The overpowered bass and deafening volume of the urban Chinese karaoke house had made the seats shudder and the ceiling crumble. This was five years ago, when the family held a reunion of its expatriate members in Beijing.
A Chinese folk song had burst onto the screen, and the male members of my retinue roared out the lyrics; possessed by the copious amounts of rice wine they had consumed. Like a gaggle of geese we giggled together, me with my back against the corner, and the performers shamelessly going off pitch against the glare of the off white television set.
The wives smiled with mirth at first, but it grew simultaneously to a chorus of laughter as each voice added to the sound inside the room, which swelled and rose to an ear splitting crescendo with the song’s climax. The husbands looked ridiculous as they exaggerated the high-pitched quivering voice of the female tenor.
As the song ended, there had been a booming cheer mixed with laughter. I sighed with relief, having had dodged the bullet of performing myself. However, Uncle Lao, brother to my mother, then roared for me to sing. A dozen pairs of eyes, illuminated by the incriminating glare of the TV strobe had stared into mine.
“I… I cannot sing.” I had stuttered in broken Chinese.
“Ja You!” The family had shouted in unison, half drunk with excitement, and the other half literally.
I had refused as politely as I could, flabbergasted. My tongue had tried to pronounce the unfamiliar vowel sounds. I had protested that I couldn’t read the Chinese characters. He had persisted for a minute, then silence.
The songs had stopped, the sudden silence filled the room like soft silk.
“Forget about it.” My father had declared, the tone of disappointment echoed by the polite coughing and shuffling in the room.
I crept back to my corner as everyone else had continued to sing, their performances brimming with unnatural confidence. As the event drew longer, I sat silently reflecting on whether I should have had added my voice to the chorus of my family.
Five years to the day.
The dishes for our 10th year reunion were carried out by a scrawny waiter who looked like he wanted to be elsewhere.
The first dish I tried was a traditional Beijing dish. Ferment tofu. A repugnant odour burst into my mouth as soon as it touched my lips. My eyes watered. I looked around but nobody else seemed to notice.
They must have gotten used to it.
I stuck to eating the pedestrian sweet and sour pork dish that I had eaten a million time before in Australia. The only source of lighting came from muddied chandeliers and the tables had a thin veneer of cooking oil. Relatives shouted in their explosively syllabic language and drunken laughter drowned out any polite conversations. My cousins attempted to communicate, to strike up a conversation. But their match was damp, and no flame could be lit. So I remained silent in the sea of boisterous babbling.
Again I was alone, nothing had changed from five years ago.
After the plates had been cleared off the table, the squawking continued. Then Uncle Lao brought in a massive water melon, the little condensed droplets of water trickling down its green hide. He explained to everyone that there was going to be a competition. From what I gathered, everyone was to eat a slice of watermelon and whoever had the thinnest rind at the end of two minutes without breaking the skin, won. It was their silly form of entertainment.
The watermelon was cut into medium sized chunks, each cut producing a reassuring crack. Being the youngest everyone said that I should get the first pick. As I placed my hands on the smallest piece, the crowd gave a small cheer.
“He’s playing for keeps!” Uncle Lao shouted, slapping me on the back.
Once everyone chose their watermelon, they hid in corners and under the table as if the room was a playground. Then the two minutes began. After the first bite, my mind strategised on the most ergonomic way to strip the rind. I was nervous, it was like my HSC all over again.
As I looked to my uncle, I saw him with the watermelon cupped in his hands and gnawing away with his two front rabbit teeth. I burst out laughing, and a bout of hysterical laughing swept over my family, spreading like a chain reaction.
I had forgotten who’d won. Afterwards, the whole extended family began an all-inclusive conversation with each person contributing their voice to the chorus, and even though I could not speak Chinese that well or understand some of the phrases they used, I could laugh along with the personal anecdotes they told. It was during one of Uncle Lao’s hysterical jokes that I realized how his charisma fed into everyone, and how they in turn repaid him with infectious enthusiasm. A self-perpetuating cycle of increasing energy filled our voices as I added myself to the choir of laughter which grew louder.
The next five years could not come soon enough.
Why was this an effective story? First of all, the thesis of belonging is very flexible and versatile. It can shift between Place, People, and Self with equal ease with very little tweaking. Second of all, the language is polished with alliteration, assonance, and sibilance, showing a good control of figurative descriptions that does not distract from the thesis. The other narratives you may read are “superior” in construction and utilisation of techniques, but this is a superb example of “minimal writing” creative which is able to capture big marks. It is simple, slice of life, believable, and humorously engaging.