THE GHOST OF CANTON
BY JACKIE WU
There was so much I could have written about you: the permanent fragrance of rice porridge, jook, in your kitchen, the way you never lost an arm wrestle, even when your bone looked thin enough to snap from the weight of my gaze, or the bamboo mat that you claimed “was good for your back” when we slept, our feet at opposite ends of the queen-sized bed we used to share. But I decided to write a ghost story. You raised me with ghost stories, Po-po – stories that you inherited from your mother, stories that you discovered from strangers, and stories that you experienced yourself. My favorite ghost story was the one you’d tell me in the car on the way to Chinese school. You would sit strapped in the passenger seat, occasionally turning to me in the backseat as if your gnarled facial expressions would add more haunting to the story. You said that when you first came to America in 1985, you moved into a dilapidated apartment that was smaller than half the size of the government-funded house you live in now. When you’d fall asleep, you’d hear music playing above you. Your landlord admitted that no one lived upstairs, but a group of musicians had been shot dead there a few years ago. From then on, you slept with earbuds in, too afraid to fall asleep to the ghosts of a mariachi band. I believed you, Po-po, and I hung onto every word you said like a prayer. Even now, I believe you. But recently, Po-po, I found testimony for your stories that is stronger than just a child’s faith in her grandmother. I started my freshman year studying computer science. Entering my second year, I made the sudden switch to creative writing. I felt ashamed when I told you – my grandmother who came to Ohio with only a dime to her name. You laughed and shook your head, “Yau seun sam.” Have confidence, you said, which will forever be my favorite Cantonese phrase of yours. You were steadfast like an anchor holding me down to this world, even when you received the diagnosis for throat cancer a year ago. I traded my time between Houston and New Jersey, where I moved back to live with my parents; I had lived with you in a medium-sized Ohio suburb for most of my life, but now, I only saw you through tenuous connections of WeChat calls. When I called you every Sunday in college, I never remembered that you spent weekends in the local hospital, that your throat tangled Cantonese words with mucus, that you were now eighty-six years old and telling me how you always looked forward to my calls. I saw him for the first time when he showed up at my college dorm room in the last week of August. I was staring at my blank laptop screen, my fingers ghosting over my keyboard in some pale attempt at my English homework, when I heard a knock on the door. He was silent when I opened the door. He stood only a few inches taller than my 5-foot 3-inch figure, and although his frame was very slim, he gave the impression of taking up the entire space of the doorway. His face was young – younger than mine – though I discovered later that he was two years older than me. I would have thought that he was another university student on my floor, but water dripped down his jet-black hair and his face as if he had just emerged from a swimming pool. His white shirt, which appeared one or two sizes too large for him, stuck to his body like a second skin. I could see shadows of a stomach that seemed too awkwardly large and swollen for his thinness. His skin seemed to be drained of color, and it was even paler in the hue of my room’s sterile light. of color, and it was even paler in the hue of my room’s sterile light. The next second, as I blinked, the man in front of me disappeared. I lunged forward, catching air and droplets of water. A puddle formed where he had stood, drenching my socks and my roommate Taya’s rug. It was a Saturday night, not Sunday. I knew that you were sleeping in a hospital bed, but I needed to call you immediately. You answered after almost two minutes of the phone ringing. Lethargy painted your voice as you murmured quietly, breathing alongside my frantic recollection of the boy. “No, that’s my brother. Your Kao-gong, your great-uncle. He drowned many years ago,” you said, pausing. The tone of your voice tilted upward, like your mind was far away from your voice.
He came to me a few hours after I ended the call with you. Two slow thuds knocked at the door, and I knew it to be him. I stood from my chair, hesitating. Perspiration kissed my temple, and my breath seemed to be held captive in the back of my throat. I closed my eyes and remembered how you prepared me. When I opened the door, I quickly glanced downward, bowing my head down in respect. “Kao-gong,” I said, greeting him. After a few seconds of stillness, I stood up and looked at him. Your brother, my Kao-gong, must have been handsome before he died. His stare was confident and unwavering, and I felt a soft anger in the back of his eyes. His most startling feature was you, or rather you in him – his sharp jaw much like yours when you’d yell at me to wake up for school, his loose posture the same way you’d dance across the kitchen with me as we’d cook noodles for breakfast. In an instant, I knew that I could trust him. He came into my room, dripping water onto the carpet. I handed him a towel, but he shook his head. “No need,” he said in fluent Cantonese. His voice slipped into the silence, cracked like something had broken him. I didn’t want to tell him that his drenched body was ruining my carpet. “Why are you here?” I asked, which might have been a foolish question. My Cantonese came out twisted and American. I threw the towel next to his feet, watching the cloth absorb the liquid on the floor. “Your Po-po told you about me,” Kao-gong replied, “You’re my blood. Our future.” “How are you here?” I whispered. You told me that he was your brother, but he looked my age, more my peer than ancestor. More my brother than yours. He didn’t speak much that day. Instead, he leaned forward and touched his damp palms to my cheeks, the coolness of his skin raising bumps on my arms. And just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanished again. I collapsed to the ground, sinking to my knees. Scrambling, I reached for the towel that had lay beneath Kao-gong’s feet. The towel was wet, cold – evidence of his presence. I hugged the towel to my face. Kao-gong was real. He came back a few days later. This time, I was ready. I took out my pen and notebook, a learned habit as a writer, then laid a towel on Taya’s chair for him to sit on. I turned to him, waiting. “I’m ready to tell you my story now,” he said. “My name is Po-yu – Po is my family name, and Yu is the region in Sichuan where I was born. My family moved back to Canton a few years later, though the city was still recovering from the war.” His story unraveled over the course of several weeks. Kao-gong stayed for an hour at most, sometimes leaving as soon as ten minutes. He didn’t say why, but I pretended that the afterlife had tied a string to him, tugging him away from the physical world. Sometimes, I called you to corroborate pieces of his tale. You laughed when I asked you which war Canton was recovering from. “The big one!” You scoffed because I was your foolish nineteen-year-old granddaughter, then dissolved into a fit of coughs. Kao-gong was popular as a high schooler: he was a charming, athletic young man. He placed first in track meets, watched girls swoon over him, and even dated a few pretty ones; life was good in Canton. It was 1968 when the Communist Party forced Kao-gong and all his high school graduating peers out of the city and into farmland. Kao-gong was eighteen and knew only of the fast-paced urban lifestyle of Canton. He left for Shenzhen, which was a small agricultural community in 1968, although it is now one of the fastest growing metropolises in China. Immediately after Kao-gong left my room, I looked up “1968 chinese go to farms.” The mass relocation of Chinese youth in the 1960s was known as “Down to the Countryside Movement,” with its purpose to educate “privileged urban youth” in farming and humility. They were China’s “lost generation.” After three years on the farm, Kao-gong couldn’t take it anymore. “I hated it!” Kao-gong exclaimed. His harsh shout pulled me upright in my seat. “I didn’t know anything about villages! About farms! And no money either! We worked all day, only for a little food. There was never enough money, never enough to make a living.” He had the habit of speaking in quick, staccato sentences, half of them ending in fragments. Kao-gong’s voice came out hoarse and heavy, like it was pulled down by the water still in his lungs. Kao-gong and his friends decided to escape China. They would find refuge in Hong Kong, where they wouldn’t be forced to clean horse shit. “Oxen,” you said, “Not horses, but oxen.” I nodded, scribbling out a section in my notes labeled “FARM.” They were not the only, nor the first, to dream of escape. In fact, there had already been an established route to Hong Kong. However, only the bravest youths dared to go; it took ten days of walking through mountains to get to the river between China and Hong Kong. Then, they had to swim eight hours across the river – “an eight-hour swim to freedom,” you called it. “It was a risk – we all could’ve lost our lives. Only the truly brave could do it,” Kao-gong said, his eyes shining with pride. He had been brave. “Not just brave,” he interrupted, correcting me, “But I had dreams. You see, I was going to marry this girl, and I couldn’t marry her on a farm. We would’ve had no life, no money! After we went to Hong Kong, we were going to come to America. I was going to open a restaurant – ‘The Flower Drum,’ named after my ma, who was known as the most beautiful flower in her village. We were going to be rich in America, you see.” You know, Po-po, he didn’t look like you then. He looked young and boyish, and he didn’t have the deep laugh lines in your brow or the sunspots in your skin. Your face was evidence of time and life; his was of innocence and loss. “But you never got there, right?” I glanced at his wet hair and his swollen stomach. “Many people died,” he said simply. His body faded away into my shadow, reminding me of how easily he could go. “I don’t know why he’s here. Is it just to tell me his story?” I asked you in one of our more recent calls. “Honestly, I’m scared to hear the end. I don’t think I can lose him.” You laughed. It seemed like you were always laughing recently. “He’ll talk and talk and talk forever, don’t you worry,” you reassured me. Ten days till the river, ten days till freedom, Kao-gong chanted as he began his trek through the mountains. It was the only thing in his mind, other than hunger. Hunger was a parasite, swelling in each of their stomachs until they had no strength left to continue walking. And still, they walked. Each person ate one meal a day: a spoonful of flour and sugar. If I die here, my last meal will be a mouthful of flour, Kao-gong thought. They became nocturnal. They ran through the mountains guided only by moonlight because their lives depended on it; when sunrise came, soldiers with growling dogs patrolled the mountains, tracing the footsteps of runaway Chinese teenagers. As the sun emerged, Kao-gong would press his entire body flat to the ground, imagining himself invisible in the tall blades of grass. He hoped that the reverberations of his heartbeats wouldn’t travel through the soldiers’ thick-soled boots, but every movement of his chest was an earthquake beneath him. During the day, Kao-gong shared the dirt with snakes and other lost youths, trembling from snake bites and the fear of being seen – two of Kao-gong’s friends had been caught before, and they were sent to correction centers for one and a half months. Chen Zigui, Kao-gong’s track rival, surrendered to the authorities midway through the journey.
By the time they reached the river, they were no longer children. Kao-gong was twenty-one, but when I imagined him in his tale, he looked seventy-one – the age he would be now if he were still alive. “It was an eight-hour swim, but I used to be a star athlete,” Kao-gong said, puffing out his chest. He trusted his track and swim medals, so he hadn’t trained like his peers had. Some of them had trained for months for this swim – they spent hours every day at the pool, pretending that they were swimming past tidal waves and sharks to Hong Kong. Kao-gong failed to cross the river three times. The first time, a group of fishermen scooped him out of the water. “We got you! We’ll rescue you!” they exclaimed, grabbing his arm out of the water. Still, they failed to catch Kao-gong’s girlfriend, Hu Rongfen. Kao-gong watched her swim away and prayed that she would reach Hong Kong without him. Later that day, the fishermen handed him to the Communist Party. They tied him up the entire ten-day trek back to Shenzhen, beating two hundred red welts into his back with their military rifles. “Like a criminal,” Kao-gong hissed bitterly. He pushed his wrists together in front of his body, miming the motion of his hands being bound together. “The next time would be my last,” Kao-gong whispered. He didn’t want me to forget that he wasn’t just my great-uncle, not just your brother, not just a young man who yearned for freedom. He was a phantom, erased from a generation that had long been lost. I called you the same night he left, but I ended it after the fourth ring. It was 10:21 PM on a Thursday night, which was far past your bedtime, though all I wanted was to hear you tell me everything would be okay. The next time would be my last, he had said, and I knew that it would be the end of his story and the end of his visits. Po-po, I didn’t know how to bid him farewell. How do you say goodbye to someone you lost half a century ago? You didn’t call me that night, but Mom did. I didn’t see all three of her calls until the morning because I liked to turn my phone off at night. After I woke up at 8:30 AM, I made my bed, showered, and got dressed. Taya was still asleep, so I stepped outside my room and called her back. She assured me that you didn’t feel pain, Po-po. You weren’t even in the hospital, but in your own bed, on top of the same bamboo mat we shared for years since you wanted to keep me close to you. You left your jook in a pot above the stove, ready to be reheated in the morning for breakfast. You went to sleep at 9 PM like you always did. Then, you were gone. I’m sure you thought that I could write a beautiful eulogy. My mother surely did, when she told me to prepare something for your funeral in a few months. Write something beautiful for your grandmother. Put your degree to use, aren’t you a writer? Aren’t I? I waited for your brother for months after you passed. Every night, I laid a dry towel on an empty seat beside me and prayed for him to return. When he didn’t come, I watched the seat all morning, willing the towel to become damp from his presence. I should have called you more. In the beginning of my freshman year, I called you three times a week because I had no friends and too much time, then twice a week, then once. At the end of our weekly calls, you always said, “Call me next week too. Remember, every week,” as if you were afraid my once a week promise would evaporate into dead silence. I should have expanded my Chinese vocabulary beyond jook, chau fan, tong yun, and three times a week because I had no friends and too much time, then twice a week, then all the homemade dishes you used to spoil me with, so we could talk about more than what you had for dinner. I should have told you that your dishes were my favorite because that’s the highest praise you can give to an elderly Chinese grandmother. I could have watched the wrinkles in your face deepen into a smile as you pretended to reject my compliments. I should have called you more, Po-po. By December, toward the end of the semester, I was begging Taya to grab me leftovers from the cafeteria whenever she could, otherwise surviving on instant ramen and microwaved pop tarts. My skin paled, nourished only by the artificial wash of fluorescent light in my room. As the last few weeks of classes approached, I stopped showing up to classes in person. I started to write something about your life, about you. But the thing is, Po-po, I can’t write about you without writing about the dozens of phone calls I sent to voicemail, about write about you without writing about the dozens of phone calls I sent to voicemail, about flipping through photo albums of when I was young and you were younger than eighty-six, as if remembering younger versions of ourselves could undo time, about eulogies that turn into ghost stories. In the last week of school, exactly three months after I first saw him, Kao-gong appeared in my room, already sitting on the towel on top of his seat. He sat upright, dripping. “I heard your prayers,” he said, as if it explained why he was here. Why he hadn’t been. “Po-po died,” I said quietly. He kept staring forward, stone-faced and silent. “I have to write a eulogy for her by the end of the year,” I suddenly felt foolish, my voice cracking, but continued regardless, “I’m failing two of my classes. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t breathe anymore without feeling like I’m –” dying, but the word seemed inappropriate – “Kao-gong, it’s been months. Why did you come?” “I’m here to finish the story,” Kao-gong replied, almost too gently. I closed my notebook and looked straight into his eyes. We both knew what that meant. At the shore of the river, before his fourth and final attempt to cross to Hong Kong, Kao-gong prayed to every ancestor he remembered. Please let me be free. He stepped into the river, dipped his head beneath the surface of the water, and swam. The sun beat down on his body, which had become a canvas for snake bites and welts and sunburn, but his arms continued to pull him forward because he knew that if he stopped, he would never be free. He swam for hours, alternating between breaststroke and backstroke. On his back, he watched the dawn sky bleed into a mosaic of pale yellows and light blues, and he wondered if the sky in Hong Kong looked more beautiful. Kao-gong thought he saw a pale outline of an island, a speck of light, in the corner of his eye. He imagined the silhouette of the city’s skyscrapers, the bustling streets that could drown out the gunshots in his nightmares; his body, starved and past the point of exhaustion, for a brief moment, took him to Hong Kong. He would live and work for two years in Hong Kong as a ticketer at a local cinema and a spray painter at a toy store. Then, he would fly to some midwestern city in America as a refugee and pay two suitcases full of cash for a restaurant that he would call “The Flower Drum.” He would marry, have a daughter and a son, take out loans for their college degrees, and retire in a big house next to a lake. He would live. Kao-gong died in the middle of his fourth swim to Hong Kong, swallowed by tidal waves that also drowned two of his friends in the same journey. Three of the swimmers in the group made it to Hong Kong, where they mailed letters to the deceased’s families, including Po-po. I’m sorry, the letter said, because what else was there to say? I’m sorry that I lived and they died. I’m sorry that I lived. I’m sorry. When Kao-gong finished his story, a heavy quiet fell between us. Him, having said everything, and I, waiting for him to fade into invisibility. “Kao-gong,” I began hesitantly, not daring to move my gaze away from him, “It hurts to lose both you and Po-po…Why would you come if you were going to leave anyway?” “Does death make us not worth remembering?” Kao-gong asked. You told me a while ago, after we first learned of your cancer diagnosis, “Save your tears for when I’m gone.” You held my face in your hands, scanning my eyes for any hint of tears. By the time my eyes were completely dry, you patted my cheek and scoffed. “Foolish child,” you said, and you were right. I wasted my tears then, but can I cry for you again, Po-po? "Pain is for the living, but you will live. Who else will live for us?
You took me on walks around your favorite garden every Monday and Wednesday morning, where we’d rip pieces of bread to feed the swans. You taught me how to fold paper airplanes out of any kind of paper, no matter the size or type, and we’d throw paper airplanes at each other while Mom yelled at us to be careful. We’d have contests on who could fold at each other while Mom yelled at us to be careful. We’d have contests on who could fold the smallest paper airplane, and even till now, you never beat my airplane folded from the fortune of a fortune cookie. Like the river flows into the sea. Some things are just meant to be, the fortune read, neither of us understanding. You raised me with numbers, with lines and points and triangles, with fractions and the Pythagorean Theorem, until I graduated high school as the valedictorian and with four years of near-perfect scores in math. When I visited you after my first semester in college, I came back with multivariable calculus and ordinary differential equations and partial derivatives. You laughed proudly, “Your math is more than mine now.” I didn’t understand what you meant then because I didn’t know how any part of me could be more than you. Kao-gong held my face in his hands, wiping my cheeks with his ghostly thumb. “Farewell, my child,” he said, and briefly, I saw you in him. Or rather, him in you. There was so much I could have written about you, and Po-po, I decided to write a ghost story. Sometimes, I wonder if these past few months were all a dream, if I woke up one night, aching for some remnant of you that the world could offer. Other nights, I’ll light a few sticks of incense for you and Kao-gong. I’ll pray, just like how you taught me, for you both to find your peace in the afterlife. With my eyes shut and hands clasped together, I’ll dare myself to see you. And I’ll imagine that you’re both watching me too, knowing that I’ll be okay.