Common sense purports that the volume of noise produced should be proportional to the number of people from which the sound originates.
No one, however, shared this logic with the women of my family.
Like the spring of a stream bursting to life, my usually quiet apartment would explode into a cacophony of sound every Sunday evening.
At 6 p.m. on the dot, my popo and aunt would ring the doorbell. That high-pitched ding-dong marked the weekly renewal of energy to a household that often favored communicating through email threads rather than raised voices, or — god forbid — actually getting up and moving to another room to converse.
Their arrival brought havoc upon the studious silence that normally filled the walls. Woks would begin their clamorous banging and knives would begin chopping through raw kai lan onto the wooden chopping board; chastising and nagging about growing eye bags and the appropriate method of cleaning the water kettle would ring out over the sound of the sink’s rushing water; cabinets would slam as my grandmother busied herself with tidying the shelves; and my dad, as if trying to tune it all out, would blast the evening CNN news above it all.
Three generations of women catalyzed our weekly dose of chaos: my popo, my mother and aunt and me, all crammed into an apartment, all speaking and acting in juxtaposing unison.
A further departure from common sense sitting down to eat never ended the dissonance. While some families calmly converse over plates piled high with food, and others enjoy their meals in a peaceful silence broken only by the scraping of utensils, mine chose to outright reject any notions about tranquility and composure.
At the dining table, the discord created by slamming dishes and doors was inevitably replaced by a turbulent symphony of Cantonese.
Each person had their role to play in the grand orchestra of our Sunday dinners. Much like a musical ensemble tuning instruments before a concert, the amalgamation of each voice straining to be heard amid the ensuing bickering was the undeniably soundtrack of my youth.
My grandmother’s vivid yet methodical recounting of stories and patient advice on living a life of happiness was always the bass of this musical monstrosity, the constant in the chaos and the guiding force for our small family that unfolded around her. Her wisdom was the foil to my mum and aunt’s increasingly pitchy yet loving arguing and nagging. My defensive objections to the criticisms and pestering hurled my way, and the occasional grunts of agreement I offered up to appease my grandmother, topped off our boisterous melody.
And through this all, my dad would eat silently — chopsticks unstopping, mouth constantly chewing — with only the slight upturn of his lips and the glint in his eyes to indicate that he was at all present for the harmony unfolding around him.
Judging by the harshness of tones, the constant slamming of dishes and doors, the blatant rejection of anyone else’s comments, and the general opinionated whininess of the ever-flowing conversation, an outsider might assume we were a room full of foes.
What they miss by drawing this conclusion is that all the chaos and madness is a declaration of love. My aunt picking at my mum’s growing white hairs and waistline, my mum’s complaints about her own mother’s insanity, and my own uselessly annoying contributions are part of a pandemonium only associated with the deepest of affections. Our mutual nagging stands on the backs of the women who came before us, and will undoubtedly be passed down onto those who come after.
Only our closeness as a family allows us to say such things to each other. Only our mutual intimacy as women leaves room for such idiosyncratic conversations. Our argumentative and defensive conversations, accompanied by our uniquely Cantonese hollering, shorten the chasm of space now separating us.
The yarn we each spin with our incessant bickering comes together to form the tapestry that has enveloped and warmed me since the day I was born.
However, I’ve never been quite sure how to explain this sentiment to friends listening in on my phone calls to home. How can I explain that the seemingly aggravated tones directed at my mum prove that the threads that hold us together are strong? How can I explain that yes, I complain about her nagging, but simultaneously treasure it with all my soul? How can it be understood that any other tone of voice would imply that we, in fact, were not as inextricably welded together as we are?
Despite my biweekly practices within my role in our family symphony, nothing feels quite right in my heart until I settle down once more at my designated spot around that circular table — between my popo and father, ears ringing and throat pitching from the cacophonous language of love.
Hana Davis | firstname.lastname@example.org .