Excerpt

In the following excerpt, Frances has just won an important speech competition.

 

Then we proceed to the butcher’s, just two doors down. Unlike the produce place, which is painted green, this place is painted red, matching the cha siu coloring on the barbecued pork. In the display window are three crispy fried ducks hanging by their necks and a whole roast pig. The entire place smells of duck, pig, and grease.

 

As Mr. Lai chops up the pork for Mom, she looks at him expectantly. She is waiting for him to mention my win. Unfortunately, she is unlikely to get any recognition from him. Mr. Lai has always been a curmudgeon. The only reasons his business is so successful are that his meat is tasty, his prices are low, and he is the only butcher in the area.

But like a glutton for rejection, Mom keeps waiting, hoping. Finally, she can stand it no longer. “Mr. Lai,” Mom says, “do you know that Fei Ting won an award?”

 

Mr. Lai pauses for a moment, focused on his cutting, before he says, “Oh, really.” He doesn’t even attempt to feign interest.

“Yes,” Mom says. “First place”—a splatter of pork juice hits her in the face; she blinks and wipes the drop of grease from her cheek—“in a speech contest.” Still no response from Mr. Lai. “It was sponsored by the Chinese American Association.” Her voice sounds tentative, just like when she talks to my teachers.

 

Mr. Lai wraps the pork in pink paper and tapes it closed. “That’s two fifty,” he says.

 

“Okay,” Mom says. Her head is bowed. Quietly, submissively, Mom pays Mr. Lai and takes her bundle.

 

“Mr. Lai is mean,” she says to me as we walk home together. She carries the meat as I carry the vegetables and pastries. “His heart is like a rock. He must have kids too. He should know what a big deal this is.”

Then Mom stops walking. “You know what?” she says. “Maybe his kids are losers. Maybe they smoke and don’t study. That’s why he didn’t compliment you. Because he’s jealous.” A slow smile creeps up on her face. “Maybe his kids went bad because he’s a bad father. Look how mean he is to people outside. Imagine how mean he must be at home. I feel sorry for his kids. I feel sorry for his wife.” Her smile widens with triumph. “Serves him right. Don’t feel bad, Fei Ting. We don’t need him. I’ll take the bus to Clement Street if I have to. I’m not going to spend another dime at his greasy shop.”

 

I am totally moved by her show of support. For the first time, she is 100 percent on my side. We continue walking—no, make that marching—home.

 

Once we reach our apartment and load up the fridge, Mom takes the two articles. She goes into the coat closet, which, despite its skinny shape, holds more stuff than someone else’s twice-as-big closet because of Mom’s organizing ability. She pulls out two picture frames and sits at my desk, carefully arranging the articles so that they are centered in the frames. She is meticulous about this, moving each article a couple of millimeters this way and that, her shoulders tense and fingers slightly trembling, as she strains for the perfect position. When she is satisfied, she hangs them side by side on the wall facing Popo’s picture. She is careful to keep them lower on the wall than the picture, out of respect for Popo.

“There,” Mom says. “Now she can see them too.”

 

Mom fixes the articles with a penetrating stare. “When Ms. Taylor talked about your talents, she wasn’t exaggerating,” she said. “She had done the right thing by tricking you into joining speech. You’re a genius, like Mozart. I was wrong to force you to go to medical school,” Mom says.

I want to cry at her words. After all those years of pressure, this admission is more than I could ever hope for.

 

“Clearly, your talent lies in speaking,” Mom continues. “I saw all those TV journalists looking at you. You can be like them. It’s like being a movie star, only more professional. You’re not beautiful like a movie star, but with your speaking talent, you can be like Wendy Tokuda, or even better. You can be the next Connie Chung!”

A TV journalist? That seems as foreign to me as becoming a doctor. The idea is embarrassing, me with my marshmallow body on television, talking about issues that I have no knowledge of or interest in. But Mom can see this very clearly, so clearly that I can almost see it reflected in her eyes.

***

We arrive at Nellie’s for dinner at five thirty, just to make sure that we don’t miss the six o’clock news. Nellie and Theresa are making fish soup; steamed rock cod with soy sauce and green onion; dou miu, a type of sprout; and Chinese broccoli. All my favorites. Nellie is tailoring the menu for me. I sit at her kitchen table and watch her and Theresa cook. My two articles are tacked to Nellie’s corkboard above the telephone, next to her coupons and Chinese takeout menus.

 

Mom is going through the Chronicle and the Examiner to look for additional articles featuring my win. Channel 26 is blaring in the living room. When Mom is through, she throws both papers onto the floor. “And they call themselves newspapers,” she says, enunciating “newspapers” as if she is spitting on them. “Well, they will never make a customer out of me.”

“Me neither,” Nellie chimes in.

Again I am touched by their support, but I’m slightly worried too. It’s not like I’m the president. If we stopped doing business with everyone who didn’t acknowledge my win, we might end up very isolated indeed.

“Do you think we should watch the American news too?” Mom asks. “What if they feature Fei Ting?”

 

“I could bring in the other TV,” Nellie offers.

 

“But which channel should we watch, seven, four, or five?” Mom says.

“Maybe we should tape them, just for keepsakes,” Theresa suggests.

Before long, we are sitting down to dinner with three televisions turned on. The little kitchen TV is playing CBS. The medium-sized bedroom TV has been moved to the living area and is playing ABC. The large living room TV is playing Channel 26. That one is playing the loudest. All three are hooked up to VCRs. This attention on me is slightly nerve-racking. I want to be featured on the news, but I dread seeing myself looking ugly or stupid.

Towards the end of the Chinese news, a clip appears, showing the inside of the CAA building. We see Emerald Yeh, Wendy Tokuda, and David Louie on the screen.

 

“Turn it up!” Mom screams. Theresa does so. The TV shows me shaking the VPs hand. Then it cuts to a shot of the VP standing next to me, Stewart, and Tiffany, each holding a trophy, very similar to the photo of us in the newspaper articles. These images last maybe a second each, easily missed with a blink of an eye. Both Nellie and Theresa pat me on the back with excitement.

 

Then the TV shows a close-up of Ms. Taylor, who is answering a journalist’s question. I catch the first few words in English, which are quickly dubbed over in Cantonese. The Cantonese vocabulary is somewhat advanced for me, but she is saying something about more opportunities for Asian Americans.

 

“Why did Ms. Taylor get more time than Fei Ting?” Mom says. “If they wanted to ask questions, why not ask Fei Ting or me?”

 

“It’s okay,” Nellie says. “They featured Fei Ting. That’s the important thing.”

 

“Ms. Taylor rigged this,” says Mom. “She’s just using Fei Ting to get attention for herself.” I quietly cringe at this unfair accusation.

 

“Let’s see if Fei Ting was on the other channels,” Nellie says.

 

“No,” Theresa says. “I checked.”

 

Mom looks hurt, a milder version of how she looked at Mr. Lai’s butcher shop.

 

“Let’s rewind the tape and watch Fei Ting again,” Nellie says. Mom brightens. Theresa rewinds the tape a few minutes, and we watch those few seconds again.

 

“Fei Ting, is your face really that chubby?” Mom says. She sounds surprised, like she’s seeing my face for the first time. “Theresa, rewind the tape.”

 

Theresa hesitates, but Mom waves her hand to hurry her along and she obeys. “There.” Mom points at my face. “Don’t her cheeks look fat?”

 

Stunned, Theresa, Nellie, and I stare at Mom for a moment. Then Nellie says, “Not fat. Just a little round. Very cute.” She pinches my cheek as a show of affection. But she pinches too hard, bringing tears to my eyes. At least that’s what I tell myself. It would be too humiliating to cry over this.

 

Now the picture changes to the anchorwoman. “Look at her,” Mom says, pointing at the anchor. “She doesn’t have fat cheeks. And Emerald Yeh and Wendy Tokuda, they don’t have fat cheeks either.” Mom holds my chin and turns my face towards hers, studying every contour. “Fei Ting will never get a TV anchor job looking like that. And look at that nose.” She points at it, her index finger just an inch from my eyes. “Too flat. I always wished she had a sharper, prettier nose. And she has no double eyelids.”

 

“Fei Ting looks okay,” Nellie says. “You’re just hypercritical because she’s your daughter.”

 

“No, you’re under-critical because she’s not your daughter,” Mom says. “Because she is mine, I don’t need to be polite. I can speak the truth. Dieting can fix the chubbiness. I bet plastic surgery can fix her single eyelids. How much would it cost?”

 

“Are you kidding?” Nellie shrieks. “That’s dangerous! What if they make a mistake?”

 

“They’re professionals,” Mom says. “Professionals know what they’re doing.”

“But what if they sneeze or have a stroke?” Nellie argues. “Then Fei Ting will be deformed. Gracie, banish the thought!”

 

But Mom ignores her. “I wonder if freckles show up on camera,” Mom says, squinting at my cheeks. “Fortunately, foundation can fix that.”

 

After the dishes are washed, and the TVs returned to their original positions, Mom and I leave Nellie’s house. As we’re on our way out, Nellie pats my cheeks and says, “No plastic surgery for you.” Then she says to Mom, “Right, Gracie?” She smiles wide, to make it seem funny, but underneath her jovial delivery is a mild worry, because she knows my mom. Mom ignores her and walks past me out the door.

 

Once we get home, Mom walks straight to the framed articles, squinting at my photos, her eyes darting back and forth between the two very similar pictures of me holding the trophy. “Gee, her cheeks do look big, bigger than the other competitors’,” she mutters to herself. “Why didn’t I notice that before?” Then she says to me, “The next time you accept your award, don’t smile so big. It makes your cheeks look even bigger.”

 

I blink back my tears and swallow the swelling in my throat. I scrutinize my face in those photos. I always knew that my face was round, but now it seems grotesquely swollen. The shine from my oily complexion makes my face look even bigger. In contrast, Diana has an oval face with sharp, chiseled features. Did Derek ever think that my cheeks were too big? How many times did I smile, making them even worse?

 

For half a day, I was Mom’s hero. I had writing and speaking talent. That was all that mattered. Everyone else thought so—Ms. Taylor, Nellie and Theresa, even all those journalists and the CAA. If it’s good enough for them, why not for Mom? How did my speech career suddenly become a beauty pageant? No matter how hard I work, at speech or my looks, I will never amount to those girls in Seventeen or Cosmo. Once again, in Mom’s eyes, all my hard work is worth nothing.

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