A Death in the Family
By Arlene Ang
When I think about it now, everything started when Eldest
Brother died. He was thirty-four years old and drunk that
night he smashed his car into a wall. Dead drunk, as they
would say. During the funeral we threw roses onto his coffin
before they sealed him away forever behind a slab of marble.
I had picked the lot because it faced the east. Mother had
coached me endlessly about how important it is that the
morning sun shines on his grave and that I must specify that
we wanted a Chinese burial--that Eldest Brother must not be
buried beneath ground.
It was raining that day. Looking up from my muddy shoes, I
glanced at the family and friends who had gathered in
sympathy. At least my parents had not had to hire
But my parents themselves were noticeably absent. Father had
locked himself in his room in silent outrage. Mother
reluctantly decided to stay with him--for propriety's sake.
It was considered a slapping insult if a child should die
before his parents. And so they could not attend the
funeral. I never questioned these customs. I had heard my
parents claim that our traditions made us the most cultured
race in the world. Though I secretly believed that most of
these traditions were mere superstitions and old wives'
tales, I didn't dare challenge my parents' beliefs. I
endured them without question.
Such as the pains they took to follow every geomancer's whim
in the construction of our house--which eventually meant
reconstructing everything from scratch because one of the
geomancers decided that every overhanging beam would bring
about a death in the family, and there were forty beams in
all. I didn't dare to mention the fact that there were only
ten of us, including my sister, her husband and their
I don't even mind celebrating Chinese New Year, the ban on
wearing black shirts, working eight hours a day seven days a
week, and only going out with Chinese girls (as far as my
But their not attending Eldest Brother's funeral grated. He
may have had his weaknesses, but he was still their son. And
I knew he loved them and did his duty as Eldest Son more than
I myself can ever imagine doing. The old excuse of saving
face angered me tremendously. The day of the funeral,
looking at the guests tiptoeing through the mud, I wondered:
Can this be all there is to life? Going through the motions
because custom demands it of us. Wouldn't it be better to
live life in a box?
I've watched friends and relatives, always Chinese, even
though we are by now the second generation born in the
Philippines, stick strictly to the dictates of a Sino-centric
life: attending Chinese schools, speaking Chinese, eating
Chinese food, working for the family business or for Chinese
corporations, marrying fellow Chinese and in the end even
being buried in the Chinese way.
In my anger, born partly out of panic and partly despair, I
thought about going back to my old job as a journalist. It
seemed a waste to throw away my degree in Journalism. I had
a good position at one of the national newspapers. But the
family business now needed me and, young and dutiful as I
was, I thought I had all the time in the world to go back to
my career. I thought bitterly, Eldest Brother finished a
degree in archaeology at the university but, being the eldest
son, the responsibility for the family business was turned
over to him and he never got to pursue the real passion in
I phoned my old editor, who luckily still remembered me. I
asked if he had any vacancies. He immediately offered me my
old job back, and I gratefully took it.
That night I told my parents I was going back to work as a
journalist. Father exploded. "You are not thinking of your
family! With your worthless brother dead, you must now take
care of the business."
I tried to explain about wanting to do something on my own,
that I never liked running the family business, that taking
care of his broken-down supermarket depressed me.
"It's not about liking it. This is business--you're not
supposed to enjoy yourself! And what kind of job is it being
a journalist? You won't earn your bread that way. You have
no future there. How can you get married with a job like
that? No woman would accept you! Think how I sweated to
keep that supermarket alive, you ingrate! You can't throw
away everything that I've worked so hard for. "
As a last note, he threatened darkly, "If you go back to your
job, I'll disown you. You won't get a cent out of me. You
will be nothing."
"So be it," I replied.
I went to my room and started packing. Mother stood by the
door watching me. "You're so young, Youngest Son," she
whispered, tears in her eyes. "You don't know yet what you
want. Apologise to Father, he will forget and take you
"No, Mother," I said, "I don't want to do Eldest Brother's
work and end up dissatisfied like him. I'll be all right."
I kissed her awkwardly on the cheek, "Go to bed. It is late.
I'll be fine."
Early the next morning I left the house before anyone else
was awake. I closed the door behind me and never looked
(Arlene Ang <email@example.com> was born in Manila of Chinese parents. She writes poetry, short stories, articles and translations. Her work has been published in LiNQ (AUS), RE:AL, Black Bear Review and is forthcoming in Oyster Boy Review, American Tanka and Dandelion (CAN).)