The First of His Kind

— Jenny Tinghui Zhang

She boils everything, even pears. The doctor says pears cool the body down, bring it back to equilibrium. Ever since her husband got sick a few years ago, she cooks anything that might slow the sickness down.

In the mornings, she makes purple yams, chopped turnips, and cabbage. She cooks porridge with lentils, oats, millet, lotus seeds, adzuki beans, white rice, Wolfberry, soybean, wheat berry. Into each bowl of porridge, she drops three red dates soaked in water. Mantou on the side. Anything left goes in the trash with the gray hairs she finds on the floor.

After breakfast come the vitamins and medicine. Fish oil, collagen pellets, Vitamin B12, C, D, magnesium tablets, pills to lower hypertension, pills for his prostate, pills for her high blood pressure. She hands the plastic bottles with different colored lids to her husband one by one from the menagerie on the window ledge. Sometimes, she has to stop him from taking two by accident.

By the time they finish with breakfast and the vitamins and medicine, it is already eight, and their apartment complex is waking. From the little eating table next to the window, they can hear young parents walking their children to school through the courtyard. A recording of a man yelling “Brisket! Flank! Tendon! Rib!” loops in the small outdoor market below them. Cars start in protest, their engines sputtering in the cold. The breaths of brooms as they sweep snow off the decks above and below theirs. Water running through the pipes. The Tibetan spaniel.

They live in the Changqing Neighborhood apartment community, an older part of Changchun. The realtor boasted that the community was green all year round, and it was when they moved in. Gardens in the courtyard, pink bricks on the pathways leading up to each apartment building. Picturesque, a perfect place for an old couple to retire. But that was thirty years ago. Very little grows here anymore. Now, the pathways are gray and cracking, and the maintenance workers come every October to bolster the insulation in the walls before winter. Each year it seems to get colder. Each year the insulation seems to get thinner.

“It’s eight o’clock at night in America right now,” her husband says. He burps, and its staleness lingers between them. “Do you think he will call today?”

“He will call,” she says, arranging her chopsticks so they are horizontal on top of her bowl. “And when he calls, I will ask him.”

Little name Jialin. The last of three. The youngest. A boy. She half expected him to be dead when they handed him to her. Everyone knew it was almost impossible to have a boy if you wanted one that badly.

Little name Jialin. Always getting in trouble for the silliest things. A daredevil. You have no regard for safety or the family image, she would tell him. Instead of riding the bus home from school like he was supposed to, he hung off the back bumper making faces at everyone he passed. And everyone knew—that’s the old Li’s kid. Aren’t they lucky to have a boy?

Little name Jialin. They would have no more children after this. They would not need to with two girls and a boy. Now they had someone who could carry on their name and take care of them when they got old. Boys did not suffer in this world. A boy was enough.

At ten, she puts on her bucket hat and slips into her white sneakers for their morning walk. She likes to walk fast and breathe through her nose. That is how the doctors on TV say to do it, the best way for your body to absorb the exercise.

“Did he say he will call today?” her husband asks before they leave. These days, his voice sounds further away. He is wearing his linen shirt inside out.

“He told his sister he would. It will probably come before lunch. Put on your coat…it’s cold outside.”

They walk on the trail that runs through the courtyard and connects to the two- and three-bedroom apartment buildings further inside the community. About 2.5 km to the very end and back. A challenging pace. They pass bundled up toddlers who are too young to go to school, their haggard mothers shuffling after them with scarves wrapped all the way up to their lower eyelids. Her husband likes to stop and watch the toddlers waddling around in the snow. “This little rascal!” he says, laughing, hands on his hips. “Look at you, look at you!” The mothers smile and lower their scarves below their mouths to say, “Thank you, venerable sir.”

She does not wait for him. She cannot afford to stop, just as she cannot afford to look up during her walks or think either, because the TV doctors say that the mind should be entirely, singularly, unquestionably focused on the movement of the body, the circulation of blood and air. But today, she hears birds, and she cannot help looking up—there are no birds in Changchun in the winter—and she finds herself looking at an open window to a third-floor apartment. A middle-aged man stands at the window, his soft, naked body a shock against the white plaster of the apartment building wall. His arm is moving furiously, but the hand is nowhere to be seen. She whips her head down, but it is already too late. The image of the man spreads over her entire body, an interruption to the meditative calm she had been nurturing, and for the first time all morning, she can feel everything that is wrong. The bones in her hands ache. The back of her neck is a little sore. Her hips creak. Her knees shake. She feels like an old tree in a forest, brittle and bent. Like she is just a matter of time.

She tries to follow her breath again, searching for the place where the inhale turns into exhale, unsure of whether she is breathing naturally or forcing it after all.

Little name Jialin, given name Wei. When you grow up—she would always tell him—our family is your responsibility. Not your big sister, not your second sister. Yours. That is what being the only son means, and what an honor that is indeed.

Little name Jialin, given name Wei. He had heard a lot of great things about America, like the education, the quality of life, the possibilities. Everyone knew the way to do it was to get an education in America, make some money, then bring it all back to China. Flourish. This was what he told her.

Little name Jialin, given name Wei. But you will come back to China, right? she had asked before he left for America. One day, you will come back? I don’t know, he said, and his smile was so big that she already knew the answer. We’ll just have to see.

A nurse comes every afternoon to make lunch and clean the apartment. He is in his early forties, and his hands shake. They will not let him come full-time, even though they have more than enough money to pay for it. Plus, it’s not about the money, she thinks. It was never about the money.

A few days ago, she saw a news feature about a forty-year-old man living with his seventy-year-old mother. The interviewer had asked him what he thought about living with his mother now.

“I see it like this,” the man said. “She helped me grow up. I’ll help her grow old.”

“Did you hear that?” the interviewer repeated to the audience. “‘She helped me grow up. I’ll help her grow old.’ How good is that?”

She had to turn the program off, even though her scheduled thirty minutes of morning TV was not yet finished. How is it—she had thought—that I have a son and still have a part-time nurse?

After lunch, the nurse washes the dishes and packs the leftovers in the fridge. He takes the trash with him. When the door closes, it is as if the nurse has taken all the energy with him too.

“I thought he would call before lunch,” her husband murmurs from the table. He smacks his mouth before putting his dentures back in.

“I think he will call after our nap. He knows our schedule, probably doesn’t want to disturb us so we can rest.”

“It’s Saturday!” her husband exclaims. “What does he have to do on a Saturday?” He shakes his head and the little gray and white hairs on his scalp shimmer as they catch the afternoon sun.

Little name Jialin, given name Wei, American name Adam. Called his parents every week from his landline in America. I bought a car. I got my driver’s license. Then, called every two weeks. We’re moving to Austin. I got a job in an office. Then, once a month. Apricot is thinking about colleges. His Chinese sounded slowed down, like he actually had to think of the words, as if they were no longer just inside him, but something he needed to access. Good, congratulations, we are happy for you, she would tell him on each of these calls. They started becoming so infrequent that it took more time to recount what had been happening than to talk about what was happening. Good, congratulations, we are happy for you. And the whole time, she wondered how in the world he could come home again when he planted so many seeds in American soil.

Little name Jialin, given name Wei, American name Adam. She tried to say it once: A-dum. Uh-dam. Ah-dumb.

“When he calls, I am going to ask him,” she says. Dinner is in a few hours, and she does not like to think about these things after dinner. If she gets too agitated, she cannot fall asleep, and if she cannot fall asleep, the next day does not go according to plan. Keeping to the plan is very important in order to stay healthy, to stay alive.

Her husband is still blinking off the afternoon nap from his eyes. He has glasses, but he never wears them anymore. “Maybe we should wait a little longer.”

“What good will waiting do?” She mushes a boiled pear in her mouth. Her teeth have started hurting too. “You have to have another surgery soon. It’s getting colder outside. I can’t go down to the market because there are too many stairs. What if something happens to the nurse, and one day he doesn’t come? We would starve to death.”

Little name Jialin, given name Wei, American name Adam, family name Li. She and her husband visited him once in Austin. They walked along his neighborhood, the houses far apart, each one with its own green yard. Everyone seemed to own a big dog and say hello for no reason. He took them to a Chinese buffet, where the food felt like plastic in her mouth, and the fish was hard. They went to see an American movie, where she wondered if she would get sick from the air conditioning that never turned off. Why does it need to be so cold in a movie theater where you’re just sitting and doing nothing, she had thought. Wasteful. Dangerous.

The whole time, she took stock of each difference, small or big, between his life there and the life he could have in China. Yes, America was beautiful, and yes, he had the space to do anything and everything. But in China, at least he would be home. And nothing could beat that.

On their last night, he had brought them more blankets for bed and was tucking new sheets under the big meaty mattress. She watched as her son lifted a corner of the mattress, then carefully folded the sheet and slid it under. This was a son taking care of his parents, as he should. She could not stand it any longer.

“You know, your brother-in-law knows someone at a firm in Changchun. He can make an introduction for you.”

He had moved on to another corner of the bed, one hand cradling the mattress, the other smoothing out the sheet. He did not look at her. “Oh, good. I’ll ask him about it.”

There was no interest in his voice, no eagerness to follow up. She felt herself getting agitated.

“It’s a good job,” when he said nothing, she added, “and it will be close to us. So you can help us.”

He stopped fiddling with the mattress and straightened himself. He sighed. “I know what you’re saying. You want me to leave everything here?”

“Look at it from my perspective,” she said, both hands on her heart. “I am your mother. How do you think I feel?”

“I know,” he said. “Believe me, I know.”

She studied him. He had something to admit. But before she could say anything, the door opened. The wife stood there with a fresh batch of laundry in her arms. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear,” she said. Her Mandarin sounded so unnecessarily formal, as if she had not used it in a long time. “But I think it’s unfair of you to ask this of him when he has his own family to take care of here. You have two daughters, have you thought about asking them?”

“I am talking to my son,” she told the wife. “What makes you think you have anything to say?”

They start getting ready for bed after a simple dinner of watery porridge. They wash their feet in a pastel green basin while watching the evening news, then drink one cup of hot water each. She soaks the dates for breakfast.

“He did not call today,” her husband says from the bedroom, where he is already tucked into bed, towel blankets wrapped around his cold feet.

Li Jialin. Li Wei. Adam Li. Him with all his names. Him with all the roles he was supposed to play. All she wanted was for him to play the one he had always been meant for.

In 1961, a Soviet cosmonaut became the first person to fly in space and orbit the Earth. His name was Yuri Gagarin, which the Chinese news translated to “JiaJiaLin.” She remembered the day it happened, how the radios and newspapers could not talk about anything else. The first of his kind! Nothing could be bigger than that! The Great Famine had lasted three years by then, but even in extreme hunger, the people could not help but celebrate. Somehow, the holes in their bellies had been filled by knowing that a man could go to space, as if his flight had fed them all. She had the same feeling of warm fullness five years later when she discovered she was pregnant for the third time.

“No he did not,” she says, and she realizes that she is tired too. “He will call tomorrow.”

Read more from Issue No. 20 or share on Twitter.