jun lei

United States

running off into the sunset with calypso

Message to Readers

a rough draft, feedback appreciated. thank you so much to the lovely naomi ling for the chinese translations.

不要回头看 // don't look back

December 9, 2020

Sometimes, I think that transformation is a euphemism for death. A flower withers so the fruit may bloom. Caterpillar becomes pupa becomes butterfly. And I, burning for breath in the Guangzhou airport after the adoption goes through. Spasming at the terminal, slipping into a coma on the flight. My lashes flicker like dying lights, and I grow still when wheels touch American runways. Fire flares from friction, the plane a phoenix and I tangled in its entrails: split its skin and augur me a prophecy. Tell me of rebirth, of reincarnation. How my lungs will stutter to a start, how I will open my eyes to a new country, a new life. The taste of ash in my mouth. 

I learn to walk in the streets of New York City, where pigeons clutter the gutters like discarded dreams. I pluck pennies from the sidewalk and press them into my mother's palms, but she tells me to keep them. Pulls out her pocketbook to purchase a hot dog for me from the cart at the corner. When I wipe my mouth on the back of my hand, ketchup streaks skin like a stripe on the American flag. Like an open wound. I am lucky. This life is a privilege. Still, I feel heavy, my pockets weighted with copper. 

We make our way to Penn Station, and I scuff my sneakers against concrete as we wait. A woman walks by with her daughter, laughing in Mandarin, and I look away. We never visit Chinatown. We will never visit China. I close my eyes in the city that never sleeps. Call it home. 

On the subway, her face fades, replaced by my reflection in the glass and my mother beside me. A yellow girl and a white woman. And I think, for a shard of a second that digs into my ribs like a blade, that we are but strangers. Think that underground, the car feels like a casket, and wonder if there are ghosts. Wonder which is mine. At our stop, I stumble up the stairs and step out of the earth. Blink. Sun against salt against skin. 

I find recipes online and print them out. Bake almond cookies in a cherry-colored stand mixer from William Sonoma. Measure out Crisco and almond extract: McCormick's, established in Baltimore, only forty miles from Washington DC. All American. 

A Google search tells me that Chinese almond cookies are called 杏仁饼. Xìng rén bǐng. I spit syllables weighted with a heavy accent and they fall from my lips like a prayer. Again. Again. Like if I breathe them enough, they will become a part of me. I am still whispering the words when I electrocute myself unplugging the stand mixer. 

Months eddy past like the river in my hometown whose name I could never pronounce, and still, only a handful of characters do not slip through my fingers. My gaze snags on the sharp strokes that carved themselves into my memory: 妈妈 and 广州 and 我爱你. Mama and Guangzhou and I love you. Though I recognize them and remember their meanings, my voice falters when I try to speak. My pencil stills when I attempt to write. These words do not belong to me. It is as if I am meant to know, but never have. And so I do not learn.

But it aches when my eyes slide over hanzi like oil on water while ordering Chinese takeout. When I pause, ironing accents into the flat intonations to which I am accustomed. How the clerk expects me to speak the language of a country I cannot call home, how her face falls when an apology stumbles from my lips. Longing clinging to my lashes like tears: I am American. I am so very American. 

She presses a fortune cookie into my palm and my tongue knots itself. A moment as vulnerable as a wound, then a soft thank you. Plastic tears like skin, the shell cracking the way my ribs might. My fingers snake into the hollow, extract a slip of white paper: 不要回头看. I bite my lip, and she translates for me, her voice as gentle as touch: bùyào huítóu kàn. Don’t look back, she tells me. Don’t look back. When I glimpse our reflections in the glass, she looks like a ghost. Looks like me. The cookie crumbling like ash on my tongue: sometimes, I wonder what we leave behind in moving forward.
word count: 740


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  • December 9, 2020 - 7:53pm (Now Viewing)

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  • spectral

    hey dude just letting you know your carrd link doesn't work for whatever reason?

    5 months ago
  • jun lei

    mostly inactive these days! you can find me on insta @_ai.li._ and my recent work at ailifeng.carrd.co

    6 months ago
  • Jasmine_K

    this is beautiful. but all your pieces are- the way you write about culture or the absence of it, home or the absence of it, language or the absence of it- your diction always leaves me breathless. things make sense once you put them into words. i'm going to be coming back to this one, i can feel it.

    9 months ago
  • Tula.S

    this is fantastic and addictive. You have a way of describing monotony in such a fascinating, magical way; not everybody can do that. Absolutely phenomenal and good luck!!!
    Re: Thank you for your beautiful comments.

    10 months ago
  • chrysanthemums&ink

    woooooooo rooting for you!! <33

    10 months ago
  • Bertrand

    Love this<333 the imagery in the piece makes everything flow in smoothly. I really like the subject matter you are trying to deliver, origin is so important though we sometimes don't grasp it... Btw, when you say, don't look back, do you mean forgetting of your origin?
    This is so breathtaking:)

    10 months ago
  • Dmoral

    "euphemism" & "intonations" & "vulnerable" & etc etc
    your diction is always so meticulous and sophisticated that it makes me feel uneducated lol----but then again, i love how it automatically brings a sense of "finding yourself" and "knowing what you're writing about", plus it adds a sort of elegance to your pieces.

    your opening was clear and strong, i liked the metaphors and symbolism, the overall questioning and thinking of everything. i'm obsessed mainly with the line, "Fire flares from friction, the plane a phoenix and I tangled in its entrails: split its skin and augur me a prophecy" because that was a whole new level of imagery that i can't get out of my head. also, i remember you briefly mentioned in a comment on one of my pieces about you being adopted (a reference to line: "And I, burning for breath in the Guangzhou airport after the adoption goes through") and how we're kinda in the same boat. but ofc our stories are different but nevertheless, kudos to you for being open and speaking with courage about your journey!

    as you're ending, it's heartbreaking and beautiful in a way that i don't want to truly touch on it for fear it'll shatter. so i'll leave it at, "A moment as vulnerable as a wound, then a soft thank you." cause this line had me on the verge of tears.

    lowkey thought you left wtw (but i've also been inactive so what do i know lol) so seeing you break out such an amazing piece is heartwarming. wishing you the best ~

    10 months ago
  • Wisp

    "These words do not belong to me. It is as if I am meant to know, but never have. And so I do not learn."
    All your pieces jun lei, every single one leaves me breathless in a way I have never even known. Every time I see you publish something new, every time I see you pop up on the dashboard, my heart skips a beat a little, because gosh do you give writing a whole entire new meaning.
    And this piece is so heartbreaking and makes me ache for the severed roots of my ancestry, it makes me ache for something that I do not have the privilege of knowing. Your writing makes me feel like I'm running barefoot in houses with straw rooftops and riding mopeds in a city where I see people who look like me, it feels like connecting with long gone roots. Your writing sparks something within me. And every time I see you publish something, I just am so ecstatic, so exhilarated with the thought of reading writing of yours. So thank you for this, and thank you for all the pieces of yours I've been blessed with reading.

    10 months ago
  • Anne Blackwood

    Oh my gosh this is incredible... I'm speechless

    10 months ago
  • rwong

    oh my goodness this is so beautiful and heartbreaking ahhh i love it <3 <3

    10 months ago
  • Odysseus

    Stunning word. Absolutely breathtaking. Don't ever delete this. Ever.

    10 months ago
  • Paisley Blue

    Absolutely gorgeous...

    10 months ago