The man printed on the insecticide can wears oversized boots and taut muscles. He looks like he has seen all types of cruelty, grown disinterested, and so turned to benevolent killing. His counterfeit smile seems to say, Don’t worry—this won’t poison your children.
Poor man. He sat on a dusty shelf in our garage, next to the crippled and rusted teapots from my parents’ restaurant. Dad brought him out sometimes in the late summer, when the termites came wriggling from the baseboards. They both smiled with a hint of teeth, feeling that masculine rush as they sent bugs by the dozens into foaming suffocation.
I watched from the corner and couldn’t help but smirk, tasting the headstrong tang of chemicals on the mandarin orange I was eating.
Dad kept cans and cans of insecticide in the storage room at the back of the restaurant, on the shelf just above the overturned Kikkoman buckets where the workers crouched, backs stooped, during their smoke breaks. He said it was for the cockroaches, which crept out after they closed shop, and which scattered like fallen beads when they turned on the lights the next day.
On weekend evenings, I stayed at the restaurant with my parents until the last tipsy stragglers left, irritated by the scraping of chairs as we lifted them onto adjacent tables. Before closing, Dad would spray insecticide along the bottoms of the walls and counters in the kitchen, the corners and cracks where he said they make their nests. I saw that, but somehow I never managed to catch a glimpse of the roaches. I wondered if they really existed, or if my parents had made them up to scare themselves, the way I made up ghost stories to haunt my own nights.
I used to beg them to show me one cockroach, just so I would know what it looked like, what it felt like crawling across my hand.
“No,” they said. “They’re dirty. They carry diseases.”
“I won’t even touch it. I’ll just look.”
“Be grateful you’ve never seen one. When I was your age, they were everywhere.”
One night years ago, I snuck out with an old blueberry jam jar tucked into the waist of my pants and with matches and string hidden in the pocket of my jacket. The hillside behind the house was lighter than I’d expected, the night diluted by the glow of the town below. Nor was it silent. Two a.m., and cars worried the roads.
But there would be no better time. The dragonfly, which I’d caught at dusk, thrummed against the glass of the jar.
On a patch of dry grass I sat, opened the jar, and stuffed my hand in, twirling my fingers until I felt the soft body caught between them. The light from the town was just enough to silhouette the tiny abdomen as I fixed the string around it. It took several attempts, and by the time I had finally managed to tie a gentle knot, the dragonfly had gone limp. Some part of me wished it had died already. But it fluttered in my palm, wings grating against my skin with offensive resilience, positioning to take off.
I pinched the string a short distance from its body and struck a match.
For a moment the match was all I needed, the way its flame stood obtuse against the night. For a moment, it was enough. But then my fingertips began to burn as the fire edged closer, eating too quickly at the wood. I dropped the match and stomped it out before it could devour the grass. The next one I didn’t waste, but instead stuck straight at the dragonfly, catching its rear. I tossed it into the air, holding the far end of the string.
It flew to escape its own immolation. I raised the string above my head so that the burning dragonfly, locked in its radial path, carved brilliant circles in the night.
It faded faster than I’d thought. I dropped the string, afraid of what remained at the other end. In the distance an ambulance sounded, and I imagined it coming up the hill, paramedics lifting the tiny charred body onto a stretcher.
I went home, where the curtains of the open windows billowed with Dad’s snores. He had done this in his childhood, he’d told me, with his friends, in the half-shaded daylight of the alley between crooked apartments, under the watch of crisscrossed clotheslines, of mothers and grandparents in upstairs windows. But it was different now. Somehow, I knew he would think this a thing of the past, an old game he’d outstripped after five thousand miles and fifteen years.
I would not do it again, I vowed. I just needed to see it once. I put the blueberry jam jar back in the cabinet, alongside all the other empty containers Mom saved for the looming disaster of just-in-case.
In the sixth grade, I read The Hunger Games and won an essay contest by using the games as an allegory of my family’s history. “May the odds be ever in your favor,” Effie Trinket said, but they never were. I remember sitting through the awards assembly next to my parents, who’d changed into formalwear but still smelled slightly of stir fry. Their restaurant was busiest on Saturdays, and they could only dash out for an hour to watch me receive my certificate.
By the time they called my name, my father’s camera had already run out of battery from being constantly on in preparation for my ten-second tour across the stage. I tripped my way up, my eyes trapped in the vacuums between the hundreds of gazes trying to meet mine, trying to find in my brand-new dress the rips and tears they could patch with their sympathy. It was then that I realized the essay prompt had asked how the adversity you had faced made you stronger. And what had I written about? Not me. We heard the air raid sirens and jumped into the river, I’d written, but I had never been bombed. We pressed pillows against our empty stomachs to stop their aching in the night, I’d written, but I’d never slept on an empty stomach. I hadn’t even broken a bone on the monkey bars.
“Excellent essay!” the principal roared, his microphone too close to my ear.
“Thank you,” I whispered, reaching for the certificate slowly in hopes that either it or I would dissolve by the time I touched it.
Come summer break, we visited my grandparents in Beijing. My mother had made a photocopy of the certificate and attached a picture of me onstage, open-mouthed and staring at the paper as though I’d discovered somebody else’s name on it. My grandmother tacked them onto her closet door, where she kept all the photocopies of my accolades. Not that she could read the English.
The year prior, my grandparents had remodeled their apartment and bought a flat-screen TV on their army pension. They’d clustered their entire living room around it, scooting the couch and tea table so close they practically buried their noses into the pixelated world of technicolor.
“That’s bad for your eyes.” My mother pushed the television cabinet against the far wall, pulled her parents from their seats, and leaned her entire weight against the couch to force it to the opposite end of the room. “You sit that close for another year and you’ll be blind.”
“Not like we’ve got much time left anyway,” my grandfather retorted, “and besides, I can afford prescription lenses now.”
My mother stalked to the balcony and let out a sigh that didn’t seem to end. She rarely sighed, and sometimes I wondered if it was because she was always holding her breath, living between one sigh and another. I wondered if, as a teenager, she’d stood on this balcony, arms crossed, cracked heels hanging over the back of her too-small slippers, and sighed after her father had criticized her too-short haircut.
I followed her onto the balcony and tugged on her sleeve, afraid that she would deflate all the way if she kept exhaling. Whenever she returned to her childhood home, she would march through it looking for everything they’d neglected in her absence, rearranging the tables and chairs, the clutter in the closet, snapping at everyone she’d missed. She’d outstripped both her parents in height, in miles traveled, in books read, but not in habit.
On my first plane ride to China, she’d told me stories of them, her voice barely audible over the noise of the engine. When your grandmother was a little girl, she would wait each night for her father to come home. It was wartime. Their street had been bombed and the uncle next door had disappeared. And so your grandmother occupied herself by rearranging furniture for hours and hours, sometimes through the entire night. Even as an adult, she hated it when people didn’t return. Once, your uncle was thirty minutes late for dinner, and by the time he got home, she had shoved all the furniture against the front door.
She never brought up the story again. We stood on the balcony watching a man wash his brand-new Hummer over and over, as though he would do so forever, wiping away each fleck of dust as it appeared on the glimmering shell.
After a minute my mother pointed to a dark splotch on the window screen. It was a beetle about the size of my thumb, but against the horizon it looked like an apocalypse hanging over a miniature city.
“It’s a tian niu,” she told me. “They used to be everywhere.”
She rolled up the screen just enough for me to stretch my arm outside and pluck it off.
From inside I’d just been able to peek at the dark armored underbelly, but now I saw its shell, black and white, and the long, striped antennae that curved over its body. It was majestic and afraid. It nibbled my palm, which made me wince, but I held on in twelve-year-old bravado.
Tian niu. Back then I hadn’t known it was just a longhorn beetle, so in my head it was always a direct translation: sky cow. A mythical creature blessing us with its presence.
A pearl of blood grew where Sky Cow had bitten me. I wiped it away and paraded Sky Cow to my grandmother as she walked onto the balcony to water the shriveling kumquat tree. She screamed and shattered the bowl.
“Why don’t we put it back?” my mother murmured, swallowing a sigh.
The bite was starting to sting. I reached out to put it back, making sure it had latched onto the window screen before I let go. Except it hadn’t, and a moment later Sky Cow plummeted eight stories down. I covered my ears so that I wouldn’t hear the crack of its shell as it hit the ground.
“Don’t worry,” my mother said, really sighing this time. “It can fly.”
But the next day, when we walked hand in hand down the street to buy my grandmother’s favorite lotus root at the grocery store, we came across an old friend, beheaded. Sky Cow lay belly-up on the cement, its insides swarming and spilling with ants.
We flew back home the following day, but the image persisted in my nightmares:
I was a surgeon, just like I’d told everybody I would one day be. The patient was somebody familiar yet distant. Whose face I had met in sepia family photos, in the speckled bathroom mirror—the deflated curves of cheeks, the eyebrows with long unruly hairs, the bottom lip just slightly pinker than the top—yet never before like this, so empty and etherized.
It was not a normal surgery—because the disease had metastasized, we had to open up the abdomen, the chest cavity, the skull, the entire person. Except when we did, we found the bulging insides swarming and spilling with ants that doubled themselves with their reflections on the stainless steel operating table.
“Just hold on,” I said, grabbing tweezers and a bucket. “We’ll take them out. Just hold on.”
But the patient, along with my sleeping self, sat up screaming.
The ants are still in there. The patient sewn up. She screams at night. Every iteration of the patient screams at night. They all scream as the house plows forward in slumber.
Now when they ask what I want to be, I tell them anesthesiologist.
Ladybugs always climb up. If you scoop one into your palm, then hold your hand vertical, you’ll feel the tingle of their feet spiral toward your fingertips. When it reaches the top, it will pause for a second—as though gathering courage, as though making sure there is nowhere higher to climb. And then it will take flight, landing on the next thing over, only to creep upward again, never finished.
Senior year of high school, my first class of the day was study hall. I sat through the hour, listening to the world scrounge for a reason to awaken. It was May, a month before graduation, and the weather had warmed, the air crawling with inescapable lethargy. When I sat down that morning, I found a ladybug on the edge of my desk. I teased it with a pencil, then my finger, tried to count the number of spots on its back. Like any other beautiful thing, it didn’t pause for me to admire it.
The loudspeaker coughed, and the daydreamers jolted.
“Pardon the interruption,” the dean murmured after the static settled. The winter of his voice had thawed into a gray sludge. “Teachers, please excuse the tardiness of any students coming in from the south side by train. The transportation system has been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances.”
The classroom was emptier than usual. Later that period, a trickle of students entered, faces heavy as though they’d been traveling for twenty days instead of twenty minutes. Their train, which shrieked past the school several times a day, was frequently delayed for one reason or another. Last week the unforeseen circumstance had been a downed power line. This week, a boy and his backpack.
I had never talked to the boy, but I remember that on a field trip to some botanical museum, the elderly tour guide in the butterfly room had asked if we were twins.
I emptied my pencil box and placed the ladybug inside, where it spent the rest of the day perplexed and frustrated by its inability to climb higher than the low plastic lid. I would take good care of this one, I promised. It would not die like all the other ladybugs I’d tried to keep.
When I got home, I gathered dirt and sticks and leaves to make the milky white container a crude mimicry of an insect’s habitat.
“It’s safe here,” I told it. “You can stay here.”
But it kept climbing.
My mother found me in my room, kneeling by my desk so that I was eye level with the ladybug. She broke the news to me, told me the name of the boy on the tracks.
“Your generation will know to love your children better,” she said, as though blaming herself could solve every problem.
“I’m not having children.”
“Why not? You’ll want to someday.”
“I’m bad at taking care of things.”
She sat down on my bed, the sheets crinkling like the crow’s-feet she had gotten from raising me.
“You’ll know how to when you’re a parent,” she said. She looked out the window, away from me, to sigh. “You’ll take care of your baby when it’s time. You’ll be gentle.”
That night, when I couldn’t sleep, I turned on the lamp and opened my pencil box to check on the ladybug. I imagined having a child, the grandson my parents secretly wished for. Already, he was more fragile than the ladybug, stiff and overturned in the non-biodegradable box. Already, I was sure that I would take care of him, and that I would be gentle, and that I would break him, too.
Sometimes I went nocturnal, using the momentum of an entire night awake to ram through the morning. With all the abridged promises and pruned-off careers and half-finished piano recitals heaping up in the attic of my conscience, I couldn’t stand the terror of another beginning, even one as harmless as a morning. Today was one of those times. I would take Cricket to school, and then stumble through my workday until it was time to pick her up.
We had nicknamed my daughter Cricket because, before she could even walk, she would try to hop from place to place. She was eleven now, and I could no longer outpace her on our footraces from the door to the car.
I finished packing Cricket’s lunch, an off-tune, counterfeit fried rice I’d cooked in painstaking quiet between the hours of four and five. I walked onto the porch, then into the front garden. For a while I had loved gardens, then given up on my own. The roses had long died, but the succulents, once overwatered, now thrived on my neglect. I wondered if one could kill by caring too much. I wondered if that was what my mother had meant—that my generation would love our children better because, blessed with an oblivion of history, we could afford to care less. I wondered if she had already tried, using sighs to replace her mother’s yells, and what I, in turn, was using to replace my mother’s sighs.
It was a dewy morning, and the ghostly shapes of snails weighed down the leaves of the fruitless lemon tree. The bites they had taken overnight resembled little peepholes through the chipper green.
As I loomed over the shelled creatures, it felt strange selecting a victim on my own. In my childhood, my father would start a lively discussion on the merits of each candidate, whether we should go for the fat one, which would last longer and provide a meatier show, or the small one, which would crawl faster and thrash harder before its death. All the while I’d be holding a red-and-white checkered paper tray left over from the restaurant’s “Tasting Tuesdays,” its bottom snowed with a layer of salt.
He would dangle the chosen snail above the tray until it started foaming, the bubbles nearly engulfing his fingertips. Then, he would drop it into the salt, where first it would attempt to hide from the sting by retreating into its shell, and then would squirm in agony, covering itself with the crystalline daggers.
I never really understood the science of it, but in a matter of minutes, the snail would seem to grow smaller under its own froth, to lose its shape.
“That’s about it for him,” my father would announce.
But at that instant, I would always turn away, afraid to witness the moment of its passing, to find out whether it really dissolved or just writhed to death.
But this time, I would stay till the end.
There were still trays in the cupboard. It was my childhood home, for my parents had simply downsized and left the place to us. I peeled one from the top of the pile, fighting the stickiness that had resulted from years of summer heat and cooking grease. I poured the salt, then dipped my finger in to taste it, tongue prickling.
I selected the fattest snail from the tree. Any heavier and it would have fallen off, the leaf unable to bear its weight. With my father, the killing of snails had always felt ritualistic, even holy. But now it just felt unsanitary.
I dropped it into the tray, where it rolled to a corner, picking up a layer of white. It bubbled, making a faint sizzling noise in the quiet street. The ordeal was exactly as I had remembered. By the time it began squirming, I felt the old nausea rising up my throat, spreading over the roof of my mouth.
“This generation with its weak, sympathetic stomachs,” my father used to mutter toward the seven o’clock news, the American students protesting this and that in front of city hall. “You haven’t witnessed anything.”
I left the tray on the ground and went to the side of the house to retrieve a brick. Then, just as the last antenna disappeared under the froth sparking in the sunrise, I dropped the brick atop the tray, heard the squelch of brittle shell, then went back inside to scrub my hands with pearly white soap.
It’s funny how I recalled the snail torture even two decades removed from my childhood. The day before, I had been visiting my father in the hospital after his bypass surgery and noticed that some relative or another had brought him a red-and-white checkered blanket. He lay beneath with jutted jaw and stubborn brows—the same face he’d worn for years in the cruel crucible of the restaurant kitchen. The expression hadn’t changed, but now his jaw had slackened, the brows softened from black to gray.
“Take a picture of me with it,” he said, “so I can send it to them.”
With IV-bruised hands he took back the phone after I’d snapped the photograph. He chuckled.
“Reminds me of the paper trays we used to have in the restaurant, remember?”
“Come sit.” He patted the edge of the bed.
I sat, the blanket softer than I’d anticipated.
“I’m happy you make time come see me.”
He spoke in English now, which meant that he really wanted me to listen.
“You so busy now. I only see you when I sick.”
You raised me to be busy, I wanted to say, but instead I asked if he was cold.
“No,” he said, but pulled the blanket closer to his chin.
I helped him. “Cricket wanted to visit you, too, but she’s at school.”
“Tell her hello for me,” my father said. “And thank her for the gift.”
On his nightstand sat a row of tiny paper boats my daughter had folded for him. The occasion called for cranes, but I’d never taught her how to make them because I myself had somehow never learned.
is a senior studying Psychology, Asian American Studies, and Comparative Literature at Stanford, as well as an aspiring clinical psychologist for immigrant communities. Her stories attempt to peel back the model minority myth and explore the complex emotional journeys of Asian American immigrant families after their physical migrations. She is an editor for the Leland Quarterly, a student-run undergraduate lit mag.