Sabah, the land of my mother, holds some of its greatest secrets close to the chest. The rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, smells like rotting flesh, takes six to nine months to bloom, and only does so deep in the Bornean rainforest, protected from the casual observer. Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest peak, can be seen from flat, neon green padi fields from hundreds of kilometers away, but soon after morning, its craggy face is obscured by thick Sabahan mists. The durian, that laughable fruit that becomes the joke in every white person’s trip to Southeast Asia, hides away the creamy custard inside, richer than any state fair ice cream, within a heavy, thorned rind and produces a smell that often offends Western sensibilities. The mimosa plant, ramput malu (shy weed), snaps its fringed leaves flat against its stems at the slightest touch, turning invisible until danger is gone.
My mother, for 27 years, kept from me the stories of her father’s violence and abuse, because she wanted me to have a grandfather that I loved. She kept from her husband all the times that her father lost his temper, screamed, threw plates and utensils against the walls, and took out his gun, threatening to kill them all. She held the times that he told her and her siblings that they would never be as good as he was, at anything, spitting in their faces as they sat at the table. She kept from us the times that he disowned her, shrieking at her through the phone because she would not do as he said, making her cry all the way in America and hanging up on her with a click. It wasn’t until he died that she discovered he really meant it and left her out of his will, dividing his assets between her brother and sister.
My NiNi, my grandmother, lived on eggshells for years, pushing down her own thoughts and desires to appease a volcano constantly threatening to erupt. She held in the times when she was made to tap the rubber trees on their plantation, to harvest rambutans and papayas and pomelos to sell at the market, to gather and mill rice from the fields, in addition to cooking and cleaning and caring for three children while her husband read the paper. She kept secret the times that she asked to visit her family in the next village over, for Chinese New Year, when her mother was sick, and when her mother passed away, but her husband forbade her to leave the house. She accepted her imprisonment as my grandfather’s lies grew in her mind like strangling fig vines, becoming fearful of the outside world and learning his hateful beliefs.
When my grandfather finally died, the whole family sighed with relief, freed from the chains he had fastened around them all. Now, they speak in low tones, retelling the same stories over and over to one another as though they cannot believe their own memories. They bring these memories up to the surface cautiously, and my mother cries. And my grandfather’s legacy, his last joke from beyond the grave, is Alzheimer’s, so that my NiNi cannot even enjoy the last years of her life. It has been a year since his death and still she looks for him in the morning to call him to the table for breakfast; she saves the best pieces of meat and fruit for him, insisting that she does not want them; she flares up into fits of rage at being told what to do, parroting the curse words that had been hurled at her countless times before.
I visit with my mother, a yearly pilgrimage to her childhood home, nestled in a rocky hillside overgrown with ferns, surrounded by a constant hum of cicadas, birds, and geckos. “Fuck your mother’s cunt,” NiNi says one evening, in Malay, after being told that she needs to take a shower. “Don’t tell me what to do in my own house, you rude bastards.” She gets up from the table and walks out of the kitchen, leaning heavily on her cane. My mother shakes her head, horrified but resigned.
Ten minutes later, NiNi returns, coaxed by the sound of our talking, the slate wiped clean. “What are you people laughing about?” She pretends to grumble about how loud we are, saying we are drunk, but she also says, “Let me join your club.” She makes fun of the way my mother and I laugh, which only makes us laugh harder. “NiNi can be funny,” she says of herself, winking at me. I wink back, though I feel guilty, well aware that I am only now caring to discover who she is.
As a child, I was embarrassed by her presence. It was a constant reminder that I barely knew how to communicate with her. I would watch her eating during meals and hate the way she chewed because of her dentures. I was impatient with all of her paranoid old wives’ tales; not to stand outside in the wind or I would get a stomachache, not to wash my hair right before bed or I would catch a cold, not to sit in someone else’s seat while it was still warm or that person and I would fight with one another. And so it is only now that I am finding out that she has a dirty sense of humor, can speak over seven languages, and wishes that she had had long hair, like mine, but her school forced the girls to keep their hair short.
One morning, my mother and I go to see my grandfather’s grave, though as my mother says, it is more out of familial duty than actual interest. The family plot is in a hillside cemetery, lined with thick growth that rustles in the breeze. You can almost see their house from there, sounds of construction echoing from the road. We find where he was buried a year ago, a thick granite slab where a makeshift wooden cross had been before. I watch my mother, who has never raised her voice or lifted a finger towards me, staring at the tombstone, and his picture smiles back at us.
She says nothing, her facial expression unchanging as she leans down to right a pot of plastic flowers, already faded from Sabahan sun. Then, she moves on to her grandparents’ plot, which is palatial in comparison with a large tiled “courtyard” to sit in and spend time with the departed. She works to clear the weeds that have started growing in between cracks and grout. When she is done, we walk back down the steep hill in silence.
As her childhood home comes into view, the flags for Sabah and Malaysia fluttering in the wind from the second floor balcony, she sighs. “Imagine all the yelling and cursing you could hear from here, all around the kampong. I’m sure everyone knew. I had nightmares about it for a long time, even after I got married.”
I still can’t believe she kept all this from me, for all this time, and I tell her this. She sighs again. “I started over when I had you. What I didn’t like about my childhood, I made sure you never had to experience.”
Later, we watch a Korean soap opera, a nightly ritual that excites my grandmother because though she cannot understand what they say, she understands the exaggerated facial expressions and the dramatic music. She keeps up a running commentary on loop, repeating herself so much that my mother rolls her eyes. “Aiya, Mom, it’s just a show. And you’re talking so much I can’t hear it.”
They laugh, and I see the way their eyes crinkle and throw their heads back, the same way I do. I see how my mother is sad to watch NiNi grow older and further into her own mind, so far away from her, the way I am beginning to notice my mother’s age. I see how they have kept secrets from everyone, even themselves, to try to make everyone’s lives easier at the expense of their own, the way I have.
A breeze drifts through the house, bringing with it a scent that I have only known in Sabah, and the three of us look at each other. “Rain,” we all say, and minutes later it sounds as though we are underwater, a fierce rain coming down on the roof and surrounding jungle. We cannot hear the television, we cannot hear each other speak. We can only sit there together, and listen.