We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Incantatory. Dream-like. Lyrical. Heady, like good red wine. A refreshing interpretation of the theme of allies. A poignant testament and exploration of “in-betweeness,” of living in and negotiating worlds within and without. It reads like a condensed novel. Looking forward to more stories from Li.
—Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Contest judge
The Chinese WeChat mothers were the first to tell me I was pregnant. They know my body better than I do. I’ve known about the Chinese WeChat mothers since I was born but have never met a single one of them. My mother was added to the group when she went back to Shanghai to visit my grandma. Without even asking, my mother downloaded WeChat onto my phone. “They need to know you exist,” she told me when she returned. “They will help you. They understand.” I don’t even know what the Chinese WeChat mothers look like. Their profile pictures are usually zoomed-in photos of their children’s faces. The Chinese WeChat mothers never go by their own names, only by their children’s, something like Meis_mother_828. The Chinese WeChat mothers are even hidden to themselves.
The Chinese WeChat mothers are there to make sure things go right. They exist to make sure mothering happens for little Chinese boys and girls the way mothering should—exact, methodical, constant. Legend has it that the Chinese WeChat mothers have always been a group, even before WeChat existed. Always waiting for a husband to come home, for a child to come back to them. Always looking forward to telling a new mother what can’t be done.
I wonder if we’re always just our own ghosts—our hauntings always being self-hauntings.
The night they tell me I’m pregnant, I’m in bed with my husband. We’ve been married for two years. I lie and tell people we’ve only been married for a month. They bring up the fact that he’s white less this way, certain the mistake will undo itself with time.
Every night before I go to sleep, I open up Snapchat and scroll until I get to the face swap filter. I only downloaded Snapchat for this filter. In the dead of night, I stretch out my right arm and hold my phone above our two heads. The phone screen lights up our faces and makes our skin look like shiny puddles of curdled milk. The first time it happened, I couldn’t help but let out a tiny scream. Sometimes I get Max’s eyes and he gets my nose. Other times, I get his thinner lips and he gets my thinner eyebrows. Each face swap is different—something newly stolen, newly returned. One time, the app didn’t even recognize my face and only recognized his. I kept tapping the screen, willing the phone to see me. The phone always sees my husband.
The scariest though is when the app glitches and the image freezes. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t power off my phone or exit the app. I’m forced to stare at these sticky, horrid in-between versions of ourselves. I wonder if we’re always just our own ghosts—our hauntings always being self-hauntings.
I’ve been doing the face swaps for years. I started when we were dating. At first, I did them to see what our children would look like, if they would be pretty hapa babies, if they would be Asian, if they would be white, if they would be mine, if they would be his. Soon, though, I began to think less about our future children. I wanted to know what parts of myself were the most resilient. I keep all of the face swaps in an album on my phone and scroll through them once in a while. The face swaps tell me more than regular photos do. I see what parts of myself I’ve allowed to be stolen from me.
My husband doesn’t know about any of this. I only do the face swaps with him when he’s asleep. Unlike me, he doesn’t wake easily. My husband always needs sleep. He’s in China every two months for the reality TV show he produces. When his work permits, he can sleep for thirty-six hours at a time. I’ve spent so much of our marriage alone with his body. I have no idea if he dreams and what he dreams about. I sometimes ask him when he wakes up, and he always says he doesn’t remember. But in the end, he always comes home to me. He sometimes wraps me up until we’re tight and pressed like a sausage. Right now, that’s good enough for me.
The night the Chinese WeChat mothers reemerge, my phone freezes. Ever since I married Max, the Chinese WeChat mothers have texted me constantly. I quickly deleted the app. I even got a new phone and number. I wanted them to think they had lost me. That I couldn’t be fixed.
Tonight, though, the app is back on my phone. Green, bright, and hopeful. I don’t delete it this time. I am alone and the love of a thousand faceless mothers is better than no love at all. I stare at my phone, and my hands tremble as I wait. I throw my phone across the room and hope it breaks. Doing nothing was a mistake. You don’t want the Chinese WeChat mothers to be in contact with you. It always means you’ve done something wrong. My phone begins to buzz violently with texts.
The texts flood over the frozen face swap until all I see is green. When my phone unfreezes, I open up WeChat and am not sure if I’m supposed to respond. I see three blinking dots bobbing up and down as they text me.
Why did you leave us? Why did you abandon us? Do you not love us?
You don’t want the Chinese WeChat mothers to be in contact with you. It always means you’ve done something wrong.
I try to delete the app from my phone, but it won’t let me.
Your mothers know. Your mothers know what you’ve done. You will regret this. You need to fix your mistake.
I want to scream, but nothing comes out.
There is a pause as the mothers type. Instead of text they send a voice memo. In a low, monotonous voice they cry out like a chant, A baby knows the body it’s growing in. Make sure it knows it’s yours. We will help. Listen to your mothers. Your child is our child.
I put down my phone and hold my stomach in my hands. I stare at my husband and think to myself this would be the time for you to wake up, but he doesn’t. I look at my stomach, just the two of us. I wrap my arms around us and stay like that until morning.
• • •
Once upon a time, my mother’s greatest fear was that I would give birth to a watermelon baby.
When I was five, my mother left for three years to take care of my grandma in Shanghai. When my mother finally came home to us, she was obsessed with removing seeds, shiny and black, from fruits. The doctors said my grandma could choke on them, but my mother was certain it was something more than that. This was the first time she consulted the Chinese WeChat mothers. They said that seeds make the body haunted, make a woman shrivel up into herself from all that excess growing. Hunched over the kitchen table, my mother dug her nails into the wet flesh of papayas, dragon fruits, kiwis. She’d dig and dig until the black came out clean. She’d place each seed into a ceramic bowl and I’d stand on my toes and peer down. I always wondered how the darkness could look so full. Afterward, she would kiss my hair and make me touch her fingers, wrinkled and sunken. In a cracked whisper she’d say, “This is how much your mother loves you. This is how you will remain clean. This is how you will remain good.” By myself, at the kitchen table, I’d eat the flesh she gave me, soft and browning, bite by bite.
My mother once tried to do this for my father, but he wouldn’t listen. He wanted to eat food the way it was given to him, untouched by my mother. At night, my mother would take a pair of tweezers and remove the seeds from my father’s fruit, doing her best to keep the flesh intact just the way he liked it. The next morning, the garbage can was overflowing with the fruit, shrunken and wet.
Once when my mother was driving me to school, when it was the two of us and we were alone, she said, “Your father can eat like that but you can’t. His body doesn’t change in the ways ours do. His body is safe.”
I nodded in the backseat and watched the black of my hair bob up and down in the rearview mirror like an insect trying to squirm to the surface.
“When I was gone, I hope your father wasn’t feeding you food the way Americans sell them. Everything needs to be picked out. Everything needs to be clean and like itself.”
“You know, Grace, you can’t have more than one thing growing in you at once.” I stared into the mirror and tried to find a version of my mother, but I couldn’t see. “You’ll never be able to get a good boy like that.”
When I went to school that day, we had apples for snack time. I sucked on the seeds all throughout class, the little bits of black jiggling in my mouth. I caressed them with my tongue one little apple baby, two little apple baby, three little apple baby, mommy loves you. When a boy sitting next to me tapped me on my shoulder and asked what I was doing, I swallowed the seeds in surprise. I spent the entire recess in the girl’s bathroom, forcing myself to throw up until three black dots landed in the toilet.
• • •
When I decide to tell Max I’m pregnant, my face is being pressed down hard into a mattress. Whenever we’re about to get into an argument, Max will flip me belly first onto our bed and place his body on top of mine. We’ll lie there, spine to stomach, and soon we’ll start laughing. He’ll start squirming on top of me and I’ll start squirming back and we’ll look like one dancing, decapitated centipede. These are the times I’m the happiest with Max. Our limbs moving on top of one another in sync. Whenever Max is on top of me, the mattress never groans. Some days he makes himself light for me, but today he wants me to feel his weight.
“Why are you on top of me? We’re not going to fight.”
“Really? It felt like we were about to.”
“You always think that, Max.”
“Why do I always think that?” My eyes are being forced closed by the mattress pressed against my face.
Sometimes it’s that the love is fake, sometimes it’s that the people are fake, sometimes it’s the words.
Max is white, but he’s more Chinese than I will ever be. The show he produces is about recent widows who rent out actors to be their dead spouses. The viewers tend to hope that the fake couples will fall in love. There is always a live audience on set but they don’t always participate. Their only job is to yell out “real!” or “fake!” whenever they feel like it. You never really know what exactly they are saying is real or fake—sometimes it’s that the love is fake, sometimes it’s that the people are fake, sometimes it’s the words. Very rarely does the audience deem something real. My husband tells me though that it doesn’t matter. That feature was Max’s idea. He said it gets the audience at home to trust the show more. It scares some of the participants, though, who aren’t used to being on TV. One time a widow was getting undressed after she thought the cameras had stopped rolling and from the faceless audience, someone yelled out “Fake! Fake! Fake!” With a scream, her body fell on the floor and coiled into itself like a snake. I wished her fake husband would have done something to help her even if he was just acting. Max used the footage as the trailer for the next episode.
Today Max just signed on to do season two of the show without telling me. The production company called the house and left a message for him. Max was supposed to be back in Boston after season one wrapped up. He’s going to leave in a couple months, and live in China for a year. I just became a kindergarten teacher in Boston and can’t move schools, especially to one in China.
That night, when we’re about to go to sleep, Max says to me, “I’m sorry. I was going to tell you.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Max is silent for a while. “You never deal well with me leaving.”
I tap Max on the shoulder and I can feel him move on top of me.
“Can we switch places?” Max always likes to point out how light I am. He jokes that I wouldn’t be with him if he weren’t so much stronger than I was. I usually don’t mind it, but today I want to be heavy like he is. Today I feel powerful.
I slowly climb on top of his back.
“Am I heavy?”
“No. I could shake you off so easily, Grace.”
“Let me be heavy.”
“No.” My husband laughs and starts to go up on his hands and knees. On his trembling body, I slowly rise. I press my body hard against his. I will myself to be large, massive, full.
“Max, I’m pregnant,” I whisper in his ear. His body collapses and the mattress groans. I haven’t even taken a test yet, but I just know. The Chinese WeChat mothers wouldn’t lie to me. I stare at my husband and wonder why I didn’t tell him sooner. I don’t know what else to do so I start wriggling like a centipede—waiting for him to resume our dance—but my husband lies still.
• • •
It’s two months into my pregnancy, and I only see my husband when he comes into our bedroom to give me food every night. He gives me bags of burgers and fries and chicken wings from McDonald’s. Everything he knows I like. He even gets me a kid’s meal (“for the baby, of course”). It comes with a little plastic toy. I roll the toy in my hand. The theme for this series is Parisian food—tiny baguettes, thin plasticky crepes that smell like chemicals, teacups the size of my nail. I hold onto them for the baby.
I’ve always wondered why children are so fascinated with fake food. We have boxes and boxes of fake food in my kindergarten classroom. Every so often, a child asks me why they can’t eat the food that’s in the play area, and I tell them that plastic children eat plastic food. But still, every week a child will swallow a slice of fake pear or a plastic square of chocolate or a glossy pat of butter. Why do we crave what can’t be eaten? I sometimes wonder what would happen if we all just ate objects—notebooks, dollhouses, little toy cars—if that’s how we became nourished. If instead of birthing people, we birthed boats and hats and stuffed animals. What would we crave then? How much simpler would things be? I hold my belly and feel the baby wrapped up inside me, swaddled in a brilliant ball of grease.
What are you trying to feed your baby into, nui nui?
I stare down at my stomach. I think of little plastic babies. I think of baby boats and baby cars. How nice would it be if the baby looked like nothing, looked like nobody. A blurry, buzzing, faceless head. A tiny plastic apple.
• • •
When I was ten, my mother abandoned me for the Chinese WeChat mothers. That was the year my father divorced her. That was the year that my mother became convinced that she was going to have a miscarriage. Two twin baby girls, both swallowing the other in the same gulp. That was the year she became convinced that I was pregnant. I had only gotten my period a year before. My mother was certain that her twin girls had fled her belly and escaped into mine. I held my ten-year-old stomach every night. I massaged the skin, tried to feel their heads, mold them into the shapes I thought they should be, and told myself that this is what it must mean to be a mother.
My mother was certain that her twin girls had fled her belly and escaped into mine.
Every day for a month my mother would coo at my bony, thin-skinned belly. Every day my mother would go to the grocery store and come back home with crates and crates of seeded fruits just so that she could pick the seeds out for me one by one with her stubby nails. My mother waited in the shadows as I ate the fruit. She made sure I ate every single bite.
At the end of the month, though, when I still hadn’t given birth, my mother began to get nervous. She took me out of school and told the principal that she had just had a complicated birth and needed me with her. She fed me constantly. Different fruits in different portions. Now I know: she was trying to build my baby for me. I remember that year drawing pictures of little stick-figure girls with fruit stuffed in their mouths, saliva and juice dribbling all the way to their barely-there nipples.
One night, I grabbed a handful of black seeds stuck to the side of the kitchen garbage can and went to my mother’s bedroom. I shook her shoulders and swallowed the seeds one after the other. When I was done, I peered down at my mother through the darkness. She was still. Her eyes closed. I crawled back to my room on all fours, an animal, scared but full. My belly dragged on the carpet, and I felt my skin slowly begin to burn.
The morning after, I woke up to my shirt pulled up to my armpits, black seeds glued with spit to my stomach. I screamed, but my mother was gone.
After that, it didn’t matter if I was pregnant or not anymore.
After that, my mother abandoned me for the Chinese WeChat mothers. She would drive off in our station wagon to an authentic Chinese restaurant forty minutes away. And she would come back smelling greasy and stale and bitter not at all like how my mother was supposed to be. She became a ghost in the house. I was only aware of her presence from the objects she moved—the glasses in the sink clouded by her lips, the warm chair jutting out at the kitchen table that I’d sit on and refuse to get out of until I couldn’t tell if it was my heat or my mother’s and it made me want to cry.
I always wondered if the WeChat mothers became her new daughters, if they became her new mothers, if they became her new husbands. Maybe their faceless bodies gracefully replaced us all.
• • •
My husband ends up going to China when I’m three months pregnant. He tried to get out of his contract but the show wouldn’t let him. To make it up to me, Max sends me presents twice a week. Cheap silk slippers, plastic barrettes, pink qipaos in crinkly plastic bags. He gives me clothes that Chinese venders coax American tourists into buying. “You’ll look so pretty in these, honey.”
When my husband is gone, the Chinese WeChat mothers take the opportunity to convince me he is making my body haunted. They call my phone daily to tell me.
Can’t you smell the haunting? The haunting has a smell. We can smell it from here. Your belly is rotting.
Nothing smells like itself. I want to tell them it’s because I’m pregnant, but I don’t. Whatever the mothers do, I always find myself picking up the phone. I always wonder when they’ll call next. I don’t want them disappointed in me.
While Max is away, the Chinese WeChat mothers tell me that everything Max owns is haunted. His socks, his briefcase, his razor. Even his side of the bed.
Cut the bed in half. Burn it. Keep your side. It’s still good. Don’t you worry, nui nui.
The Chinese WeChat mothers take care of me in their own way. They leave boxes of food by my doorstep every morning. Crates of curled-up chicken feet, white chicken smothered in egg whites, fatty pieces of duck drenched in hoisin sauce.
Guai nui, guai nui. Eat up. Fill yourself in the right way.
I eat every bit of food they give me.
• • •
Can’t you smell the haunting? The haunting has a smell. We can smell it from here. Your belly is rotting.
When I miss my husband I like to watch his show. It only comes on at four in the morning, so I have to force myself to stay awake. On this episode, a widower is teaching an actress how to make a dish that his dead wife expertly cooked. It’s chicken soup.
“Boil the chicken whole,” the widower instructs.
“Can’t we remove the head first? It’s staring back at me.”
“You’re not trying very hard to be my wife then.”
“Fake!” the audience yells. “Fake!”
“OK. Whole chicken it is.”
“My wife always loved using all of the animal in our meals. Always making sure that we could taste it for what it really was.”
The next ten minutes consist of a time-lapse montage of the two cooking the dish, the widower hovering over the actress. At the end, the actress places the pot of soup in front of the widower, the chicken head bobbing up and down like a buoy inside the bowl. He takes a long slurp and the liquid dribbles down his chin like drops of piss.
“This tastes better than my wife’s soup.” The actress waits a beat to respond and glances out toward the audience.
“Oh, I’m so glad,” the actress says with a smile.
“Fake!” I yell out and turn off the TV.
I wonder if I died and if our baby died, if my husband could go on his own reality TV show. If he could get actors to play our dead selves. I wonder at what point the audience would yell out “Real! Real! Real!” to the actors. I wonder how long it would take for my husband to forget about us. I wonder how long it would take for me to become fake. Sometimes I wonder why he created this show in the first place, what exactly is in it for him.
• • •
I spend more and more time at work as my second trimester starts. The house feels haunted. While I haven’t thrown out my husband’s belongings like the Chinese WeChat mothers have demanded, I have placed them all in a box and locked it in the corner of his closet. It’s full of his belongings, but also the presents he’s shipped to me. Boxes of key chains in the shapes of dumplings, fake jade bracelets that cost two dollars, shirts that read “Versachee” in big red letters. At first, I just avoided going near his closet, then the bedroom, then the entire second floor, now I’m afraid to be in the house.
Today in school I ask the class to draw a picture of their families. They create waxy stick figures looming over one another with big giraffe necks. They make their stick figures hold hands. They write out the names of their parents above their heads. I then ask them to draw their future families. “Now, what would my family look like?” The class pauses and some of the kids look at my stomach.
“Is that a trick question, Miss Grace?” a boy asks.
“No. I’m just curious.”
“Shouldn’t you be the one to draw it? We shouldn’t be doing your work for you,” the boy yells out.
The class watches as I go to the board and take out a piece of chalk. My hand shakes as I draw a large circle.
What will you draw, nui nui? We’re curious too.
I draw myself. Long hair, small nose, thin neck.
“Hey, that’s just you, Miss Grace. You cheated,” the boy yells at the top of his lungs.
• • •
It’s three months before my due date when I decide to surprise my husband by visiting him. I promised him a while ago I would see his work. This is the first and only time I’ll be in China.
In China, my husband grows larger. Chinese women always ask to take photos with him. I’m the one who usually takes them. After the eighth group of women asks to take a photo, I whisper to my husband that we should start charging. He laughs. “Don’t we need the extra money, Max?” His mouth straightens. “They’re just joking, Grace. Let them have their fun.” Max, like all men, enjoys being liked. Max, like all men, is able to say what is a joke and what is not—telling me if the things I believe are real were secretly fake all along.
There is something addictive in telling people what they are doing isn’t real.
On the third day of our trip, my husband takes me to his work. I go onto the set and sit in the audience. The cast is in the middle of season two. Right now, a widow and an actor are performing the last conversation she had with her real, dead spouse.
They do one take of the scene, and the audience around me yells out “fake!”
They do another, and the audience yells out “fake!” again.
Through the blackness, I can see some of their faces, shadowed and smiling. They yell at the top of their lungs.
By the eighth take, I’m starting to yell “fake!” too. I feel myself smiling. There is something addictive in telling people what they are doing isn’t real. That you don’t believe them for a second.
It’s the twelfth take now and from somewhere on the set, my husband yells out “Keep on going, guys!”
“Fake! Fake! Fake!” I yell at the top of my lungs. I feel my belly shake at the noise. As I continue to yell, I swear that I can feel my voice multiply, as if the Chinese WeChat mothers are echoing right after me. “Fake! Fake! Fake!” we all scream together.
• • •
In the end, I can’t tell what race my child looks like when she’s born. In a sagging bed at Mass General, I hold her at arm’s length and look at her left to right, up and down.
“Put her back in! Put her back in!” I yell at the doctors. “She’s not fully formed yet. I still need her in there. She isn’t looking how she’s supposed to.”
The doctors stare at me and motion my husband to come over and do something. He comes over to my bed and rubs my back. He hands me a McDonald’s bag, filled with the tiny plastic toys I had kept. I open the bag slowly. The baby immediately begins to claw at the bag and the toys fall onto her like fat, plastic raindrops. Before I can do anything, she takes a toy in her tiny hands and puts it in her mouth. In one swift motion, she swallows the plastic food and smiles. All of the doctors crowd over her at once. With thick latex fingers they try to open her mouth.
My husband takes the bag from me and clutches it at his side.
“What are you thinking? What have you done?” he whispers. My mouth feels wet. I’m scared to know what’s inside of it.
The doctors aren’t able to remove the plastic toy from my baby’s stomach. They say they’ll have to wait until morning when she’s digested it more. I sleep with her that night, her belly on top of mine. I wake up every half hour to look at her. Sometimes she moves, and in response, I sink the small of my back as far into the hospital bed as it can go. My girl is young, but I want her to feel heavy. I want her to know that her weight means something. On the other side of the hospital room, my husband sleeps in a chair. I haven’t looked at his body from this far away in a while. I stick out my thumb and move it to cover his body. He disappears in an instant.
In the dead of night, the Chinese WeChat mothers come to the hospital room. I wake up to my mother holding my baby next to me. Cooing at it, feeding it slippery slices of fruit. Beside my bed is a bowl of black seeds, and I place one underneath my tongue when I think she isn’t looking.
They walk out of the room as one, my baby held in their many hands.
My mother smiles at me. Standing in the doorframe are the Chinese WeChat mothers. In three gentle strides, my mother reclaims her position within the dark mass of the WeChat mothers. I can no longer see her. I sit up in bed to try to see their faces. The mothers move as one body. Shrouded in black, they slink to the corner of the room. This is the ultimate mother. This is where the shadows of all mothers go. I see one mother’s face and it is blank, a blurring buzzing orb. They walk out of the room as one, my baby held in their many hands. The mother who I am almost certain is my real mother opens her mouth and all the other mothers are swallowed in one clean gulp. She looks at me as she leaves the room, and I fall asleep.
Real, real, real. She was very real after all.
Sabrina Helen Li has work published or forthcoming in the Threepenny Review, Tin House Online, the Black Warrior Review, and the Los Angeles Review. She studies English at Harvard College.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
As Roe is struck down by the Supreme Court, we bring together recent and archival essays to assess what is at stake—and how we might move from reproductive rights to reproductive justice.
Theorist Hil Malatino offers a compelling account of the persistent bad feelings with which trans people often struggle—but it comes with fashionable academic hang-ups that need to be reconsidered.
The systems that harm animals go hand in hand with systems that harm humans. Combating them requires inter-species solidarity.