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Sunday Night Read: 'Annuii'

This short story series submission is from Ming Louie Stein of Port Moody.
"Annuii" is our April 7, 2024, Sunday Night Read, written by Ming Louie Stein of Port Moody.

How could I have known that my earliest memory would be the enormous wing of an airplane?

It was February 1960, and I was four years old. I saw it just before I walked onto the boarding ramp and into the belly of the plane. My 46-year-old Grandma Jong had pointed planes out to me as they flew over Hong Kong. They were frightening enough when they barely skimmed the top of our high-rise, but seeing it close up was larger than my young life.

Grandma Jong and my father’s younger brother, Uncle Wai, waited with me at Kai Tak Airport until it was time for me to board. I remember feeling scared, experiencing a queasy knot in my gut, but I knew there was no turning back — only a walkway straight ahead.

It was dusk when the plane landed at the Vancouver International Airport. It held us hostage as it waited, perhaps for some offering in return. In the middle of nowhere, I squinted, willing myself to see through the vast darkness, past the downpour, and toward the lights in the distance. My button nose pressed hard against the window, my eyes outlined a large, hostile structure with beckoning, glowing lights. It materialized as a huge concrete building.

I was born in 1956, in the British Colony of Hong Kong, first-born to my parents and my paternal Grandma Jong’s first grandchild. In the Taishan dialect, everyone called me Annuii — literally, daughter. I had a name, but for all those who knew me as Annuii, that’s who I was.

I disappointed everyone on the day I was born. I was not the first-born son they wanted. But I was told that from an early age, all who knew me saw the performer in me. They recalled me adoring my audience as they applauded and cheered whenever I sang and danced.

“Aww, Annuii’s not shy. She’s a real entertainer and will go places — just wait and see.”

I wanted to prove that I was not a worthless daughter but was, in fact, talented and would prove my worth and therefore earn their love.

Grandma Jong had a collection of black-and-white photos of me which captured the exhibitionist that I was. There was one of me lifting my dress above my waist to show off my frilly panties. Then another photo of me performing on the coffee table, with my mouth wide open. In my hand, I held an empty toilet paper roll as my microphone and my eyes disappeared into em-dashes. It was forever frozen as a blurred moment because I couldn’t stay still.

Shortly before I turned two, my parents emigrated to Canada. They left me under the care of Grandma Jong. In fact, in the many photos left behind, it was Grandma Jong who held and spent more time with me than my parents did. Even the photo of me bidding farewell to Mama and Baba the day they flew to Canada had my grandmother holding me. She was the obvious choice to raise me until my parents sent for me when I was four.

A few weeks before my flight, Grandma Jong told me I was going away on an airplane. “Your Mama and Baba are ready for you now. It’s time for you to join them in your new home. In six months, you will start school.”

I accepted the exciting notion of going on an airplane trip. But, I said, “I don’t want to go to live with Mama and Baba. I’m scared. I want to stay with you.”

Upon hearing that, Grandma Jong went into her room and brought back a framed black-and-white photograph that had collected dust on her dresser. We sat side by side on the sofa.

“This is you sitting on your Mama’s knee and your Baba standing behind, see? You don’t need to be scared. They are your parents. You belong with them.”

“Why are you not coming?”

“Later, perhaps.”

Sadly, I told her, “But I will miss you. I will be all alone without you.”

I studied the photograph. Sure enough, a baby was sitting on Mama’s knee with Baba behind her. It seemed strange to me that while the adults had on their Sunday best; I wore only white cotton underwear. Mama was a pretty woman. Her skin was fair and pearlescent. We had the same striking bold eyebrows framing our dark brown almond-shaped eyes. Instead of my mother’s small but perfect cupid bowed lips and her fair skin colour, I had my father’s full lips and his perpetual olive-toned complexion. Baba looked smoothly tan, even hairless. His eyes were kind but sad. Someone had painted cherry red on all our lips and a light brush of pink on our cheeks. Despite that, my parents both looked serious while I looked stunned.

“See how you resemble them? My grandma pointed to their faces and features while she continued. “You see it, don’t you? You’re pretty like your Mama, only you have darker skin like your Baba. Noble ladies from the north have light fair skin, but ladies like your mother stayed indoors, out of the sun and she went to school. Your father’s family and I worked outdoors and our skin grew dark from the sun.”

My Baba gifted me a pair of full lips, which later, I considered my best feature. My lips formed a slightly pouting down-turned mouth, which I could exaggerate to my full advantage to either charm or scorn. The charm worked, especially with Grandma Jong. I always got my way. Although I was delicate in form, my attitude exuded an inner strength which hid a streak of defiance. It surfaced accompanied by my scornful face when the occasion called for it.

Within days of departure, I felt an ominous dread. On the day my grandmother dressed me for my trip, I noticed she wore a grave face. She wasn’t herself. She straightened my collar and buttoned my jacket. “It’s been two years since you’ve seen your Mama and Baba. Do you know how long that is?”

I shook my head as I brushed the wispy hair off my face.

“Well, you were just two years old then.” She put up two fingers. After she was sure I was paying attention, she extended two more fingers. “Now you are four years old, see?”

I nodded seriously to match her tone. She was trying to hide her sadness, but I knew my grandmother. She was usually cheerful and open to my antics. Not today. She forced a positive tone. “They sent for you because you will start school in Canada soon. Won’t that be exciting?”

I nodded again, this time enthusiastically. “Yes, I will like that. Will I make friends?”

“Of course, you will make new friends. They will gather around you when you sing and dance for them. You will find a new audience.”

I was pleased to hear her say that. I gave my grandma a wide grin.

Grandma Jong smiled fondly back at me and seemed relieved that she could satisfy me with her answers. She fixed her eyes on me, dazed. I tugged at the hem of her tunic and signalled with my index finger. Now a breath away from my grandmother’s ear, I whispered, “I want you to come too.”

“Yes, I will, but not now,” she replied.

“When I get settled, I will send for you, just like how Mama and Baba sent for me. But I will miss you. You will come soon! I promise!”

Grandma Jong’s parting words at the airport were, “Be good, Annuii! Be obedient to Mama and Baba. Remember that!” I nodded vigorously and smiled up at her. All the adults gave their children the same advice. Obedience was of utmost importance to fulfil one’s filial piety. It was every child’s duty.

She handed me to a tall, slender lady in a crisp uniform. “This nice lady will stay with you until you see your Baba and Mama.” Grandma’s words were comforting and gave me courage. I nodded to reassure her I would be alright. Uncle Wai gave us ample time and space as he waited for the announcement for boarding. He dried his eyes just before taking his mother’s arm.

Before I turned to go, Grandma Jong squeezed me hard. I pushed away first. It would be soon enough when she’d come after me to Canada. Besides, I was feeling crushed under the weight of her huge arms. I waved goodbye to both of them, thinking about how fond I was of Grandma Jong, and then I turned onto the ramp and disappeared into the boarding bridge.

Endless hours later, I found myself shuffling upright in my seat. I stretched and tried to wriggle my toes. But my shiny new shoes would not allow it.

I sat thinking of the fun we had that afternoon when Grandma bought me crispy egg waffles from a street vendor. We had been shopping for my travel outfit. Reminiscing fondly, I looked down and smoothed my dress. It was red with navy blue plaid. It felt soft and warm. Matching blue leotards perfected my attire. My feet dangled over the edge of my seat.

I had the luxury of two seats and as I stretched across both the aisle and window seats, I nodded on and off, but I could not fully sleep. I was tired. Anxious, homesick, and restless, I missed my bed.

A short time after the gigantic bird aimed for the skies, I got sick. When the bird shook and rattled. I vomited while people around me grabbed onto their seats, except for one lady who came from behind me summoning help. It seemed like a long time ago; it had to be yesterday.

My lips felt dry and a lingering chalky film coated my tongue. It tasted foul, and I was thirsty.

I imagined my grandmother sitting behind me saying, “Could be one more hour or maybe two.”

Whenever I became impatient, I’d whine. It worked with my grandmother. She always came running to comfort me. But there was no one here worthwhile to whine to. I was alone on a plane full of strangers.

“When?” I whispered to myself. I squirmed. The bottom of my dress rode up above my waist, then I felt uncomfortably bulky.

I slid onto the aisle seat and strained over my shoulder as I looked up and down. I hoped to see the nice, pretty lady in her crisp uniform and colourful scarf striding purposefully to serve me some refreshing orange juice.

The nice, pretty lady had smooth velvety cheeks, with just a smudge of pink. They reminded me of sweet buns, especially when warm and soft straight out of the steamer. My tummy craved one just thinking about them. Grandma Jong would laugh when I held one in each hand, dancing playfully as I took a bite from one, then the other. She had said I was naughty. But she never meant it. She was delighted to see me happy — to see me naughty. I sighed longingly.

Amusing myself, I played with my fingers the way Uncle Wai showed me. With my palms together, I lined up my fingers, then interlocked them inwards and wriggled them towards

me to resemble people dancing. Then I studied the lines on the palm of my hands. Grandma Jong told me I had many, many lines and I would experience a very full life.

The lights were dim, but then, all at once, they blasted on to the sound of gentle chimes signalling breakfast time. I rubbed my eyes to adjust. I hadn’t eaten, and I still wasn’t hungry for the food offered me onboard. Just thirsty.

Finally, the lady’s friendly face peeked out at me from behind the curtains. Round eyes fringed with fluttering lashes reminded me of the expensive porcelain dolls in the store windows.

I sensed we were landing soon. People shuffled about, reaching for stuff overhead. I looked up as the pretty lady was saying something to me. I didn’t understand, so I didn’t respond. She offered her hand, and I took it.

As she bent down to help me with my leotards, I caught the scent of fresh flowers from her fair hair.

She escorted me down the boarding ramp and into a building and handed me off to another stranger, a man in a uniform. He accompanied me through the building and along some hallways. Wherever I was, my parents should be there to meet me. At that moment, I didn’t care about meeting them. I missed Grandma Jong. Suddenly, a terrifying realization hit me. I might never see my grandmother again.

I suppressed my tears. I mustn’t cry, for there was no one there I wanted who could console me. No one but Grandma Jong would do.

Before this, my greatest fear had been of cockroaches. Now, something else much bigger surrounded me — the fear of being alone.

The uniformed man left me alone in a small room. I felt abandoned. Unlike the beckoning, warm glow I saw from the tarmac, this light was artificially bright and threatening. Disguised as a friend, this glare came from the inside of a cold and sterile room. It was an ugly space with plain chairs around an empty table without cushions or a tablecloth. Definitely not like home.

A short time ago, while we were still on the plane, the nice lady had freshened my face with towelettes. Then she brought me orange juice and fruit on a small tray. The thought made me smile.

I sat on my hands and waited. Examining the indented squiggles on the ceiling distracted me from wondering what was going to happen to me next. The tiles were old and discoloured. Making the best of the situation, I swung my legs to a commercial jingle in my head to pass the time.

Finally, a familiar face in a suit came into the room. He greeted me with a broad smile. He crouched down and said, “Hello, Annuii.”

Baba had the same kind but sad eyes I had seen in the photograph Grandma Jong showed me. He had brought me a doll. The doll looked like the pretty lady I had left behind on the plane. Just like how I left Grandma Jong behind. I looked at the doll. She had a round white face with rosy pink cheeks and a small, demure smile. Her round, twinkling eyes blinked at me.

I clutched her close to my chest, just as Grandma Jong had squeezed me before my flight. Baba took my other hand, and I let him lead me down a long, bleak hallway to my new life.

- Ming Louie Stein, Port Moody

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