Have you ever been told a lie so elaborate, you wonder how you never picked up on it? One that lasted so many years and had spun so many webs that it seemed impossible that it could be a lie.
The year was 2008 and I was living in London. I owned a pre-paid Nokia (it had a camera though #killingit), which never had more than £5 of credit on it (because dat poorlyf) so the company I was working for allowed me to call my family long distance from my desk phone free of charge. However, the time difference meant that some of my most intimate conversations were had in the middle of office hours.
Those that know me, know that I have never been very good at being quiet. Even when I try, my voice seems to carry like it has its own invisible megaphone. Worse still, if I’m having a particularly heated conversation. So on this day, I was finding it especially hard to control the volume of my voice because I had just found out that my grandmother was dead.
“What do you mean she’s dead?” I demanded down the phone. “I mean, she died.” My mother replied, as if it were the most obvious question ever. “When?” I exclaimed in disbelief. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe five years ago?” She replied offhandedly. I could see her waving her hand in that dismissive way that she does. The nonchalant tone of her voice grated me, it was like she was trying to remember the last time she got her nails done. “Five years ago? Our Grandmother died five years ago and you didn’t think to tell us?” I spluttered angrily.
I might have never found out the truth if it weren’t for London. You see, after eighteen months, I was done. The summer was over (though it had never begun) and the sorrowful grey of an impending London winter had staunchly set in. Rain, rain and more rain… Bitterly cold, like its inhabitants. I dreaded the coming months. The prospect of another bone-chillingly cold and wet winter. The unappealing, mottled blue-grey that my skin turned from a lack of vitamin D. Watching impotently as the summer played out in Australia via the newly-popular social media. I’d had enough but I couldn’t admit it aloud, because If You’re Tired Of London, You’re Tired Of Life!
It was a particularly cold and rainy day in September, I sat on our bed, absolutely exhausted by life when Rory came in; hands frozen stiff from the rainy bike ride home. His face said everything that I was feeling: I hate this place.
“Can we go home?” He asked as soon as he put down his helmet.
“Really?” My voice hopeful like an orphan on adoption day.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he threw his soggy hoody onto the floor, and stared at it with malcontent. I knew we were done.
“Oh, thank God!” I cried, the first genuine smile cracking across my face for the first time in what felt like months. My heart swelled up like a balloon. Our London lives were finally drawing to a close! I was already dreaming of an Australian Christmas… Warm. Too warm. Hot. Humid. Sticky. Seafood. It sounded like heaven.
“Let’s stop over somewhere cool on the way home.” We mused, feeling better and better about this decision every second.
“Maybe we should go and visit your Grandma in Hiroshima…”
And that’s when the shit hit the fan.
“Well, you didn’t seem interested.” Mum shot back, my brain exploded into fits of anger. “Interested? Interested? You didn’t tell us that our grandmother died five years ago because we didn’t seem interested?”
Growing up surrounded by Australians and Filipinos, my mixed heritage had always been that little tidbit that made me feel somewhat interesting. It was a little fact that people latched onto, that they used as an identifier to single me out from the herd…
This is Niki. She’s half Aussie, part Filipino, part Japanese.
“That’s an interesting mix!” Why yes, yes it is.
“Oh, what a melting pot of cultures you are!” Yes, yes I am.
After this, I would regale them with stories of My Japanese Grandmother. My Japanese Grandmother owns a string of gentlemen’s clubs in Hiroshima. My Japanese Grandmother is married to a Yakuza boss. He has no pinkies and yes, of course, he has the tattoos. We call him GG.
We drove around the streets of downtown Hiroshima in a sleek, leather-clad sedan with dark tinted windows, visiting GG’s strange business associates who would shove fistfuls of Yen at us for simply saying ‘hello’. All the while, my mother would recount stories of her budding singing career in the clubs.
Oh, how it was to be an exotic breed of human. To have heritage that people inherently wanted to know more about. As a child, I threw myself into Japanese lessons at school. My favourite story was Issun-bōshi, a Japanese fairytale about a one inch samurai. I got a Kimono and I wore it at every opportunity. I cherished my Japanese heritage because it made me special but of course, as I grew older, these interests fell by the wayside.
I was outraged, but I couldn’t really fault her. It had been thirteen years since I had seen my grandmother. Ten years since I’d spoken to her. My mother had always kept my brother and I separate from her family. We never spoke to them on the phone. We visited a handful of times but their contact details were never readily available. We never questioned this because it was how things had been for as long as we remembered.
I once had a family tree project and I asked my mother if I could call Japanese Grandmother (as she was always known — we had to differentiate her from Regular Old White Grandma) to get the names of our ancestors. Instead, my mother called her, and then relayed the information to me. A phone call was not an option. Only she held the keys to the kingdom, and she dictated the contact.
My colleagues around me attempted to look like they were working, hands poised over keyboards as the argument raged on; mouths hanging open deftly as they listened on intently.
I tried to stem my anger with a series of muttered Unforgivable(!)’s before I hung up on her and rang my brother and demanded to know if he knew. Like this was some big family conspiracy to which I had not been privy.
My brother cooed down the phone at me, calming my rage over this betrayal. No, he didn’t know. That surely can’t be right. Don’t worry, he’ll get to the bottom of this. He’ll call when he knows what the story is.
The next morning at 5.30am as I tiptoed into our kitchen in the grey morning light, he told me to ‘sit down’ like I was about to be floored by the impending information. “Don’t be so dramatic, Lucas.” I yawned.
“Okay, fine. We’re not part Japanese.”
I sat down.
It was one of the few times in my life I was lost for words. I found one: ‘What?’
Turns out, this woman we knew to be our grandmother, was in fact just a close family friend. In my mother’s logic, the lie didn’t matter — because our real Grandmother was alive and well in the Philippines. No harm, no foul. You still have a living relative. Chill your beans.
Little things began to fall into place. Inconsistencies, strange behaviours and unanswered questions came together to show a bigger picture that had been there all along; if we’d only stepped back for a moment. It showed that we only see what we want to see.
For all of the pride we placed in our heritage, we really didn’t know that much about it and we never tried to know. The cocktail story was enough.
I’ve never really been sure how to end this story — because I am still living it. I could be angry about the deception — and trust me, I have been. Now, as I grow older, I applaud the madness.
It encapsulates my mother’s spirit — a person who lives by her own narrative. Who, growing up, told us to be whatever we want to be; and meant it literally.
And as for whether I’m still an interesting breed of human? I’m Niki Conway. Half Filipino. Half Australian. Full Fake Japanese.