In today’s New Voices, we’re excited to share with you the second place finalist from our Fall Fiction Contest, “Shenzhen” by Willa Zhang, selected by Anita Felicelli. In her words: “Shenzhen is a vivid, heartfelt, and moving story about the moment in which we realize we don’t truly know our parents, that they’ve undergone a lifetime wholly apart from us and our concerns. The narrator’s father, in particular, is closely and precisely rendered, a person I feel certain I’ve met. Deep insights about immigrating as a family, and the painful gap between our memories of the place we call home and its reality give this story its gravity. The meaning of its opening line, “Here’s one way to go home again,” is skillfully undercut, yet slowly deepened by the story’s end.”
It’s strange for the four of us to spend so much time together. But sometimes, when we move as one, the intimacy is surprising. I understand suddenly that our family can be a kind of team.
Here’s one way to go home again.
It’s 2006 and we’re on the tail end of a long, humid summer criss-crossing the thousands of li that is China. We’ve taken planes and trains and cars from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Fuzhou to Shanghai and everywhere in between. It’s only my second time back since leaving as a child, and none of my memories match the country that unfurls before my eyes.
We trek up and down the southeast coast of Fujian, visiting relatives in every town. On my father’s side, they run identical restaurants lined with greasy, plastic stools. Each one prominently features our family name, and the crowning jewel of the menu is always the family’s secret recipe: golden hair fish.
In my memories, a huge steaming platter emerges from the kitchen, where the women have been working all morning. The fish is almost completely obscured by ginger and greens. The aunts and uncles and cousins look at us, the foreigners, expectantly, with curiosity lining their faces. Our father, sitting among them, gestures at us to pick up our chopsticks. But my sister and I are both scared to try, and the disappointment that blooms across his face is something I return to again and again.
Later, when I find my way back as an adult, my great-aunt tells me that the family only prepares golden hair fish on special occasions. That our father had asked them not to cook it, told them we wouldn’t eat it, but they still did. She offers to teach me the recipe but it won’t change the past. She prepares it anyway, and even before I plunge my chopsticks into the steaming flesh, that long, humid summer comes flooding back.