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.
* * *
We visit all the popular tourist destinations—staggered mountains straight out of classical watercolors, ancient temples, majestic gorges lined with bamboo forests.
“Remember this,” our mother says to us at every turn. “You’ll appreciate all of it one day.”
Our parents seem more relaxed in China. They don’t talk much to one another, but they chat easily with taxi drivers and haggle down the prices of little souvenirs for us. They weave through the crowds with native ease. Though they’ve been gone for ten years, their bodies remember.
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.
In Guilin, our father suddenly becomes animated by the sight of a street vendor selling bootlegged copies of a comic from his childhood. It’s one that a favorite teacher would loan him. A popular Russian series about the adventures of a street urchin and his misfit friends, translated into Chinese. Maybe it reminds him of the child he was. He reads bits of it out loud, turning the pages quickly and laughing.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to find this again,” he says. “When I was little, this was like gold. Not like you guys with all of your books. I never dreamed I could own my own copy.”
Minnie loses interest and wanders away to the next stall, drawn to their delicate paper kites. He scowls.
“Of course you guys won’t understand these things. Too spoiled.”
But isn’t that what you wanted? I want to ask. Wasn’t that the point of moving to America, so we wouldn’t know what it was like to treasure one skimpy story?
I’m too hot and hungry to argue, and I wander off to join Minnie instead. He spends a long time looking at the books, and then keeps a tight grip on the vendor’s plastic bag for the rest of the day.
* * *
At night sometimes, I wake to the sound of their whispered fights. Between the whistles of Minnie’s soft snores, I catch snippets of their conversation. Their voices rise to sharp pitches and quickly subside.
“We paid way too much for that meal. Why do you always have to pick the most expensive places?” she says.
“I’m just trying to show my daughters a good time in China.”
“They need to be impressed? By what? By you?”
I roll over. The bed creaks and they fall silent. Sometimes, in those moments, it feels like our time together will stretch on forever.
In the mornings, our mother sometimes wanders away on her own, leaving me and Minnie with our father. We walk silently, waiting for her to return, at a loss for anything to say to him. The days pass: women in high heels climbing steep mountains, men crouched and chain smoking in front of Taoist temples, all the crowds and history and heat piling on top of each other.
* * *
In Shenzhen, we pile our tired bodies into the elevator of a tall apartment tower, one of twelve facing each other around a landscaped park. The city is growing by leaps and bounds—I’ve never seen so many cranes stretching towards the sky.
We ride up to the 34th floor. For the ten months each year that he’s gone, this is our father’s home. The twelfth and final tower was finished only in the last year, but tower six is already starting to show signs of age. He points to places in the hallway where cracks have already formed and the grout has turned a dirty gray.
“Such shoddy work,” he says. “I really hate it.”
We remain silent, taking it in for the first time. His mood dominates the space. He continues to eye these imperfections with irritation the whole way down the hall to his front door.
The apartment is spacious, with a large living room and two bedrooms. None of the furniture or decorations look familiar, and I try to imagine him choosing these things on his own. He’s bought new sheets and blankets for the bed in the guest room that my sister and I will share. They’re still in the packaging, sitting on the naked bed. Minnie is eleven, long and skinny, but it’s easy to push her sweaty body away from me each night.
“Does this mean we have two houses?” Minnie asks, gazing out one of the large living room windows at the sprawling view of the city.
“Yes, this one is your home, too,” he says.
“But do you like this one better? You spend more time here.”
He pauses from moving papers off the dining table, blinking through his square glasses. I think he’ll just ignore her questions.
“You’ll understand one day,” he says. I watch as the eyebrows on our mother’s face rise faintly.
* * *
This last weekend all together in Shenzhen, our father seems relieved to return to his world. He’s unhappy when things are unfamiliar. He moves around the apartment as if reassuring himself it’s all still there.
The three of us—Ma, Minnie, me—make several trips to the nearby Walmart Supercenter. It’s an enormous world in there and a deeply air-conditioned delight. There are many basic, plastic items that our mother has deemed missing from our father’s life—mop, bucket, grater, peeler. She picks out the pieces rapidly, without stopping for her usual prolonged consideration. Each time we return to the apartment with our purchases, she adds the bags to the kitchen counter, growing a pile of unexamined goods.
“You girls remember I’m leaving tomorrow, right?” she says.
We nod, unsure of what we’ll do without her.
“Dad will take care of you. It’ll only be for a couple of days,” she says. “Maybe you’ll do something fun together.”
She looks at me expectantly, so I nod. “Take care of Minnie. And…maybe it’ll be good for you guys to spend some time with your dad alone. He loves you, you know.”
“Are we supposed to use all of these?” Minnie asks, pointing at the new purchases.
She smiles and smooths Minnie’s hair. “No, of course not. But whatever you might need, I probably thought of it. I don’t know how he takes care of himself here.”
* * *
At night, when the heat has backed off into a soupy warmth, we all venture out to eat at a cafe below a neighboring tower. It serves soymilk and youtiao until mid-morning, and sixteen varieties of dumplings from afternoon to late night.
“We should order four plates of dumplings, pork and green onion, and maybe some xiaolongbao. That’s your favorite, right, Minnie?” our mother asks.
“That will be way too much,” our father says. “The xiaolongbao are not very good here. There are much better places in the city center that I can take us.”
“Could be, but we’re here now,” she replies flatly. “And nothing wrong with too much.” He opens and shuts his phone and glances at the menu, flipping between the two compulsively.
When the bamboo baskets come around, it’s obvious that it’s far too much food. The dumplings are huge. Sliding around, they jostle each other in slicks of their own making. In the face of the excess, we try to dig in.
Minnie is picking the small pieces of yellow ginger out of her soy sauce and eating them one by one with her fingers. Our mother prods her to eat some real food but she ignores her.
“Mei, stop eating so much ginger. It’s not good for you in the summer. Creates too much heat,” our father says. When she doesn’t stop, he snaps with far too much anger, “Hey! Listen to me. Stop that.”
“You don’t tell me what to do,” she mutters, but tentatively picks up a dumpling with two fingers, exaggerating.
There’s a sudden commotion at a table two away from ours, and we all watch the dumpling slip from her hands. A woman is dramatically clutching at her neck and coughing. She’s found a small, rusty wire in her dish.
“I could have died!” she says, over and over again to her friends and the bowing, apologetic teenage waiter. So it turns out our father is right—the xiaolongbao are no good here. Our mother only narrows her eyes and says nothing. We finish eating without further incident and pack the fridge with leftovers.
* * *
In the morning, our father takes her to the airport, and Minnie and I are left alone in the apartment.
“What should we do?” I ask her. She’s already lying horizontal on the couch, kicking her heels up and down. She shrugs.
There’s not much we can do—I’ve read all the books I shoved into my suitcase months earlier and the television programs are too frenetic for me to understand. Instead, we roam the apartment like trapped cats.
Minnie entertains herself by examining her face in the small pocket mirror a cousin gave her and drawing a picture of us with our last dog, Peter, on the Great Wall.
“He wants to go home to meiguo and eat alfredo pasta,” she says.
I pull laundry in off the balcony and slot each piece into the closet. She hands me the drawing. Two and a half months touring the vast and varied landscapes of China, and all she can draw is the Great Wall, which we did not visit. When I point this out to her, she only closes her eyes and smiles a gummy smile. She’s never gotten over Peter the poodle, who she called her brother, and sometimes I wonder about what’s going on in her head.
All day long, the air conditioning cycles on and off, fighting the humidity for us. Our thighs stick to the mint green leather couch as we watch the only subtitled DVD I can find in the apartment, Kung Fu Hustle. After the final Buddha’s palm slams down, we fall asleep, backs to the cool marble floor.
* * *
When our father returns at night, he jangles his car keys from the front door. “Let’s go eat,” he says, not bothering to remove his shoes.
Shenzhen unrolls in neon restaurant signs and zipping mopeds all around us. With the windows down, humid air rushes in to brush against our cool skin. People throng the streets along pedestrian zones taking their after-dinner walks, strolling past brightly-lit stores blaring the latest deals on cotton sportswear for the whole family. In the wide-open plazas, old women in patterned pajamas gather to chat as their grandchildren run lazy circles around them. Everyone acts as if this city has always been here, will always be here in just this way.
In the restaurant, we join several of our father’s colleagues in a private room draped in gaudy gold. They’re already a few drinks in. He introduces us, and they show a brief, concentrated interest—asking about our lives in America, our schools, whether we prefer America or China. Once I’ve demonstrated my limited Chinese and Minnie has smiled her way through, they turn away and carry on as before.
The lazy Susan is loaded with soups and meats and fish—heavy dishes that begin to congeal as the night wears on. He orders more and more from the young waitresses and he jokes easily with them and his colleagues.
His face is red from drink when he launches into full storytelling mode. This is where he looks the happiest, suddenly transformed from the man I know to someone who holds a room’s attention with the hands he uses to punctuate his words. Once or twice he turns to smile at me—a huge, beaming smile that I’ve rarely seen before.
He’s telling an anecdote from our early days in California. The three of us, before Minnie, were new to the country. When they tried to feed me a Caesar salad, I protested, using my baby Chinese to let them know that vegetables are supposed to be cooked! I refused to eat the leaves of raw lettuce. Everyone is laughing, raucous and boozy. In his story he says those words, my daughter, my daughter, with such pride.
The light in the room feels like it grows sharper as my eyes tire, and Minnie droops far down her tufted gold chair. I pull her to the couch on the side of the room, where she lies down on her back, mumbling about how cold the air conditioning is. I cross her arms across her chest: a corpse at rest.
“Shhh, you can’t speak, right?”
She obliges happily.
A younger colleague wanders over, lighting a cigarette as he sits in the armchair opposite us. Despite having been in the restaurant for hours, he still wears a small, brown leather bag protectively across his chest, fiddling with the zippers as he talks. He smiles at us, asking if we’re tired. His face is bright red and shiny and I don’t catch his name when he shakes my hand.
He says, “Your dad is always talking about you and your sister. You must be good daughters.” And he looks at me expectantly.
I’m surprised to hear this. “Oh. Thank you. I think we’re okay.”
“I have one daughter, she’s very young,” he says. “She lives with her grandparents in Hunan, deep in the countryside. Do you know where that is? Too bad my wife didn’t give me a son!”
“That’s too bad.”
“I think everything in my life would be easier if I had a son, don’t you? Maybe I wouldn’t be out here working so hard. A family needs a son. Who will carry on the proud Song name?” As he speaks, he’s puddling dramatically into the couch.
I look to Minnie for help, but she only widens her eyes at me, crossing her arms a little tighter.
“Listen!” he says suddenly, sitting up and slapping his knee. “You should listen to your dad. Girls need to listen to their dads. Otherwise, it’s impossible to raise daughters.”
And what does he know about being a daughter?
“You would like it here. I’m sure of it,” he says insistently, though I’ve said nothing.
I don’t know what else to say to this stranger. I can only shake my head and smooth Minnie’s hair. Our father calls us back to the table so he can point to Minnie as he tells a story about her.
“I know she’s my daughter because when she was little she was always asking me questions,” he says with pride. “I was like that, too.”
It’s a relief when the sweet red bean soup finally arrives at the table, signaling the end of the night.
* * *
In the muggy light of early morning, our father is standing in the bedroom doorway, speaking rapidly. He’s insistent, but I can’t understand him. He gestures to me and disappears into the hallway, and I’m compelled to follow.
He’s standing in the living room, staring out the windows. I follow his gaze to the community swimming pool. It fills the space between the apartment towers completely, and the water is a vivid, turquoise blue.
Suddenly, I hear him. “Remember when I taught you to swim in this pool?”
That didn’t happen, I think. There was no such thing.
“Yes,” he insists. “I taught you myself. I moved your limbs again and again until you knew the shapes, I held you up in the water, and then I had to let you go.”
Impossible, I think. But I can imagine it clearly—the liquid chill, the fear, and then the freedom of my body cutting through the water.
“Are you sure?” I ask him.
He’s nodding, again and again.
* * *
When I wake up, there’s a note on the kitchen table. “Some business to take care of, be back late, take care of your sister.” Eight one-hundred yuan notes are laid out beneath. I do the conversion in my head—about $100.
“Why so much money?” Minnie asks sleepily from behind me. It’s a mystery that we have all day to ponder.
We watch the swimming pool from above. The water is so crowded that the swim sessions look choreographed, each swimmer following closely behind another. All caught in the same slow pace. Meditative from above, but surely a sweaty mass down in the thick of it.
At night, Minnie asks, “When do you think he’s coming home? I’m bored.”
She plays with her chopsticks at the table while I warm up leftover xiaolongbao for her and pour a small dish of soy sauce and vinegar.
“No idea. Probably another dinner that’ll go on forever, and he doesn’t want us there falling asleep on the couch.”
“I don’t understand why they need so many dinners. They’ll just spend the whole time talking about real estate prices and bragging about whose son is going to what school. Can’t they discuss once on the phone and be done with it?”
I’m impressed that she managed to catch all that. I widen my eyes at her. “But they’re making deals!” I say, and she laughs.
“Do you think this apartment tower is going to fall down soon? Dad said it’s crumbling.”
“Dad says a lot of weird things. Who knows what’s going on in his mind.”
And I tell her that if we do fall down, it’s only because she ate so many dumplings.
* * *
Around midnight, when no key has turned in the lock, we’re both dizzy from boredom and the stale air in the apartment. Neither of us can sleep. We’re becoming giddy and unmoored, and we decide to make a break for it. Minnie finds a metal bookend to keep the door propped open, and I turn off the lights.
“Can we go out in our pajamas like this?” she asks.
“Actually, I think we’ll fit in better this way.”
The sound of cicadas blanket the grounds and the yellow sodium lamps cast an alien glow. We’re both laughing, taking turns running down the cobblestone path that winds through the gardens.
“Wait! We have to remember which one is our tower,” I say.
“Number six, the one with that red car parked in front!” she says, running away.
We leave the manicured grounds of the complex and head out onto the streets. A cool, insistent wind suggests an oncoming typhoon, but on the sidewalks, men with their tank tops pulled over their stomachs squat on plastic stools smoking and laughing and playing cards. In small shops lit by naked bulbs, families gather around tiny televisions, and their coffee tables are piled high with watermelon seeds and lychee husks.
For the first time, I realize that our father has an entire life away from us here, with a roundness and fullness that I can’t imagine. That the time he spends in Shenzhen constitutes the real fabric of his life. With each flight back, his time in Los Angeles must feel less and less like coming home.
Then I’m aware of how far we’ve walked down this main road. Minnie’s steps are starting to slow and I hurry us home. We’re pushed along by the wind at our backs, almost flying. I find tower six again easily, with the red car still parked in front. But the spot where our father’s car should be remains empty.
* * *
Deep in the night, Minnie shakes me awake urgently.
“Jie? Jie jie?? I don’t feel good.”
She’s hovering above me, eyes huge and panicked, clutching at her stomach. It takes me a second to realize what’s happening. Then she’s throwing up and struggling to catch her breath over the side of the bed.
I hurry to clean her up and move her. His room is at the back of the apartment, and when the air conditioning cycles off, the silence feels deeper, the room darker than before. Being in that room reminds me of childhood—how I would wake up in the middle of the night alone in my bed and follow the primal urge to burrow my way back to my parents and their warm sheets, their safety and comfort.
I press a cool washcloth against her forehead. She’s twisting and sweating in the sheets, but eventually, she stills and her breathing deepens. I lie next to her, rubbing her damp skin. That face is so small and familiar, and as she sleeps, I’m struck by how much of our father I see in her.
* * *
In the morning, I’m standing in the kitchen fixing her thin, watery porridge and staring at items stuck to his fridge. A local cab service’s number in his handwriting, a grease-splattered noodle menu, a souvenir magnet from Singapore shaped like a Tsingtao beer bottle.
There’s a phone mounted on the wall, and somewhere in it is an address book, and somewhere in the address book might be his cell phone number. Or our mother’s. The apartment is completely silent while I try to decide who to call, what to say.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, because the Chinese characters on the screen are indecipherable to me—I never learned any. It’s the only phone in the house. And in a way, it’s almost a relief. Holding the phone up to my ear, I listen to the clipped voice of the operator repeating in my ear: If you would like to make a call, please dial the number you wish to reach, if you would like to make a call, please dial . . .
The understanding that he is gone comes to me seamlessly. Somehow, our presence in his space has left a mark and we’ve scared him off. A nature documentary captures the moment a bird returns to the nest. To the outside eye, everything looks the same, not a twig out of place. But some sign, human or otherwise, has marked it indelibly ruined. A scattered flap of the wings and then away. This is the image that makes the most sense to me, and there is nothing I can do but accept it.
The typhoon has swept in with full force, sending flat sheets of rain against the windows. Minnie sleeps and wakes throughout the day. The covers are twisted with her sweat, but eventually she stills.
“How do you feel?” I ask her, plastic bucket at the ready.
Her eyes pop open. “I’m never eating dumplings again.” I know she must be on the mend, so I leave her to recover.
Alone, I comb through the apartment piece by piece, cupboard by cupboard, looking for—what? I can’t quite articulate to myself, but I’m diligent and thorough with my actions. I lift towels one by one, fingering their pile, letting the sharp smell of sun-dried fabric fill the air. I open boxes and rifle through them, finding winter clothes and old books and pairs of scratched sunglasses. I lose myself for a good hour looking at real estate circulars stacked under the bathroom sink.
Later, when Minnie reminds me of this time, I think that what I was looking for was a sign of our family. Maybe a shot of the four of us on vacation in Hawaii, before the Shenzhen apartment, our much younger selves smiling on the beach. Or a familiar object taken from home and transported here—a painting, a bowl, even a familiar pair of shoes. But I find nothing.
I cook the remaining vegetables in the fridge. I spend some of the money he left us buying eggs and udon from the shops below. Nobody calls and the hours pass in gray silence. Minnie slowly comes back to life.
The first thing she asks is, “Dad back?”
“No, I haven’t seen a single sign of him,” I say.
She’s nodding, looking contemplative.
“He never liked Peter very much, did he?”
“I think it was more that Peter never recognized him. He was already old when we got him and Dad never spent enough time at home for Peter to get comfortable. Dogs like routine.”
She looks pale and tired.
“We took good care of Peter, though, right?” she asks.
“We did. And now I’ll take good care of you,” I tell her.
* * *
We spend an afternoon throwing small things off the balcony into the gusting wind—pen caps, coins, tissues. Papers off his desk. The tissue paper scores our highest points for a stylish descent despite the ferocity of the wind, or perhaps because of it. Overall, there are no yelps from below.
The rain passes, and we circle the grounds looking for evidence of anything we flung into the sky but find none. Minnie is shocked and keeps squinting upwards, as if at any moment a pen cap will come flying down.
“It’s like it disappeared into another dimension!” she says.
While we roam, streams of Chinese students head home after school in clumps of three and four. Their hair is uniformly shorn to the chin length required by the local schools, and their uniforms look crisp despite the lingering humidity.
I wonder what they must think of me and Minnie, in our denim shorts and our long ponytails and our conversation thrown back and forth in English. Or if they notice anything strange about us at all. I wonder what they would think if they came to school with us, ate cafeteria meatloaf and ran carelessly around a track in a big foreign land. There’s a version of me somewhere whose parents stayed here, and I wonder what she’s like. What her family is like.
We walk to the swimming pool, intent on joining the sea of humanity drifting down the chlorinated lanes. I buy us matching red, one-piece swimsuits with thick straps and the required tight, flesh-colored rubber caps from the front counter.
The damp echo of the locker room creates a whirlwind of Chinese around us, with showers flipping on and old ladies slapping their plastic sandals joyfully against the wooden benches. In the mirror, we marvel at our identical bald beauty together. We try to blend in, and slipping silently out to the crowded pool, I want to believe we do.
The heat of the air lies heavy on top of the water. Voices and laughter fly back and forth, but underwater the world is crisp and quiet and familiar. Drifting down the lanes, Minnie and her sun-bleached hair ripple up and down beside me. She pulls a well-rehearsed freestyle in the middle of the chaotic pool, finding empty space effortlessly.
“Look,” I say to her. “Maybe you’re the true golden hair fish.”
She loops a couple laps extra fast for me, showing off, pushing by the others, and looking completely at home by herself.
“Do you think we’re bad daughters?” she asks.
“I think we’re trying our best.”
* * *
At home, the Walmart Supercenter bags are still sitting on the counter where our mother left them. We take them down one by one and carefully unwrap each household item from its packaging, snipping the plastic ties. We wash and dry each piece and lay them out before us on the coffee table. Minnie and I are quiet, gazing at all the tools one might need to make a nice life. I know we’ll see our father again very soon.
Willa Zhang lives and writes in Los Angeles. She received her BA in English Literature from the University of Chicago and now writes to raise money for community health in South LA. This is her first fiction publication.