The Chairman is dead. Outside, the people of Chinatown are cheering. They light firecrackers and beat pots and pans, chanting as they march three floors below the window of my apartment. Their signs say, “Smash the Emperor!” Drips of paint spoil the sweep and curve of the calligraphy, the characters bleeding as if shot.
Shouts and curses echo over the cobbled San Francisco street. The Chairman’s supporters, wearing black armbands, march from the opposite direction. A standoff, a scuffle, and two men roll in the street until one reaches under his opponent’s leg to pinch his testicles like a ripe tomato. The man howls, the other shouts, “Fuck you and ten generations of your ancestors!” This is how the civil war continues, half a world away and a quarter-century too late. Without dignity.
The cheering swells, the revelers giddy with rice wine and easy victory. Sincerity shines in their faces. No longer will they whisper the Chairman’s name, afraid of his reach across the ocean. No longer will they invoke him to scare their children, or as a curse against their enemies. No longer will the people I betrayed live under his threat. With the Chairman dead, the people here will be able to reach family trapped on the other side. They can return to the homeland they thought closed forever, kneel and press their foreheads to the soil. If only I could hunger like them, for a dream, for anything larger than myself. What I want is to want, once again.
I tear myself away from the window, unable to watch any longer, and comb my wet hair with my fingers. After a busboy at the Pearl Pavilion collided with me, spilling sauce down my back, I returned to shower between my shifts and heard the news on the radio. I undo the towel wrapped around me. At twenty-seven, I am plain and strong, hard lines everywhere but my chest. I trace a finger across a thin scar on my right kneecap, where I fell in the fields as a child, and the burn scar on my wrist, a souvenir of the Chairman’s revolution. I smooth my callused palms on the red satin shirt, the stain rinsed out and blotted dry. The dampness makes me shiver as I fasten the frog closures, feeling the pinch at my neck. The uniform is slightly too small, tight across my shoulders. I slip on black trousers, and as a final touch, a necklace of a prancing jade ox. A gift from the Cook, on the third anniversary of my time at the Pavilion. I reach my arms up to clasp the thin gold chain, feeling my chest muscles pull tight, and my breasts push against my shirt. Here my awkward younger self emerges, exposed and on display. Although I might appear strong and sure-footed, versions of me compete within. A clumsy peasant. A nimble dancer. A straight-backed revolutionary. A doubting missionary.
Old Wu knocks at the door, three hard raps his signal. I tell him to come in.
He shuffles inside, his back bent, but his eyes strong. He never married, like many of the bachelors who came here as teenagers in the 1930s to work in laundries or as houseboys. While my parents grew up toiling in the fields, he set sail for Gold Mountain.
“The old bastard is dead!” he crows.
The Chairman and I met the year I turned sixteen. I look away so that Old Wu cannot see my grimace. I pour us tea, ever the dutiful daughter. Even though the tea scalds my tongue, I drink, trying to ease the heaviness in my chest, and the taste is smoky, lingering and pervasive. I roll the empty teacup in my hand, absorbing the traces of warmth from the ceramic, solid and heavy, hard as bone.
“Guneung, you’re so quiet,” Old Wu says, addressing me as “young maiden.” He sits on my folding stool, the only piece of furniture that I possess, other than my bunk bed and a cardboard box that serves as my dresser and night stand. He coughs, a deep, wet hacking that has plagued him this autumn. He catches his breath and sets down his teacup on a stack of newspapers. “You should be happy! Let’s have a real drink. I have a bottle of plum wine I’ve been saving for the right occasion.”
Always get the last word.
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He grins and mimes clinking glasses. Not for the first time, he is trying to romance me. I put on my coat and usher Old Wu into the dark hallway that smells of grease and stir-fried vegetables. “I’m late for work.”
“Be careful.” He wants to protect me, but he doesn’t know that I have faced down dangers he could never imagine.
“Don’t get mixed up in their fights,” Old Wu adds, his face anxious, and suddenly I am ashamed of my resentment. Why should my past visit his present?
Old Wu has never inquired about my history and I have never volunteered. Perhaps he wants to believe, for my sake, that I never suffered. I walk down the narrow, steep stairs, where the overhead light has burned out again. Outside, firecrackers sputter and pop. My foot slips and I pitch forward before I catch myself, bracing my hand on the peeling wallpaper. I hesitate, not yet ready to face the crowds.
The Chairman tried to obliterate our past, but the Chinese still revere our dead. Against his wishes, in secret, we prayed to our ancestors and asked for their blessings and protections. Now we will sweep the tombs of our ancient heroes and sing the stories of their great deeds.
Consider the hero’s tales of piety and courage, of coincidence and reversals of fortune, of virtue and corruption. To become a hero, your details will be worn away, worn smooth, until you are blank, the barest of outlines. Only then can you become a light leading the people of this generation, the next and the next.
* * *
I was born in 1949, the year of our country’s Liberation, when a peasant became leader of our country, when the Chairman’s rule promised to end hunger and superstition, to end all that made us weak. Even in this new era in which women could be heroes too, my father must have been disappointed when I was born. He wanted a son so much that I became one for him.
Sixteen years had passed since Liberation and my birth—a blink, a breath in a country with a history thousands of years old— and I was impatient for change. Only recently had my village begun to recover from three years of famine. I did not know then that my homeland was poised between periods of chaos. That we were less than a year away from the Cultural Revolution, that schools would close and teenagers — model students one day, thugs the next — would form gangs and turn on their neighbors, their teachers, and their parents. They would destroy the old world, so a new one could be born.
The Party official was its harbinger. He arrived on an early autumn day, just before the harvest. The rumble of his Jeep echoed through the valley and along the rutted road that led to our village. We dropped our hoes and ran in from the cornfields. He was new to us, short and compact, his steps slow and precise, and his expression steady. He ordered the girls aged fourteen to twenty to line up in the plaza, and told us to remove our hats. I took my place at the end, hunching my shoulders. It did no good. I was still the tallest, broad-shouldered and knock-kneed, awkward as a baby calf.
Ba, sitting beneath an acacia tree, tipped the brim of his straw hat, and I straightened. He was reminding me that as tall as I was, he was taller. As dark as I was, he was darker. Until last year, I joined him and the other men in the plaza in the evenings, listening to their riddles and stories, rowdy and rousing. Then my body began to curve and swell, and I was no longer welcome.
Everyone in my village shared the same surname, Song. Our neighbors knew my parents and my grandparents. They recognized the inherited shape of my ears, my temper, and my fate. They had me determined before I was born. My sisters and I shared our middle name—Mei, plum tree of integrity—that indicated we lived through the same generation of civil wars, bandits, and famine. The winter blossoms open in snow. Pure, strong, and reckless. I like to think that at first I was a doll to my two sisters, new and precious in a home with no toys and no time to play. Later, I became Third Daughter, another task in a long day. To carry, to feed, to bathe, to silence. I became competition, the meager portion of porridge divided once more.
The official began to walk along the line. I straightened my wrinkled gray tunic and sagging pants. He paused before each girl: the scrawny ones, the short ones, the village beauty renown for her dimples and petal soft skin. At last, he stopped at me. I shifted on my feet, wondering if the visitor found me wanting. I resisted looking down—resisted what was expected of me. I studied his high cheekbones, his deep-set eyes, and he drew back from my scrutiny. The official turned around and examined each candidate for a second time.
The wet heat was starting to break, and our shuffling feet had kicked up the scent of chickens, dust, and straw. I flexed my hands, sticky with sweat. My knees ached, and my shoulders were sore from weeding since dawn. Cicadas droned, their song monotonous yet haunting, punctuated by the flick of their wings. Such tiny creatures, but together, deafening. To my left, my neighbor sucked nervously on the end of her braid. To my right, another tugged on her tunic. The official paused not before the village beauty, but the oldest candidate, her squashed nose covered by a glistening mole.
I wanted him to pick me for this duty and to separate me from the rest. I prayed to the Chairman, asking him to grant me the opportunity. I imagined him beaming, his hand outstretched. Mine, reaching. I wanted to live like a hero: courageous, admired, eternal. Rebellious, too, for giving up a typical life. My parents told us stories bursting with heroes who sacrificed for the people. Female heroes were few but vivid: a teenage spy, beheaded after she rallied peasants against enemy soldiers. A factory worker burned to death after she stopped a huge fire. A peasant killed when she held together a collapsing kiln.
When I was eight, I wanted to be Sister Yu, who herded her commune’s escaped sheep during a blizzard. She crouched against the wind, straining to hear their frightened bleats. Pretending, I wrapped a rag around my ears and eyes, trying to feel my way home from the edge of the village. I dipped my hands into the icy river until they went numb.
When I was twelve, I wanted to be Iron Girl, who grabbed the reins of a stampeding ox to save three terrified elders. She died when the cart ran over her. I flicked stones at our exhausted ox, willing it to run and rage, but it did not raise its head. My exploits earned the scorn of my neighbors, who called me muddle-headed, a stupid egg. I never explained what I was doing. Heroes died, but they lived forever in me.
If the official did not pick me, in a year I might be married. Later, I would have a baby, then another. Even if my marriage were delayed three, five years, even if it had nothing in common with the disappointment of my parents, I would rise at dawn, toil, hunger, and ache, every day repeated until I died.
My neighbor, Fatty Song, whose strong arms and broad back I admired, pushed to the front. At the spring festival, Fatty, a brigade leader, had apologized for bumping against me, never knowing that I had brushed against him. He played the bamboo flute, sweet yet sinuous melodies that I wanted for myself. Behind him stood my sisters, too old to participate. First Daughter nudged Second Daughter, and they began to whisper. I knew they hoped that the official would pass over me. My sisters, born less than a year apart, were always together, crows perched on a roof—forever watching, cawing in a language not meant for me.
My mother leaned on the arm of First Daughter. Ma was tiny, slender with delicate features—plump mouth, brushstroke brows, and long-lashed eyes. People snickered that my mother was like a flower planted in dung because she was married to my father. The beautiful invited such ridicule. My two sisters inherited my mother’s looks and consequently absorbed most of her attentions. She braided their long, shiny hair, but ran a comb through my thin locks. Her hand rested easily on their shoulders, never mine. My sisters were the first to survive infancy, arriving after a stillborn son and a toddler fallen to a fever, and my mother loved them with an intensity forged from loss. I inherited Ba’s broad nose and high cheekbones—crude if handsome in a man, but plain on a woman. It pleased me that we looked alike, sharing what no one else did.
Ba rose to his feet. As a teenager, soon after he married my mother, he left for the provincial capital to make his fortune. He had quick hands and thought he could work in a factory. He returned a year later, missing the pinky finger of his right hand. He had attempted what others in his generation wanted, and his failure earned their contempt. I turned my head to the breeze, soft and warm. Low, slanting light transformed the crumbling bricks and splintering wood of our homes into something inviting and beautiful. I was proud that the official had arrived when our fields were lush and the persimmon trees heavy with heart-shaped fruit. We must have seemed like a model village, a socialist paradise.
The official didn’t know about the village’s squabbling during the long mandatory political meetings. A few, like my father, challenged the directives from the Party. Dig up the graveyard and change the course of a flooding river? The land where our families had lived for generations was beyond change, Ba had argued. He was too fond of the past, a nostalgia that spat at the promise of the future. That was when I first began to question my father, for how could he deny the Chairman’s wisdom? The headman triumphed, Ba lost, and the river straightened where it once curved.
I cocked my hip and stared at Headman Song, trying to attract his attention. Two years ago, a musician on his way to the capital had sought shelter in our village. Although he wore the same rough clothes as the rest of us, his eyebrows arched like willow leaves and his skin glowed. His high haunting voice silenced us. He sang of heroes, of a mischievous monkey king who rebelled against the heavens. He plucked at a zither over his lap, the melody roiling from his fingers. Every family volunteered to house the musician that night, for the village never had such remarkable visitors. Headman Song prevailed, and he moved his wife and four children to his brother’s home to provide quiet for the musician. At midnight, I crept to his house in the hopes of listening to another song. Instead I heard grunts and moans. Through a crack in the front door, I saw their shadows on the wall come together and apart. I recoiled, but part of me wanted to be inside, too, pushing and clinging. Shudders ran through both men. I leaned closer and knocked over a stack of baskets, falling to my knees and skinning my hands in the dirt. I tried to untangle my feet from the baskets and as I rose, the headman burst through the door, naked. His nipples were startling, large and flat. He gripped my wrists, and I kept my eyes on his face. He scowled beneath his knit brows, his body heavy with the thick soapy smell of chestnut trees in bloom. I did not scream, and he knew I would keep his secret.
Now I waited until the headman’s gaze settled on me. I floated my hands as the traveling musician once did over his zither. Over the headman. His eyes widened. I swiveled my head over the length of the crowd, as if to say, I will tell everyone. Headmen elsewhere in the province had been beaten for lesser offenses, for the people hungered to humble the powerful. The people listened to their confessions, stripped their authority, and forced them to tote night soil and catch flies in a jar. Even if few believed me, the headman’s reputation would suffer, for such was the strength of accusation in those days.
The cicadas rose in pitch, droning and deafening. Headman Song took the pipe from his mouth, and turned to the official. They spoke with their heads bowed and expression hidden. The official returned before me and rested his hand on my shoulder. He was testing me, and I did not wince or draw back.