The Things We Hide

When my Grandpa turned 80 he learned to make piñatas. I don’t know who taught him. He lives in Australia. He doesn’t know any Mexicans. He doesn’t know anyone who isn’t Asian.

Sitting at his dining table, he’d lay the SingTao Daily newspaper flat and slowly tear inch-wide strips from its pulpy pages. He’d put a party balloon between his thin lips and blow, pinching its opening between breaths, taking his time so he wouldn’t get dizzy. When the balloon was plump, he’d knot it. Gently, with the pads of his wrinkle-hugged fingers, he’d spread a thin layer of paste onto its rubbery surface. Then he’d press on the newspaper strips.

Layer by layer, a sticky shell of newspaper and homemade glue would hide the balloon.

The layers dried into a chewy exterior. He’d take a safety pin to the exposed cranium of the piñata and pop the balloon, leaving behind a hole.

Through the hole, he filled the piñata with coins. He hid the coins in festive red envelopes. Other people fill their piñatas with candy, but not Grandpa. Grandpa was a practical man. With money, we could buy all the candy we wanted. If he could afford to, he’d probably have given us the one thing better than money: gold.

My grandma hid gold. She hid gold in paper envelopes, which she hid in my mom’s pencil case, which my mom hid in her backpack, in the basket on the front of her bicycle. Mom didn’t know what the gold was for. She only knew that she had to get it from point A to B, no stops in between, and give it to her aunt. She did this again and again, Grandma hiding more and more gold, Mom pedaling and pedaling, never making eye contact with the North Vietnamese soldiers who now filled the streets of her home town. She was never stopped because no one ever suspects the young Chinese girl.

Grandma had been planning. It was 1975. Saigon had fallen. The gold was used to buy seats on a smuggler’s fishing boat. It cost twelve taels of gold to smuggle one person out of Vietnam.

The night hid my mother and her sisters and her uncle. They climbed onto the crowded fishing boat. They climbed on and drifted out because of the promise of a life they had never seen, the promise of a place where, for a dollar, you could eat apples until you were sick of them. They closed their eyes and climbed on because of the promise of hope.

When pirates climbed aboard their boat, Mom hid a gold ring from Grandma in a capsule of Tiger Balm — the Vick’s Vapor Rub of Asia. The pirates couldn’t find anything on her, so they left her alone. She hid her fear in her stomach. Her stomach hid it in the ocean, along with everything else she threw up.

Dad’s family hid diamonds. The night the soldiers from the north came and took their home, his mom gave his sister a bag of diamonds to hide. If the soldiers found it, they may have raped for it, killed for it. His little sister hid it outside, by throwing it out the window. They were kicked out that night. They never saw their home again.

Dad hides gold, in a safety deposit box, in a vault, in a bank, underground, in Sydney, Australia. There’s not a lot of it, and there’s no end game. Mom likes to make fun of him about it, that he’s hiding it in case the government falls, then at least we’ll have the gold to buy us the seats on the boats, the seats his family bought with the gold they also hid.

When Dad turned 60, I asked Mom what I should get him for his birthday, and she said, Nothing, and then she said, Actually…, so I opened a savings account for myself and named it “Gold for Dad.” I saved $150 before my brain said, Really?, and I closed the account.

Mom doesn’t hide gold. She hides her memories in the chewy piñata of her brain. She hides how she felt, climbing onto that boat under the blanket of night when she was a teenager. She hides the fear she carried, a young girl separated from the rest of her family, a foreign language, a place called Oss- straaay-leee-yaa, with cheap apples that she ate until she was sick. She hides how much she misses her mom, who she never saw again, because grandma never made it to Australia — she died on the journey, a refugee. One time I asked her, Mom, do you miss grandma? And she said, Yes. And that was it. She hides it using the lie — or maybe it’s the truth— that she has forgotten everything, because it was so long ago, because maybe she never got to say goodbye to her mom, and maybe she thought they really would see each other again, and maybe she still dreams of ah ma, still perfectly preserved in her late 40s, with big permed hair, the face of a bossy Teochew lady, a Teochew lady who threw the best Chinese New Year parties, still planning, still hiding gold.

My parents hide their hurt. They hide their fear. They hide the versions of themselves that evaporated as they drifted at sea, under the unforgiving sun, so that my brother and I might never find, and never know, what was lost.

But we know. Of course we know. And we want to say, You did great! And we want to say, We’re proud of you! And it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.

We hide these words because we worry they’ll come out mangled. We hide how we feel because we’re afraid the enormity of our love will swallow us whole.

So we find other ways. We try to be good sports. And when Grandpa hangs his piñata on a clothesline, and Mom and Dad and our aunts and uncles gather around wondering, Who taught him to make that?, we shut up and get in line with our cousins. We hide that we think we’re too old, too cool for this. We grip the plastic cricket bat, we spin in circles, we hear our parents laugh, and we swing for the sky.

First published March 25, 2018 in the University of Texas at Austin’s Bat City Review.