I shut my eyes, and imagine that the little bronze tiger is alive. His skin is oxidized, patches of green littering the weathered bronze.
Year of the Tiger
I never thought to ask my father about the little bronze tiger that lived on our stoop, until he was slamming our front door on the latest group of pale-faced missionaries. Perched on a hand-sewn pillow, I watched as my father stormed into the living room—the front door still shivering behind him—and snatched our statue of Buddha off the mantle. My eyes followed him back out the door, and I flinched at the smack! made by the bottom of the statue being slammed against the concrete. From the window, I could see the Buddha next to the bronze tiger, the two sitting side by side like best friends on the Kindergarten yard, complete with pinky swears and matching necklaces of half-hearts that—when aligned just right—would form a whole.
The second time the missionaries came around, I listened to my father scream at them in broken Chinese, until their once clean faces became ruddy and wet. He pointed to the statue of Buddha and screamed more, until the missionaries began to say Sorry! Sorry!, stumbling over their feet as they broke into a run down the street. On the television, Tom and Jerry was playing, and I suddenly imagined my father as a large and stupid cat, chasing down half a dozen Jesus-loving mice. When my father came back into the house, I was giggling at the screen, and pointed at him to say:
“You’re like Tom!”
And then I instantly knew it was the wrong thing to say because when he reached for the remote to turn the television off, I was certain that it would crumble in his fist.
“Don’t waste your time watching that shit.”
The television screen turned black.
I was walking home from the bakery with my father, sunlight beaming down on the chocolate frosting melting into my left palm. On my right hand rested the most beautiful thing I had ever seen: a bright pink plastic ring, with Cinderella’s face plastered in the center. I twisted my hand back and forth beneath the sunlight, watching as it illuminated the blue in Cinderella’s eyes. Her face was smooth and pretty and pale. Her hair was curled perfectly.
When I looked up from the ring, my father’s feet were nearly an entire block ahead of me. My legs moved so quickly to catch up to him that I must have looked like a blur. As I walked, I made sure to skip over all of the cracks in the sidewalk because I’d heard some kid in class saying if you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back!— and there was no way I was going to risk that. My sneakers bounced between the squares of the sidewalk, as if I was playing the world’s longest game of hopscotch.
And then something wonderful occurred. Suddenly, the most beautiful diamonds I’d ever seen began blinking up at me from the sidewalk. It was like God had reached into his pocket, and thrown a handful of glitter into the cement, just before it dried. Or maybe a star had fallen from the sky and shattered as it hit the pavement; maybe the sun had been gifting the ground with tiny little kisses of light. Head tilted towards the sky, I pressed my fingertips to my lips, and blew a kiss back to the sun.
And it was then that I finally understood the miracle of America—the reason why my father must have made us leave China and travel all the way to this funny little country. This was America, where the sidewalks were full of diamonds, and there were women who looked just like Cinderella, complete with straw-colored hair and sky-blue eyes. That night, after my mother had tucked me into bed, I dreamt of spacious skies and golden waves of grain, and a world where I was loved by a boy as pretty as Prince Charming.
There was a church down the street from where I grew up, called Saint Catherine’s Roman Catholic. It was holy in a way that nothing else in my life had ever been holy, a little stained-glass miracle on the corner of Bayswater and Second. Once, I peeked into their Sunday service, out of curiosity alone. I must’ve looked kind of funny, my crimson dress nothing more than a flick of red ink against the wooden doors. I never went any further than the entryway though, terrified that the churchgoers would take one look at me and instantly know that I didn’t belong.
I still remember how pretty the inside of the church was. Saints stood tall in the windows, bits of colorful glass fitted together to create their bodies, like the world’s most beautiful kitchen-table puzzle. Mahogany dowels did backbends and pirouettes across the ceiling; the windows made the light look soft and holy, like an untold secret. Soon, I created a little ritual for myself—every day, on the way to school, I would take the long way around and pass Saint Catherine’s Church, if only to steal a glimpse inside.
But one day, as I was walking towards the church doors, I was stopped by a strange woman. Her face was like a crumpled sheet of paper. Black and white fabric fell like cotton dominoes from the top of her head to the soles of her shoes. Her right hand held a thick stack of pale yellow pamphlets.
“Good morning, dear.” As she spoke, the woman placed a pamphlet in my hands. My cheeks flushed at the attention, and I scurried away from the church, rounding the corner of Bayswater until I was safe from the woman’s sight. Once I was certain that she couldn’t see me, I turned the pamphlet over in my hands. God Loves You! it said, the letters large and red like plump tomatoes. I slid the pamphlet gingerly into the front pocket of my math notebook, and then—clutching the notebook close to my chest—carried it with me all the way home.
A week later, when I heard my fathers voice booming through the walls, I immediately knew that I’d done something wrong. I walked into the living room to see my father holding the God Loves You! pamphlet in one hand, and an already-lit match in the other. I watched, aptly, as the flame hit the paper, the sound of my father echoing in the background. As it burned, my father used the flames to light a stick of incense, until the entire living room smelled like jasmine smoke and a dying God.
For the first ten years of my life, I only ate one kind of meal: rice, eggs, and cabbage, stir-fried together in a single pan with sesame oil and soy sauce. The most consistent thing about my childhood was the bottle of Kikoman’s soy sauce that lived on our kitchen counter. As a kid, I was certain there were no other kinds of food in the world, startled to see Kikoman’s and Kadoya replaced by Heinz and Kraft in my classmates’ pantries. My best friend in kindergarten had nothing except Slim Jims and Coca-Cola in her cabinets. I remember thinking that her house must have been this “heaven” place that everyone was always talking about.
Only once did my father bring me to an American supermarket. It had gigantic automatic doors that swished as they parted; inside, it looked as if every aisle had eaten a rainbow and then thrown it back up. While my father disappeared to search for eggs, my eyes caught a flash of orange on a nearby shelf. A cartoon tiger waved happily down at me from a bright blue box of Frosted Flakes. Lifting the heels of my pink and green sneakers, I reached my right arm towards the ceiling, and quickly swiped one of the boxes. My chest swelled as I held my prize in front of me, the corners of my mouth lifting to match the cartoon tiger’s open-mouthed grin. Then, holding the box close to my chest, I ran all the way back to the produce section, until I spotted my father’s shoes.
I paused for a moment, chest moving like an accordion as I caught my breath.
“Pa, may I buy this please? Please, please, please?”
My father scowled.
There was an abrupt thud as a small cabbage dropped from my father’s left hand and onto the dirty linoleum. He snatched the cereal box out of my arms.
“Pa, I’m so–”
My father’s voice boomed from the produce section all the way to the butcher’s counter on the opposite end of the store. I watched as the apples and oranges shuddered at the sound. I think some people must have been staring, because my father quickly seized me by the elbow, and dragged me all the way past the automatic doors and into the parking lot. I turned my head and watched as we abandoned the eggs that had been sitting so patiently in our shopping cart, silently fighting the urge to cry.
As I climbed into the backseat of my father’s Subaru, I decided then and there that Frosted Flakes was the absolute worst cereal, and I would never, ever let anyone convince me to like it.
Our bathroom cabinets were defined by a distinct emptiness, left by the absence of band-aids and cough syrup and painkillers. Because painkillers are a scam—or so said my father—who believed that a person needed to be strong enough to survive without the luxury of Western medicine.
My father did believe in exactly one kind of medicine: Tiger Balm. The first time I complained of a headache, my father reached into his pocket and pulled out a little hexagonal jar of the stuff. With two fingers, he used the ointment to draw two translucent-reddish streaks on either side of my temple. It smelled like a mixture of incense and toothpaste. It tingled on my skin.
When I got my wisdom teeth pulled, my father threw away the doctor’s prescription for Vicodin, and gave me a jar of Tiger Balm instead. For an entire week, I smeared it all over my jaw and cheeks, until the menthol made my face feel like it had gotten stuck in a freezer.
Once, when I was in kindergarten, I was climbing the stairs to our front door when I accidentally kicked over the little bronze tiger on our stoop. At the sound of the bronze hitting the concrete, my father opened the front door to find me crouched on the ground with my skirt splayed out, index finger carefully applying Tiger Balm to the head of the little bronze animal.
“Pa, I’m sorry!” I cried.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
My father grunted in response, and slammed the door shut. For the next 20 minutes, I continued to apply Tiger Balm, until I was sure that I’d covered every inch of the bronze statue. The next morning, when I went to check on the tiger, I found that the balm had disappeared. Certain that it had absorbed into the tiger’s skin, my sneakers danced gleefully across the wet concrete, completely oblivious to the fact that it had rained the night before.
My father’s hair is parted in the center, the line of his scalp moving from his crown to his forehead in a single brushstroke. When he is angry, I imagine this line running all the way down to the center of his brow, perpendicular to the three parallel creases across his forehead. The tiger bears a similar mark on its forehead: one single stroke in the center, intersected by three horizontal lines. In Chinese, it’s the character 王, pronounced Wong, but spelled Wang. Though I’ve always pronounced the “ah” sound more like “ay,” because it’s easier for people to spell when I say my name is Wang. In Chinese, it means king.
In the mirror, I stick out my tongue and imagine the character burned into the soft and fleshy pink, its taste ugly and unfamiliar in my mouth. Although I’ve never really liked the way the word looked in anyone else’s mouth either. My first boyfriend tried it once, because I always used to call him by his last name. But Bennett is much smoother on the tongue than Wang. Much more graceful.
“Don’t call me that.” I frown.
He blinks at me, the dorm room lights bouncing off the blue in his eyes.
“I don’t know, Bennett. It’s just not the same as when I do it.”
He smiles a little, amused.
“Ok, whatever you say.”
Bennett leans over to kiss me, but his mouth doesn’t taste quite the same as it used to.
Last day 04/04.
In Chinese, the character for the number four is 四, and it’s pronounced nearly identical to the character 死, which means dead. It’s fitting, then, that the only Chinese grocery in town would be closing on April 4th.
On that day, I wake up an hour before sunrise, relishing in the pale blue cast of dawn. As the sunlight comes spilling through the curtains, I leave my dorm room to take the mile-long walk into town. I knew it was coming, but I’m still startled to see the windows of the Chinese grocery boarded up, its entire body suffocated by an army of 2x4s. The front door is chained and padlocked. The yellow awning droops towards the sidewalk like a broken wrist. For a moment, I close my eyes and imagine the awning with a proud spine, the doors open wide like a mouth, and the shop full of light. I imagine the shopkeeper’s disappointed scowl upon realizing that I don’t understand Chinese; the rows of bottles of fish sauce and soy sauce and rice vinegar; the cabbage and ginger and mandarins displayed haphazardly in the front window; the taste of the melon-flavored candies that I always bought on my way out.
When I open my eyes again, I can feel the tears blurring my vision. But I can’t bring myself to wipe them away, because there’s nothing left for me to see except a limp yellow awning, full of bright red characters that I can’t even read.
“Like, I can’t buy soy sauce anymore.”
I pick at the nail polish on my right thumb. The red paint chips away like the skin of a lychee, peeling back to reveal the pale flesh of a fingernail.
“You know that there’s soy sauce at like, every other grocery store, right? Even fucking Walmart has an Asian aisle.” Bennett scooches closer to me on the bed, leaning his head on my shoulder. His hair falls in a straw-colored mop over his eyes.
“No, but they don’t have the right kind, Bennett.”
“There’s literally no difference.”
“You wouldn’t get it.”
“Why wouldn’t I get it?”
“Because you’re not—”
“What, cause I’m white? Why does that matter, babe? You don’t even speak Chinese.”
“Bennett, how does that even—”
“Just shut the fuck up, will you? You’ve been going on about this shit all day.”
The cold air hits my neck as Bennett’s body disappears from my side. I pull a box of matches from my pocket, flicking one alive to light a stick of incense. The smell of jasmine fills the room. As Bennett walks towards the door, I watch as the doorframe casts a shadow across his hair, and I can’t help but feel a little satisfied to see the thick streak of darkness marring his beautiful blonde curls.
I return home from my first year of college with my lips stained a brick red and my eyelashes spiked into claws, armed with the knowledge that the diamonds I used to see in the sidewalk were actually just mica, which is used to help the rain slide off the sidewalk more easily. My hair is now full of horizontal stripes of bleach, which I’d done by myself over the sink of my dorm with a box of L’Oreal Colorista and a pair of nitrile gloves. It’s the first thing that my father comments on when he picks me up from the airport. He tells me that I look like a blonde tiger. I try to thank him. He clarifies that he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to make their hair look like an animal.
At home, my father parks the Subaru while I crouch down to pat the head of the little bronze tiger on our stoop, nostalgic for the days where I was small enough for it to feel like my own little pet. Now, the tiger is barely the size of my shoe, and looks more like a lost kitten than a jungle predator. My index finger mindlessly traces the stripes indented into the bronze.
“Piece of shit, that is. Need to get rid of it.” My father frowns as he watches me examine the little statue.
“What, Pa? The tiger?”
“Aw, no it isn’t. Don’t get rid of it please.”
My father grunts, moving past me to open the front door. I give the tiger one final pat on the head, before kicking off my sneakers and following my father inside. The front door slams unceremoniously behind us. My father’s keys jingle as he drops them on the entryway table, between a bowl of mandarins and a box of jasmine incense.
Hungry, I reach for the Slim Jim hidden in my left jacket pocket. The package crinkles, and my father glances over at the sound. To my surprise, he opens his mouth to speak.
“You know, my first love in this country was Slim Jim.”
“I can’t imagine you eating Slim Jims, Pa.”
My father’s hand lunges forward like a paw.
“What? No! Stop! Pa, that’s mine!”
I shriek as my father snatches the Slim Jim out of my hands and eats a half of the stick in a single, smug bite. I laugh out loud, teeth glinting under the light as my cheeks push upwards into a grin. For a second, I think I see my father smile back.
All of a sudden, something on the kitchen counter catches my eye. Next to the bottle of Kikoman’s is a bright blue box of Frosted Flakes, complete with the cartoon tiger’s golden colored eyes and wide-mouthed grin. My jaw hangs open like a broken window. I look back over to my father, who is flipping through the newspaper with a furrowed brow. The Slim Jim wrapper sits on the table in front of him.
I don’t bother asking my father about the cereal box, nor do I bother looking for any milk. Instead, I reach for the box, pop open the tab, and immediately shove a handful of dry cereal into my mouth. The taste of artificial sugar swarms my tongue. It’s absolutely disgusting. Clutching the box close to my chest, I move to sit across the table from my father, and continue eating the cereal until the entire box is gone.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, be not afraid of growing slowly, be only afraid of standing still. My father used to recite this proverb to me before bed, only with a slight change made to the second half. His version went more like this: be not afraid, or I will hit you. I’m not sure that the philosopher who created that proverb—or any philosopher, really—would approve of his iteration. Then again, I’m sure that the likes of Confucius and Lao Tzu are nothing compared to my father.
Knowing how important it was to abide by my father’s wisdom, I was careful not to show any fear around him. There was one exception—ever since the day I was born, I’d been completely terrified of the water. Unfortunately, my father refused to raise, in his words, an idiot who doesn’t know how to swim. Eventually, during my eighth year of life, my father decided it was time for me to get over my fear. And thus to the pool we went.
On my first day of swimming class, I’d been dressed ever-so stylishly in a ruffled pink one-piece and a pair of neon goggles. Wrapped in my cotton towel, I cried for the first twenty minutes, watching through my tears as all the other kids waded around in the shallow end. The instructor was some perky blonde, who tried desperately to coax me in. But her voice was nothing but a grating whine to my adolescent ears, and her words only fueled my determination to stay dry for the entire forty-five-minute lesson. Nothing could convince me to get in the pool.
Except for one thing. About halfway through the lesson, I heard my father’s voice booming towards me from the stands.
“Go get ‘em tiger!”
And suddenly, the water didn’t look so terrifying anymore.
On the drive home, my father yelled at me for getting water all over the seat of his Subaru, but not even his screaming was enough to wipe the grin off my face.
Long ago, in China, the Jade Emperor decided there should be a way of measuring time. On his birthday, he told the animals that there was to be a swimming race. The first twelve animals across the fast-flowing river would be the winners, and they would each have a year of the zodiac named after them.
Shortly after the rat and the ox, the exhausted Tiger clawed his way to the riverbank to claim third place. Swimming against the river’s strong currents had been an enormous struggle for him. The Emperor was so delighted with his efforts that he named the third year of the zodiac after him.
I was born in the year 1998, exactly thirty-six years after my father. In the Chinese zodiac, we both fall under the year of the tiger. According to travelchinaguide.com—which is, really, equal to the word of God himself—those born in the year of the tiger are “cruel, forceful, and terrifying.” To my father, those are all synonyms for strong.
Sometimes, my mother would come home to us screaming in the living room, and my eyes would be swollen, and my father’s brow would be creased into an angry line. It’s because you’re both year of the tiger, is what my mother always said. Sometimes, I even found myself believing it. It was nice to think that the reason for our anger was as simple as the year that we were born.
It’s 2022—another year of the tiger. I’m 24. My parents have repainted their house with a fresh coat of beige. As I walk towards the front door, I instinctively crouch down to pat the tiger on our stoop. My hand bats at empty air. I look down, only to find that the little bronze tiger is gone.
When I open the front door, I find my father sitting in the living room, the steam from his jasmine tea rising towards his face.
“Hey, Pa? What happened to the tiger on our stoop?”
My father’s brow furrows. He moves to stand.
For the remainder of the day, my father and I search the house for the tiger, turning over cushions and searching cabinets that haven’t been dusted in years. Within a few hours, my new white sweater is covered in a thin layer of dirt, and my eyes and lungs are chimneys full of soot. As the daylight wanes, I begin searching through a cabinet of old CD’s in the kitchen. I turn to look at my father, only to find him sitting at the table, exhausted. The sun is now gone, and the kettle is warming its body on the stove. My hands rifle mindlessly through our cabinets, and I watch as my father pours himself a fresh cup of tea.
“Pa? I still need help loo—”
“Let it go, kid.”
“It’s just a stupid tiger.”
I turn away from the kitchen. My body floats to the front door, and my hand reaches forward to fling it open. There’s an empty space on our stoop now. I sit in the vacancy. The sky is a swath of dark fabric, thick and heavy. The air is sweet and cold like menthol. I shut my eyes, and imagine that the little bronze tiger is alive. His skin is oxidized, patches of green littering the weathered bronze. I watch as he begins to run down the sidewalk, sprinting away from our stoop. I watch as he passes each house on the block, the bronze blur of his body growing smaller and smaller. I wonder how far he’ll get.
Pressing my fingertips to my lips, I blow a kiss into empty air.