December 2017 – January 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Home truths

By Alice Pung
Ah Gong and Ah Mah move into a culturally diverse aged-care facility

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 long-lashed 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.

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.

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.”

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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