By Albert Choi
Or: The Angle at Which You Pluck
Or: Nodding Silently at Civil Unrest
Or: Kale Chips
The cashier’s voice is full of smiles.
“Hi, good to see ya,” she beams, as she sweeps our multigrain bread and 1% milk across the laser. I yawn. I’ve been up late thinking a lot, about something. The cashier’s green apron has on it one of those patches with the sticky back that you iron on. Her name written in Sharpie inside a white box, punctuated with a cute hand-drawn smiley face. The name of the store, embroidered in yellow stitching: “FOOD BASIC$”.1
She’s young, but it’s hard to pin down her age, because she’s grinning so much and so hard; cheer is the greatest fountain of youth.
“And how are you today?” she asks, like she really wants to know. My mother says, “Fine, thank you. How are you?”
“Great!” the cashier replies. “I really like kale.” She punches the code for kale into the keypad and places the bunch of leaves on the scale; the curled-up edges make it look like a deep green brain.
“I’m making kale chips,” my mother says. “I bought a dehydrator. But the important thing is the salt that you put on afterwards.” She goes on to describe the type of salt, and the right amount of salt, as if relaying her favourite recipe to a friend.
The cashier repeats the instructions back, like she’s taking mental notes, all while continuing to enter 5-digit produce codes, with a delighted smile on her face. “Have a great day,” she says, after we’ve paid. “Enjoy the kale.”
The next person in line gets the same treatment. It’s as if the cashier is creating life-long bonds, one after another, two minutes at a time. I begin to wonder if I have an inherently scary and cashier-repellant facial expression; I’ve never seen one talk to me with such gladness. But then, as we leave through the automatic sliding doors, my mother says something to me which relieves my insecurities. What she says means that there’s a special quality about this cashier; she’s the anomaly, not me.
What my mother said was, in Cantonese: “This cashier is very gwaai."2
1. The substitution of the letter S with a dollar sign usually signifies the ironic criticism of capitalism (“Micro$oft,” “U$A”), or the exaggerated self-aggrandizing hip-hop aspiration towards wealth (“A$AP Rocky,” “Ke$ha”). What Metro, Inc. is trying to express through their branding of “FOOD BASIC$” is unclear. I think I know what they’re going for, but they may be giving the wrong impression, the opposite of their intention, like, “Here, the groceries cost so much that only the wealthy gourmand need apply.”
2. All subsequent dialogue is translated from the Cantonese, with the exception of italicized untranslatable keywords, which untranslatability is kind of the whole idea behind this thing you’re reading, not to put too fine a point on it.
* * *
At the time, I was a perpetual bachelor, though maybe “bachelor” is too colourful a word, evocative as it can be of designer suits and frequent glasses of bubbly. “Perpetually unattached” is more suitable.
My solitary lifestyle was the topic of much family gossip, I’m sure; I would overhear my mother’s end of phone calls with far-away aunts and uncles. She would say, “Yes, he’s come home for the day” with an ambivalent sigh, pleased that I’ve visited, but disappointed perhaps that I didn’t have plans somewhere else, with someone else. At the end of one such phone call, she hung up, turned to me, and said, “Your aunt says you’re very gwaai to keep me company on the weekend.”
* * *
All credit goes to my sister that her dog, a rottweiler, always overcomes his breed’s fearsome reputation, and reveals himself to be an obedient and gentle fella. She’s trained him well. He’s got this dopey face, a little bit sad sometimes, and kind, wise, brown eyes that suggest a bewildered devotion: because he knows not what else to do, he will love. He likes to back into a cuddle, because his favourite spot to be touched is on the top of the haunch, right above the butt. My grandmother often says of him, “He looks like he’s ferocious, but actually, he’s so gwaai.”
* * *
The word ⟨乖⟩ (gwaai) (rhymes with why)3 can be translated roughly as “good” or “nice” or “well-behaved” or “obedient”. But, “good” or “nice” are too vague to capture the true meaning. (Are you ever really satisfied when someone says of a movie or a book, “Oh, it was good”?) We can qualify “good” as “good-hearted,” and “nice” as “nice and polite,” but these now feel too specific, too much like the introductory description of a character in a screenplay.4
“Well-behaved” and “obedient” have authoritarian overtones, and only really make sense when describing someone you do have authority over, like a kid or a pet; even so, shades of this connotation leak into the word no matter what.
All of these meanings blend together to make a perfume, and ⟨乖⟩ is like a magical pair of tweezers which, depending on the angle at which you pluck, extracts the essence of vanilla, or lavender, or rose.
3. It bears noting that some savvy readers, when they see my lazy transliteration of this word as gwaai, might be reminded of another word, the one used in the pejorative phrase “gwai lo.”
That word is actually ⟨鬼⟩ (gwai) (rhymes with... nothing, really; Cantonese tones are famously difficult to pronounce), which literally means “ghost” or “devil.”
Gwai lo ⟨鬼佬⟩ refers to any non-Asian “foreign” guy and—along with its age and gender variants (⟨鬼婆⟩ (gwai por), ⟨鬼妹⟩ (gwai mui), ⟨鬼仔⟩ (gwai zhi): “foreign lady,” “foreign girl,” “foreign young guy,” respectively)—is fraught with a casual xenophobia and racism too complicated to get into here.
Interestingly, the word ⟨鬼⟩ is also commonly used as an infix expletive. For example, ⟨麻煩⟩ (ma fan) means “troublesome” or “bothersome,” but if something is really getting your goat, you can say ⟨麻鬼煩⟩ (ma gwai fan) to drive the point home. In other words, it plays the same role as the “fucking” in “fan-fucking-tastic” or “unbe-fucking-lievable.”
4. EXT. GAS STATION - DUSK
Our protagonist walks into a run-down full-service gas station. The attendant, NEIL, 40s, wipes his hands on a DIRTY TOWEL. From the twinkle in his eyes, you can tell that he is GOOD-HEARTED and NICE and POLITE.
* * *
The cashier at Food Basics is the type who would help you count your dimes if you decided, against the sanity of other customers, to pay all in change; and she would do it with a dimpled smile. Her hairstyle has no name. She might have freckles. The way she speaks is like she’s about to serve you something. But it’s not like the put-on tip-seeking courtesy of a restaurant server; it’s more like, you’re at home, and it’s freezing outside, and she’s about to bring you some tea. Here, this will warm you up.
At Chinese weddings, there’s a traditional tea ceremony, where the newlywed bride and groom serve tea to a procession of family members, who are, to put it in corporate terms, “ranked higher in seniority” than the couple. It starts with the most elderly on the groom’s side, and proceeds down the line, in patrilineal order. For my sister’s wedding, we had to work out the sequence on paper beforehand.5
During the ceremony, the couple serves tea to one married couple at a time. The recipients are seated in a pair of chairs, and the bride and groom kneel on fancy cushions, and kowtow while handing out little ceramic cups. The widowed still get two cups, and may pour a few drops onto the ground, at the feet of the vacant chair.
On my sister’s big day, I was the last in the sequence, and I was the only one who was served a single cup.
5. Roughly, it goes: paternal grandparents of the groom; maternal grandparents of the groom; parents of the groom; paternal uncles and aunts of the groom (uncles first); maternal uncles and aunts of the groom (again, uncles first); older siblings of the groom (brothers first); older cousins of the groom (male cousins first, and cousins from the paternal side first... can you spot the pattern?). Then, ditto for the bride’s side.
* * *
There’s a WhatsApp group on my mother’s phone, where she chats with her two sisters and brother. I imagine them holding a weekly conference call. First on the agenda is my relationship status, or lack thereof.
“We have to do something.” “How can we fix this?”
“He’s so gwaai that he never goes out.” “Too gwaai!”
There was a hidden message lurking beneath my mother’s comment about the Food Basics cashier. She might have even said it out loud, but it’s possible that my imagination has reinterpreted the memory and turned subtext into text, like a scribbled marginal note in a used copy of a classic novel: “I wish I had a daughter-in-law, who was as gwaai as this cashier.”
* * *
Of a dog, it means obedient, loyal, no jumping up, no barking, comes when called, sits when told, a perfect companion.
Of a woman: friendly, charming, smiles at everyone, cooks, serves tea, altogether desirable.
Of a man: unassertive, passive, doesn’t go for what he wants, doesn’t know what he wants, mama’s boy, milksop, chump.
* * *
My father and I watch a news report in the living room of my parents’ house. It’s about the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong. On the screen, a rain-slicked road glistens in the nighttime neon of Central. The faces of young protestors are angry and purple. They want things that I take for granted, but don’t understand. If I were the right age, and still living in the city of my birth, I might have stood with them, but probably not.
My father says, with disappointment, “This would have never taken place when I was young.” I don’t know if he’s disappointed because it is happening now, or because it didn’t happen then. “When the British ruled, we didn’t complain. In ’97, when we were handed back to the Mainland, we didn’t complain. The Hong Kong people have always been gwaai.”
I nod silently.
Albert Choi lives in the Toronto area and works as a software developer. He writes part-time, and is currently working on a ghostwritten memoir. His writing has appeared in On Spec Magazine and Postscripts to Darkness.