by K-Ming Chang
Mama always told me: Japanese people are honeybees and Chinese people are cockroaches. Honeybees are cooperative and chambered in gold, wearing honey draped like jewelry. Cockroaches live in dirty places and multiply like unwashed dishes, but they are durable, stone-shelled and stubborn as sidewalks. I read once that cockroaches are the only species that would survive a nuclear radiation apocalypse. Mama always told us stories of our line had survived: first, the perforation of Nantong, the way Japanese planes flew reconnaissance at night to decide what to bomb in the morning. They once designed a net wide enough to snag the sun from the sky. Meanwhile, we survived two and a half famines, a century of abortions, and reeducation, in which my mother was kicked in the head by a horse in Qinghai, resulting in a broken hip and a knee that now bends both ways. She rolled up the leg of her jeans whenever we asked, straightening her leg until it bowed the other way, laughing when we wailed for her to stop. She chased us like that, with her leg dragged behind her like a baseball bat, fleeing the range of her swing. It’s important, she told us, not to kill cockroaches with our bare hands or to stomp them dead with our shoes, because the eggs in their bellies will cling invisible to our palms or our soles and our bodies will breed more of them. She checked our palms every time we came in through the door, examining the soles of my brother’s shoes, checking for eggs clinging clear as rain. They’ll use you as a host, Mama said, the more you kill, the more they’ll breed. They’ll make mothers of you all.
The proper way to kill a cockroach, she claimed, was to wedge a magazine page underneath it, then smash it from above with a rolled-up newspaper, leaving no jellied remnants on the carpet or our hands. But my brothers and I disobeyed, and when we found cockroaches breeding on the inside of our lampshades, their shadows large as our palms, we plucked them up with our bare fingers and dropped them in water. We wanted to test if it was true, if cockroaches could really survive everything: bombs, starvation, the apocalypse of boiling water. They floated in the water, antennae paddling, and sometimes we were merciful, flushing them whole down the toilet, giving them the beach view like my brother said, and sometimes we crucified them with toothpicks, we crushed their limbs one by one with our thumbs, we squatted them on the windowsill and then shut the windows on top of them, savoring the symphony of their crunch. We never washed our hands. We loved our own stink, the pickled lemon of our sweat, our fermented morning mouths. When mold mutinied in the bathroom sink and vined across our shower, ropes of mold alive as snakes and strangled around the pipes, Mama hosed us naked in the backyard, cold. We ran from the water, splaying onto our stomachs and curling to avoid the cold, but Mama spouted the water into our ears, up our nose, our faces skinned bright as pears. She nicked the moles off our noses, the ones that were unlucky and were positioned to mean we would never have money. When we were infants, she brought us to the face-mole reader so that our faces could be constellated, our fates mapped over our moles. This one, the reader said of me, has a mole beside her right eye. It means she will never marry. That evening, my mother flicked off the mole with a fruit knife, and the scar there is iridescent as oil, a mirror for a mosquito.
Every city in the world has Chinese people, Mama said. I don’t mean in a good way. She told a story about going to Italy with money she’d saved up for my first brother’s college tuition. When my first brother jacked a car at a stop sign, waiting for the elderly woman to roll to a stop before tugging the her out of the car, lifting a knife to her throat, and leaving the scene, Mama was the one who waited every night for him to come home, leaving a bowl of oilchicken soup at his seat at the dinner table until its surface was laced with fornicating mold. Only then did Mama empty the bowl into the sink, scour the mold away with a fork, and say she was going on vacation. Can we come with you, we begged, but Mama said, I can’t have three cockroaches clinging on me, then kissed us each on both cheeks, kissed us so hard our cheeks ripened like plums and loosed from their bones.
Our neighbor next door watched over us for two weeks – Ouyang Ayi with her tubs of congee and salted duck egg and hairbrush used to spank us – until one Sunday our mother came home with her clothes in a trash bag and her hair dulling like watered coals. We asked her what Italy had been like, what it was like to leave the country, forgetting that this was not her first time leaving a family, that her own mother and father were still waiting for her in another city we would never see. It was beautiful, our mother said, as we swarmed her on the sofa, nuzzling our faces into her armpits, smelling the familiar fact of her sweat, the mole on her chin that meant she was blessed, her nails manicured into fish-hooks. There were fountains. I ate ice cream that tasted like the rind of a melon. You look different, we told her, and she laughed and rolled up the leg of her pants to show us her trick knee, the one broken by a horse. You see, she said, it’s me. She lit a cigarette and told us to open a window, we stink. But Italy was full of Chinese people, she said, tourists everywhere. And the factories too, full of them. One night, she said, she walked into a neighborhood that was dimmer than the others, a degree of darkness that reminded her of Nantong quilted with fields, and as she walked through the street and looked up, she saw clothes hanging from bamboo poles jutting out of balconies, her the sound of men spitting into sinks before bed, the sound of the TV replaying a dynasty. The windows opened and spoke in dialect, addressing silhouettes with six limbs. Up in the hills was a factory that ran even at night, smoke crusting the sky like patches of mold. The moon scuttled behind the sky and was last seen alive.
On the street was a watch repair stall jutting onto the sidewalk, a booth bubbled by panes of plastic. There was a man sitting inside it, his swivel chair wrapped in plastic, his back rounded as a beetle’s as he leaned over a watch. His face through the plastic was submerged, aquatic. She straightened and said, I’m a tourist, but he didn’t respond. He smiled again, and this time his single gold canine turned iridescent in the dark, a fish-scale she wanted to shuck away. She wondered who needed their watch fixed in the middle of the night, if maybe he lived here. Finally he said something in a dialect she didn’t know, three syllables of silver, and she thought it sounded like who are you. Because she couldn’t speak Italian or his dialect of Chinese, so she spoke to him in English, she said the only word she ever learned: Enough. She learned it from watching Oprah. What does it mean, she asked us, every time Oprah leaned forward in her seat and said You Are Enough. It means gou le, we said, it means no more, no need. Need, my mother repeated, never ends. The man gave her the watch that night, and my mother took it without touching his hands. It was a leather-banded Seiko, a fake. Everything’s fake if a Chinese person is wearing it, my mother said, always remember that. At Dahua, she pointed out women wearing LV pajamas while they fondled pears and scratched radishes. Fake, fake, fake, she said about all other mothers.
But she came home wearing that watch, which ran too fast and had a cracked band, and she didn’t let us touch its glass face because she said we’d dirty it. While she was gone, the kitchen curdled with ants, ants in two lines like a railroad, siphoning into the refrigerator, carpeting a bucketful of oranges. My brothers and I drowned them in the sink and pressed them dead with our thumbs, but the ants entered us like smoke, knitted a net of their bodies, and we slept holding our breaths, afraid they’d invade our lungs and carry us away on their backs. It rained like a runny nose the day she came back, rain thick and phlegmy on our windows, glazed to our door. Beneath the weight of rain, the ceiling dipped like our mother’s back, the place where her sweat gathered into silver fabric. My brothers and I spanked the refrigerator with rolled newspaper, slaughtering ants, but Mama said to leave them. The refrigerator is empty, anyway, she said. They’re stupid enough to hunt what isn’t there.
The glass face of her watch glowed, and she wore it like a corsage, like it would wilt if we snipped it from her wrist, if we touched it. At night, she polished it against the hem of her shirt and lifted it to her lips as if to lick it. Japanese people are punctual, she said, and Chinese people are always late. She lifted the watch to her bedside lamp and taught us how to divine what day it was, what direction to face so that the sun wouldn’t strike us down. Are cockroaches always late too, we wanted to ask, but we figured they were always early, always alive inside out lampshades or humping inside of our lightbulbs, their shadows projected onto our faces, six-limbed suns.
The day she came back, cockroaches crawled into the garbage bag full of her clothes and carried off her buttons like candy, leaving nothing but the sleeves. Our mother said it was lucky she wore a full-coverage apron to work. At H-Mart, which prided itself on remaining open 365 days of the year, even during wildfires, the manager instructed Mama to scrub out the glass-paneled display where refrigerated seafood was displayed, shrimp the size of our knuckles. While she bent and sprayed and scoured the glass panes until they glowed, she complained that they would never do this at a Chinese grocery store. Never, she said. At Dahua, she was never made to clean anything. Even the front windows accrued dust until they were dimmed into a limousine’s. We begged our mother to take us with her to H-Mart, where they played the latest Jay Chou songs and Top-50s. Back when my mother worked at Dahua and took us with her, my brothers and I plugged our ears with Styrofoam peanuts: all they played was Teresa Teng songs, the kind only grandmothers sang at karaoke, and after every verse the song receded like a hairline. Mama’s voice rode the loudspeaker, announcing a sale on frog legs, fresh, 1.99 a pound, get it now, come feel these thighs, so ripe, already skinned.
La sa jia, la sa dwa, Mama said, removing her hairnet when she was home. Those chemicals burn off all my knuckle-hair, she said, laughing. Look how clean my hands are. La sa jia, la sa dwa. It was a Fujianese phrase she learned from her mother: you eat dirty, you grow up dirty. It was what she said when she saw the ants, when we sucked pennies of their rust, when she caught us eating the ants too, licking a jam of them off our thumbs, wanting to know if their bodies were as sweet as what they’d eaten. It means it doesn’t matter what you eat, she said, it means, leave it. Once when our mother was little, our grandmother caught Mama eating a cow dung, not because she was hungry but because the dung was pearled with maggots, the closest color to her teeth she’d ever seen, white as the marbling of the moon. She wanted to string them down her throat, pretty meat: la sa jia, la sa dwa, the neighbor said, let her be, let her be.
The ants paraded August on their backs, this time invading the bedroom in soldier-straight lines, gnawing holes the size of our faces into our pillowcases, corralling Mama’s hand cream that reminded her of Italy, smelling of lemons and laundry. Mama gave up what she told us about killing insects, about not using our hands, and slapped crowds of them down from the wall, danced them dead, unstitching the lines with the grind of her heels. The ants sent patrols, lone ants that circled unseen, searching for something edible, and when they found an unlicked bingbang wrapper or my mother’s Japanese shampoo with a blonde woman on it, they gossiped to the rest of their troop and arrived in the morning, strands of ants scattered heavy across our laps.
The Japanese used to do that too, Mama said, crawling on her hands and knees, felling whole armies with her belly. They sent single planes to fly over the province and scout for the best places to bomb, then they brought over the whole flock in the morning, multiplying into rain. At night, our grandfather thought he spotted a tail in the sky, whipping like a lizard’s, and in the morning there were planes flying so low you could see their strained bellies, their bombs birthed in litters. In the backyard, Mama’s parents crouched inside a hole they’d dug a week earlier when someone said they’d dreamed of a single white ant crawling out of a cloud. It pulled itself across the sky, unraveling the fabric of the night behind it. After that, everyone in the city dug trenches: it was safe only underground, beneath the surface of hurt. Those sewers full of our bodies, my mother said. When we asked if our grandparents survived, Mama always said yes, that they were proud cockroaches who later planted those trenches with sweet potatoes, but we never heard any more about them, and sometimes at night when Mama claimed she was speaking to them over the phone, we heard the dial tone spiraling out of her throat. If they were really cockroaches, my first brother used to ask, before he scuttled from our lives, they must have survived those bombs. We nodded, agreeing, and Mama said nothing. She only told us to wash our ass-cracks, to scrape clean the underside of our nails, to check for eggs clustered on the palms of our hands. You never know what you carry alone, she said, how much one body can bring.
My brothers and I copied Mama, patrolling on all-fours, but one time my brother kicked Mama’s leg, the one with the broken knee that bent both ways, and Mama folded onto her side and cried out, cradling her knee. We watched her like that, our mother calling for her mother, until she realized no one would ever answer her. Then she stood up, leaning against the wall, and slapped my brother between the shoulder-blades so hard he coughed up a pearl of blood. You pest, she said, you cockroach, you rice mite. I am your mother, your mother. My brother huddled on the carpet and said he didn’t mean to, it was an accident, and I diverted lines of ants with a discarded sock full of sugar-dried sweat.
Crawling to my mother, I pressed my lips to the leg of her pants, remember when I was a baby and so skinny I could crawl into the vacated left leg of her jeans and sleep there. Does it hurt, I asked my mother, has it gotten better yet. Her leg swung loose at the knee, wrapped in the brace she made of cardboard and tape and a lattice of bobby pins. Enough, she said, kneading her knee, this is enough. Then she crouched back down to the carpet and told us to search for the queen, the matriarch of the military, the one that controlled everything, the scouts, the spies, the soldiers. My brothers and I scattered across the carpet, seeking the queen, the one with wings, the mother we hunted. On the face of her wristwatch were ant-bodies, thumbed shadows. I shut my eyes and tried to remember when I’d seen a scout, a single ant scouring our ground, our mouths, but I couldn’t remember seeing less than a military. It’s too late, my mother said, we’ve been found. Ants rained into the room from the doorway, from our throats, emerging out of the air itself, threading the carpet into a tapestry of bodies. Backing away, Mama retreated to the mattress and lay down, her limbs roving the air, searching the ceiling for something we couldn’t see. Maybe the ants are coming from underground, my brothers said, and I agreed. We searched for its mound, the dirt-grave carved with our name. We dug into the carpet surrounding our mother, tilling the thread with our fingernails, beating the floor with our fists, waking whatever buried us here.
About K-Ming Chang
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel BESTIARY is forthcoming from One World / Random House on September 29, 2020. Her poems have been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets 2018, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, and the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology.