Constructing a Chinese Girl

by Tani Loo

“Do you wish I were a boy?” I ask my father.

The question lingers in the air, as I grip the gold container of six by one and one-eighth drywall screws. I move the screws around with my right hand, fingers sorting through and arranging them, so that they are all facing the same way. He doesn’t answer my question at first. Instead, he holds out his hand for a screw, and I pass it to him.

My eyes focus on the thread of the screw, winding silver ribbons I grew to know well over the years. He leans his weight against the drill, driving the screw into termite-treated pine for the replica of a plant stand his own father built. I did the pilot holes earlier to avoid splitting the wood.

My father holds out his hand for another screw, but he doesn’t look at me. “Why would you ask that?”

I fidget, shaking the container so it jangles. “I’m just asking.”

“Because I’m teaching you how to fix things?”

“No,” I say, hesitating. “Well, yes.”

My father returns to drilling screws into the wood to secure the legs of the plant stand. He’s on the second of three tiers. When we’re done putting it together, he wants me to stain it chestnut. I’m getting better at staining, no longer neglecting to wipe the excess off quickly and spreading the color better. But I do a lot of things better now.

I learned how to throw a spiral and shoot hoops, grip a drill and angle a saw, and lift heavy items without complaint. I helped him build new contraptions to add to our house from wooden containers holding rectangle tissue paper boxes to shelves stacking electronic devices on top one another without its full weight. I knew how to be independent, how to shun boys who claimed they’re better at all three but not truly skilled in any one practice.

I’m only ten, but I know how to fit my father’s idea of a perfect son.

By the time my father turns to me, I feel excitement bubble up. My fingers shake, causing the container to rattle unnecessarily. I wait with bated breath for the long answer I expect to receive in response to such a serious question. His eyes meet mine, but I notice that his eyebrows are slanted inward and his lips disapproving.

“Of course not,” he says briskly, turning away again. “Hand me another one.”

*

When my grandmother married, she took her husband’s last name. Unlike my grandmother who had two brothers, my grandfather only had a sister. He was the last to pass on his name to the rest of our family, which he gave to his children. My father and his sisters carry the name, but his sisters left it behind after their own marriages. My father is the last one to carry it, and though he wishes I could carry it too, he tells me it’s impossible.

My father bears the burden of the name and honoring of our ancestors. He’s the one who taught me that it was shameful to their memory if he didn’t. But my grandmother taught me quietly on the side how to pray to the gods and remember our families. She was the one who held my hand when we walked through cemeteries and temples, and she was the one who tended to my cuts when I was crying on the ground.

My grandmother sat with me late at night and told me stories. She talked about her mother birthing her on O‘ahu after an arduous journey from China. She told me what it was like to grow up working on the plantations, and she bragged about how skilled she was in comparison to her brothers. She relayed how she earned the money to feed her brothers’ hungry, wide mouths when her parents couldn’t, and I listened, rapt with attention at all the amazing things that my grandmother could do.

*

In middle school, my father puts me in basketball, softball, and track and field. I spend late nights on outdoor courts under poorly lit conditions, dribbling the ball and badly defending myself from a girl who’s twice my height and width. I run around dusty baseball fields, sliding onto bases and staining my white uniform. I hate it, and I cry when I miss the softball with my bat and get hit on the shoulder instead. On the sidelines, I hear my father yelling about how I need to take the ball to the hoop or swing faster.

In track, I’m a little farther away from him. I participate in sprints and relays, but my favorite is long distance: 3,000 and 5,000 meters. I run around the track, hiking my legs up and concentrating on my breath as I prepare myself for the long stretch. I don’t hear my father from here, not with the sound of the wind or the feet pounding against the ground around me.

I pick up the pace, listening for the sound of my own fatigue to kick in. I wait for the footfalls to become heavier than they should be, but I don’t hear it. I love the quiet, the sound of my breath as I inhale and exhale from my nose. I feel my ponytail swinging, baby hairs sticking to the side of my neck or bouncing against my back.

I feel free.

I keep running until I feel like I can’t run any more. The girl next to me bursts into a sprint as we come up on the last two laps of the race. I try to keep pace with her, willing my feet to move a little faster and stretch a little bit farther so that we’ll both touch the finish line at the same time, but it doesn’t happen.

The quiet is gone. I hear the spectators clapping and cheering for her and my coach yelling at me for not closing the gap. I come in second place, and I congratulate the winner in a daze. When I’m done shaking her hand, my father is no longer on the sidelines.

He’s on the track, staring at me with his arms folded across his chest and head shaking in disappointment. He hates when I lose, and though I try my best to avoid being scolded, it never helps. Whether I come in first or last place, score the most or the least, he always spends the car ride home listing the ways I could improve.

He tells me that it’s time to go, so I grab my sports bag and follow him back to the car in silence. I throw my bag in the backseat before sliding in the front, and my father starts the engine. I close my eyes and try to concentrate on the sound coming from the air conditioner, but once we pull out of the parking lot, I hear him start again.

“How could you let her get ahead of you?”

*

My grandmother was superstitious, not in the stereotypical athlete way where she wore the same socks on the day of my races or games and not where she refused to leave the house without knocking on the wooden frame of the door three times. But she believed in everything, whether it was Chinese or Hawaiian or a mixture of cultures.

She loved the number eight because she believed it symbolized wealth, and she was particularly happy on the eighth of the month or in August. She hated the number four because she believed it symbolized death, so she scolded me if I asked for four of anything, calling me an unlucky child. And she always wore something red if she could, a pin on her clothes or a small coin purse at her side if her clothes had none in it.

She made me promise that I’d never take sand from a beach or rocks from natural landmarks. She warned me never to whistle at night to avoid calling the night marchers, though I didn’t even know how. We never took pork on the Pali or slept with our feet to the door. And most important of all, she told me not to kill moths. We used to watch them flutter in with our laundry, land on my windowsill in my bedroom or flit to and from a nearby light until it disappeared.

I never told my grandmother because I didn’t want to scare her, but sometimes, I found them dead near the door.

*

I make friends with a Chinese girl in track and field named Kylie. She lives in an apartment with her parents and sisters in the suburbs on the east side of the island. She invites me over one day after practice, and my father allows me to go with her. Her parents pick us up in a blue SUV, and we make fun of how we run.

When we arrive at her house, we take off our shoes at the front door, and I tuck mine underneath the black rack. I follow Kylie past the living room where they have plastic coverings over their couches because of their cat. The cat, a fluffy white Persian, sits on the arm of the couch, and its blue eyes follow me until we reach Kylie’s bedroom.

Here, we drop our sports bags, and Kylie’s mom calls out to her. I realize then that I don’t know what she says. Kylie pokes her head out the door and calls back in a foreign tongue that I realize must be Chinese.

“What did your mom want?” I ask.

“Huh?” Kylie says, unfazed by the switch of languages. “Just now, didn’t you understand her?”

“No,” I hesitate before continuing. “I don’t speak it.”

Her eyes widen, and she leans forward to grab my hand. “You don’t speak Chinese? No way! You must know some.”

I shake my head, suddenly ashamed of my inability to speak. My grandmother knows little of the language, which was passed on from her own parents. She’s forgotten most out of disuse. Though she sent my father to school to learn Chinese, he remembers none.

Kylie withdraws her hand quickly, as if I’m diseased. “But you’re Chinese…right?”

*

My grandmother was a collector of things: plates, jars, and boxes. She never bought everything in bulk, but instead, she slowly accumulated items until our cabinets were full and storage space nonexistent. My father never complained about it, even when they began to overflow so that we could no longer completely close a drawer or door.

Most of the items were made up of dishes. She bought elaborate dishware from China, light blue patterns etched onto white plates and delicate rice bowls that I wasn’t allowed to touch in case I broke it. But most of her dishes were American: ugly large brown plates with turkey heads printed on them; fluorescent orange jack-o-lanterns carved into the side of mugs; and red and green lightbulbs strung in patterns decorated serving dishes.

The jars and the boxes were the same, gathered over time from when she was finally able to afford buying a food processor or blender for the house. She kept the boxes, labelled them with the date she bought them in nearly illegible handwriting. And she kept them empty because she wanted the boxes to stay in good condition, so if she ever wanted, she could look at them again and remember.

Later, when my grandmother no longer could, my father warned me never to touch them at all.

*

Every Lunar New Year, my father makes gao. He sends me to Chinatown to get the ingredients with a couple of bills and reminds me which ones I need to bring home, but every year he tells me that I bought the wrong sugar or I didn’t buy enough dates. I take the bus there in the rain, watching the raindrops splatter against the windows and cars’ wipers frantically moving back and forth across their windshields. I grip the bag in my hands tightly, worried that I’ll make a mistake again.

I get off the bus a few blocks away from the store I need to go to, huddling under my bag as the sound and smells of Chinatown overwhelm me. The cars rush past, tires splashing water onto the sidewalks and people occasionally. People walk by with hoods pulled over their heads or umbrellas lifted high, tangling with one another when they get too close. It smells like rain, peanut oil, and bok choy all at once.

I walk to the store where the owners only vaguely recognize me. I pass up and down the cramped aisles in search of sugar, flour, and dates. I select a few dates and stuff them into a plastic bag and pick up two bags of flour, balancing them in my arms. When I get to the sugar near the counter, I only find the light brown one.

“Excuse me,” I say, addressing the cashier. “Where’s the dark brown one?”

He eyes me carefully. “It’s the same thing.”

“No,” I reply. “I need the other one. Do you have it?”

“It’s the same thing,” he repeats.

I know that my father won’t be happy if I don’t get the dark brown sugar. “When will it come in?”

“Come back later,” he tells me, turning his attention to the man standing behind me.

I open my mouth to say something, searching my brain for some forgotten Chinese word that might get me the sugar I need, but nothing comes to mind. I resign myself to standing in line, paying for the ingredients that I already have, and when I return home, my father tells me that he already spoke to the man about the ingredients all being in stock earlier today.

Instead of being upset at the man, he turns to me. “Why can’t you do anything right?”

*

As my grandmother got older, she began to forget. She started by misplacing her house key and insisting that my father must have moved it. She left food in the microwave, letting it rot in the heat until she could no longer eat it, and never remembering that she was the one who put it there. Then, she left the stove on, only a quarter of an inch difference between it being turned off and left on the highest heat.

I worried then that my grandmother would forget everything, including me, but she didn’t. She kept telling me stories until it was far past time we should both be asleep. She remembered what my favorite candies were whenever we went to Chinatown, and if she went alone, she left it on the kitchen table with my name written on a post-it note stuck to it. She still taught me all the things my father refused to.

But I noticed that she looked a little less often to the figurines of gods on the altar at home and more to the bible. She opened it and read a few passages at night before she went to bed. I listened to her while I lay on my back, the soft murmur of her voice reciting words that I couldn’t make out, and I wondered who she prayed to and what she prayed for.

*

Over time, I make friends with people who don’t play sports and aren’t Chinese. They look to me when they want to know what Chinese restaurant to visit, or if we’re watching a movie and they want to confirm whether or not the stereotypes are true. They crack jokes over Mexican, Hawaiian, or Vietnamese food, and I laugh louder than them over the din of the restaurant. Then, one day they suggest we go to Chinatown.

I feel the same anxiety that I get when I visit to get ingredients, but I try not to show it. My friends lead the way, weaving their way out of a dimly lit parking lot and onto the street. I follow them down the block, past the shops that my grandmother used to take me, and then, it feels like we’re not in Chinatown anymore.

Instead of entering a Chinese restaurant with rounded tables, fish tanks, and elaborate chandeliers for dim sum, my friends show me a street filled with new restaurants. They have modern, minimalistic signs hanging outside their doors with clean window displays. The spaces house hip restaurants with good lighting, upscale dining, and signature cocktails.

In the distance, there are skyscrapers. Buildings tower over the other, competing for the best view of the ocean, and they raise their prices for parking. They add big fast food chains at the bottom levels of their floors and fill all the open spaces, and they plan to build more.

I pause at the corner of the street, staring both at the Chinatown that people like my grandmother once knew and the new businesses booming. She used to show me all the best shops to get gin dui or rice cake, and if she saw those shops gone, she would be upset. But she hasn’t been to Chinatown in years. Besides, she could barely let go of a cardboard box. How could she let go of changes like this one?

I realize then that I’ve been left behind, but I can’t stop looking at the buildings. I used to think that I’d come back here one day, hold my granddaughter’s hand and walk her through the streets. But it probably won’t be the same by then.

My friend calls to me from the open door of a themed dine advertising burgers and fries. His head and hand peeks out, and he gestures for me to hurry up. I turn away from the sight and reluctantly follow.

*

When my father couldn’t care for my grandmother anymore, she moved into a care home. I cried for weeks, protesting that I could take care of her if my father couldn’t. He yelled at me and told me that I didn’t know my place in this household. It was his decision to make, and I cried to my grandmother. She let me lay my head on her lap until the tears slowed.

I raised my head, wiping my eyes with my sleeves.

“Don’t worry,” she told me, again and again, but she was crying too.

I resolved to visit her almost every day from the day that she moved into the care home until the day that she moved out. She did crafts in the room she shared with another woman slightly older than herself. They watched television and ate dinner together. They even told each other similar stories about their families and childhood.

A few months after she moved in, she asked me to bring her a picture of her family. I framed it and hung it on the wall across from her bed, next to a wreath she made out of dried goods, where she could see it. Sometimes, when we talked, I noticed her eyes wandering toward it. I asked her once what it was about the picture that she liked, and she said that it felt like home.

“I want to go back,” she confided in me.

I knew what she meant. “You will, Grandma.”

I watched the picture long after she nodded off during our conversations, admiring the wreath next to it. There was a mo‘o that liked the wreath, scrambling up the wall, hiding behind the thick width of the decorations. Its head appeared from behind the red ribbon on the very top and disappearing again.

*

Eventually, I give up all the things my father asks me to do. I quit basketball and softball, citing a hatred for the sport and the team. I don’t run track and field, no matter how much he tells me I have promise. I refuse to touch hammers or saws, and if my father asks me to hold so much as a zip tie, I resent it. If there’s ever a heavy object, I joke that he should get a man to carry it. He doesn’t say anything, and it’s almost worse than when he scolded me. But if he was disappointed for a few years, he never told me so.

He still tells the story of me asking if he wanted a boy, demonstrating the supposedly absurd nature of my question. The faces who laugh in response blur together like pencil-drawn lines through dust-filled safety goggles. I no longer laugh with them.

“Isn’t it ridiculous?” he prompts, chuckling.

“Ridiculous,” people echo. “Absolutely.”

“It’s not,” I say, but no one seems to hear me.

I turn my head away from the conversation and stare out the living room window. I see the plant stand that I built with my father when I was ten. It holds jade ceramic pots bought from the hardware store, which line its shelves. I stare at the orchids, purple and white petals wilting in the heat of the sun, and I wonder if they’ll ever bloom again.

 

Tani Loo was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai`i. She is the author of the neo-gothic novella Ivywood Manor (Brain Mill Press 2019), and her work has appeared in publications such as Hawai`i Review and Honolulu Magazine. She received her M.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Hawai`i at Manoa.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “Constructing a Chinese Girl

  1. Gabe Tronson

    This was a great read and a very genuine story. I felt such an intensity of emotions coming off of each line.
    Props to the author!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s