Prose
THE BEDROOM TRAVEL AGENCY

This piece was written in Chinese by Xiao Han. It was translated into English by Caterina Poh.

*****

Meeting the parents

It was a special day: I was bringing my boyfriend Zhihao home to meet my parents for the first time. We had arranged to meet for dinner. Mother was extremely excited and instructed the cooks to prepare something special.

He had taken the bus and alighted across the street from our house holding gifts in both hands. He grinned foolishly when he noticed me. I burst out laughing when I saw his goofy appearance, his face hidden behind a bouquet of flowers. I took the flowers and wine from his left hand, so that he had a hand free to hold mine.

“I want you to be mentally prepared. My family is not like most other families,” I said as I stopped Zhihao five meters away from the house. “My dad…ah…in short, just don’t be scared.”

“Will… will he beat me up?” Zhihao asked, his eyes wide and his expression earnest. I guffawed as I answered, “Nope.” “There’s nothing to be afraid of then. After all, I’m so macho and strong.” He puffed out his chest and made a show of having a muscular build. I burst out laughing, almost dropping the wine in my hand.

Mother heard our antics from a distance and activated the electronic gate to let us in.

“Welcome!” She reached out her right hand warmly to shake hands with Zhihao and gestured at us to enter the house through the side door of the kitchen. Something must have happened in the brief time I was away that required clearing up. That must have been why we could not go through the living room.

“Your house is…huge,” Zhihao whispered through gritted teeth out of the corner of his mouth. “Why haven’t you told me you’re a rich man’s daughter?” I poked him in the ribs with my elbow to remind him that Mother was within earshot.

Mother heard him and turned around to look at me with a playful twinkle in her eye. She answered his question in a voice dripping with sarcasm: “That’s because my daughter thinks that her parents’ financial situation has nothing to do with her. If you think about it in a positive way, she’s just being sensible. If you think about it in a negative way, she thinks that she is above all this.” Zhihao nodded, his square-jawed face reddening.

I said nothing as I stood next to them. Mother was right. Our family empire would already have had an heir had I cared more about money.

Dinner is served

Zhihao and I had seated ourselves in the dining room when Housekeeper Liu said: “Miss, Madam said that Second Uncle and the others heard you would be bringing a friend over for dinner so they wanted to come take a look. They are on the way. I can prepare some snacks for you first if you’re hungry.” I shook my head and thanked her.

Zhihao and I had skipped lunch so we could get off work early, so I was actually feeling as though there was a pigeon cooing in my tummy. But I endured. “Father takes dinner very seriously. He would not be happy if he knew I ruined my appetite with snacks,” I told Zhihao.

My freeloading relatives finally began to show up one after another. Housekeeper Liu invited everyone to get seated once she saw that most of the guests had arrived and instructed the cooks to start dinner service.

Everyone pulled up a chair and sat, smiling and glancing at each other, leaving the two seats at the end of the long table empty; they were reserved for Father and Mother. Much to my annoyance, no one said a word even though they were obviously curious about Zhihao. But I kept silent for the sake of my parents.

The wooden door that separated the living and dining rooms opened. Mother walked in, followed by a nurse wheeling Father, wearing blue gloves, slumped in his wheelchair. Mother took small steps, staying apace of the wheelchair. With one hand holding a micro-camcorder, she spoke into the microphone installed in the front of the wheelchair. “That’s your younger sister sitting on the left; she is wearing a yellow top today. Your brother-in-law looks a lot more tanned than the last time we saw him. Look, your second brother is here today, too; he just got a haircut and is in good spirits…”

Everyone followed Mother’s lead and waved at the camera as she mentioned them. Some of the relatives, obviously trying to gain some benefit from my family, were especially solicitous. Others took the chance to tell Father about their plights, that they were tight on cash and needed some money to tide things over. My mum paid them no heed and moved her camera on to the next person before they could finish their sob stories.

I expected Zhihao to be caught out when Mother pointed the camera at him. To my surprise, he introduced himself effortlessly — “Hello uncle, my name is Zhihao” — and reached out his hand to shake Father’s right hand. From the surprised look on Zhihao’s face, I guessed that Father’s hand must have been icy cold.

Engaging the five senses

When the servants started serving the appetizers, Housekeeper Liu came over to inform Mother that her dinner had been set aside on the stove, to be reheated when she was ready.

The kitchen had prepared some spring rolls and salads as appetizers. Father did not like these dishes, so Mother just waved a green probe over the food. She pointed the camera at the food before turning it towards the people at the table for him to ‘take a look’ at everyone gobbling the food down. The next dish was spicy fried chicken wings. Mother knew that this was Father’s favorite, so she picked up a piece with a pair of chopsticks and began deboning it in Father’s bowl.

“Should your dad be eating such unhealthy food?” Zhihao asked in a low voice, looking slightly worried. I moved my index finger to my lips and pointed in the direction of my parents, indicating that he would understand if he watched carefully.

Mother took out a red probe from a bag at the front of Father’s wheelchair, inserted that into the bowl and began slowly moving it around. About two minutes later, Mother took Father’s gloved hand, and put it on a cup of cold water before putting the red probe into the water as well.

Zhihao watched, dumbfounded, his chopsticks suspended in mid-air, forgetting that he had wanted to get some chicken wings for himself.

“Mother doesn’t give the food to Father,” I whispered. “My dad can’t eat. But the red probe transmits information about the temperature, spiciness, and freshness of the chicken wing into a computer in Father’s body. The computer will analyze the data so that he can have the experience of eating it.”

“Look at how mum is pressing the probe into the meat. This is to let dad know the texture of the meat and how crispy the skin is, as if he was actually chewing it. The green probe is to collect information about smell, and the blue gloves collect information relating to touch. Red for taste, green for smell, blue for touch. You already know about the camcorder and microphone.” I felt a growing sense of pride as I explained to Zhihao. Father was a true genius, one who found a way to enjoy food without having to actually eat.

“I…I get it,” Zhihao said, though he did not have much of a response for a long while after that.

He never left

The sumptuous dinner was quickly consumed by the unwelcome guests, who left once they finished eating. Zhihao was left sitting amidst the mess of crockery on the dining table, more quiet than usual.

I steeled myself for the barrage of questions he would surely ask: What happened to your dad? Why do you keep him alive this way? Are you sure he can sense all the things you’re doing for him? Who came up with this idea? Why do you stimulate him this way instead of letting him rest peacefully?

But Zhihao remained silent.

I spoke first. “My dad, he’s still there.”

“I know. When you talk about him, you use the present tense, not past.”

“But he can’t be like us…” I wanted to explain but Zhihao grasped my hand and stopped me from continuing.

“You’ve thought up all ways to make him part of your lives even in his comatose state so that he could continue to feel the warmth of his family. This means that in your hearts, he’s not in a persistent vegetative state. That’s something I truly respect.” He placed his right hand on his chest to indicate that he really meant it.

Mother poked her head out from the kitchen door behind Zhihao. She put up ten fingers. She had given Liu Zhihao a score of ten. Full marks.

Electronic nose

Yes, I finally found a man who loved me before he knew I was from a rich family. My family’s wealth drew people who found various excuses to drop by, as well as men, and boys, who, for money, would try all means and ways to win my favor. To deter these hangers-on, we used the excuse that Father needed to recuperate and moved frequently. We could not shake off our relatives, but at least there were fewer of the greedy suitors.

I blame this on my family fortune, which came when Father had a brilliant idea one day to combine his own inventions with Mother’s family business, a travel agency. This grew into the Bedroom Travel Agency, a name familiar to everyone today as the supplier of the Bedroom Travel Package.

They say that Father was a sensory and artificial intelligence engineer in the early days, who had been involved in research on the electronic nose: a semiconductor sensor constructed from several types of metals. This was a bionic smell-detection system that combined intelligent learning, pattern detection, and recognition algorithms. It was meant to be used for environmental analysis, like testing for air pollution and analyzing odors. But Father discovered that the technology could also be used for sight, smell, hearing, and touch. One could bypass the sensory organs to send the data directly to the brain, transmitting information that stimulates the nerves through probes.

For example, even if you do not open your mouth to eat a lemon. I can send data to your brain containing information on the degree of sourness of the lemon; I guarantee you’ll salivate.

Bedroom Travel Agency

During the period that Father and Mother were dating, the world saw several natural disasters, wars, and plagues, which discouraged many from going on overseas vacations. At the same time, inflation caused the prices of goods to rise in many popular tourist destinations. Overseas travel became a luxury that most people could not afford.

This did not curtail the desire to travel. People just went online to read about travel and buy native products from exotic countries. Some satisfied their travel fantasies by watching foreign films. Crowds would pack the annual mid-year and end-of-year travel fairs. But while there would be many people browsing, few would actually buy travel packages. Grandfather’s travel agency eventually reached the verge of collapse.

Father could not bear to see the business empire of his then future father-in-law go down the drain, so he ventured a bold suggestion. Grandfather made the tough decision to close nine branches and fired more than eighty per cent of his staff to cut costs. He started revamping his business with the target of reopening in a year. Grandfather would never have to work with airlines and hotels again because his new business would involve providing a service that would allow people the novel experience of ‘travelling without stepping out of the house’.

Bedroom Travel Package

3D movies had long become commonplace by that point. Some cinemas even claimed to offer a ‘4D experience’, but they over-estimated what technology could do. The master of this technology was Father.

You could feel as if you were in Paris, having a coffee near the banks of the River Seine, while remaining next to your own bed. You could feel the warmth of the cup, smell the rich aroma of the coffee, as you admire the chicness of Parisian ladies, even as your ears take in the accordionist playing Bach’s ‘Minuet in D Minor’ from 200 meters away. To make the experience even more realistic, Father would occasionally include wafts of the smells of the Seine as you listen to the evening breeze fluttering by your ears.

Or you could feel like you were in neon-drenched Mongkok in Kowloon, eating dim sum that melted in your mouth, then tasting a steaming bowl of fish ball noodles, before shopping at the Ladies’ Market, the busy sounds of bargaining bombarding your ears. The realism of the visuals, combined with the vivid information from your other senses, would make it almost impossible not to believe that you were actually buying a piece of clothing from the hawker.

With Father’s help, bedridden individuals could fulfil their dreams of setting foot on the Great Wall of China. He also told me that for the experience to feel more realistic, the users would be made to feel as if they were perspiring and that their joints were aching. The Bedroom Travel Package could deliver any type of sensory stimulation a user wants to experience.

Priced affordably, the package did away with the hassle of packing, flying, and sleeping on unfamiliar beds. One need not fear being robbed, acclimatization problems, or infectious diseases. Father helped Grandfather reverse his losses and later naturally took over the position of Chairman of the company.

But Father did not forget to give back to society. He provided the package free of charge to the Association of People with Disabilities so that they could enjoy the thrill of going on vacation like anyone else. Even if you were blind, as long as the related part of your brain remained active, Father would have a way to send a visual signal to allow you to ‘see’ the magnificent Sydney Opera House sitting on the water, or the yellow cabs that clogged the streets of New York City. When Father was forty and I was five, he was awarded the prestigious Most Distinguished Person of the Year Award, and then again for two consecutive years. Standing beside the blue company sign, Father was awe-inspiring.

Destruction pursues the great

The Bedroom Travel Agency had the world’s largest team whose members travelled to 600 destinations around the globe collecting data that would allow the experiences to be reconstructed after analysis. Father had personally embarked on the research trip to the Amazon River. He had wanted to allow a certain precious little girl (it was me) to experience the mysteries of the rain forest without having to worry about poisonous snakes or spiders, and to be able to brag about it to friends after the trip. He had told me that he would throw in a special giveaway in this package just for me: the experience of being stung by mosquitoes.

That was the last time I heard Father’s voice and felt the warmth of his hugs.

No one knew what happened. There were rumors that Father had been too cocky, and because destruction pursues the great, he had provoked jealousy among his peers, who poisoned him. There were no needle marks on his skin nor any spoiled food in his stomach, so the doctors had no way of knowing what antidote to give him. After hours of effort, they could only revive his cardiopulmonary functions; he no longer responded to external stimuli.

According to Mother, Father seemed to have had a premonition that something bad would happen before he left for South America. Before leaving, he gave her a full set of probes connected to a computer, and instructed her to put it on him if anything were to happen, as long as he was not brain dead. In that way, he could continue to feel like he was living in this world with us.

A worthy successor

After telling Zhihao all this, I felt despondent. I missed my dad dearly. He would not have travelled to South America himself were it not for me. My tears finally began to fall at this thought.

Zhihao looked at me tenderly, leaned over and hugged me around my waist. He held me and rocked gently, his chin on the top of my head, softly humming a melody. I could feel his Adam’s apple moving, as if he was trying to not cry. I knew he understood; he too had lost his father a few years ago. We were two sad souls on the same boat.

I felt a bit better as I leaned against his muscled torso and breathed in his scent. After trying so many times, I had finally got it right.

I took another deep breath. Satisfied, I reached into my pocket and switched off the small green device inside. I was the only person left in the dining room. Today’s test would stop here.

“How was it?” Mother asked as she walked over.

“Not bad, the upgraded version responded more quickly. There was no visual lag during our conversation like the last time.” I carefully removed the electrodes attached to my head, neatly arranging them in their storage case.

Mother nodded in agreement, “Yes, you seemed more natural this time.”

“We’ll need to test a few more times. If every interaction is as smooth as it is today, we’ll be able to launch this on the market in the second half of the year.”

“Blessed will be the single women of the world,” Mother said with an awkward laugh.

“You’re right. No one will need to go through my experience of meeting men who only want them for their money. No one will have to go out of their way to act all gentle and accommodating just to please the men of the world. They only need to input the characteristics of the type of man they want. They will get hugs when they want hugs; they will have flowers when they want flowers. He will say the right things at the right time, and will listen to you quietly when you are speaking instead of impatiently telling you what the solution should be. When you feel you no longer need the man, you can just switch off the simulation. No muss, no fuss.”

I glanced over and saw Mother looking proudly at me. She reached over to gently stroke Father’s arm. He did not respond. She said approvingly, “Seems like it was a good decision that you did not take over Dad’s empire after all.”

I did not agree, as I had yet to achieve what I had set out to do. I had a clear purpose in mind when I initiated this project. It was easy to reproduce shallow men who knew how to flatter women, but creating a virtual version of a great man requires time.

“I promise you, Mum. Give me just a few more months and I’ll have Dad back by your side. Wait for me.”

*****

Xiao Han is a contributing writer for Nu You magazine, and has columns in Zan and Lianhe Wanbao. Her first book of illustrated essays, Yan Lei Shi Jiao Nang, was published in 2011, and has since had four reprints. Her novel, Wu Zhi Xing Fu, was published in Singapore in 2012, Malaysia in 2014 and China in 2015. Based in Singapore, she is a seven-time winner of the Best Lyricist award at the Singapore Hit Awards and the first Singaporean lyricist to be nominated twice at the Golden Melody Awards. She has penned lyrics for many best-selling singers, as well as for musicals, movies, and events, including the National Day Parade (2008, 2009), and 2013 Chingay Parade (“Xue Zhong Hong).

Caterina Poh works as an arts manager and translator. Born and based in Singapore, she was one of the participants in Translators Lab, an intensive literary translation workshop led by Shelly Bryant and organised by The Select Centre. She translates from Chinese to English, and has worked with clients including the Foreign Language Press. A short story she co-translated, “The Cat Seller” by Chang Ching-Hung, was included in the BooksActually Gold Standard 2016 anthology.