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Mainlanders by K-Ming Chang

When the mainlanders moved into the back unit, my mother told me not to talk to them, eat with them, or lend them money. Don’t open your mouth around flies, she said. She duct-taped the lids of our plastic bins before trash day in case they shoved their dirty diapers to the bottom of our bins or fished out our recyclables. That’s what mainlanders are like, my mother said, Saddling us all with their shit. These mainlanders were the Zhangs, the same last name as me, though mine was spelled differently and had no man attached to it. My mother said that my name was quilted together the right way, and that their name was a product of dressing up letters as soldiers and lining them up with guns to their backs, coercing them into a row. The Zhangs were made up of one baba, one mama, one jiejie, one meimei, one nainai, one yeye, and one guma – a shame, my mother said, that mainlanders all live on top of each other like that, you know how it is, people are cheap in China, that’s the one thing that doesn’t cost any money there, people! And look, all girls! my mother said, when she saw them slip one at a time out of the white van. You know mainlanders are barbarians who used to drown their baby girls, she said, I saw it on TV, a documentary about drowning girls in piss pots, and that was in the 80s! Because a piss pot is the easiest water within reach. Those girls don’t even get the dignity of drowning in a pond or a river or even a goddamn sink! My mother was always complaining about our plumbing, which she said was already clogged up by the Zhangs, who must be flushing something alive down the toilet, though the only time I’d ever seen the Zhangs use water is when they filled up a daisy-patterned kiddie pool in their backyard with water and took turns jumping in together, even the nainai and guma who had bad knees, the girls laughing so loud all the crows fled from the trees and canceled out the sky and I could stand forever in their dark, watching. My mother told me she heard it on the news channel, that story about a woman on the mainland who killed an old man, a man who was married and had a family and was paying to touch her – though remember, she was the one who approached him because she was in debt from so much shopping, a symptom of mainlander materialism, my mother said – and minced his corpse into pork, bought a pressure-cooker, and stewed his flesh, then flushed all his bits down the toilet. When the apartment downstairs complained of clogging, the plumber opened up the pipes and discovered over 10,000 bits of flesh! Can you believe! my mother said. For a week she watched the story on TV, her eyes sipping all light from the screen, and in the mornings, I tip-toed out of the house and drank water out of the hose outside so she wouldn’t wake from the sofa. After last week, when our toilet burbled like a phlegmy throat and the water in our tap was so thick it shrugged in the sink, solidifying pink, my mother said she was afraid to call the landlord, who would call the plumber, who might discover something sick in our pipes. I didn’t tell her it was me who flushed three fists of toilet paper down the toilet after Mandy Hsia told me about how she induced her period by shoving a mechanical Oxi-gel pencil between her legs and twisting it to turn the blood on like a tap. I tried, but just with a Bic pen, which only caused a slow trickling like our faucet that’s always been bad, and because I didn’t want my mother to see the tissues I polka-dotted – I asked her once how to get my period, and she said I shouldn’t ask about things so dirty, then turned on the TV – I flushed the paper all at once. Mandy Hsia has a mainland mother that I met once after softball practice – she brought everyone egg-and-pork-floss sandwiches, which I didn’t know mainlanders ate too – and later, when my mother picked me up, I told her that Mandy’s mother said ni men chi wan le ma? with her tongue curled all the way in like a snail in its shell. My mother said, Ah, a mainland wife, you know that’s all Taiwanese men go for these days, those whores, you know they sell themselves? Taiwanese women, we’re too independent for them, they all run to the nearest spread legs. So I asked my mother, is that why baba isn’t here, and maybe if I sat with my legs spread, baba would come back? My mother reached back to slap my leg in the passenger seat, the only time she ever touched me, and said I didn’t know shit, and when we got home, we ate side-by-side on the sofa with the TV on, our pipes scratching open their throats in the background. My mother always watched one channel with a man who stood in front of a blue screen and liked to shout a lot and point at things, a little like baba before he left, and he said, Scandal! The Pot Has Boiled Over! Last week a mainland tourist was caught crouching with her daughter in the middle of a mall, and her daughter was peeing into a diaper she held open, just like that, peeing in front of the whole public! And now here is the footage of the incident, taken by a local university student, and see how the mother knocks the man’s phone out of his hands and even refuses to pay for it, now watch, the girl opening her legs in front of the whole world like she’s got no family name! My mother turned the volume up, a column of sound between us, and I wondered if the Zhangs on the other side of the wall could hear us, the way I could hear their bowls clattering on the dinner table or the ache of a mattress spring beneath their bodies, and the man on screen was jutting his finger between the girl’s legs, her Tweety Bird skirt foaming up around her, his finger pinning her there forever, but it wasn’t the girl I was looking at, it was the mother crouched in front of her, the way she cradled the open diaper in her palms, offering it up like an island, shifting it a little to the right to catch the glimmering necklace of piss, her seismic hands, the way she was whispering something to her daughter, too quiet for me to hear even when I leaned in, the way she bent so close their foreheads were almost touching, their widow’s peaks matching, her shadow a tent around them both, as if to say I am the only one you will ever need to see, for as long as you need, I will hold all your heat, I will keep the world at your feet.

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