Home Truths

The Monthly (Australia) - - CON­TENTS - by Alice Pung

Ah Gong is 98 years old. Twenty years ago, he dug up his whole sub­ur­ban back­yard un­til it was only a field of soil. He built two rain­wa­ter tanks, and planted rows of veg­eta­bles – turnips, cab­bages, onions – as well as an olive tree. Ten years ago, he was still farm­ing his land. Ah Mah was 12 years younger. “Old man,” she’d shout, be­cause he was deaf in one ear, “did you let loose on the car­pet again?” But she al­ways cleaned up af­ter his stomach up­sets. She also sewed all their clothes, right down to their un­der­wear – heavy knit­ted polyester in dirt browns and navy blues and greys – un­til she couldn’t any­more be­cause of the arthri­tis. Some­times they would fight. She’d take a hoe to his bok choy; in re­venge, he’d hide the jar of Nescafé. Two years ago, Ah Gong was sent to a nurs­ing home. “It’s be­cause you two fight too much,” his chil­dren told him, when it was re­ally be­cause they thought he was too frail to be in his gar­den. They’d tried hav­ing him in each of their homes, but were alarmed when they came home from work and dis­cov­ered him out­side, dig­ging or try­ing to scale a steplad­der, al­ways itch­ing to go back to his own land. He was al­most deaf. He couldn’t hear the phone. He was los­ing his sense of bal­ance. Ah Gong’s chil­dren found him a light-filled nurs­ing home in an outer sub­urb, clean and bright, serv­ing three-course meals that in­cluded mung-bean soup and jas­mine tea. The web­site said that the home cel­e­brated cul­tural di­ver­sity, but none of the car­ers could sing the Teochew opera he loved. Ev­ery Mon­day, a Filipino carer soul­fully belted out classics like ‘Morn­ing Has Bro­ken’ and ‘Over the Rain­bow’ to the as­sort­ment of Teochew, Hakka, Cam­bo­dian, Viet­namese, Can­tonese and Hokkien res­i­dents ar­ranged in a semi­cir­cle in the liv­ing room. An­other earnest carer danced and en­cour­aged the res­i­dents to clap along, some­times by tak­ing their hands in hers. Some in­dig­nantly with­drew their limbs, some cheer­fully ap­plauded, while oth­ers re­signed them­selves to be­ing be­nign geri­atric mup­pets. The car­ers all call him Ah Gong, which means grand­fa­ther. They call an­other res­i­dent Bà, Viet­namese for grand­mother. The car­ers might be “Asian”, but Asia is a big part of the world, so they could be Filipino, Tai­wanese or In­done­sian. Ah Gong can’t speak English,

and they can’t speak his di­alect. The Euro­pean equiv­a­lent would be a home filled with Lat­vians, Slove­ni­ans and Moldovans at­tended to by Greek, Span­ish and Irish nurses, doc­tors and car­ers. The staff are at­ten­tive but busy, so­lic­i­tous but over­worked. “Boss, boss, why do you ig­nore me?” laments a Can­tonese grand­mother, to the de­part­ing back of a uni­form. He could be In­dian or Sri Lankan, she doesn’t know the dif­fer­ence; and he doesn’t re­alise she’s speak­ing to him. She turns back to the baby doll she has in her arms, pat­ting its soft limbs and plas­tic head with blink­ing lon­glashed eyes, and coo­ing at it. Ev­ery evening at meal­time, a cheery woman comes to spoon­feed her mother a din­ner she has pre­pared at home. Ah Gong re­mem­bers, 80 years ago in China, how he slept away his days, emp­tied of en­ergy and starv­ing. The lucky ones never woke up. But one of his cousins had just re­turned from abroad. That cousin saved his life, dragged his still-breath­ing skele­ton onto a boat bound for Cam­bo­dia. He worked for a decade in the backs of kitchens, not know­ing if he’d ever get mar­ried un­til one day a friend said to him, “I know a re­ally good hard­work­ing girl. Would you like to meet her?” When Ah Mah also moves into the nurs­ing home, the two are shifted to a twin room with a flat-screen tele­vi­sion and enor­mous en­suite. At meal­time in the din­ing room, there is a feast in front of them: rice por­ridge, egg cus­tard, leafy green soup, Chi­nese cups with lids to keep bev­er­ages warm, chop­sticks and big plas­tic soup spoons. Word­lessly, Ah Gong hands Ah Mah a folded tis­sue from his shirt pocket. Ah Mah swaps her jas­mine tea for his wa­ter.

They’d never ex­pected to grow old sur­rounded by strangers.

Their grand­daugh­ter comes to visit, and Ah Mah laments, “Oh, if only I had my rice cooker still, I would make din­ner for you!” “I can’t recog­nise any of you now,” says Ah Gong, “be­cause none of you come and visit of­ten! Tell your mum to take me home, or the only way I will be out of here is when I am dead on my back!” They’d never ex­pected to grow old sur­rounded by strangers. Af­ter the meal, a nurse comes by with tablets for each res­i­dent. Ah Gong and Ah Mah didn’t take any med­i­ca­tion be­fore they moved to the home. Ah Mah re­fuses. “What are th­ese for?” asks their grand­daugh­ter. “They’re for her psy­chosis.” “My grand­mother doesn’t have psy­chosis,” the grand­daugh­ter says. She knows her grand­par­ents se­quester food in draw­ers and cup­boards un­til it rots, and are con­stantly search­ing for their “miss­ing” money, but

most of the el­derly former refugees she knows have th­ese habits. Half a cen­tury ago, Ah Gong won a small lo­cal lot­tery and with his win­nings brought home four duri­ans for his wife and eight chil­dren. This was one of his life’s high­lights. “Sorry, they’re to help her sleep,” cor­rects the carer. “She keeps get­ting up in the mid­dle of the night, and hurt­ing her­self.” It is eas­ier for the car­ers to look af­ter this ba­bel of old peo­ple if they are med­i­cated, the grand­daugh­ter re­alises. They don’t panic, or fight, or cry out in in­com­pre­hen­si­ble lan­guages. One night, Ah Mah has a stroke and is taken away. “He doesn’t re­alise she’s gone,” says the carer with deep sym­pa­thy, a few days later to the grand­daugh­ter. “The fam­ily hasn’t told him?” They had been to­gether for 68 years and had never cel­e­brated a sin­gle an­niver­sary. They just got on with the busi­ness of sur­viv­ing, day in, day out. His daugh­ters tell him that they’ve taken Ah Mah to live with one of them. “At least one of us made it out of here alive,” Ah Gong mut­ters.

It is a Mon­day af­ter­noon, 3 pm, and the karaoke has started.

When their grand­daugh­ter next vis­its, Ah Gong has packed his clothes in four large black garbage bags. “Your aun­ties said they were com­ing to take me home,” he says, star­ing at the win­dow. “They vis­ited this morn­ing, and said they would be back this af­ter­noon.” It is a Mon­day af­ter­noon, 3 pm, and the karaoke has started, but Ah Gong can­not hear a thing. “Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad / Take a sad song and make it bet­ter.”

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