In this pandemic-set short story, a Chinese-American protagonist contends with questions of identity and belonging, leading up to a dramatic ending.
There was once a philosopher named Zhuangzi. Walking on a bridge with a friend and upon seeing fish in the water, he commented that swimming was the happiness of fish. His friend questioned, “You are not a fish; how could you know their happiness?” Zhuangzi retorted, “You are not me; how could you know that I don’t know their happiness?” When Kevin’s Chinese teacher told her about this story, Kevin asked the teacher, “Why didn’t they just ask the fish?” (And yes, Kevin is a girl.) “Well, fish can’t speak,” replied the teacher.
Kevin spent much of her childhood in her parents’ restaurant, which specialized in fish dishes from Southern China. They kept some fish in a well-polished water tank, and customers could pick the fish they wanted. This service was only available for their special three-course dinner, however. The chosen fish would be cooked to the very last bit with meat cooked in two ways, steamed and sautéed, and the rest of it, including the bones, made into a soup. Kevin, however, was not allowed to stay around the pretty water tank for too long or anywhere in the restaurant other than her tiny corner in the kitchen, where she spent most of her time after school. Her parents had set up a small desk for her. There, she would do her homework and finish most of the assignments from Sunday Chinese classes. The desk was right next to another water tank, less clean but bigger than the one on display. Naturally, all the fish who failed to become pageant queens were kept in the bigger tank. Sometimes, Kevin thought she heard something from the tank, especially when she was practicing calligraphy and absent-minded. Sometimes she imagined there were tiny fish-like creatures inside the characters she wrote trapped there as well; they, too, were trying to tell her something. She was always convinced that fish could speak. But when she tried to talk with the fish, none of them would respond. She used to wonder whether putting her head in the water would help her hear and understand fish speech, but the fish tank was too tall, and the kitchen was always too full of people.
Time always flies in retrospect, and soon Kevin became a college freshman. This spring break, after one and a half semesters away from her parents, Kevin suddenly noticed the fish tank was not that tall anymore, but she had long stopped thinking of fish speech and practicing calligraphy. In fact, the desk had also been gone for years, leaving her nowhere to be detained while she waited for her parents. She only waited for twenty minutes or so, and that was why her parents thought it was fine for her to come to the restaurant first. It’s located in one of the busiest parts of the city, unlike her parents’ apartment. From time to time an old cook or an experienced waiter would come to let her know how much she had grown and ask about her experience in school, so the twenty minutes felt like an hour.
“Xinxin xianzai zhen shi ge da guniang le,” Uncle Wang commented, in his accented Mandarin.
“Xiexie shushu.” Kevin tried to keep her responses as short as possible, as she did not want to be ridiculed for her broken Chinese. Her parents always spoke to her in English, but they had the foresight to enroll her in Mandarin classes when she was little, instead of their native Cantonese. Frankly, it was not their foresight at all, but a relative told them that being in touch with “one’s roots” would be an advantage for her college applications. The truth was that Kevin’s Chinese could not last her for more than a few rounds of chit-chatting with international students from China, and she always found the “root” metaphor odd: “human beings are not plants; why do we have roots?”
She was absent-minded the whole ride home. When they were in the Holland Tunnel, her dad asked her what she wanted to have for lunch tomorrow. Instead of replying, she was wondering what type of water creatures lived in the Hudson River. “Is the water there fresh or salty?” She thought to herself, recalling some old news of sighting whales or dolphins.
“Kevin,” Dad raised his voice a bit. She came back to her senses.
“Sorry, Dad. I’m just a bit tired.”
“What do you want to have for lunch tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure… Fish?”
Her father looked at her in the rearview mirror. She could not quite tell if he was confused or surprised. Her mother turned back and said, “But you never liked fish.”
That statement was not entirely true. Kevin did not like eating fish, but she was fine with their being in the world. She couldn’t recall when she started refusing to eat fish, probably because they had too much fish when she was little. The customers thought they got every last bit of the fish they ordered. But in fact, Kevin, her family, and the staff got the real “last bits.” Kevin remembered how her parents tricked her, threatened her, and even begged her to eat fish, but she had developed such a keen perception of fish smell that none of their plans worked.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to find fish in our school’s cafeteria.” Kevin lied. She didn’t know why she said she wanted to have fish either because she really didn’t want to. Maybe it’s just all the wondering about Hudson’s ecology, but Kevin didn’t quite feel like herself. “What is this pressing feeling?” She wondered.
“Is the air pressure different in the tunnel?”
“What Chinese characters would the transportation system make if viewed from the sky?”
“This tunnel would be a long, hidden stroke.”
“Like a root?”
The next day, Kevin’s father made his signature sweet-and-sour fish dish. He was a good cook, but he only started to learn how to cook because he got tired of delivering food, and eventually he opened his own restaurant. Usually, Kevin’s mother was the one who did all the cooking (and cleaning, and grocery shopping). But that day was different since Kevin finally requested fish.
Chinese keep fish heads in many of their fish dishes. This dish was no exception. Kevin felt the fish was staring at her, trying to say something.
“What kind of fish is this?”
“We call it green fish—tsing yue.”
“How do you kill fish?” Kevin asked her father.
“Well, this fish was already dead when I bought it, with its scales and innards removed. In the market, they usually smash its head and pierce its heart. But a real chef knows how to adjust his technique when needed.”
Kevin thought she saw a grin on her father’s face. She didn’t know what to say and felt even less eager to eat the fish.
“Why did you buy the fish? You could just take one from the restaurant.” Kevin’s mother asked.
“I didn’t know Sumsum wanted to eat fish. And we left Wong in charge of the restaurant today. I didn’t want to drive all the way back just to bring a fish.”
“That’s right. Sumsum, have some fish, then.”
Kevin picked up the chopsticks and tried to take one tiny piece of fish. Her mother quickly lopped over a bigger piece.
“You’ve never been good at using chopsticks,” her mother commented.
Kevin ignored her mother’s comment, took a bite, and immediately spit it out.
“It’s so fishy!” She screamed.
Her father looked disappointed. Her mother tasted the fish and declared: “Not fishy at all.”
Kevin’s phone rang. “Saved by the bell,” she thought.
“Have you heard? All classes will be online after spring break!” Kevin’s boyfriend exclaimed.
“Oh hi! How are you both doing, Mr. and Mrs. Yu?”
“We are doing well,” Kevin’s father mumbled.
“That’s so good to hear. These are unsettling times. Mr. and Mrs. Yu.”
“Ok, I’ll call you back babe.” Kevin interrupted and hung up.
“That boy is too energetic,” Kevin’s mom commented.
“I heard New York would be in lockdown soon,” Kevin’s father said, staring into the fish. “I don’t know what our restaurant will be like.”
“I didn’t know being energetic was a bad thing,” Kevin thought out loud.
No one really ate the fish that day.
In the afternoon Kevin’s family decided to stock up on groceries, and in case one store did not have the full supply of what they needed, the three of them went to three different stores.
Kevin was assigned to a store that was about 20 minutes away on foot, so she took the bus there. The bus was half full; she sat down one seat away from another passenger, who looked up and gave her a blank stare. Kevin felt she was flagged as an anomaly. After a few seconds, the passenger stood up and went to the back row. Kevin saw her take a hand sanitizer out of her bag, using a copious amount.
She wasn’t sure what to make of it. Of course, she had been yelled at to “go back to your country” her whole life; when she was little some of her classmates called her “flat face”; when she was older random dudes would say “nihao” or “konnichiwa” at her. But still, every once in a while, when a new variation of the same thing emerged, she didn’t know how to react. This time was worse because there were no words to attack. She could not just yell back as usual because it would seem like she started the fight.
The bus ride was short, but Kevin kept thinking about it in the grocery store. When she walked past some canned tuna, she suddenly remembered something, a memory so distant that she did not know how authentic it still was. She remembered that a boy kept telling her she smelled fishy, and she cried begging her mother to stop packing fish in her lunchbox.
“Is that why I hate eating fish?”
“Did the boy ever stop telling me I smelled fishy?”
“Do I smell fishy?”
Just then Kevin started to hear illegible voices that would grow bigger and bigger.
Kevin was going to visit a few friends during spring break, but her parents wouldn’t allow it. They had been worrying about the pandemic since January. This or that city “is in lockdown,” they would say, or “Remember that relative we have in the mainland? He passed away.” After the first outbreak in the US, they could not stop checking the news and strategizing how to keep the restaurant open. Kevin couldn’t stand it; she locked herself up in her room most of the time.
The first day of Zoom University was not what Kevin expected. The professor of her Introduction to Gender Studies asked everyone to turn on their video and take turns explaining how they felt. “Everyone’s feelings should be heard,” he said.
“Kevin Yu,” he called her name.
“Hi everyone, Kevin here.”
“You’re Kevin? Are you sure you’re not Kevin’s sister?”
“Yes, I’m Kevin. I’ve been in this class since the beginning of the semester.”
“Let me look up the photo roster.”
“My parents wanted to name me ‘Kexin’—K, E, X, I, N—but the ‘x’ was mistaken for ‘v’. And my parents didn’t bother to correct it.” Kevin did not understand why she found herself explaining this.
“Alright, looks like you’re telling the truth. So, how are you feeling?”
“I felt fine a moment ago.”
The professor projected irritation into the void of the internet; Kevin knew it was directed to her, but she chose to not receive it.
But there was still much more to explain about her name. Her name, written as 可心 in Chinese characters, means “make the heart happy”; xin, or sum in Cantonese, means “heart”; her grandparents consulted someone who was supposedly an expert of auspicious names and chose the Mandarin pinyin spelling of her name; they had always hoped that their granddaughter would one day grow into a delicate and demure woman who could be the delight of others… “I wish I were a boy,” she thought, “so I wouldn’t need to explain my name anymore.” She knew her parents secretly shared the same wish.
Her boyfriend called right after class.
“That was sick, what you did there, K. The prof was pissed.”
“Was he? I hope he doesn’t hold a grudge.”
“Nah, he’s too old to remember it. He doesn’t even remember you.”
That last sentence scraped her ears like sandpaper.
“Hey, are you listening?” He asked.
“Yes. Sorry, I was just thinking of something else.”
“What were you thinking?”
“How do I smell?”
He looked puzzled. “You know smells can’t travel through video calls, right?”
“How did I smell when we were at school, then?”
“Dunno. You had that perfume that always gave me a headache.”
“Not my perfume. How did I smell?”
“You smelled like you! You’re acting weird.”
Kevin wanted to cry; she thought she cried, but she could not feel her tears.
After the trip to the grocery store, she started to take a shower twice a day, one in the morning and one at night. Somehow, she could still smell something fishy around her. Or was there something fishy about her? She could not tell, and she could not trust her parents because they didn’t have sensitive noses and worked with fish for half of their lives.
“Maybe I’m a fish,” she said.
“What? Then I’m a dragon. Rahh.”
“Ok, dragon. I need to take a shower. Talk to you later.”
In the shower, Kevin heard those voices again. “Tsing yue?” She thought she heard a legible phrase. “The green fish Dad talked about?” She also found that the itchy spot on her shin that she scratched often recently had become a scab, in a sort of deep inky color.
She tried to look up “green fish” online but couldn’t find the correct type of fish. Eventually, she gave up and asked her dad to write the word in Chinese characters for her, saying that she needed to do a presentation on Asian cuisine. “青魚,” Kevin remembered these two characters. “That’s not green. The teacher said it’s a green-blue color that, depending on the context, can mean green, blue, or any color in between.”
“What color is this fish, then?”
She looked up the fish in Chinese and was not surprised at all when she saw the pictures.
“I’ve seen them my entire life. It’s the type of fish they use in Dad’s restaurant.”
The Chinese characters on the Wikipedia page of “青魚” overwhelmed her. It was as if each of them was whispering something to her. She quickly switched the page to English and saw that the fish was called “black carp,” which was “intentionally introduced to the US in the 1980s for use in retention ponds and aquaculture facilities to manage yellow grub and snails populations,” and “many mechanical control methods have been used to control the population of Asian carp, including use of noise, walls of bubbles, netting and even explosions.”
Nothing was new there. It turned out that the “green fish” was not green at all; they’re of this black-blue-green color, much like the color of Kevin’s scab.
It is true that people use colors to name things, and it is true that these colors do not always match what they describe. Kevin, for one, was very fair, because her mother viewed the sun as the archenemy of beauty and asked her daughter to wear sunscreen all the time. The same maternal care that blocked sun and rain for her daughter made Kevin’s mother aware of changes in Kevin’s body.
“What is that thing on your wrist,” Kevin’s mother asked.
“Just a scratch.”
“How did you scratch it? With your nails?”
“I don’t remember. It was itchy.”
Kevin’s mother pulled her daughter over and discovered more scabs on her arms. Then Kevin told her mom that there were even more on her legs. Her mother was furious, but she knew she couldn’t blame Kevin for it.
“You need to see a doctor.”
“It’s dangerous out there.”
“Online. I heard they do online appointments now.”
The doctor said it was dermatitis due to excessive cleaning, so Kevin’s mother only allowed her daughter to take one shower every other day, which drove Kevin crazy.
But Kevin kept scratching her skin, and soon even on her neck, there were these scale-like scabs. Her boyfriend broke up with her too because she would not pick up his video calls and was “too difficult to understand.” Kevin did not even try to win him back. She also refused to turn on her camera in her classes; luckily the professors stopped insisting on leaving the cameras on.
Soon Kevin’s school was over, and Kevin’s family’s restaurant was about to be over too.
“Sumsum, you should move around more. It’s not good to stay in your room all the time. And… stop scratching your skin.”
Words could not reach Kevin anymore. She fell into a sleepless slumber. Although her parents did not allow her to take showers often, she woke from nightmares around 2 or 3 am and took one anyway. In the water she finally got a sense of relief, but it was also in the water that she heard the voices at their loudest.
“Sumsum, wui ga,” one voice said—at least that was what Kevin thought it had said.
She recognized that phrase; it means “return home.” Mom used to say that to Dad.
“But I’m already home,” she whispered.
The voices replied in words she did not understand.
When she walked out of the shower, she bumped into her mother.
Mom shouted something Kevin did not understand.
Both of them were startled. Kevin felt she was caught red-handed and ran out of the house. When she was outside, the voice became so deafeningly loud that she could not make out any sounds from them, and she could not pinpoint where they came from.
“Hudson River” was her instinct.
Dressed only in her bathrobe, Kevin started to run toward the river. Her feet hurt more at every step, and she recalled her mother used to read Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to her:
“Each step she took, as the witch had warned her, felt as if she were treading on pointed awls and sharp knives, but she gladly endured it.”
Kevin too was having the run of her life, though she would never trade her voice for anything else… unless it’s another voice.
She did not know how long she had run till she arrived at the shore of the Hudson River, which was uncharacteristically still that day. She looked at the deep inky water and the deep inky sky and realized both could be called “tsing.” A pendant of a crescent moon was hanging pointedly on the dark tenderness of the water and sky. Kevin could not wait to join them.
She jumped, breaking the river’s pendant into a thousand pieces, but she soon realized her mistake: the Hudson River was not where the voices came from, and it was not where she belonged.
“I misunderstood them after all. The water is saltier than I imagined. I should have known.”
Tsing yue, 青魚, or green fish, live in freshwater.
She kept treading water slowly and wondered what characters all the waterways on this land would make if viewed from the sky.
“If the sky is reflected in the river, I am floating in the sky as well.”
“If I’m floating in the sky, I should be able to see myself in the water.”
“Isn’t ‘x’ a combination of ‘v’ and its reflection?”
Kevin realized the defining difference of her life might just be a matter of perspective, but this perspective was so painfully etched in her flesh, like the scars and scales now all over her body, that there was no other way around.
“Maybe I should find a freshwater river,” she thought, “but maybe I should swim across the ocean.”
She suddenly realized what she needed to do: dive deep into the water. The hidden currents would let her know—either with their writing or with their voice—where she should go or where she came from, which meant the same thing.
Zhuangzi also wrote a fable about a giant fish transforming into a giant bird. “Will the transformed fish/bird still be happy?” The one in the water wondered, “What language will this fish-bird speak?”
Yuanqiu Jiang is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. His research interests include medieval Chinese literature, gender studies, voice studies, and environmental humanities. An occasional writer of fiction and poetry, he is also interested in exploring creative ways to expand the reach of his research.