Mama runs inside to bang on the bathroom door and yell Chinese vocabulary words at me—yellow light, borrowed light, get in the car, open. I dip my head underwater so every word sounds like a vowel, oceanic and slow.
Mama says I need to get better at listening because on Saturdays I skip Chinese School and lock myself in the bathroom instead. I study all week and write the Pinyin for every character on my wrists but when Mama starts the car I always start the bath. The other kids in the neighborhood file into the classroom and recite their morning hymns while I lay down in the porcelain tub and steam my heavy braids. I let the water run until it leaks on the floor. Mama, Baba and Nainai all wait in the car for me to come out. They wait for a long time and finally Mama leaves the engine stalled on the driveway and runs inside to bang on the bathroom door and yell Chinese vocabulary words at me—yellow light, borrowed light, get in the car, open. I dip my head underwater so every word sounds like a vowel, oceanic and slow. Last week she picked the lock with a bobby pin and slammed the door into the opposite wall. Now there’s a big hole that doesn’t go with the rest of the decorations. She stood there staring at my body, washed in fluorescent light, and Nainai was behind her, in the shadow of the hallway, clicking her tongue and shaking her head at the both of us.
My Nainai smacks her gums whenever she sees me pushing a comb through my hair because each tooth gets coiled on a split end. I started brushing it after I got sent home from school for getting in a fight on the playground. A meiguo boy pulled my hair when we were playing tag but his fingers got stuck in all the knots. When he took them out he had a fistful of crumpled black, his palms like tiny sites of dissent. I saw this happen so I bit down on his hand. During the parent-teacher conference Nainai and I stayed home and watched TV for hours, cleansed in that bright blue static. She is blind in one eye so unless she sits real close to the screen I have to narrate what’s happening out loud for her. We watched commercials and tried to guess what they were selling before they revealed it to us. This is a commercial for the sunset, she said, when it was actually for shampoo. Before I fell asleep on the couch I said Nainai, how come I have to go to two schools instead of one, and she said because one day when I am very old I will forget English so you need to learn how to speak in a language I can understand. We bought her a television so there is someone she can talk to when I am away. Now she likes it so much she squints at it all day long and forgets to come get me from the bus stop. The television plays American shows about girls and money and cars, glossy dreams and oil-slicked hair. Her fingers seal dumpling skins while the monitor hums in a language that sounds like a liquid hunger. In my mind she hovers between image and amnesia, spitting grape seeds into her hand and waking up only when she hears the garage door open wide enough to let my body through.
Back in Zhenhai there were no televisions so the first time Nainai watched one was with me, in a motel room in the Midwest. Baba had just gotten accepted into graduate school which meant we could move into student housing instead of living on the couch of the restaurant he worked at in Chinatown. We danced between the rows of tables and Baba said next time we went to McDonald’s I could order something that wasn’t on the Dollar Menu. To celebrate getting rich we borrowed his boss’s minivan and took it to Nebraska in the dead of summer, the heat waves curdling around us. We had never gone on family vacation and none of us knew what to do so we stopped at every yard sale in every bitter sprawling town and bought keychains with other peoples’ names on them. We kept running through radio channels because we didn’t know the lyrics to most songs, but the ambient mutter between stations sounded like a language I could understand. When I got nauseous we pulled over on the side of the freeway and Mama broke a Dramamine pill in my mouth. I stuck my head out the window and on those white-slivered hills I felt sand and wind trickle into my dreams. Each morning Nainai shook me awake at sunrise and said we have to go, the sun is setting soon, and each night we drove in circles while my Mama and I fought over which motel was the least died in until we finally chose one.
One night, in a town outside of Omaha, we stayed in a Comfort Inn where the freeway ends, the sign’s pink halcyon flare under some faded stars. There was no bulletproof glass which meant no one had died there which meant this motel was ghost-free. Nainai was hunched over her purse, looking for quarters so she could do the laundry while we waited for my parents to come back with takeout. I turned the TV on and flipped through the pay-per-view until I found a channel that was free. It was a show about a man and a woman oiled up in the woods. They laid down in grass taller than their thighs and she put her silky blonde hair on his broad chest. He whispered into her ear while she leaned back and laughed, her gap tooth letting the sun down her throat. Kissing with their tongues out and eyes closed it looked like they were hungry and meditating at the same time. When they took off their clothes I pulled the covers over my body and stared wide-eyed at the screen. I watched her suck and lick his private parts until even the ferns glistened with sweat. The man said bad words with his face pressed to the sky and the woman looked terrifying and angelic and lit from within.
Nainai was across the room clipping her toenails and fanning herself with a newspaper. She said she couldn’t find quarters so she was going to rinse the clothes in the sink and hang them out the car window to dry. She asked what I was watching and I said I am watching a show about two people who like to hurt each other very much. The man covered the woman in something that looked like egg whites and she drank it up the way I drink bathwater. When Mama and Baba knocked on the door I turned the TV off and we ate fried lo bok sitting in a circle, cross-legged on the bed. It was quiet except for the sound of chopsticks clicking against our greased up tongues. Mama tried to teach me some new vocabulary words—vacation, Midwest, sticky rice, sacrifice. She stopped in the middle and asked if I was bored and I put my head in her lap and said no Mama. I’m not bored. I’m just listening.
This story is part of a special issue of The Margins around the theme “Camp.” Look out for more essays, stories, and poems in the issue in the coming weeks.