Recap: Anxin (named in part II) had just returned home from the US for winter break when she realized her father had been under custody for the past month. As she reconsidered her relationship with her father, she tried to reconcile with her father while trying to alleviate her and her mother’s grief and stress.

“So, Anxin, tell me the story.”  Familiar sofa, familiar glass of water placed in front of me. Haven’t seen them in a while. 

Anxin, what an alien name. It seemed to be calling me, but my consciousness was actively pushing it away from me. I couldn’t shake the feeling of detachment. I am called another name at school, with friends, or with anyone who is not my family— no, even my family sometimes calls me by my English name Thea.

My therapist let his dogs out of his cage and guided them towards me, wanting to soothe my emotions by letting me pet them. The attempt felt forced, almost comical. I bent my forearms and patted them with a slow but rhythmic motion: pat, pat, pat. Not a fan of dogs, especially when one anxiously wiggled under my touch. The room was filled with a heavy silence, only broken by the soft whimpers of the dogs and the distant ticking of the clock. I let the name Anxin settle in and then continued gathering my emotions.

The therapist, a man of gentle demeanor and kind eyes, waited patiently for me to begin. I let the dog go, and she ran off and curled at her owner’s feet. He chased her away, upset that she did not serve the comforting pet role she was supposed to.

“I realized that it was all wrong when I saw Yo-yo a’yi, then my grandparents confirmed the fear, but there’s not much to say. I just feel… nothing.” I stared at a small black point on the yellowish wall. “It was stronger than anything I’ve ever felt. You know. I’ve felt heartbroken, depressed. You remember what date March 31st last year was. The day I did not get anything, from, you know. I mean, and I don’t have to remind you what happened between me and, yeah.” I paused for a moment.

“It’s like I’m drowning in all the worst things life has to offer,” my voice shook, tinged with resignation. “And no matter how hard I try to swim, the waves keep crashing down on me.”

“You have the right to feel frustrated,” he replied, his usually cheerful face now dampened down. “It would be a serious issue, no matter who it happened to.”

“Occasionally, I feel like I am being too whiny. Perhaps I should not feel so anxious about all matters, but this one…” I broke off, unable to continue, as my usually clear mind accumulated pewter fog like never before.

“It happens when you fear for the wellbeing of a loved one.” 

I couldn’t help but scoff at his following words. “I don’t love anyone,” I insisted, though as the words left my lips, I knew they weren’t entirely true.

“Oh, come on, you’re just saying that; child-like of you sometimes, ” he countered with a slight smile.

“That’s true.” The rebellious parts of my mind were jumping out, and I had a hard time catching these obnoxious little bubbles of thoughts and jamming them back into my head. A knot tightened in my chest. The thought of his well-being, of facing the possibility of losing him, was a fear I couldn’t bear to acknowledge.

 “You love your father,” the therapist stated simply, his words piercing through my defenses. “And perhaps this is the first time you’ve had to face it head-on. This is just my theory, though. When is he getting out?”

“My mom says according to the law, he can only be held for 37 days at maximum, but that does not count in the pre-trial period. If he gets convicted…” My voice trailed off as my therapist began counting the days.

“So he will be back by early to mid-January…” 

“Which means I would be back to school before he’s back, and we would miss New Year’s Eve,” I said, depressed, with a piece of hair dangling down my forehead.

The sun outside was so bright that it briefly obscured my sight, slightly alleviating my mood from back with the therapist. As the sun’s rays pierced through the car window, causing a dashing ray of yellow and gold amassing on everything around me, I found myself forcefully stepping into the rhythm of my everyday life. I planned the day for what I usually liked to do: dancing, yoga, meals outside, and strolling around in every single shopping mall in Jinhai.

“To Jinhai Bay Mall please.”

Thankfully the perfect distraction came, as my best friend from Hong Kong was passing through the city today and wanted to stop for dinner with me. As the jet lag kicked in, I began yawning. I wanted to distract myself as much as possible, and what better place than at one of the best malls in the city? So amidst the vibrant shops and lively atmosphere, there was a flicker of happiness. A temporary escape from the looming shadows of anxiety and fatigue, partially from the jet lag, partially from the frustration of being unable to afford anything. I jogged around and in the end sat down at the restaurant, waiting for my friend to arrive. The anxiety of waiting for her increased my thoughts of Dad, so I decided to end it all and began furiously scrolling through Xiaohongshu on my phone–makeup, travel, food, yada yada.

Finally–she came!

“Ahh, Thea!” Yes, that facade of becoming someone else who was not Anxin once again.
“I’ll get two thick-sliced Gyutan; you decide the rest. It’s on me!” she declared, tossing me the menu with a generous offer to treat me. I mustered a grateful smile as I flipped through the menu, momentarily distracted from the weight of my thoughts. Before my mother came in and fed me with sleeping pills yesterday, I texted my friend quickly about this secret and left her a voice message then quickly put away my phone to pretend I was going to bed. Therefore, she flooded me with questions. Because of how long we’ve known each other, she had become the one friend I could trust with this secret, but even then, I hesitated to say too much.

“Enough about my dad,” I interjected, after telling her sparse pieces of information about my dad, eager to steer the conversation away from the heavy topic weighing on my mind. “Tell me, how has life been in Macau?”

Yet, despite the laughter and chatter, the weight of jet lag lingered, stubbornly refusing to be shaken off entirely. I found solace in my friend’s company, but the relentless exhaustion persisted. This was when my eyes fell upon a peculiar pendant lying on my friend’s neck. It was an intricate piece of jewelry, with a strange symbol etched into its surface. I pointed to it, curious about what it was. 

“Oh, this? It’s a good luck charm. Oh, haha, actually, it would suit you perfectly. It promises good luck.”

“I don’t trust stuff like that,” I mumbled as I took a sip of my water.

“Of course. Well, if you want to make life easier, you can find something to adhere to. Hmm, but you don’t smoke. You don’t drink. You don’t do drugs.”

 Now I understand why people drink or smoke. I suppose I can forget all the worrisome things in the world and dive into my exclusive paradise of burnt tobacco leaves or whatever disgusting thing they put inside, or intoxicate my brain with alcohol and lay back as the chemical gradually takes over my senses and brings that sudden jab of euphoria up through my chest. But I knew myself too well. I recalled my disastrous attempt at drinking: I slurped two bottles of Long Island Iced Teas like shots at a cheap bar and thought I was situated at a hospital due to the hand-sanitizer smell and acrid taste, then vomited all over the streets as my then-roommate eyed a disheveled me spilling out her expensive whiskey-made cocktails. It was clear that those avenues of escape were not meant for me.

“Harder for people like us to escape from reality then. But guess what, there’s always food,” I uttered, voice muffled as I stuffed my face with food. Though I did not precisely have an appetite, I attempted to forcibly open up my appetite by piling up spoons of uni and foie gras decorated with little cute edible flowers into my mouth, and trying to lose myself in the silky, decadent taste of the delicacies like others might with their chosen vices. It’s good, but I can’t lose myself in food.

Dinner was pleasant as it swept away some of the murky clouds hanging around my head all day; however, as I witnessed the taillight of my friend’s taxi leaving beyond my sight, that bitterness surfaced quietly again. The bustling cityscape suddenly felt eerily quiet, and the weight of my emotions returned with a vengeance. Alone once more, I found myself enveloped in a suffocating emptiness, the same feeling that had plagued me all day, threatening to swallow me whole.

“Dad…” I murmured.

I imagined what he would have said. He would have sat there, looking at me with a stern glare. “Anxin, you’re called An Xin because I want you to live peacefully without fear and doubt. To live happily, without having burdens.” He pointed his fingers at me.

“And is that the reason you have such high standards for me? Why you’re always telling me what I should do and that I am a failure?”

“It’s because you’re too innocent!” I imagined him responding, his voice laced with frustration. “I want you to be happy, but I also hope you can protect yourself.”

“Well, you tried! Guess why I am innocent!” I mocked bitterly, the words echoing hollowly around me as I stood there alone at the taxi station. A woman turned her head and stared at me, but she left quickly. “You tried to trap me in a bubble of protection, and look where I am now! Droopy, soggy, lost because I don’t want to face… whatever I am facing, now.” My volume softened as I plainly spat out the “now.” 

Thea was strong, witty, and not exactly popular but unique and individualistic; Anxin was weak and reliant on her parents. She hoped she would just live with her parents forever. But Thea originated from Anxin, and Anxin was Thea. When would I accept that?

I returned home, fatigued by jet lag and my thoughts, as my mom, Yoyo-a’yi and my sister Anyi gathered around the table. I had dinner already, but I sat next to them like I usually do and took a peek at my mother. She was sipping on simple millet porridge with some sauteed bok-choy, exuding a sense of calmness amidst the chaos.  My sister sat next to my mother, shoveling rice into her mouth as she watched different TikTok videos in an oblivious manner. My grandmother sat opposite to my mother—-not eating though, just observing my mother, and Yoyo-a’yi, sitting next to her, was enthusiastically munching on whatever our a’yi made, sauteed beef with celery or pan-fried shredded potatoes. 

Yoyo-a’yi broke the silence. She picked up a piece of the potato with her chopsticks and showed it to the rest of the room.

“The food in your house is really good. Much better than what I cook and bring to work. Your a’yi has some talents in cooking.” I smiled and watched as she almost comically stuffed more food into her mouth.

“You’re welcome to join us anytime, Yoyo.” My mother replied with a polite smile. 

“You also make good food, Yoyo a’yi. I’ve tried them before, very spicy. I like spice.” I continued the conversation.

“Oh, you flatter me. They’re just stuff I make in a rush, Anxin. Next time you come to the office you can eat with us.” I switched my glances to my sister. That was the end of the conversation, I decided to move on before it got any more awkward.

“Anyi’s watching TikTok again,” I remarked, unable to hide my disapproval, as I pointed at my sister. “Doesn’t she have anything better to do?” She seemed to be off to La La Land as she slowed down her chewing with her favorite game character opening fire and killing the other character, when my mother threw me a slightly stern gaze. What a delicate balance we maintained. I knew, of course, that she was allowing my sister to indulge in TikTok and games to divert her attention to keep her mind occupied with her favorite things so she does not ask difficult questions about her missing dad. 

“Old sis, I want to be an e-gamer, so yeah, these influencers help me with my skills,” she responded finally after moments of silence. “By the way, where is Dad?” She said it in such a chill manner that the rest of the room suddenly all got goosebumps.

“Still on his business trip,” Mom responded without fretting. My sister nodded absentmindedly, then locked her gaze on her iPad again. 

“So tell me, Anxin, how was dinner with your friend?” My grandmother avoided any phase of silence, and I went on documenting what we did in tedious words, but everyone seemed to be interested in the things we did. 

I sat in the living room as my mom and Yoyo a’yi retreated back into the guest room to discuss work-related stuff. Grandmother sat next to me and began chipping at sunflower seeds as Grandad watched TV. She placed her hand on my shoulder and asked if I wanted to eat something.

“I am so full. The meal was on her so I ordered all the most expensive stuff.” I said, sinking myself down on the sofa.

“Maybe fruits? How about an apple?” she said as she rose to fetch me one.

“I don’t like apples. Don’t see what’s good about apples,” I muttered, stubbornly clinging to my dislike.

“They’re really sweet, you should try one.” My grandmother replied as she went to the box of apples given to my father and picked out a large, succulent fuji apple, blazing red with some yellow stripes.

“Your dad’s clients got them from Shandong. They produce some of the best apples in the country,” Grandad suddenly said as he looked at me.  

“Fine.” I reluctantly reached over for the apple. Seeing that grandmother was watching me, I took a big bite. Sugary juice burst in my mouth, and I nodded a little. As the sweetness washed over me, I felt a slim sense of relief, the simple pleasure of the apple momentarily distracting me from the weight of my worries.

Ping Guo, Ping An. Perhaps apples really bring luck. I closed my eyes and like never before, a small thought emerged: that my father would be alright. 

The box of apples is for him, I thought as I took another bite of the apple. 

“Good, right?” My grandad playfully nudged me and laughed. I managed to squeeze a smile back but immediately and involuntarily sank into deep thought again.

Will he get to eat sweet apples like this under custody? 

I rubbed my eyes, but I could not lie or hide the fact anymore.

I’ve seen TV shows of people held under custody using the restroom with twenty other people and only eating boiled cabbage–it would be nice if they’re “boiled” since they must be cold by the time he eats them. What temperature is it like in the North? Shenyang is probably very cold during the winter. I’ve never been anywhere that north, maybe Boston. Is it even more northern than Maine? Then Russia. We went to Russia when I was a kid. Surely it wouldn’t be more northern than Russia? Is he freezing? Is he eating? Is he thinking about me, Mom, Sister, or the rest of the family? Surely he is. 

Does he know I’m thinking about him too?

I tried to close my eyes and imagined that my head had telepathic abilities, that when I was thinking about him, he was thinking about me too.

I pray that my father can come home safely, I hope he is all good (Ping an). I opened my eyes and sank into the sofa as the thought of my father drained my every last bit of energy, as my grandmother and granddad cuddled in next to me, as I fought to hold back tears, determined to remain strong in the face of uncertainty.

Visual Credit: Dora Gao

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