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My Grandmother's Bones

SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. Online, she's unhealthily opinionated at slhuang.com or on Twitter @sl_huang.

My father was the most haau person I know.
I don't know the English term for it. Haau. It's like love, but it's not. It's like respect, but it's not. American families don't have it. Children love their parents--I know you love me--but being haau, it doesn't exist here.
My grandmother died when I was very young. I used to go with my father to tend her grave. It was not a real grave, of course. In Hong Kong, space is at a premium, so you could only bury someone for a set amount of time, and then they had to be placed elsewhere. After seven years they dug up my grandmother's bones and put them behind a stone in a tall, terraced place, remains upon remains. So many people. Like a condominium for the dead.
My father would go to tend my grandmother's bones. All the flesh had decayed from them by then, and he would take them out and clean them. Very carefully, bone by bone. I remember sitting with him, looking down at the long leg bones and the tiny finger bones, as he sat and cleaned.
Then he would sit with her in the sun, sit with her bones, and let the sun shine down on them.
You know how when you are doing laundry, or soaking dishes, you leave it, you do something else? My father did not leave. He did not do anything else. He just sat, quietly, letting the sun soak in and cleanse the bones.
I sat with him. I remember.
That's what a haau person he was.
When my father died, he was cremated. Cemetery space was even harder to get in Hong Kong then. We had to go on a waiting list, even only for a niche to put his ashes. By the time we had a space I had long flown back to America.
My sister kept telling me we should go visit. Fly out together and tend my father's grave. I said yes, we should, but I was so busy, and it was so far.
You and I weren't speaking then. When my father died. Do you remember?
I wish you had known him, your grandfather. I wish he had known you. But when you were young, we were always so busy, and it was always so far....
Now I am dead. You buried me here in America, my home. We were speaking by then, but only politely. Cards at Christmas, emails at birthdays. I hadn't seen your face in many years. (I didn't know you cut your hair like that. I don't like it. It makes you look like a man.)
You got me a nice plot and a nice headstone with my name on it. You had them carve the Chinese characters for my name as well as the English. That surprised me. I hadn't requested it. I'd gone by my English name for so long--by that time it was my name more than any other. But you said to the man, you said my English name was my name but not my whole name, and you insisted.
You come to see me now. You don't dig up my bones and clean them, but you sit on the grass above me with your back against the headstone. You do other things while you sit, like read or text on your phone.
Sometimes you bring another woman with you, an angry-looking woman with a ring in her nose. She sits with you or stands holding your hand and sometimes makes comments that don't sound respectful. She doesn't belong here, I would tell you, but you bring her anyway.
You don't clean my headstone, but you brought some seeds early in spring and planted them around it. They grew up into wild vines with small purple flowers. The vines cling to the stone in sticky tendrils that will leave marks you will have to scrape off. Your heart was in the right place, but it was a bad idea.
Last time you came you brought a chubby toddler along with the woman. It was muddy, and you told him to be careful, but he leapt in the puddles and you only laughed. You pointed to my headstone and he came up and put a dirty handprint on it under the overgrown purple flowers. Before you left, the woman pointed to my grave and said it was beautiful. You cocked your head to the side and said, "Dad would've hated it."
American children do not understand haau.
But you come. I like that you come.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Author Comments

Though this is a work of fiction, elements of this story come from my own family narratives. I have endeavored to be as honest to those ancestral truths as possible.

- S.L. Huang
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