There is a video of me, from when I was maybe two or three – I am wearing a blue dress that drapes a little wide on my body with a long necklace hanging from my neck to tie the whole outfit together. I am standing in the middle of the living room of my old family home, holding a Hello Kitty toy camera, attempting to take pictures of my family. I dance around and scream, “Bak jiu mee mee! Bak jiu mee mee!”  while pulling my eyes back. It was the first phrase I had ever learnt in Hokkien, and perhaps I was too young to even comprehend its meaning. At the time, it seemed like the funniest phrase in the world, and I repeated it throughout the entire video. I giggled as though I had found treasure, and the rest of the world hadn’t the slightest clue what I was saying. The camera still followed as I sauntered off afterwards, having learnt the phrase and doing nothing with it. 

Bak jiu is the Hokkien word for eyes. The word comes up in different forms of conversation – “Can you open your bak jiu and look at this properly?”, “Your bak jiu tak stamp?”, “Look at his eyes when he sees sweet and sour chicken: bak jiu kim kim!” Having learned Hokkien at home, I don’t necessarily hear Hokkien as a beautiful dialect, it is not one with which I would like to have poetry recited to me, but it is not pure noise. Hokkien might be profound in its songs, but it’s also the dialect that’s brought you countless swear words to our Malaysian patois. It makes up the distinct sounds that follow me to and from every corner of a kopitiam, beckoning me to sit down and forge a friendship with old, retired uncles who haven’t anything better to do other than curse the government and stick their bunions in my face. 

In every other way of saying it, the phrase “bak jiu mee mee” means small eyes, or slanted eyes. There I was, maybe two or three years old, jumping up, almost rejoicing in this phrase – small eyes.  I’ve known since I was a child that I have small eyes, plainly because my family never seems to let me forget it. It’s always struck me as odd, since, in a Chinese family, don’t we all have small eyes? Are my eyes somehow smaller than the regular size of small? And what’s wrong with small eyes anyway? 

My grandmother taught me that phrase. Or rather, she repeated it so often around me that I learned it. Ever since I rediscovered that video a year ago, those words have been lingering in my mind. When I was a child, the topic of my eyes would come up at the dinner table sometimes. In my memory, everything is blurred and indistinct, I can see it, but I can’t grasp it in my hands: the paint has chipped, the pedestal fan still works, and there isn’t a single smell in the room except for that light hint of soup noodles and fried shallots. The conversation is in Hokkien, but I barely understand. I know enough to understand, but I do not understand enough to know. I think I am grown up, but still a child nonetheless. 

“They’re making some remarkable changes in the plastic surgery industry, so I wouldn’t worry about your eyes – you can always fix them with makeup,” 

And the memory stops there, like a worn-out videotape that cuts you off in the middle of a scene. I keep reminiscing about these times, even though they’ve been covered in a film of dust, but nothing of this time exists anymore–and I know I cannot yearn any longer–if I could, I would go back to these bygone days. This memory isn’t isolated in its existence – like a seasoned record player, my family has the tendency to repeat and screech the same old conversations, peppered in with the use of these innocuous phrases. 

My eyes were not any different to anyone else’s. But the way that people would regurgitate that phrase at me, as though I wasn’t the one who possessed the reflection in the mirror, those words felt far from a compliment. Perhaps it was an insult, or hopefully, merely an observation. The feeling that permeated was that I felt compelled to be ashamed of my eyes, of the way that I looked, but I didn’t. I see the same things that everyone else does, and I can see perfectly fine when I peer over the shoulders of strangers to read their text conversations. Well, with my glasses, I do. Logically, there was nothing to be ashamed about. I’ve taken long, hard looks at family photographs, and I can say for certain that my eyes aren’t the smallest in the family. Obviously, I’d name names, but I don’t want to be cut off from the family inheritance. If there even is one. 

There’s this fixation I see in the women of my family, this desperate need to feel pretty and look pretty. They get their hair dyed routinely, their eyebrows threaded and reshaped, anything necessary to conceal the curse of aging. As a child, I would make fun of them, bursting into laughter at the sight of my aunt’s new eyebrows because they looked like someone had drawn them on with a permanent marker pen, or making a thousand jokes digging at my grandmother’s new perm. It seems that when you are a child under ten, every adult looks a billion years old to you. Now that I am on the cusp of adulthood, everyone just looks like fossilized creatures. 

 I got my first grey hair when I was seven. It was merely the genetics at work, but if you’d like to tell me it’s because I’m stressed and work too hard, you’re more than welcome. I am not bothered at all by my grey hairs, it does not affect my perception of myself, and it doesn’t diminish my looks. But thankfully for Revlon and L’Oreal, my grey hairs bother my relatives, who seem to recoil at the sight of them, looking like they might be on the verge of disintegrating after drinking from the False Grail. 

I said it once, a long time ago, adamantly and proudly, that I would not dye my hair once I turned fifty, and I’d let myself age gracefully. I’d become a pool of wrinkles and the host to a head of grey hairs only to prove a point to my family. My family dismissed it, with my aunt and my grandmother both saying, “You’re just not at that point in life where you care about your looks!” Oh, but I do care. Just blame it on my youth. I hope that when I’m fifty or seventy, I’ll be able to accept the invitation to age, and I won’t cling to my youth. I’ll look like one of those grannies, and sit on a rattan chair on my porch, wearing probably the ugliest floral shirt and a loose sarong, and a jade bracelet. At the very least, then I can be at peace. 

But I do sometimes wonder, that if there is life after death, in Heaven and Hell, what I would look like. Would I look like myself when I was happiest? Would I look like myself when I was fifteen—young and uninhibited? Or would I look like myself when I died? 

My parents have the same eyes as I do. I am the only child – I have no siblings, but rather, cousins that I call siblings. The only-child experience is something that only a select few have the opportunity to go through. From the get-go, you have no one but your parents, they’re concentrated on you and you are attached to them. They’re the only people you know, the only people you want to resemble, the personification of what it looks like to know everything in the world, and have an answer for every question that ever existed, and will exist in the future; questions like, “What are we having for breakfast?”, or “Where do babies come from?”, or “What were you doing at a rubbish dump that you just found me there? Or so you say. Were you just patrolling the dump for days and nights?” 

I like to think that I am the perfect amalgamation of my parents’ faces, just new and improved. I have everything they don’t have: the benefit of youth and face cream. They have everything I don’t have: money and adequate sleep each night. I talk like my father, and I act like my mother, so God only knows why they have problems with me when I am only following in their footsteps and wearing the mask of their faces as I go along. Every Chinese New Year, relatives will come up to tell me, “Oh my god, you look so much like your mother!”, or “You remind me so much of your dad when he was young!” They seem surprised, or rather, shocked, that I am, in fact, the biological product of my parents. Do they know something I don’t? Was I genetically modified in a lab somewhere? Am I the blessed reincarnation of Dolly the Sheep? 

Lao-peh is the Hokkien word for father; lao-bu, mother. When I was in Primary Five, I found a talent that, one would hope, had always been in me: imitating award show speeches. I’d hold a glass full of water, and graciously accept my prize for Best Actress, Record of the Year, or Most Beautiful Woman Alive. I’d have crocodile tears streaming down my face, going down the line of people to thank (the director, producer, crew, my favourite co-star, my four husbands…) before I would get to the part about my parents. I’d intensify the waterworks, recycling the same old line, “I wouldn’t be here without you.” I’d do it in English (for the Oscars), then Malay (Festival Filem Malaysia), and Hokkien (for the Golden Horse Awards). Each time, my parents would shake their head at me, wondering if giving birth to me had indeed been worth the char siew they gave up in lieu of me. 

The saying, “Giving birth to char siew is better than giving birth to you”, is a common saying among Chinese parents. I don’t even know if it could be properly labelled as a joke, for I’m sure some parents mean it when they say it. My parents have only ever said it to me once, and while I’m assured that they didn’t mean it, I have to make sure that that tender look they give the char siew before we eat it is a look of hunger, and not eternal regret. 

When I visit my grandparents, they will ask me, in murmurs of Hokkien, if I’ve eaten, and I’ll answer yes, even though I haven’t. That’s the love language of Chinese families – who cares what you’re up to, how old you are, or which grandchild you are? At the very foundation of a family, it is that imperative question that matters most, and it comes from the core of the heart, concern from one to another, shown in the simplest phrase. When you say no, they’ll rush to feed you with warm broth, and fill a plastic bag with your favourite fruits for you to bring home. When you say yes, there’s less fuss over you, the conversation is left at that, and they can go on watching their Hokkien serials. I almost feel tempted to answer yes sometimes, just so my maternal grandmother can make me a bowl of ABC soup, but I know it’s better if I don’t. 

When I recall fond memories from secondary school, it is one where I led my classmates in singing a Hokkien song out on the school field during a fire drill that sticks out to me. It is a throwaway thought that occurs to me sometimes when I miss the faceless voices that I knew back then, but it is a feeling that can never be recreated elsewhere and with other people. 

Hokkien is the language of love, at home and everywhere else. Hokkien has become the sound of a home-cooked meal waiting for me, at my regular seat at the dinner table, after a tiring commute. Hokkien is the sound of relatives I barely know roaming around my home on the first day of Chinese New Year, interrogating me about my future. Yet it is what makes my house a home. 
Hokkien seems to follow me wherever I go. It is what I hear after class, asking me to lunch. It is the loud voices on the television, slapping each other and taking paternity tests. It is what I hear at night, telling me to go to sleep and get off my phone. It is what I hear, and who I listen to, as we argue about the clashing pronunciations of Penang Hokkien and Malacca Hokkien. From one ear to the other, lately, it’s been all that I can hear. And for the rest of my life, I will keep asking people, even though a part of me already knows the answer, if they’ve eaten — jiak par berh?

Written by: Leya Kuan

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