Archive for June, 2011


June 22, 2011

I get to Flushing early, so head to Macy’s on Roosevelt to shop for shoes. Earlier that morning, somewhere off the Court Square stop on my way to meet a friend for breakfast, my left sandal breathed its last. I walked seven blocks with my left foot bare, scanning the ground for glass and anticipating making a doctor’s appointment for a tetanus shot. At last, at the end of the seven blocks, a pair of bright-green flip-flops came into my possession.


At Macy’s, the women’s shoe department is a disaster area. A sale had been going on all day. I browse the selection anyway. Just as I realize a half hour has passed, I find the perfect shoe. It’s in my size. But the salesgirl can’t locate the right half. I stand there amid the chaos holding the left, my flip-flops abandoned a few aisles away. Nobody will mistake them as part of the sale. The salesgirl walks this way and that, her arms always full. Then she takes down my name and phone number, and promises to call as soon as she finds the shoe. “I really want this pair,” I emphasize, ready to spend money I shouldn’t spend. Then from across the store, a reedy grandmother voice calls out: “Miss! Miss! Do you have this in navy?”


I call my sister to see if she’s reached Dad’s apartment. She has, but has been sitting in the lobby waiting for me. Dad isn’t answering the phone or the door. I’m the one with the key. We hope he’s just deep asleep. But no—he’s not even there. He’s left a note, however, dated the day before: “Dear children, I’ve gone to D.C. to attend a friend’s party. I will be back tomorrow night. I wish you happiness always. Love, Dad.”

Reading this, my sister laughs and her mood lifts. It had been my job to call him that morning to confirm he’d be free in the evening, but he hadn’t answered and I’d become distracted by the beautiful day, some beautiful photographs, and a heavy decision. By the time I heard my sister’s weary voice on the phone as I walked toward her from Macy’s empty-handed, I realized I’d never gotten that confirmation from Dad. But now we sit in his apartment talking about him. The talk is wrapped in love. He may not have paid much attention to us when we were kids, too busy as he was with work, but whenever he did see us, he was always ready with a theatrical greeting and affectionate nicknames. His only free day with us was Sunday. We would take the car to Roy Rogers or McDonald’s, or we’d watch movies in one of the grand Chinatown theaters.


My sister and I decide on dinner in the Golden Mall. I take her to the stall that I frequented during my time in Flushing. We order beef noodle soup and a plate of dumplings. Out of the blue I ask her about the time she’d been disowned for dating the Korean man who is now her husband. She corrects me: “It wasn’t that they’d objected to his being Korean, per se, but more that I’d laughed in their faces about following their orders. So after that we didn’t speak for a few months. Then some holiday came around, and I guess we got in touch to gather the family together.”


Frivolous. My family is frivolous. César Aira defines frivolity thus in Ghosts:

Frivolity is saying four is four. Seriousness is gradually deduced, fraction by tiny fraction, from such moderately useful statements as “two plus two is four,” until one arrives at “Columbus discovered America.” Frivolity is the tautological effect, produced by everything (because you can’t be selectively frivolous: it’s an all-or-nothing affair). It’s the condition of knowing it all in advance, because everything is repetition of itself, tautology, reflection. To be frivolous, then, is to go sliding over those repetitions, supported by nothing else.

Aira does not judge his character for her frivolity, and neither, I realize now and then with clarity, should I judge my family for ours.


After dinner, my sister and I take the 7 train home, her to Manhattan and me to Brooklyn, where I’ve been housesitting for a friend for the past week and a half. Woodside comes up. We’d lived there for two years when I was in first and second grade. The room I’d shared with my sister had a bunk bed and was curtained off from the rest of the apartment. I remember a black typewriter, how my sister had taught me to type on it, how I’d caught on to typing like I’d never caught on to anything else before it or since. With her help, I’d typed up a report about Malcolm X.

As I remind her about the typewriter, I know then that I love her. I mean that I am grateful for her. She is my sister, and she will smack me upside the head if I do wrong. She is my sister, whom I’d stubbornly refused to talk to for half a year because of a minor betrayal. She is my sister, and sometimes the bond doesn’t feel so delicate after all; I mean that the bond is strong, natural, or not a bond, even, but a pre-thought, a frivolity, a fact.


I tell her about my childhood classmate Steven, who’d lived in our building in Woodside. We were best friends. When he had to move to Korea, I cried at the farewell party. That day had been so tragic, which had made going up to his apartment, two floors above ours, suddenly a unique experience. I want to say it had to do with borders, but I’m not sure how so. I suppose a border had become a tangible thing to a frivolous child of seven or eight, whereas before the announcement there had been nothing to attend to.

Years later, in college, I found him again. I’d been scanning the freshmen directory for other Changs. His name came up. I e-mailed him. We met for coffee. He was in for engineering, I was in for writing.


Then my sister tells me a story. It is about two women, my sister and Rebecca, who had attended the same high school together, the same college for one year, and the same law school, and though their parallel paths pointed to their holding similar if not the exact same goals, they’d barely acknowledged each other throughout their acquaintance. The story is about shadowing, doubling, and pure frivolity, and lasts from Mets-Willets Point to Queensboro Plaza.


A day at the beach

June 20, 2011



June 9, 2011

When the Fujianese woman said, in her accented Mandarin containing bemusement and amusement, that pronunciation and accent are indeed very important in communication, I realized that the man who’d been droning on for the past five minutes was not Chinese. I leaned around the pillar separating him from me, and saw what looked like an average tourist: a white man with distinct and fleshy rings of pink and white at the neck, from either heat or self-consciousness—it seemed more like the former, given his relaxed stance and unstuttering speech. I couldn’t discern his words but knew he must have spent more than ten years learning them, his intonations sounding just about correct. Soon he approached another Chinese passerby, surprising her too with his fluency, and then he left the store altogether. I asked the Fujianese woman what he’d told her. Something about the government overtaxing us, she said. Her companion, who’d been enraptured by the exchange, said, Actually, I have no idea what he was talking about.


June 8, 2011

Dad, my new roommate, came home Monday night. During a homemade dinner of zha jiang noodles, we watched a cooking reality show in which an Asian lawyer pleaded (argued) her way into one of the final competitive spots, and in which a round Hawaiian chef belly-bumped his friend when he too was offered a spot. His jet lag isn’t so bad. Dad’s, I mean. He pointed out that to get such a round belly shape, you have to eat a lot. I nodded. Then I signed him up for a computer class at the Flushing library, and showed him an e-mail I’d sent to Mom about a movie I’d seen last month, about a family making dumplings. He seemed interested in Google Translate, and soon, upon my suggestion, we took out our notebooks to write each other little stories, and have agreed, via pinkie-swear, to write something for each other every day.

My father’s first story for me:

你好 ?最近忙嗎,爸爸好想你,還有姊姊她(他)們。。。



Here is Google’s mistranslation:

Hello? How is it going, I miss you Dad, and sister if she (he). . .

Today, gas is very hot for a long time, morning, movement back out. The clothes are thoroughly nickname. At this point (Grandfather) has bought back off the table waiting for me to listen to him eat. I wish your mother: acetylene to take a bath, pull out the clothes, eat your burning out of troubled by the article!

Parent word

Some errors are my fault, as I’m sure I’d transcribed a few of Dad’s penciled words incorrectly. For example, “burning out of troubled by the article” at the end should be “sesame bread and crullers” (a favorite snack). I’ve asked him to use a pen from now on.

Here’s my story for him:

When I was ten years old my father’s hair turned white. I saw it happen. Well, no, I didn’t. That is, one night I hugged him good night and went to bed, not realizing I would not be seeing his crisp black hair again for another week. The next morning I crept into his room to wake him up. What did I see? I saw a head of white hair! I wondered what kind of terrifying dream he’d had that night that had made his hair turn white. For a long time afterward I was afraid of sleep.

The translation for the word “crisp” in Chinese is “脆.” Dad said that “脆” was not the right word to describe hair. What could I have meant by it? Why would I describe hair as thin and hard, easily snapped—brittle? I don’t know, I said. I’d made a mistake, I said.


June 3, 2011

  1. The way the man sits hunched over the thing he is unraveling. A knitter, I’m hoping, or a braider of plastic bracelets. But no, an anticipator of iPod listening.
  2. The rush of emptiedness once you realize the music had stopped three subway stations ago and yet the earbuds are still plugged in—akin to a visual void.
  3. The new mechanism at the crosswalk timing the speed of light.
  4. The Queensboro Plaza platform, from where twice now I’ve seen the ghost in the half-finished building.
  5. The thing he is unraveling so desperately, two white cords promising to mend—or at least reknit—an unraveled heart.
  6. The ghosts in the half-finished building, swirling around sweet, somnolent, silly, dreamy Patri in César Aira’s Ghosts.
  7. The visual void once the gun goes off—yet the body remains to be seen by others.
  8. The speed of light interrupted by the new mechanism that measures the speed of darkness.
  9. The unraveled heart on a fully sleeved arm—impossible to gauge wear and tear.

June 2, 2011

Here’s an interview I did with the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa for Words Without Borders’ June Queer II issue.