The following is an excerpt from Alexandra Chang’s debut novel Days of Distraction, available now from Ecco.
My dad walks into the shop an hour later in his whole getup. He walks with bravado. He is doing better than I’d imagined, though his clothes hang loosely from his skinny frame and his face seems made of sharper angles. I am still getting used to seeing him in front of me.
“Did you look up the fisher girl’s story?” he asks as he sits down, placing a giant black backpack by his feet.
“No, not yet. I’ll look it up now,” I say. “What do you carry around in that thing? It’s huge. Is it heavy?”
“No, not heavy. I have maps, some guides, a long flashlight. Doubles as a weapon, just in case. Napkins, there’s enough for the both of us—you know you need to carry around your own napkins and tissues here. My beer. And it can hold whatever we buy.”
“Okay. Here, drink some of my tea,” I say. “Eat the rest of the pork bun.”
“I’ll have a few zips.”
“Sips,” I say as I type Zhuhai fisher girl into the search bar.
He drinks, but does not eat the bun. “Not sips. Zips. That’s my term for it.”•
The fisher girl was not quite an angel, like he’d said. She was the daughter of the Dragon King from the South China Sea. An immortal goddess-type entity. Drawn to the beauty of Zhuhai’s Xianglu Bay, she morphed herself into an average fisher girl to live in the area. She met and fell in love with a mortal man who loved her in return. The man, however, motivated by (1) gossip and rumors against her or (2) a devil-type figure baiting him or (3) his own plain curiosity (depending on the source of the story), requested that the girl prove her love by giving him her bracelet. She confessed her origins to him, explaining that the bracelet tied her to her father and home. If it was removed, she would not only lose her immortality, she would die on the spot. The man did not believe her and walked away. So the girl, in love and despair, took off her bracelet. As she said she would, she died. The man felt immense regret and remorse and sorrow. An immortal elder, unrelated to the Dragon King, was moved by the couple’s deep love. The elder decided to help the man locate an herb known to resurrect the dead. The herb, however, could only grow from the nutrients of human blood. The man used his own blood for days, weeks, years. When the herb was ready, he brought the once immortal goddess back to life as a mortal fisher girl. On the couple’s wedding day, the fisher girl gave the helpful elder a giant pearl to express her gratitude. This is what the statue of her in the bay is holding above her head. The statue was built in 1982, and is the main tourist attraction along the path known as “Lovers’ Road.”
“Ah right, right,” says my dad. “I knew it was something like that. One of the nicknames for Zhuhai is ‘Romantic City.’”
“Doesn’t sound like a very romantic story to me,” I say. “Sounds like the man was selfish and made her die in the first place.”
“That’s one way to interpret it,” he says. “But then he makes up for his mistake. And in the end, she could be a normal human, like she wanted. Sacrifice for sacrifice. Okay, enough of those stories, let’s get going. Lots of places to see, people to meet.”
He takes me to all of his spots. We walk all of his neighborhood walks. He introduces me to everyone. The market grandma and grandpa. The fruit stand lady and her son. The tea auntie. The trinkets stall uncle. The cold noodle couple. Each time, he talks and talks, showing me off. And each time, I stand up straight. (“This girl knows how to stand,” the Chinese teachers used to say. But that was only for them. The rest of the time I hunched wildly.) I want to convey to these people, so badly: Look, this crazy old man has a decent, high-functioning daughter.
It is impossible for me to find shoes in China that fit. They are all either too narrow or too short. At a shoe store, I ask my dad to ask the owner if he has a pair of combat-style boots in one size up. The store owner shakes his head and says the ones I’m holding are the largest available.
“Try on the men’s boots,” says my dad, who then tells the store owner what I think is the equivalent in Cantonese, a language I understand none of.
I shake my head. “No, it’s okay!” When I notice the store owner looking down at my feet, I try to cover them with my hands. It’s a biological wonder that I can look so like everyone in China but have such average American limbs.
• Maybe it was something I ate growing up. All that hormone- injected cow’s milk and cheese, says my dad.
On the news, a landslide in a nearby city engulfs twenty-two buildings of an industrial park, the hopeless faces of those digging through the rubble with their hands, looking for what’s gone missing. They toss aside pieces of fallen building. The reporter walks up to a section of wall and points out a structural problem. The camera zooms in and we can see that between the concrete of the walls are crushed food cans that have been used as support. I pick out a few words: “poor” and “people” and “sorry.”
My dad translates:
“This world is fucked. Everybody is cutting corners. I’m just happy I won’t be alive to see the troubles that will hit in your time.”
At night, noise of clanging metal rises up into the room. I look outside, down below. Big light fixtures shining on the circular overpass. From nine stories above, I can see tiny people moving between tents and umbrellas, plus a thing or two that look like cameras. I check my phone; it says 3 a.m.
“Are you okay?”
I startle and turn around. My dad stands in the bedroom’s doorway, a slender silhouette.
“You scared me. I think they’re shooting a movie down there.”
“Yeah, they do that at night when there’s nobody walking around. Probably one of these low-budget TV shows.”
“Is Zhuhai a popular set location?”
“Maybe. I’ve seen other things like this happen at night since I’ve been here. All sorts of activities here. Who knows what goes on at night.”
“Are they always this loud?”
“They don’t care. They’re saving money, while the rest of us are losing sleep.”
We stand at the window and watch silently together for a moment. Then he shuts the window and tells me to rest and get over my jet lag. We’re going to do even more walking tomorrow.
Snores from the living room. His figure formed into a curve on the small couch, neck and back against one arm and legs up on the other. Didn’t matter how many times I said I didn’t need or want the bed, he wouldn’t take it. “You’re my guest,” he said.
One of his apartment building’s security guards comes running after us, an umbrella in hand. He gives the umbrella to my dad and the two of them talk, then we part ways.
“Nice guy, nice guy,” says my dad. “You know, they all call me ‘Big Boss’ here. Not everyone treats these guys well. I bring them beer and chat with them when they’re working their over- night shifts. They appreciate that.”
“See those young guys on the street? The ones in the suits? They’re trying to sell apartment units to all these new buildings. They’re in college or just out of high school, nice kids, but their job is tough. They’re out on the streets all day in the heat and rain, doesn’t matter what weather, they have to go up to anybody who they think might be a buyer. That’s how desperate these places are to fill units. They’ve approached me a lot of times. I even went inside for a tour—everything new and fancy, they let you customize features, counters and appliances and stuff like that. But to lease is three or four times what I’m paying at my place. At night, you only see a few lights on inside these buildings. They’re empty, nobody actually lives there. These developers are trying to make a quick buck off of a growing city, but none of the people here can afford these fancy new places. My prediction is they’re going to sit empty like that for years. Just watch. I’m always right about these things.”
Now at a restaurant known for their congee. Soft Chinese music plays in the background. I want him to tell me about Sharon, so I say, “Remember when you told us that we’re Jewish because Sharon was Jewish?”
“I said that?”
“Yes, one time when I was in high school and you were talking about her.”
“Okay, I believe you. That’s not why you’re Jewish, though,” he says. “You’re Jewish because my grandmother was part Jewish. She was an orphan, but the orphanage told her she came to them from Mongolia or Russia, so it’s very likely she was part Jewish. She didn’t look Chinese. There were some Russian Jews who lived in the alley, too, and one time I heard her speaking to them in a language I didn’t recognize. So how would she know how to speak that language unless she had learned it as a child?”
“She never told you anything?”
“No, she never said anything about her childhood. She didn’t even tell me she was an orphan. I learned those things about her much later on.”
“So she actually looked Russian? She looked white? Didn’t you think that was weird?”
“Everyone just knew she was a little different, but we were her grandchildren. That’s why I look the way I look. Different.”
He asks a waitress for another beer.
“Here, eat more of this, since I’m not going to eat all of it.” I spoon the spiced tripe he ordered onto his plate.
“Okay, okay. That’s enough. I don’t feel good when I eat too much. Not like you and your mother. So how’s your mother these days?”
“Fine,” I say. “Do you have a picture of your grandma I can look at?”
“Somewhere, I’ll look for it . . . There’s one somewhere.”
Adorable, fat orange cat in the alley, rolling on her back, exposing her belly to me. I kneel down to pet her head. My hand comes back covered in filth. I wipe it on my jeans.
“Ah, what are you doing? Don’t be a bonehead,” my dad scolds. He takes a packet of wet wipes out of his backpack. “Here. Wipe your hand with this. These cats are cute, but that’s the trouble. You never know what diseases they’re carrying.”
J sends a second email: How’s it going? How’s your dad? Tell him I say hi. The pets miss you. I miss you.
This might be the longest we’ve gone without talking since the day we got together, though it’s only been a few days. I write back: Have you cleaned the litter box? Do they have enough water? Are they eating normally? Has the dog chewed anything up? Can you send pictures of them so I can know that they’re OK?
The TV or movie crew is back again. Again, I wake up and watch, though there is little action. Small specks of movement, lights on and off, a shout or two. I squint and think I can make out the cameras pointed at two people talking to one another on the overpass. Maybe they are staring off into the distance at the tall bright buildings lining both sides of the street, or maybe they are looking at each other. It could be a romance in the romantic city, since most TV shows and stories involve elements of romance, Chinese or American or otherwise, and the two characters are talking about their relationship, some struggle they are going through, which requires them to take a walk together outside of their home, or perhaps they are newly in love, having one of their first dates, or it could be that they are near the end, and this is their last encounter before they say a painful goodbye. It’s possible one of them has fallen out of love, that one of them does not love the other as much as they are loved, that the love is too painful to carry on. It’s possible they will decide to work on their relationship and it is not the end, but something in the middle, something to look back on and say, Those were our difficult days. They will laugh. What a funny time that was, they’ll say, even if, right now, as they stand beside one another on the overpass, they don’t find it funny at all. I watch them until the crew shuts it all down and leaves.
I haven’t gotten used to sleeping here. Where I would expect a thick mattress, there is a board of plywood topped with a couple of blankets. I sleep on my side and my shoulders ache and crack as I move. The night noises disturb. Each time my dad coughs in the other room, I jolt awake and worry.
“Your father’s grandmother doesn’t look white. I’ve seen the photo. She is Chinese. If anyone looks white, it’s your great-grandmother on my dad’s side. She has huge eyes. Deep in the face and very straight nose,” my mom says when I FaceTime her from the coffee shop.
“Why does everyone want to be white?”
“What? I don’t want to be white! I just said your great- grandmother looks white. White people are selfish. Their parents are always telling them, ‘Love yourself first.’ What about love your family first? How’s your father?”
“Just good? How does he look?”
“That’s all you say? Why? You’re tired?”
“Geez, being around your father is that tiring, huh? All that negativity.”
“Tell him you need to rest. Take a break. Can’t run around all day. Australia is so nice, sunny and warm. I feel like I can really relax.”
In China, my deskmate’s mother pulled at my shirtsleeve. “Give my son more room,” she said. “Mama! Stop!” he cried. The parents pressed up against the windows, their hands reaching in to pet hair, wipe dirt off faces, pull sleeves of competing children. What kind of day was this? All I can remember is the oppressiveness of those parents, how they would squash us all with their need and desire. My mother hadn’t bothered to come. “These Chinese parents are crazy,” she’d said. It was the same at judo practice. Jump higher!, the instructor yelled. Parents’ faces crowded the door’s small opening. When class ended, they bulldozed in. I pushed my way against them to find my mother waiting outside, distanced from the rest. Her Americanness had made her wary of the smothering. Was it Americanness, though? Or something else? Of no longer being a part of, but apart.
With this interactive death chart, you plug in your race, gen- der, and age, then it displays a chart of how and when you’re most likely to die, based on CDC data. I plug in my stats: Asian, female, twenty-five. The chart whirls out its prediction. Most likely I will die of cancer or a circulatory disease. I plug in J’s stats: white, male, twenty-six. Most likely he will die of cancer or a circulatory disease.
“Are you feeling lucky?” my dad asks.
The question is a trick, or an entrance to a vast, complicated maze I have no choice but to enter. The first days of bonding and reunion have given way to the old paths, the ingrained behaviors, the past pains and irritations. I am exhausted and snap at him.
“Not really. Why?”
“You better start feeling lucky, then. And watch your tone.” We walk farther, until he stops and says, “Here we go.”
It is a small booth, the lower section a glass case full of various
colored paper items decorated with Chinese faces and characters. The man inside sits on a plastic crate, a cat on his lap, listening to some sort of talk radio.
My dad says something in Cantonese, “Hello” or maybe “How’s it going?” or quite possibly “Hey, old man, it’s me.” The man stands up; the cat scampers up and out of the booth, down the street. I watch it go.
“This is my buddy, the lotto man,” my dad says. His buddy, the lotto man, nods carelessly in my direction. The man has yellow fingertips, which are now wrapped around a dark bottle with a gold cap.
“You see,” my dad says. “Just like I told you. Every time I come here he makes me drink wine with him. These are my bars in Zhuhai.” He sweeps his arm, which spans the entire booth. The lotto man pours amber liquid into three small cups, then gestures for me to pick one up. I do. He says something to my dad and laughs.
“What’s he saying?”
“He says you don’t look very happy. So drink!”
We clink our cups. Gom bui! The men pour their drinks down their throats, shot-style. I sniff at the stuff and take a sip. It is bitter and strong and I wince. It is definitely not wine as I understand wine, but my dad has called it wine. Another trick.
“It’s liquor,” I say.
“This is Chinese medicinal wine, that’s the name,” he says. “You don’t have to finish.” So I do, and I feel the heat rise inside me.
The lotto man’s mouth moves. I watch his body closely, desperate to glean meaning out of where his toes point, how far he leans forward, the placement of his arms, the twitch of his eyebrow. After a few minutes, I’m certain he’s tired of my dad’s constant talking. I forgot, or did not remember fully, how much he truly talks. I don’t think five minutes of silence have passed with- out him telling another story from his past, complaining about something or another, going over the mundane details of this or that. He’s always talking, to anybody and everybody, even if they don’t want to hear it.
“Let’s go,” I say. “I’m hungry.”
I pull at my dad’s elbow, but the two men exchange a few more words, the lotto man laughs and slaps my dad on the shoulder—so maybe I’m wrong, maybe he wants to keep chatting, maybe he likes my dad, maybe they really are buddies.
“The lotto man says it’s too bad you can’t understand or speak. But it’s okay. You can pick it up in a couple weeks. You’ll remember. Chinese is inside you.”
“That’s what people keep saying, but where exactly is it?”
Before he can answer, another man walks up with a small toddler. This new man lifts the boy onto a chair in front of the lotto booth. The boy stares at me with the sullen expression of a tired child I understand well. My dad reaches for the boy’s face and pats his cheek several times while saying something in a stern voice. The boy’s eyes widen and he half opens his mouth, showing his tiny white teeth and pink tongue. He glances toward his own father, for reassurance or for guidance or to tattle, but his father is not paying attention. I pull my dad away from the booth, away from the poor boy.
“Why did you do that?” I ask, when we are far away enough not to be heard, though I’m not sure why I worry. It’s so unlikely here that anyone will understand our exchange.
“Hey, stop pulling me. Watch it, young lady,” he says. “It’s fine to pat a child’s cheek. It’s the head you can’t pat, like a dog. That’s bad luck. The cheek is okay. It’s good. He understands. Kids, everywhere I go, they stare at me. So I tell them, I told this one. I told him to behave. Be a good boy. If he’s a good boy, he’ll have good fortune and success. He knows now. He’s lucky. Think about that. Get it?”