We sat at the dinner table eating hot pot, one of the only things I was
good at making. It’s impossible to fuck up. The broth slid out, wet and
solid, as I pushed it around in oil with my spoon.
Ba watched me from his chair, suspicious. He had just returned from his nightly jog in the park, and his nose gleamed an iridescent red. He crossed his arms against his chest as I poured water into the pot, adjusting the heat. “You never get husband when cook like shit,” he said, fanning himself with Francis’ math homework.
“I cook very well, actually,” I said. My feelings were hurt, a little.
“What?” I said.
“What do you mean what?” he said back, grabbing five or six slices each of beef and potato in between his chopsticks and slipping them into the pot. He had already eaten a bowl of rice, maybe two. “Dad’s right. You suck ass.”
“Dude. Stop taking all of the beef. No one else has had any yet,” Francis said. He was playing his DS and not looking at anyone. “Also, language.”
Chris snorted again, another annoying habit he seemed to have taken up in college. He also started going to the gym, which not only made me seem more out of shape in comparison, but had gotten him girlfriend as a result. This made me look both out of shape and alone.
“You’ll get there when you get there, kid.” He tried to pat Francis on the shoulder all brotherly-like, but slipped and hit his arm instead.
“Dude!” Francis yelled, pulling off his purple striped beanie and throwing it on the floor, shaking his DS with the other hand. “You made me lose against this boss again!”
“Can you stop, Francis? If you get burned, I’m not going to care.” I said, trying not to care. “Chris, stop being a dick.”
“Why they want me take this for my bones, eh? Bones just fine. Take Jin Gu Die Shang Wan every day.” Dad asked me, ignoring everything that was happening around him. He was looking at the new pills the doctor had given him, thick and plastic. “See?” He flexed his elbow to show how fine he was doing. A shadow of a once-large muscle groaned out of his bicep. Francis poked at a thick slab of chili oil coated Spam with his chopstick, looking sullen.
“Ba, you know that stuff doesn’t actually help, right? It’s not gonna stop anything from getting worse.”
“Huh? What you say? This is why you were always sick as a kid, Jingfei,” Ba said, shifting to Chinese, “you never had enough xìnyǎng. Plus, you’re stupid.” He thumped his chest for emphasis. Then he coughed hard.
“Alright, Ba, that’s enough theatrics for tonight,” Chris said. The three of us stared at each other, quiet as the coughing grew louder and the music from Francis’ game played, foreboding, in the back. The kitchen lighting made Ba’s face seem paler than usual as he hacked up a wad of phlegm into his napkin. His glasses slipped down the bridge of his nose. There was a crack in the right lens of his glasses that he had covered with tape. I imagined him gently pressing the tape into place with his meticulous, arthritic fingers as he sat inside the empty living room, waiting for one of us to get back so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
Standing underneath the tattered plastic awning of the bus station, I wondered what Ba had meant when he said I didn’t have enough faith. What a weird word to use. I mean, we were never religious or anything. And I had never doubted that, despite how embarrassing it was that whenever we went out with our entire family and their loud Chinese voices carried well above the rest of the acceptable hum of conversation at Olive Garden, that we were at the very least, surviving. That we would continue to survive.
“It’s too fucking cold for all of this shit,” the man sitting next to me mumbled. His face seemed to re-arrange itself as he spoke, the wrinkles spreading into constellations of old scars. “Too fucking cold.” He was wearing a navy jacket, the words SOUTHSIDE CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL embroidered on the top right in a white cursive font.
The bus drove up; grey fumes blew from its engine. It was 8:30 AM. The driver pulled out a pack of beef jerky and chewed with a cow’s dull eyes as we filed past him to our seats. A woman read a book on hot yoga next to me. The instructor on the front was thin, glistening with attractive sweat as she raised her arms to the ceiling of the studio, smiling so hard I wondered if her gums hurt. I tried to remember the last time I had exercised and came up with nothing. Then I thought of Chris, his stupid new, huge arms, which made me angry. I reached in my bag for some red bean bread.
“Excuse me?” I froze and imagined for a brief second that the yoga instructor had heard my thoughts and had solidified in front of me, ready to send me to cardio camp where not even pictures of bread were allowed. Perhaps she would force me to sit in a 110 degree hut for a week, where I would be forced to meditate until she decided I was ready to emerge, enlightened of the evils of gluten and over-eating. Instead, the woman reading the book smiled at me with almost as many teeth as the lady on the book cover.
“Is your name Jingfei? Jingfei Zhang?”
“Your family owns a grocery store?”
“Do you know how to say anything except ‘yes?’”
“Yes? I mean, no?”
She threw her shaved pink head back and laughed. There were bad tattoos of lyrics and monster designs on every inch of her visible body. And yet there was something enticing about them—I had never gotten any tattoos because I knew Ba would be disappointed in me, even though I desperately wanted to. This girl probably never worried about people’s approval, especially not her parents. She seemed so free. I thought about if she had tattoos in other places and my face felt hot.
“It’s me, Heidi Morris.” I looked at her and was in the eighth grade again, staring at the girl with special gel pens who sat in the back row with me, stroking her long sheet of brown hair that streamed down her back.
“Heidi! Yeah. You used to have a lot of hairy gel pens. Shit. I mean, you, you used to have a lot of hair and also cool pens. Ha. Haha.” I imagined myself taking hostage of the bus and crashing into a cement wall.
There was that laugh again. I could see the inside of her throat. “Yeah, I did. I remember when you tried to dye your hair and all of it turned orange.”
“Oh. You remember that.”
She shifted closer to me, her round face suddenly concerned. The air smelled soft, like grass. “Woah, I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I thought it was so rad. I just never told you.”
I felt myself nod. I looked down at my hands and realized how chapped they were, the pieces of dry skin I picked at so often now flaking. I shoved them into my jacket. Heidi stared at me in this way that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable but didn’t necessarily feel that great either.
“Listen, where are you headed to? I’m about to meet with my friend at this new pop-up donut shop if you wanna come.” She stopped staring at me and picked up her phone, flicking through feeds with one long, glitter-flecked nail.
“Oh. Okay. Yeah, that sounds fun.” I looked past her bright pink head. The man who I had boarded the bus with was eating the remains of a blueberry muffin, crumbs stuck to his beard. He no longer seemed cold: he was beaming now, singing along to a song through his headphones as he ate. What a nice smile, I thought.
I started to say something before realizing Heidi didn’t seem very interested in a response, so I pulled out my phone and checked my e-mail. “STUDENT LOAN DEBT? WE CAN HELP!” one read. I put my phone back in my pocket. I never got invited out to places since dropping out of art school five years before.
Heidi and I got off at the next stop. She looked back at the man I had boarded the bus with, who had now fallen asleep and was drooling over his navy coat. “Gross”, she muttered. She shook her head. I didn’t say anything.
As we walked together on the sidewalk, I looked up at the buildings: the testaments of Raleigh. Shanghai popped in my head, smaller in memory, with its mung bean pies and pancakes flecked with bright green onions, its soft neon landscape tethering out and projecting itself on the concrete.
Shanghai was where Mama had been from, and we used to go every summer before Francis had been born. Ba’s parents in Chendu had died long before, and he had no family left except for an older brother whom Ba refused to speak to, so we had no reason to go. Instead we would walk beside the Bund, chasing the water in our soft cloth shoes as it continued to flow in its determined way, Mama and Ba strolling behind us with cameras and water bottles and tissues in hand.
“What are you thinking about?” Heidi had pulled out a flimsy rolled cigarette from her back pocket. I suddenly saw Ba’s face in my head, his puffy, browned bottom lip jutting out as he held his own rolled cigarette in his mouth, his thick eyebrows frayed at the ends like pieces of cut rope. I thought of how Ba’s face lit up whenever we went to Francis’s soccer games, his neck hidden under piles and piles of pink and red blankets as his eyes sought Francis out on the field. I pushed the thought out of my mind.
“I was just remembering Shanghai when I was a kid. It kind of looks like this, but not. The buildings are more crowded.” Like my teeth before I got braces, I thought. Or like the apartment my cousin Jane used to share with five Vietnamese girls before she quit working at the nail salon and went who knows where.
“That’s so cool you went to China. What’s it like over there? Is it as cold as it is here?”
“I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s not as cold but it’s still cold. It’s really different than here, though. Obviously.”
“Isn’t it really dirty over there, though? I remember one of my friends went there to study abroad in college and she had to get all of these different shots and shit so the water wouldn’t, like, poison her.” Heidi spat a load of phlegm onto the sidewalk, where it bubbled
“Yeah, but since I went over there a lot as a kid, I didn’t have to get shots or anything to eat the food. The food’s really good, actually.”
She kept talking as if she hadn’t heard me. “And then everyone there wants to be white, right? They have those whitening creams and stuff. I mean, it’s so crazy—and sad. Yeah, I meant sad. That people hate themselves so much.”
Heidi scratched her arm and I felt awkward, alone. I thought about Ba, his grunt whenever I reported to him that my teacher said that even though Chinese people were poor, there were so many of them that they were going to take over the world some day. Stupid Americans, he said, not bothering to look up from the drama playing on TV. They think they know everything.
Heidi’s phone rang. “Oh, sorry. I think it’s my friend.” She picked it up. “Hey, Crystal. Yeah, we’re like, right there. Alright, see you soon.” Heidi looked at me and smiled, and I felt another swell of warmth despite myself. “I think you’ll really like her.”
We walked for another two minutes without saying anything. We arrived at a square, flat building decorated with pink streamers and silicone donuts revolving on silver stands. The sign at the entrance read:
IT’S A DOUGH EAT DOUGH WORLD—
COME IN AND GET A SPECIAL
TREAT FOR YOUR FURRY FRIEND TODAY!
A drawing of a Corgi eating a florescent pink donut was posted underneath. The artist had attempted to draw the dog with animated, happy eyes, but it looked like it was having a severe panic attack instead, frozen mid-bite as chaos unfurled around it.
The stereo was playing fuzzy, lo-fi songs that were impossible to sing along to. Mismatched chairs were placed around glass tables, the pink and green neon lights danced across their surfaces. Clusters of people wearing different shades of denim jackets sat talking and sipping coffee out of mismatched mugs.
A tall guy holding a to-go bag reading “O’RILEY’S ORGANIC DONUTS” elbowed me in the stomach as he reached for the door. “Oh, my god,” he said. His lips were chapped and he looked tired in an almost purposeful way. “I didn’t see you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, shifting the bag to his other hand before pushing his way out. “I seriously didn’t see you.”
I didn’t know what to say back, so I just stood there as he walked out and his body merged with the background traffic. Looking at the glass door, I could see only myself reflected back, the large, oval glasses sitting atop a lump of a nose, a scattering of bangs I cut while drunk in my bathroom one night.
“There’s Crystal!” Heidi tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to a girl waving at us next to the donuts display. A pile of multi-colored dreads collected into a bun on top of her head. Underneath her winter coat wore a tank top with the words “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” written in neat cursive. Crystal ran up to hug her.
“Oh my god, hi! I’m so glad to meet you,” Crystal said, embracing me. The smell of sweat and lavender was overpowering, so I focused on breathing through my mouth. The lavender found its way onto my sweater, where it would linger so many hours later, smothering me. Her arms remained around my waist for another uncomfortable five second: her squeezing tight, me mouth-breathing and patting her once on the back before she finally pulled away.
“I got us some donuts to try out. One of the workers over there suggested them to me.” Crystal flapped her arm over to the right. I looked and saw an Asian man in a blow-up donut hat cleaning crumbs and napkins off of a table. He straightened his back, wiped his hands on the donut-printed apron. Stretched.
“He doesn’t speak English, I don’t think. I asked him if this one was gluten-free, right? And he nodded, but I don’t think he really understood what I’m saying.” Crystal stopped talking and grabbed my wrist, looking me in the eye. “Please don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but do you think maybe you could try talking to him?”
“Crystal.” Heidi said, laughing. “That’s racist.”
“Ah, shit, I’m sorry,” Crystal said. “But Jing…Jin…sorry, can I call you Jenny? Jenny knows I didn’t mean it like that, right?”
“Yeah, no, I’m not mad at all,” I said. But I was tired and cold and the words came off in a sarcastic way, implying that I was angry after all.
The three of us sat in silence. I felt bad about making it awkward, but I was also angry at myself for wanting them to like me so badly. After all those years in art school, letting people say fucked up shit to me at house shows, letting them parade me around like some sort of trophy. I pointed to the donuts. “What kinds are these?”
Crystal perked up a little, her leather bracelets colliding as she pointed to each one— “This one’s beet flavored topped with a ginger drizzle, and this one is carrot cake made with quinoa flour and lemongrass filling, and this one’s a savory whole wheat donut with sriracha mayo and bonito flakes, and that one’s chocolate.”
“I’ll take the chocolate,” I said.
Crystal handed the donut to me as Heidi took a bite of the beet flavor. “So fucking good,” she said, licking ginger syrup off of her fingers, barely breathing between bites. Heidi blew her nose in a napkin and stuffed it in the pocket of her jeans.
“Do you want to try some of this, Jingfei?” Heidi was reaching out a piece of the beet with the same hand she had used to blow her nose with.
“Uh, maybe. I mean, that’s really nice of you. But later. A lot later. I mean, I’m a slow eater.”
She smiled. “Sure.”
Crystal gasped and pointed at my neck.
“What?” I said. “Is something on me?”
“Your necklace! What does that mean?”
I looked down at the small jade pendant around my neck. Heidi reached for the sriracha mayo donut, the music in the background growing louder. It sounded like someone trying to flush pipes down a broken toilet. She seemed to notice my confusion about the music. “It’s called noise,” she said, picking a bonito flake off of the top.
“It used to be my mom’s,” I said to Crystal. “It’s just for good luck.”
“Oh my god, I want one. Actually, speaking of Chinese symbols, I want a tattoo of the symbol for ‘hope’ right here? Above my hip?” She stabbed at the spot with her nail. “Ouch.”
“Yeah, that would look so cute on you,” Heidi said. She turned to me, “Remember those awesome lunches you used to bring to school as a kid? Like the time you brought chicken feet to school? God, I thought it was so fucking cool.”
“Oh, yeah. My dad would just pack those for us if we had leftovers from going out to dim sum. We don’t go a lot anymore, though.” I paused. “Actually, I think I might have to go soon. I was supposed to get his medicine earlier.”
“No, you guys just got here! Hold on, I’m going to ask the waiter if I can get a refill on my coffee. She waved down the man cleaning tables. He walked over to the table slowly, as if willing himself to remember what moving felt like.
“Can I have some more coffee? A refill?” Crystal was speaking with her hands, miming the action of pouring coffee into her mug. She widened her eyes in a way that was supposed to look sincere and intentional.
The waiter looked confused. “Coffee,” he said, “today have hazelnut.” His pronunciation of “hazelnut” was terrible, but I could understand it. I always understood. I imagined him practicing how to say it the way Ma used to: Refrigerator. Mung bean. Hazelnut.
“Yes, I know,” Crystal said, smiling angelically. “Do you all do free refills? Reeee-fill?” She pantomimed the action again as I stared at the man, whose eyes had begun to do a dance around the store, searching for other workers who could help, please help.
“Hey.” Heidi wasn’t eating any more. She looked at me with concern, and suddenly I was struck by the fact that I didn’t really know her.
“I have to go.” I said, standing up and putting down five dollars on the table. Crystal tried to say something to stop me from leaving, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Heidi shake her head no. “That’s for the donut I ate.” I reached into my wallet and pulled out another five, placing it into the waiter’s nervous, wet palm. “Thank you for your help,” I said. I walked out of the store and into the world.
I used to hate it all, everything remotely Chinese— the bloody fronts of meat shops, stuffy laundromats, stores selling knockoff Adidas slides and cartoon monster backpacks. “How cute!” my friends parents would say, gushing over the sweatshirts with English gibberish and 3D teddy bear heads on them, “How Asian!”
For my eighth birthday I had asked for a pair of Air Force 1s, and at my birthday party in the moldy backroom of our family’s Asian grocery store, Auntie Daiyu had proudly slapped a pair of no-name sneakers bought from one of these stores down on the plastic fold-out table reserved for birthdays, homework, and karaoke.
“These exactly what you wanted,” Auntie Daiyu said, “I ask store man myself.” She put her finished cigarette in the middle of her slice of birthday cake, which read HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LINGFAT! in M&M’s and red gel icing. Ba had argued with the Safe Mart workers that my name was, in actuality, not Lingfat but Jingfei, pounding the fake marble counter with both fists, demanding justice.
“Can you please tell your father to calm down, missy?” The manager was young and terrified, having been called over by the many employees in the baking department who were now all gathered around the counter, hovering around us like a flock of frazzled birds. “We’d sure like to help you guys out, but we can’t understand what he’s saying.”
Ba had turned to me to defend his integrity. “Ask them why they won’t take the damn coupon,” he said, switching back to Chinese, “I want at least 50% off. No, I want 60%. Actually, make it free for wasting our time.” We did, in fact, have a coupon, but it was for an ice cream cake, not a red velvet one, even though I had tried to explain this to him beforehand.
Some of the baking department had begun laughing, not even trying to hide it behind hands or forced coughs. “Poor kid,” one whispered, her blond curls stiff underneath the black mesh. “I wonder if he’s always like this when they go out in public.” She assumed I didn’t speak English. I hate you, I thought in my head, despising the manager, the blond ladies in their hypoallergenic gloves and eyeshadow, my father for causing such a scene. I hate you I hate you I hate you.
“Go on,” Dad insisted again in Chinese, “tell them that it’s your birthday and that we need this cake for free.”
“Yes, my father was simply wondering if there was a possible way for us to get a small discount on the cake. It’s just that it’s my cousin’s birthday and her name isn’t spelled correctly. Also, she’s only five years old. Also, she just got out of the cancer hospital last week. So.” One of my cousins had, in fact, just gotten out of the hospital, but he was not five and had been getting treated for gunshot wounds from a fight he had with one of his Wah Ching buddies over a Japanese girl. His father, Auntie Daiyu’s husband, disowned him shortly after that.
Sighing, the manager had pinched the bridge of his greasy nose. It glistened in the overhead lights. “Okay. I don’t have time for this today. We can do twenty percent off and a pack of candles. Ask your dad if that’s okay.”
Soon enough, my father and I walked out into the parking lot. The cake dedicated to the unknown Lingfat, two packs of princess birthday candles, and a carton of vanilla ice cream swinging cheerfully from his arm. As we packed ourselves into our rusted red Sudan, Ba looked at me and grinned. “Now we can put even more candles on your cake,” he said, lighting up a cigarette as we sped across the white lines of the parking lot, bumping into red shopping carts that stood boldly in our path. “Plus we got ice cream. It’s your lucky day, kid.”
“My name was supposed to be written correctly.”
Ba shrugged. Smoke spouted from his nostrils. “Whatever,” he said in English. “Still taste same.”
Looking at the cake and the bright white sneakers with a hand stitched golden spiral instead of the signature Nike swoosh, I wanted more than anything to believe Ba’s words, that it really didn’t matter, that everything was the same in the end. I stared so hard at the spiral that my eyes began to water, willing it to turn into a checkmark, willing the black fold-out table to turn into a game at Arcade of America, where all the white kids had their birthday parties. If I held my breath for long enough, maybe I would pass out and when I woke up my birthday would be over. It could just be another normal day at the shop, selling mooncakes in the middle of February and doing homework on the counter. Mama would be alive and not dead and make shengjianbao just for me, fresh and not from our miles and miles of industrial freezers.
Instead, the party went on for another four hours, Ba eventually pushing drunk relatives out the door with pieces of birthday cake wrapped in tin foil. “Are you sure the kids are doing okay?” I had heard Uncle Kenny whispering while I folded banners and streamers back into a large shrimp chip box. “I mean, Chris seems to be doing fine, but Jingfei…”
“They fine. I see you in a couple days.” Ba’s English was loud and sharp, slicing through the shop. Ba whispered a few more words to Uncle Kenny as he tried to heave the heavy door inside as quickly as he could, the metal scraping against the stained concrete floor, refusing the silence. “Jingfei.” I jumped, the extra candles dropping to the floor.
“Go up to the apartment.”
“But I thought you told me to clean up.”
“You think since you’re eight years old now that you get to say whatever you want? Go to your room.” He turned to me and everything in the world was on his face except for anger.
That night as I lay in bed, I heard the low buzz of the karaoke machine turn on in the living room. Tiptoeing across the floorboards, I focused on the shadows thrown onto the walls by nighttime, the strange animal patterns that they made. Ten-horned deer and three-eared bunnies leaped back and forth across the darkness. I strained an eye to focus on the figure just beyond the threshold.
There was Ba, his face turned orange and pink by the lights of the karaoke machine, singing in a low voice, quiet enough so that Chris, who was sleeping heavily next door, wouldn’t hear. It was just loud enough, though, that the song trickled through the floorboards all the way to me, dense and dark and sticky.
Difficult roads lie ahead
But please wish me well with laughs and
Though the wind will come; though the rain
In the wind and rain I’ll think of you
In the days I’m far from you
I will focus more on myself
In the months and years you’re far from me
You should take care of yourself
Ba had a terrible voice, hoarse and unpredictable, but at that time, he sounded just like Qi Qin. He cradled each word in his mouth and tenderized it until it was turned soft, and by the third time he loaded the song up again, I had fallen asleep, dreaming of lovers travelling over miles and miles of tundra only to be met with more cold, impersonal snow. Ba must have known that I was there because in the morning I was back in bed underneath heaps of floral blankets made by grandparents back in Shanghai, the sunlight gleaming off of the face of my brand-new fake Nikes.
Ba got sick five years after my eighth birthday party. Sure, we tried to tell him to slow down, but nobody could have stopped him from running the shop, drinking beer and playing cards with his friends almost every night. Even the fear of death couldn’t stop Ba from being as insane as he always had been, even as he became considerably greyer and frail, a ghost of himself. He was still alive when I turned twenty, but everyone around us seemed to be holding their breath, refraining from asking the obvious question: how much longer?
The winter had changed everything from light to dark in the matter of two hours, and the sounds of the night rushed around my ears as I hurried to get the keys from my bag.
“Ba, I’m home,” I said, taking my shoes off at the door and placing them on the rack. I heard him playing one of his favorite comedy shoes in the living room. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to get your medicine today. I ended up running into a friend.”
Silence. I imagined walking in to find Ba lying dead on the couch, warm hand still holding the remote, a cigarette still burning in the ashtray. “Ba?” I said again, and I felt the old child-like panic in me rising up, screaming her way back into existence. “Ba, it’s me, it’s me,” and I fell weeping onto the living room, falling over my feet.
There he was, alive, cigarette clenched tight between his teeth. “Whatever. Don’t take damn Western medicine anyway,” he said. “You know this.” The comedian made a joke about his balls and Ba slapped his knees, howling.
“Shit, this dude is funny,” he said, and he looked somehow youthful again, his eyes round and smiling. “Jingfei, you should watch it with me. Wait, what are you doing on the floor? What are you laughing at? You always said this show was stupid.”
Oh, Ba. You don’t know how much we’d miss you.
Later that night, I turned on the karaoke machine.
“Why do we have to do karaoke tonight? I’m tired today. I want to go to bed,” Ba complained, but he reached for the microphone all the same, wincing as a loud pop came from his back.
“Ba, please, let me do it,” I said. I got the microphones set up and selected “Maybe in the Wintertime” from our long list of pop anthems. He didn’t ask why I chose the song or ask to sing a different one, but instead plunged right into it. Our voices cracked during the high parts, thin and nasally, but we sang it twice through nonetheless.
When I drifted off to sleep, I dreamed that I was on a train to China, Ba and Mama pushing me awake and pointing out the Shanghai skyline in front of us, the buildings rising, rising up above donut shops, grocery stores, whole soccer fields, rising above everything.