[This piece won the Grand Prize of The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition]
BY JESSICA WANG
When I was young, I loved you. I loved the bristle of your black hair in my hand and the crinkle in your eyes as you twirled around for the tenth time to funky pop music blasting in the background. Back then you had loved dancing, and I loved watching you do it. I still remember you cartwheeling and flipping across the faded Chinese carpet māmā had bought for twenty dollars at the thrift store. We used to give dancing performances to lǎolao and lǎoyé on it, both of us dressed in oversized boots and māmā’s prized velvet hats. Lǎolao and lǎoyé would always take us to the convenience store after each performance and allow us to pick up as many candy bars and bubble gum pieces as we wanted, spoiling us in a way only grandparents can. We made sure to give a lot of performances.
I remember our trips to China and māmā taking us to the nearby opera one day. You had worn a red dress bedazzled with golden silk and boots with flaking Hello Kitties that day, and I thought you were the most beautiful person in the world. We had settled in our red seats and the world itself hushed when the curtains opened. The performers were dressed in shades of red and seemed to float on the stage the same way water lilies floated on a koi pond. You had told me you wanted to float like that one day, and the woman next to us had to bite her tongue to stop herself from laughing. Later a man performed the traditional biàn liǎn trick, changing his dragon mask to a tiger mask in a matter of seconds. He was so fast we only saw a swirl of black and gold. It was so startling you dropped your plum juice onto your lap, which caused māmā to throw a fit afterward.
Back in America we had vowed to discover the secret behind the man’s biàn liǎn trick and found a YouTube video on it from bàba’s forbidden work computer. But the video was thirty minutes long and included a dozen advertisements with red pigtailed girls holding up sweaty hamburgers, so we never did find out.
I loved you so much.
I always liked your name. It’s a little hard to pronounce, but I like it. It stands for a certain scent, a warm and cozy one, like the smoke of a crackling fire or the smell of fresh dumplings māmā makes every Friday. I was obsessed with your name and liked repeating it over and over again just to hear the sweet syllables ring out. It reminded me of lazy days spent in lǎolao’s apartment in Beijing, eating chewy tart haw flakes and watching mandarin dubbed Hello Kitty. I even knew how to write your name, all nine strokes of it, and I was never good at writing the loopy letters of our mandarin language.
Māmā told me she named you after a princess she used to read about in the faded yellow pages of her grandma’s fairy tale book. She used to tell me stories from the book, weaving together fluttering words about the monkey king and his magical baton that could change sizes. She never told me what your story was about, but I’d like to imagine the princess had beautiful black hair like yours and crescent moon eyes that shone with delight. Maybe she liked to dance.
In America, māmā called me “Jessica.” It’s a nice name and easy to pronounce, but it wasn’t as pretty as your name, Xiāng Xiāng.
The first time I heard the word “chink” I was in 3rd grade. I was eating a pork pastry māmā bought from the asian pastry shop downtown. A boy with buck teeth and straw hair came up to me and asked if I was Chinese. When I said yes, he said I guess you’re a chink and then asked if he could borrow my pencil. I don’t remember much about that kid except that he threw tantrums often and liked picking his nose with his pinky finger. He was actually pretty nice. I think his name was Tim.
When I got home, I asked māmā what it meant to be a chink and her face grew all sour and angry like a dried up prune. She didn’t say anything and instead went to bàba’s work office, slamming the door shut. There were many phones ringing that day.
I searched the word up later on bàba’s work computer and found out that chink meant “a small cleft, slit, crack or fissure.” You patted me on the back and reassured me that I did not look like a crack or a fissure and I appreciated your support. That day we had performed a sequence of cartwheels to our grandparents and you slipped and fell.
You never fall.
Now that I think about it, I don’t even think you knew what the word fissure meant.
We used to spend Sunday mornings at the local high school learning how to write squiggly mandarin and recite mandarin syllables. In the afternoon the program offered clubs centered on Chinese culture where we learned how to play “Go” and wrap dumplings. It was basically a Sunday School for Chinese kids, a place for people like us. I remember every Sunday māmā would give us enough money to buy one treat from the vending machine in the front office. I always chose Cheetos because I liked licking the orange dust off my fingers. There was nothing in this world that was better than artificial cheese on fingers. I remember we would walk home afterwards, sticky hands intertwined.
One Sunday I failed a big exam. It was an easy test on numbers. Everybody else scored in the 90s or 100s, but I got a big ol’ 61 written in red ink. It was my own fault. I had chosen to start playing soccer, which had games every other Sunday. All my American friends played soccer, so of course I needed to play soccer too. At age twelve, I already knew the rules of fitting in.
But you didn’t. You didn’t even know there were rules, and if there were, you didn’t care. You once told me that if everything was the same, then nothing would be fun anymore. Besides, you had long given up on fitting in, choosing to dress in big red T-shirts and ruffled red skirts and red shoes that clicked when you tapped them together. And when I asked why you dressed in so much red you proudly stated that red is a lucky color. You told me it’s the color of soft paper lanterns and candied fruits and folded envelopes and silk dresses with yellow dragons. The color of us. Plus, it complemented your skin tone.
That day you berated me in the hallway, saying that I should quit soccer and how Chinese school was more fun and how they even had a dance program we could sign up for. I don’t even know why you wanted to continue dancing, lǎolao and lǎoyé were back in China so our flow of junk food was cut off. But then you looked at me with stars in your eyes and said it was our culture in such a wistful way I almost caved in. Then I thought about the stares and whispers of my American friends, and I ignored you.
You walked home alone that day.
When I told my American friends, I wanted to be Caucasian, they laughed and called me insane. I remember one of them told me that Asians were exotic and I should be proud to be one. I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered. They didn’t understand the extent to which I envied them, how much I wanted to take their skin and use it to cover up mine, as if skin could be copied and pasted. I just wanted to feel for once what it felt like to be beautiful. Just once.
That night I dyed my hair blonde in front of the mirror. The dye stung my scalp and caused my eyes to turn into watery kaleidoscopes. I didn’t even think I looked that pretty as a blonde. But I didn’t regret it, not one bit.
And when you saw me as a blonde, you had cupped my face and kissed away my tears, your lips soft and red on my cheeks. You had kissed my skin, my eyes, and my hands, embracing the parts of me I never loved.
You told me I was already beautiful, that I didn’t need to change at all, that my soft yellow skin reminded you of the sunlight and the curve of my eyes was like the moon’s. You told me that my pupils held the beauty of the night and that when I danced I stole the very breath from your lungs.
I wish I could have believed you. I wish I could have seen myself the way you saw me.
I called you ugly on a Thursday night when the air was foggy and the clouds covered up the stars. I said I hated you and how you were a stupid, slit-eyed girl with piss-colored skin. I screamed that you were the source of my problems and that I could never fit in thanks to you. I called you every single hateful name I could think of and pulled at your black hair and clawed at your face.
The worst thing was that you said nothing. You just sat there and stared back from my bedroom mirror. And when I pressed my head against the surface of the mirror, so did you. When I traced my hands down the reflecting glass, so did you. You looked strange with blonde hair.
I kissed you that night, pressed my lips against the glass mirror and watched as you did the same. I kissed you through the mirror, eyes closed and tears dripping down my cheeks. You were my culture, my ethnicity, me. Your only crime was your existence, your only gift, love, and I had beat and shunned you. My own ethnicity.
I smashed the mirror that night. Every single bit of it. The glass pieces looked like tiny glittering stars and held the reflection of someone I didn’t know. I then stepped on those starry shards, grinding them into minuscule bits and watched as my feet bled the color of us. I couldn’t stand looking at you with your blonde hair and moon eyes. I couldn’t stand how much I had changed myself. I had hurt you myself in the worst ways possible.
That night I curled up into a ball and hugged myself, stroking my soft yellow skin and tracing the curve of my eyes. I memorized the tender flesh of my cheeks and the coarseness of my hair, and promised that I would treat myself better.
And underneath the darkness of my blankets, I whispered a thousand apologies to myself that went unanswered.
My name is Jessica Wang but my Chinese name is Wang Xiāng Xiāng. I was born in America, but my parents are Chinese immigrants. I enjoy dancing and performing in front of others, but not as much as I love eating Cheetos. In my sixteen years of life, I have learned I can never change my soft yellow skin, moon eyes, and black daisy-smelling hair. These are the gifts of my ethnicity, gifts from you. They are more than enough for me. The name “Jessica” comes from American soil, while the name “Xiāng Xiāng” comes from a land of dancers that float like water lilies. They are both my names, two halves of one whole. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You and Me.
I go outside one day, wearing a red skirt and a red tank top with thick, red balm all over my lips. My red shoes click when I tap them together. Red is a lucky color. It’s the color of me, of us. I scream and holler broken mandarin words so the world can hear, and just in case the world doesn’t hear it the first time, I scream again. And again. And again.
Hear me. See me. Feel me.
I no longer play soccer; instead, I try to write mandarin words I had long forgotten and help māmā fold and crimp meat dumplings. Lǎolao and lǎoyé FaceTime occasionally and they show me the world around them: red paper lanterns, folded envelopes, silk dresses and all. I even play “Go” with bàba and of course am utterly defeated in a matter of minutes.
And sometimes just for the sake of childhood, I put on a pair of neon green boots and fish out one of māmā’s scarves and add a floppy yellow sun hat to top it off. I switch the radio to a station that plays funky pop music and raise my hands to prepare for a cartwheel. I make sure the performance is outstanding, with twirls and handstands and all sorts of kicks and jumps. It’s certainly not a Chinese dance, but it reminds me of folding dumplings and yellow lanterns and dancers that float like water lilies. It makes me feel closer to my culture, to my ethnicity, to you. Throughout my performance I can hear you beating, pulsing, whispering, in my ear, I love you. I love you. I love you.
You are beautiful.
I am beautiful.