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February 13, 2017 Nonfiction

Borrowed country

Kristin Chang

Borrowed country photo

City’s got no more homeless people. Asked māma and she said it’s because the government’s got a van to take them out of the city. Can imagine it: black vans with windows tinted green like bug eyes, all those bodies stolen away like women in wartime. What they did to clean up for the Olympics, apparently. Learned this later. Typhoon season now and the rain hisses like gasoline. Imagined my spine as a wick and ran home faster. At home, asked māma where the homeless people were taken, she said the countryside. Hoped where they were the rain was not hurting. Hoped maybe it’s the sea where they take them, not too hot and no government. Waiting for them: a big boat to cross out the horizon, a big boat to slip farther, farther out with each yank of the tide. Like difficult birth. All those bodies crowding the prow like rows of teeth. Could do anything they wanted, like go naked or gamble. Could steer themselves to Greenland or better, never land at all. Just go in circles around the planet, yearly like rings in a tree. Gege says, that’s dumb they have no food but he doesn’t know that’s the point. Read that a ghost plane is a plane that loses oxygen but keeps flying, but all the people inside die off. Eventually, a mass grave in the sky, bodies that would never have to ground. Imagined the plane drifting out and out like a balloon released, Gege asking what was I smiling about. Remembered that a typhoon was coming and herded in the grandparents, dried A-gong’s warm soft head so like a sac of mosquito eggs. Māma made the soup, cold with dates and tasted like urine.


This river has a habit of clearing itself like a throat. The waves like coughs, slight foam haloing our ankles. It’s summer and māma’s listening to the radio outside, far from the bank because she doesn’t like wet things. Legend goes, she refused to hold me when I was born until the nurse double-washed and double-dried me of all the sluggy birth fluids, blood and brine. Gege was born dry as a nut. We have rhyming names and we try to ignore this fact. The water stings like sweat. Smells like it too, but so does all of Kaohsiung. Māma reminds us every day that our father was born here, but I can’t imagine someone like Baba being born at all, his two fists popping out before the rest of him.

It’s like the Japanese legend: Momotaro the hard boy born from a split peach, a sword in hand. But the only village-terrorizing monster my dad would ever kill is his own mother. A-ma has taken to saying things like, your body is a place. Since A-gong’s got dementia A-ma’s become a Christian, says the more we take the river into ourselves, the cleaner we’ll be. The water’s black like the mosquito juice so none of us know what she’s talking about. A-gong says we should go soon, river’ll wipe us of our scent so we can run better. We said from who and he said Nihonjin. Sometimes it’s The Chinese and he hides from his own wife by playing dead. Then he forgets he’s not actually dead and we have to roll him over and show him our faces until he remembers. He says everything in Yilan creole, which according to Wikipedia is 70 percent Japanese, 30 percent Atayal. Endangered Language Project says we’re 80 percent endangered and A-gong grunts, says I’m a rice tub if I don’t know 100 percent of people are 100 percent endangered. Yesterday, Doctor Hsiung said my A-gong’s lost 50 percent of his brain already. He’ll only smile if we bring him his medals, if we tie the blue ribbon around his neck, if we help him read his certificate: Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun. Empire of the Rising Sun. The ribbon’s so worn it’s the color of cloudy weather.


In 2004, the newspaper said Yasukuni Shrine and the Double Genocide of Taiwan’s Indigenous Atayal: a new court ruling. I forget A-gong is illiterate. He forgets I cannot speak his language. I decide we should make newspaper dolls in secret, like two girls in wartime. I play the glue, spitting on each crease. He razors his thumb along the fold, seals it like a mouth.


First was the beheading of Taiwanese Aboriginal people, all males over 15. Second was marching them into the Japanese Imperial Army, sending them south to kill for their killers. The usual things happened, too: new language, new architecture, new life expectancy. A professor saying: because they were likely to die, they did. Next slide.


Legend goes, my grandfather was raised so soft that he didn’t know the color of blood until he saw his family killed. I don’t know what it is to remember the first time you see blood. Chances are it was my own. My grandfather stopped beating us when he forgot our faces. The thing that tipped us off was this: he once tried to wear a slab of meat as a coat, said it reminded him of childhood, when the smell of flesh meant food. After the dementia, he started eating with only his left hand, and we could never get him to show us his right. It was permanently curled like a wisp of smoke. Our new game was to ask him what he was holding, and every time he’d answer differently: a kumquat, a Japanese sandal, a wire doll. A-ma spends his veteran’s pension on a new kitchen, this one metal instead of wood. A-ma who taught me that knives sharpen themselves if you use them enough.


I start every morning by holding my thumb to the sun because I like to see the color of my own blood staring back at me. Gege’s plucking stones from the riverbed to put in the stone-dish on top of our toilet, which is for our Fengshui. The number one thing that’s bad for Fengshui is daughters, according to A-ma. She makes me kneel to the Virgin, makes me recite the pidgin names of the land: tang-ow no ke, kinus no hanasi, zibun no hanasi, kangke no ke. Tang-ow no ke, kinus no hanasi, zibun no hanasi, kangke no ke. I keep thinking, to make the body a place, you must first destroy the body. I remember when A-gong and I danced barefoot in the wooden kitchen to Kangding Love Song, the cigarette smoke he blew in spheres. Look, he said, I’m borrowing the clouds. My knees sour on the tatami mat. I’ve been still for so long it feels like my bones have pickled in the flesh. Gege in the next room is rattling his X-Box, says goddamnit, the heat gets in everywhere. A-ma says, pray for his release. A-gong screaming in the next room, says someone is cutting off his legs to stuff with feathers, someone is melting down his eyelids for spare bullets. Says, cut me to pieces so they can’t take me all away.


Miss Taipei got plastic surgery and you’re reading it off the TV. Last seen in Dongqu with a handful of men and an eyeful of dead blood. It’s true, then. She got her nose raised to a curb, her chin down to knifepoint. We haven’t decided if we hate her for it, just that she ordered two orders of fried chicken and three of those soft sausages the size of pinkies. Some parts of Dongqu remind me of China, when limbfuls of children used to tug at our linen pants, pressing their cups to our cheeks like a kiss.

You always gave them all you had. In a family of six sisters it can’t be easy to pity them, those boys who had nothing but at least were born named. At school, science class was pinning butterflies to paper boards, some of them jerking as if alive. As if you’d skewered the last part of them that could feel. I forgive you when you said you hate Asians from Asia. I forgive you when you said this is a backwards country. When I wouldn’t respond to you in your mother’s language and you locked me in the garage with my back skin rawed, said This is how I love you. You tried to pin your language to my tongue and I’m sorry it didn’t live.

All those boys you gave money to always had the same parts of them missing: a left hand or both feet or tongues. I always thought that was sort of beautiful, that somehow all the boys without feet found each other by holding up their hurts and pairing their pain like lungs. Slotting their shadows together and finding that they fit. Later I read it was because gangs would buy children and take away their parts, then assemble the kids in teams to go out and win pity with their new bodies. Collect the money at day’s end. A kind of professional poverty. I guess I always remember their faces splashed against our taxi window like fallen fruit. I once saw you ask to roll down the window, give them what you had. Then when the driver rolled it back up and the boy didn’t pull his hand away in time, the window closed his right pinkie in its jaw. He yanked back, but he was caught, the nub of his finger a swelled berry. You didn’t say, Hey stop. You didn’t say, Roll it back down. You let us go.

Later we could find no blood.


image: Orlando Echeverri