Fall 2019 Contest Nonfiction Finalist: Elephant Hill

I

Circa 1960

Alor Star, Malaysia

3pm. Mama’s frying peanuts for the party tonight. Plates of handmade spring rolls line up, waiting for the sizzling peanuts to be done. When Mama’s not looking, I dip my finger into the bright red rose syrup sitting in the pot to cool by the window. Delicious. Heady. Not that anyone’s going to notice the color on my finger in the dark when Papa turns down the lights and the dancing begins. Papa loves to dance.  

Big Sister’s making more spring rolls, Big Brother and Second Brother on their knees polishing the floor. Wish I had something to do too. It’s hard being four.

5pm. Papa’s on the verandah polishing his dancing shoes. Black and white Oxfords. Grained leather. Wing tip. Perforated. Resplendent when he dances for the Sultan and Sultanah at the Istana. Tonight he dances for himself.

8pm. Ladies in loud shift dresses that reach high above the knee, move around the room, with ice-cold rose-flavored drinks in one hand, half-eaten spring rolls in the other. Auntie Nancy has evolved from metallic jumpsuit to hot pants since Papa’s last party, armsful of colorful plastic bangles that jangle when she moves. Everyone sports a Vidal Sassoon geometric hair style or a chic swingy bob. Men gravitate towards obnoxious floral prints with a hint of Beatles – longer hair, tighter pants.

Papa and Mama take the floor, a foxtrot slow-slow-quickquick-slow. New York New York streams from the new speakers Big Brother built last week as I watched him sand down the teak box and stapled on the grill fabric. slow-slow-quickquick-slow. These little town blues/Are melting away. Couples pick up the cue slow-slow-quickquick-slow.

My heart leaps. Opening strains of cha cha come on air. My song! She was afraid to come out of the locker cha-cha-cha. She was as nervous as she could be cha-cha-cha. Papa appears from somewhere, takes my hand to the floor.

Can’t wait till I am grown and tall to do the foxtrot and tango with Papa. slow-slow-quickquick-slow. Papa loves to dance. 

II

            Our humble abode stood on stilts three feet above ground. I was sitting on the faded, threadbare cushion of the tall wooden armchair reserved for visitors, with my feet tucked under me. At six years of age, my feet could barely touch the floor. But I could already read Pearl S. Buck’s condensed version of The Good Earth that Pa received free with his Readers’ Digest subscription last year. Ma was hemming Pa’s pants by the front door where it was bright.

            A young man appeared at the door with a medium-sized paper bag that weighed down at the center of the base.

            “Auntie, is Uncle Ah Kow home?” the young man asked Ma.             

            “I’ll get him for you.”

            I turned my open book face down on the spacious chair, got on my knees, and stuck my head out the window overlooking the courtyard to follow Ma. She went to look for Pa who was squatting on the ground in his orchid shed tending to his prized Dendrobium hybrid. The shed was a wooden structure wrapped in wire netting. It had a door, took up half the length of our back fence and felt as big as the bedroom I shared with my sister. It was filled with orchid pots hanging from the ceiling and the walls, as well as big pots elevated on bricks. Many with blooms of different colors.

            “These are the Dancing Ladies,” Pa told me when I was a little girl, squatting next to him on the floor in the shed, entranced as he meticulously trimmed the dead roots and leaves. Every pot had a metal label with the name written on it in pencil. This one read “Oncidium.” It was my favorite because I loved to dance and the spray looked like a line of yellow dancing ladies. Growing orchids was a hobby that had won Pa many coveted prizes at the annual orchid-growing competition in our little town of Alor Star, in the north of the Malaysian peninsula.

            “There’s a young man to see you, dear,” said Ma.

            Pa put down the secateurs that he was using to trim the spindly dead roots. Holding the weathered wooden pillar of the shed firmly with his right hand, he pulled himself up with some effort and straightened his body with difficulty. The monsoons brought pain to his bones. He never complained but I could see it in his face when he moved.

            Ma offered Pa a pail of water and a towel. He rinsed his hands, then wiped them, drying carefully between the fingers of the left hand and especially the creases and keloids on his right hand. About fifty percent of his right hand was burned – in particular, the ring and little fingers and the part of the palm below them. When he was a little boy, the kerosene lamp hanging from the central beam of the hut, the only light source in the home, fell on Pa’s right hand during a thunderstorm that shook its foundations. The scarring was made worse by severe infections.  Penicillin was not yet discovered in 1917. The deformed hand was never an issue with folks who knew him. In those days, people just accepted oddities like this without batting an eyelid. The irony, or to me the beauty, was that he grew up to become the newspaper reporter for the regional daily The Straits Echo – composing stories every day on his crotchety but beloved Olympia typewriter, despite the permanent glitch on his right hand. The badly scarred hands became his rice bowl.

            I quickly climbed down the seat and held Pa’s right hand as he walked by me towards the door.

            “Uncle! Uncle! Your bicycle seat arrive already!” the young man called out excitedly in Malaysian pidgin, beaming and holding out the crumpled paper bag to Pa even before Pa reached the front door.     “Throw away ol’ broken seat. This one very nice.”

            Pa smiled. “How are you, Mr Lim?”

            Pa received the paper bag with both hands, a cultural norm displaying respect and gratitude, and then stretched out his long skinny right hand to shake the young man’s hand.

            Shaking hands was something Pa did with everyone he met. It came naturally with his job. Folks were always thrilled to meet Pa as they felt it such an honor to be greeted with a handshake while being addressed as “Mr” or “Mrs” or “Miss” or “Madam,” no matter what age they were. So civil.

            Pa was such a gentleman: he spoke perfect English, wore a Western suit when he was working, and greeted everyone in our provincial town with a firm handshake. People often thought he was well-to-do. But he was not.

            Yes, the job was prestigious — Pa knew everyone in high office, including the Sultan of Kedah and the Menteri Besar, but the newspaper did not pay well. The publisher had threatened to close it down a couple of times as it could not compete with the national daily The New Straits Times.

            Still, we had ample food on the table, with some money to spare for an annual day trip to Merdeka Beach in a borrowed car. Pa was a thrifty man who believed a person should live within his means — thus the bicycle and not a car. He made sure he was not in debt but there wasn’t much money under the mattress either.

            Armed with a Cambridge ‘O’ levels certificate, Pa was one of the most educated people in town. The important thing was he could write. And write in English. And he often used that rare skill to help people who couldn’t write, to petition their causes against intimidating government officials and unscrupulous landlords. He did it for them pro bono.

            “Thank you for bringing the bicycle seat all the way to my house, Mr Lim. I was going to pass by your father’s shop tomorrow. Let me pay you for it,” Pa said and immediately turned his head and called out to Ma. “Dear, can you please bring my wallet? It’s in the left back pocket of my work pants hanging behind the bedroom door.”

            Turning back to the young man, he asked: “How much do I owe you Mr Lim?”

            “No. You no need to pay me lah. My Pa say don take money from Uncle Ah Kow,” the young man said as he waved his hand to refuse payment.

            “Oh but I must. I ordered it for my bicycle,” Pa insisted.

            “My Pa say you always help us write letter to gov’men. He very happy and wanna give you seat as present,” the young man beamed.

            Deeply tanned and wrinkled as Pa was from hours of cycling day after day in the sun to the police station, court houses and other official events to gather news and interview people, I could never see his blush. But I knew Pa was nonplussed and blushing at that moment.

III

            I was nine at the time and feisty. More than my parents liked me to be. Pansy, my big sister, who was eight years older, picked on me and I fought back. Pa said I was misbehaving again, and my belligerence made him very angry. He seldom got involved in our sibling squabbles but this time he did. He pulled me by my upper arm to the sofa and made me sit down. I shivered as his five-foot-ten frame towered in front of me, his arms akimbo. Was Pa going to cane me? I didn’t want to go to school tomorrow with red weals on my arms and legs; my Standard 3A classmates would laugh at me. It wasn’t my fault. Pansy was bullying me again. But Pa could never see that. He always took her side.

            “Behave yourself! I am tired of your rebellious behavior,” Pa said. “I’ve told you again and again not to fight with your sister. I’m sorry that it has to come to this now. I had intended to tell you when you were twenty-one.”

            What was Pa talking about?  

            “You are not my child; you were adopted. That is why I love your sister more than you.”

            I understood that last statement very well. It hurt bad. Worse than the deep long cut I got on my shin when I pulled it on the barbed wire last year and cried for days.

            “You came from Elephant Hill.”

            I had suspected it for some time. Overheard conversations to that effect, spoken between Ma and her friends in whispers in my presence, as though I was invisible or deaf. I didn’t dare ask Ma what they meant for fear of being scolded for listening to adult conversations. I tried to push the suspicion out of my mind because the possibility terrified me. Sometimes I thought about them when I couldn’t sleep at night. Mostly, I didn’t want to know.

            Elephant Hill was where Uncle and his children lived. Its real name was Gunung Keriang (Keriang Hill) but was affectionately called Elephant Hill because it was an outcrop of limestone hill that resembled an elephant. On the bus going to Elephant Hill to visit Uncle and his children twice a year, I always looked forward to seeing the hill emerge magically in the distance in the padi fields. Elephant Hill was wild and Pa went hunting for wild boars with his gun that he kept under the bed, deep against the wall. Ma cooked wild boar curry for weeks afterwards.

            I knew Elephant Hill Uncle had many children but I didn’t know how many. The cousins talked about this brother and that brother that I had seen, and several that I hadn’t. I’d never met Uncle’s wife. When you are little, it isn’t necessary for things to add up. You just made a mental note and don’t ask questions.

            I remember Uncle visiting us regularly from the time I was little. Elephant Hill was about five miles from our town, Alor Star, in the north of the Malaysian peninsula. He took the long-distance bus into the central station and then a local bus to the main road leading to Lorong Sheriff where we lived, and walked ten minutes to our house.

            Every October, he brought me little mooncakes in the shape of a pig placed inside pink plastic baskets, just like the brown rattan ones that I saw at the back of a lorry with pigs being taken to the abattoir. Uncle kept pigs on his farm. Maybe that’s why he favored this specialty mooncake instead of the traditional square ones with floral imprints. I loved them because this was one thing I didn’t have to share with my older siblings; it was too childish for them. The piggy mooncakes were cute and I played with them rather than ate them. I tucked one in each of my shorts’ pockets when I went out to play hopscotch with my friend, Ah Bee, on the concrete courtyard that our homes shared. She was richer than me but in October I had mooncake piglets. At night, I placed them by my pillow and stealthily brought them out after lights out. I held one in each hand and they played and talked to each other like Punch and Judy that I had seen on the flickering motion picture that Ah Bee’s father played every month for the neighborhood. He’d set up the ginormous screen under the cherry tree in the courtyard in front of his house and ran the projector from inside his living room through the open two-panel front door. We brought our own chairs or sat on concrete lined with old newspapers. When Ah Bee’s father wasn’t looking, I stood on tiptoe and put my hand in the light beam and made funny images on the screen. Until Ma called out from the corner of the courtyard where she was sitting with her friends: “Sit down!”

            During Chinese New Year, Uncle brought Chinese New Year cakes arranged neatly inside cleaned-out milk powder tins. It had a small square piece of red paper on the rust-speckled metal cover for luck. The red paper was stuck on with a dab of starch from the starch bowl like the one that Ma reconstituted to make Pa’s white cotton shirts crisp and fresh for when he went to the courthouse and covered proceedings for the newspaper. Uncle also gave me an ang pow. A red envelope that contained two one-dollar notes. A two-dollar ang pow represents closer ties than a one-dollar-ten-cents ang pow. It was a lot of money and unlike Ah Bee, I didn’t get to keep it. My mother took it so that she could recycle the ang pows when other children came to visit because we couldn’t afford to carry out the tradition with fresh money every time.

            Big Cousin Sister, the only daughter among Uncle’s many sons, visited regularly too. She was a seamstress and Ma commissioned her to sew our clothes. She worked on them at our house rather than at her own house in Elephant Hill.

            I understood now why Elephant Hill Uncle and Big Cousin Sister visited us regularly. It was to see me. I was his birth daughter and her little sister.

            “So now you know that Elephant Hill is where your family lives. I now want you to decide where you want to live. If you want to live here, you have to behave yourself. No quarreling with Pansy,” Pa said sternly. “Or you go back to Elephant Hill and I will put an advertisement in the paper saying we have disowned you. You decide now.”

            His was the only family I knew. I didn’t really know Uncle and Big Cousin Sister; they were just visitors that my parents said were “relatives.” Why would I want to live in the country with them?

            “I want to stay here,” I said, sounding as convincing as possible. But what I felt was fear. The humiliation of being sent away. And announced in The Straits Echo! How typical of Pa – everything by the book. My friends would know about this from their parents who read about it in the paper. The horror of being sent back to Elephant Hill where I didn’t belong.

            But I didn’t belong here either.

            My little world disintegrated. Like the ant hill that I’d stepped on the previous day and sent ants scurrying everywhere and killing a soleful.

            After the unceremonious reveal by Pa, I began to notice my siblings’ othering behavior. They had been, and were, treating me as someone who belonged to a subordinate social category and excluding me in their activities or conversations.

            My sister spoke in code to exclude me and she would do it unnecessarily. I didn’t understand all the verbal and nonverbal messages but felt the hurt she intended.

            My eldest brother, Thomas, who was ten years older than me had no reason to be unkind because I wasn’t a threat to him, as I was to Pansy who was the only daughter till I arrived. But he could be cruel when he chose to. I loved to eat mi basah, the noodles with spicy gravy made by the Indian hawker and his son who came by our neighborhood every afternoon. One day Thomas ordered a bowl of mi basah for himself. Ma knew I’d love some too.

            “Give your little sister some of the noodles,” Ma said to Thomas, as I stood closely by her side, my shoulder reaching up the length of her colorful floral sarong cinched at her waist with a metal belt.

            “So you want some noodles, huh?” he said, speaking to no one in particular. Then he spat into the noodles and pushed the bowl towards me and said, “Here, have some.” I turned and ran to my room and buried my face under the two pillows. Confused. Humiliated. Rejected again.

            “Why did you do that?” Ma’s muffled voice from the kitchen came through the pillows. One of her rare weak attempts at speaking out for me. Thomas laughed.

            At best, my siblings tolerated me. Simon, my second brother, was the kindest of all to me. Yet even he didn’t dare stand up to Pansy or Thomas when they were on a roll at bullying me. It seemed like after Pa’s big reveal, Pansy and Thomas felt emboldened to behave even worse than they already did towards me. While Ma and Pa did not treat me badly, they were complicit to my siblings’ bullying when they didn’t stop or speak out at the misconduct of their own children. I felt alone. Trapped. I sought comfort and refuge with school friends and at church – folks who didn’t know what was happening at home. By the time I started secondary school at thirteen, my sole purpose in life was to become financially independent and leave home. I heard kids my age were employed as helpers in stores but I didn’t have the courage to take the step. I was afraid of being punished or, worse, disowned by my parents, and being ridiculed by my school friends. Staying put was far more secure, however hostile; at least I knew what to expect – whether good or bad. I worked hard at school and saw it as a legitimate pass to my freedom.

IV

            When I was nineteen, I went to Nursing School on the island of Penang, sixty miles from home. Pansy had married and had children of her own. She lived on the mainland on the navy base where her husband worked as a clerk. By then there was less animosity and sibling rivalry, and we behaved like adults. We were cordial, perhaps even cared for each other as we kept in touch regularly to check on what was happening in each other’s lives. Time and distance must have healed my wounds and her regrets. I visited her on my days off. She was the closest relative I had away from home. I didn’t go home to visit Ma often because I couldn’t afford the $1.20 return bus ticket on the monthly $55 stipend the government paid me to be in Nursing School.

            During one of those visits, without any prompting, Pansy told me how I came to be part of this family. We were sitting side by side on the swings in the playground as we watched her toddler play with his trucks in the sandpit. “You know, your own mother died giving birth to you,” she remarked nonchalantly. I felt uncomfortable, unsure why she brought up my birth. Since that fateful day a decade earlier when Pa pronounced I was adopted, nothing had been spoken of it. Where is all this going? I always had my guard up when it came to my sister.

            “She was Elephant Hill Uncle’s wife. So Elephant Hill Uncle was your real father. You were the thirteenth child. She suffered from pre-eclamptic toxemia during pregnancy. Her blood pressure went way too high and she had a severe stroke and died.” By then I realized she had no agenda except to let me know the facts because no one else was ever going to tell me. I relaxed a little and listened without interrupting.

            “You were given to your birth mother’s younger brother, our Pa, as Elephant Hill Uncle – your birth father – was unable to care for a newborn as he had twelve other children to look after while working on his farm,” she continued. In those days, children were given away because of poverty or to couples who couldn’t have children. Papers were never drawn up for adoption. But Pa who worked closely with the law in his job, did everything by the rules and made my adoption legal.

            After Pa confirmed my suspicions of my origin a decade earlier, it didn’t matter to me anymore what happened at birth and how I came to be in this family. I was too busy planning an exit. So when Pansy told me the details of my birth, I was apathetic to it. And I wouldn’t want it any other way because it meant I was not obsessed about where I came from and had not let it consume me the past decade. It was good to know what happened but it wouldn’t have made any difference if I didn’t.

            Looking back half a century later, I believe Pa couldn’t help himself that day when he told me I was adopted and dished out the ultimatum. He was like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, charismatic and noble, to the outside world. But he was also legalistic like Javert– a well-intentioned law enforcer. Pa took pride in being truthful – even if it was brutal in its frankness and crushed me when he said that he loved my sister more than me. If he had stopped at “You are adopted” and not declared “You are not my child” and “I love your sister more than you,” I would probably not have felt abject rejection. But like Javert, he felt he had to mete out punishment when he asked me, a nine-year old who misbehaved, to choose conditionally whether I wanted to stay or go back to my biological father that I never had a parent-child relationship with. Ironically, being truthful and just didn’t apply to his biological children as he didn’t reprimand them for bullying me.

            Perhaps Pa was a product of his métier where he dealt with justice and law enforcement on a daily basis as a reporter for the local newspaper. And he was a product of his time by being authoritarian and draconian in his approach to misdeeds. But he was the only father I knew. We had good times. We both loved dancing. Pa was reallygood at it and performed with Ma for the Sultan and Sultanah at the palace during special events. Just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I was dancing from the time I could walk. We started with the fun stuff: cha cha, twist and samba, and progressed to the rhumba, foxtrot, waltz, and tango. I felt the rhythm and just let Pa lead.  I also remember as a little kid how he’d pick me up when he got home from work and I could feel his stubbly five o’clock shadow against my cheek. He sometimes brought me a bar of Cadbury chocolate and we’d share a cube or two of it before dinner, then saved the rest in the sugar jar for later so that ants couldn’t get to it. I felt loved. He was my hero. I’d huddle close to him wide-eyed when he tended to his orchids and cageful of budgerigars and canaries, and acquired an astounding orchidaceae and ornithology vocabulary before I was five. Our bond was why the revelation of my adoption and, in particular, rejecting me, was excruciating. Perhaps my growing rebellion at home, stoked by my siblings’ bullying, distanced us. Or it could simplybe that I grew up and was no longer the cute little chubby girl he adored. Whatever the reason, we will never know now. It wasn’t his finest moment that fateful day, but he will always be my father. I loved him and always will.  He was at once fascinating and complex.

V

            Pa died when I was seventeen.  I often wonder how he would have told me the secret of my adoption when I was twenty-one as he had planned, had circumstances been different at home. I imagine he would say, after I had blown out the twenty-one candles and cut Ma’s famous iced marble cake, and he had taken photos on his professional Rolleiflex 3.5F camera as he did the past twenty-one years on this day, “Grace, I have something to tell you.” He would walk round the table and put his arm on my shoulders. “Grace, we adopted you when you were born. Elephant Hill Uncle is your father. We loved you and there was never a moment when you didn’t belong here. I want you to know that.” And Pa, who was not given to displays of emotion, would give me a gawky hug and then Ma and Pansy and Thomas and Simon would come round for a group hug.

“Elephant Hill” by Grace Segran is a Nonfiction Finalist in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Fall Contest, judged by Emily Bernard.

About the author

Grace Segran has been a journalist and editor for over 25 years. She lived and worked in Asia and Europe before settling down in Boston, MA six years ago where she discovered creative writing at GrubStreet. Her personal essays have been published or are forthcoming in EntropyThe Common, Pangyrus, Westhall Press Anthology Flash Nonfiction Food, The Manifest-Station and elsewhere. She is a finalist in Columbia Journal Fall 2019 Contest.

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