Skip to main content

Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
Home
Contents
Biographies
Submissions
Archives
Editors
Contact Us
Publications
Policies

ORIGINS

by Pei Wang

 

"Tell me a story, ma ma," Keli says to me.

I look at my daughter, clinging to the hammer loop midway down the right leg of my loose jeans. She is not yet four, but she no longer wants to hold my hand. The loop is our compromise.

"Gu shi?" I say the word for story in Chinese.

She shrugs a teenager's shrug with her little shoulders, and I can see my Mandarin slide off of them like teardrops. Odd creature, I can't help but think sometimes when I look at my daughter. The way she looks less like a child emerging from her toddler self than a seventeen-year-old miniaturized to a three-foot scale.

***

Last week I tried to give her a bowl cut. I don't know why I did it. I hated the bowl cuts my own mother gave me until I was ten, the blunt fringe that looked like the work of a blind person wielding craft scissors and an overturned rice bowl. Perhaps I thought something would happen in Keli if she shared some of that experience, something that would make her skinny fingers reach for mine again.

In any regard, it didn't work. She doesn't look like the three-year-old me, pouting out from matte, faded prints in the albums stuffed between bookends atop the television of my parents' apartment. Her hair is limp, thinner than mine. It looks chicdespite my best efforts, like the retro bobs on the nymphs between the pages of my Vogue.

I'm still confused by the color of her hair. It's not inky black like my own, and it's not sandy blond like Willie's. It's something in between, a golden sort of brown like clover honey, and it has been since she was born. I think back to Mr. Gonzales in AP Biology, to warring chromosomes and dominant genes, something about one trait beating out another, and I wonder why Keli's hair seems to be a compromise rather than a signal of a clear victor.

***

"Gu shi," Keli finally concedes when I've said nothing for a long while. In her small voice I can hear that it will be a short time before she learns to roll her eyes. "Tell me a gu shi."

"Hao," I agree. I don't know why it's such a chore for her to speak Chinese. I had no choice at her age. I was an only child at three, and my parents, my grandmother, all the customers at our corner grocery spoke Chinese.

Keli gives me an impatient look, skinny eyebrows sliding up her high forehead, half of her mouth pulling back. She tugs on my hammer loop. Normally she asks for stories at our apartment in the Mission, or on the glade at Dolores Park, when I have her books. I'm unprepared.

There is a story at the bottom of my brainstem that I want to tell her, but I don't have the words for it. "Hao hao zhu yi," I begin. Pay careful attention. I say this because it's the only way I know how to start. My daughter is pulling me around the northeast corner of Chinatown's Portsmouth Square, toward the Sweet Mart candy store on Washington near Grant, but I know from the way her head is turned in toward me that she is listening.

***

"Hao hao zhu yi."  This was the way my mother began stories, my signal to slow my hands in whatever they were doing and lean closer. If the story was particularly important, she wouldn't say another word until I had abandoned all else completely and turned to face her. I was six when she told me the first story in my memory, and this was one of those important stories.

"I haven't always been your ma ma," she said, once I'd closed my Little Golden Book and placed it beside me on the floor. I looked up at her face, plump-cheeked and a high forehead like my own. "The month you were born, I was walking home from the library."

She looked hard at me then, to make sure I was listening. "Tu shu guan," she emphasized. "This is a good place to spend your time. It was evening, and the air was very thick and cold. But I was cong ming enough to wear a big wool coat. It is always smart to stay covered up. Ming bai, ma?"

She waited for me to tell her I understood, and I nodded.

"I was walking through an empty alley, and I heard something crying, like a baby. It was coming from a dumpster up ahead. I went to it and saw you inside of it, just a tiny baby, all red and with a face like a balloon."

I puffed my cheeks out at this point, but my mother didn't laugh, so I sucked them back in.

"Now, you weren't the only bao bao in that dumpster. There were many others. But your cries were so loud, and you had such beautiful black hair already so thick on your head. And the other babies were all dead."

My mother was no longer looking at me. She looked instead at the table, at the pile of string beans she'd been trimming with her thumbnail before she'd started her story.

"All those poor babies. You are very lucky I found you when I did. I carried you all the way home in my jacket and raised you like my own nu er."

I knew even then that this story wasn't true. I'd seen pictures of my newborn self taken in front of the hospital, pictures of my mother's belly heavy with me. And I knew my mother's storytelling voice, a voice that was graver, slower than her regular voice. Even so, I felt like I owed my mother a huge debt for snatching me out of death's talons.

***

"A long time ago," I tell Keli, "there was a little girl who lived with her ma ma and ba ba in a little village—"

"What was her name?" my daughter interrupts me as she pulls me by the loop into Sweet Mart.

"Maddie." I say the first name that comes to mind.

"It can't be Maddie, I already have two Maddies." It's true. There are two Maddies in her class at preschool.

"Okay. Her name was Ella."

"Okay. How many was she?"

"You mean, how old?" I correct her. "Ji sui?" I flip it into Chinese.

"Yeah, how old?"

"Nearly four." I know Keli won't be satisfied unless Ella is precisely her age.

"Okay. Is the village near San Francisco?"

"It's seventy-five miles east." I'm not even sure what's seventy-five miles east of here.

"That's far."

"Not that far. Your grandparents–your wai gong and wai po–are four hundred miles south."

"Okay."

Keli goes straight for the plastic bins of gummy candies, tugging me behind her. She's familiar with the inventory here, since she manages to guide us to Sweet Mart every Sunday. I look around at the dozens of handbags for sale, stuffed against the windows, above the candy.

***

My parents are probably both at our family's store right now, in that other Chinatown four hundred miles south of here, the one I left behind. Our store is a lot like Sweet Mart, I think, a motley selection of goods packed into tight aisles. A few years ago, my father even started making tapioca drinks behind the counter.

I figure my sister Amy is studying back at the apartment. It's March, so she probably has midterms at UCLA, where she's finishing up her last semester. I assume the sun is out down there, unlike the pinching cold I've grown used to in San Francisco, but I'm sure Amy is playing the good daughter with her nose in the books. A role I was never good at.

Perhaps that's why my mother spared Amy the stories she raised me on. Amy was not found in the garbage, screaming atop a pile of dead babies. She was born quietly at the county hospital.

***

Keli fills the small plastic bag with the amount she knows she's allowed of chewy green melon-flavored rings. She looks back at me, the candy shovel still poised over the open bin. I shake my head. Shrugging, she replaces the shovel and closes the bin.

"Ella's ma ma and ba ba loved her very much," I continue once we're outside on Washington again. "Her ma ma took her out for candy every single Sunday."

Keli looks up at me with an expression I can only describe as suspicious. Her brows collect a little, her little mouth purses. Then she giggles, a sound like bubbles. We cross the street and step into Portsmouth Square. Passing the old Chinese men crowded around their xiang qi games, my daughter and I cross the square to the Clay Street side, where the playground is.

"Hold on," my daughter says to me very seriously, sounding even older than usual. She tucks her bag of gummy rings into her homemade felt tote, which we stitched together at home a few Saturdays ago.

Handing the tote bag to me, Keli starts climbing up the ladder toward the top of the tallest yellow slide, which winds in what seems to me like a rather lethal corkscrew back down to the ground. Although she plummets down this slide every Sunday, I find myself sucking back my breath and holding it as I watch her ascend.

She is surrounded by Chinese children and the staccato of Cantonese. I wonder if she will someday recognize herself in any of it, the angle of her eyes, the golden hue in her skin, the language of her ancestors. Or if she will grow to feel trapped against it all, like I did.

***

I think of Ella and her village seventy-five miles east of San Francisco, trying to imagine what comes next for her. My mother was so effortless at this sort of storytelling. Perhaps it was because she always told stories with intention. The story of my birth was meant, as were all my mother's fictions, to be didactic. It was designed to teach me the value of the public library, warm clothing, and unbending gratitude to my parents.

Most of my mother's stories involve death. Remarkably, the death tends to happen to someone roughly my age. And they all contain lessons. For example, mah jong, unwashed soda cans, and playing near cliffs are all bad for you, and each will likely lead to the death of someone close to your age. Obeying your mother and father, getting straight A's, and wool coats, these things will keep you basically okay.

***

I was sixteen the first time I saw the ocean. I snuck out of Chinatown on a Sunday morning, muttering something about a study session to get out of working at the store, got on a bus bound for Santa Monica, past the morning tai chi groups and the Chinese street signs, twenty miles to blond sand and blue sea.

I never told my parents what I'd done, what I continued to do every chance I got until I left home nine years ago. But two days after that first time, my mother told me a story. Hao hao zhu yi, she began in her storytelling voice while washing rice in the kitchen sink. She went on to tell me about a teenage girl she'd heard about, who skipped school to hang around strangers. The strangers gave her gifts, told her how pretty she was. Then one of them, a boy, of course, drove her far from home to a street she'd never seen, and he cut out her heart and chopped off her head.

Of course, she couldn't have known where I'd gone. She couldn't have known what would happen in the next two years, the way I would grow out of the begrudgingly dutiful Chinese daughter and into the girl who would invent more reasons to creep beyond the borders of Chinatown. The girl who would lose her virginity to a blond boy in a sandy sleeping bag next to the pier. Who would grow ashamed of her little Chinatown apartment, her realm of red Buddha statuettes with their broken toes and their shiny-worn bellies rubbed for good luck, the smells of fish jerky and Tiger Balm barely edging out the incense being burned for her dead grandmother. The way I would soon loathe any indication that I was different from my new crop of white friends, that my history was not the one of the settlers and the Mayflower, but one of pagodas and imperial eunuchs.

It was like she saw a change in me even before I did. She saw through my secrets, saw into my future, saw that I would drive far away from home on streets I'd never seen.

***

Keli comes back to me after two trips down the slide, taking a far more measured approach than usual. She takes back her tote full of candy and waits for me to stand before grabbing onto my hammer loop again.

"Okay," she says, and I know this is my cue to continue Ella's story.

"Alright. As I was saying, Ella's ma ma and ba ba loved her very much. Her ba ba made delicious pancakes for her on Saturday mornings, pancakes with marshmallows in them."

"Like my ba ba," Keli says thoughtfully.

"Exactly. Anyway, all of Ella's very best friends lived in the village too. Next door, across the street, around the corner."

"What's their names?"

"Betsy, Amanda, and Freddie," I say, carefully avoiding the names of her classmates.

"Okay."

"And Ella's school was in the village, and a great big park with lots of swings and slides."

Keli grins her odd little grin, which is nearly as tall as it is wide, showing both rows of tiny white teeth. Moving through the knots of tourists on Grant Avenue, she folds in closer to my side.

"And then?" my daughter asks.

"One day, Ella and her ma ma were taking a walk. They walked for a very, very long time."

"How long?"

"Two hours and forty-seven minutes."

"That's long."

"Yes, for walking, that's a long time. So, they walked for two hours and forty-seven minutes, past all the places they knew. They walked past all her friends' houses, past the candy store she liked, even all the way past the great big park. They walked until there weren't even sidewalks anymore, just grass. They walked and walked until they came to the very outside edge of the village, and there beyond the edge of the village was the biggest tree they'd ever seen."

"How big?"

"At least thirty-four feet tall. It was cloudy, and the tree was so tall that it stretched all the way up past the clouds where Ella and her ma ma couldn't see."

"Wow, that's really big."

"You're right. And Ella wanted to climb that tree so badly that even when her ma ma said no, she ran away as fast as she could and started climbing."

***

I can feel my mother's storytelling voice in my throat, and I can feel my mother's ending being tugged out of the story I'm telling, feel how Ella's little green sneaker is going to miss a limb nineteen feet up.

***

I couldn't wait to shake my mother's stories when I arrived at Berkeley my freshman year. I brought exactly one rolling suitcase and one worn duffel bag with me into my dorm room. The suitcase contained my clothes, the little Buddha from our bathroom, some of my mother's jade, and some family photos. My mother packed the duffel for me, and it was stuffed full of nothing but ramen packages in shrimp, chicken, beef, and "original" flavors.

They followed me, though, my mother's stories, up the 110 and the 5, through the four hundred miles I'd put between us. She called daily, and she e-mailed urban legends at every opportunity, messages with "FWD:" in their titles and tales of dead college girls beneath. A girl decapitated at the gas station one week, a girl held captive under a man's house the next. "You must be very xiao xin," she would tell me. "The world is not a safe place."

***

"Did her ma ma catch her?" Keli asks me. She edges around a table of one-dollar sandals on the sidewalk in front of Fashion Bag & Gifts as we near the intersection with Pine Street.

"Oh, her ma ma tried to climb after her, but Ella was much too fast. Her ma ma yelled for her to come back down, but Ella just laughed and laughed and climbed higher and higher."

***

I was in an Asian Studies class my last semester at Berkeley. Halfway through my textbook, in the section on the Cultural Revolution, was a black and white photograph on the right-hand page, a photo of six Chinese men kneeling in a row. Each man had a large placard hanging from his neck, angry Chinese characters marching across them. Each man's head was bowed against the jeers of a mob surrounding them, against the group of young uniformed men holding guns, against the banners and the fists held high. Each man's head was bowed except for one, which was being pulled back by the hair to face the crowd. The photo was labeled, simply, "A struggle session in Guangdong Province, 1967."

A photograph of my paternal grandfather – my ye ye – was framed above the kitchen sink in my parents' apartment. In the photograph, he is in his early thirties, wearing a padded coat and a hat that resembles a beret. I looked at this photograph each day of my childhood, and this is why I knew that the man facing the mob in my textbook was my ye ye.

"What's the point in talking about such old things?" my mother asked when I called her.

"How did ye ye die?" I pushed. I knew that he'd died before my grandmother fled China with my father, but I'd never been told how. My mother always told just the first sentences of the true stories, the ones about our family, and stopped there. I never probed for more, too busy reveling in my mother's silence.

"It doesn't matter," my mother answered.

"Was he killed?" I asked. "Was he shot?"

"Ai ya, you shouldn't ask such questions– "

"It matters to me, ma, it's my history."

"What's the point in bringing up old business?" she repeated.

"Where's ba? Let me talk to him."

"No. You mustn't talk to him about these things. Bu zhun," she emphasized.

"Why not?" I couldn't believe my mother would keep this from me, my own legacy, leave me with two decades of truncated family histories.

"Because your parents crossed an ocean so that you wouldn't have to worry about history," she said. Then, "Ai ya, you don't know how lucky you are. You can look forward. Everything is possible. Everything is forever in front of you."

"Ella climbed up where the air was cold and very thin, up so far that her ma ma was just a tiny speck at the bottom of the tree, so far that she couldn't hear her ma ma calling her to come back down."

"Was she scared?" Keli asks.

"A little," I say. I think of my daughter scrambling up the ladder to get to the top of the slide. "But she kept on climbing."

***

The day I confronted my mother about ye ye was the day she stopped killing off girls like me in her fictions. Our phone conversations became flat, perfunctory exchanges after that. She had no more stories for me, true or false. Look forward, she'd said.

***

Keli pauses, tired, under the dragon gate that stretches over the intersection of Grant and Bush. She lets go of my loop to reach into her tote and retrieve a gummy ring. She holds the ring out to me, which I take, and reaches back in to get a ring for herself.

We stop here for awhile, under the twin dragons that guard the southern border of this Chinatown, and I think of the other dragons guarding my parents' Chinatown, their golden bodies snaking across Cesar Chavez Avenue. I remember the last time I passed through that other gate nearly a decade ago now, and I wonder why every Sunday morning I bring my daughter here to this gate while the other mothers in our building are bringing their children to church.

"Before long," I continue as we lean against one of the gate's concrete pillars, chewing our gummy rings, "Ella reached the very top of the big tree. Then she realized how far up she'd climbed, and now she was very scared. When she looked down, all she could see were the clouds. Her little arms were getting very tired, and her feet hurt from all the climbing. She hung on to the tree's wide trunk as tightly as she could."

***

It took my parents nearly a year to visit us after Keli was born, and when they did, they drove up for just a day. My father brought sundries from their store, like cleaning supplies and ramen. The four of us – me, Keli, and my parents – went to lunch here in Chinatown while Willie wisely stayed behind in our apartment.

My mother called me aside before they headed south again, as my father gassed up the car at the Arco near our apartment. She handed me a cloth-wrapped package, which I untied in spite of her protests.

Inside it was the photograph of my ye ye in his padded coat.

"Ma, what's this for?"

"Nothing, nothing."

"What happened to him, ma?"

"Ai ya," she grumbled, then turned away from me to walk back to the car.

"And then?" Keli asks, looking up from where she leans against my hip.

And then she tumbled to the ground, past the clouds and the leaves and the branches and her mother who tried to save her, my mother's voice says in my ear.

***

Maybe if I'd asked her when I was six, the garbage and the dead babies fresh out of her mouth, when I might have been a different child and she a different mother. But at twenty-seven, perhaps time has unraveled too long a cord between us.

My mother has no more stories for me. Not even a tale of her own construction, warning me of obscure dangers to my life. Maybe she's given up on teaching me lessons. Or perhaps in my years away from her, my mother started to believe that I was possible, that she could send me into the world without me dying.

***

"And then," I say, reaching down to lift my daughter into my arms. She looks at me quizzically, but she circles her arms around my neck, under the collar of my coat.

I wrap the front of my coat around her and think of that first story in my memory, the story of my birth, the first of my mother's fictional tragedies. And I understand now that the thinnest thread of the pain in our family's history is blind-stitched through the fabric of these tales. And I hear what my mother was telling me when I was six. That I am the one who survives.

"And then," I begin again, "Ella remembered that she could fly."