Table of Contents

 

THE PIANIST

Yiru Zhang

 

My mother once told me, when we were heading to the church at seven in the morning, that my grandmother used to walk ten miles to school every day at the age of fifteen. "My mother's father and mother would put eight boiled eggs in her pocket for her to eat on the way," she said when walking, "so she had pretty good eyesight even at eighty." I wanted to remind her that she had already told me this story when we were back in Nanjing, but I kept listening—she needed to talk a lot, or, too much, after we moved to Houston.
     Back in Nanjing, I'd sleep in the same bed with her. Before we fell asleep, she'd talk about the days when she was younger, or when her mother was younger. She'd tell me that my grandmother used to be the only girl in school, and that my grandmother's father used to rent out his vast, loamy farmland. "My mother would linger around the fields where peasants were weeding the sweet potato beds," she said, "and she'd rest by the giant birch trees, braiding creeping wood sorrels into her hair."
     "What happened next?" I'd ask.
     "Then the landless peasants broke into her room, burning her books into ashes. They said that they'd send my grandfather to a labor camp. I've told you before, he was a timid guy. He ran to the riverside, took out the only picture of himself, split the picture into pieces, and shot himself dead. When he fell by the riverside, his eyes and nostrils were bleeding all at once."
     Then we'd stop talking. Then, in the darkness, we'd be quiet and fall asleep, and maybe hug each other, unintentionally, in our dreams.
     We'd never slept in the same bed again after my brother was born. He needed her attention, or maybe he never needed it—it was just she who insisted that he needed it. It'd been so long since my brother's birth that when we slept together again in Houston I felt uneasy. Before my father and brother came to join us, there were only two of us—my mother and me—in Houston, in our rented house, in our bed.
     My mother used to be the one with supremacy before my brother's birth. When I was in elementary in Nanjing, she'd beat me because I only got ninety-eight out of a hundred in my math quizzes. She'd use a ruler to beat my hand, or sometimes, slap my face. When I told her that I couldn't hear anything after her slapping, she'd take me to the doctor, begging, anxiously, for the doctor to cure me. And sometimes I'd fight back—I'd slap her back. Once, when she spilled coke on my shirt accidentally, I slapped her because that was the only way I knew to express anger. 
     But she got old suddenly after my brother was born. And she became even older after we decided to move to Houston. I could see her wrinkles growing the minute we boarded the flight. At customs, she was asked to show her documents. She couldn't understand. She looked at me and I became her translator. She forgot her documents at home, and we were sent to the little dark room—the Chinese slang for the interviewing room of the U.S. customs. We were afraid, not of being repatriated, but of the phrase the little dark room—it sounded as if we were put into jail. We waited for hours before an officer came to ask my mother questions, and no matter what he asked, the only word that my mother could reply was "What?"
     He looked disgusted. By my mother. Or by the two of us. But somehow, he still let us go.
     For the following two months after we arrived in Houston, at seven on Sunday morning, we'd head to churches with empty bags, then head home with our bags full. For two months we'd been eating free food. We'd go to several different places for more, even if we could never finish them.
     It was in November when my mother told me the story of the eight boiled eggs again. In November, Houston was still warm. In November Nanjing was already cold. In November, in Nanjing, the leaves would turn red, and the peddlers would be along the streets selling Chinese-style popcorn made by a cannon. The peddlers would put corn seeds into an old cannon that looked like a big bomb, put on a fire under the cannon, and spin the handle. Then the machine would make a huge sound, so huge that people living nearby could all hear it. And I'd be the one buying the freshly-puffed popcorn, standing on the streets along with all the other kids. I'd eat it when it was still hot. There were white, small black dots everywhere on it like little moles or freckles. It tasted like it was burnt.
     My mother told me not to be ashamed of the free food. She said that we were not begging, and that we were not poor. It was called utilizing, she said. And she was right on the point that we were not poor. We were the richest in Nanjing because only the richest could afford McDonald's, she told me when I was still little. And she'd take me to McDonald's whenever I wanted. And I still remember that I'd always get a sundae and fries for twelve yuan while she, saying that she didn't like Western fast food, would sit there, watching me eat.
     Once, I told her that I didn't like the mayonnaise in my fish burger.
     She took my burger, opened it, licked all the mayonnaise, put the burger together, and handed it back to me.  
     When we were heading home from the church at ten in the morning, she promised to me that she'd make some money here even if her visa didn't allow her to do so. She walked out of the church, her paper bags full of eggs and potatoes. When she was talking to me, one of her paper bags that had been used for two weeks and already had white, rough edges broke. We had so many used paper bags piling up in the corner of the kitchen and she said that it was a good habit to use everything until they can no longer be used. She said that I'd never known the taste of poverty, so I'd never understood her. 
     She stood there, eggs falling out of her bag. Some rolled to the middle of the road, traffic passing by. Along the curb, egg yolk flowed slowly. It reminded me of my grandmother, who used to have eight boiled eggs in her pockets when she was walking under the sunrise.

*

Before my father and my brother came over, my mother divided our rented house into twelve rooms. She put up boards to separate the rooms, making it possible to contain as many tenants as it could. She'd been thinking about building up a few sheds in the backyard, but she eventually gave up the plan because "the laborers here are too expensive." 
     On the balcony upstairs, she put a piano. 
     The piano was not for me. I was, in fact, the only one in this family who couldn't play the piano. Being a piano teacher for the past twenty years of her life, my mother always regretted failing to teach me piano, but she already had so many regrets, and I didn't think that it mattered if I became another one of her regrets. And I was sure that, among all these regrets in her life, my brother would always be the biggest one, even though she'd never admitted it. 
     "He is just introverted," she'd always say. 
     When my brother turned four, we took him to a restaurant where he looked at the menu, burst into tears, and howled that he only wanted fried rice. But there wasn't fried rice. He stood on the table, screaming as if he was going to die. My mother, being watched by everyone, begged him to sit down. She begged him to be quiet. When the waitress came to us, my mother said that my brother was fine, "just a little bit introverted." And finally she begged the waitress to make some fried rice.
     He quieted down with his fried rice for a few minutes. Then he put down the spoon and started screaming again. He was so tired, he said, that he must go home to sleep right away.
When we took him to the doctor, we were told that it was already late for my brother's illness. Autism should be intervened at a younger age, the doctor said. 
     I always wanted to talk to my brother. I always wanted to be a loving sister, buying him sugar-coated haws in a stick. But he never looked at me. He only screamed. Or stayed silent. Sometimes he'd scream when spinning. In those days, I'd sit there listening to my grandmother and my mother fighting when my brother was screaming next to me. My grandmother, believing that there was a devil in my brother, insisted that he needed to be washed and beaten in a river and, if my mother dared to refuse, then my mother, too, should be beaten, because she was the one that gave life to a soulless son.
     "He doesn't have a soul," my grandmother said as my mother wept.
     My brother was the trouble kid. When I was trying to read him a story, he'd ask me to repeat only the first line. "Once upon a time," I read, "once upon a time." If I continued reading, he'd get angry at me, saying that he's going to beat me. But he never did. In school, he'd knock his head against the wall, and when that happened, the teacher would lock him in the storage room. He'd become extremely quiet after being locked in the storage room.
But still, whenever my brother heard a melody, he could play it on the piano. 
     It was my father that suggested moving to Houston. He came up with the idea after my brother's twelfth time of being locked away. My father said that my brother would be locked, again and again, in his life, until his death. My father said that after all, we couldn't take care of my brother for his whole life, and that's why he should be sent to another place where he could be treated like a human.
     My father and mother met each other in college, both of which majored in piano. They became teachers in public schools with bian zhi, which meant they got their salaries not from the school, but the government. My grandmother believed that someone with a bian zhi was the most respected because it would promise you a life so secure that you'd never lose your job unless you quit your job like my father and mother.
     "Totally nonsense," my father said when my grandmother tried to stop them from quitting. "The most respected are always the rich and powerful. Your grandson was locked in the storage room, do you think you can do anything with that with your bian zhi?"
     My father decided to bring us to the United States as religious workers. To achieve that, he'd learn theology in Houston first, and then worked for years in a religious denomination before we got green cards which, after five years, would eventually lead to citizenship. None of us had ever been to a church in China before. None of us ever read the Bible. None of us, before my father was determined to make my brother an American, believed in the existence of God. And although I was not sure what kind of future was waiting for me, I still felt, somehow, that my future to Heaven just started.

*

When we first moved to Houston, our neighbor, an old Italian man, greeted us with his homemade pastry. "Sfogliatelle," he said, "that will bring you directly to Napoli." But soon he started to complain about us because we'd host so many tenants whose cars always blocked his driveway. My mother spoke badly about him in turn because he "blocked our driveway to money as well."
     Around ten people were living in our house then. Undocumented Chinese, most of the time. Our landlord spent most of the year in Taiwan, so we'd never need to worry about him finding out. Those Chinese tenants stayed for a short time after they landed here and before they got a job that would provide them free lodging. They were nice people. Although they made the house messy, they were still nice. Occasionally, when they happened to have free time—very occasionally because they'd always be working for massage shops or Asian restaurants—they'd tell me stories about their life.
     One time, a man in his forties told us that he was from Fujian, a province in southern China.
     "I came by cargo," he said. "I went to Hong Kong first, and then Singapore. At the harbor in Singapore, I climbed onto a cargo ship where I hid for a month, and I climbed off when it stopped in Mexico."  
     "How did you come here from Mexico then?" My mother asked him.
     "I ran. I ran through the border. I heard the gun shooting but I didn't look back."
     "You must be kidding," my mother said.
     "Believe it or not," he said. 
     The morning my father and brother arrived, my mother and I went grocery shopping for the first time. They must be hungry, she said, from the flight. We bought minced pork, ginger, scallion, and bok choy to make dumplings. When we went to the self-checkout, she tried to skip scanning the minced pork and put it directly into her paper bag.
     "Sorry," she said when she was caught, "sorry, sorry."
     My mother became a daigou very soon after my brother's arrival. On her WeChat, she had over four hundred clients from China. They were all in one group chat started by my mother, and she'd go into stores, take pictures, and send the pictures into the group chat. She'd get orders every day, mostly milk powder and supplements, sometimes cosmetics and luxury brands. We'd buy the ordered goods and send them back to China, earning ten percent of the good's price.
     Sometimes, when there was a discount, we'd get all the milk powder on Walmart's shelves. Our shopping carts would be filled with cans, and my mother would blame me for being too embarrassed to help her check out.
     When I asked her why there were so many clients asking for milk powder, she said that these mothers were afraid of their babies dying from the Chinese-made milk powder. She said that those who made the poisonous milk powder added melamine into the diary to make it look like it had higher protein. Sometimes, they would add cow's urine.
     "What did I have when I was a baby?"
     "We fed you Chinese-made milk powder," she said.
     "But I didn't die."
     "You didn't. But you could never tell. There were babies that died because of it. That's how it is—you could never tell. If you are lucky, you'll be lucky for your whole life, and if you are not, you are not. If you had the melamine milk powder you died. How do you know you are lucky or not? How did I know if your brother had problems or not? If I knew it, do you think I'd still give birth to him?" 

*

My mother became a piano teacher again when the new year started. It'd been her dream—picking up teaching piano like she once did in Nanjing. Among all her regrets, quitting the job as a piano teacher with a bian zhi was the latest. When she called my grandmother, she'd always be blamed by my grandmother for "giving up a respected life and becoming the lowest class." She'd tell everyone, when we went to Chinese church together, that she was a piano teacher. "Twenty years of experience," she'd introduce herself, "of the toughest Piano Grading Exam in China and ABRSM." She said that she could even teach a child who had autism to pass grade five.
     When the other Chinese mothers invited her to teach their kids, she hesitated.
     "Your children speak Chinese or English?" she asked. "I can't teach them in English."
     "Our kids only speak English," the other mothers said, "and that's why we want you to teach them piano. They'd forgotten how to speak Chinese."
     I always felt bad towards these kids—I never thought life was easier for them. I'd sometimes see them when I went to the Chinese private express company where I'd send the milk powder back home. They were in the tutoring centers that were close to other Asian stores. There were many tutoring centers in that plaza, and I felt bad, sometimes, that I'd seldom seen such signs in the neighborhood mostly composed of the white.
     "You still need to compete with Chinese," my father once commented on the signs when we were shopping in an Asian market, "even if you've left China." 
     I bent down for a bag of sticky rice on the lowest shelf and saw swarms of worms crawling in the bag.

In his fourth month in Houston, my father bought a second-hand car from one of his Chinese acquaintances. He became acquainted with them after he came here, and I always wondered how they would know each other so fast. They formed a circle, which, to others, was hard to get in. When I was in shopping malls buying luxury items for my mother's clients, I could seldom see them. They had a world of their own, a world that was neither in China nor America. A world where you could search for cheap lodging like those tenants in our place or change money without going to a bank. You give them RMB by Alipay and they'll give you dollars in cash. You could spend your whole life making a living and sending money back home in this world without speaking English. You could order a homemade Chinese pancake in their WeChat groups and have it delivered at your front door at any time that you wanted. And when I was having the pancake, I realized that I, too, was in this little, almost virtual, world.
     "Do you want a drive?" My father stood by his car.
     We turned on the GPS and drove to the east. The sun fell slowly behind us. The sky in front of us was turning indigo. I looked up and saw the world divided into two—one orange and red, the other with stars hanging high. Two worlds existed, at that moment, at the same time. We headed east, passing by houses and yards. We passed by woods and farmlands. The deer flashed past the roadside. I didn't know where we were driving to or where the deer was running to. They appeared along the road, then disappeared into the darkness. 
     "This is my first time seeing deer," my father said. "Never seen them before!"
     It was turning dark. From afar, the downtown of Houston looked like it was glowing. There was a bright light above the downtown buildings that seemed like a halo, and for a second, I mistook the city as some kind of angel. And that reminded me of Nanjing where the city downtown was much bigger and much busier. There were city walls from the Ming Dynasty that surrounded downtown Nanjing, and right by the city walls, a Buddhist temple that used to have a glazed pagoda stood alone. If you drove on the highways next to the city walls, you could see the same halo right above the place where there used to be a glazed pagoda. The pagoda was destroyed during the biggest civil war in history by those who claimed to be the son of God.
     "Do you like the US?" My father asked.
     "Yes," I said, "I like here a lot."
     We were stopped by police that evening for speeding. None of us had licenses. My father explained that he'd just come here and he had a Chinese one, but he was still deemed to conduct a misdemeanor, which resulted in months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
     "I'll get a lawyer," my father tried to console my mother.
     "Where do we get the money for a lawyer?" She yelled at him.
     "I'll get the money," he said with a low voice.
     "Why did you have to do that—"
     My brother started to scream.
     "Okay," my father said, "I'll handle it. Okay. It's fine. I'll get a lawyer and a license, and after that, I'll take you, and our son, and our daughter, to wherever you want. And I'll make some money, so we'll go to Disneyland together, okay? Okay, okay."
     And he would. He would handle everything eventually. He would get a part-time job as a private driver whenever he got the free time. He would drive people to the outlet on weekends and even teach them how to drive. He would get up at four in the morning, wait for them by their homes at four-thirty, and drive them to the airport for the earliest flight. He would pick them up from the airport at midnight. Eventually, he would make enough money to drive us to the cinema, to the amusement park, and to the shopping mall where my mother and I used to buy goods for our clients, but only for ourselves at that time.

*

We stopped living on free food after our first year in Houston. When we went to church, we went for masses instead of food. It was very common for new-coming Chinese to join a church because when you first arrived, you knew nobody, and the church could be the only place that welcomed you.
     And once you started to sing, dance, and pray with others, you'd get the illusion that you'd found your new home.
     On a Sunday morning, we went to the church and sang together among others.
     Lord save me, we sang together.
     When it was time to share our stories, my father stepped on the stage, delivering his speech. He told our stories. He said that his son used to be seen as someone who didn't have a soul. "But I brought him here, to my Lord," he said, "and he is getting better. I used to cry at night praying to my Lord. I used to say, 'Lord, if you exist, please prove it; please stop my son from screaming or make him talk.' And the Lord consented. The Lord made my son recover. And my son is a genius. A real genius. You play him any melody and he can play it on the piano right away. He is a real pianist."
     Everyone stood up and applauded.
     "Do you want to hear him playing the piano? He was gifted in piano. It's the Lord who made him gifted in piano."
     My brother was taken to the stage. He started playing fluently. He was indeed gifted, I admitted. It was only me in this family that was good at nothing.
     Fugue in G minor, BWV 578. I heard him playing it a thousand times on our balcony at night. I heard him playing it while my mother was watching. I heard him playing it when all the tenants in our place would stop doing what they were doing just for a listen.
     And I started to hate him for the first time. I started to hate him when people around me started to clap for him. And when they started to clap for him, he stopped playing. He looked at us for a while silently. Then he frowned, his lips twitching. He started screaming. 
     I ran to the stage the moment he screamed, hugged him tightly, with his little forehead, warm and sticky, on my soft belly.

*

"Sometimes, what you are looking for in your whole life is just dignity," my father said.
    "What do you mean?" my mother asked.
     "When we were in Nanjing, we didn't have dignity," he replied.
     "Do you really think we are living a life with dignity now?" she said.
     When we first moved to Houston, we ran out of money. Although my mother said that our apartment in Nanjing was worth a million dollars, we were still poor because they didn't want to sell it. 
     "If we sold it," they said, "we'll have no home."
     Back then we'd ask for a refund for the food that we'd already consumed. We'd go to Costco's customer service desk and said we were not satisfied. We'd give them the already empty box of cereal asking for a refund, and they'd always give us our money back. When we found out it was easy to cheat on a refund, we'd do that even more often, so often that we'd seldom need to pay for anything. We'd buy things online and call the customer service lying that we didn't receive the package. We'd ask for a refund or a reship before we resold those things.
     We'd done that to Amazon, Sephora, etc. We'd earn thousands of dollars by doing that. We'd get free medicine. We'd resell these medications to China.
     Back then my father worried that what we were doing was against God.
     "But what else can we do?" my mother said. "You want us to be as starving as those homeless straying on the streets?"
     My father used to tell me that, in the past, some immigrants were living on trash. In the past, those immigrants would look for anything they could use, wear, or eat in trash cans, he said.
     "We won't be like them, right?" I said.
     "We won't," he said, "we are pianists."
     He once said that those immigrants who lived on trash would eventually make it through. He said that they did it for their family, or, more specifically, their kids. When their kids grew up, all the hardship would pay off. Their kids would be as successful as you could imagine.
     After two years of moving to Houston, my mother got pregnant for the third time. A girl this time. We were overwhelmed with joy when we knew the news because of the coming of a new life, and also because of the benefit this new life would bring to us—she would become an American the moment she was born. "And do you know what it meant to have an American family member?" my father exclaimed. "It means we were all more likely to have green cards!"
     My mother cried. She hugged my brother who was recovering at a speed that we didn't expect. She asked me what I wanted to eat to celebrate.
     "McDonald's," I said without thinking.
     When I was little, it was popular among kids in China's big cities to celebrate their birthdays in McDonald's. There was always a little playground with a tiny castle-like thing where you could climb onto, slide down, or hide inside in each McDonald's called "children's paradise." This place was the only paradise that I knew before I went to church for the first time. The kids were loyal to paradise. We'd run, shout, and roll on the soft playground in the paradise.
     And it would be our biggest honor to throw a birthday party in children's paradise. We'd invite our best friends to McDonald's where the staff would put paper crowns on our heads, light candles for us, and sing the birthday song for us.
     I guess you could tell that I was always the proud queen wearing the crown—my family was the richest in Nanjing, as I told you before. I always celebrated my birthday in children's paradise. I was always surrounded by McDonald's staff, by my friends from elementary school, by my grandmother, my mother, and my father.
     And I still remember that, on my eighth birthday, after I brought my leftover birthday cake from McDonald's home, my mother told me that she was pregnant.
     "Will it be a girl or a boy?" I asked her with the paper crown still on my head.
     "I don't know, sweetheart," she kissed my cheek. "We'll wait and see."

 

 

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"The Pianist" is inspired by the weight of my past, the sourness of being a child, and the debt that I was born with.