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My Nai Nai’s skin was paper smooth and dark. She had age spots on her face. Her hair was white, soft, feather-like. Her eyes, narrow and small. She had a frailty about her. She didn’t smile often. She didn’t laugh easily either. My mother once told me that Nai Nai was a difficult woman to like.
But if you’d asked my cousins, they would’ve said something different. My Nai Nai called my cousins “treasures.” “Big Treasure,” for Jake. “Little Treasure,” for Davy. But she wasn’t the same with my brother. Nor was she the same with me. I was my father’s son. My father was Nai Nai’s least favorite. It didn’t matter that he was the firstborn son. A firstborn son was supposed to have rights in a family—someone who should have been beloved. But this did not happen for my father.
One time, Nai Nai asked my mother if she thought that my father wasn’t right in the head. “Do you see that he talks to himself?” And then, “Do you think that he’s off? Not right in the head?” It wasn’t really a question, more of a declaration.
I saw the grandmother my Nai Nai was capable of being when she doted on Jake and Davy. They must have thought that there was no way that my Nai Nai could have been any different with me. Or that if she was, then it must have been something I did.
“Never mind,” was what I said to my Nai Nai. She came to understand what it meant—what I didn’t want. When I didn’t want to talk anymore, not that my Nai Nai was all that talkative in the first place. I had heard it from my cousin, Scarlett. “Never mind,” she’d say, like the closing of a book, or the shutting of a door. Then, I heard it from the kids at P.S. 21. They said “never mind” to me all the time, like never mind me.
When I was hungry, my Nai Nai would tell me to wait until my mother came to pick me up. When I complained, she’d make me a hard-boiled egg. She’d serve it to me in the pot it was cooked in, drowned in hot water. This in spite of the fact that she would have already prepared dinner. On the dining table would be steamed fish, braised chicken, pickled cucumbers. But these dishes weren’t for me. They were for Nai Nai’s household, for Ye Ye and Uncle Angus. My Nai Nai wanted to teach my mother a lesson.
Later my mother told me, “It’s the case with many mother-in-laws.” I didn’t understand it at the time. I was in the fourth grade; I must have been nine or ten. My teacher was a woman who bowed to remind us of her name: Mrs. Balmol.
It was the most my grandmother would allow. The dishes on the table were being saved—kept warm, covered with the lids from pots.
“It doesn’t matter,” my mother said to me later. “It’s not like your grandmother is a very good cook anyway. So, lucky you.” And then, “Be happy.”
One day, I made a request. I asked my Nai Nai to make me something else, something different for a change. At the very least, something other than a hard-boiled egg. Could she do that for me? I didn’t know how to say it in Chinese. My vocabulary had narrowed significantly by the time I started P.S. 21. I had begun to shed the language of my home life for that outside life where I didn’t yet know that I would be an outsider. It would be the start of the performance of all performances. Nai Nai was waiting for me to leave—to go home. She wanted me out of her sight. She was waiting for my mother to come and pick me up.
My parents worked late. They had the store in Flushing, the fishcake factory. The fishcake factory had been my father’s idea, after he had been laid off from Danisco Foods where he’d been a food chemist. The fishcake business wasn’t exactly booming. My Nai Nai said that she had predicted it. She had warned my parents. “But did they listen to me? No. And now look where they’re at—practically destitute.”
Once, my mother asked Nai Nai if she could borrow some money. It was for the electric bill; we were behind on payments. But Nai Nai refused to lend her the money.
“Don’t you think that your husband is off?” she said again. “Don’t you think he’s off in the head? Why is he always talking so much to himself?” She said it more than ever. Sometimes it looked like she was talking to herself too.
My Uncle Angus listened to Broadway showtunes. Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music, Cats. He was the third of four brothers, on my father’s side. He stayed in the basement. It was where he had his office. It was where he would work out too. Sometimes he’d work out in his briefs. When I was a kid he was already in his thirties. He jumped rope. He always made sure to work up a sweat. I would wonder why my uncle lived with my grandparents. He was actually married, to a woman I called “Ayi,” for “Auntie.” But my mother told me that my uncle and his wife had separated; she’d gone back to Boston to live with her family. Despite this, she still visited regularly, making the four-hour drive to New York alone. They were trying to make it work.
“The marriage, I mean,” my mother said. “Still, after all these years, they want to make things work out.”
I could tell by her tone. My mother didn’t mean it in an admiring way. It was more like she was saying, “Let bygones be bygones.”
My father’s family had not been good to my mother. They didn’t respect her, nor did they treat her as an equal member of the family—at least according to my mother. They treated her as if she were lower class. She did come from a poor family. Still my mother insisted that she wasn’t lower class. A lot of people arrived poor from China in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Her family was from the south of China, from Toishan. It was her people who had built the railroads in the West, who had been subjected to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, after the Chinese laborers were no longer needed. It was her people who had built all the Chinatowns across North America, isolated in the worst parts of major cities like New York or San Francisco.
Still, my Nai Nai never let my mother forget how lucky she was. To marry into such a distinguished family—the Hu family. During World War II, my grandfather had been handpicked by Chiang Kai-shek to be a colonel for the Nationalist Army, the Kuomintang. My father’s family was descended from a poet to an emperor in the Tang Dynasty. My Nai Nai’s uncle was the first international judge of the United Nations on behalf of China, and an advisor to Mao Zedong himself. He had been a dear friend of the second in charge, Zhou Enlai. Her uncle had also been the prosecutor against the Japanese at the Tokyo Trials for war crimes during the war. He had been there to interrogate Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, when the former monarch had been accused of being a traitor to the Communist Party and of conspiring with Japan against China. During the Cultural Revolution, my great uncle was arrested by the Red Guards and sent to work at a labor camp for being an intellectual. It was Zhou Enlai who ordered his release. And later still, Deng Xiaoping, chairman of China, had been my great uncle’s student. “You can’t make this up,” my Nai Nai would say.
So my mother should be nothing short of content, nothing short of happy.
“Happy for what?” my mother would say, when she was away from prying ears. “My mouth hurts from smiling so much.” And then, “I married into a headache of a family.”
During one of her conjugal visits, Ayi insisted that she had met me before. “Only a baby,” she said. “Do you remember it at all?” Surprisingly, I did, though I’d only been five. We had gone to Boston for the birth of my cousin Davy, my Uncle Peter’s son. It had been a difficult birth and my cousin had been born prematurely. He’d been so tiny, but he had lived. Maybe that was why everyone called him “Little Treasure.”
Ayi brought this up at a family dinner at a restaurant in Flushing. My parents, my brother Edward, Ye Ye and Nai Nai, Ayi and Uncle Angus. It was a picture of something like contentedness.
She added that she had been present on the day of my own birth, August, 1982. “That I am sure you don’t remember,” she said.
Before Ayi returned to Boston again, she gave me a shoebox. We were back at home, in Whitestone. She seemed to be in good spirits. The family thought that perhaps she and my uncle might finally work it out.
“Here,” she said, “open it.” She wore thick-rimmed glasses that were shaded, the style for the eighties. Her dark curly hair fell to her shoulders. When I opened the box, I saw little white things wiggling about. There must have been fifty, perhaps more.
“Do you like them?” Ayi asked. She knelt down beside me. “They’re silkworms. At one time, they were China’s biggest secret.”
My memories of visiting my cousin Davy after he was born are jumbled up with the memories of my brother’s birth. Waiting areas lit by bright fluorescent lights. Tall ceilings with skylights. I can see my mother in the same white hospital bed, even though this isn’t true at all; my brother had been born in Queens, for one.
A correct memory is viewing my cousin through what looked to be a plastic container. It was the beginning of us all always feeling sorry for the boy. He had to struggle through so much. Setback after setback. I used to wonder how a man like my Uncle Peter could inhabit so much sympathy at one moment and then the next, be so unfeeling. How did my uncle know what to pick and choose?
Uncle Peter was my grandparents’ favorite, even though he was their second son. He was the more successful son, more educated, more financially secure. Still, when my grandparents first arrived from Taiwan, they moved in with us. We lived in Jamaica, Queens, then. My grandparents flew in on a TWA flight. The red amenity bag with the gold button was a souvenir from the airline. My grandmother wasn’t happy being in New York City, having to live in Queens. She missed Taiwan. She knew people in Taiwan. She didn’t know anyone in Queens.
Around the time of my grandparents’ arrival from Taiwan, my parents were trying to teach me how to use the potty. That is the story they tell me now. It hadn’t been an easy task. I was too stubborn, too set in my ways. Even though I was too young to have ways. They had even gotten me a child’s toilet for me to use, smaller, less intimidating. But it still frightened me. Oftentimes, I couldn’t. So I held in what I could. And what I could no longer hold, I would let go, involuntarily. My mother worked at a bank. She asked my grandmother to help teach me while she was at work. So my grandmother took me out into the backyard. We had trees in our backyard then and she led me behind them. She told me to squat down, stay there until something happened. She had prepared leaves for me to clean myself with. “For the animal that you are,” my Nai Nai grunted. Of course, nothing happened. When I went back inside, I soiled my clothes. My Nai Nai had me change into new clothes. “See what an animal you are?” she said to me. She then laid my soiled clothes out on my mother’s bed. When my mother came home, she found them there for her to clean. Nai Nai was always trying to teach my mother a lesson.
Around the same time, we went out to eat at a restaurant in Chinatown. Nai Nai ordered the Cantonese-style ginger scallion lobster. When the lobster came, it was big and drenched in sauce. Lobster was rare and expensive in Taiwan, and Ye Ye asked if he could try some. She told him no. This is the story my mother tells about my Nai Nai to show that my grandmother was never going to be happy leaving Taiwan. After all, she hadn’t been happy leaving Shanghai, either.
“But that’s another story,” my mother told me. Then: “People have sides to them. People can appear like they’re having such a good time and then, all of a sudden, they’re not. Well, that’s your grandmother.”
Even then I knew that Nai Nai was exhausted. I could sense it. She already didn’t want to come to New York. She didn’t want to take care of children. She had raised four boys to the point of misery. She wanted to move out of our house as soon as possible.
After we moved to Whitestone, my grandparents moved into the house next door. My Ye Ye thought it was better to keep the family close, even though my grandparents kept mostly to themselves. They had sold everything they owned. They still didn’t know many people in New York. Though we were neighbors, we didn’t interact like grandparents and grandkids. I’d see the grandparents of my friends on the block and I’d notice the difference immediately. My grandparents weren’t affectionate. For instance, they didn’t celebrate my birthday. Nor did they take me to the movies. There were summer days when the extent of my interaction with them was to see my Ye Ye watering the front lawn. I’d watch from my window. He liked to garden, tending to the flowers in the yard. He grew hydrangeas. There was one bush of pink hydrangeas and one of blue. They were on either side of the path that led to their front porch. My grandmother once gave a bouquet of them to the neighbor across the street. Her name was Marianne. She was retired. She used to deliver mail. By then she walked with a cane. She would sit outside on her stoop, watching people amble up and down the block. The Italian families liked to take walks in the evenings after dinner.
My Ye Ye would fuss at me to wear my shoes properly, to put them on one foot at a time. But he was always the one to wear his shoes as if they were slippers, flattening the back down to the heel. Even then I knew that my Ye Ye was a man of contradictions, of inconsistencies. Back then I didn’t know why he would tell me to do one thing but then he’d do another. I didn’t realize that this was what it meant to grow old.
Years later, I would not be able to tell my mother about my first kiss, about my first love. Each time I’d enter my parents’ house, I would plan to, only to realize that there was no room for such a conversation. There was already too much clutter in the house—the clutter of otherness, of unbelonging—for the excess of my own truth. Too much to have to consider. Too much to have to explain, to simplify to the point of untruth. I knew not to tell any of it—another secret to keep, another lie. China’s biggest secret all over again. My duty, to save face. Even if there was no face left to save. My mother wasn’t exactly proud of me. Being proud for her was a superficiality. “People say fancy words all the time,” my mother would tell me. “Look at me. Do you think I care about being fancy? I’ve been exhausted all my life.”
I had been bullied in junior high school, nearly every day for years. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was ridiculed daily, sometimes beaten. I was afraid of having to fight because I knew I would lose. It was why I had to leave Whitestone. People called me everything terrible they could think of. So I tried to lie. But no one would believe my lie either. It didn’t matter that I made myself believe the lie. At least, for a time. One look that lingered for even a second too long, and then they called you the name again—which was also the truth. No wonder I could hate myself so much. By the time I came of age, I was a master of it. My parents had not saved me from it. They had gone to my junior high school to speak to the principal, a man who looked like a mobster, with a sour face, but they were not able to stop it. It was more than a language barrier. It was also a lack of relatability, a lack of connection, of not being able to exude a sense of self-worth. It had been a different era. Boys got away with being boys. But boys who were like girls was another story altogether.
I became ill. I took Pepto-Bismol each morning for my stomach aches. Such fears made me desperate. You could hide in the bathroom. But they would come looking for you anyway. Sometimes, they found you. It didn’t matter if you locked yourself in the stall. They found you, and then they made it known everything that you’d been trying to hide. They made a mockery of you, and what life you could salvage, and then they ruined that too. People did that to you and back then, you either had to stand up to it, or deal with it. And if you couldn’t deal with it then you had to find a way to leave for good.
The last straw was when my mother started to ask me about my day. Why did I have such a dark face? She was tired of seeing it.
“Never mind,” I said.
Eventually I visited Shanghai. I imagined I was walking the same streets my grandparents had once walked, through the very same crowds and markets. Stands of fruit and vegetables. There was a pet market I went to see and I wondered what it would have been like to be there with Nai Nai, viewing the exotic birds and goldfish, and even crickets to feed songbirds. My Nai Nai knew how to speak Shanghainese. I imagined what it would have been like to walk along the Bund together, and then to take in the sprawling skyline. Would she have been surprised by how far Shanghai had come? In many ways more western than the West. I am sure she would have liked to have seen it.
The last time I saw Nai Nai was in San Francisco. We had been there for Ye Ye’s funeral. It was said that my grandfather had gone in the middle of the night, without a word. “Not a single complaint.” She was staying with my Uncle Asher then, the youngest of my uncles. We sat on her bed. I had brought my CD player and I played for her some of the CD that I had been listening to. In my memory it was Schubert’s Impromptu in G Sharp Minor, the undulating and limpid broken chords, the pinky sounding off the melody like a horn across an ocean in the middle of the night. She listened for a while. “It’s very nice,” she finally said.
Then my Nai Nai told me again how her mother had been the first wife—not a concubine—and how she herself had been treated so poorly by the second wife, and how they didn’t get along, and how she had wanted to leave as soon as she could. This was in Suzhou, a suburb of Shanghai. Did I know? It was known as the “Venice of the East.” “Like how Shanghai is known as the ‘Paris of China’,” my Nai Nai told me. But to my Nai Nai, China was simply China. “You can call it whatever you’d like. Venice, Paris. It’s all the same—a lie.”
Schubert was still playing. Nai Nai listened to the music more intently. I watched as she stared straight ahead, not really looking at anything in particular. Or was she? I wondered what exactly she was seeing. Was it the sparseness of the room? The faded and discolored photographs of relatives on a bureau? The black-and-white photograph of her own mother, my great-great-grandmother, thin, high cheeked. My Nai Nai asked me if I knew the music. She was talking to me more and more. It wasn’t about giving me a second chance. It was finally working with what was left. She asked me if I knew how to play it. I told her I was working on it.
“You always liked the piano,” she then said. “You always liked music.”
We were all staying in my uncle’s apartment that night. She said that when we weren’t there, my Uncle Asher would draw a line down the middle which she was not allowed to cross, not even if she needed to use the bathroom. He was actually an impatient man. He was prone to yelling, being cantankerous. Did I know that? He was also an unhappy man. “I didn’t realize how unhappy,” Nai Nai said.
And yet, my uncle had started to go to church, every Sunday. He had started to pray. His bookshelf was filled with self-help books. Joel Osteen. Tony Robbins. He looked older than ever before. It was as if a generation had been torn out of his ribcage. My grandmother tried hard not to be in the way, but somehow this just made her presence all the more felt, especially for someone like my uncle.
“One day soon, I’ll be gone, and everyone will be relieved that I am no longer here. Including you.”
“That’s not true.”
My grandmother smiled, misty-eyed at the thought. Then she said, “Venice, Paris.”
But like my mother told me, people have sides to them. For instance, another time, Nai Nai sat down at my piano and began to play. This was back in Whitestone. My Nai Nai had taught herself how to play the piano. Did anyone know? In Shanghai, she was a schoolteacher. Elementary school. The students liked her. In fact, she was often their favorite teacher. She would play the piano for her students.
When she sat down she first played what I recognized to be the Chinese national anthem. Then she played several folk songs. She sang along as well. She was happy to play them. She knew how to play them by heart. She had learned it all by ear; it hadn’t been so hard. “Not if you paid attention to the details,” she said. She was surprised that she could still remember. “This was before World War II,” she told me like she was telling herself. “Before the invasion by the Japanese.” Did I know how the Japanese ravaged so much of Asia? “Well, they got away with it.” And then, “Sometimes bad people just get away with things.” This was also before the Civil War, and before the communist takeover. Then she said, “China went through so much.” Before Nai Nai met Ye Ye. Before they married and fled as refugees—to Taiwan. Before 1949, when everything changed for good, and one couldn’t get any of it back.
William Pei Shih is a Taiwanese American writer living in New York City. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories, Ursa Short Fiction (Ursastory.com), VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, F(r)iction, Catapult, The Asian American Literary Review, The Des Moines Register, The Masters Review, Reed Magazine, Carve Magazine, Hyphen, and more. His stories have been recognized by the John Steinbeck Award in Fiction, the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, the UK Bridport Prize, The London Magazine Short Story Award, among others. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA in Fiction), where he was a recipient of the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. He currently teaches at NYU. For more information, please visit williampeishih.com
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