Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review


Janet Song

The first time my mother was angry at Jiu Jiu was over steak in Shanghai. She told me it happened during the summer of ’89, when a rumor was going around about officials shutting train stations all across China to stop the flow of students rushing towards Tiananmen. My mother, then a sophomore, was enjoying steak in her university’s cafeteria when her brother knocked it off from her table. He shouted, What are you doing? Don’t you know what’s going on? We need to get on the train! After this she said that whenever she looked back on that summer, she could still hear her brother yelling and the steak on the floor, oozing with rich fat and brown sauce. Sometimes she remembered its mouthwatering smell, and sometimes she could only smell blood.

My mother was the second child of two, when you could have two, when you couldn’t have six anymore—which was why she had five aunties named One, Two, Three, Four, and Five, respectively. By the time she was born, only Four and Five remained. One’s head was cut off by a Japanese soldier thirty years ago. And a year before my mother came into the world, twin sisters Two and Three died together. They chose to bang their heads out on the street the same way hens pecked the ground for worms until blood oozed out. Supposedly after being beheaded, the body of a chicken can run a few more steps, and it was said that Two’s body continued to tremble even after she bled.

Though they still called Four and Five by their respective numbers, One was seldom spoken of, and the family barely acknowledged Two and Three’s existence. Lao Ye, my grandfather who was born after Two and Three, believed their twinhood was a curse. Twins share the same womb and same mind, he had said, splitting two strawberries merged at the center with his fingernails. Madness runs between both their minds. That’s why it’s better to separate them by years. He said it was a miracle that my mother had a daughter and son six years apart. You and Andy are lucky six, can you believe it? Tell your American friends how lucky you are.

I was seven that time, and like many other stories my Lao Ye would tell me, I saw the story of the twins as a fairy tale. I thought of my family’s history the same way I thought of myths, or like the stories read at St. Mary’s, the elementary school I attended even though my family was not Catholic. I believed, in the same way people wore crosses for Jesus that you could wear my family’s stories with pride. The next day I honored the twins by drawing blood splotches and 6’s on my forehead, prompting a phone call home from Sister Catherine. As my mom wiped the red marker off my face, she grumbled, Your grandfather was wrong to tell you about my aunts. To you, it is just a story. To our family, it is so much more.

In a way, her words ended one story and began another. The story of our family in China ended, the story of our family in America began. Except my mother began that story with a lie. She said she and my father came to America because life was better here compared to China, and accredited this claim to Jiu Jiu, saying that coming to the West was why he now worked in a successful company in California. She couldn’t tell me that the West was the reason why she and him couldn’t stay in China. If she really wanted to begin the story truthfully, she would have to start with the British boats arriving towards China’s shoreline. But she would say that it was not her story to tell.

The second time my mother was angry at Jiu Jiu was when they visited the Summer Palace together two years after the June 4th protests. Jiu Jiu was rowing a boat across the lake when he noticed Cixi’s Marble Boat. Isn’t it sad, he said to my mother, how that dynasty spent all their military funds on that marble boat? Sinking was inevitable, but they still tried to make stone float in water. And all this because British people poisoned us with opium. My mother then screamed at him to pay attention, and they almost crashed their boat into the ship’s stone hull. You could’ve destroyed it, my mother cried. Jiu Jiu was incredulous. Don’t be ridiculous. Even if I did anything, it’ll just be rebuilt. That’s what China did when the British ransacked it, and that’s what China will do if we broke it. That’s what you do with old wounds, sister. You hide them.

My mother angrily took the oars from him and rowed all the way back to the main dock. One of the oars gave her a splinter that left a large scar on her palm. When I first asked her where she got it from, she claimed not to remember. A lie she would soon always use whenever I asked her about her life. It was almost as if she was pastless, that she had always been just my mother. I imagined that my mother had been born like a Russian wooden doll—coming out of her mother’s belly as a grown woman, immediately breaking herself to birth me, her tiny daughter.

The third time my mother was angry at Jiu Jiu was when her mother, my Lao Lao, died. He was now the C.E.O. of his plastic appliance company, so he visited China more often than my mother did through business trips. But when my grandfather called to say that Lao Lao needed her children to tend to her during her dying days, Jiu Jiu excused himself and said there was a meeting he had to attend to somewhere in Las Vegas. He bought me a tooth fairy box there with a British flag emblem, which my mother would later use to store a clipping of Andy’s hair. 

A year after my mother attended Lao Lao’s funeral alone with my grandfather, Jiu Jiu sent her a photo of him and Lao Ye on WeChat. Jiu Jiu had another business trip this time, and wanted to show my mother how well the old man was managing his grief. Jiu Jiu had wrapped his arm around Lao Ye like a businessman—with that elusive, feigned closeness—as they grinned behind a table full of meat entrées. Lao Ye smiled, but his eyes were distant, staring at the camera like a face he didn’t recognize.

Look at all that meat, was all my mother could say as my brother and I shared a slab of beef together at dinner. Your uncle knows how to spend his money. Andy, there’s even lobster—your favorite. Maybe you can fly to Jiu Jiu and beg him for some. My brother popped his finger out of his mouth, drooling all over. We laughed and I wiped his face dry. 

Ma and I used to joke that Andy was so much like Jiu Jiu, with his extravagant tastes for meat and seafood, and his unhealthy addiction to Coca Cola. But I never thought that Andy would grow up to be like my Jiu Jiu—a Chinese businessman in America who spoiled loved ones with gifts and enjoyed childish things like Lego sets and video games. Since my brother was epileptic I had it ingrained in me that he would always be someone I had to look after. After all, my mother always reminded me to look out for him whenever he and I were together. My brother never did, she would lament. He left me to dust when I needed him. He never cares about family. That is why he’s selfish and never visits.

After Andy died, I said it wasn’t fair to baby him all his life. We both deserved to grow. Fast growth for him, slow growth for me. You made me his second mother. My mother stopped cutting carrots by the sink and told me that she’d always known Andy would die. You and your brother are not the same as my brother and I. You were never meant to grow old together. I asked her to elaborate but her knife cut us off and scraped the bottom of her fingernails. She held her finger in her mouth, sucking it like a baby, and we never spoke about Andy again.

The fourth time Ma was angry at Jiu Jiu was when my brother Andy had his fatal seizure. She, Andy, and I had come to Beijing a week ago to unite with our uncle, where we planned to spend time together with our mainland relatives. My father couldn’t come with us because his boss wouldn’t give him the vacation days, even though his boss said to him, Oh I love China. I visited the Bund in Shanghai with my wife, heard of it? to which my father shook his head, because he did not know that the Bund was the colonial name of Waitan, where he used to bike around with his soon-to-be wife and admire the European architecture and say to her, Wouldn’t it be nice to visit the West? before they settled in America. So my mother had to rely on Jiu Jiu to look after us when she wanted to go alone and pay respects at Lao Lao’s grave.

Jiu Jiu took us to the Forbidden City, where he had us pose for a photograph next to Mao’s face at the Tiananmen Gate, and then—unable to handle the Beijing heat—left us to go buy himself a popsicle. Later he would tell my mother that he was thinking of buying Andy a popsicle too, but even so, that was after he got on the line. He didn’t know Andy had hit his head on the pavement until he overheard the British couple in front of him muttering about a Beijing local screaming, and even then Jiu Jiu did not realize it was me until I yelled his English name. Only then did he understand that these were the cries of a tourist, not a native.

When I try to think back, I don’t remember my brother or how my mother yelled at my uncle that day. Instead I remember the British couple’s heads sticking out among the sea of Chinese, and how they only stared at me even though I yelled for my brother and uncle in English, even though I was a tourist like them. As if I were the site they had come to visit, not the Forbidden City, not Tiananmen. But I was not their kind of tourist. They were tourists who had homes they could return to. I did not. Between worlds, I would always be foreign.

I didn’t eat anything when we came to Lao Ye’s home, except for a few strawberries he left in the fridge. I popped one in my mouth with the stem unplucked, and was surprised at how salty it tasted. Then my mouth stung and I realized I’d bitten my tongue. But I kept eating blood and berries, crying silently while Ma and Jiu Jiu argued near the bed where Andy once slept.

Sometime after we scattered Andy’s ashes in the sea, I asked my mother why she didn’t bring us to the graveyard that day. The stain of my brother’s blood was still there in Beijing, along with the blood stains of thousands from ’89, the blood stains of the twin great aunts I never met—many blood stains I didn’t know that were all washed out by Beijing’s rain. And we could no longer visit these invisible graveyards in China—the virus that year spread from Seattle to the east coast, and my college had shut down for the year, and the classmates from China that had never liked me in our Asian history classes were rushed back to the mainland, and my Jiu Jiu was in the hospital back in California after a white man called him a bat eater and threw a glass bottle at him.

I asked my mother why we hadn’t been able to see Lao Lao, saying, She was our grandmother too with an unexplained bitterness. Perhaps I was blaming Lao Lao, blaming my own grandmother for dying, as if things would’ve changed if she hadn’t died at all or if my mother had allowed us to see her headstone.

My mother said You are too young. It was the same thing she used to say to me when I asked why the tanks showed up on June 4th, it was what she said to me when I asked her about Mao and the songs Lao Ye would sometimes sing about him—she said this every time I asked if I could have a sliver of the family burden she had brought over here. You are too young to know and you shouldn’t know. We didn’t bring you to America to worry about these trivial things. One day, when you’re older, you’ll understand why.

She said this to me at age twelve, then thirteen, and fourteen, and fifteen, and years passed and I asked her again at twenty. We were eating takeout from Applebee’s; I ate a hamburger and she ate steak. When will I be old enough? I asked her. Someday you’ll be old too, Ma, and I’ll be the one carrying our family’s history. Your grandchildren will need to know why you came here. It’s the only way they’ll ever understand themselves.

My mother slid her plate towards me, suddenly full. For a moment I could see all the white hairs on her scalp, glowing under the lights. She murmured, Eat up. I saved the reddest part for you. She told me that a mind needs more meat, more blood, in order to grow.


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