I grew up in a household of women. My father was the only man, so the Hui family was a woman’s kingdom. Every time I sit down to write about my family I imagine three women— my mother, sister and I, the three main characters of all my stories. I was raised by my mother. But if I’m being honest, I wasn’t only raised by her. There was Mei Fang. She was short, with a wide nose and hair scraped into a loose ponytail. She always smelled very faintly of fish. Rarely do I acknowledge the presence of her life in mine, and the times I do I am forced to reconcile with some knotted feeling of love and guilt, kinship and detachment. Perhaps I could have known her better. Perhaps what I don’t know about her illuminates something I have never explored. Here is her (re)constructed story. －
When I Try To Piece Together The More Invisible And Detached Parts Of Mei Fang’s Life
Mei Fang was my a-yi; the domestic worker that my parents hired when we moved to Shenzhen in 2002. What made Mei Fang different from basically every other person I met in Shenzhen was the fact that her family was actually local. They lived on Lingding Island off the coast of both Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Guangdong people through and through, Mei Fang’s family, pre-reform period, survived off fishing.
Shenzhen was China’s finest Post-Mao creation. Previously called Baoan County, it was a mainly compiled of fishing and farming villages. In 1980, Baoan County became China’s first Special Economic Zone, chosen for its geographical proximity to Hong Kong, a major commercial and industrial port. The population of young, skilled Chinese workers grew as they started working for transnational corporations that started to locate their factories and businesses there. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping embarked on the Southern Tour and visited Shenzhen for the first time. There, he crucially sided with the young workers actively rejecting the rhetoric of hardline Communist Party members who were concerned about Shenzhen’s turn towards consumerism rather than politics as their ideology.
This is a piece about the domestic worker (my a-yi) who worked for my family when we moved to Shenzhen. This piece was absorbed into a creative/academic piece I wrote for Una Chung’s class called the Ethnological Temptation– find it here.
For a while after she stopped working for my family, Mei Fang smuggled baby formula in/across the border, two tins at a time, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It was relatively well paid, apparently, for what she had to do—take two tins on the Hong Kong side from the van parked two streets away, go through the automatic glass doors into the pale beige monstrosity that is Huanggang port, wait, in snaked lines, for her turn through customs. Somewhere in the middle of this large borderland is a line on the floor.
“I have wondered…
Why you cannot hear
All the glass inside your syllables
Slide off the table
Whenever your mouth
Opens and is then closed.”
-Robin Coste Lewis, The Wilde Woman of Aiken
When Alice called me, I knew something was wrong, even though she cracked jokes and laughed like she normally does. And eventually, the same topic came up: Christian. He’s fucked up again.
I lost track of the number of times she’s called and told me he’s hurt her. Once, when he said Chinese food wasn’t “refined”. Another time, when she was upset by a potentially racist/sexist waiter and he told her she was making a big deal out of nothing. And that golden afternoon in October, when I was in Yonkers waiting for the 25 bus, and she called out of the blue. It would have been three a.m. in Hong Kong. I could hear car horns and changing neon lights in the background.
In China, after giving birth, women must stay in bed for a full month. Typically, there are a number of rules that dictate this period of one month called zuo yue zi, or “sitting the month.”
Some of the common rules include:
- Only leaving the bed when absolutely necessary; definitely not walking around for extended amounts of time
- Always making sure the entire body (including the head) is clothed, preferably in multiple layers, to prevent the body from getting cold— (one of the worst things you could do in the crucial month)
- Avoiding foods that are “cold”, like watermelon, lotus root, and cucumbers, and only eating “warming” foods like ginger, sea cucumber, and chicken
The Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi once wrote about Cook Ting, a complete master at his craft of carving oxen. He carved with an almost careless dexterity, guiding his knife through the natural contours of the ox facing no resistance, never forcing his hand. Zip! Zoop! The blade went in and out clean. When Lord Wen-Hui asked about his skill, he replied that he was beyond it. All he knew, after decades and decades of practice, was the Way— the moment when perception and understanding stop and “spirit moves where it wants.”
Chores were never a big part of my childhood. I often wished they were, and even asked my parents to assign me tasks. When I was eight or nine, I asked my parents if I could wash the dishes every night after dinner. I asked them for 1 yuan (approximately 16 cents) per session; no more, no less. They offered me more— what about five yuan?— but I insisted on one. I liked the image of a piggy bank filling up, a coin a day, nice whole numbers creating the simplest math.
My parents humored me because I was the youngest in the family. I am no longer the youngest, and am only home four months out of the year, in the same house, the same kitchen where I once washed dishes in the evening. The youngest member of the family is now my niece, a large, bumbling baby. She was born in the hot, damp summer of 2014 and now, whenever I am home, it is my new duty to give her her evening bath.
There is something living in my bedroom walls. I don’t mean that in an ominous way. It’s just that every night, I hear claws scrabble up and around, through the wall next to my bed, all the way to the ceiling, then over to the other side of my room. Its scuttling noises trace a path that I can roughly estimate with my ears. I know its path, but other than that, there’s not much else I know about my next-door, then upstairs, then again, next-door, neighbor.
Or are they neighbors? I can’t quite tell.