“But then Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive. She died because of you. You are bad luck.”
“I had a pair of perfectly normal feet when I was born, but they maimed me on purpose and gave me arthritis so I would be attractive.”
While I was basking in Third Brother’s praise, I suddenly felt a hard blow across the back of my head. I turned around to see Second Brother glowering at me.
“What did you do that for?” I asked angrily …
“Because I feel like it! That’s why, you ugly little squirt! This’ll teach you to show off your medal!”
“Is this medal for leading your class?” he asked.
I nodded eagerly, too excited to speak. A hush fell upon the table. This was the first time anyone could remember Father singling me out or saying anything to me…
“Continue studying hard and bring honor to our Yen family name so we can be proud of you.”
As we climbed the stairs, Big Brother muttered, “To her, we are not separate people. Here we have become one single unit known as all of you. Seems like this is how it’s going to be from now on.”
“Next time you go anywhere for the first time,” he admonished as he handed me a map of Shanghai from the glove compartment of his car, “read this map and find where you are and where you wish to go. This way you’ll never get lost again.”
In those few moments, we had understood everything. Not only about Niang, but also about all the grown-ups. Now that Nai Nai was dead, there was no doubt about who was in charge.
We began to question Third Brother’s sanity—had he imagined that Niang overheard us?—but he stuck to his story. “Perhaps,” he suggested darkly, “we’re being kept deliberately in a state of uncertainty because that’s what Niang most enjoys. The cat-and-mouse game.”
I was no longer the lonely little girl bullied by her siblings. Instead, I was the female warrior Mulan, who would rescue her aunt and Ye Ye from harm.
Though [Wu Chun-mei’s] chauffeured car invariably awaited her when school finished, she often chose to walk with me until we reached her house, with her driver trailing behind at a snail’s pace. In the morning, if she happened upon me trudging along, she would order her driver to stop and would hop out and accompany me all the way.
Did Third Brother truly understand what he was up against? By wanting to have things both ways and straddling the fence, was he aware that each compromise would chip away at his integrity? ... It was the loss of the nicest parts of Third Brother that saddened me.
I felt quite guilty about my favoritism and couldn’t help blaming myself for not having gotten more worms that each duckling could have its own.
“Since it’s so hot tonight,” Father suggested, “why don’t we all cool off in the garden after dinner? It will also give us a a chance to test Jackie’s obedience.” He turned to Big Brother. “Go fetch one of those ducklings…We’ll have some fun tonight!”
Finally, I sat there with my eyes tightly shut, wishing with all my heart that when I opened them again, I would be Jackie and Jackie would be me.
“When you’ve reached my age, you know which children are weak and which are strong. Don’t ask her too many questions. Don’t criticize her or tear her down. I don’t want her to grow up like Big Sister. She is going to be different!”
Though my parents tell me I’m worthless I’ve proved them wrong! Of all the girls in my class, my classmates chose me to be their class president. I must forget about my home. In my other life—my real life—I’m not worthless. They respect me.
“It’s because we won the election today. I’m now class president. We worked hard at it—”
Niang interrupted me in the middle of my explanation. “Stop bragging!” she screamed. “Who do you think you are? … You are getting altogether too proud and conceited! No matter what you consider yourself to be, you are nothing without your father. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!”
Claudine became alarmed. “Mama, how often does a ship sink?” she asked.
Before Aunt Reine had time to reply, Victor quipped with a straight face, “Only once!”
…then Victor did something my brothers would never have done. How took off his life jacket, slipped it on his sister, and showed her how to adjust the straps.
That was how [Aunt Reine’s] family treated me throughout the time I spent with them. They made me feel as if I were their third child. For the first time in my life, I did not automatically get the short end of the sick but was given an equal share, just like Victor and Claudine.
“It’s so unfair,” Victor continued. “Why doesn’t [Adeline] get to go anywhere with us?”
“That’s just the way it is!” Niang exclaimed sharply. “You either get in now and come with us, or you can stay home with her. Suit yourself!”
“In that case,” Victor replied gallantly, “I think I’ll stay and keep Adeline company.”
Afterward, Ye Ye and I sat by ourselves on the long couch, not saying a word. I looked at my grandfather defeated and resigned with a blanket around his drooping shoulders in the blistering heat, his face contorted with sadness and anguish. A tired old man with no one to turn to, imprisoned by his love for his only son.
“Don’t talk like that! … You mustn’t talk like that! You have your whole life ahead of you. Everything is possible! I’ve tried to tell you over and over that far from being garbage, you are precious and special. Being on top of your class merely confirms this. But you can vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth.”
Into her lips I injected my loneliness, isolation, and feeling of being unwanted. To my heroine I gave everything of myself.
Father looked radiant. For once, he was proud of me. In front of his revered colleague…I had given him face.