when you are born, you are blank. your skeleton is an easel and your skin a canvas and your ribs a row of fountain pens and that is all. your ink-stained veins ache with possibility.
the streets pluck a pen and roll it between their fingers. they are hesitant. they do not want to do this. but they are empty, and you are alone, and so they do their duty. they scrawl abandoned across your temples (sacrilege), where it burns like a brand. the moon does not weep. you are not the first of the lost children, the left children, and she has no tears left to cry. but the stars watch, peering through the veil of smog. they always do.
the woman finds you, and you are no longer alone. the ink glints under the moon's gaze. you push a wail from between your lips and it is a wild, lonely thing.
she presses a fingertip to your forehead and smudges the letters. spits saliva into her palms and rubs until you are blank again.
she selects a pen and anoints your temples with ink. her hands are not shadowed with hesitancy. she names you ai li. she names you strong. she names you beautiful. she names you loved. but you cannot see her words.
it was always others who wrote upon your skin. found, scrawled your adoptive mother, the cursive letters tapering into knife-tips. soul sister, wrote your friend in an elegant script. i love you? wrote your brother, his handwriting sloppy, simple, and stained with actions that spoke louder than his words ever could.
but chinese is tattooed upon one wrist, and american stamped upon the other: chinese-american, yet the american nullifies everything that comes before. and you loathe it.
you scour the blog of a white woman who manages to know more about your culture than you do, and you pick up a pen. a thousand dragonflies burst into flight between your ribs, sending tremors skittering along your bones: your hand shakes.
jun lei, you name yourself. you think it pretty. you call yourself chinese.
and yet every word stamped upon your skin is written in the alphabet of the american people.
you discover discarded scrapbooks in the attic, piled into an old cardboard box and forgotten. you part the pages.
there is a fat baby dressed in pastel pinks, gazing at the camera with wide, lonely eyes: you.
there you are again, in a striped pink blouse and belly like a kangaroo's pouch, offering a half-chewed, saliva-adorned cookie toward the photographer. here, your eyes say.
there is a woman with hair brushed back into a knot and sharp cheekbones and the kind of smile that looks like the sun spills from her lips: who is she?
there is a family. they sit in a small storefront, the shelves lined with packets and jars, the floor covered by wooden pallets upon which sit sacks spilling something colored in bright reds and yellows. the mother perches, smiling, on a scarlet stool with peeling paint, another woman beside her. a shy boy stands in the background, his brother offering a grin and a peace sign. the nana is still intent upon her work. and the girl.
she has a round face and slanting eyes and a short ponytail and a bright smile and a pink shirt with a butterfly.
you wonder if you could have been her.
you turn the page.
a fat baby with a familiar face peers up at you from the pages of her immigrant visa.
us consulate guangzhou. surname: feng. given name: ai li. you are stunned. your brain has short-circuited: you don't think it works anymore.
you go downstairs and log on to your mother's laptop to search her files. you find the adoption form and you discover that you were adopted from the fengcheng social welfare institute.
her name was feng ai li, a document says. as if that is a part of you that can be erased.
you learn that you were not named by your mother, but by the orphanage. feng was the surname given to all orphans, a barcode for the left behind. but ai li, it is yours. it is yours to reject and it is yours to accept.
you print out the forms. fill them out. your hands are not shadowed with hesitancy.
you rename yourself ai-li jun-lei feng. a girl with enough wind in her lungs to breathe life into the words she has always needed to say. a girl neither chinese nor american but the daughter of both countries. a girl: loved.
you are not choosing blood family over legal family. you are a feng, you are a lost child, a left child: this is a reminder that you belong to no one but yourself. you are jun lei, the girl who ached for ancestors across the sea.
you are ai li. beautiful love, it means. strong love. you will not reject it. not that of the mother who was forced to leave you. not that of the mother who chose to find you. not that of a woman who told you, from the moment she saw you, that you were loved.