When I Try To Piece Together The More Invisible And Detached Parts Of Mei Fang’s Life – An Exploration in Embodying Shenzhen

Academia, Creative Non-Fiction

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.


When I Try To Piece Together The More Invisible And Detached Parts Of Mei Fang’s Life

Creative Non-Fiction, Poetry

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.



Sometimes Alice and I call Grandma Cyborg,

because she has one replaced kneecap made out of steel.

We laugh because every day she feels closer to death but

her kneecap will survive us all— edges slightly rusted.

The rest of us turn back into concrete and loam.

When she rolls up her pant leg: a swollen,

indistinguishable lump the size of a toddler’s head, a pink

shiny scar straight across it. A hit and run while on holiday

in Australia. The driver never came back but I imagine a kinder

world where the car gives a bit of itself up as a consolation prize:

a hubcap for a shattered kneecap.

Sometimes, Alice and I joke about all the

things Grandma survived: Japanese Invasion,

Going Down to the Countryside, Famine,

Washing Clothes in an Icy River, Three Childbirths—

Can you believe she birthed Big Face Uncle? Can you imagine

that size head coming out of you?— One Childdeath.

Her kneecap will be our first family heirloom.

The Japanese took everything when they came.

The Communists took anything that was left over.

Red and yellow silk qipaos, inky paintings of the Guilin mountains,

jade seals, pearl adornments for the daughters’ hair.

It will be on our mantle.

One day, I will pass it on to my own daughter.

One day, we will serve houseguests salted sunflower seeds in it.

One day, we will strike it like a gong.

I hope she gives it to me in her will.

Poem in the voice of the Woman Warrior


Before I whisk myself away with the blades my grandmother wrought for me, consider this: this is what makes me America. My long black hair, sliced into a blunt bob. It used to blow lightly in the wind but now it is a mane of helmet. A thousand transformations reside in me; I could be a giant bird, so vast that you would see no demarcation between me and the sky. I could be a mote of dust, a wisp of sunlight riding on the slightest breath.

I learned many things in those days I spent dreaming. I learned to drink dew from the air. I learned to run at the speed of the modern day bullet train. I learned to jump from Buddha’s palm straight to the Great Wall of the U.S.A. I learned to summon my ancestors from beyond my world, to erase the lines between real and fake. I learned to marvel at myself.

A dragon rose from the depths of my slumber and retrieved, from the bottom of a well, the stories of my second aunt’s dead baby girl from China. The dragon took her gently in its claw and laid her in my cradled arms. I swathe her in red, white, and blue, hold her close to my mouth. Tell me about those creations, I say. Tell me about all those worlds. The pupils behind her bloated eyelids narrow to a pinprick. You already know, she says. I hold her closer. The swaddling falls from her swollen body, and every time I try to wrap her again, again, again, it falls. A thousand transformations— I could be anyone. She was my exception.

Poem in the voice of Frank Chin


Do Not take my Masculinity

It is as real as those gun

slinging cowboys you watched

on tv when you were young.

If you force feed me the traits of the wan,

weak, wistful Chang-Er on the

moon waiting for her lover I will just

about shout and stomp and break

your marble column. And don’t

give me that Disney Fa Mu Lan Shit.

Too long have I watched you

Stroke your silver hair

into blonde, then have them

dye it back to black.


Me— I am the Hyphen.

Watch me outfit for war.

Watch me wield the truth against

those who are impostors.

Watch me exorcise the clouds

from the great yellow sky called

America. I am part of your

canon. One day I will blast forth

and banish any comparison

between me and you.

I am Different. I do not fake

my history. I am Authentic.

I am as American

as the Chinaman.

leng leng


my niece. blonde-brown curls and round cheeks 

big(ger) eyes/pale pale (brown) skin

the neighborhood aunties comment. she’s so white!

eyes so big!/mixed children are just prettier

she is so pretty. like one of those cherubs

from raphael’s sistine madonna

faces resting in fat hands/bored demeanors/eyes rolled up

to the skies, framed above my grandparent’s bed

even she thinks she’s pretty. sometimes she

looks in the mirror and says to herself: leng leng

she’s so smart! my grandmother beams. she

recognizes her own beauty. one day i’ll tell her

you are an ocean. because you love eating rice in bone broth, because

chinese falls out of your mouth like smooth marbles, because

when your great-grandfather bounces you on his knee his ninety-two

years on this earth distill into a grain of salt. you contain the histories

of laboring women and men, their backs like rounded hills among

the peanut fields. you contain revolutions, failed and successful.

but she’s only two years old. she looks

in the mirror, she smiles. leng leng



You can pick my grandfather’s skin straight off the

scaffolding of his fingers like a piece of Kleenex. 

You can read tendons and veins like a road map 


to nowhere. His knuckles are parched reverse-oases no

amount of Vaseline can replenish, yet a few ruddy hairs

still grow there stubbornly. My mother once told me that


when you’re old you lose your fingerprints. I inspected his

finger-pads and they are baby-skin-smooth. Worn,

shiny like pebbles in a river, history’s friction.


Even his palms barely showcase those lines of love, life,

health, children. My grandfather’s hands are wide 

but gentle. What can contain him?