I showed up to the funeral hall in a cheap tie and a dress shirt I couldn’t iron because I didn’t own an iron. According to my aunt, I had overdressed. She was in a T-shirt. That was the first time we spoke in two years.
To be fair, I should’ve known better than to move in with my aunt in the first place. When I landed in Hong Kong in 2014, I had told her I was there job-hunting. But in reality, I was kind of “soul-searching.” She was ecstatic to have me back until she realized, after years spent overseas, I had grown into someone she couldn’t relate to and therefore didn’t approve of. Everything I said and did only triggered her disappointment, and it probably didn’t help that I had developed a taste for cigarettes, booze, and pizza. In my aunt’s eyes, I had become a gweilo—a white devil. She kicked me out within the month, and we were practically estranged after that.
Then my grandpa died.
I had never been to a Chinese funeral, so I expected one of those fancy ceremonies you’d see in triad movies, with the incense, paper money, dancing priests, and funny hats. But my grandpa had apparently converted to Christianity some time before his death, which put the funeral in this weird limbo of having both Western and traditional Chinese elements.
You’d expect my aunt to apologize and attempt to reconcile, but she didn’t. Instead, she stuffed a red envelope in my hand. It couldn’t have been a bribe, because inside was only a one-dollar coin, a White Rabbit candy, and a tissue—the hell was I supposed to do with that?
My aunt ordered me to bow three times to this big photo of Grandpa, then sat me down in the first seat of the front row, closest to Grandpa’s body, which was kept in a back room. Her implication was that, as the sole grandson, the figurative torch was in my hands now, along with the fate of our entire lineage.
“Stay here,” my aunt said. “Bow to each guest as they come in. And keep away from walls and dark places. There are—” she dropped to a whisper “—evil spirits.”
The crazy kook was serious.
“So how old was he?” I asked.
My aunt thought for a moment, then turned to ask my grandma, who was further down the row and looked a lot angrier than usual.
“Who knows!” I heard my grandma yell.
I found out later that all Grandpa left behind was about a dozen rolls of toilet paper, stolen over the years from his senior’s home. I guess I’d be pissed too.
I was mostly nonchalant about the whole ordeal. I’m no psychopath, but I never got to know my grandpa. It wasn’t that I didn’t see him often—in fact, I visited regularly—it’s just that for most of my lucid years, Grandpa had been unlucid. Though at one point, he was lucid enough to move himself into a senior’s home, mostly just to get away from my aunt and my grandma. Whenever I visited him there, he’d identify me as my father, and I’d nod and sneak him a Filet O’Fish, then we’d sit in silence. So really, sitting there at his funeral wasn’t so different from our usual interactions.
The first guest was an elderly woman who claimed to be my childhood so-and-so, though I could swear we had never met.
With a hand on my shoulder, she said in Cantonese, “Came back just for the funeral? You’re such a good boy!”
“Oh, no. I’ve actually been in Hong Kong for the past two years.”
“Ah! You work here!”
“No, not really. Odd jobs here and there.”
“You’re going to school here then?”
“No. University’s not really for me, you know?”
She didn’t know.
“Then what are you doing?” The woman pursed her lips.
My aunt immediately pulled me aside and gave me a fucking lecture. Said I can’t say that shit. “Live your Western lifestyle all you want, but don’t advertise it!”
For the rest of the night, when someone asked if I flew in specifically for the funeral, I’d say, I just landed, still jet-lagged. When they asked what school I was attending, I’d say, University of British Columbia, for business. When they asked about my career aspirations, I’d say, I want to be a freakin’ CEO.
As more people arrived, I saw that I did indeed overdress. Only one person there wore a dress shirt: me. Everyone else was in casuals, looking like they were only stopping by on the way to dinner.
To make matters worse, I had a sneaking suspicion no one actually knew my grandpa. Instead of sharing their memories of him, each stranger talked about their memories of me. They were all—allegedly—major formative influences on my youth. For fuck’s sake, one dude said he used to my dentist. The funeral, weirdly enough, began to feel more and more about me.
A Christian priest conducted the ceremony. Halfway through, a choir came to sing a few hymns. They tried to get us to sing along, but as far as I could tell, no one in the audience knew the lyrics.
I didn’t mind the religious thing, but I could tell my aunt hated it. My family didn’t believe in that sort of stuff, and I wasn’t sure if Grandpa did either. I had never seen him pray or go near a bible. Unless there was a church hidden inside his usual dim sum restaurant, he certainly didn’t attend service on Sunday either. My aunt would later mumble and groan about how someone approached my grandpa at the senior’s home about converting and he just went along with it, not fully aware of what he was doing.
I didn’t hear him at first, but the priest asked me to address the crowd. Not my aunt, not my grandma—me.
All eyes turned in my direction.
I didn’t know I had to prepare a speech. My mind was blank. After thinking for a second, I stood up and just said, “Thanks for coming,” and sat back down.
The room went silent. I thought I heard my aunt sigh. I don’t know why, but I sort of expected a round of applause.
Grandpa’s casket was rolled out for us to say our goodbyes. Some cried, or at least pretended to. My aunt simply power-walked a lap around the body without looking at it, presumably out of fear of “evil spirits.”
When it came to my turn, I thought I’d feel something—anything—but I didn’t. It was rather anti-climactic. As bad as this sounds, I thought that with all the makeup, grandpa looked more alive then than he ever had alive. I was actually a bit envious of him. Shit, at least he no longer had to deal with my aunt.
I knew my aunt would take the funeral as an opportunity to talk me into leaving Hong Kong and finishing my schooling. Once the ceremony ended, I slipped away as fast as I could. But she caught me and dragged me into an alley.
My aunt asked if I had any tissues.
I remembered there was one in the red envelope from earlier, so I gave her the whole thing.
My aunt freaked the fuck out.
“Oh my God! You’re not supposed to keep this! You’ll bring the spirits with you! she shouted, shoving the candy into my mouth. She made me promise to spend the dollar before I got home. As for the tissue, she crumpled it up, lit it on fire, and set it down on the concrete. A tiny bonfire in this dark alleyway, struggling to stay ablaze.
“Hop over,” she demanded. “Quick! Before it goes out!”
It was another paranoia-fueled, crazy moment of hers, which was one too many for me in one day.
I stood my ground. “No,” I said.
So she pushed me over the fire.
Written by Felix Wong
Edited by Alessia Yaworsky
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