Chinese Drama

K-Ming Chang


The last time I talked to my cousin, she asked me if I’d seen the latest episode of some period drama she and my mother were watching every night during their shift at the retirement home. She told me that their latest task was to check on all the old white people in every room every two hours to make sure they weren’t dead or choking on chains of their own spit or shitting the beds into watercolor landscapes. The old white people slept lightly and my mother and cousin had to watch every episode on a cell phone, subtitles and no audio, the two of them hunched over in the empty dining room with its carpet the color of cartilage. One time, one of the old white people crawled out into the hallway saying he’d lost his dentures and Mama and my cousin had to seal him back into the hot envelope of his bed and go looking for his dentures, finding them finally at the bottom of the toilet bowl, blue-lit like the jaw of a deep-water fish, the kind that can only see by the glow of its own bones. 

Yes, I saw the latest one, I said, lying. Before I left home, I’d only seen the first few episodes, and it was a period drama like all other period dramas, about an emperor who has an illegitimate daughter with some peasant and the baby gets sent away to the countryside and returns years later looking to reunite with her father, and her father sees her and falls in love with her instantly, not knowing she’s his daughter, and then there is also a subplot about a fox-spirit that is eating the penises of local men and unscrewing their testicles too (unclear what the testicles are for, though I imagine they can be planted like tulip bulbs. Somewhere off-screen is a field of testicled trees). 

On nights my cousin was out of the house, Mama and I used to sit together in the dark to watch those dramas together. The sound was muted so that my father wouldn’t wake up. Outside, the night sky was thin as grape skin. We cracked red-dyed watermelon seeds as quietly as we could, timing our teeth so that the symphony of shells corresponded with the crickets outside. If we woke my father up, he’d run through the house brandishing a backscratcher, believing us to be intruders. One time he beat us both until the backscratcher broke down the middle, clean as a wishbone, and Mama and I curled around each other impersonating stones. He said sorry, sorry, sorry, and lifted us both into the bathtub with all our clothes still on and turned the shower on cold and let the water gild us with new skins. The water ran off us gold. I remember a story Mama once told me, about a concubine named Pearl who jumped into a well when the Forbidden Palace was invaded. It was to protect her virtue. Or maybe it was the well that was named Pearl: a toilet-colored stone with a hole in its center, and when Mama showed me a picture of it, I remember thinking: The concubine’s waist must have been the width of her wrist. She must have been a tadpole, to be able to disappear herself through that hole. 

In one episode, the emperor asks his servant to deliver a scarf of white silk to his favorite concubine. I said, how nice, he’s giving her a gift, and Mama slivered sunflower seeds with her teeth and spat them at me and laughed, saying, when the emperor sends you a length of white silk, it means: Hang yourself. Concubines spent all their screen time committing suicide. 

Later, after my father left for good and I’d ask Mama where he’d gone, she’d point at the TV screen, at the extras who kept dying in different dynasties. She’d point at a masked man fighting for the Ming emperor in the morning, then at a robed advisor in a different miniseries about the Manchus in the afternoon, then at one of the corpses hanging from the gate of a palace, then at a man fighting the Japanese with a cattle prod and his fists. 

I knew she was lying. The men she pointed to were always wearing masks or helmets or hats with brims as broad as planetary orbits, all of their faces hidden. My cousin started watching with us. She laughed and said, that man was born to be an extra. Changing allegiances as easy as he changes families. When Mama heard this, she slapped my cousin once on each cheek. That night my cousin rolled over in bed to face me, her cheek pillowed on a bag of frozen corn, and said with her tongue swollen, slurred: Your father has another woman in Luoyang and she has a baby son, and no one can beat that, not you, not your mother, because your name means Beckoning a Boy, and your life is laid down like manure to fertilize a future that doesn’t include you. 

Mama kicked my cousin out of the house three times, but between all of those times, she was my Chili Sister, forever as a splinter. She ate raw chilies from my mother’s bush, little red udders, and the seeds spawned like stars on her tongue, a constellation of burns. She said this way, if a man ever tries to kiss her, he gets torched. One summer, a colony of mice infested the walls and I blamed her, said she smelled like dirt and shit, and the mice here like to burrow in feces and give birth to bones. My cousin slapped me on both cheeks and said shut up, I’m older than you, and then she taught me how to vacuum up the mice that were big as our thumbs and how to trap the big mice under mugs and then microwave them until their bodies exploded, rosettes of blood studding the microwave glass. It destroys the babies inside them, she said, though I don’t think any of them were pregnant. That summer, a man broke into our side of the duplex and took out his penis like a pistol and pointed it at me, its green veins vocalizing, humming like power lines. I called for my cousin, who grabbed my mother’s cleaver wet out of the sink and ran the man out, chasing him barefoot all the way down the street, the soles of her feet constellated with glass crumbs, his pants orbiting his knees. When he tripped and fell, my cousin straddled him and would’ve cleaved through the knot of his neck if my mother hadn’t run up behind her and hawk-grabbed her off of him. Later that night, my cousin rolled over to face me in bed and said to the space between my teeth: that’s happened before, you know. A different man, though. I was all alone in the house and he was at the door with his dick out and I got the electric fly swatter and I deep-fried him. If you’d seen, you would’ve been so proud of me.  

The first time Mama kicked my cousin out of the house, it was for holding me wrong as a baby. She let your head dangle like something severed, Mama always said when she told the story. Hold a baby that way and her neck gets stretched out into a snake. Mama didn’t want me to turn into a yaoguai, those women with snake torsos and tomato heads, who drained men of their semen so that they’d never have sons. After I heard this story, I whispered to my cousin in the dark: You held me wrong, I could have turned into snakes in your arms, and she turned back and spat in my face and said I’d been the ugliest baby she’d ever seen, no neck at all, and it would’ve been good for my neck to get stretched, and besides, my neck is perfectly okay now, isn’t it? It holds up my head just fine. She reached across the bed and tugged on my hair until I choired with pain.

And then the second time she got kicked out, I was two and she left me in the backseat of her car while visiting a man. The way Mama told it, my cousin left me in the back of the car and only remembered an hour later, and by then I was fried in light and feverous, roly-polying on the seat, my diaper ripe with green shit that was also on my hands because I’d been trying to undress myself, and my feet were risen like loaves of bread, and my neck was beetled with silver blisters, and in a panic my cousin drove to the nearest 7-Eleven and bought a 64-oz slushie and dunked me in it head-first to cool me down. When she came home with me softening in her arms, sugar-sleeved and heat-spanked, my mother chased her into the backyard and beat her with a vacuum cleaner and then with the cord of the vacuum cleaner and then she went back in and came out with the wok and my cousin climbed the chain-link fence to get away from her, shouting jiuming, jiuming, jiuming ah. The neighbors thought it was coming from our TV. Only women in soap operas shouted that way. I imagined her voice dubbing over the episode where the empress buries the concubine’s baby alive and the concubine runs through the imperial gardens uprooting every tree, searching for what was crying.

When I left for the opposite coast, I stopped following along with the period drama that had been running for years with the same actors that kept dying and resurrecting. I was relieved to have fled their faces on the screen, the way they watched me. Before I left, my cousin moved back in. This was after being kicked out for the third time, this time because she stole a watch and a wedding ring off one of the old white people who’d died in his sleep at the retirement home, and when the laoban found out, he fired my mother and cousin and made them return the watch and the ring, which my cousin cried over, saying she must’ve owned a watch like this in her past life, bedazzled with crystals the color of snot, and Mama said you owned nothing in your past life, you deserve to have each of your pubic hairs plucked out by a bird’s incessant beak. 

Mama only let her home this last time because my cousin had gotten pregnant: she saw that the baby was hiccupping inside my cousin, carving out its own mouth with a melon baller, preparing to say our shared surname. My cousin’s belly bucking blue beneath her shirt. A son, my cousin said, though she miscarried a month later and called me about it, said it was karma for the time she left me in the back of her car, said she finally knew what she had done. My mother said the fetus clogged the toilet—it was just a head, no body—and that even after she unclogged it and flushed it down, the water in the toilet bowl was plum-colored, blood fermented to wine, a miracle unspecified by any bible we owned. After I heard this story over the phone, I could no longer look into a toilet after lifting the lid. I remembered that my cousin once lied to me, saying that toilet water flows to and from the same source, the sea, and I was afraid that her blood would reach me, that one day I’d look between my legs and spotlight her loss.

After the toilet incident, my cousin began calling me in the middle of the night to apologize for the car incident, and for holding me wrong, and for wetting the bed that one time she was drunk and then blaming it on me, and I said no, forget it, no, bu yao zai xiang ne xie shi qing, zhengde mei guanxi, and she said wo hen baoqian. She said she’d had a little sister once, but that little sister had died in a wind—I thought I heard wrong—and then she said she always considered me her little sister, and I said of course, me too, I mean big sister. Mama told me the full story: Back in Yilan, when the typhoons touched down, my cousin’s little sister ran after the chickens to tie them down in baskets, but the wind made a fist around a sapling and skewered her chest with it. My cousin found the body after the typhoon was over, the branch with her sister’s heart glowing on the tip of it, naked as a grape. She hated the chickens after that and frequently kicked them until blood reeled out of their anuses and they were no longer able to lay eggs, or if they did, the yolks went missing from inside them.

After a few months of living on my own, I stopped answering the phone when my cousin called to apologize. She always forgot she was three hours behind me, and I’d be asleep when she called, groping for my phone, knocking lamps off my night table. Every morning there were shards at my feet, pieces of her to pluck out of me. She left me a voicemail saying she needed me to read Craigslist ads for her. She wanted to buy a car, a cheap one, to drive somewhere fun. Fun, she said, pronouncing it like fēng. North to Reno, she said, where the slot machines live. Tahoe, where the rich people go. South to Los Angeles. Out east. I told her she couldn’t go east: there were mountains in the way. You need four-wheel drive, I said, but didn’t know how to say four-wheel drive in Chinese. Instead, I said something like you need wheels that grip the road with their hands. She laughed and called me a poet, a poet like the ones the emperor buried alive in his tomb so that someone could record his afterlife in heaven. Someone to wrangle a lineage into language. She sent me links of Craigslist ads to translate for her, the numbers being the only thing she could read, and I said these cars all have too many miles. You won’t be able to drive very far. I sent her links to cars that were newer, that didn’t have missing side-view mirrors or headlights like gouged eye sockets or doors that wrinkled like foreskin. 

In the end, she didn’t drive far. No more than a mile, two. Mama called me on a night when I couldn’t see the moon through my window. It was two days after my nineteenth birthday, and I kept looking at the sky while she talked, thinking maybe the moon was disowning me, but then I saw it, nascent as an eggshell, a face inside it. I looked at that face. I saw my cousin’s baby churning inside that moon, housed in light. Mama said, she drove in front of a train. In my car. Mine. Mama kept saying mine, mine, mine, until the word was the downstroke of a wing, fleeing its meaning. I walked to the bathroom with the phone to my ear, the bathroom I shared with a woman who mouthed at my nipples as if trying to pronounce them, failing. I looked at myself in the mirror in the dark. Denied myself light. Mama said, they thought at first it was an accident, the train. But she didn’t try to get away from it. No skid marks, none. Then Mama asked me: Are you happy? She paused, and I heard her move away from the phone, returning as an echo. When they found her, I thought at first they’d found you. Even though you’re far away, I thought it was you in that ruin.

Mama asked for the remains of the car and they gave her a piece of metal the size of my palm, fever-hot, lace-edged like a continent. We didn’t know what part of the car it came from. We tried to cool it by placing it in the freezer, but it remained the same temperature as my forehead. Mama set up an altar in the kitchen, a dish with three pomelos the size of severed heads and a photograph of my cousin back on the island. On a beach. The sea was skinned, raw meat underneath. My cousin was moving, raising her hand to wave at someone, and each of her limbs had a ghost, her arms multiplied by blur. She looked like a Buddhist god with a million hands, each one ladling up a sun, the god that appears in episode one as backstory, a montage to show you how the world began. A white scarf fluttered around her neck, bright as a slashed throat, its knot unwritten by the wind.