My grandmother ran a cigarette shop
For over thirty years.
By shop, I mean a cardboard box
of a rolling cart.
In the dark before dawn, she
Positioned herself between two dim sum restaurants
And waited for the morning rush of coolies,
Done with their tea
Ready to grab their daily dose of smokes and
Before heading to work.
They unloaded their nickels and pence into her waiting palm (she always prided herself on the beauty of her hands:
the long, pale fingers; the shapely fingernails)
She would dispense change with firecracker audacity
Confident in her mathematical prowess
The men often asked, “Mrs. Fong, how do you do math so fast?”
My grandmother’s mind is sharp as a sewing needle.
For not having finished high school, for
Barely knowing how to read when she came to Hong Kong.
But she could look at a lady’s sweater on the subway
And know immediately how to knit it
The intricate over-unders of the yarn,
The number of rows for each arm.
She calculated this with frenetic energy—
It is simple geometry
And yet, something most of us cannot do.
When my grandmother plays mahjong,
She says she’s not counting cards but
I don’t think she even knows that she’s doing it.
The probability of the next tile being a ‘white slate’ or
The proximity of her next victory.
Sixty some years of winning, though, means
She’s doing something right.
But my grandmother cannot comprehend this coronavirus.
She refused to wear a mask, saying it was difficult to breathe
She couldn’t correlate hand-washing with
A life-saving measure.
She doesn’t know why we’ve all abandoned her and
No one comes over to play mahjong anymore.
By my grandmother’s math
It doesn’t add up
How a tiny germ could cause all this chaos
This coronavirus does not compute
Coins, sweaters, ivory tiles are tactile, visible
In her soft, smooth hands
mathematics is an abacus of structure and control.
Virology, on the other hand, biology
Is as unpredictable as it gets, it’s tendency towards entropy
Contradicting her every sensibility.
By Carmen Fong