**For more information on the inspiration of this piece please visit the prompt**
I was born in New York, New York, on the exact day my mother’s doctor had predicted. When I look through old family photos and see my parents’ smiles amidst the hospital’s sterile fluorescence on drab shades of brown and green, and my wide-eyed silence, my umbilical cord on a tray like an animal’s dinner, my naked body saucy with vernix and wrinkled like a teabag—when I see this it doesn’t feel like me, like mine.
In these photos my parents’ smiles stand out, bright. When I was in elementary school, looking through the same photos, I’d touch their smiles and smile myself, like a candle lit by another’s flame. I suppose you know your parents’ love is unconditional when they can look at something as unlovely as a newborn screaming with fresh life and still smile like that.
Since there are many years of my childhood that precede memory I sometimes invent moments that I then play like TV episodes in my imagination. Sometimes I pretend that my birth was a celebration that happened in the dead of night, a surprise, an announcement, amidst the clear confetti of spring rain, and all around me were gunshots like firecrackers ricocheting in the alleyways. The stoplights were green all night and taxi drivers in my way pulled over and honked. Above me the moon was a spotlight and the stars a marquee of my name, and through the manhole steam you could hear applause from the tenements, and a lone someone wandered the streets and played the trumpet, its sound stirring into those still asleep the sweet dream of a baby being born. This is how I make life mine, through fiction, reverie.
I left New York after a year to stay with my grandparents in China while my parents finished getting their degrees. After another year I returned to the states but it would be eleven more years before I returned to New York. When I did return I tried to excavate the fossils of my time there, things to bring back memories if any should exist. None did. It was cold those few days, sleeting, and the trip felt more like tourism than homecoming. I accepted then that I’d already parted ways with New York long ago; there was nothing left for me there.
Sooner or later those who find themselves doing something all the time wonder why they do it in the first place. So why do I write? The reasons always change, but most of them are self-centered. I write for myself, even when I’m not writing to myself. Writing is my way of distilling into words the grainy chaos of a moment, of everything chancing on itself at once: time and space, feeling and thought, the magic of the many little strings attached all knotted up. Writing is my way of remembering, and when no memories exist, it’s my way of creating continuity.
As a writer I often feel like a paleontologist, going back to things long forgotten—such as toys now packed up in a box in the garage, old journals, marginal notes—trying to flesh out from these bones a reality that once was. The reality I flesh out, however, is always fiction, the same way that dinosaurs in natural history museums are fiction, the fiction of imagining what they actually were. It seems impossible, after all.
There are many dinosaurs in my life, now buried deep, but China is the only one I’ve really tried to find, even though I embody it, literally. When I look at my reflection in the mirror I see a Chinese-American boy with bleached hair looking back at me, the black roots near his scalp stubborn, stark. But as much as I try to feel Chinese-American, as much as I feel pressured to, I only ever really feel American, or, at best, American-Chinese.
When I lived in China for a year I became fluent in the language, but now, when I try to speak the handful of dusty words I remember, I speak it like a baby according to those who laugh at my gauche intonations. “Like you’re not used to it,” they say. During the summer after I graduated from high school, before my first year of college, I went back to China, after eighteen years away, to visit my paternal grandparents. On the plane ride there I was too sleepy to feel the dread I’d felt the night before, and all I could think about as we rose toward the heavens through that morning’s foreboding clouds was the boy I’d fallen in love with, and how new I felt in my own skin, the same skin I’d had all along but never really lived in.
In Beijing the tarmac was wet and the plane’s shadow was blurry like my own sense of who I was. Behind the distant screen of smog I could only see the shapes of things—the details, the things themselves, were obscured. Where was my dinosaur? In the car on our way to the countryside where my grandparents lived—where I’d lived for a year all those years ago—I stared with dead eyes out the window at all the signs with inscrutable characters. I felt lost. Everything was gray, and the people around us were smoking, the smokestacks were smoking, and it was all the same to me, meaningless. I didn’t know where I was. I’d moved around so much growing up that there was never the singular home but always the plural homes. But when I was in China I knew immediately what home was and that I wasn’t there.
When I came back to America the first thing I did was shower. There’d been no running water in the countryside so when I was washing off those few weeks’ of buildup it felt like I was molting out of a layer of skin. “I love America,” I said, washing myself all over, the water turning brown and green. “I fucking love America.”
I didn’t find my dinosaur in China, but I revised a belief I’d long had that I come from a family of farmers. My dad told me that my great-grandfather had, in fact, been a well-off merchant whose wife had become addicted to opium. After his death she’d sold their children—among them my grandfather—for money to buy more opium. He’d been bought by a villager and become a villager himself, and the rest of the story is the same. In China I realized that I didn’t know much about my family. I also realized that my parents probably kept secrets from me, even when those secrets were about me. So I had to ask one night, “What happened in Chicago?” No one ever talked about Chicago, and no one did that night; it would be a while before I found out.
When I go back home to the Bay Area for the holidays my family always makes dumplings. It’s one of the few times we actually feel like a family. My mom starts in the afternoon, when from the kitchen window we can see the sun setting behind mountains that look like barbed wire on the horizon, and the sky, with its bars of colored light, is like a painting. My mom prepares everything and from my room I can hear her spitting into the sink after tasting the raw pork just to make sure that the flavors are thoroughly mixed. Later, when the rest of us join her, I’m the one who rolls out the dough into circular wrappers while my dad crimps them like a machine and my sister, who works at her own pace, creates more exciting forms like birds and stars.
Last year when we sat at the small kitchen table making dumplings none of us had much to say, but somehow I can always feel it in my bones when my dad wants to speak, and I felt that something that night. It was dark, starless, and it smelled like it was going to rain. The window was open and it was cold and a bird flapped its wings for a while but when I tried to look at it my mom got up to close the window and all I could see then was my reflection. I almost didn’t recognize myself. I heard my dad clear his throat and then, without even trying to ease into it, he told me, finally, after so much anticipation, what had happened in Chicago.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” I read that some time ago, somewhere, and that night I knew its meaning. I remember blinking and it was already hours later and raining and the range hood’s one-note drone was noisy, like a hive. I was sitting in my chair, frozen as if for a still-life, my face still wet with evaporating tears. I could hear my dad in the master bedroom crying and in the living room my sister was playing random notes on the piano. And my mom, for once the only tearless one, had taken on our jobs. She was rolling out the dough now, her knuckles dusty with flour, bone-like. The rain rapped like birds’ beaks on the window as if to interrupt.
It all made sense that night, why I was never in touch with my maternal grandmother, why I had no memories of her. That night I couldn’t—wouldn’t—forgive her for what she’d done. “What your dad told you—it’s all true,” my mom said. “But everyone has a different version of the story, and he left out a lot. I forgave her a long time ago, but he hasn’t, and won’t.” She laughed pitifully.
I never once forgot what my dad had told me, but months later when my mom called me to let me know that my maternal grandmother had died, I felt darkened again. “She’s gone now,” my mom said, sniffling the way you do after you’ve cried yourself to empty peace. “There are a lot of things we’ll never know, but it’s time to move on.”
I don’t know who I am without memory. What I don’t remember about my past keeps me up at night, has me buzzing restlessly like a bee trapped on the wrong side of a window—these missing pages of my story, pages with plot and important characters, moments that turn out to be infinite, everything that leads up to this, here, who I am right now. Chicago is an entire missing chapter. And my parents’ respective summaries of that chapter, their interpretations, are, for better or worse, all I have.
In some hellish areas of Los Angeles, where I live now, it reeks of something more than just the mixed stink of bread, perfume, and piss; reeks, rather, of perished dreams thrown out. Dreams and other improbabilities that can only exist fresh forever before you risk it all by packing up your life to move to a city like this. Dreams and other improbabilities can exist without consequence in life outside of and before L.A., when it and all it stands for are still only a mirage. The thing about L.A. is that it’s always a mirage, even when you’re here. How do you get past the screen of glass that encases everything you’re after?
This is my dream, which is my nightmare, which is my reality: that I’m in a living room with a TV and it’s bright, hot, like fire. Only I’m behind the screen, encased by glass, squinting through it at real chapters of my life playing like episodes: my birth, when the umbilical cord is wrapped around my neck like a lasso and I’m silent and cold and dying already before the doctor comes to the rescue; or when I burn my hands years later on a manhole in Chicago, screaming as my maternal grandmother pours alcohol on me; and then in high school when my mom is scared of an out-of-sight elevator in an upscale mall, saying, “In New York, once, when I was in an elevator and there was no one around, only gunshots, a man tried to…”; I watch these episodes and my eyes are alive with meaning, and I rap on the screen as if to interrupt, flap my arms like wings, and say, at the top of my lungs, “That’s me!” But I’m only pixels and around me is static and when I squint again the episodes freeze into photos and paintings and I notice that in them I’m a dinosaur, the dinosaur I’ve been trying to find my whole life. China—buried deep within me. I close my eyes, appreciating, all of a sudden, how deeply I yearn for everything beyond the glass, which is the reality that this fiction of mine seeks to narrate, and how I’m trapped in a jail of illusions that the I on the other side is trapped in as well. This strange, metaphorical synchronization is what writing has opened my eyes to, this distilling of the grainy chaos, as I type myself into words, read them on this screen, wonder who I’m creating and who I actually am.
Posted by James