Excess Baggage, A Novel

In the beginning, it was just a hum, barely audible, quietly gnawing its way into her consciousness. She tried to fight it off, holding desperately onto that space halfway between dreaming and awareness, until the scream of the runaway siren got too loud for her to ignore. Pei woke up with a start, and for a moment she wasn’t sure where she was. It came back to her in a rush as she saw the tatami floor and felt the thick futon quilt that encased her.

She sat in the dark, slowly taking in the small Japanese room enclosed on three sides by doors, two of them fusuma screens and the third a heavy glass door that opened onto a tiny balcony. The ceiling was so low she could make out its wood grain in the reflected light off the street. She’d been in Tokyo ten days now, but she still found it hard to fully believe she’d finally made it out of China.

In the adjacent room, she could hear her mother breathing. The two were now flat mates in a tiny apartment swamped with boxes and cheap furniture. The room where Pei was sleeping was the apartment’s only bedroom. Since her arrival, her mother had slept in the living room.
Life with her mother hadn’t been exactly peachy. She was easily irritated by her, she found. It seemed that her mother understood so little about her. The night before, they had had a heated argument when Yan served her, of all things, a bowl of noodles with sea bream and chives.

“I don’t like noodles, especially with fish!” Pei had pushed the bowl aside after barely taking a look. She went rummaging through the fridge and took out a store-purchased onigiri. “I much prefer rice,” she’d said. She casually peeled the wrapping off the rice ball and began munching on it. She hated the fact that her mother still thought of her as the little girl whom she had left sitting on the doorsteps back in China. Her mother didn’t know the first thing about her as a grown woman. Yet she never bothered to ask her what she’d like to eat or do around the house. Why couldn’t her mother try to invest some time to get to know her again, instead of making all these stupid assumptions?

“What? Since when did you prefer rice to noodles?” Yan, who’d been washing dishes in the sink, abruptly turned to face Pei. “You used to love fish, and noodles were your favorite.”

“That’s ancient history, Mother.” Pei had turned to Yan with a snort. “Just how much time have you spent with me in the last thirty years? How would you know my likes and dislikes?”

Her mother was stunned by her reaction. “I cooked you noodles thinking you might be hungry after school,” she said after some time, her brows knitted. “The least you can do is to show a little appreciation.”
Pei had looked away without saying a word. She continued to munch on her rice ball, her face hardened.

“Pei?” Yan edged closer to her, an aggravated look on her face. “I’m talking to you. Look, if you’re angry you should speak up. What is it?”

Pei got up to fetch some cold buckwheat tea from the fridge. “Don’t you think I have a right to be angry at you about some- thing?” she said pointedly.

“Is it about China? Is that it? Child, you know darn well that I couldn’t possibly have taken you out. Everyone in China then had to stay in and that’s that.”

“P-l-e-a-s-e! Not the Cultural Revolution mantra again,” Pei had blurted out in frustration. “The Revolution ended in ’76, and we’re in the middle of the 90s now.”

“Look, I went back in 1980 with every intention of bringing you out of China. But you were already a married woman and a
mother of two when I saw you then. What was I to do? I couldn’t possibly invite you all to come, now could I?” Her mother raised her voice. “How was I to feed an extra four mouths when I was barely scraping by as a janitor?”

Pei let out a sigh after a long silence. “It’s never convenient with you, Mother, is it? You said you couldn’t bring all three of us children to Hong Kong because of some immigration restrictions. But that was a lie, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it really about the money?” Pei’s voice grew shrill. “ Shanshan’s mom said you chose to leave me behind like some leftover sack of potatoes because you and father were afraid you couldn’t raise all three of us children in expensive Hong Kong. Wasn’t that the real reason?”

Yan had opened her mouth and was going to say something, but nothing came out. “That decision of yours robbed me years of opportunities,” Pei continued. “Look at me. In two years I’ll turn forty. I don’t have a husband, my children are not with me, and I’m starting out in a foreign country from the bottom up!”

“Pei, be fair. I never told you to leave your family. It was your idea to leave them.”

“That’s for sure. And if it weren’t for my persistence, I’d still be stuck in Dalian. I’d die a woman haunted forever by thoughts of ‘what ifs’.”

“Pei, that’s quite enough,” her mother had snapped. “Although I don’t agree with the way you perceive things, I can’t stop you from feeling what you feel. But for now, let’s just drop it.”

It was so easy for her mother to forgive and forget, pretending that things were all fine and dandy now that she was reunited with the family. But not for her! How could Pei ever forget the frustration and loneliness of waiting at her maternal uncle’s cold, cold house for her mother’s return all these years, every night crying herself to sleep? On so many frosty winter nights, she remembered witnessing her cousins snuggled closely to her uncle and aunt on a warm bed, and she alone was banished to sleep on a cot in a freezing shed in the back of her uncle’s house. She was a mere eight-year old child when her mother had left her. She’d believed her mother when she said she would come back for her after one or two years. By the time she saw her mother in late 1980 after China finally opened up, she was already in her late twenties and a mother of two boys. Yan essentially had missed the most important years of her life.

You promised to come back in one or two years. But why didn’t you? Pei remembered vividly how she had asked Yan pointedly during that first visit of hers in 1980. Yan had hemmed and hawed, an embarrassed look on her face. In the end, the only thing her mother could utter was that she’d tried to come back in 1964, two years after their departure, but somehow she wasn’t able to because Da Wei had fallen desperately ill with a viral infection, and that they were further delayed while waiting for the issuance of their permanent Hong Kong residents’ cards without which, they were told, they could not leave the island. But Pei wasn’t convinced. It sounded more like an excuse. A very lame excuse.

What about the year before that? Pei were persistent for some real answers, but again, Yan was tongue-tied. In the end, Pei realized what she really wanted from her mother wasn’t even the “reasons why”, but for Yan to hear her out about all her bottled-up anger and frustrations over the long years, that what really incensed and bothered her all these years was the fact that she had been made the only sacrifice in the family to stay behind in China while the rest of the family lived in cash-rich, freewheeling Hong Kong and later, Tokyo.

She also wanted Yan to know how disappointed she had been with her as a mother because she had failed the only promise she had ever made to Pei—that she would come and retrieve her from China within two years. Sure, the outbreak of the decade- long Cultural Revolution in 1965 had complicated things, really complicated things. But Yan and her siblings left in 1963. And if Yan had tried harder to work things out, really tried, she would have had enough time to come and get her before China’s iron gate came tumbling down in 1965. Yan clearly didn’t try very hard, and as a result, Pei was made to pay the ultimate price of being left in China during one of the worst times in its recent history. She was like a fettered beast locked up in a cage. She lost out on everything, the worst of which was the opportunity to a full life! And for that, she would never forgive her mother.

Tick, tick, tick . . . Pei sat up and reached for the alarm clock sitting on the tatami floor: 4:30 a.m. She rearranged her pillow and tried to go back to sleep, but was increasingly conscious of the weighty kakebuton over her. Why were these Japanese quilts so heavy? She preferred the lighter ones in China. She peeled away the towel coverlet tucked under the quilt, hoping it would lighten the load, but it didn’t. She tried extending her legs onto the floor to feel its coolness, but that didn’t help either. So she sat up again, staring at the quilt cover, tracing her fingers along the river of silver clouds that made up the curved pattern, before letting out a yawn.

She turned on a reading light and looked around, reminded in the dim light how dowdy the furnishings were. In one corner, a small plywood desk was piled high with books and newspa- pers. Sandwiched between the desk and the only real wall in the room were a couple of folding chairs that were stowed away in the evenings to make room for Pei’s bedding. On the other side of the desk stood a chest of drawers that supported a bright red fifteen-inch Toshiba television. Leaning a few inches away, against the glass door, was an upended black kotatsu, its four legs now sticking out as if to greet Pei.

The opposite end of the room held a plastic closet on wheels, Japan’s solution to tiny apartments, its metal frame covered with cheap brown vinyl that zipped open on one side. Her mother had emptied it to make room for Pei’s clothes, but its limited size meant that half of Pei’s belongings remained in her two suitcases, which were now stacked in a corner. Pei moaned every time she had to dig for her clothes.

Her mother’s pad was a sore reminder of Pei’s own disap- pointment in life, the cluttered furniture a mirror to her disquieting mind. How had the Zhang family come to this? She could count several Chinese families that she knew of who had made some- thing of themselves after just five, ten years of living in Australia or Canada. She felt ashamed that she was even part of this family, this pathetic tribe that had been out of China for three decades and yet had nothing to show for it. If she had the Cultural Revolution to blame for all her misery in life, what excuse would her fancy, overseas family have for being such an utter failure in life?

Pei would never forget her surprise upon first entering this dump. As soon as she took her shoes off, she saw the supposed kitchen—little more than a narrow corridor shoddily fitted with a sink and stove tops at one end. From the corridor she was led to the “two-room apartment,” an elongated tatami room divided in halves by a thin paper screen.

The biggest shock came when she went to the bathroom and realized it was a tiny closet with nothing more than a hole in the ground. No tub, no shower. Bathing involved walking ten minutes through some chaotic shopping streets to the nearest sento, or public bath. And they called this a wealthy and civilized nation? Her house in Dalian, which she’d considered small and shabby, now seemed positively spacious.

“Congratulations, Pei. Looks like you’re finally going to be able to leave China to earn some waihui and get rich,” her coworker Dongmei had said jealously at Pei’s farewell party at the Number One Department Store. “Don’t forget us, your less fortunate friends back home when you’ve struck gold like our old buddy, Xiao Yu,” she added, referring to their mutual friend and colleague who’d left five years earlier to Vancouver, Canada, and began to gather a small fortune there by selling dubious herbal Chinese hair growth prod- ucts to unsuspecting overseas Chinese and local Canadians. Rumors had it that Xiao Yu had accumulated at least half a million Cana- dian dollars in personal wealth, and everyone at the department store had been extremely green with envy about Xiao Yu’s lucky star.

Earn foreign currency and get rich? But how could Pei possibly do that living with her mother a couple centimeters above the poverty line? Three decades out of China and her mother could not even save enough to buy an apartment. What self-respecting human being would put up with such an existence? Xiao Yu would put her mother to shame! And more to the point, how could she let her daughter down after making her suffer so much in China? Didn’t she ever think of her daughter’s future? As far as she was concerned, she was a victim of history as much as a victim of her parents’ bad planning, especially that of her mother’s.

Through all those years of waiting, Pei never imagined her mother could be worse off than she was. Only two days earlier, she had learned that her mother worked as a janitor, cleaning Tokyo offices at daybreak. What would her friends back home think if they knew that? How duplicitous of her mother to hide this from her during her visit to Beijing a couple of years ago. How did she end up with such a depressing family when so many others were swimming in money? What a nasty end to the years of misery she’d endured trying to flee China for Tokyo: a mother who cleaned up after others, dusting cigarette ash and scraping gum from carpets!

Reading the disappointment on Pei’s face about the small flat, her mother had explained that Pei’s father wasn’t providing much financial support since he left Tokyo for Osaka some fifteen years ago, most likely because he’d met someone new. Her mother claimed she had no choice but to find whatever odd jobs she could as an older woman with broken Japanese. But how could she allow this to happen to herself, letting Father trample on her like that? Where was the beautiful woman she remembered? Over the years, her mother had soured, her face looking sad and beaten. She probably drove Father away.

“What rotten luck!” Pei blurted out in her bed, surprising even herself. She covered her mouth and listened for any stirring from the adjacent room, but was relieved to hear her mother’s steady breathing.

Pei shifted her gaze to the two gray suitcases in the corner— wedding gifts from her best friend, Shanshan. They looked a bit worn, but they were the only valuables she’d brought with her.

Thirteen years ago, against Shanshan’s advice, she had married a man she barely knew after a blind date. Guomin was ten years older than her, a long-distance truck driver whose work took him to Inner Mongolia half the year. But Pei had been desperate, will- ing to do just about anything to form a “home” of her own. She couldn’t stand the loneliness and the gaping hole in her heart— this feeling that she didn’t belong anywhere or to anyone. Shan- shan had been right, of course. Guomin had remained a stranger throughout their marriage. Still, Pei was elated when she became pregnant with Da Shan and Da Hai.

Those suitcases were the first things she thought of on that fateful afternoon a month and a half earlier, when she heard from the Japanese consulate that her visa had finally been approved. Cradling her brown passport with that exquisite green rectangular stamp bearing a chrysanthemum seal inside, she became so emo- tional she nearly choked up. An agonizing three-month wait and mad scrounging around for documents she hadn’t known existed had finally produced a ticket to the outside world.

She knew for a fact the crucial reason behind her beating the odds of getting the visa was because Da Wei, who worked for a large Japanese trading firm, had agreed on paper to act as her guarantor, which meant he’d be responsible for all her living expenses, housing, or any cost-bearing activities she might incur, all of which were big considerations for the Japanese immigration officers. For once, her lucky stars were aligned, and for that, she was grateful.

Getting the go-ahead though meant she must choose either to go to Japan alone, or stay behind with Guomin and their two sons. It was the most difficult decision she had to make in her life. But in the end, the idea of saying no to her ticket out was simply unimaginable.
Pei knew she would be rupturing the family, but everyone seemed to be leaving China. Besides, she’d waited thirty years for the right moment to join her family outside, and she wasn’t about to let go of this opportunity. This might be her last chance, the very last. Freedom to travel overseas from China was not a guaranteed privilege. Who knew what tomorrow might bring? Besides, she wanted to secure a better future for her boys outside of China. What better way to do this than to get out first and pave the way?

When Guomin came home that night, she’d tried her best to soften the blow. “It will only be a year or two,” she said. Then it hit her that she was sounding just like her mother thirty years ago. It was an alarming thought. Yet she refused to believe that she was following in her mother’s footsteps. Surely she would not abandon her boys the way her own mother had abandoned her! Surely she’d do a much better job at getting her boys out of China. She was determined that she’d be a much better mother than Yan.

“I know you, you’re never happy!” Guomin had yelled at her. “All you think about is improving your lot. Why not join the rank of those heartless ones, selling your soul while you’re at it?” This was a reference to their upstairs neighbor, Ren Ling. Two years after Ren Ling departed for Australia on a nine-month music scholarship, she still hadn’t bothered to write or call her husband of three years. Rumor had it that she’d gone on to marry another man in Sydney.

“I’m doing this for all of us,” Pei had countered. “Once I’m settled, the boys will be able to come abroad and study. They can sail into the best universities, have a better life.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. This isn’t about us. It’s all about you, and you know it!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “The four- teen years we’ve been together, there has never been a day when you don’t bring up leaving China some day to join your fancy family overseas. And once you’re out, you won’t remember your last name, let alone me and the boys.” Guomin had slammed the bedroom door shut that night, leaving Pei to sleep on the couch. Two days later, Guomin’s tone changed. “Fine. If you want to leave that badly, then leave. I won’t stand in your way,” he had said. “But once you are out the door, you won’t be welcome back.”

After this proclamation, Pei started eating most of her meals out. Guomin pressed for a divorce a week later and said he would
take the boys to his mother’s. He kept the boys from her and told them she was “abandoning” them. He drank heavily and verbally abused her, banging on things and picking fights.

She could understand Guomin’s anger but remained adamant that she was doing this as much for the boys’ future as for her own. Becoming wary that Guomin might block her exit with a court order as her departure date edged closer, Pei signed the divorce papers he had left on the table and slipped out early one morning to head for Shanshan’s. She could no longer bear his cursing and mental torture.

Before leaving, she had paced back and forth for a long time in front of the boys’ room with hesitation. At the last minute, she decided not to wake them to say goodbye, not wanting to see the hurt and confused looks on their faces. She left a note, asking the boys to behave themselves and promising to retrieve them when she could.

Shanshan had helped her weather her last few days in China as the whole town seemed to jeer at her and whisper behind her back, calling her a gold-digger with a heart of stone. “Cheer up, Pei! Make something of yourself and come get the boys when you’re rich and famous,” Shanshan had told her at the airport.

Yes, she’d come back when she was rich like Xiao Yu, she told herself. In fact, she’d talk to Xiao Yu and get her to impart a few tips on how to set up a similar business selling hair growth products in Japan, she’d decided. Xiao Yu had had her chance at striking it rich. Now it was her turn. And once she’d made her fortune, she’d then fetch Da Shan and Da Hai and put them on the path to glory in America, although how exactly she was to do this she still hadn’t a very clear idea. Then she would find Guomin and tell him to his face how wrong he’d been about her. Dead wrong!

Something hit the fusuma door from the adjacent room. Her mother must have gotten up! Pei looked up at her alarm clock: 5:30 a.m.
The thin paper screen door suddenly slid opened. “I saw light coming from your room. You up already? So early?” her mother said, looking at her. There wasn’t a hint of residual anger on her face from their row the night before, at least as far as Pei could tell.
“Yes. I couldn’t sleep—there’s so much on my mind,” Pei said dryly.

“Child, it’s time to look forward, not backward. And the sooner you get on with it, the better,” her mother said.

Here we go again. Her mother was so afraid of any mention of their past. It must be her guilty conscience speaking. “I wasn’t thinking about China, if that’s what you’re referring to. I was more wondering about ways to get started with a small business here.”

“What’s your big idea?” her mother said, a surprised look on her face.

“Importing hair-growth products from China! It’s a business with proven success.”

“Wait, how do you suppose you can do business here without any Japanese language skills? You need to focus on studying Japanese first.”

“Sure, I’ll study Japanese, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start preparing for a business on the side. A friend of mine in Canada has been doing a darn good business selling 101 Hair Growth Solutions, and I want to do the same thing here.”

“Like shipping the products from China and start selling them here?”

“That’s the plan. But to start up, I’ll need a bit of capital.”

“How much are you talking about?”

Pei shrugged. “Perhaps four thousand dollars to start? I need to buy a few thousand bottles of them and store them some- where—some place hopefully that won’t cost too much money. Then I’ll sell them at temple fairs, or at bazaars.”

Her mother shook her head. “I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t underestimate how difficult it might be to import Chinese cosmetic products into Japan. The Ministry of Health and Welfare has very tough guidelines, and you must obtain prior approval before you can start selling beauty products here. Besides, I really don’t have that kind of money to loan you, and I doubt that your father would be of much help to you either. It’s hard enough to get him to pay for your tuition at the language school, you know. Why not wait a bit? As soon as you acquire enough Japanese speaking skills, I’ll help you find a job, and you can slowly build your savings up. Here in Japan, every immigrant starts out this way.”

“No, I won’t wait,” Pei cried out, her eyes narrowed. “I’ve waited enough years all my life and I’m done waiting.”

“Well then, if you have a way to raise funds, certainly don’t let me stop you,” her mother said rather dismissively before leaving for the kitchen.

“And I will find a way, I swear!”

A moment later, her mother hollered from across the kitchen. “Want me to cook you something for breakfast? It’s almost time for you to go to school now.”

“No, thank you. I’ll cook something myself!” Pei shouted back. She really couldn’t deal with her mother’s suffocating gestures of kindness. After all these years, it was a bit too little, too late.