A sharp, split-second pause. My Grandmother describes this moment inconsistently. With each telling, there’s a new detail: a fisherman to watch, a beggar to pity. The fisherman, waving a switch in front of his bucket, crouches beside a farmer heating bricks in a kiln. Both stare open-mouthed at the smashed egg; their reaction (Grandmother claims) is shared by a passing cadre, who shouts, a giddy falsetto creeping into his baritone, “What a shame!”
Suppose you and I get onto the same train, a Manhattan-bound N, and you see me walking down the aisle, looking for a seat. Your eyes collect racial data: yellow skin, black hair, skinny body. Without willing it, the word Asian flashes into your head. This makes you feel guilty, and to compensate, you contort your legs into a closed mouse trap and offer me the seat beside yours. I sit down, grateful, because it’s a long ride out to Astoria. Astoria is where My Grandmother lives; I visit her once a month to play cards and gossip. I tell you this because you ask me where I’m going; it’s your first week in New York, and you’re eager to make friends. You tell me you’re here for a position at a Big Five publishing house. We exchange notes on favorite authors, and you express surprise when I don’t have any Asians on my list. You ask if I like Celeste Ng, Kevin Kwan, and Amy Tan. I lie and say “yes” to everything because I do not trust you.
Your eyes aren’t trained to see me. I may sit next to you, cross-legged, with a tote bag folded across my lap, but all you’ll see is an Asian man, not even Chinese, with lousy skin and a bad haircut. You can’t hear me either, because I don’t follow your script; it’s filled with truisms about Asia, immigrants, and politics. I’m not interested in discussing these things, especially not with you, and when suddenly, you start talking about how white people ruin everything, the image of a dog holding its paw out for a treat pops into my head. You sense my disinterest (I am rummaging through my bag for a book) and, to change the topic, you ask me what I do and where I’m from. This time I snort. Don’t you already have an idea of who I am? Hasn’t your brain already created me from the scraps of myth White Americans always evoke when discussing Asian people, that monolithic group of immigrants, who, in your literature, are described as miserable and hard-working but never as human?
You’re bold to ask me to exist beyond your terms. And if I could trust you, I’d tell you a true story about China. But I don’t. So instead I will tell you a different story; one that My Grandmother told me, but one that’s no less truthful, because there are many roads to honesty, and facts are just one of them. I will start with the photo album collecting cobwebs inside My Grandmother’s desk; inside, on the first page, sit two images, both are of the same girl, though in one she crouches behind a market stand with arms crossed and a grim face, and in the other…
She poses in a red dress, smiling with her eyes but not her mouth. Her face, pinched red by rouge, gazes out from behind a wave of marcelled hair. Earrings dangle from ears unused to jewelry. Look at how she sits: her back is straight, and her hands lie flat over a lap clothed in silk. Her body—small and opulent—is framed by overlarge shoulders, and her legs, wrapped in satin, point with their knees at the viewer. Below the image, an inscription reads: “Lin Ai Yong is the second daughter of a factory owner. She has the equivalent of a secondary school education. Her skills include: cleaning, cooking, singing, and dancing.”
My Grandmother explains that this is the village matchmaker’s illusion. Lin Ai Yong is actually the daughter of a farm laborer. Most days, you can find her in the market with her poultry basket and her bird cages, shouting, “Get your fresh eggs, your chickens and your geese; not too fat, not too thin!” There, she poses in a different outfit: her dress has been replaced by a brown blouse and matching pants. Her hair, un-marcelled, flutters weed-like over a forehead dripping with sweat. Gone are the earrings, the smile in her eyes. Rough and coarse, Lin Ai Yong relies on trickery to seduce her customers. Watch how she makes use of her height (154 cm) to fool people into thinking her market stand is empty. Placing her basket over the counter, she crouches behind the stand, and in the space where the chicken cages rest, their bars raucous with the cluck-cluck-clang of beaks against metal, she waits, licking her lips, for the sound of footsteps. The idea is to seduce buyers into committing thievery—for what could be more enticing in these parts than an unprotected basket of poultry? And the moment someone approaches, their hands reaching for a free egg, Lin Ai Yong leaps up from behind her stand, yelling, “I see you like eggs; why not pay ten yuan and take home a dozen?”
She attempts to seduce Gin Wong in this way. A cross-eyed man, tall and thin, with a watch on his wrist, two bracelets, and an egg rolling in his palm, Gin Wong is the son of a low-level cadre. He jumps when Lin Ai Yong, like a mole, pops out from behind her stand, festooned in feathers and crying, “A dozen eggs for ten yuan!” “No,” he stammers, but his soft scholar’s voice is drowned out by the chickens in their cages, the honking of geese, and the still-louder sales cry of Lin Ai Yong, who, seeing the watch and bracelets dangling from Gin Wong’s wrist, begins to attack at full force. She gestures at the watch, talks to it, screams into its face. But it is the egg who gets scared, it is the egg who rolls backward in Gin Wong’s hand, away from Lin Ai Yong’s voice, it is the egg who flips—tens, tens, tens across the board—off his palm and onto the floor where it cracks-smash-splatters into a million pieces.
A sharp, split-second pause. My Grandmother describes this moment inconsistently. With each telling, there’s a new detail: a fisherman to watch, a beggar to pity. The fisherman, waving a switch in front of his bucket, crouches beside a farmer heating bricks in a kiln. Both stare open-mouthed at the smashed egg; their reaction (Grandmother claims) is shared by a passing cadre, who shouts, a giddy falsetto creeping into his baritone, “What a shame!” The words strike Lin Ai Yong like lightning; stunned by the loss of her egg, worth at least two yuan, her face suddenly contorts, twists and reddens as her eyes narrow into slits at the backpedaling Gin Wong, nostrils flaring at the polished-wood stench of a freshly-smashed egg. “Villain!” she cries, as Gin Wong runs from the market. “Stop him!” she yells, “Stop that man!” The words follow Gin Wong as he weaves past people and trishaws into side roads, alleys, stopping only at the face of a curiosity shop, its sign obscured by the sloping eaves of a nearby monastery.
This is where we find the book that sets everything in motion. The matchmaker’s album: forty-six pages of girls’ photographs, curated by the curiosity shop owner—an ancient Madame with lips the color of cockscombs. Every unmarried girl from Min An Village is here. They sit stand stare uneasily at the viewer in rented outfits and fake jewelry, smiling without knowing how to smile. Look at the picture on page eight, of the girl who grins without relaxing the muscles in her neck, which trembles—yes, you can tell even in a photograph—over a plastic neckpiece twice the size of her head. She looks much better than her young companion on page nine, however, whose dark, boar-like face is animated by surprise; perhaps the photographer, no doubt the ancient Madame’s husband, forgot to tell the girl that he was going to press the shutter; perhaps he forgot to shout, as people in America do, “Cheese!”
Grandmother describes Gin Wong’s entrance in the following way: he runs into the curiosity shop, apple-cheeked and panting, knocking over jars and scattering papers, eyes shut and snot streaming until he slumps forward into a stool. The ancient Madame, seeing him, rushes into the backroom to retrieve, along with the matchmaker’s album, a French teacup and two lumps of rock sugar. Tea is served to the weary traveler, too breathless to say thanks. Instead, he slurps his tea, burns his mouth, and licks, by way of recovery, the lump of rock sugar which he dangles above his mouth on a string. He doesn’t notice the ancient Madame straightening up the counter; he doesn’t notice the album pushed against his elbow. Unconsciously, his fingers move. Pages flutter. And there she is, on page eighteen. The girl who smiles with her eyes and not her mouth.
“Who is she?” Gin Wong asks, his eyes moving from inscription to photo and back again. “Where does she live?”
The ancient Madame grins; her teeth are rotten, slimy and jagged like an uneven fence.
“Well now, let’s take a look at what you have,” she says (My Grandmother describes this scene with a flourish of the arms; she loves imitating the ancient Madame’s voice, deep and with a bovine lilt, though sometimes the voice is oversweet, like syrup), and, lifting the string-tied sugar lump from her teacup with shriveled fingers, she swallows the tea in one gulp.
“I do not have anything,” Gin Wong says, but then he notices the ancient Madame’s hand, cupped and beckoning.
A rustle like that of dried leaves. Money is exchanged; the ancient Madame, suddenly shy, munching on a sugar lump like a child, places a bundle in a drawer behind the counter. Gin Wong stuffs his hands into his emptied pants pockets. His lower lip extends in a pout.
“We will meet in the tea house by the river in three days. Dress appropriately.” And with that, the ancient Madame cackles, because tonight she can finally afford to buy meat.
For three days, Gin Wong obsesses over the photographed Lin Ai Yong. He didn’t think it was possible for such a beautiful girl to live in Min An Village. He’s only moved here six months ago with his father, a glove manufacturer, and so far, none of the girls have caught his eye. Even the daughters of cadres, with their status and learning, look to him like roast ducks. He can only focus on that photograph of Lin Ai Yong in the matchmaker’s album; that image of a girl who can express with her eyes—round, not flat like those of others—depth and sorrow and happiness all at once. A poet’s eyes, Gin Wong believes. He, fancying himself a writer, decides to pen by the light of a waxing moon some poems dedicated to this girl of smiling eyes. He writes sonnets, several haikus, and something meant to be a palindrome (it’s not because there’s a word missing). All are lifeless and bad. But still, he thinks about Lin Ai Yong, and at night he dreams of the meeting, of seeing that girl; though, oddly enough, whenever she speaks, the voice of the girl from the market stand enters his mind.
Was Gin Wong prophetic? Or is this an example of the storyteller’s conceit; of a moment where the narrator (My Grandmother, now I), unable to stick to the facts, decides to tell a lie that—nonetheless—is capable of expressing the truth? My Grandmother calls Gin Wong’s meeting with Lin Ai Yong an act of God. “It was fate,” she tells me, “It was ordained by Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.” And I don’t doubt her, because these stories are the only record that I have of my family’s history—I can’t rely on video tapes or textbooks or facts to reconstruct the past. According to them, we—the people of Min An Village—don’t exist. (Try Googling “Min An, China.” It doesn’t appear on any map) I cling to these stories that My Grandmother tells because I have nothing else; and when you have nothing, why not take myth, as the ancient Chinese did, and transform it into history?
And history was made on the morning of the meeting. Close your eyes and imagine: Gin Wong, wearing glasses and a collared shirt, silk trousers and patent-leather shoes. His cheeks are flushed, his beard looks unshaven. A bundle of twenty-four poems stick out of his satchel. There’s one for every year he’s been alive, and each, he plans to tell Lin Ai Yong, represents the love she would have given him. Unsound logic, but what’s logic to a man in love with a picture? He walks through the village, past the peasants’ quarters, the school, and the market where, three days earlier, after being seduced by an egg in its basket, he ran into a curiosity shop where he gets seduced by a picture. My Grandmother always makes it a point to mention that a chicken was present in both scenes: in the market they clucked in their cages, and in the curiosity shop, the ancient Madame wore lipstick the color of cockscombs. And wasn’t the sound of the temple beggar, drumming a tin cup half-empty with coins outside the curiosity shop, similar to that of the chickens knocking their beaks against their cages? Wasn’t his beggar’s cry similar to that of Lin Ai Yong’s sales shriek? (The year too, My Grandmother loves to add, was the Year of the Rooster.) What do we make of these parallels, if we can even call them parallels at all?
Gin Wong arrives at the tea shop at noon. His hair, wax-stiffened, is combed into a side part with a bang drooping in front of his glasses. “A factory owner’s son wearing the mask of a Beijing intellectual,” My Grandmother says, whenever she talks about Gin Wong at the tea shop. He walks in trembling with a hand (clasping a sweaty handkerchief) attached to his temple. Fragrant oils, slathered around his neck and wrists, emit a stench of bamboo and herbs. He sits waiting at a table with his back to the wall; twice, a waiter asks him if he would like any food or drink. Gin Wong answers no the first time; the second time, he releases a gurgling gasp. “For I had entered the tea shop,” My Grandmother, Lin Ai Yong, says.
They don’t recognize each other from that day at the market. The ancient Madame had hidden Lin Ai Yong behind two veils: one of rouge, and another of red lace. She sits with her chaperones (the ancient Madame and her mother) in front of Gin Wong, who stammers his greeting in a fake, scholar’s lilt. The voice irritates Lin Ai Yong; there’s something familiar about it, something that tickles her like a chicken’s feather. But before she can say anything, the ancient Madame, smiling with her mouth full of false teeth, stretches her hand out at Gin Wong. She asks using the same voice she affects at her curiosity shop: “Well now, let’s see what you have.”
Poetry is produced from a satchel bumpy with gifts: expensive teas and western chocolates. They rustle. But there is no rustle more poetic to the matchmaker, or to Lin Ai Yong, than that of crisp money, and it isn’t until the money exchanges hands that she releases her veil, allowing the lovers to see each other for the first time. The recognition is not instant. At first, Lin Ai Yong can only narrow her eyes at this man who “dresses like a sissy and speaks like one too.” She gives him the once-over; examines his eyes, bright behind wiry tortoiseshells, and his lips with their thin layer of rouge. It isn’t until she sees his arm with its watch and two bracelets that she realizes who this man is. And nothing, not the make-up, the rented qipao, the coiffed and marcelled hair, could keep Lin Ai Yong from reverting back to her original form, to that of a ferocious girl hawking poultry at a market stand who, three days earlier, had had her sales trick rejected by a man who took one of her eggs and smashed it to the ground.
“I jumped onto the table” (My Grandmother always narrates this part with great enthusiasm; she waves her arms and giggles like a schoolgirl) “and yelled…”
Lin Ai Yong screams this so loudly a waiter drops a plate of peanuts. Gin Wong recognizes the market-stand girl by the crack in her voice; he leaps up out of his seat, in the process popping a button off his shirt, and yells, “I don’t even like eggs!” before running out of the tea shop, through the streets, down an alley, before stopping, once again, outside the temple with the beggar beside the curiosity shop. Lin Ai Yong knows where he is, however; she follows him, trailed by her mother and the cackling ancient Madame, and before he can disappear, she stops him, yes, and demands payment for the egg he had dropped, “Five yuan!” she yells, “Five yuan!”
We’re crossing the bridge now. In just a few minutes, you’ll be able to see Manhattan’s Chinatown. No, that’s not where I live… Oh, that was a joke! Well, I have to apologize; I’m not the best reader of people—in fact, I’m kind of a hypocrite: I’m quick to judge and my mind is cluttered with assumptions. And I’ll be honest: I still don’t trust you, even though you’re just sitting there, benign, with one hand scratching at your chin, and the other rummaging through your pocket for a smartphone (Which you’ll use to take pictures of—of what? The work agencies? The projects? The bent-over old women lugging cartloads of plastic bottles to the recycling center?). It’s nothing about you specifically; you’re just a composite white character who happens to work in the publishing industry. You’re a liberal, an advocate for POC, and since this is the weekend after Pride, your screensaver’s probably a purple equal sign that reads: “Love is Love is Love.” You’re overemphatic about being “woke,” and you definitely say things like: “This is a story that needs to be told,” and “We need more minority voices in literature.” But then you don’t accept our stories when they don’t conform to your standards. When our truths haven’t been westernized—confirmed with pictures, facts, and white assumptions—you reject them in favor of more convenient fictions: an immigrant narrative, perhaps set in a laundromat or a restaurant, where the parents are miserable because they can’t communicate with their kids, and the kids are miserable because the children of immigrants are always miserable. And I can tell by the way that you’re smirking that you don’t believe in this story of mine either; this story about My Grandmother meeting My Grandfather.
So, what if I change things up a little? What if I told you that My Grandmother had been forced into an arranged marriage? That her husband, My Grandfather, when he realized he had been tricked by a photograph—an illusion of rouge and fabric—began to bully her, to treat her as less a spouse and more a maid? He wanted a wife with youth, beauty, and learning; Lin Ai Yong couldn’t write her own name. My Big Aunt, Xue Jin, once told me My Grandmother suffered a lifetime of drunken abuse. She told me My Grandfather humiliated her; calling her “a cow with no breasts and even less brains.” But My Grandmother doesn’t discuss any of that. Her stories are humorous, contradictory, told with love and (I believe) candor. I don’t know if she tells me these stories because they’re truthful or because she needs to believe in their truth. Either way, I believe her.
Here, let me show you something. It’s a photograph of Gin Wong and Lin Ai Yong on their wedding day. Look at it and judge for yourself:
For it may be the only version of Truth I can offer.