Neo. Though she picked on Mom, she was my elder, and one of many few individuals I had recognized my whole life. The oldest of Father’s siblings, she beloved to lecture, appropriate, and order Mom round, however not me.

The turmeric within the marinade should have introduced Auntie some heat that spring day in 1987, as she taught me make satay. As she was getting ready the sauce that accompanies the skewers, she advised me, “The key to this recipe is to permit the nutty spices to create space for each other.” She permitted me to dip my fingers into the darkish, wealthy sauce, to savour the flavours dancing in my mouth.

“Lily!” Mom bellowed. “Cease sticking your fingers within the bowl!” She was sitting on the picnic desk, rubbing her ankle, tracing her fingers across the bones on each side of her foot. She had advised me she had injured it as a teen in a bicycle accident, and it was by no means the identical after that.

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“Ayoo, Swee Hua,” Auntie Choo Neo scolded. “No have to yell at Lily. She is studying make satay from the perfect.”

Mom’s eyebrows furrowed and her eyes narrowed, like a cat watching its prey. Then, as if retreating on gentle paws, Mom dutifully set the desk.

Auntie Choo Neo reminded Mom to set an additional house on the desk for individuals who couldn’t be a part of us. My cousin, her son, Winston, was the one lacking visitor. The one one that defied Auntie Choo Neo, he selected to not come to Canada regardless of her efforts, and now she talked of Winston as if he have been lifeless. I had heard Mom describe Auntie Choo Neo’s “eulogies” as if she have been kao peh kao bu, crying about lifeless mother and father.

The turmeric within the marinade should have introduced Auntie some heat that spring day in 1987, as she taught me make satay.

Auntie talked about Winston as we ate dinner. “Aya, jin hao se, so younger and but a life already wasted.” Uncle Stephen sighed. “Gao liao, sufficient already.”

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“You surrender in your solely son so simply,” Auntie growled again. “In the event you have been a great father, he can be right here. He wouldn’t be stateless. He can be Canadian.”

“Aya, Choo Neo,” Mom mentioned. “He’s bought everlasting residence in Brunei. He’s not with out standing. You have to be happy with him. He has began his personal enterprise. He’s constructing his future. He’s not dwelling in a protracted home with the Iban.”

Auntie Choo Neo scoffed, stunned that my mom would dare problem her. “He would possibly as properly be with the orangutans in Temburong on the Brunei River! How are you going to assume he has a future when he’s no person! His automotive dealership is like that plastic bag blowing within the wind. It’s flying excessive now in the direction of the clouds, however as soon as it falls, it will likely be handled like the rubbish it truly is.”

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“Choo Neo, a minimum of you recognize we’re secure in Canada,” Uncle Stephen reminded his spouse. “Because of Ah Loy’s foresight to sponsor all of us, we’re not with out standing.”

Auntie Choo Neo turned to Father. “Sure, Ah Loy is a dutiful brother. However what good is it for us to be right here when my son is languishing again house?”

“It’s by no means too late,” Father mentioned. “You must proceed to speak to Winston, put some sense in him.”

Mom laughed bitterly. “Time will inform if there’s any sense in shifting right here. What would Winston do right here? Work within the mine with you and Stephen, Ah Loy? He’s operating his personal enterprise again house, driving a pleasant automotive, and dwelling in a pleasant home that’s being cleaned by an amah. He’s his personal boss, and he has youth on his aspect. That’s greater than I can say for the 2 of you.”

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Father shifted in his seat, set down his satay, and pushed his plate in the direction of the centre of the desk. “You envy Winston, Swee Hua,” he mentioned, “however his life is a home of playing cards. He depends on a Malay to even have his enterprise. His title shouldn’t be on the possession papers. The whole lot he has constructed might be taken away identical to that. At some point, a storm will come, and all the pieces will tumble down. No amount of cash might assist him crawl out from below the rubble and rebuild. If I have been Winston, I’d ask, ‘Why would I put my life and that of my youngsters’s in danger?’ ” Father wiped his mouth together with his serviette and continued. “We’re nothing to these in energy. They don’t acknowledge you. They don’t have a look at you. They’ll discard you and kick you out. Winston, like all of us stateless individuals, is expendable, and I don’t need to look forward to the day when my life and the lives of my youngsters come crashing down. I’m sorry, Choo Neo, however you do have motive to fret. If I have been his father, I’d drag him out of that jungle and produce him right here.”

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Bea grabbed the final satay stick and positioned it on her plate, pausing to see if I’d protest. I didn’t. Everybody noticed Winston so in another way.

Mom chimed in once more. “Right here, sure, you have got papers, however nothing else, Ah Loy. We dwell in a valley far-off from town, and you’re employed underground. Our youngsters are separated from a lot household. They aren’t studying their language or their tradition. The opposite day, I heard Beatrice inform somebody that she doesn’t know Chinese language as a result of she doesn’t want it. The air right here can freeze you to dying, and the meals is flavourless. Take into consideration the asam fish head soup again house, with contemporary galangal and lemongrass. The inexperienced in every single place and the mangos rising in our yard. Take into consideration the pungent scent of durian.”

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Even Auntie Choo Neo nodded barely and murmured in settlement.

“I can see why Winston selected to remain the place he’s,” Mom mentioned. “Let me ask all of you: What’s holding us again? Now we have citizenship now. We will return house.”

“Dwelling?” Father harrumphed. “How are you going to name that place house? Why would I depart a spot that has welcomed me and my youngsters”

“We will drink all of the teh tarik and eat all of the cendol on this planet,” Auntie added, “however Ah Loy is true. We’d at all times starvation for extra. The enjoyment the meals brings to our lives can be a distraction from the concern that we might be kicked out or denied one thing in the future. Even the warmth is tiring there.”

“Then we are able to come again to Canada,” mentioned Mom.

“I don’t need the yo-yo life,” retorted Auntie.

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“It’s not proper. We will’t return,” Father mentioned. “We selected this place, and it selected us. Now we have to present again the best way it has given to us.”

“There isn’t any betrayal in wanting to return to the place we got here from,” Mom argued.

“That’s all that place is now, Swee Hua. A spot the place I got here from, and that’s it,” Father maintained. “We barely existed there. What future did I’ve, working below the desk, questioning if I’d nonetheless have a job in the future? I might eat like a king, however my youngsters can be studying Malay or denied education? What for?”

“You’re fooling your self, Ah Loy,” Mom insisted. “Solely a sure form of particular person can actually really feel safe on this chilly nation.”

Reprinted with permission from Dandelion by Jamie Chai Yun Liew (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022).


Jamie Chai Yun Liew is the winner of the Jim Wong-Chu Rising Writers Award from the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop. She is a lawyer and regulation professor specializing in immigration, refugee and citizenship regulation and the creator of the podcast Migration Conversations. Dandelion is her first novel. She lives in Ottawa, Anishinaabe territory, along with her household.

Author Jamie Chai Yun Liew.
Writer Jamie Chai Yun Liew. jpg

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