by Mary H. Hui
The 506 Carlton streetcar clatters along, humming a hypnotic two-pitch drone. Sliding to a lurching halt, more passengers climb on. We jerk forward again as the doors sigh shut. My father and I wedge together on a double seat near the back. I fidget with my phone and check the time again. Almost 11 a.m. I hope my husband has remembered to pack a snack for our daughter after swim lessons. I glance out the window past my father’s impassive face as we rumble past my old high school and then the mall where I once worked. After my mother died, we’d made this trip every week for dim sum and groceries.
“Don’t drink so much tea. You’ll get too full to eat the food,” he would admonish, watching me gulp the weak pu’erh from the metal teapot the waiter had slapped onto the white plastic tablecloth. Then as the carts drifted closer to our table, he would pick out all my favorites: cheong fun with shrimp, har gow, leaf wrapped glutinous rice, juicy dumplings filled with pork and chives. Because he knew I loved them, he would summon a passing waiter to order a plate of stir-fried greens with garlic.
Finally, lips greasy from the feast and belly distended, he would gesture for the bill. I would try to pay, sometimes even grabbing the slip from the table but I was never successful. “Next time, next time!” he would say, snatching the bill from my hand. He always paid for the meal despite my protestations, even my bunch of choi sum or bag of dried shitake mushrooms if I wanted groceries. As an adult, I felt a little bubble of resentment in these encounters. Our roles were set out in stone: he would always be the father and I was always the daughter, younger — less, it seemed in my eyes. Never acknowledged as the self-sufficient adult I thought I was. Nonetheless when I moved north to a small town 12 hours away, we both wept. I pulled out of the driveway knowing these weekly visits were finished, leaving him with long days alone sitting at the kitchen table, the blank wall of loneliness looming over him.
When I could, I left my young family, coming back so we could once again clamber onto the jolting streetcar and rumble down to Chinatown.
On this day as the doors fold open, the pungent funk hits my nostrils immediately: dry salted fish, spices, roasted meats, rotting fruit. Stepping onto the sidewalk, the bustling crowd engulfs us, all going in random directions it seems. I take care not to lose my dad, close on his heels as we head to our usual dim sum restaurant. I gulp my tea over dad’s usual admonishment as we have our regular dishes. The usual squabble over the bill unfolds while a familiar little bubble of resentment also surfaces. There seems to be no room for change, no way for us to relate differently. I find myself checking the time again when he isn’t looking.
We dodge the bossy little grandmas, extra wide with their plastic bundles of groceries and wend our way through tight aisles of bright purple Chinese eggplants and lush green choi sum. My resentment builds as we zigzag our way through the crowded sidewalks into the equally packed BBQ meat shop. The aroma of hot roast meat makes me salivate though we have just eaten. He is the boss, always taking charge, leading the way. I had fought against this Confucian hierarchy for years, wishing to be seen for who and where I was in my life: a middle-aged mother navigating her way through life’s chaos, often without the ease my dad showed with those grannies and stacks of veggies, but still an adult. I look at my reflection in the window beyond the hanging chunks of roast pork, whole ducks, and char siu. I see a tired-looking older woman, brow furrowed with care and burdened with more than the grocery bags she is holding.
My father negotiates with the BBQ meat shop owner for an extra chunk of char siu, sweet, charred and hot from the glowing inferno of an oven at the back.
“For my daughter,” he announces. “She’s come back to visit me from very far away.”
“Aii…good daughter!” Gap-toothed, the man smiles, echoing the approving murmurs of the crowd around us. His cleaver is a blur, tapping a quick rhythm on the block. He hands me a morsel on a toothpick. I glance at my dad as I cram it into my mouth. He gives me a nod and small smile. Suddenly the bubble bursts: I am my father’s daughter, young again. I don’t need or want to be in charge here. Mouth stuffed full of juicy meat, I follow his lead out onto the busy street again.