The Ugliest Babies in the World
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The way we’ve been told, my girl cousins and I were born with broken faces.
“You know ah–,” my grandma says, “–all your mothers were so beautiful, skin no pores hor, and fair like Princess Hang Li Po. But then every single one of you popped out with the ugliest faces we had ever seen.”
Her little bungalow sweats, as though in anticipation. The ceiling fan is on the lowest setting, moving so slow it makes a whining noise, but my grandma shivers. I reach around her thin, sloping shoulders to pull her cardigan tightly around her. My own palms become damp as I clasp them together, steepled under my chin as we – the house and I – prepare for our favorite tale.
First there is Cousin Ah Leng, the oldest of us, who was premature, and came out, the story goes, with only one eye, crusted completely closed.
“Like a cyclops, you know–,” my grandma says, pronouncing it ‘See-Claps,’ “– her eyelid right in the middle of her forehead pressed shut like a vagina fold.”
My grandma says Ah Leng was so hideous when she was born that her mother screamed “I want a new baby!” and snuck into the hospital’s incubator room to try to steal another mother’s baby.
“Grandma, that can’t be true,” I say. “Cousin Ah Leng has two eyes now.”
We are both tired. It has been a day filled with emotional exhaustion, of family members screaming about what to do, and where to put her. The doctor has asked that she stay in the hospital; he even offered to get her a single room. But Ah Leng’s mother, my grandma’s eldest daughter, was adamant that she come home, said our traditions demand my grandma not die in a hospital bed, that she be with family.
“Nonsense! Ah Leng has four eyes!” My grandma cackles, because my cousin has evolved into one of those Cool Asian Girls that I will never be, with an under-shave haircut and huge, horn-rimmed glasses that magnify both her smudgy, kohl-lined eyes.
“Aiyah, sometimes her eyes so bulgy behind the glasses she look like a fly, you know? Must be trying to make up for being born with one eye,” grandma says, every time Ah Leng wafts into a room, smelling like artisanal coffee and spilled fountain pen ink.
Second there is Cousin Ah Hooi, who was born jaundiced – yellow and speckled all over like an overripe starfruit.
“And ah, her parents had to leave her in the hospital under a UV light for a few weeks, but then she got burned, which is why she’s so dark now!”
Ah Hooi spent her childhood being called, Gelap, which means “dark” in Malay, even as her mother scrubbed the skin of her face raw every day to try to “get to the fairer layers.” Ah Hooi’s mother also covered Ah Hooi in whitening creams that made her body sting, redden, and flake.
“Grandma,” I try to explain, “The UV light didn’t darken her. That’s genetic.”
Before, my grandma would ignore me, usually more preoccupied with the greater issue of Ah Hooi’s marriageability.
“Poor thing you know, no man will want her,” my grandma would groan every time she saw Ah Hooi.
In an exciting twist of fate, Cousin Ah Hooi grew up, changed her name to Venus, moved to Australia, and became a catalog model for a multi-level marketing cosmetics company. My grandma now clips Ah Hooi’s face out of every print catalog that gets delivered via airmail to the house, and with the little bit pension money she saves – money she used to spend on weekly lottery tickets – she makes sure to purchase every item that Ah Hooi models – foundation that is too fair, lipstick that is too pink, blush that is too shimmery.
Third there is Cousin Elaine, the only one with a Christian name because her mother married a white man. There were high hopes for Cousin Elaine because as my grandma said, “Mixed up babies, always pretty!”
Elaine turned out to be a disappointment because she was born with a flat head.
“She was so late to be born that the doctor had to use the forcep to drag her out of her mother–,” grandma would tell as my cervix flinched, “–and the forcep smash down the back of Elaine’s head till it was flat!”
Because of her flat head, Cousin Elaine was forced to only sleep on her stomach, face mashed into the pillow. During the day, Elaine had to wear a special helmet that made her look like a toadstool. Elaine’s flat head did not remedy itself as she grew into toddlerhood, despite the expensive helmets, nonstop herbal soups, and interminable amount of tummy time, so her mother then forced her to maintain waist-length hair to draw focus away from the flat head. Elaine’s hair grew so long that she would accidentally sit on it and pull thick black strands right out of her head, a nest of broken hairs collecting on every surface she sat on.
These days my grandma lives in a nest of her own, cocooned in a bastion of blankets and pillows. Like a chick waiting to be fed, her head pops out and her eyes open wide when someone comes over to visit. In the beginning after her fall, there was an endless stream of visitors, a cacophony of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandchildren all sweating together, backs pressed to the tiled floor to stay cool. Now the visits have grown fewer, the occasional guilty relative flitting in and out like a ghost.
Cousin Elaine’s rebellion was decidedly on the nose.
“Aiya she walks around so shameless with that shaved head!” my grandma complains, when Elaine comes home for Sunday family dinner. Elaine and her girlfriend Josita, whom my grandma adores, have matching close-cropped hair.
And finally, there is me.
“Ah San, you were the ugliest baby of all!”
“How so, grandma?” I ask, knowing the story by heart.
“When you came out of your mother, your skin was blue, like that Hindu god, what’s it called?”
“Ya, ya, Vishnu. And your eyes wouldn’t open, and your skin was cold, and your face was all mashed together like someone punch you in the womb.”
“And then what happened?”
“And then we waited and waited and waited and waited…”
“So, you waited, grandma?”
“Ya, ya, we waited but still you didn’t cry. And the doctor said, this baby is dead.”
My grandma starts feeling tired and begins to lean on me. Her little house, the one I spent many after-school hours in, playing with Ah Leng, Ah Hooi, and Elaine, swelters in the mid-afternoon heat, its breath held before the tropical evening storms. I knead her arms through her fluttering cotton blouse and stiffen my fingers against her back, feeling the puzzle of bones in her spine. I steady her so she can finish her story.
“They only allowed your parents in the delivery room, but I knew something was wrong, so I rushed in, and then I saw you! I picked you up, your little mashed blue body, and I slapped you across the face! I shouted, “It’s time to wake up!”
“Grandma, no! You slapped a newborn baby?”
“Ya lah, lucky I did, because… Poof! You started crying and screaming so loud, louder than any baby I ever heard. Then everyone started crying, your mother, and your father, and even the doctor. But I didn’t cry.”
“And then what happened?”
“Wah, then you bite me!”
“Grandma how could I have bitten you? I was a newborn. I didn’t have teeth!”
But this is where she always ignores me and jumps straight to my favorite part of the story. She straightens herself, pulls her shoulders back as if to summon as much volume as she can from her diaphragm, filling out her yellow cardigan with the strength of her upcoming punchline.
“Ah San, that’s why we named you 珊.”
I let the air fill with a pause before my next question. She relishes her victorious ascent to the story’s peak.
“But what does 珊 mean, grandma?”
“Aiyah you know what it means! It means “coral,” because coral is so hard and tough. It stays very still, seems like it’s dead in the ocean. But once someone kicks it, you will know it’s alive because ah, it will bite you. Painful you know! Tough like you!”
My grandma is exhausted by this point. She breathes slowly, and the house falls quiet, its creaks subsiding as if to respect its owner’s fatigue. I fluff up her pillows behind her, pillows my cousins and I used to fling at each other when we fought. I pull the thin Smurfs blanket over her body, the one I used to demand whenever I was sick or sad. I kiss her papery cheek, blue veins creeping across cheekbones, smell the sour milk in her breath, the coconut oil in her permed white hair.
As she drifts off to sleep, my grandma says, “Ah San, you were the most beautiful ugly baby in the world.”
Tomorrow, I will return to this humid house. I will fluff up her pillows, tuck in her Smurfs blanket, and hold my post by the bed. I will ask her to tell me the story again.