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My Grandmother's Math

My grandmother ran a cigarette shop

For over thirty years.

By shop, I mean a cardboard box

On top

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,

Lowly laborers,

Done with their tea

Ready to grab their daily dose of smokes and

Cotton gloves

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


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