A half-hearted breeze makes its way into the kitchen, bringing with it the acrid smell of manure and unwashed bodies. Pieces of what might have been white wallpaper maintain a fragile grip on the walls, stirring a little as I walk by. Large patches of chipped cement indicate places where it has given up its precarious hold entirely. As I wipe the building sweat off my forehead and upper lip, a dirt-encrusted dog slinks its way through the kitchen and into the room where the animals are kept. A goat I met on my earlier tour of the house bleats its disapproval at obtaining a new roommate. An ancient stove stands in the corner of the room. The relentless sun has stripped away the painted flowers on one side, lending it an oddly lopsided look. Steam rising from one of the holes in the stove carries with it the sweet smell of freshly cooked rice, which mixes with the scents of sweat and dung in the muggy air.

Scanning the fragile, splinter-encrusted table, I realize that I have already forgotten the names of the relatives seated around me. I've even forgotten how they're related to me. All I know is that their hands are hard and callused, their teeth are crooked and yellowed, and their clothing consists of pieces of torn, sunbleached cloth colored with sweatstains.

The strappy summer dress I donned that morning in an effort to stave off the heat and humidity of southern Chinese summers suddenly feels uncomfortable. The last time I wore it was to my high school graduation; perhaps I've grown out of it in the past couple of months. All of a sudden, I notice that the ribbon around my waist is too unnecessary, the cut of the dress too impractical. The white and blue pattern is too white and blue; I look around for some way to dirty it. My throat closes up for a brief moment when I realize that there is no way for me to make the dress fit in. Maybe if I offered it to one of the women at the table she would exchange her clothes with me.

My aunt (cousin? cousin's wife?) stretches a bony, heavily suntanned arm toward the supply of rice. A huge black cloud of flies buzzes into the air, revealing that the cover of the rice barrel isn't black, but rather brown. She scoops out some of the sticky white grain, bats a fly out of her face, and replaces the cover. The cloud settles back onto its original perch.

My eyes drift to my mostly-full rice bowl. The white granules seem to move lethargically, convincing me that they are actually hundreds of fly maggots for almost a full minute before my brain finally catches up and scolds my overactive imagination. Even though I'm pretty positive that my rice is maggot-free, I've lost my appetite. I lost it during the first deodorant-less hug I was given when I walked in the door.

I open my mouth to lie that I am full, but am forced to close it again when I remember that I can't speak my father's dialect. I can understand every third word, but speech evades me. The words have slipped away with misuse and time and now the only thing I know is "zai-wei," good-bye.

My dad spent most of the car ride from Shanghai to here reminding me of all the phrases I picked up the last time I visited his hometown, eleven years ago. "When you go in, make sure you say 'm'ba' to any male with white hair - there should be two of them - and 'biao-gu' to the ones that look my age. 'Qing-ma' is what you call your older aunt and 'n'niang' is what you call your younger one. The older one is shorter; I know it's counterintuitive, but try to remember that. I don't think any of your girl cousins will be there, but if they are, call them 'biao-ji'. Don't be so nervous! You're a good girl, even if you say something wrong, they'll still like you. If worst comes to worst, just address them in Mandarin. They won't understand, but it sounds better than English. And of course you still remember how to say hello, right?"


The Disturber of the Flies looks up from wolfing down her food and shakes her chopsticks in my general direction. A grain of rice falls from the end of her chopstick and into a plate of bean sprouts. Not even waiting to swallow, she babbles something at me accusingly, smacking her thin, cracked lips between words so the food doesn't fall out of her mouth, "…eat…little…eat…more…big!"

The next thing I know, she's deposited something from each one of the eighteen dishes into my bowl. Most of it doesn't fit and tumbles off the small mountain of food to land on the table. Satisfied, she returns to her task of eating as much as she can as quickly as she can. A strand of lank, oily hair falls into her face. She throws her head back like a horse, removing an unnecessary obstacle in the path from her rice bowl to her mouth.

My eyelids flutter rapidly up and down, up and down, as if with a mind of their own, as I wish frantically for some way to get out of having to eat everything in front of me. The heat and the smell prevent me from thinking up any clever escapes, so I resort to cursing the Chinese notion of stuffing a guest full to bursting as a sign of hospitality. Swallowing thickly, I gingerly pick up a green bean.

It actually isn't half bad. Sweat streams down the bridge of my nose and I only just manage to catch it on the back of my hand before it plops into my food. I try a spicy bamboo sprout. It makes me tear, blurring the sea of prematurely wrinkled faces with downturned lips and eyes unused to smiling that surrounds me.

Unintelligible conversation battles its way through the muggy air, the words arriving muted at their intended ears. In any other weather, it would be called "chatter," but heat and humidity never lend themselves to chatter. A fly buzzes past my ear; the sudden loud noise makes me swallow the bamboo sprout before I can finish chewing it. I try to uncross my legs and find it to be much more difficult than usual because sweat has stuck them together. When I finally manage to unstick them, they make an awkward "shhhick" noise.

I pick up the next food item in my bowl, intent on finishing the task set in front of me. About to put it in my mouth, something stops me. Arm stiff in the air in front of me, I go cross-eyed to inspect the pinkish-orange thing trapped between my chopsticks.

The air I was breathing sticks in my throat. I lower my chopsticks, uncross my eyes, and verify that the object I was just about to consume is what I think it is. The heat is suddenly replaced by a bone-chilling horror. Slowly, my breath unsticks itself and rattles into my lungs. My limp hand drops the chopsticks and the piece of shrimp they had been holding. Even though I know I'm fine because the shrimp didn't enter my body, I can still feel my throat closing up of its own accord and begin to see red boils forming all over my body.

Noticing that I have stopped eating, the Disturber of the Flies hollers encouragingly, "…so good…eat…best…lots of money!"

"I - I - I'm sorry. I'm allergic," I stammer in Mandarin.

Her eyes glaze over and her brow furrows. She raps my dad on the arm with her chopsticks and demands a translation.

Before a full sentence is even out of my dad's mouth, she turns back to me and insists, "Not…eat…is sad!"

I haven't eaten the shrimp, but my throat constricts anyway. "I'm so sorry," I repeat over and over again in Mandarin, as if she can understand what I am saying.

She waves her chopsticks at me, dropping another grain of rice in the bean sprouts, says something I can't understand at all, and then disappears up the stairs. My dad yells after her, but she seems to ignore him because he turns back to me and says, "You don't have to eat everything she gives you."

I swallow loudly and slowly, "I'm fine, Dad," and force a smile.

He raises his eyebrows, making his forehead look very much like newly plowed land.


At this point, the Disturber of the Flies has returned with an armful of long, sticklike objects and a pair of scissors. She deposits them in front of me and contorts her mouth into a wide, yellowed grin. Wrinkles crease her cheeks. "Eat!"

I pick one of the sticks up and almost drop it because it's so cold. The family must have acquired a refrigerator in the past decade or so because I don't remember any from the last time I was here. Upon closer inspection, the sticks are actually a Chinese version of Fla-Vor-Ice. Once, when I had the stomach flu, my mom asked me what I wanted to eat because she felt bad for me and I told her to buy an entire box of the stuff. I rip off the wrapping and grab the scissors, cutting off the top of the plastic casing before squeezing out some ice and sticking it into my mouth. The coolness seeps in and makes my mouth numb.

The Disturber of the Flies laughs a scratchy laugh and proclaims, "…happy!" I smile, no doubt revealing that the artificial coloring has already dyed my entire mouth blue. Curious as to the flavor of my snack, I pick up the wrapper and inspect it. She sees what I am doing and quickly snatches it out of my hand, but not before I see that it was four yuan. Of course that only translates into a little more than fifty cents in the U.S., but that's expensive for a bit of flavored ice in China. I am reminded of this as I take in the wax paper in place of glass for windows and the dirt that functions as flooring. I look at the last bit of Fla-Vor-Ice that has already melted in the heat. My throat feels sticky from all the syrup and sugar. It's hard to swallow. The dog slinks back into the kitchen, bringing the smell of decaying fecal matter with him. I've lost my appetite again. I bite my lip and close my eyes, hoping that when I open them, things will be better. They aren't.

Finished with his food, my dad yawns widely and informs first me, then everyone else that he will be going upstairs to take a nap because he is so jetlagged. I shrug my consent. His family ushers him up the stairs with smiles and laughed words, very few of which I can really understand.

The Fla-Vor-Ice falls out of my hand and lands on my dress, I've gotten my wish; my clothes are now dirty like everyone else's. But it doesn't help. The combination of sugar and sweat seeps into the cloth of my dry-clean-only dress, leaving behind patches of sugar-stiffened cloth and yellowish fabric. The empty Fla-Vor-Ice casing sits on top of the unconquered mound of food in front of me, mocking me for not being able to finish it. My throat closes up for what seems like the hundredth time that day, but this time, tears mix with the sweat on my face and I push away from the table. Mumbling, "Zai-wei," I walk up the same set of stairs my dad took, trailing the stench of manure and Chinese food behind me.


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