I moved from Shanghai, China, to Flushing, Queens, in the middle of second grade to reunite with my parents who had immigrated to America a few years before me. On the flight, I was put under the custody of a "family friend" whom I had never met before though he swore he was there at my birth, which I couldn't argue with because no one can remember their own birth and so it was the perfect lie that could never be disproven. The trip left me rattled and terrified. Several times during the flight I woke up lying on the floor of the aisle with everyone looking at me, having not a clue how I got there. It was abject and then suddenly I was in America.
Almost right away, my dad began to regret all those months he spent waiting in the American consulate, filling out paperwork for my sponsorship to come to America. He checked my arms for track marks and had a home kit to measure my blood pressure for signs of hypertension, sign number one for drug addiction, according to the latest literature. My mother checked my vagina every few weeks, making sure there weren't any signs of having been tricked into participating in gangbangs with older men. America was crawling with rapists and addicts, fucked-up nurses at free clinics who gave you a live dose of HIV instead of the measles vaccine because they didn't like the shape of your eyes or because they didn't like the way your glasses slipped down the low bridge of your nose or how your head sloped in the back while the front of your face was as flat as an ice hockey rink.
"Don't be an idiot," my dad used to say to me in Chinese.
"How?" I asked.
"By getting yourself killed."
"These kids here have death wishes. It's always the ones born with the right to live who want to die. These people have never been forced to suffer and that's why they seek it voluntarily. Do you know how easy it is to get mixed up in the wrong crowd? Do you know how easy it is to throw your life away? Do you realize how fun self-destruction looks at first?"
I nodded furiously. I knew, I knew it all, he and my mother told me a thousand times.
"Are you trying to teach our daughter how to become a sex-crazed drug addict?" my mother asked him in Shanghaihua. Are you instructing her on how to do it? Step by step?"
"Far from it."
My mom and my dad spoke to each other in Shanghai dialect in front of me when they were discussing things that I wasn't supposed to be privy to. They thought for the longest time I couldn't understand because back when we all lived in Shanghai, none of us ever spoke Shanghaihua to each other; my father's family came from Shandong and my mother's family came from Wenzhou. I remember hearing the strange cadences of the Wenzhou dialect whenever I went to visit my mother's mother's house, how it sounded like an argument between people who really loved each other. My other grandparents spoke in heavily Shandong-accented Mandarin, saying za men instead of wo men and loo instead of lü. I started speaking that way, too, until everyone laughed at me and said I was talking like a little farmer girl, and I said, Then we're all farmers! Shandonghua was everywhere in my grandmother's house in Shanghai where the three of us used to live in a tiny sunlit room that overlooked the garden. We slept in a bed so tiny and narrow that my mother and my father had to sleep on their sides. Usually they faced me so they could talk to each other in the mornings while I pretended to sleep between them, but sometimes we faced in the same direction, like taco shells stacked up against each other—those were the days that they thought I forgot, or never knew about in the first place.
Every night there was one more scream I couldn't unhear, one more crazy peal of laughter that ended in things shattering, one more argument I could not unknow.
That was the secret to being me back then: if you never say a word, people will think you don't know anything, and when people think you don't know anything, they say everything in front of you and you end up containing everything. On the inside, I was vast. But on the outside, I was a known idiot. Nothing that came out of me had any resemblance to what I thought I had inside of me. My parents talked to me like I was the kind of person who would enter an unmarked van full of leering, strange men just because they said there was candy. My teachers talked to me like I still colored outside the lines and couldn't do two plus two without those red and yellow plastic counters to aid me.
"My wife," my father would often say in Shanghaihua, "you know that if I had my way, I'd send these kids and their parents to ten years of hard labor in Manchuria. See how much they like running around with their pants half-down and their shirts half-open then."
"Oh, yes," my mom would say. "Yes, yes."
At least my parents always agreed in the end and I took that to be a small, throwaway sign of their love. I hoped and hoped it would remain that way forever but it never lasted long. They couldn't seem to go more than a few weeks without blowing up over the same things—she irritated him and he disappointed her and because of innumerable miscalculations they accused each other of making, and thanks to the other, my future was a foregone conclusion: ruined. The question of whose fault it was had no resolution. Why didn't he get a proper education back in Shanghai? Why did it take him so long to finish his university studies? Why did he choose to get a PhD in English literature of all things when he knew he was at a disadvantage with his thick accent? Why didn't he just stick it out a few more years? At least then he would have the degree he came over here for and people back home wouldn't think of him as such a colossal failure. She asked him these questions over and again until things were slammed and broken and in return, he asked her what the hell did she think he was doing now and furthermore where the hell did she think they came from? Did she somehow grow up in an alternate universe where schools weren't closed for years? Did she somehow live in a country where they weren't subjected to the fucked-up genocidal whims of a demagogue? Did she know anyone—anyone!—who had a choice? Didn't she herself throwseveral tantrums when he said he was considering just staying in China and taking the government position he had been offered after graduating from school? Wasn't she the one who insisted only someone who had surgically replaced their brain with their rectum was incapable of seeing that obviously going to America to pursue a PhD at NYU was the far better opportunity? Wasn't she the one who complained without end about how he wasn't dreaming big enough for her? How everyone was going to America and making it so why couldn'twe? Not everyone had lived in a cocoon of protection as she did back in Shanghai, he spat at her; not everyone felt as en-titled to their dreams as she did.
They'd argue until it was the next day and I would wake up thinking it had all been a dream—my mother crying that she could have been an interpreter at the UN and my father laughing and mocking her, saying, They wouldn't have hired you as a janitor. The insults they traded back and forth until finally my father ended it by striking her in the face or grabbing her arm so hard that it made her laugh like a crazy person. Go ahead, she would say, I dare you to break it. I dare you to achieve something. Be the man you think you are.
It was nightly and it was ugly and they sure as hell didn't try to protect me from hearing it, so every night there was one more scream I couldn't unhear, one more crazy peal of laughter that ended in things shattering, one more argument I could not unknow. I had my own shit, my own fears. The only thing that helped was when I could share some of them with my parents, and they listened and held me and petted me without leaving their nervous shaking imprinted on me. I needed reassurance and I wanted calm, but there was little occasion for that so I went to God instead. Every night before falling asleep, I got into my bed, stared up at the ceiling, and prayed:
Dear God, never ever let me become like those Korean girls in my class who have really ugly cheekbones and smell so bad and can't pronounce words right. Yesterday when Minhee read aloud from Bridge to Terabithia she was trying so hard to get each word right and you could tell because there was this little spit bubble on the side of her lip and it was disgusting and later she pretended like she wasn't almost crying when the substitute teacher said, "Jesus, have we gone back in time to first grade? Can any of you read a sentence? I don't see how the school board thinks it's a good idea to assign this book when it has clearly gone completely over your heads. My God, how were you allowed to graduate from third grade? Did you kids really pass the statewide English test with this level of reading and writing? Unbelievable. This is a new low, folks. I'm talking rock bottom," and kept looking over at us and sighing and closing her book and standing up from her chair like she was about to leave, which was probably why Minhee went around the playground at recess asking everyone if they wanted a "Korean massage," and if you shrugged or asked, "Um, what's a Korean massage?" she'd thump your back really hard and was getting so crazy about it that she actually made Eric Cho choke. Everyone laughed and was like, "Eric Cho-oked! Eric Cho-oked!"
So please, God, show me some mercy and don't let people think I'm like Minhee Kim because she's a degenerate and I bet she's going to join a Korean gang when she gets to middle school, something I won't ever do, which already makes me so much better than her, and please also, if you remember, give me boobs before sixth grade and my period before seventh even though I heard most girls get boobs in fifth now and little nubbies in fourth and their period in sixth, but then again, most of those girls are really fat and they all say that I'm anorexic, which I'm not. By the way, God, can you also make those girls stop calling me anorexic? I can't help being the way I am, and it's not like I flaunt it or anything like that Lucy girl who is always saying stuff like, "Oh no! I'm so tiny the wind is gonna blow me away!" when it's really windy outside. I just happen to have to poop a lot and my mom says my grandfather was the same way. He was on the toilet all the time. Apparently just like me, he needed to poop immediately after every meal and that was why my grandmother said he was just skin wrapped around bones because he weighed so little. So yeah, it would be great if you could help me out. Thank you, God. Good night.
Wait, also protect my mom and my dad and my grandparents in China and also my cousins and my aunts and my uncles and their families of cousins and uncles and aunts and things like that and also my mom's friends and also my dad's friends and also my friends' families and also their friends and anyone else I forgot, but . . . you're God, remember? Since you are God (and why would I be praying to someone who wasn't God, and how would I even know to pray to someone who was only pretending to be God, that makes no sense), you probably know everyone I am thinking of right now, even though I can't exactly go through every single person I want you to protect for me because I don't want anyone to be sad and it would even be okay if you didn't protect me as much as everyone else because it's not a big deal if I'm sad sometimes. I just wish people didn't have to die in real life and in movies and in books and in dreams and in my imagination. Sometimes I imagine myself dead and then I can't sleep, but don't worry about me. I'll be okay. Good night.
Excerpted from Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. Copyright © 2017 by Jenny Zhang. Excerpted by permission of Lenny, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.