Written by J.Y. Chen. In collaboration with Kunyit Squared.
This short story/ poem appears in Kunyit Squared Volume 1, a zine featuring crowdsourced queer Malaysian writings published by homegrown podcast Kunyit Squared. All sales proceeds are donated to PT Foundation and the zine is available for purchase now via Kunyit Squared’s socials:
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So. Many. People.
This Chinese New Year, all 30 Ouyangs are crammed into the ancestral home and I’m busier than ever. My nieces and nephews keep dragging me upstairs to host their DND campaign, my brothers are clamoring for a fourth mahjong player and as if kitchen duty wasn’t tiring enough, my sisters have now trapped me in the spotlight of their gossip circle.
“So…which one you got this time?” Kim Yen wiggles her eyebrows at me. “Girlfriend or boyfriend?”
“Yennnn.” I whine. “I’m going to burn the curry if you keep distracting me.”
“Nonsense, you’ve followed every instruction.” She grabs the spatula from me anyway. “We’re just saying, if our baby sister’s gonna marry a kunyit, then at least marry a decent one.”
“Ah Yen!” Kim See exclaims in Hokkien. “That’s a bad word!”
“Aiyo, sorry sorry!” Kim Yen lightly slaps her cheek and mutters, “Young mind, loose tongue! Young mind, loose tongue!” I almost laugh at the irony, considering she’s the eldest of us and the ritual’s only meant for kids who accidentally blurt something offensive.
“But Fang, what does kunyit really mean ah?”
“Simple lah!” Tien Keong pipes up from the corner, tossing his fried noodles in the gigantic wok. “Those people thought gay sex involves touching shit with your dick mah! And because it looks like kunyit — Eh eh eh, I’m cooking here, sis!” He yells in warning, “Don’t make me drop the noodles ah!”
Kim See ignores him and marches over with her cutting board, punctuating every other word with a blow.
“You come in OUR kitchen –”
“Compare KUNyit to SHIT –”
“You washed that or not?”
“THIRty years old. Owns a REStaurant some more. STILL. WON’T. ACT. YOUR. AGE.”
“OK, OK, stop smacking!” Tien Keong turns off the stove and massages his arms. “While you girls are busy chit-chatting, has anyone figured out how to deal with other Ouyangs? You know…” He checks for eavesdroppers before he whispers, “The Chinese Ouyangs.”
Kim See and I exchange glances. Slowly, she cracks open the kitchen window and steals a glance at the living room. “Pa’s still chatting with Yee Po. Probably about how long her China – Bayan Lepas flight took.”
“Aiya, isn’t that what our kids call her?” Tien Keong cuts in, “We’re just one generation younger, call her aunty lah!”
“No manners.” Kim See huffs, “Pa hasn’t seen her since he immigrated to Malaysia, and this is how you treat her when she finally joins our reunion dinner?”
“Well, unlike you,” Tien Keong shovels the noodles into a large pot, “I only respect those who deserve it. You should have seen how she criticised Tien Shiu!” He strikes a feminine sitting pose and mockingly raises his voice a few pitches higher, “Eeee, your son’s shirt so girlyyy. Got no red clothes to wear meh? Just because his collared shirt was pink, not red. Hah! Good thing you weren’t planning to come out this year!”
I raise an eyebrow and pretend-swoon. “Oh, dear brother! Haven’t I been through enough?” I collapse into the nearest chair, just to remind him who’s the real drama queen. “You all made me her Chaffeur slash Personal Escort from BL to KL, and all the while I had to play Cultural Ambassador just because I was the family’s best trilingual speaker. Have you no respect for how I endured Aunty Ipoh’s shenanigans?”
Everyone bursts out laughing at that. “Aunty Ipoh! Oh, Yee Po would disown you!” Kim Yen wipes a tear and adds the finishing touches to her signature dish, the Ouyang chicken curry (thankfully, not much kunyit was involved). “Ah See, call everyone.”
Kim See nods, throws the door open and calls out in Malaysian Chinese, “Lai lai, hampalang makan reunion dinner liao! Help us carry the dishes, or all you get are leftovers!”
“Fang Fang! Fang Fang!” The younger kids swarm me immediately, each jabbering in their different mother tongues. “We had so much fun with Uncle Lychee and Cousin Sushi!”
“Who?” I look up and almost choke on suppressed laughter. Cousin Lye Hee, Aunty Ipoh’s only son, is sighing in our direction. Soon Shi’s on the verge of tears and clinging to his father’s pants, so I look our kids in the eye and give them my Disappointed Aunty look.
They’ll be sorry enough to apologise. At least, until they find out Yee Po has a nickname too.
The dinner’s going well. The kids seem intimidated by the presence of an unfamiliar elder, but not enough to keep Soon Shi entertained with animated conversation. Cousin Lye Hee is similarly well treated, though he’s mostly too busy wolfing down curry to reply. Everyone’s slightly drowsy from a combination of alcohol, a full stomach and jet lag.
That’s why none of us expect the 31st Ouyang when he shows up, Mercedes revving and his smug face grinning.
To be fair, he forfeited the right to reunion dinners long ago. Changing your surname and abandoning your family for “greener grass” in Singapore is a serious no-no, even for a family disappointment like Yang Tien Fook.
“Ah Pa! Aunty!” His smile is too wide to be sincere. “Sorry I’m late, yeah? Traffic jam.”
“Late? No one invited you.” Tien Keong rises, a hand on my shoulder. “What do you want?”
Tien Fook scoffs, “I’m the eldest son. Can’t I attend my own family’s reunion dinner? Besides,” He gives me a pointed look, “I have to make sure the real black sheep of the family doesn’t cause trouble here.”
“Nonsense.” Pa slams the table and stands to full height. “Ah Fang is nothing like you, you unfilial bastard!”
My body reacts on instinct. I’m out my seat, grabbing my keys, making as much noise as possible to drown out his next words.
“Oh, don’t you know?” Tien Fook sneered, “Your baby daughter, your golden child? She fools around with both men AND women. Even blogs about her “experience as a bi woman”, the shameless kunyit.”
“You shut up right now!”
I feel a gentle, but firm hand on my arm. Kim Yen, Kim See and Tien Keong are shielding me from him, but so are Tien Loke and Tien Shiu. Across the table, Pa is shaking with anger, but when I finally meet his gaze I see nothing but compassion.
“No lies, Fang. Just honesty.” Pa takes a deep breath. “Is he telling the truth?”
I almost back out. But Kim Yen’s grip tightens, and for a moment it fills me with enough courage to speak.
“Yes, Pa.” I come forward, “I…I’ve known since I was in Form 3, but –”
“Ha! See?!” Tien Fook gloats. “I told you! She calls herself an Ouyang, yet she brings shame onto the –”
“Don’t tell me how to treat my family!” Pa turns to Aunty Ipoh. “Peik Yu, I’m so sorry you have to see this.”
To my surprise, Aunty Ipoh places a hand on Pa’s shoulder and pushes him aside, glaring at Tien Fook with an intensity unique to disgruntled Asian aunties.
“I only know Ah Fang for three days.” She speaks in broken, heavily-accented English, “But your Ah Pa has told me nothing but good things. She is good to him, she is good to me, and she so busy taking care of everyone, she haven’t rest for whole day. YOU leh?”
Tien Fook hastily tries to circle the table, but Aunty Ipoh is (somehow) faster. If I hadn’t been fearing for my life, I would have laughed at the sight of her whacking Tien Fook with her walking stick.
“You wear pink shirt? I can handle.”
“You sleep with man or woman? I don’t ask you, you don’t tell me lah!”
“But you change your name?”
“Never visit your Ah Pa when he fall down?”
“Don’t even speak Hokkien?”
“Try to sow disharmony in the family? Un-for-giv-a-ble.”
WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK.
At this point, Tien Fook’s already out the door. “Crazy China bitch!” is the last we hear from him as he scrambles to reverse his car out the parking lot.
After that, dead silence.
“…Is it just me ah,” Tien Keong pipes up, “Or is it an Ouyang thing for the women to smack us guys with random objects?”
Everyone loses it then and there. It takes a while for everyone to settle down, but before long it’s Chinese New Year as usual.
All 33 Ouyangs squeeze into the front porch and brace ourselves. I wait till the firecrackers start popping, then sneak to the back and discreetly send a text.
“Out and accepted, even the China ones. Meet my family next year?”
Just as I receive an OK emoji (and two kissy emojis), the firecrackers pop their last pops and the family starts cheering.
So much noise. So many people.
But for once, it feels liberating.