The Write Stuff competition, for girls aged 11-16, launched in March. A panel of judges, including novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford and The Sunday Times Magazine editor Eleanor Mills, chose the winning entries. Huge congratulations to Megan who won this coveted prize in the 14-16 age category for her short story, Mooncakes.
October. The kitchen is drowsy with the scent of red bean paste, sesame seeds and dough. It is my grandmother’s favourite time of year. “Zhong qiu jie [the mid-autumn festival],” she says, as she darts barefoot amid a brume of perfumed steam and oils. Lanterns festoon the ceiling and walls, conflagrations of colour that seem to become brighter and more numerous by the year. I watch from across the room as my grandmother adds a second batch of flour, golden syrup and water to a bowl; she folds the mixture, kneads and smooths it until it has formed a dense dough in the bowl. She glances up, motioning with a finger dusted in flour for me to join her. I hesitate.
I feel as though I am intruding into my grandmother’s culture. She insists it is mine too, though I have never set foot in China, though I know nothing of her traditions. Characters symbolising harmony and longevity adorn the lanterns above our heads, or at least that is what I have been told they mean. I stopped attending Mandarin classes months previously, tired of the incessant repetition of haphazard strokes against a yellowed copybook. Tired of all the staring that would accompany me as I filed into assembly amid six- and seven-year olds. I couldn’t bring myself to tell these people that, no, I was not a teaching assistant; no, I couldn’t speak Mandarin. I’d forgotten the very language that was supposed to be ingrained in my neural processes, that my parents and their parents had communicated in; the language that had run in the family. Until me.
I’d be lying if I said that I’d made an effort. I hadn’t. My workbook would be shoved into a backpack and hidden in the corner of my room, taken out only on a Sunday morning, when I’d jolt awake, suddenly aware of the following morning when I would have to explain in front of children half my age why I’d failed to complete my homework once again. Hunkering into my bag, I would withdraw my book, furtively sharpen a pencil, and etch line upon line until my jejune marks would all seem to merge into one, a jumble of graphite limbs on paper, marching across grids like mutated spiders. They looked ugly, I thought, and tired of feeling hopeless, I set down my pencil.
Classmates, teachers, complete strangers ask me whether I speak Mandarin. Each time, I brace myself for the wave of guilt that I know will surge over me as I shake my head, lower my gaze and reluctantly respond, “No.” Then as if they need confirmation, “Not any more.” Their reaction is often one of mild surprise, followed by half-hearted smiles and utterances of “Ah, well” and “I suppose it doesn’t matter too much anyway”.But it does matter and I want to scream in their faces that I am embarrassed, ashamed even, to walk through Chinatown, illiterate even in my “home” territory where the streets swim with people with the same eyes, noses and hair as me.
That I dread the approach of tourists, who unleash a torrent of questions. My reply is the same each time: I repeat the single sentence in the foreign tongue I have known for years — “I don’t speak Mandarin” — apologise, my cheeks burning, try to make it clear to them that I regret it, and hasten away. People’s expressions range from pity to contempt. I don’t blame them for the latter, for whoever heard of a Chinese person who couldn’t speak Chinese?
That I am forever wishing that I could tell my parents that I’m sorry, sorry for making them answer their siblings’ awkward questions on why I still can’t hold a conversation and on why I don’t and won’t talk to my cousins, sorry for hesitating even to talk about my heritage. I just can’t decide whether I should.
My grandmother has finished rolling out small circles of the dough onto the table. Despite my inhibitions, I reach out and begin shaping them around egg yolks and black sesame paste, my hands unused to this delicate craft, yet feeling strangely at ease in this foreign tradition. That night, my relatives laugh and converse; they all marvel at how tall I’ve grown, inquire about my swimming and what I’m planning to do at university. I try my best to string together juvenile phrases, stumble with vocabulary, tones and inflection. They speak slower, wait for me to finish before asking another question, give me encouraging looks, press me to tell them more about life here. The mooncakes we eat are round as full moons — they symbolise togetherness and reunion — and I realise that, though I may not speak my family’s language, it does not change the fact that we are family just the same.