Under the fluorescent light of the airport bathroom, my mother presses a tube of face wash and an eyeliner pencil into my palm. I take the soap, but I drop the eyeliner back into her bag. I’m too dehydrated and exhausted to draw a straight line, and my brother and father are already waiting for us at baggage claim. As I dry my face with a paper towel, my mother carefully paints color back onto her cheeks and shimmers gold over her eyes. I wish she didn’t feel the need to be in full makeup to see her in-laws, but we’re in Hong Kong now.
Staring at me in the mirror, she offers me lipstick. Watching her makes me want to try to be pretty, so I take it. I press the creamy tip on my chapped lips and color inside the lines. Against my sallow skin and sunken eyes, the sharp pink makes me look like a clown. When my mother catches me wiping off the lipstick, she stops me with a hand on my wrist. “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking it off. I don’t like it.”
“Why? It looks good.”
“Really?” I study our reflections over the sink and marvel at how I can still feel like a child playing dress-up at 20.
“If you didn’t look good, I wouldn’t let you walk out of here,” she says.
I spread what’s left of the color evenly over my lips. Diluted, I’m almost pretty.
When we leave the airport, hot air, heavy with pollution, smothers me in its embrace. I want to run back inside.
“Ah, Dai So! Dai Go!” The uncles wave to us, and my father hugs all four of his brothers. Each of their faces are stamped with inversions of my grandfather, my yeye — round nose here, brown eyes there, receding hairline everywhere. The last time they saw each other was at his funeral three years ago. This time, we’re here on a one-week vacation because it’s cheaper to fly home from Japan with a layover.
My cousins swarm my brother, slapping his shoulders and talking at him in rapid-fire Chinese. Outside of America, my brother is mute, but it doesn’t bother anyone. He doesn’t like to talk in Hong Kong because he only knows Chinese phrases, useful for if he needs to use the restroom or a trash can.
Fourth Uncle swings an arm over my shoulder, binding me to his side. I remind myself, always greet your elders. “Hello, Uncle Ming,” I say in English. I work hard not to think about the wetness of his pit stains leaching into my shirt and try to remember their other rules. Smile. Be polite. Don’t overshare.
“Ah, See-Tef-Fee, you gained weight,” he announces in Chinese. He pinches my cheeks as if I wouldn’t believe him otherwise. I hate how he butchers my name into three syllables. Alone, those broken sounds don’t mean anything. It’s nobody’s name.
“She’s not that fat,” Third Uncle defends me, wiggling his gray eyebrows. “How about we get ice cream later?” I like him best because he gives suggestions, not judgments.
“Don’t worry,” Fourth Uncle reassures me. “You’ll lose weight when you go back to America.” His chin juts out at a cousin I should recognize. “Look at Fung Fung. He’s so skinny now.”
I switch to Chinese. “He lost a lot of weight.” The boy I remembered was dumpy past the point of cherubic. “He used to bite me,” I say.
“You still remember that?”
“What’s your secret?” my mother interrupts. “Tell me, so my daughter can be skinny too.”
He smiles proudly, baring yellowed teeth. “Later, ask Fourth Auntie to tell you about his diet. We hired a dietician.”
The humidity makes his arm feel heavier than it should. With two fingers, I rub the color from my mouth. I can’t breathe in Hong Kong.
Three taxis drop us off several blocks from the restaurant. We follow one another in a dotted line, weaving through congested streets. A butcher lifts a roast pig hanging by a metal hook. His blade thuds thuds thuds. The streets smell like Chinatown back home, but heavier. It makes me miss my other grandma, my popo on my mother’s side. I bump my suitcase into small Chinese women and children in the markets, barely squeezing through the messy stalls and skinny aisles. I imagine my bloated body swelling, then inflating 10, 50 times larger, my face blemished and sticky with sweat as I float above everyone. The kids, holding onto their grandmothers, would point up and laugh.
My shorts don’t stop my inner thighs from chafing. With each step, I’m reminded of what my mother terms “Fat Girl Problems.” There must be a balm for this, but I can never explain what I need it for in yet another country where skinny and pretty are synonymous. It’s against the rules to talk about the things that hurt me.
Up ahead, I see the shopping center that houses the restaurant. The towers rise like golden beacons promising endless air conditioning. The buildings back home would cower in fear of the skyscrapers here. Apartments are built on top of shopping centers, on top of garages, on top of markets and restaurants. There’s no room to sit, my father likes to say. Even the cemeteries have run out of room. My yeye has to share a cubby hole with the ashes of 30 strangers.
I take a deep breath as I follow the stream of people into the mall. My glasses fog up from the drastic drop in temperature, and my skin pebbles. If it wasn’t for extreme air conditioning, no one would survive Hong Kong.
Store windows scream Sale! Sale! Sale! like schoolchildren vying for attention. Spend less! Save more! Last chance! Even tourists can read the signs. Maybe if I stuck a sale sticker to my forehead, my relatives could understand me.
“Sweetie, buy jeans here. It’s so much cheaper,” my mother whispers conspiratorially. She says this in English as if the language is a secret code.
“No, I’m okay. I have enough.”
“Don’t be silly. Come on.” She drags me into a store with her, and I’m grateful the rest of my relatives don’t follow. My mother rifles through the stack, straight to the bottom for the three largest sizes.
I look at the salesgirl who watches us from a corner with horror. I hate sales people with their plastic cheeriness and pitched questions, but this one I hate because she looks like a daughter my mother would love to dress. Her hair is long and straight, and I know she’s probably an American double zero. I wish I could watch her spend 15 minutes refolding the stack of jeans later.
My mother unfolds a pair at random, holding it to her herself to gauge the size. “It’s bigger than the ones I wear, so it should fit you. Try them on. I’ll wait outside.”
The dressing room makes me feel like a penned pig. The walls are plastic dividers, and the filmy curtains hang from a fishing wire. Peeking into the room, my mother warns, “Careful not to lean on the walls or you’ll topple the whole thing.”
I set the pile of jeans on the floor. I’m a veteran at this game, and I know none of them will fit, but I grab the largest one anyway. As I struggle to try on a pair of jeans, my elbows hit the walls. The sound reverberates as the dividers threaten to fall over.
“You okay, sweetie?”
“I’m fine.” I’m sweaty and out of breath. The pants are pulled halfway up my thighs, and I know. I have to drag words from my throat to tell her, “They don’t fit.”
“They don’t fit.” In my head, there’s a jury outside snickering with my mother.
“Do you need a bigger size?”
Do I need a bigger — “Yes.”
I listen to my mother ask the salesgirl for a larger size. “That’s the biggest one we sell,” she titters.
My face heats up. I balance on one leg and peel off the jeans. Skinny fit’s a bitch. I want to show them the tags on the clothes I’m wearing. I’m a medium in America, I’ll say. I can prove it. But American medium is too large for Hong Kong Chinese to comprehend that they don’t even make them. In the mirror, I can see the red, angry welts on the inside of my thighs where they rubbed together. I place the back of my hands, pale and cool, against the pimpled, veiny skin that threatens to bleed, but the relief is brief.
I leave three pairs of jeans with the legs flipped inside out on the dressing room floor and step carefully on them when I pull back the curtain. As my mother and I leave the store empty-handed, I hear the efficient click-click of the salesgirl’s shoes as she hustles to clean up after me.
My uncle puts his arm around me again. “You didn’t buy anything?”
“Didn’t find anything you liked?”
“No.” If I had a Hong Kong dollar for every Hong Kong lie I told, I’d have enough to fly home first-class.
He squeezes my upper arm, jiggling it like a toy. “You know, if you lost 30 pounds, the boys would chase after you.”
“Then Cousin Fifi would have a boyfriend?” My cousin pipes up, poking at my other arm. I hate when they call me that. Fifi. Fifi’s a pudgy nickname. It’s a round, cutesy name, plump and pinchable and exactly how they see me. Now that Fung Fung’s skinny, he’s grown into the type of boy solely interested in bony girls with flawless skin who giggle over iced teas and manga novels.
“I don’t want a boyfriend,” I say. “I don’t want anyone chasing after me.”
“Did you say 30?” My mother interjects. “Even 10 pounds would be great.”
“Fifteen,” my uncle shoots back.
“Twenty.” They go back and forth like I’m a pig at auction.
At dinner, they order mountains of food. Roast duck glistens, honeyed and brown. Crab claws poke out from under swirls of egg noodles. Shrimp is slathered in mayonnaise and married to walnuts. Restaurants like this are so good, they make vegetables appealing.
“Do you want rice?” Third Auntie asks.
I nod and pass her my bowl. “Thank you.”
She hands it back with a smile. “You like duck, right?”
She drops a piece on my plate, and her crow’s feet wink at me from behind thick glasses. She leaves her hair gray and her skin bare. The other aunties think it’s a sin to age.
Seeing this, my mother leans over and whispers too loudly in my ear, “One piece only. It’s really fat.” Then she goes back to churning out conversation with anyone willing to talk about an upcoming Chinese opera show.
My grandmother looks from my father to me. “Ah, See-Tef-Fee looks like you, huh? Especially when she eats.”
Eyes on me and the half-eaten duck in my mouth. Chuckles pass around the table like dipping sauce. I spit the bones out and nudge them to the other side of my plate.
“How’s See-Tef-Fee doing in school?” Fourth Uncle asks. Duck fat drips from his chin.
“Good. I never worry,” my father answers. “It’s her brother we worry about. Just last month, he turned in his homework without putting his name on it. How will the teacher know who to fail?” He guffaws and slurps at a crab leg.
My mother supplies them with more ammunition. “Our son only knows how to eat.” They go around the table and take turns prying the meat off my brother until he’s only a pile of bones. I look at him with his baby face and quiet eyes. I hope he doesn’t understand the things they say about us. I do, and everything is derogatory.
“Ah, See-Tef-Fee, are you full?” Fourth Uncle asks. A gleam in his eye — trick question. If I say I’m full, he’ll make a joke about how the world must be ending because the fei mui, the fat girl, is finally sated. If I say I’m still hungry, he’ll keep pushing food at me like he’s fattening me up for the slaughter.
“Are you still hungry?” he asks again.
I nod, and I don’t know if this is the truth. I can’t tell. He spins the lazy Susan and presents me with the mountain of fried rice.
“No.” My mother puts a hand between me and the plate. “There’s lobster in there. She’s allergic.”
“Oh,” he feigns a pout, smirks. He’s all the way across the table, but he’s an expert at making me feel disgusting without saying a word.
After dinner, our parents leave with our grandmother. They have an opera show to go to tomorrow, so they’re staying at her apartment. There isn’t enough room for all of us, so my brother and I have to stay with Fourth Uncle.
“We will meet you for afternoon tea tomorrow,” my father tells us. “We’ll go to yeye’s favorite café, okay?” They wave goodbye and disappear in an elevator.
I twirl up and up and up in silver escalators until I get to the lobby of Fourth Uncle’s apartment. The floor is checkered with jade-colored marble, and the lights are too yellow. In the elevator, I look up at the ceiling to find my distorted reflection mirrored in gold.
Fourth Uncle preens when my brother and I enter his apartment. He shows off the hardwood floors and glass tables. From the 62nd floor, I can’t see how packed the streets are, or how thick the smog is. From up here, I have the space to wonder what my yeye loved about this city. He and grandma won the lottery a year before he got sick. He could’ve moved to Australia and lived with Second Uncle instead, but he chose to stay. I picture my yeye hunched over a small café table, writing bao recipes in tight Chinese characters with a saucer of milk tea at his elbow.
“Nice view, huh?” My uncle’s English is choppy and accented. I remember my mother telling me he pays out of his ass to afford the view on a teacher’s salary. A decade ago, he decided he’d rather have a live-in maid, a closet full of luxury brands and private school for his sons. Now he’ll be renting for life.
Looking for a bathroom, my brother accidentally opens a closet door. It’s full of toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and a bunk bed kisses the ceiling. My uncle hurries over and shuts the door with a snap. “That’s the maid’s room. The maid,” he amends in English. “The bathroom’s over there.” He says this slowly, as if my brother’s English is stunted too because he doesn’t know a lot of Chinese. My brother follows his finger and wanders down the hall.
Maria, their Filipina maid, scurries from the kitchen to set out toothpicks and bowls of sliced fruit. My uncle thanks her in English, and she dashes back into the kitchen before she sees me wave to her.
My uncle turns to me, “You’re going to sleep in Fung Fung’s room.” He pulls me into a cramped bedroom with cartoon posters, action figures and no books. I set my suitcase on the desk as he shows me how to use the controls on the fan.
“Thank you.” I move from the doorway to give him room to leave, but he curls an arm around my waist and pulls me to him.
“Ah, See-Tef-Fee, you’re so cute when you speak English,” he croons in Chinese. He tightens his hold when I squirm. His other hand catches my chin between two fingers. “If you were 30 pounds lighter and I was 10 years younger, I’d date you.”
“More like 30 years,” I retort.
“You need to speak Chinese here.” He pinches my cheeks. “So rude. You wish I could date you.”
“You’re too old for me.”
I glance pointedly at his combover. “I don’t date bald men.”
He frowns. I feel pressure building at my midsection as he struggles to lift me off my feet. “How much do you weigh anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you weigh yourself?”
“No.” His fists dig into my back, bruising me. I push my hands against his chest. “What are you doing?” I feel the tightening of his muscles as he tries to carry me. The quick moment where my feet leave the ground makes my head spin.
“Your mother should make you. Keep you accountable.”
“I don’t care how heavy I am.”
“You should. I have a scale in my bedroom. We could find out.”
“Come on. It’ll be quick.”
“I don’t want to. Let go of me.” I try to shove him away, and my bracelet scrapes the side of his neck.
“Be a good girl. Come with me.”
“No. Stop.” He’s squeezing me so hard, I try not to throw up everything I ate at dinner.
“Yes. Yes. Good girl. Come on.”
“No. No! Let me go or I’ll bite you!”
He breaks away, taken aback by the teeth in my words. “Bite me? There’s no need for that.” He raises his fist, and I flinch. “Don’t be scared. Uncle Ming would never hit you.” He taps his knuckles against my cheek, hard. As he walks away, I stare out the window and imagine what it must feel like to hurl myself against the city lights. He pauses, with one hand on the door. “But you know,” he turns to me, “no one loves a fei mui.”