Around this time of the year, Ba usually locks the door once the sun sets and refuses to let anyone out. It's so hot and damp that Brother and I usually beg him to open the windows, but he only lets us crack them about an inch.
"Why can't we leave the house?" Brother always complains. "What if we run out of toilet paper again? Aren't we allowed to buy more?"
"Shut up," Ba will say, before going back to grumbling on the phone with customers. For the next few hours, Brother and I will usually beg Nanny for some plum juice and eat popsicles. Sometimes we would watch TV until Ma comes home, after which we pretend to be doing our English homework.
It wasn't until Popo started living with us that we found out the reason.
"It's Ghost Month," she told us as we sat in the kitchen listening to the sound of the television playing faintly in the living room. "All the spirits…good, bad, friendly, stranger…they come back to where they used to live and roam the streets like they used to. It is not safe to be outside so late, because it is harder to tell who is alive and who is not. Your Baba just wants you to be safe. You don't want to get kidnapped by the spirits and taken to Daehway."
"What do you mean it's harder to tell?" Brother frowned.
"Mm, some ghosts are easy, but some look very close to human, look just like a person but with no shadow," Popo murmured, peering into her mug of hot water. "Where is the lemon?" She frowned, looking up at us.
"It's in there, Popo," I told her. It was a lie, but all of us knew her tastebuds no longer worked after her father punished her as a child by nearly burning her tongue off. She couldn't taste the difference anyway.
"I don't see it," she frowned.
"It's in there," I assured her. "I squeezed the juice out."
"I like the whole lemon," she frowned.
"Tell us more, Popo," Brother urged her.
"Huh?" She frowned, confused.
"Why can't we go out?"
"What?" She frowned. "I can't hear you!"
I noticed Nanny's slippers peek from around the corner. "Ai, shush," I warned, but he didn't hear me.
"Why can't we go out, Popo?" Brother enunciated, a bit too clearly.
"Because of the mosquitoes, that's why!" Nanny's voice boomed from across the room, and he jumped immediately. Only she could put the fear of God into him…no wonder Ma hired her. "Now go to sleep, or I'll spank you!"
"We're too old to be spanked," I muttered, crossing my arms.
"I bet it's because there's something else they're hiding from us," Brother murmured.
"Like what?" I snorted.
"Like, some sort of secret celebrations," Brother hissed. "I bet that's it. Hey, I found out how to open the window…if we leave in two hours, nobody will notice us until morning."
I frowned and peered around. "Are you sure?"
"Super sure," he murmured. "Meet me at nine. If you don't, I'll just go by myself. And if you snitch on me, I'll tell them I saw you steal that orange from that Chen girl and bury it in the garden."
"You can't prove it," I retorted, feeling my face flush. "Besides, why do you care? Do you have a crush on her or something?"
He laughed. "On her? She reeks of cabbage, just like all those other Mainlanders. No, but you'll be in trouble, won't you?"
I growled. "I hate you so much."
"Yeah, yeah," he rolled his eyes. "Well, see you at nine. Or not."
With that, he strutted off to his room. Always such a smartass.
I sighed and threw myself onto my bed, fighting the urge to throw away all the heavy blankets and sleep on a bare mattress. It was hot, but I didn't want Nanny to barge in on me and scold me for trying to catch a cold.
"Why can't we just go out?" I mumbled. "It's not like our ancestors are going to care anyway."
"Esther! Esther, wake up! Lazy bones! The sun is already up, why are you still in bed?"
"No it hasn't," I grumbled.
"Don't give me that sass!" Nanny growled, slapping me. I immediately sat up, staring at her. "Now get dressed. Breakfast is going to get cold."
I rolled my eyes, walking as slowly as possible to the dresser. It wasn't unusual for me to talk back to her, in fact, it was practically a staple of our morning routine. Maybe she's just upset because her boyfriend dumped her because he thinks she's getting fat, I thought to myself.
"Esther, you want more toast?" Ma asked gently. I smiled.
"Yes, please," I nodded.
Ma stared at me for a moment, then slowly passed me the plate of toast. I immediately grabbed the jar of peanut butter and began spreading it generously. I noticed the honey jar next to Brother was almost empty. "Hey, pig," I poked him with my elbow. "Pass it," I said, holding out my hand.
Brother frowned, looking as if I'd deeply offended him. Normally, he'd just call me Fei Mui to retaliate. I guess maybe his late night adventure didn't turn out how he planned.
"What are you, a Mainlander?" he hissed. "Cut it out."
"Hey, leave your brother alone," Ba grumbled, eating his toast entirely plain like an ascetic monk. "He's very tired from studying all night." I rolled my eyes. Yeah, right. "Maybe if you worked harder, you would be smart like him. Eat your food."
"I just want him to give me the honey," I grumbled.
"Hey!" Ba frowned, his eyebrows creasing horribly, making him look like one of those scary dragon statues in front of the temple. "I don't know why you've suddenly decided to speak Mando, but you can keep it to yourself while we are trying to eat breakfast! Everyone is very tired and hungry from working hard, you are the only one who gets to stay home and sleep all day. Now eat!"
"Shut up!" He grunted.
I frowned. French toast without honey is just not the same, but I decided to stop talking. To him, at least.
"Hey, Ma," I said. "I bet you wouldn't believe what Brother was actually doing – he said he was studying, but-"
"Aiyah, knock it off with the Mandarin!" Ma grumbled. "What, are you practicing to visit the Mainland someday?"
I stared at her. "What do you mean, I'm speaking Mandarin? Are you all crazy?"
Silence. Everyone stared at me like I had gone crazy.
"If you think you're being funny," Ba said slowly, "I hope you can see that nobody is laughing right now. Now, go eat in the kitchen and don't come back until you've finished."
I opened my mouth to protest, but I could feel Nanny's sharp, clawed fingernails digging into my shoulder. Without another word, I picked up my plate and followed her to the kitchen table.
Why are they yelling at me? Hot, angry tears began to fall from my eyes. Why are they punishing me? This prank is going way too far.
"Eat your toast," Nanny said. "There won't be any second helpings for you."
"Mary!" I yelled, waving my arms. She turned around, grinning. "Hey! Come here!"
She immediately ran over, grinning excitedly. "Esther, what do you want? Where are we going today?"
"Mary, something crazy happened. My whole family is playing a prank on me…they even had Nanny pretend to punish me for something," I panted, speaking as quickly as possible.
Mary frowned, and I began to slow down. "My parents keep saying that I'm talking like a Mainlander…isn't that crazy? And, and, Brother, he snuck out yesterday, you wouldn't believe it-"
Mary shook her head. "Sorry, Mando not good," she murmured. "Why are you speaking like that?" She asked slowly. "Are you trying to practice or something? You better be careful, otherwise people are going to think you're not from here," she added quietly.
I laughed. "Oh, you're so funny. But seriously, why do you think they would say that? Do you think maybe they're trying to hide something from me? Like a surprise party?" My birthday wasn't for another six months, but I figured it could just as well be a possibility.
Mary took a step back. "I don't understand what you're saying, sorry. Could you switch to Canto, please?"
I rolled my eyes. "Knock it off, Mary. It was kinda funny but seriously, I'm tired of it."
"You're doing it again," Mary frowned.
"Huh?" I stared at her.
A few boys on their bikes were turning their heads and looking at us. Mary bit her lip nervously, and started to back away. "You know, actually I have a piano lesson, sorry. I'll see you some other day." With that, she turned around and walked away.
I stared, my jaw practically hitting the ground.
"Hey, Mainlander!" One of the bike boys shouted. "You're a bit far away from home, aren't you?"
I stared at him as he smirked and rang his bell at me.
"Go home before the ghosts possess you!" He yelled, then turned away, leaving me standing in my driveway all by myself.
I wanted to check to see if he cast a shadow, but by then he and his biker gang had already left.
"I think I'm starting to go crazy," I murmured as I sat next to Brother on the living room couch.
"Hey, stop with the Mandarin already," he replied without taking his eyes off the screen.
"I'm not trying to do it," I huffed, annoyed. "It's like, I'm cursed to speak it or something. Why is everyone mad at me anyway? What's so wrong with speaking Mandarin?"
Immediately, I felt the atmosphere in the room shift. Brother stared at me, as if I was the stupidest thing he'd ever seen. As if I was a stupid country bumpkin like that Chen girl who walked in and started bragging about her stupid orange, like it wasn't a common thing you could buy at the market.
"Are you dumb?" He spat. "What are they teaching you in school? Did you know, Hong Kong used to be a place of exiles? They would send all the poor people here to starve. And they handed us off to the English."
"That can't have been so bad," I protested. "I mean, we're doing fine, aren't we? Now they're the ones who want to be us."
"Only because now, we've proven ourselves to be smarter and more successful than them," Brother snorted. "But before that, we were nothing but trash to them, so they abandoned us. Now they want to crawl back into our arms, like an ungrateful prodigal son," he sneered.
I frowned. "But that was years ago, right? Why are people still mad?"
"Just because it happened a long time ago doesn't mean people have forgotten," Brother hissed. "Do you know how they used to treat Popo and her family, back when she used to work for the English as a maid? All Nanny does is complain, but she is actually incredibly lucky. If she had to go through what Popo did, she would have quit in a week."
I stared at my feet.
"Did you get possessed by a ghost while we were out or something?"
"When we went out yesterday and saw the ghost opera," he repeated. "You remember? Right after that temple where we bought some paper money and burned it for Gung Gung to spend in the afterlife?"
I shook my head.
"So you've forgotten all about it," Brother murmured. "I guess you really must be possessed by a ghost…a Mainlander one too, no less."
"I…don't know," I mumbled. "How can I know whose ghost is haunting me? And how can I stop it?"
"Well, I guess it's probably the ancestor of some Mainlander you've wronged," Brother shrugged. "Maybe you should try apologizing to whoever you think you offended."
"I didn't offend anyone," I stood up, stomping my foot. "Why should I apologize anyway? Maybe it's an offense so long ago, even I don't remember it!"
Brother shrugged. "Well, ghosts are even worse than humans. They can remember offenses that go back many, many centuries. You better do something about it now if you want your grandchildren to be happy."
I shuddered, running outside to the garden to cool my head.
Next to my foot, I noticed the patch of fresh, upturned dirt where I buried some orange peels.
"Look," I glared at Chen. She stared at me, smiling blankly like the dumb country bumpkin she was. "I don't know if you noticed, but last week, one of your oranges went missing. It was my fault. I ate it."
"Oh, it's nothing," she smiled wider. I instantly hated her and wanted to yank on one of her braids.
"Really?" I asked. "You're not mad?" I frowned. She must truly be simple-minded.
"Really," she replied brightly. "I'm just…well, nobody has ever spoken Mandarin to me before," she admitted. "Everyone keeps telling me to speak in Cantonese and teasing me because of my accent. It's nice to hear someone who understands me for a change."
I stared at her harder, looking at her dirty, worn down dress and her ugly shoes. Ma says Mainlanders all have big, big feet. There's no way those shoes are comfortable for her. Is she too poor to afford more? Or does she just want to hide her big ugly feet?
"Well," I mumbled, "I was hoping the Mandarin would go away after I said that…but I guess it won't."
"Oh," Chen replied guiltily. "Sorry about that."
I narrowed my eyes. Her face was clean, but her dress had so many obvious holes that needed mending. Didn't her Mother love her? Why hadn't she bought her a new dress?
"I have another orange, if you want," Chen murmured. "Ma gave me another one today."
"It's fine, keep it to yourself," I grumbled.
"Ma keeps telling me to stop hoarding them now that we're in Hong Kong," Chen laughed. "I know that they're not rare here anymore but we never had these back at home. I used to sit awake at night, dreaming about the next time I'd eat one. Now I can have them anytime I want, but I keep forgetting that and hogging them. If you hadn't stolen mine, I think it would've rotted away and sprouted an orange tree in my drawer."
I stared at her, then pinched her cheek. She squealed. I looked at our shadows on the ground. There seemed to be only one.
"You want me to keep speaking in Mandarin like this?" I asked.
She blushed. "I mean, if you don't mind," she stammered. "I…I know not everyone likes it," she admitted.
I shrugged. "I dunno," I grabbed the orange from her and tossed it up and caught it. "I guess it's starting to grow on me."
The bike boys passed us again to yell at us. I grabbed Chen's hand.
"Hey, leave me and my friend alone," I yelled at them.
"Mainlanders!" They teased, but I simply rolled my eyes and stuck out my tongue at them.
"It's Ghost Month!" I replied. "Don't do anything your ancestors wouldn't be proud of."