Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho
My last evening in Taiwan, my father wanted to show me Shilin Night Market. We rode the subway, transferring at Taipei Main Station for the north-bound red line. Saturday night, the market was jammed with people strolling up and down the arteries of the main thoroughfare. Baba and I dragged along with the crowd, pausing here and there to browse the wares. We’d made up from the fight in the car driving down Yangmingshan yesterday, at least for now. He’d promised to rethink the new university contract and seriously consider coming back to the States for good.
The air was saturated by the scent of grilled meat, custard pudding and red bean pies, propane fumes and human sweat. Deep house music pumped out of every other storefront speaker, as vendors shouted into megaphones pointed at the passing hordes: Two-for-one ladies cotton underwear!Genuine leather sandals for men! Motorola flip phones unlocked here!DVDs! CDs! Come take a look!
At the food section in the back of the market, Baba stood in line to order us bowls of oyster vermicelli while I staked out seats at the communal tables set up in the center of the stalls. We dipped into the noodles. The oysters floated on top, fat and glistening like polished jewels.
“Listen, mei. There’s one more person who wanted to see you before you leave,” Baba said, between bites.
I asked if it was another relative. If Baba sensed my irritation, he didn’t show it.
Before this trip, I hadn’t seen my father in two and a half years, since he took this job. In the last week—my spring break—I’d barely spent any time with him alone. Every day, another banquet dinner with dozens of cousins, uncles and aunties, family friends who asked if I remembered them from the last time I visited the island, when I was just a kid.
“You can call him Uncle Lee,” he said. One of his college buddies, my father explained. For a second, he looked like he had more to add. “He’s been a good friend to me,” he said finally.
“That’s him over there now.” Baba lifted a hand and waved.
The man waved back and made his way to our table. He moved with the compressed energy of a wrestler, his chin slightly down, arms swinging deliberately, as if ready to grapple at a moment’s notice. Lee wore a red tank top with a cartoon duck printed on the chest, the hem tucked into a pair of tight black jeans, an FOB outfit that would’ve caught stares back home, but here he looked cool, I thought.
“My baby daughter,” Baba said.
“Uncle Lee,” I said in Mandarin. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Sit down, sit down!” He offered his hand to me, and I shook it. “A big lady, tall like Old Shen here.”
“She takes after her mother more than me—”
“I should hope so, with your teeth,” said Lee, and they both laughed. He extracted a blue handkerchief from the nylon fanny pack around his waist and wiped down his face, which gleamed with sweat. “Much hotter here than LA, right? And it’s only March.” He gestured toward the empty Styrofoam bowls on the table. “You like Taiwanese food? Even the broiled intestines in the vermicelli?”
“My daughter eats very well.”
“Wah! Like you, then.” Lee jabbed a finger into my father’s side.
“Uncle Lee, have you eaten yet?”
Lee smiled. “She’s quite mature. Good manners.” He glanced at my father approvingly. “All foreign-born girls, not this way. Sometimes you hear stories about overseas children.”
I felt my cheeks warm under Lee’s scrutiny.
“And your Mandarin isn’t bad,” he said. “I thought your father was exaggerating, going on about ‘My daughter Jane doing this and that, memorized the periodic table when she was only twelve, super number one classical piano.’ ”
“My mother stuck me in Saturday Chinese school for years,” I said. “Baba bribed me with McDonald’s.”
“Lee and I used to compete in the university badminton courts,” Baba said. I was glad for the subject change. “When I moved back here, I went looking for a game at those same courts, and I saw him there, believe it or not.”
“In our college days, the girls crowded the bleachers,” Lee said. “Just to catch a glimpse of your father in those white athletic shorts.”
“Lee! Don’t make up stories.”
“Sometimes he even played bare chest,” Lee said, grinning. He pantomimed pulling off his shirt with a flourish of his arms. “Quite a scene you created, brother.”
“Not me,” he replied. “You must be remembering someone else, Lee.”
“Don’t be so modest,” said Lee. “Your father was the school prince.” Baba shook his head.
“We all knew he’d be the one to go to America.”
“I was lucky, that’s all,” said my father.
“Luck!” Lee exclaimed. “You’re brilliant. You worked hard—”
“I made certain choices,” Baba said. “Left or right—”
“Like deciding to move back here,” I said, with more force than I intended. “And stay here,” I added. “Or was that luck?”
A silence. Then Lee laughed lightly, a sound almost as if he were clearing his throat. He exchanged a look with my father, and I saw something pass between them, the wordless language adults believe only they know how to speak. My father was silently apologizing to Lee: My daughter is a moody, sensitive girl prone to bursts of emotion, and something about these old stories puts her in a sour mood. She’s in her last year of high school but still a child. Still childish. I’d better get her home.
“The university students your father helps are the lucky ones now.” Lee’s eyes fell on me, and I forced a smile to my lips. I nodded, pretending to agree. But the way he spoke about my father in the old days gave me the creeps. I couldn’t imagine Baba like that at all—someone the girls swooned for? Who was that person?
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