One. The night before my first Halloween at college, Jin Yong passes away. I find out in an email from my professor, and am reminded of another strangely connected week, my sophomore year of high school: we start reading Gabriel García Márquez on a Monday and he dies that Thursday. My first thought, both times – I hardly got to know them. Never mind that I had yet to experience their enormous bodies of work, though this probably makes their memories stand a little more starkly against the others. My professor asks us to dress as Condor Heroes characters to cheer up the class. I think of Huang Rong, her outspoken fire, the elaborate loops of her hair, and the gossamer pink of her hanfu. Halloween is tomorrow and I have no time to spare. I go online shopping for a dress, find one draped beautifully over a model, and imagine it as a cardboard boxful of inexpensive, formless polyester. Though that isn’t why I hesitate.
Two. When I was little I didn’t feel this way or that about Disney princesses. I know for sure I didn’t adore them with the fervor of some of my classmates; I favored trains and marbles and bottle caps, really, because they meant I could play with my brother. I didn’t feel this way or that about Mulan, either, though I can still remember the tug of annoyance in my chest when I had to be her during recess. “Oh, you hated Disney princesses,” my mom says. We’re shopping for gifts for my younger cousins, running our hands over tiny castles and dolls. “You didn’t want anything with them on it. Except shuimeiren, because she was pink.” She’s right, and I’m surprised to realize it, though the image of my old ballet bag, a blonde-haired princess emblazoned across the front, conjures itself in my mind unbidden. “And Mulan,” my mom adds. “I wanted to buy you a princess costume, and you only wanted hers.” That, I don’t remember. It doesn’t follow the course of my memories at all – but the thin red and blue costume I pull one day from my childhood closet is there to prove it. I fold it back into its box and stack it onto the to keep pile.
Three. My dad and I are both Geminis, and we share the same temperament to prove it; we’re cheerful, easygoing, diligent, and tuned into one another’s silly gestures and wordplay. I ask him to watch Hero with me on a summer night. We have the run of the house, snacks and zongzi piled high on the coffee table between us. I’d never taken much of an interest in wuxia in the past, and I can tell how happy he is to share it with me in his voice and his eyes. Over breakfast, in the car, and on nighttime walks around the apartment complex, we talk about the old shows and movies of his childhood. We find a grainy entirety of one of them on Vimeo, but a minute in, my dad declares he doesn’t want to spoil his golden memories of what is clearly a very earnest, very silly production. He asks me if my utilitarian Chinese is improving this way. I tell him I want to learn a more complete language, the literary flourishes, the day-to-day ease, all of it. I start watching our movies with the subtitles off. I know what happens, I understand it better and better every day, but I couldn’t repeat it to you, not in the same way. I can’t even begin.
Four. My thumb wavers over add to cart. I look again at the pink-clad model and close the app, telling myself it’s because the package won’t make it in time for the holiday. In a lot of ways, I’ve had enough of the cultural appropriation discussion. We’ve been through it enough times that I have a script for it now, though I hardly ever have the patience or energy to put it into play. For those who will never learn, I know it’s not really about a lack of knowledge and respect, although that’s certainly there. I believe it’s more about the self-absorption, the instant gratification, and the unwillingness to admit wrongdoing so heady that they just lean further and further into the hollowness. I ask myself, how many people have bought and worn that pink hanfu? What did they buy it for, what did it mean to them? I ask, what would it mean if I had done the same?
Five. In many Asian cultures, traditional robes are always worn left over right. I learn this a few months after Jin Yong’s passing, around Lunar New Year, when my taiko senior rushes to correct us before our first performance. She smoothes over our happi the right way, teaching us that right over left is only worn by the body at a funeral: a body inverted. That summer, I stop for a break while moving rickety towers of photo albums into my parents’ new house, and I find a picture of myself in a tiny kimono at my great uncle’s. Left over right. I was never told, but I was guarded without knowing. I’m not the most superstitious. I scare easily, but not by ghosts or spirits or zombies. The dead who remain are fascinating, theories and sightings, legends and recurring themes. I’m not superstitious, but for some reason left-over-right becomes a kind of guarding charm for me. I think of it when I dress, and wince when I see someone wearing a robe the wrong way. (Then I remember how recently I learned to do it and swallow my thoughts.) I think of it by rote, over and over like I’m warding something away – left over right, left over right – like I’m reminding myself, though of what I’m unsure. If a jiangshi, a hopping zombie, were to dress properly, it would cross its robe right over left. To stop a jiangshi, scatter a handful of rice in its path. The corpse can’t move on until it counts every grain.
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