A Chinese Box
by Meiko Ko
A Chinese jewelry box believes that it’s suffering from an identity crisis, because of the mismatched items in it: plastic earring fragments, woe, some maps of the world, a lost mother. The lost mother is called Susan, although she could be Mary too, since the real Susan probably doesn’t exist. In 1971 when Susan was still a daughter she slept under a large teak bed with two other sisters in a shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown, preferring dark spaces to sunlight. Her father (nameless) peddled opium in a kind, diffident way, in the meantime chaperoning his daughters to school and constructing penalty boxes for his sons. The name Susan was given to her without her knowledge by her husband, who dealt with progressive issues and sheltered theories in his blood. The husband named himself Andrew, although he could easily pass himself off as a Patrick anytime. Susan was not allowed to work and thus was built on borrowed food, and over time, her son, who was called Johnny (almost a Robert), constructed an elaborate looting system to turn her into a food engineer. Thus, there was quite a lot of precise delivery of pizzas, kfcs, burger kings, mcdonalds, and the range grew into hokkien mee/mee pok/chicken rice/char kuay teow as the son developed a man’s difficult taste buds. It was vital that these food orders be made on time, or fork and fury would hurl themselves across the dining room, missing Susan’s head by inches. On a bright December morning, Susan’s husband and son remembered her birthday, which was really in July, and came home with the latest minimizer that further pared down Susan’s utterances into “Please,” “Sorry,” “Thank you.” But the most pleasant surprise in Susan’s life came from her daughter, who insisted on changing her name from Joanna to Jordan after watching an episode of L.A. Blues. Jordan, aka Joanna, was really a man, although she didn’t admit it, because she went around town making deals and blueprints with Tom and David and William, who drove around town imagining autumns, casinos and bird parks. Sometimes they visited Genting Highlands to play with the ringgits on company charge. On one of these trips Jordan told William about how she really was a Joanna inside, but because the original Joanna sounded too much like a Susan in her ears, she preferred to be called Jordan. William, who actually pretended to like autumn and casinos, consoled Jordan? Joanna?, saying that while all names are really alike in the grave, Joanna and Susan really have different etymologies. Susan could be traced directly to a rice field in the Mountain of a Waist in China, while the development of Joanna exhibits a singular historical pattern that could never be repeated in a thousand years. As the clouds of Genting floated up to kiss the window of the hotel room, Joanna began to cry. She leaned her tired head on William’s shoulder. In her mind drifted the final traces of Susan, who, having gained nothing from being Susan, sat in a wicker chair crocheting purposeless doilies in her flat across the causeway.
Meiko Ko is a Singaporean living in New York. She is working to become a writer and a prose poet, and she attends the Second Saturdays Reading Series every month. She still misses the rain in Singapore. This is her second publication.
cover image by Marc Nair