Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
In a powerful debut novel about modern-day motherhood, immigration, and identity, a pregnant Chinese woman makes her way to California and stakes a claim to the American dream.
Scarlett Chen could keep a secret. It was everyone else she couldn't trust: not the passengers in her row, not the flight attendants, not anyone who might give immigration officials a reason to turn her away.
As the plane descended into Los Angeles, she tightened her lips. She didn't want to get airsick and risk someone examining her too closely. She had to look pagnzi like any other well-fed Chinese tourist on her way to the Vegas slots. Pressing her fingers against the window, she marveled at the glittering Pacific and the mountain ridges pinched like dumplings. At sunset, the gold, slanting light had transformed the coastline into something more beautiful, more possible than anything China had to offer.
When the flight attendant announced the local time, she could have just as well said midnight or six in the morning. After traveling for nearly an entire day, Scarlett had lost all sense of the hour. It felt strange to arrive at almost the same moment she'd left Shenzhen, as though clocks had gone out of order when she crossed the international dateline.
She had been much too nervous to sleep on her first trip outside of China, her first time on a plane. She checked her passport, burgundy embossed with gold stars, to reassure herself that the visa hadn't disappeared. In the photo, her eyes were wide and startled by the flash, and if you knew where to look, you could make out the new softness under her chin.
She fastened her seatbelt, low beneath her swollen belly. Her mouth had gone unbearably dry, but it was too late to hit the call button to ask for water. Her ears were popping from the change in altitude. Soon the plane would be on the ground, and what she could deny while aloft she now had to accept: she would through the rest of her third trimester far from her lover, far from all she'd ever known. Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, she tried to collect herself.
She'd always been solitary, by circumstance and by nature. In the village, the other families had been wary of the power that her mother held over them - and by association, Scarlett. She had never mastered circuitous feminine chatter, lacking the time, patience, or inclination to learn, and now Scarlett would be cloistered among wealthy, pregnant wives who would surely disdain a mistress.
With a jolt, the plane landed, its tires bouncing and squealing on the tarmac. A few passengers jumped into the aisle, yanking open the overhead bins to get their bags, determined to deplane first. They couldn't escape the peasant within: the elbowing, pushing, and shoving necessary to get ahead in a country of billions.
A squat man stumbled and nearly toppled into her row, and she lurched in her seat, shielding herself. Flight attendants shouted at him, ordering everyone to sit down until the plane stopped taxiing. Scarlett didn't need to rush. Her lover had insisted that she check her luggage, worried that she'd endanger their baby by lifting a suitcase above her head.
In the terminal, she smoothed her flowing tunic and hitched up her baggy pants. She rinsed out her mouth at the bathroom sink and ran her fingers through her hair, trying to look respectable. As she waited in line at passport control, she fought the urge to rest her hands on her belly. Despite the air-conditioned chill, Scarlett was sweating. She fanned herself. Studying the line of booths, she prayed she'd get an officer who wouldn't ask too many questions - one who wouldn't recognize the signs that betrayed the latter stages of pregnancy: the pimples on her chin, and the flashes of heat and wooziness that hit without warning. Her bump remained hidden and her paperwork was in order, she reminded herself, even if she was bending the rules on her visa. When the officer waved her over, she strode toward him, her gaze direct and her head held high - just like she'd been told, just like she'd practiced.
He looked through her passport. "First time in the U.S.?
Scarlett nodded. "Yes." She held herself so tightly she felt she might snap.
"Why are you visiting?" he asked. "How long do you plan to stay?"
Her baby kicked her in the ribs, so hard she almost swayed on her feet.
When Boss Yeung first told her about Perfume Bay, she’d tossed the brochure onto the dashboard and reached for a slice of dried mango. Shaking his head, he took the bag, but before he could stop her, she snatched a slice of chewy sweetness. During her pregnancy, he’d begun scrutinizing her, prescribing advice—some backed by science but most by superstition—to protect the baby. She shouldn’t eat mangoes, as their heat would give the baby bad skin; no watermelon, whose chill would cool her womb; no bananas, which would cause the baby to slip out early. No water chestnuts, mung beans, or bean sprouts, either. The list of traditional prohibitions grew each time she attempted to eat.
As he drifted into the next lane, she told him to keep his eyes on the road. He gripped the steering wheel and told her his plan: he wanted to send her and their unborn child halfway around the world to Perfume Bay, five-star accommodations located outside of Los Angeles. After she delivered, staff would file for a Social Security card, birth certificate, and passport for the baby. Their son—his sex recently confirmed—would give them a foothold in America.
“Eventually he could sponsor our green cards,” Scarlett had responded. “For now, you’ll get rid of me. Clever plan, Boss Yeung.”
At the factory, she called him Boss Yeung, and she kept it up in private, too, a reminder that she was a deputy manager, and not a xiaojie—a mistress, a gold digger from a disco or a hostess bar. They passed factories covered in grimy white tile, built on land that had been fields when she arrived here as a teenager. People from around the country had moved to the Pearl River Delta, just across the border from Hong Kong, to make their fortunes, and the factory girl you snubbed might someday become your manager.
Boss Yeung reached into the glove box for a brand-new U.S. atlas that he must have hand-carried from Hong Kong. Hope unfurled in her chest. She always navigated on their weekend drives, and with this gift, she pictured them traveling across America together.
“Whatever hospital you’d deliver in would be top-class,” he said.
“The hospitals are good in Hong Kong, too,” she said. Unlike in China, the government wouldn’t hassle her there for being an unwed mother, wouldn’t fine her or force her to terminate her pregnancy. Women there could have as many children as they wanted.
Boss Yeung frowned. Hong Kong was also home to his wife and three daughters.
“It doesn’t matter how good the hospitals are in America, if I end up in jail,” she said.
She had conceived even though Boss Yeung had pulled out, evidently not soon enough. For once, the method had failed them. Her periods had never been regular, and she’d been into her second trimester before realizing her nausea wasn’t the stomach flu and her heartburn wasn’t from the stress of trying to meet production goals.
On the radio, a newscaster announced that the U.S. embassy was evacuating American tourists from Egypt. Boss Yeung stabbed his finger at the radio dial. “The U.S. would save our son.”
“From Egypt? Why would I—why would he go to Egypt?”
“From anywhere. The U.S. would get him out of trouble anywhere.”
That was when Scarlett had realized just how much his son meant to Boss Yeung, reviving the dream that had died with the birth of his daughters: an heir to carry on his legacy. He had never shared this dream with her, for a boy in his image, a prince of the family. He was almost sixty, she was thirty-six. If Scarlett carried a girl, would Boss Yeung have sent her to Perfume Bay? No. He’d waited to book her stay until he knew she was having a boy, but objecting to such a preference would have been like objecting to gravity.
He sped up, picking off tractor trailers and buses, which still gave her a thrill. Faster and faster they went, getting so far ahead it seemed they might have the road’s end to themselves. With him behind the wheel, she might go anywhere. He put his hand on top of hers, lacing their fingers together, and she tucked her head against his shoulder. She never felt more complete than when nestled against him. If she didn’t have this baby, she might never have one, not with Boss Yeung or with anyone else.
On her own, Scarlett could have expected deference and attention. One pregnant woman gets a seat on the bus, the front of the line at the bathroom, and good wishes from strangers who pat your bump, ask how far along you are, and guess if you are carrying a boy or a girl. At the sight of a fertile belly, the most hardened can’t help but hope for the future, can’t help but long for their past.
A dozen pregnant women are a different matter.
You quarrel over who gets the most comfortable seat at dinner, who eats the last of the tofu stew, and whose aches are the most deserving of sympathy.
Deep into her eighth month of pregnancy, she had thought the other guests at Perfume Bay would lose interest, but they wouldn’t stop picking on her. Now she found herself squeezed into the corner of the couch by an equally round Lady Yu. Their feud had started over Scarlett’s accommodations at Perfume Bay, where she had the most luxurious quarters. Lady Yu had demanded the room, which had a view of the foothills, a massage chair, and a marble Jacuzzi, but apparently, Boss Yeung had more guanxi here.
On television, the Hollywood sign appeared, iconic letters that stood a few kilometers away yet seemed distant as the moon. After Scarlett turned up the volume, Lady Yu grabbed the remote and switched the channel.
Because Scarlett never bragged about Boss Yeung’s position, because she never mentioned him at all, the other guests found her suspect. She was a threat, not because she’d go after their husbands, but because she represented any woman, every woman who could. It didn’t matter that her lover was a stranger to them. Mistresses weren’t supposed to have children who competed with theirs.
Lady Yu had made clear that she considered Scarlett and the baby she carried lowly as turtle’s eggs. Nothing was more despicable than a turtle—dragging itself through the muck—except its spawn. A nurse arrived to drop prenatal vitamins into their mouths, their faces upturned to her like chicks getting fed. The pill tasted of iron and rotting leaves. Scarlett swallowed and gagged, felt the pill coming back up but chased it down with a few sips of lukewarm water. Her insides would roil all morning.
She had arrived a few weeks ago, and at any given time at Perfume Bay—three white stucco townhomes converted into a compound by ripping out the adjoining walls—about a dozen guests from China and Hong Kong were pregnant, and another half-dozen or so were recovering. The babies slept in a former dining room where a crystal chandelier hung over the bassinets. Cartons of diapers, crates of formula, and sacks of wipes jammed the garages, and closets had been remodeled into bathrooms.
Lady Yu led the Shanghai clique of spoiled wives, who were perhaps only a generation or two removed from the countryside. In Scarlett, they despised who they might have been.
Scarlett changed the channel back.
“Mei you wenhua,” Lady Yu shouted. “Nong min.” Low-class! A peasant! She hurled a magazine at Scarlett, missing wildly and hitting the television.
“Tuhao,” Scarlett said. An insult for the newly rich, with more money than manners.
Stung by the insult, Lady Yu heaved herself up and slapped Scarlett.
Scarlett rocked back in disbelief, putting up her hands to protect her belly. Her mother used to slap her, but no one else, not in decades. Lady Yu smiled smugly, the sort who beat her servants. Scarlett grabbed a pillow and smacked it against Lady Yu’s head. When Lady Yu clawed at her, Scarlett grabbed her wrists and forced her arms down, twisting almost hard enough to sprain. Their screams set off one baby, then all ten babies in the nursery next door, howls that picked up with the speed and power of a tsunami.
The owner, Mama Fang, rushed in, trailed by nurses, to separate the mothers-to-be, clucking that they shouldn’t exert themselves, they should consider their babies, and sent them to their rooms. At Perfume Bay, the mothers were treated like children, so that their children would obtain the most precious gift of all: American citizenship.
After Scarlett left China, she and Boss Yeung had grown apart, talking only every few days on video calls. Without proximity, without work in common, they discussed nothing but her pregnancy, and how irresponsible she was. Tonight, his bullfrog voice rumbled over the crackly Internet connection. “Have you eaten?” he asked. He sat in his office, his own lunch, a chipped plastic bowl of rice and soup from the factory cafeteria, untouched on his desk.
She hesitated. If she told him she fell asleep and missed dinner, he would chide her for denying their son nutrition. Sequestered at Perfume Bay, she’d become a modern-day concubine, her existence reduced to a single purpose: to produce the heir.
If she couldn’t please him while pregnant, she never would as a mother. She’d lose any chance of a future together. Mama Fang had promised not to tell him about the catfight in her daily report, but would expect a favor in return. Boss Yeung adjusted the webcam. Scarlett turned her head to hide the bruise blooming on her cheek. She had been drawn to his intensity, that seriousness of purpose. He could be decisive to the point of brusqueness, a trait she had recognized in herself and had admired in him until he started turning on her.
On the video call, his handsome face pixelated, breaking up, as though in a time-lapse film of decay. He was insisting on the name Yaoxi for their son, which meant “to shine on the West.”
“I’ll call him what I want,” Scarlett said. The baby’s birthplace shouldn’t define him. She wanted him free to go anywhere, to be anyone, and hadn’t yet picked a name. Settling on one would define a life that still felt limitless.
He thumped the desk, and the chopsticks clattered off the bowl. The screen locked up, freezing his expression into a snarl. Scarlett steeled herself. During her pregnancy, he had grown accustomed to giving her orders, and he wouldn’t stop after she delivered, not unless she stood up to him now.
When the video transmission resumed, Boss Yeung stared at Scarlett, and she quickly brought up her hand to cover the swelling and the inky bruise.
“What happened?” he asked. “To your face.”
“Nothing.” She dropped her hand, her cheeks hot. “The connection’s bad.”
She nodded. Better if he believed her clumsy rather than violent.
“Selfish,” he said. She understood. If she’d been more careful, if she’d been thinking about their son, she wouldn’t have fallen. “I won’t let you ruin him.” With a hiss of disgust, he logged off.
He wasn’t the usual factory boss, paunchy and red-faced from too much drink, sunburned from golf, with a clutch of fawning concubines, one for every night of the week. With high cheekbones and deep-set, watchful eyes, he had the look of a Mongolian warlord. Scarlett curled onto her side, pinned down by her belly, feeling as though she might never rise again. She’d pictured herself someday with a settled life, with a husband—someone solid as Boss Yeung, if not him exactly—a home, and a family. Now someday had arrived with nothing except the baby.
The pregnancy had come between them. She buried her face into the pillow. She couldn’t escape Perfume Bay’s bitter scent of herbs, which reminded her of her mother’s foul medicinal brews. A lifetime ago, she’d stopped relying on Ma, and yet now she wanted her mother’s fingers cool against her cheek, applying a poultice that would harden against her skin, crack off, and relieve the pain.
Something scratched the walls of Perfume Bay, branches in the wind or a burrowing rodent that would gnaw at Scarlett in the dark. She had been dreaming of spies peering into her window, of cameras hidden in the overhead light, of an eye in the sky. After a hard kick from her xiao dou, her little bean, Scarlett gasped. Did Little Bean dream of what lay beyond the murk? More kicks pummeled her from the inside, and she pressed her hand against an unyielding elbow or knee. Back and forth they pushed until the baby squirmed away, and they both drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, the nurses passed around the newborns just back from the hospital. For Scarlett, Perfume Bay had been a crash course in motherhood. She’d learned that while each newborn was much like the others, with a scrunched monkey face and oversized, lolling head topped by an identical blue-and-red striped knit hat, each little roly-poly body wrapped in an identical blue-and-red striped receiving blanket, she was still expected to exclaim superlatives for each one.
The other guests gasped at the bruise on her cheek, which looked even worse today, and Countess Tien fussed over Lady Yu. Although Scarlett tried to appear unbowed and unapologetic, she seethed at herself for losing her temper. Diu lian, loss of face, shameful to fight with Lady Yu.
Scarlett didn’t say the courtly titles she’d given the other ladies out loud, but she could think of them no other way. Her secret taunt, for how they carried themselves like descendants of the royal line. With her bejeweled hands, Lady Yu cradled Countess Tien’s baby. Her pinched features softened as she touched his nose. “What a noisy thing!” she said, careful not to attract the attention of jealous spirits with praise. She could soothe the fussiest infant, while Scarlett’s own lack of interest in children seemed a personal failing.
Excerpted from A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua. Copyright © 2018 by Vanessa Hua. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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