Nesting Dolls and Snakeskin

/ Ivy Du

Fiction16 min reading time

To get into kindergarten, they made me take an ELS test where I had to count to twenty; after I did, the man giving the test— who I still remembered as being shaped like a nesting doll— asked me to count higher. My mind had been full of the Mandarin that everyone around me spoke in my old Chinese preschool. I thought when he said higher he meant louder, so I began screaming ‘one, two, three’— until he cut me off and told my mother I was a work in progress, but I’d someday be finished.

I had a teacher in kindergarten who told me that all I needed to do to make friends was ask. But in preschool I just had to raise up a metal bowl to the lunch lady and she understood what I wanted without words, so I cupped my hands together and lifted them during recess; no one poured any friendship inside. My mother had told me it was impossible for a Chinese person to feel lonely— there were so many of us. If I had no one to talk to, I could just speak to the air; it was probably Chinese as well. During recess, I whispered to the clouds behind the chain link fence, but it spoke the dialect of the mountains, and I couldn’t understand most of its wind-whipped words— nothing except: ‘have you eaten?’

So I turned my attention to the dirt. I followed ladybugs as they scurried over the soil and made their way up the trunks of trees far away from the playground. My mother got upset when she saw me after classes by myself, counting ladybug eggs on trees, flicking the molt of their larvae far, so that their shells speckled the ground. She pulled my ear and asked me why I couldn’t latch onto auspicious things, like the jade pendants she bought me that I always lost. She told me to leave all that bug stuff alone, because feeling the emptiness between exoskeleton was as dirty as touching a dead thing. And touching too many dirty things might kill me as well; my touch was like prophecy, and I should fear stringing my fate to the shells.

I had a teacher in second grade who decorated her part of the portable trailer we held classes in like a hospital— kept its walls neat and white, its floors cream-tiled, instead of the usual elementary school carpet. This teacher said my name was too difficult to read, so she extracted a capital letter from the syllables— a wet nurse dragging it out the horizon-line of my name’s stomach— proclaiming me J. I had a new citizenship, a new birth in the hospital room of a beautiful country. The other Chinese students, having received their own names, cradled them like bloody infants and we became a congregation for those born again in their second grade teacher’s image. To get myself used to J, I refused to acknowledge my mom when she called me XiànJiāng, the jumble of tone marks falling out of her mouth and onto our carpet. She started throwing math practice books at me to get my attention, and told me I needed to keep responding to my Chinese name or else my Mandarin would peel away; a series of words shaking loose of my body and disintegrating into dust.

I had a teacher in fifth grade who my mom bought gift cards for on Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, DuānWûJié, because she was also a Zhāng, and who ended the year with no knowledge of me besides my two names. My mom had told me to introduce myself with my Chinese name on the first day of school, but Zhang told me that generations of attendance notes from my previous teachers reflected that I went by Jay, so I was going to be Jay in her class. So the other kids had easy access to me— circumventing a labyrinth of tongue-twisting vowels, contorting consonants— easier access to me than my own mother had. When Zhang opened the DuānWûJié card, she asked me what the second character my mother had written was. I didn’t know either. I told my mother Zhang couldn’t read her card, and she slapped my right temple and asked me why I didn’t take the opportunity to sing the sentence like a chorus breeze of red-cheeked angels, brandishing the pitch-perfect Mandarin I spoke from back when I was four.

I had a teacher in seventh grade who used to be in the army, but belatedly discovered his passion for teaching seventh graders band. He scanned our flute section, a legion of East and Southeast Asian girls in polos and skirts, who could not look him in the eye, and said ‘Yep, looks about right’— as if a flute was a nationality, a language of its own, and his class was a census for its kind. I had a teacher in eighth grade who insisted I was wrong when I said Japanese and Chinese used some of the same characters, who asked me to speak both languages simultaneously— fork my voice box in two like a river— to prove I knew what I was talking about.

I had a ninth grade teacher who would spray us with holy water (that she kept in a Clorox bottle) if we didn’t close our eyes and mouths while she was praying. My mother said that when she was young, prayer in her town was about speaking music, until the vibrations of your sound intertwined with the vibrations of the universe. I asked her why she sent me to an Evangelical Christian high school, and she told me it was the closest private school to our house. She said she regretted it, because she hadn’t known just how Christian it was, and thought my Chineseness would be sufficient to counter it; but I knew she’d been swayed by the Dean of Recreational Activity, who told me during my interview that it was admirable how well I was translating my mother’s questions (I had taken the liberty of putting her thoughts through several filters, trimming filler words, cutting out parts where she went completely off topic). She said she’d sooner believe Nǚwā created us than God the Father. I asked her once if we were all descendants of Nǚwā, wouldn’t that make us all snakes, and she threatened to sew my mouth shut: it meant we were divine creations, and we should never liken ourselves to toxic creatures that peeled off their skin to survive.

I had a teacher in tenth grade who would call the school administration if she caught international students speaking other languages. The disciplinary office would make them sign a rainbow-spectrum of papers mandating that they sew shut half their voice box; they came out with an aversion to colors, grayscale teeth that allowed only an orthodox tongue to trespass. I had only ever been in that office once. In my eleventh grade there was a SAT cheating scandal, and the line of questioned individuals somehow went: the Chinese international student population, then half the non-international Chinese students. In the waiting room, a bottle-blonde girl next to me introduced herself as Mindy. I asked Mindy if she was also here for questioning, and she said that if our names didn’t sound international— like they were made in a maze the rules of English couldn’t navigate— none of us would be searched. Unlike me, she was trying to get multiple absences cleared from her record to avoid detention. She told me it was no wonder I was a prime suspect, because Jay was just a part cut out of a whole, and my real name was in a language we weren't even allowed to speak. The faculty in the disciplinary office asked me if I had any friends, any family, any companies or properties in China, if I knew how to navigate websites with cramped, illegible home pages that seemed a lot more innocuous when my mother was buying vacuum cleaners from them. The Dean of Academic Discipline spread an arch of files in front of me, one of which had my government name highlighted. I was made to do the labor of branding myself XiànJiāng Zhāng on the signature line of the non-disclosure paper, instead of just Jay Zhang.

I had a twelfth grade teacher who made jokes about everyone’s non-English names as he went through the attendance sheet on the first day. Mindy and her friends let me sit beside them but told me to hold my tongue when he laughed at me, because this teacher would only let students sneak out during class if they smiled hard enough, with white enough teeth. If they were Asian girls with bleached hair who gossiped in the front of class, he would only do it if they were willing to spill secrets with him when he lowered his head down to meet theirs. When Mindy and her friends were giving him their best smiles on my behalf, my teacher grinned and said past all of their heads, directly to me: ‘I remember you. I remember when you got called into the office for that SAT stuff. So if anything happens, I’m looking at you.’ All the girls dropped their voice an octave after Mindy carefully closed his door, rolling their eyes and telling me to pull my weight during the begging next time. None of them questioned my scandal-ridden public image as we slithered through the empty hallways, then scaled down to the Seven-Eleven at the foot of the school’s hill.

Outside the entrance, each girl giggled like they couldn’t control themselves, huddling so close together it was like they had evolved into a single creature with more arms and heads of blonde hair than one could count. Like something born out of mythology, rather than anything my school had taught me was in the Biblical canon. The girls, with their six vocal chords and pointing fingers, instructed: ‘When we go in, pretend like you’re just browsing. Then grab something and we leave.’ I must’ve looked suspicious even without a name, because as I tried to squeeze back out the door with everyone else— to make myself their fourth, non-blonde head— the man behind the register differentiated me from the masses and told me to stay. All the other girls scrambled, running back up the hill to their safe haven, where there was no punishment for repeated transgressions, only a teacher who knew my sins like they were written on my face.

I emptied my pockets of candy, and the man motioned for me to come behind the counter and sit on a small plastic chair. I asked him if there was anything I had to sign, anywhere I had to pay the price with my real name. He told me that he didn’t care for my real name because he rarely gave his to strangers. People just called him Ed. Ed asked me how many times I’d walked down the cracked sidewalk by the store, felt the uneven, unkempt ends of each concrete square lift under my shoes. How many times I’d paid any of the car washes, tire shops, laundromats dotting the urban sprawl beneath my school a legitimate visit. Zero. He told me all those stores charged for service in cents, and I remembered the bill for my school coming in the mail, the cent part of the annual cost two zeroes, but the ten-thousand place a two.

Ed’s family lived in the area since before my school was even conceived of. He told me that the hill used to look lush with green tones, different textures of grass that swayed in different directions. That it once was teeming with wild snakes: long, slim creatures with checkered backs and gums the shade and smoothness of human organs. I asked him if he ever encountered one, if one ever bit him with the intent to kill. He said— his voice stretched into static like it’d come through a tape recorder— they mostly stayed up the hill, where they had plenty of prey. But sometimes at night, they would infiltrate the backyards of people with gardens. Just to see what new flavors awaited, to test what they could fit in their mouths. But they always slinked off by the morning without hurting a human soul. The only trace they left of themselves was their molt, because somehow the dark— the adrenaline that came with the unknown— coerced them into shedding one set of skin and slipping into another. No one he knew ever messed with the snakes, up until our founding Dean hired a private wildlife service that relocated them to some unknown place of captivity. I asked Ed if he hated snakes, not only because they took from others, but because he could sense their facade, an insecurity inlaid within their hiss that made their tongues shudder. But Ed told me that he was old enough, wizened enough, to know that the color of snake scales were the brightest when they’d just burst through their old, stifling skin: that's why the snakes found freedom in changing colorations under the mirror of the moon, absorbing its autonomy, before their stations on the hill dulled them out again. That snakes shed hundreds of times in their lives— it was in their nature to keep shedding, to keep switching.

At home, I regurgitated what my teacher said, but gave away nothing about the snakes. My mother cursed at me for not telling my teacher he was discriminating against wôménYàZhōuRén by insinuating I was a cheater, for not telling him that if I did cheat it would have been justified, because it was much harder for wôménYàZhōuRén to get into good colleges than everyone else. She told me to pray for everyone taking the gāokâo— it was obvious they were working much more diligently than me, because they had to burnish their English vocabulary until it was indistinguishable from their white tutors on paper, while I could barely read the pīnyīn over simplified characters in picture books. She sprinkled incense ash all over the house, and I had to keep my mouth open when I prayed to offset what the white people taught me. She told me it didn’t really matter what college I went to— even though she did care because she wanted her family back in China to be pleasantly surprised when they realized even they knew its name— because I was the indecisive type who would suffer regret no matter where I went. She said she prophesied, while I was young, that I’d grow into someone who couldn’t commit. Because I let my Mandarin leave me as soon as I became Jay. Then I let my English turn to dust when I could have spoken up for all of wôménYàZhōuRén.

In my freshman year of college, I was talking to a white man who told me on our first date he’d just finished Joy Luck Club, and asked me to quiz him. Who collected nesting dolls and took me to his parents’ house to show me his sets of contemporary ones. They opened to reveal progressively smaller dolls with the same design huddled within each hollow. He placed the smallest one on my palm, so small I feared moving my eyes closer would break it, and said that this was the doll’s heart. I sat facing the warmth of his fireplace, absorbing the flush of the flames, daydreaming of snakes— how many degrees of separation they had with nesting dolls. But his nesting dolls got smaller as you opened them, until you whittled them down to their hearts, stripping their form into a single syllable so brittle you could crush it in your hand. Ed said snakes shed to grow, blessed from birth to develop their colors through switching skins. When the man’s parents teased me for being unable to tell them a Chinese phrase in an ‘authentic’ tone, I wondered if I’d ever be able to flourish in my layers, to shine in my shed. But when I called my mother that night, she skipped past my greeting to her in broken Mandarin, and asked me why I never saved my good things for her; why I only ever called her when I was crying.

In my sophomore year, I had a date who kept telling me ‘say you love me,’ and I couldn’t respond, because my mother had foretold I’d never have a place to settle, that whenever I tried, my words would crumble in my mouth. I spent the rest of the day in my room with the curtains shut, holding myself captive in the dark, hoping it could coerce me into a shift of skin. Hoping the one underneath would form a smile like a good bottle-blonde with lots of white teeth, that could shiver its tongue into sounding out what men wanted to hear. But all I managed was to open the same version of myself over and over again— the one wetting her own pillow with tears. In my innermost layer, I held my own heart— a translucent carapace in danger of crumbling from even the vibration of a voice. It was so thin I wondered if it was actually there, if it knew when I had ever been shown the shape of ‘I love you’ in any language. Or if I’d flicked that phrase away long ago, too late now to go back and retrieve its sound.