It was one of those muggy 7 a.m. mornings in Brooklyn, the ones just before daybreak when the air was still moist with dew. Not so cold as to warrant the Canada Goose with fur hood attachment, but just enough to turn your fingertips blue. At the peak of rush hour, a girl of petite stature and fierce gaze could be found tearing down the steps of a New York City subway station in a hurry to catch her train. She pushed her way through a crowd of commuters, shoving aside figures of itchy wool scarves and trench coats. Swerving nimbly around a bulky grey rat, who sat carefully inspecting a discarded, day old pizza slice, the girl squeezed her small frame through the train doors with just enough time to keep her internal organs intact. Relieved, she exhaled deeply, frozen breath escaping from chapped lips in lacy, white fingers.
Her family had moved only a week ago, trading the slums of Chinatown for the ones in Bensonhurst. With the start of school in a new neighborhood, she felt apprehension naturally. Mostly, she was looking forward to a fresh start far away from the past, at least Mama thought so. But without the protection of Chinatown’s racial homogeneity or the familiarity of her surroundings, fear laid thumping in her chest, goosebumps trailing over bony shoulders.
Upon arrival, she stood rigid in front of the brick building, her mouth rounded into an “O” in awe of its vastness. Weeds and vines cascaded down the cracks of its walls, the windows clouded with years of uncleaned soot and caked on gifts from the occasional passing pigeon. A stout, older man with a red nose, emerged from the massive wooden double doors at the entrance, his grey t-shirt soaked in sweat. “Coach Coroza,” he muttered, “I’m the Phys-Ed instructor, follow me.” She was ushered hastily into a classroom, an over-eager blonde woman wearing a green cable-knit turtleneck positioned at its front. “It must be itchy inside that sweater,” she pondered, “What a long neck! Like a giraffe.” Before her thoughts could wander further, the woman took her by the hand, leading her to a desk. “Right here it says your name is-”
She cringed at the giraffe woman’s heavy American accent but nodded shyly. The teacher spoke again, this time in a hushed tone that the others couldn’t hear. “What do you think about ‘Jenny’ instead? It’s easy for everyone. Better! Don’t you think?” Jingyi could feel something within her slipping away slowly, the way that ocean tides recede in waves, drowning toes and limbs and swimming little girls. “Sure,” she says anyway, “I like it.” The teacher grins, this time looking more like an alligator than a giraffe, teeth curved and pointed, eyes wide with predatory pleasure.
A blue and bright-eyed student makes his way over to Jingyi’s desk, his expression somewhat friendly and innocent. “He smells like musty linens,” she notes, “ones that have been sitting in a closet for a while, desperately in need of a wash.” Without a word he takes her arm in his clammy, pink fingers, turning it over and positioning it at different angles. “Huh, that’s kind of funny,” he says finally, “You’ve got a lot of arm hair, like a monkey.” Before Jingyi can respond, he’s running to his desk to grab something. The boy returns with a sly smile and a piece of yellow chalk in hand.
“See!” he yelled to the class as he marked her skin, leaving behind little trails of pale dust, “I wasn’t sure because I haven’t seen so many, but Chinks really are yellow!” By late afternoon, her arms were littered in streaks of yellow chalk from everyone who had begged, “Do it again! I want to see!” She rubbed her forearms fervently, tan, honeyed skin angry and red from their incessant picking and prodding. Her eyes began flooding with tears, threatening to spill over the edges. “Hey, you’re not gonna cry, are you?” someone says as though they were talking to a small child, “Don’t be like that Jenny, you’re gonna spoil the fun.”
She began the walk home, her bag weighing down more heavily on her shoulders than it did that morning. Jingyi was eager to please, but not so eager to feel. Her concealed humiliation took the form of butterflies flapping mercilessly in the pit of her stomach. When she reached her doorstep, Mama was standing in the doorway with a brightly plastered smile and waving arms. Mama was beautiful, she decided, even when wearing cheap slippers bargained down to five dollars from a street vendor in Chinatown and an outdated cardigan that was slightly mismatched to the rest of her clothing.
“How was your day? Did you make a lot of friends?” Mama asks her, eager and hopeful.
“Not really Mama, I-”
“Nonsense, Jingyi it’s important to get along with your classmates.”
“You shouldn’t call me that anymore. This is America Mama.”
“What am I supposed to call you then? All of a sudden your name isn’t good enough now?” “You don’t understand. We aren’t in Chinatown. You should speak English in public now. It’s better, don’t you think?”
“Better? How could you be forgetting who you are already?” Mama looks sad now, her smile lines softened into a frown, her eyebrows furrowed.
She led her daughter to their claustrophobic, dingy yard, her warm embrace filling the air with the scent of cucumber and melon. “Jingyi,” Mama said, clearing the tension, “I have something to show you.” She swung open the rusty gate, its hinges creaking noisily. A deep crevice of dirt lay in the middle of the yard, a few stones skirting its edge in the suggestion of a project in progress. “It will be a pond eventually,” she started, “when it gets warmer, I’ll add Koi fish. Nine orange ones and one black one for good luck.” Jingyi looked up at her curiously. “The black fish wards off bad luck. It’s good feng-shui.”
They sat on a bench, Jingyi resting her head and a heavy heart on her mother’s shoulders. “Nothing can survive here you know. Too much soot and not enough sun,” she sighed. “You never know,” Mama looked up at the sky, lips pressed into a thin line, “we could give it a try.” Mama pulled out a carefully wrapped pork bun from her coat pocket, shoving it into her
daughter’s hands. “It’s Cha Siu Bao. Hurry and eat it before it gets cold.” Jingyi rolled around the white bun in her gloved hands, the sharp red of the spiced pork peeking through the dough in certain places. All she could feel, she decided, was guilt. She felt dirty and unclean, ashamed to be sitting with Mama in their sorry excuse for a yard, nibbling at the skin of her Cha Siu Bao. It was as if Jingyi was rummaging blindly through the trash and filth at the bottom of a dumpster in search of something lost. She longed for the days when she wore a qipao proudly, gold stitching over red fabric glistening in the lights of her local dim-sum restaurant’s illuminated dragon statues. She longed for when her name was something to be cherished, its meaning, “joyful and harmonious,” and not a staccato insult to be spat off of the white tongue.
The sky began to darken, and the street lights flickered to life one by one. The fluorescent lights were illuminating Mama’s porcelain skin, the black orbs of her eyes looking suddenly cloudy and dull; a sign of passing time. The sun finally tucking itself beneath the trees, she took one last look at the unfinished koi pond. “It’s good feng-shui,” Jingyi murmured to herself, “good things are coming.”
Written by Alma Mark Fong
Edited by Rebecca Choe