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.