Burnt

Victoria Wong

When I was a child, my father organized a visit to my grandpa's grave every year in early February. It is Chinese custom to visit deceased relatives after the Chinese New Year, similar to Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Instead of bringing candles, marigolds, and sugar skulls to the graves, we brought bags of fake money and aluminum pans stuffed with food. On every visit, Baba would wake up before all of us and head into Chinatown to pick up food for my grandpa. By the time my brother, sister, mother, and I woke up, Baba would have bowls of steaming congee and a greasy paper bag filled with deep-fried crullers on the kitchen table ready for us. Even though he spent twelve hours a day, six days a week, in the stuffy kitchen of a Chinese take-out restaurant, Baba looked forward to making meals for us on his day off. By the time we finished eating, my father’s blue Buick was already packed with everything we needed for the cemetery.

We walked up to grandpa with our hands full. Sometimes, it took us two trips to get everything from the car. It was usually windy, but the sky would be clear and the heat of the sun felt nice on our faces. We placed the trays of food on the grass in front of the glossy, rose colored granite. In one pan was a whole cooked chicken with its head still attached, covered in a coat of oil with hints of scallion and ginger. The neck of the chicken curled into its body and the tiny beak poked into its fleshy yellow thighs. In another pan was a slab of roast pork with its skin charred and crisp. Alongside the greasy pans of meat were boxes of Chinese pastries—sticky white and yellow steamed rice cakes that looked like sponges, yellow egg custards with flaky crusts, and flat white pancakes filled with sweet red bean paste. Beside the food were three small bowls of white rice, each bowl accompanied by a pair of red chopsticks and little teacups of rice wine for grandpa and his friends.

Baba would sometimes take pictures of the spread in front of his father’s grave. Baba photographed everything in our lives up until the chemo made him bedridden. I wish I had paid more attention so that I could have set everything up the same way for him. He passed away right before my eleventh birthday.

The last time we went to grandpa’s grave was shortly after my ninth birthday. I felt like we were in an underworld restaurant at the cemetery. We were the servers, the grass was our table, and our guests were six feet under the table. While my parents, brother, sister, and I waited for my grandpa to finish his meal (which never looked touched), we burned incense, and each of us took turns respectfully bowing three times in front of his grave. My mother bowed and whispered Chinese prayers. Baba bowed slowly and thoughtfully. The radiation and chemotherapy had eaten away the roundness of his face and belly. My father stood there quietly staring at the Chinese characters on my grandpa’s headstone while my mother tended to the food and pastries and my siblings and I bowed, and bowed, and bowed.

After bowing, we each planted three sticks of incense in the grass. Clouds of smoke floated up and hovered over the food. Wherever my grandfather was, I imagined him devouring every part of the chicken, which included chewing on the crunchy cartilage and sucking out the marrow of the chicken’s pale gray bones, while we lit paper money and gold rice paper on fire. We threw the burning paper into a steel trashcan that we brought with us. The fake money was stamped with the words “Hell Bank Note” and worth $1,000,000. In the center of it was a Chinese emperor was a tiny mustache and a long beard that looked like my ponytail. Baba told me that we burned the paper so that grandpa had money and gold to spend wherever he was. I believed everything Baba said, so I grabbed an inch-thick stack from the bag of money and tossed it into the fire. My brother stirred the fire with a long thick branch as we stood around and watched the Chinese emperor’s face crumple up and disintegrate into black ashes.

After the fire burned out, we stayed to eat. We would eat the food that my grandfather could not finish, which was, of course, all of it. The oil around the chicken turned to gelatin and the pastries were stale from being chilled by the New England cold, but we would eat it anyway. After we finished, we packed up whatever food was left and got into the car. My father was always the last to leave, carrying the teacups in his hands after carefully pouring out the rice wine onto the grass as if it were flowing smoothly down my grandfather’s throat.

When it was our turn to do the same for my father, I could only remember what I saw from the photographs that my father took. I had just turned eleven, my sister was thirty and married, and my brother was twenty-six. Only a few months had passed since my father’s death, and my mother did not want to go to the cemetery. None of us wanted to go, but my grandmother insisted. Her only son died at fifty-nine years old, when she eighty-seven. In those eighty-seven years, she outlived her two oldest children. Before she moved to the United States in 1982, not only did she survive being shot in the leg by a soldier during the Japanese invasion of China, she also survived the death of her first daughter to breast cancer. But now, she felt as though she could not survive this.

“Don’t forget to pick up a ginger scallion chicken on your way to the cemetery. Your father loved it,” my grandma yelled, her voice shaking, as my brother and I left her apartment.

By the time my brother and I got to the market late in the afternoon, the chicken was sold out since all the other families were also going to visit their deceased loved ones. We were already late meeting our sister at the cemetery. When we finally showed up, my sister was already there, holding a bouquet of flowers wrapped in red tissue paper. Her eyes were glossy and bloodshot, and black eyeliner streaked the bottom of her eyes.

“Where’s the chicken?” my sister asked my brother as I stared blankly at my father’s grave.

“Sold out. The place was packed,” my brother responded without looking at her.

“That’s why I told you we should have gone earlier. Grandma’s going to be pissed if she finds out we didn’t bring any food. Did you at least bring the incense and paper to burn?”

“No. I forgot it at the house.”

“Shit.”

The three of us stood there in front of the grave for what were only a few minutes, but felt like an eternity. I was reminded of the distinct smell of burning paper and incense when we visited our grandpa. I remember believing the smoke billowing to the sky—to my grandpa—was filled with money and gold. We had nothing for Baba. My sister began to bow and then my brother followed suit, the same way they always did. When it was my turn, I closed my eyes and bowed as though I were under water. My head was empty and my heart felt heavy. My sister laid the flowers in front of the grass where the plates of food should have been, and we left without saying a word.

kartika
Victoria Wong enjoys cooking, eating, and writing about food. Much like her father and grandma, she shows her love by feeding others. She lives in Cambridge, MA, with her chef husband, who keeps her well-fed at all times.
 
Published March 15, 2017
© 2017 Victoria Wong