Writing by Lianne Xiao
Illustration by Loren Yeung
It was three days after New Year’s when my father swore he knew how to sail.
“Of course I can do it,” he scoffed from where he stood, calf deep in the blue waters of Antigua, pants rolled up, eyebrows furrowed, hands clasped behind his back like some sort of backwards prayer.
Of course. The severity in his voice, the sureness in his face. Of course, in that thick Chinese accent.
His nenggan was showing. A phrase buried deep in Chinese soil, a phrase born into my father’s blood, a phrase that settled underneath my father’s tongue. Nenggan is a belief in yourself, the ability to do anything you put your mind to. Nenggan is a religion. Nenggan is about hard work.
I knew my father’s hands hadn’t touched a sailboat in months, maybe years, but his nenggan was undeniable. It shone in his eyes; it burned so bright that I knew it was in me too.
I signed out the sailboat — one owned by the resort with a tall white mast and a blue mesh net where my brother, my mother, my father, and I configured ourselves. We fell into the ocean and silky waves lapped against the edges as we sped away.
The sky opened up. The expanse of bright blue seemed to never end. Our boat bobbed up and down, softly at first — and then all at once.
My father sat at the back directing. We were the new-age family Robinson on an expedition of a lifetime. We passed rocky ridges and lush forests as the wind picked up and the sail fluttered violently.
A boat marked with the orange resort logo sped up from the distance. The boat circled us a few times and the local driver began to shout.
“Gan shen me?” said my father. What is he doing?
The boat came closer. The waves became bigger.
“Zou kai!” my father shouted. Go away!
“You’re out of bounds,” the man shouted. “We need to be able to see you from the beach.”
“Zou kai!” my father shouted and turned his back. “Zou kai, zou kai!”“Yeah,” my brother crowed. “Go away!”
I looked at my brother, his hair glinting against the waves. Huang, my father called him. His golden boy, he called him. Born in the sun, his eyelashes were yellow and light.
“He wants us to go back,” I translated in English.
My skin crawled. There it was, that rush of anger. There it was, that rush of embarrassment. There it was, that rush of disappointment.
My father unfurled our sails and we began to pick up speed, charging into open waters. My father’s nenggan blood rushed hot and wild. We flooded out, past the boat, past the border.
“Sir,” the man shouted, his voice trailing in the leftover wind. “You need to return.”
His nenggan had ignited and embers were falling. I began to plead with my father. My voice cracked over the “pleases” and my brother began to echo me, his words wavering. I looked over and noticed my mother’s white knuckles.
My heart felt stuck, lodged between my stomach and my throat. I let my head fall back. I looked at the sky and the ocean and I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
Slowly, we began to lose speed. The wind died and then there we all were, free floating. My father had turned his back, his eyes squinting into the distance, and my stomach gave in, retching into the water.
“I’m scared,” my brother whispered. His hair looked darker in this light.
The boat appeared again, but it was a different man. He looked at us for a long time.
“Loosen the sail,” he instructed.
My father refused to acknowledge him — as if he was Odysseus’s men and his ears were filled with wax and that siren song was blaring into the salt thickened wind. My mother tried to speak to him in our own tongue, in Mandarin, but he sat unmoved, until the other boat left.
“I’m getting off,” I shouted, dangling my legs off the side. “I’ll swim back, I don’t care.”
“I know what I’m doing!” my father thundered back and yanked me backwards by my life jacket and I tumbled onto that blue mesh net once again. “Get back on the boat!”
His nenggan rekindled, I resigned myself to obedience, to duty, to an inescapable fate. I let my father tug on stiff ropes, let him steer us home, let him manoeuvre our boat in a zig-zag formation. Sometimes the wind picked up but often, it didn’t, and we floated back, our stomachs turning.
Before our boat could thud into the sand, in the shallow waters of the resort, I leapt out. Thigh deep, I forced my legs through the water. I undid my life jacket, fingers shaking as I threw it onto the sand. Two feet on land once again, I looked out at the beach full of patrons. White people in floppy sun hats, applying sunscreen, sun glasses lowered, as they all stared at my family. That blue-eyed gaze.
I ran back to our room where I stripped and turned the shower on, full blast. I put my head between my knees and sat under the spray for a long time.
I scrubbed my knees and elbows furiously, watching the soap and water swirl and spiral down the drain, but the nenggan stayed, burrowed beneath my skin.
Lianne Xiao is a second-year journalism and creative writing student at the University of King's College in Halifax. In her spare time, she likes to walk the dog, play the piano, and sulk because she cannot get paid to sit around the house in lingerie. She is a strong advocate for unwashed fruit and blonde Kim Kardashian. She often finds herself falling in love with girls on public transportation. Find her on twitter @blackvisababy.
Loren Yeung is a Chinese Canadian illustrator currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from Toronto, Ontario, she has a background in traditional drawing and painting through which she explores narratives as intimate surrealistic visuals. Loren can also be spotted painting murals or stealth-sketching other subway riders. You can follow her on Instagram @lorenyeung and find more of her work online at lorenyeung.com.