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-desctruction 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.
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.