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Portrait of a family, not a squid -- fiction by Isabel C. Shen

You love that woman. Her squid-ink hair shredded and slicked back by rain. That expressive face, perpetually wriggling about in the vicissitudes of naked emotion. She wears Temu lip oils and pretends to be a fairy in a wife beater and pajama-shorts. She is clever. She is strong. You see yourself in the light-filled black of her eyes. 

She hugs you. You are both swaying on the MTR.[1] Her arms are warm, solid as mangrove roots, stable. I’ll be at a cafe. Bring me back some food, she murmurs. You’re the best snack. The MTR doors slide open. 

You do not bring an umbrella. In Hong Kong, the rain is lukewarm like dog piss. The sky is expansive, padded by sweating clouds and car smog. You are insulated from heaven; any well-intentioned sacred or ghostly intervention eluded. That’s what you like to think. 

You pass the village gardens. Sugar cane stalks extend from crates of soil, carrot leaves and perilla tangling around the edges. A lone red watering can hemorrhages rainwater into concrete. A liver-spotted man cuts bulbous bitter gourds off a fence and throws them into a bucket. You, as a bunny-toothed prepubescent, drank bitter gourd slushies at the Hong Kong night market, your grandma eating the ice. Grandma always took the unwanted bits: beef gristle, hard kabocha stem, bun crust. Piggish children who took without giving and low earning manual jobs that left her hands ridged and calcified. It paid off in the end; American grandchildren, white collar family, model minority zing. What a good woman, no, wife. Mother. 

Now, all dried up, with all the filing space in her withered chest occupied by the past, your grandma has become someone who can only accept the reality she idealized as a fresh young missy all those years ago. You bear that consequence.

You walk on, passing the fish market. Spotted crustaceans scuttle in glass crates. Fish are so alive. Their bodies one pure flap of muscle. Pressed flat, rotund, jewelry-scaled, mud-skinned, chibi eyeballs shining and cognizant. The overhead white lights spot the bubbling water. Ten years ago, you were drawn to the satiny, pinky-gray flesh of a swirling squid in a tank. Your momma and daddy bought you grilled squid on a skewer. You can’t get this in the States, daddy said. They shared the squid’s pointy head but left you the tentacles. Perfect suction cups crunching under your molars.

You walk alone through the memories. You are not scared, as you have already gone through the worst. 

Your grandparents are staying with your aunt and uncle in one of the beehive buildings. Another one of hundreds of long, geometric buildings, the dull length studded with slitted windows and balconies. On the way up in the elevator, a wobbly man in a creased suit enters. You stand next to him in silence. He gets out on his stop, but not before puking a meaty rainbow onto the elevator floor. You edge by the puddle to get out. Your grandparents do not live here; they are the fortunate few who escaped to America, assimilated, and promptly forgot their stories. So why the hell are you here? 

When your grandparents left Hong Kong, they left their financial stability and niche skills and oiled cunning. In the States, the glutinous weight of their accented English dragged them down the societal ladder until they became another undignified member of the hoi polloi. Straight A's in college to cleaning tables, MRI specialist to manicurists; the classic immigrant story. You think, maybe Hong Kong is where they regain their power. 

You arrive at their apartment. You breathe. Shallows pooling into your imploding throat. You knock. 

A filmed-over eye appears behind the peephole. It disappears. You retreat as the door slowly slides open. Your grandma behind it. Or is it your grandpa? It’s harder and harder to tell them apart as time plucks fluff from their yellowed scalps, patterns their skin with liver spots, inflates their limbs with edemas. Two antediluvian twins in the same quilted uniforms. This prototype has sketched-in brows. You bow. Hello, maamaa[2]

Her flaked lips stretch. She hobbles away, her spine a perfect Fibonacci curve. You take off your shoes and follow. 

You remember this apartment. The shoe stand you tripped over and scarred a peony onto your knee. The jade Buddha statue without an earlobe that you knocked over but your daddy told his sister he broke. The bath where you and your cousins deposited three bags of goldfish from the pet market. The dent shaped like an inverse moon still ornaments the plain wall next to the TV. You had rocketed your slender hand, shaped for piano and fine art, into the house after hearing that your older cousin was back with her ex-boyfriend. You remember it all. 

They are at the round glass table. Primped and posed, curled hair and black-market fashion. A perfect still life except for your squirming twin baby cousins, grandpa’s coughing echoing in the bedroom the wall over. Your aunt and uncle rise and greet you in Cantonese as your grandma settles herself down at the table. So good to see you, you gained weight, how is work going? You hand your baby cousins Twix and Hershey's as tea is poured down your throat and a chair is dragged over for you to sit in. Your aunt and uncle are smooth-skinned, sleek specimens of Chinese good living. Your aunt’s permed locks cascade over your shoulders as she embraces you. She thinks she is your momma. 

Ayi [3] steps back to examine you fully. The room goes quiet. 

You left this place and became yourself. You are dangerous and look it; short hair gelled and middle-parted like a businesswoman or a Triad, dark roses rising from your short lips. Eyeliner smokes around your eyes. You wear a trench and a loud t-shirt that ripples on the round bounce of your belly and breasts. You are yourself and comfortable with it. You are not a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, you are a revealer, flying for stories to unearth. You became a journalist to find others, but in doing so you found yourself. You are a storyteller, an activist, a dissident. It is a dangerous life, but you chose it as you had no family left to lose. You think of your woman waiting in a cha chaan teng,[4] one hand on a cup of Black & White tea and the other cradling the ridges of her car keys. She can handle herself and you can too.

The silence congeals and splits. Your twin baby cuhs have run off with their plunder. Their flushed winter-melon faces will be adorned with sugared smudges, yet they are still free from accusations of gluttony and unwomanliness. They are naive and young, their breasts immature. They are still unfettered. 

You side-hug your older cousin. Jeje [5] is deathly white. Her pale, moth-lashed eyes slide off your face and roll in their big sockets. Her pink top lip is thin and curved, the bottom a plump pastel cushion. In your dreams she is a mermaid, shiny but voiceless.

They small-talk you, insignificance and wasted air gusting about the room as memories rise like flood-waters. You drown as they pretend to forget their Atlas loads. That is their specialty, silence three ways. The men suffocated by their own triviality. Women crushed and reformed into galateans.

Then: have you found a man yet?

You look at them. The hope in their skeletal eyes. They say, you were always different from your parents. Hai, good girl, but men like someone who reflects them. Sensing the growing disconnection, they switch from Cantonese to Chinglish.[6] Look at Cindy-lah, you could be like her. Her boyfriend feel so threat. She quiet like pool and he give her bag ah. You look at the bag. The second “a” in “Balenciaga” is missing. Your aunt coughs. You always good girl, not like mama [7] and baaba. [8]

The room chills. You feel cold sweat trickling down your spine. The hollow of your parents’ absence materializes more solidly than ever. You look at your slinking uncle. Your perfect cousin with her soulless eyes. Your eager aunt, running on a hamster wheel. Your grandma. She is a Mt. Fuji of loose, folding flesh, huddled in fabric. Certainty running down the lines of her hoary face. They all believe in second chances. 

You say,  I am my mother’s daughter. They quiet. You say, I love myself too much to love a man. 

Your father loved your mother. Your mother loved him back. Your mother also loved another woman. Your father knew this, but his heart was big enough. 

Your grandparents’ wasn’t. 

Your grandma’s face is limp, deadened flesh. Your grandpa chokes on oxygen a room away. You say, you are the reason they died

Maamaa clutches her chest, sweat ripping from grooved cheeks. She folds out of the chair, puddling, fabric and flesh. Your aunt cries, maa, maa! You walk away. Out of the apartment, Grandpa’s death rattle grows quieter and quieter, eventually overwhelmed by rain. 

You sink back to earth in the elevator. Outside, the pummeling rain sprouts black eyes on your firm young flesh. The water suspending and congesting and chandeliering in the air. You can’t see anything but falling. You stop. You walk back. 

Years ago. You are with your momma and daddy. You are impersonating Michael Jackson on the MTR, limbs sweaty and glorious from Hong Kong heat as you slide and slither. You are arguing over school misdemeanors, hot spit slinging across the room and abstracting on the wall. You are stressing over college, but most of all, the utter jumpscare of looming adulthood. You are crying, salt water burbling down your baby cheeks, red nose running, drowning in yourself. Your daddy wipes your shriveled umeboshi face with his soggy sleeve. Momma squeezes your hand, dry and warm. You are together. 

  1. The MTR, or Mass Transit Railway, is a public transport system in Hong Kong. 

  2. Cantonese for “grandma”.

  3. Cantonese for “aunt”.

  4. Hong Kong cafe.

  5. Cantonese for older sister, commonly used among female cousins. 

  6. English mixed with Cantonese. 

  7. “Mother” in Cantonese. 

  8. “Father” in Cantonese


Isabel C Shen is a high school freshman at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. She enjoys journalism, writing, and taekwondo. She aspires to tell stories to create change

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