Welcome aboard, and thank you for choosing China Airlines. As we prepare for takeoff, please listen closely to these announcements to ensure a safe, comfortable flight.
A couple years have passed since you last flew into Shanghai, making that 14-hour arc over the Pacific. On that trip you sailed in a continuous, pharmaceutical fug, but this time you want to be lucid. You want to remember all of this: everything leading up to the last time you see your mother.
Please make sure all your items are stowed away in the overhead compartment.
Your daughter, who is taller than you, stands on tiptoe to shove your plump suitcases into the plastic cabinet, their zipper teeth gritted against their packed contents. You sit down, kick your purse under the seat in front of you. This is not counting your checked bags—two each, barely under the 50-pound limit. Every pilgrimage from Los Angeles must come weighed down with gifts for the relatives. Unremarkable in the States, things like Levi’s jeans, macadamia nuts, and Hershey’s chocolates are expensive and coveted in China, and you want to reward the rotating cast of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends who have been visiting your mother in the hospital, bringing your father food. You also packed for an extended trip. The doctors say that she has anywhere from one to six months, and you intend to be there for all of it, to shepherd her to the other side.
Twenty-six years in California, and you still feel guilt for having moved so far away from your family, never mind the fact that it was the singular focus of most people your age back then. Twenty-six: the age you were when you had your daughter and carried her across the world—the age she is now. She has only been to China a handful of times, and her Mandarin is sparse and halting, though you don’t correct her the way she barks at you when you confuse Madonna and McDonald’s, he and she. The difference between you and your daughter is that you will never not be far from home.
There is a safety card in the seat back pocket in front of you. It illustrates the emergency brace position you should assume in the unlikely event of a crash landing, which, for some reason, never enters your mind unless you are flying with your daughter.
During that first trip to America—the first time you’d ever been on a plane—you held her howling body against your chest and imagined the engine skidding into silence, the cabin suspended for one divine moment above the tender cloudscape before hurtling to the earth. Just thinking about it, your stomach was in your throat. But you made it, and your husband was at the gate on the other side, looking as skinny as you’d ever seen him.
Once, after you told the story of your arrival, your daughter, then ten, said, “The Chinese word for airplane literally means flying machine? That’s so funny!”
You wanted to tell her, in adult school, that you had marveled at the opposite, at the word airplane flattening the atmosphere into a surface it could speed across.
We may experience some turbulence, so please keep your seat belt fastened whenever the seat belt light is on. To use it, just insert the metal tab into the buckle until it clicks, and pull on the loose end to tighten it around your body, which has shrunk in time with your mother’s body despite the vast body of water between you.
The cancer has closed around her throat, reducing her diet to gruel, and soon even this will be too much, making her body convulse and expel a black-and-green mucus. She will subsist, for months, on warm water and an IV drip, and you will also wither, as though the umbilical cord were never cut. In photos your relatives send you, she looks like a length of discarded skin, as if she has molted and left the desiccated organ behind. But on the phone, she seems in high spirits. “Hen gao xing ni men lai,” she said. I’m so happy you two are coming.
Your daughter can only take two weeks off of work, but you’re surprised she’s coming at all. She doesn’t remember the early years, when your parents were spry enough to visit California. There’s photo evidence of family trips to Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, Las Vegas, Yosemite. They’re easy to place on a timeline because your daughter morphs from a burl on your husband’s shoulder into a ruddy-faced toddler, into a drooping preteen, by which point the amount of English your parents spoke and the amount of Chinese she understood no longer connected. The one happy result of this, however, is that your daughter is shielded from the venomous criticism you endured: all your mother wants for her granddaughter is to be healthy and married.
To undo the seat belt, simply lift the top of the buckle.
Growing up, you and your little brother lived in fear of your mother’s fury and its counterpart—your father’s belt. You, being older, bore most of the responsibility and the ire: if you burnt the vegetables making dinner, if you ruined a sweater doing laundry, if you dragged a clod of dirt into the apartment, you were raked with hot words, slapped across the cheek, or, if the offense was serious enough, spanked by your father’s worn leather belt. Because he had nearly no chores, and therefore few opportunities to make a mistake, your little brother escaped punishment most of the time. You resented him for it. You kept up a brisk trot when you took him to school, hoping for the crowd to swallow him up behind you; you pinched his arm when no one was looking.
The one beating you remember most clearly, however, was his. Running to turn on the television, your brother knocked a cup of tea onto the letters your father had written to his relatives in the countryside, the characters swimming in disintegrated paper. At first, you were smug, but as he pleaded, his bare ass as bright as a lantern in the room, the feeling gave way to horror. It was almost worse to hear the choked hollering, see the red stripes emblazoned on the flesh, than if it had been you. Afterwards, out on an errand, you traded a pouch of scrap metal for nougat candy from a street vendor and brought it home to share with your brother, who knelt on the bed since he couldn’t sit down.
There are four doors on the aircraft: two in the front, and two in the rear. When opened, each door will inflate a slide that can detach and be used as a flotation device. Please remove any high-heeled shoes before using the slide, the way you used to carry your pumps as you stepped into the rowboat that your husband, before he was your husband, held steady. The two of you would escape the city and spend an entire day at Xi Hu, West Lake, in Hangzhou.
On the day he proposed, he rowed while you sat at the prow, closing your eyes to feel the sun cup your face with its warm, broad hands. When you opened them, you were drifting under the canopy of a willow tree, its slender branches skimming the green water.
He looked at you with eyes you will never forget.
He didn’t have a ring, but promised you one—neither of you ever bothered to get them made. Your husband-to-be took a photograph of you in your white cotton blouse and two looped braids. That picture is sealed in an album at your parents’ apartment. On this trip, you will show it to your daughter and pause when you get to the photo, touch the creased plastic that covers it. She will say in wonderment, “We look just like each other.”
You didn’t love your husband the way he loved you, but you were truthful about it, careful not to reciprocate his impassioned notes, weighing aloud—albeit in a wry, playful way—the strengths of an occasional suitor. In the end, you chose him because he was smart, kind, and determined, and before you got married you made him promise that he would take you out of Shanghai. He would have preferred to be a poet or a photographer, but to get his student visa, he continued his studies in engineering. Now that you are U.S. citizens, you and your daughter need Q2 visas to visit China, which grant you 180 days in the country. Which grants your mother 180 days.
A path of white lights will lead to the red Exit signs. Please take a moment to look around and locate your nearest exit; and remember, it may be behind you.
Your brother found a different exit in the form of drink. Unlike you, frightened into becoming the perfect, dutiful daughter, he rebelled. His low-ranking grades earned him ridicule in the classroom until he grew tall enough to fight back. The more poorly he did in school, the more violent your father became; and the more violent your father became, the more he terrorized his classmates. Likewise, he attracted lank, mean friends, and they ran through the streets like hounds. Some nights, your brother didn’t come home. Some nights, he came home reeking, his face slack and blooming purple. It made your mother weep. “Wei shen me Shangdi yao cheng fa wo?” she wailed into her hands. “Wo shang yi bei zi zuo le shen me cuo?” Why is the Supreme Deity punishing me? What did I do wrong in my past life?
If the cabin pressure suddenly changes, oxygen masks will fall from the compartment above your seat. In this event, pull one of them down to cover your nose and mouth.
When your brother came home on the last night of his life, you wanted to strangle him. You were staying up late—as you had for months—to study for the gao kao, the High Test that would determine where you went to university, where you went for the rest of your life. Suddenly, syncopating with the wall clock’s ticking hand, your brother’s erratic footsteps clanged in the concrete stairwell that led to the fourth-floor landing. You tried to focus on your workbook, but the numbers and graphs thickened on the page until you were peering at a page of black ink. Then another rattle, perhaps a bike falling over, reminded you that he was trying to make it up the stairs.
Fury kept you from crying. You shoved your chair back, jammed your feet into your thin bamboo slippers, and went to yank open the front door. A yellow bulb, frantically orbited by tiny insects, illuminated the empty landing. You took the stairs down until you found your brother slumped against a wall with a rusty bike across his lap.
“Jie jie. Zo bu liao.” he said. Big sister. I can’t walk.
He was always helpless: at three, needing you to button up his quilted winter coat; at ten, needing you to finish his homework; at fifteen, needing you to carry him up the stairs. You knew that once he was inside, he would wake your parents, and the house would again become a vortex of begging, weeping, arguing. You grasped the bike by its frame and yanked it upright, but left your brother on the ground with his head lolling back and forth. “Ni ge wo gun,” you said, the words warbling. Get out of my sight. Let him go bother a friend tonight.
What your brother did instead, however, was slouch into the nearest bar and try to order a whiskey. When the bartender ordered him to go home, he refused, dribbling insults from his mouth until he was shoved outside. There was a brief scuffle, and a punch that sent your brother reeling backwards, his head hitting the curb in the exact wrong way.
You don’t know if your parents have ever forgiven you, or if you can ever forgive yourself. Sometimes it feels as though it were your own fist slamming his skull to the concrete, and sometimes you want to gather up the 18-year-old girl you had been and tell her you understand, that you remember it all: the stress, hunger, and violence of those years that made it impossible for her to have done anything different.
Even in death, your brother needed you. You and your mother visited his gravestone every month to burn paper money to line his pockets in the afterlife, and to leave small bottles of whiskey that sometimes disappeared. Your mother would be inexplicably cheered: “Ta he le,” she’d say with a satisfied smile. He drank it. But you knew it was the neighborhood kids, or the groundskeeper. Watching flames crawl over the origami ingots he would use in the spirit world, your mother would retell the same good stories she had of him, and you understood that in this world, a daughter was useful, but a son would always be a treasure.
After your husband proposed, you asked your brother for permission to leave. You had failed the gao kao and enrolled at a third-rate university; you had no real future in Shanghai. You can’t stand the taste of alcohol, but this time you twisted the cap off the bottle of whiskey and tilted it into your mouth. The liquid seared your throat and strengthened the pulse throughout your whole body. As you bent to place the bottle on the grave, a strong wind from nowhere cleared the leaves from his name.
Oxygen will be flowing to the mask even if it doesn’t inflate. Be sure to put your own mask on before helping others.
Your mother doesn’t know she has cancer. You are reluctant to keep it from her, but your father insists that this will help her fight it, although against this illness there is no winning, only postponing. The doctor has agreed to print a fake diagnosis alluding to a benign stomach tumor, and you have prepared red envelopes padded with money to distribute to the nurses and hospital administrators—anything to keep your mother in the same cot for as long as she needs. Around her, people with lesser maladies will cycle through, recovering from shingles or surgery while only she regresses, eventually unable to sit up, speak, or keep her eyes open, animate only when she retches dark bile into a bucket.
In case we need to make a water landing, a life vest is underneath your seat. When your husband left for California, all he had to his name were two twenty-dollar bills your father had given him, cash that he called his jiu sheng quan. Life buoy. Your father had saved the money from a trip to the U.S. long ago; the gift surprised and moved you.
Before your husband found the restaurant job, he collected stray luggage carts at the Los Angeles airport for a quarter each, spending every hour outside of school scavenging on the departures level, watching couples and families embrace and part. Long distance calls were expensive, so you seldom spoke, and hurried through the updates when you did: you’d visited the herbalist and brewed a bitter soup to help nourish the baby; he’d bought a used bike to avoid paying for the bus. The first time you ever heard your husband cry was when, a month later, the bike disappeared. He was certain the culprit was someone he lived with, a gambling addict named Gaofeng who was always late on paying rent at the Inglewood apartment they shared with five others. You offered what comfort you could, hoping your words would be of use in that faraway place that was unimaginable to you—a blur of palm trees, red cars, white people—before hanging up to save the precious minutes left on the phone card.
Buckle the strap around your waist and tug on the end to tighten. Please wait until you deplane to inflate the vest by pulling sharply on the red plastic handle.
Now, after years of scrimping and skipped meals, you and your husband are safe. You own two homes, paid for your daughter’s college tuition, and can afford your mother’s tenure at the hospital. You want to be able to say, at the end of it all, that you did all you could for her, closed some of the distance between you by standing vigil beside her white cot. Made up for the time you glimpsed your mother pinned to the wall, your father’s hand straining to crush her throat, and didn’t scream or call for help. You went back to making dinner feeling as though you would never be able to speak again. To make a noise at all.
After that fight, you sometimes smelled the half-sweet stink of cigarettes on your father’s coat, though he had sworn them off after your brother was born. He was still an infant then, cheeks as round and luminous as the buns you steamed every morning and fed him, each morsel first softened by your mouth.
Smoking is prohibited throughout the entire aircraft. Tampering with, disabling, or destroying the lavatory smoke detectors is prohibited by law.
Resigned to the blow you thought would come, you mentioned how the cigarette smoke clung to his clothes. All your father did was grunt his assent, but he quit for good after that. Years later, you learned the reason for the fight: your mother had been seeing a lover, and she had confessed. Sometimes you wonder if your brother was fully your brother. It would explain the differences between you, the favoritism; perhaps because he wasn’t completely theirs, he wasn’t theirs to punish. In pictures, you scour his face for clues, but it has been so long that his entire body is foreign.
Your father, once a figure of terror, has grown meek with time. On the phone, he begs you now to tell him, “Wo zen me ban?” Now what do I do? It will occur to you to ask him outright, when he is most vulnerable, “Are you my brother’s father?” The question will arrive like a small, pale bird on the table between you before you move on, teach him how to use WeChat, how to order food online.
We’re happy to offer in-flight Wi-Fi. More information can be found in the complimentary magazine in the seat back pocket.
Your daughter scrolls through a catalog of movies on the embedded screen, nestling one headphone into her ear, tilting her head to insert the other. For her, the visit is partly anthropological. She wants to interview her grandfather about growing up during the Cultural Revolution, see the disappearing laneway homes in the French Concession, watch the blinking barges cruise along the Bund. Between stints at the hospital, you will take her to the neighborhoods you wandered as a girl, most of them now unrecognizable. What has survived over the years? The humid den with your favorite peanut noodles is gone, but the best sheng jian bao is still there, the crisp white bun giving way to tender, fragrant pork. Your daughter will haggle over a pair of sunglasses and still overpay because of her American accent, the holes in her vocabulary. There are holes everywhere, it seems: in the languages you share, the stories you tell, the truths you abide by, the memories you wear thin. There are apertures and opportunities. There are ways out and ways in.
As we get ready for takeoff, please check that your seat belts are fastened, seats and tray tables are in the upright position, and electronics are shut off. The crew will now be coming through to make a final cabin check. We ask you to sit back, and please enjoy your flight.
Jenny Xie is a writer based in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in journals like AGNI, Ninth Letter, and The Offing, and has won awards from Devil’s Lake, Narrative Magazine, Joyland, and the Best of the Net Anthology. She’s received a Bread Loaf scholarship and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, and Aspen Words. She is the Executive Editor of Dwell.com.