Enter off Marquis Road. Your father will tell you to slow down, even though you weren’t going that fast, even as you were already slowing down for a sign that stipulates a 10 km/h speed limit. You find him irritating—he’s been like this for days this time, for years, for his whole life—but what you think, what you find, is not important to him, though it means the world to you.
Take deep breaths: he is old—introspective but inconsiderate, and not insightful in a way that’s ever made any sense to you. Round the bend then count the trees, fourth big one on the left, then park the car, cross the road, three stones in, and you’re there. It’s low to the ground, the kind of thing that gets swallowed up and disappears if you’re not careful. Years ago, your father paid to raise it up so it’s at grade, though not so high that it gets kissed by the blades of the riding mowers that tend this place. Kisses can leave scars; you’ve seen the arcing marks on other graves. This stone is dark grey granite, and your Chinese is garbage. The only things you can read on it are numbers—some of them take time—and your last name, which you share with the person buried here and with everyone else who comes from your dad’s village in China. This guy’s name was Don Bon Mah. You’re not related, you never even saw a picture, but you drove ten hours in one day to get here and you’ll drive the ten back the day after tomorrow and this is neither the first nor the last time you’ll be in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, a place that’s mostly white and Indigenous. You imagine townsfolk happening upon this stone and wondering what it says too.
Your father’s talking to it now, or maybe to something beyond it. There’s emotion in his voice as he introduces you, as he asks for good luck and good sales on your first book and all the others after that. As soon as you arrived, you put a tray in front of the grave. On it now are cups and chopsticks, alcohol and food and paper—gold-painted sheets folded weeks ago into ingot shapes by your sister, who did not come with you, and a thin brick of hell bank notes in denominations of a hundred million—billions of dollars if you only just believed. It’s for him, Don Bon, to spend beyond the grave. Only the best for him. Who was he? Your father’s paper father. (Your paper grandfather?) In an act of common trickery, he pretended to have a son when he entered Canada close to a hundred years ago. Years later he found someone in China, your father, and brought him in to help him run a restaurant he didn’t yet have. A forward thinker, that Don Bon, and governed by the needs of his day. One might not think so, restaurants are a lot like banks—places to store money, ways to make more of it. Don’t be shy. Don’t think that your clean clothes and master’s degree in any way remove you from the reality that restaurant work has touched your life. Your dad moved ten times in seventeen years chasing higher restaurant wages, and hundreds of thousands in the diaspora with hair like yours and skin like yours have been doing something similar for more than two hundred years by now. Chinese restaurant workers form a part of Canadian history, Canadian identity, though you might not know it from books or the news. To learn about this takes research, takes digging in archives and asking questions of old-timers, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. You’re still there in front of the stone, bowing three times with the money and pouring alcohol from the little red cups—Smirnoff, maybe not Don Bon’s first choice, but beggars can’t be choosers—while you wonder who he was and what his bachelor’s life was like. Like was he good with his hands, maybe a wise ass or enterprising? What’d he do for fun, or was there even time for that? You thank him for existing and for choosing your father. Your parents did well for themselves, but maybe they wouldn’t have if it weren’t for Don Bon and his magic foresight. If he weren’t in the picture, maybe you’d exist, probably you wouldn’t, or maybe you’d be a farmer in Toisan with a baby tied to your back and coarseness spilling from your mouth and a vague sense of dissatisfaction pervading your dreams. Today you are a writer, you love to write. You’re smart, articulate, unmarried, no kids, and you like it that way.
You burn the money in a clay pan, poke a hole in the ground with a screwdriver you brought, and put Walmart plastic flowers in the hole. Your dad says he bets someone will steal them, and before you leave, he dumps the smoking ashes on the grass then pees at the base of a tree. He’s old, after all, can’t hold his piss. He seems confused as to just how reverent he should be in a place like this. But the village was rough; Saskatchewan was rough. Why shouldn’t the afterlife be?
When you look back at the pictures—you’re not supposed to take pictures in the cemetery, it’s bad luck, but you did it anyway—you’re shocked by how old your father looks, you’re shocked by the white of his hair and his tired face, skin that’s even tired when it wakes up, but you’ve been shocked by this for close to a decade. It’s part of why you’re here: to collect the stories and learn as much as you can from the source before the source is gone.
Your father came to Canada more than sixty-five years ago. Your mom has been here for close to fifty. You were born in Alberta. Your family’s been there for more than forty-five years, but before that your dad was in Saskatchewan; your mom was in Hong Kong. Their lives there are mysteries. But you know that there are restaurants, villages, poverty, untold stories, or ones you know and can’t believe. Your mom in the Hong Kong bomb scares of 1967 and so many of the things your dad’s been through. Writing their stories is an attempt to fix the ephemeral, it’s like cupped handfuls of water for the driest of throats. You need it all, and if you don’t hold it tight, drink it fast, it leaks away. In the car, as your dad drives away from the grave, you scribble things down in your notebook. As he drives to the next town, you ask him questions, you write fast and you try to write true—as if it were a matter of life and death. And of course, it is.
Melanie Mah is a Chinese Canadian writer in Toronto who was born and raised in Alberta. Her debut novel, The Sweetest One, was published by Cormorant Books in 2016, and her work has appeared in Prism international and Ricepaper. She’s currently at work on an international memoir.