She and shE and i
She gets fat; I stay slim. We both eat—a lot—but I’ve my father’s metabolism; she has hers. She is a doctor, yet she likes food without nutrients: pork rinds, fatty meat, dried picked vegetables, and pure carb congee. I have developed a taste for healthy American foods she cannot stand: granola, yogurt, kale.
I eat sensibly, I close my mouth. She finds a dish she likes and shovels it in. Pools of oil gather at the corners of her lips, and her face becomes desperate, insane. When she is excited, she eats and speaks, spitting bits of food in her interlocutor’s face. Because she is my mother, this horrifies me. I look down, trying to dissociate, but it is difficult. Despite the disparity of our physiques, our faces are identical. Besides, there is almost never another Chinese woman in the room.
She once starved; I never starved. She tells me stories of her suffering childhood through mouthfuls of fried rice noodles. One winter she survived on moldy potato soup and puked green bile on her walk to school (barefoot, through barren frozen fields). For years even the idea of potatoes was enough to make her sick, until the day she discovered salted French fries. I had once been on reduced fare lunch, which was embarrassing enough for me. I leave rice in my bowl at dinner; she says every grain of rice is a drop of sweat on the farmer’s back and guilts it down my throat.
Her mother, my grandmother, was a farmer. She was a farmer too, before she became a doctor, but still she is embarrassed of her mother, which is one thing we have in common. Her mother is illiterate, speaks too loudly, spits on sidewalks, writes her name in Sharpie on her tattered clothes to prevent theft (her name the only word she knows), and plants scallions in unused spaces of my mother’s newly landscaped lawn. We remind her there is no need to wash and dry the paper towels, that trash cannot just be tossed on the sidewalk, that breaking open chicken bones with teeth and sucking out the marrow is not pretty to do in public—but she is old and stuck in her ways. Sometimes my mother gets so frustrated she raises her voice. I tell her this is wrong, that she should respect her mother, my grandmother, most of all because she is so much like her mother, my grandmother, herself.
The truth is we are all too similar: born hungry, raised to count rice grains. Late at night, after dinner, when the dishes have been cleared, my mother, grandmother, and I can be found in our respective kitchens under a lonely light, eating garnishes and leftover gray mush so they won’t be thrown away, so we can serve our guests and husbands the good stuff. We tally our secret sacrifices and polish them into weapons of resentful love.
She has large breasts; I have small breasts. She tells me small breasts are not sexy, no one will marry me, that I should learn from her. My husband married me, I remind her. Because my husband is not white and not Chinese, not a doctor or even a lawyer, she forgets.
She says, And you let him see you in that?
She hands me bags of push-up bras and skin-tight low-cut shirts. I am embarrassed by such things, as I am embarrassed by zebra print and leather leggings and rhinestone-studded belts, all things she likes in clothes. She is a doctor, but she does not know the meaning of professional dress. She walks into clinic wearing ten silk scarves that drag on the floor, frilly shirts scaled with sequins, and long flowing skirts with elastic bands that dig into the fat rolls of her waist. Her house is similarly decorated with garish glittering things. When I am feeling nasty I tell her she is so nouveau riche and walk away before she can ask what it means.
I should respect her; it takes stamina to become nouveau riche.
She works too hard; I work too hard. We have inherited this from her mother, my grandmother, who despite arthritic knees and a rich American daughter, will climb the wooded mountain behind her house to dig wild bamboo shoots to eat. It is impossible for any of us to spend meaningful time together, so focused are we on work. Once, I chastised her for not even reading the news, but now I can’t bear to either. We are all masters of looking away from life, and away from the people to whom we are bound by blood, by exhausting ourselves with work.
She is a doctor, and her work is saving the world. I am not a doctor: I am saving no one. In fact, often it seems such a chore just to save myself, and day by day my will to keep trying at it leaks irretrievably away.
What’s the point in saving lives if you don’t know what living is for? I used to ask her this. She had no answer. Neither did I.
But she has statistics, and they are impressive. A 1% increase in lung cancer survival rate means 3 million American lives a year. I distrust numbers. I type words into a computer, delete them, type them again with small differences. Occasionally these words are read by people, but they never do anyone any good.
She is appreciated, though not by me, and probably not by her mother, who couldn’t stand to stay in America (the beds too soft, the lawns too wide, the fruit too shiny and large). She says, Today a sixty-year-old man with stage three non-small cell lung cancer thanked me for giving him life, producing the jar of homemade apricot preserves that he has made a token of his thanks. She looks down in pretense of deferring attention, tears threatening in the whites of her eyes, and mutters, He called me an angel. She lingers on the second-to-last syllable. The sincerity in her pronunciation is impossible to bear.
She doesn’t like preserves; I adore preserves. I, who eat toasted multigrain bread with preserves every morning, tuck the jar in my purse when I get up to go.
Meng Jin's "She and She and I" can also be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 4.
Meng Jin's fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Masters Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. A Kundiman Fellow, she has an MFA from Hunter College and has received support from the M Residency, VSC, Hedgebrook, the David TK Wong Fellowship, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently at work on a novel.