OI-LING from Anthology 2
It’s the door handles I remember from my first trips into Chinatown. Long, slender, cylindrical brass handles. The shine rubbed off in various spots from years of use. I used to rush forward to them, eager to beat my parents to the door.
I would reach out, the dips and ridges of the surface, and pull. This required a great deal of effort, as the handles sat well over my head. I’d plant my feet about a foot apart, place my free hand against the panels of the adjoining door, and give a single hard yank. The practice proved to be futile—try as I might, I could never get that door open on my own. More than once I missed getting hit in the face by a narrow margin, as the door would swing outwards in a sudden motion with the exodus of unknowing patrons. As many times as I ran up to that door, I had my father open it for me, his arm materializing over my head to do what I did not possess the strength for. The door would open in a smooth swinging motion under the command of his touch. It was always my father who let me into that space.
These were the doors to Imperial Inn, my family’s restaurant of choice over the years, as they have known the owners since before I was a thought in anyone’s mind. Imperial has always been a constant—it is a fact that I’ve been going there with my family longer than I can remember, but when I think about the restaurant of my childhood, its memory comes back in odd fragments of vivid detail. Though I know that we often went there for dinner, in my mind it was always noon, always time for yum cha. Perhaps because it was so dim in the main dining room, time seemed to come to a halt when we sat down to eat. The restaurant used to feel so full. There seemed to be an endless stream of people, both patrons and staff, that my father and my aunts had to greet. I would watch
them all laugh as I remained seated, my legs swinging to compensate for how they couldn’t yet touch the floor and my fingers rolling chopsticks back and forth across the table. People came over to our round table so often that it was as though it had its own gravitational field.
I would get bored of watching the adults interact within seconds. My head stayed on a swivel, watching the waitresses and their food carts snake between tables. A long stack of big blue tanks against the wall housed lobsters and fish. Up and to the right of the tanks hung a giant stuffed swordfish. Overhead the round tables were chandeliers, their crystals clustered in tight diamond patterns. The room was both divided by wooden arches carved with distinct, Eastern patterns. The same patterned wood accented the wall around the bar and register. In my mind, so much was happening that I could not seem to keep the pieces together. There were carts everywhere, their high metals sides darkened by grease. I was at the mercy of my family’s preferences as they would point and list off names—ha gow, lo bak go, shu mai, lo mai gai, pai gwut—in quick chatter that was at once familiar and unintelligible to me. The waitresses kept up at the same quick pace, placing dishes in front of us with nimble ease. This, this, this, and then they moved on to the next table.
Sometimes though, they would pause. They would say hello to me. They would lean in close enough so that I could see the texture of their make up and smile at me, the creases around their eyes deepening while they revealed their teeth in pacifying grins. It is from them that I remember first hearing my Chinese name. “Hello, little Oi-ling!” as they passed by with their carts and patted my cheek. “Oi-ling must be a hungry girl today,” as they snuck extra dumplings—my favorite—off carts and placed them in front of me. “Oh, Oi-ling, so pretty now,” while they delivered a Shirley Temple soda I never ordered. “Hi there, Oi-ling, want to take an adventure?” as I was relinquished by my family into the arms of a bartender and carried back through the kitchen to be given various treats by endeared cooks.
It was there that I was christened as Chinese.
At some point growing up, the name fell out of use. My family stopped meeting as often to eat together and they dispersed throughout the country. My parents separated. Imperial Inn ceased to be the place of togetherness I had once regarded it to be. I followed my father around, trying to match his ease of presence as we walked through the neighborhood to go to dim sum—yum cha fell out of use too—on Saturday afternoons alone. I joined the Chinese community group he helped lead. The Suns. I was given a black windbreaker that said Suns on the front in Chinese. I started to wear it whenever I knew I was coming into town, like a badge I could pin on to show I belonged. Most often though, my ability to belong was passed down to me from my father.
“You really Joey’s daughter?” people would ask.
“Yes,” I would answer, and then I was in.
I didn’t wear the windbreaker in school unless I could layer and hide it under another jacket. I didn’t have to remind people I was half-Chinese there. They reminded me.
“Do you eat dog with your dad’s family?” people would ask.
“No,” I would sigh.
I grew up in two places in two ways—at school, as the Chinese friend, and in Chinatown, as the white friend. No one seemed to know how to reconcile the halves, so I didn’t.
After my parents got divorced when I was in middle school, I have only been back to Chinatown with my mother once. For many years, she seemed to give that district of the city a wide berth, as though my father had also taken her access card to the neighborhood when he left her. I did nothing to encourage the idea of a communal space, nothing that suggested to her that I felt she could still belong there. I did not tell her that this was because some days I was unsure if I belonged there. So my junior year of high school, I was surprised when she asked if we might possibly be able to go to dinner in Chinatown for her birthday. She asked with a this-is-what-I-want certainty that her speech’s qualifiers betrayed. I could tell that she had been agonizing over the question of the question for days.
We went with my older half-brother, Jack, and my nephew, Kevin. I stayed several paces ahead of them the entire walk to the restaurant. I wore my Suns jacket and kept my hands shoved into the pockets as I searched the faces passing me. Most of them looked like they belonged. Some didn’t. None of them looked like my own. I could feel the tightrope line between neighborhood citizen and savvy tourist thin out beneath me as I walked.
“Are you afraid to be seen with us, Lauren?” my mom called from behind. “Are we going to ruin your street cred?”
I don’t know how to exist with you in this space any longer, I didn’t tell her. I didn’t say that when she and my father split up that I drew a dotted line down the middle of me and have been tugging at the “TEAR HERE” tab ever since. That judging from the way people kept looking at me, I possessed no street cred to be ruined. That the swagger I carried underneath my Suns windbreaker was nothing more than a thin balloon of false presence—hot air that could be released by the blunt tongs of a fork. That I kept my sunglasses on even as the sun set in the hopes of hiding the slant of my eyes that wasn’t there. That I hoped I had camouflaged myself in enough confidence so that no one in town looked at me and thought, outsider outsider outsider. I said none of that.
“You walk too slowly,” I replied instead, and tossed a smile over my shoulder at them without slowing my pace.
There was a sparse crowd seated inside. I had heard that the side dining room was up for sale. No one greeted us except for the hostess. No one seemed to remember my mother, but then, no one seemed to recognize me either. Our waitress was a young woman I had never seen before. She placed forks down next to the menus, said she would give us some time to decide, and started to head away from the table. I caught her attention. My mother and Jack watched me as they shrugged off their coats and hung them on the backs of their chairs. I fingered the zipper on my jacket as the waitress turned back and smiled at me.
“Could we get tea, please?” I asked.
“Oh, of course,” she said, smoothing out the surprise in her voice.
“What kind of tea would you like? Black, green?”
“Heung-pin,” I said, mimicking the syllables I’d heard from my aunt before. The waitress raised her eyebrows and gave a small laugh. I felt my face flush with color. After a moment she nodded.
“Heung-pin?” she checked.
“Yes, please,” I said. “And could I get chopsticks as well?”
“You speak Cantonese?” she asked, her brows knitting as she looked me over.
“Ah—no, not really,” I admitted with sheepish laugh. “I’m half-Chinese, so I know some words but that’s all.”
“You’re Chinese?” she asked. Her mouth dropped open in surprise. I nodded with a grin. A small surge of pride shot through me.
“I would never have guessed,” she continued, glancing and Jack, Kevin, and my mother. “You don’t look…”
I smiled and looked down. “Yeah, no, it’s not just you. No one ever guesses.”
As I’ve gotten older I’ve gone to Imperial Inn less and less. My memories from when I was younger have begun to slip away from me. I can still see the ladies with their carts lean in to play with me, but I can only hear them pronounce the first syllable of my Chinese name, “Oi…” before it blurs and trails off.
I ask my father.
“Oi-lyn,” he tells me. “Lyn. It’s lyn.”
“Are you absolutely positive?”
He’s not. He tells me that he’s sure it means true beauty though. He doesn’t tell me to stop getting so worked up, that it’s not a big deal, and that’s how I know this failing of memory is a big deal.
My grandmother, who gave me the name, is dead. My eldest aunt isn’t sure. My younger aunt wouldn’t know. My father can’t commit to the knowledge one way or the other. My mother, who swears that she knows, is not Chinese. When I turn 20 she gives me a scroll with my Chinese name written in calligraphy. She pulls this out when I begin to question that second syllable.
“It’s ling,” she promises. “It says ling. I asked Mrs. Chin—remember, from Clinique? Remember her? Do you—okay, I was just checking—her husband did this for me. It says, Oi-ling.”
I nod at her and let the matter drop, but I walk away thinking that for all we know, that calligraphy could say tree. Or dog. Or lyn. I trust Mrs. Chin though, and so I settle on Oi-ling in my head. She or her husband would have said if it sounded unnatural. Something is missing from the name now without my family’s assurances behind it, but I need some semblance of an anchor. Oi-ling it is.
One of my aunts calls my father one Sunday morning and asks if we would like to meet for dim sum at Imperial when she and my cousin are finished at church. My father says yes. We have moved into Chinatown, so it takes us mere minutes to walk to the restaurant. As we make our way there, my father remarks that he sees so many white people, lo-fans, around Chinatown anymore because they’re all moving into the area. I nod and try not to feel as though he’s not talking about me. An old Chinese man hobbling down the sidewalk stares at us as he passes, his hands folded behind his back and his brow furrowed at our incongruous appearances.
My father and I walk step for step. I get ahead of him in some places when space on the sidewalk thins out because of the crowd. When we reach Imperial though, I stop short of the door. I look down at the door handles. They’re well within reach, and I know the door is not as heavy as I once believed it to be. As I am contemplating the door, my father steps in front of me and pulls it open. He glances at me before walking in and gives it a few pushes as he passes to hold it open for me. I keep my hands at my sides and follow behind him.
BEFORE I DIE
You’ve gotten up early, because getting out of bed in the morning is no longer the worst part of your day. It’s become, perhaps, what it’s supposed to be—a moment of transition, of movement, of action. Your bed is no longer a seductive, suffocating trap of blankets and pillows; no longer does it feel like a prison.
You’re outside, standing on a street corner. Just standing. It’s strange to be awake before the city really comes alive. It’s stranger still to feel like you’re coming alive too. (But you do not dwell on the strangeness of these things so much any more, because you’ve learned to stop letting the unfamiliarity of feeling alive keep you from living.) There is an eerie, unusual silence about the city, but it’s not unpleasant. When you’re not focused on the steady inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale of your own breathing. The quiet hum of the city swimming its legs over the side of the bed, yawning, and stretching its limbs is there with you too.
Though the future is no more certain for you than it was before, you know where you’re going today, and that is enough. You’re in no rush. Because of this, you’re outside, standing on a street corner—just standing—watching the sun begin its ascent over the dark outline of the skyline. The colors, the warms hues of red, orange, and gold, they’re brilliant, you think. Even more brilliant is the thought of that city silhouette, and all of its people. Even more brilliant is the thought of thousands of people all waking up, all getting ready to join you in the world.
You inhale, exhale. You think, I am alive, and I am ready to be.
LAUREN LOWE is from somewhere just across the bridge in South Jersey, but finally migrated over to Chinatown, Philadelphia last summer. Currently a junior English major and a peer reader at the Drexel Writing Center, she is fueled almost exclusively by words, sports, and dumplings (in that order). She was a member of Rachel Wenrick’s 2015/16 Writer’s Room independent study and Robert Watts’s Summer 2015 War Stories