Year of Nian
Nian is the name of a beast and a food, representing both fear and sustenance. The food is a traditional rice cake prepared for Chinese New Year; the beast, on the other hand, is a serpentine creature that comes from the sea. According to legend, Nian would rise from his briney home to pillage villages and devour crops and children which, to many, were the same thing. The Lion Dance is attributed to the villagers driving away Nian every year. In some versions of the legend, Nian is not driven away by this performance, but driven into submission. Fear cages Nian, and he becomes an overgrown dog to the villagers, kept in line only by red-clad children and firecracker skies.
Once, there was a beast called Nian. Nian liked to eat children. Nian was scared of red and things that rattled.
Nian is told what to eat and what not to eat. Children are wrapped tight in red. The sky crackles with thrown fire. Nian’s stomach goes slack.
In Chinese, the word for New Year is “Gao Nian,” meaning to “overcome Nian.” To begin again, you must overcome.
For Chinese New Year, my father is asked to speak to my fourth grade class. He brings with him strips of blood-colored construction paper. He is folding me a dragon that will stretch across the length of the classroom. For once I will know something my peers don't. Until my father, with his eager yellow eyes, teaches their fingers to pinch and fold. When he leaves, I wrap my folded dragon around my body so it trails behind me, a paper scarf.
When I am a child, I make paper-dolls—cut women out of blankness. I give them clothes and names. Margaux, Rosalie, Victoria. Names my parents would never let me keep. I fold them over themselves for storage and tuck them into a box.
My paper dolls attract ants, somehow. They scrawl across the penciled-in mouths. I imagine ant feet freckling their faces. My mother throws the box away.
During Chinese New Year, it is customary for paper lanterns to be released into the sky. Nian will not eat the lanterns because they are red. By letting go of the lanterns, it is said that you are letting go of your past self. You fold yourself in, then cast yourself out.
I steal a glass origami crane from a specialty store I have a gift card for. It is painted pea-green, and it will hold incense in its back. I peel the 7.50 sticker from its base.
When I am a child, my father creases and folds until I have seventeen cranes to give to all of my fourth grade class on Valentine’s Day. I will give the smallest one to the boy I like. The one with the cleanest folds; the one I can hold in my thumbnail.
The boy would always complain about getting the smallest one. The runt of the paper-litter. I could not explain to him why small might be better, how delicate things are always more precious.
To endear smallness is a very female thing.
The desired female-foot of the Qing Dynasty is no more than four inches—this ideal is known as the golden lotus.
Months fold over me; I fold under them. These are the same months with different angles. I wet the corners of days with my tongue.
My great-grandmother’s feet are sheathed in bandages; they are going to be flower-feet. Petals pulled inwards. They trim her nails so her toes may curl. Forced orgasm. They knead them with sweet-smelling creams. My great-grandmother has no door on her mouth. By the end of the day her feet are unfolded: simian and splayed.
To achieve the 4-inch ideal, the woman's feet were folded over with large bandages which would, in time, break the foot into submission.
My father creases dumpling skins and pinches them closed with wet fingers. I slip a skin into my sleeve. Later I will roll it into tooth-sized balls and let it sit on my tongue.
Chinese dumplings are to be eaten on Chinese new year. They resemble copper coins. We put our money where our mouth is.
Noodles for longevity, fish for prosperity, sweet rice balls for unity. What you eat, you will gain.
When I am a child, I make a habit of hiding. Of food tucked into the waistband of my gym shorts. Of ant-threaded sandwiches mushed behind my cubby. I keep one ball of dumpling dough in my desk, along with seashells I shake free from dry earth.
Renata is a name meaning rebirth. To be born again is to be covered in new blood. In first grade I am friends with a girl called Renata. Her voice is clipped. My eyes are long. We huddle under tipped ottomans until storms we can't see pass. I like her brother: he wears his hair to his shoulders and the hill of his chin is dimpled with acne. I tell him he is born in the year of the dragon. He doesn't know what that means, but he says dragons are cool. I leave a mangled tail of paper outside of his bedroom door.
Renata gives me a leather cord with a shell strung onto it. The shell is milk-colored and spirals into itself. When I press it to my ear, I can hear Renata’s new blood.
Renata’s family accuses me of stealing the necklace. I have not heard of stealing, only hiding. I tuck the shell into the bottom of my drawer and wait for a snail to bloom. I am not allowed to see Renata anymore.
Every year, the Chinese string their bodies together and roar with fire behind their teeth until Nian learns not to take things—whether they be children, sheep, or shells. Until Nian learns how to fold.
When I am a child, I do not know what stealing is. I reach a careful hand into a vat of bulk candy; I stuff my pockets with truffles and vines of sugar I can chew. I am spotted and scolded by a man I think is Jesus. He is wearing a bike helmet and his legs are sheathed in blue polyester. I will not take things that are not meant for me, I repeat, until he lets me go. He tells me to remember that phrase, to rub my tongue raw on it. I jog back to my mother with my hands folded tight behind my back.
I will not take things that are not meant for me. I will not take things. Things are not meant for me.
My life becomes mapped around taking. How much to take, how little. I count what I take; I add up the bill.
In Confucianism, to mutilate one’s own flesh is a great offense. For it is communal flesh; it is the flesh of your mother and your father and all of the mothers and fathers that came before them. It is family flesh, and it shall not be disrupted.
My great-grandmother flattens her breasts under boy’s clothes. When I am eight, I crop my hair until it fits under a boy’s cap. When she is nine decades old, she will spit up her bile into a cup. She loses things often; she ferments her chicken eggs in hot tea and runs her fingers through my hair where she thinks she may have lost something.
My father’s mother married a member of the Triad. She died in routine surgery. I have never broken a bone. My insides curdle. My throat is raw with nine decades. I learn how to braid hair; I take my shoes off when I enter. In my cousin’s house, I pull tufts of myself from her pillows and drains; I clean the blood from the hollow of the sink.
In my cousin’s house, I do not count my dumplings. She admires this; she says her grandmother ate like this once—her bite-sized grandmother. Her grandmother tucked under the arm of a mob boss. I nod and let skins of old money split beneath my teeth.
The British introduce opioids to the Chinese; my aunt sifts painkillers between her fingers in a Walmart parking lot.
When I am a child in absence of my mother, I pluck two mints and something that looks like a very white finger from her purse. The finger crumbles in my palm; I put my tongue to it. I wipe tobacco from my mouth and paint over it with peppermint.
In China, the greatest city is forbidden.
When I am a child, I build a home in my desk drawer. I pocket finger-sized Tabasco bottles and unstitch buttons from my dresses. My father yells in search of his cufflinks whenever I visit his apartment. His voice rattles the drawer-boards. I take little things and make them big. I am building the smallest home in all of the world. I tip thimbles over to become tables; tufts of cotton become pillows for pea-heads. I am eleven and it is becoming increasingly harder to be life-sized.
2.3% of the total population in China is Christian. My great-grandmother gives me a bible for my sixth birthday.
I have dreams of food. Of pillowy vats of vanilla ice cream, of sand dollar pancakes and the flour shells of pasta. Of food without meaning. I lick the dream from my fingers until I feel too ashamed to go on. Then I am awake again, in a place where things are not meant for me.
What you take in, you gain. I will not take things that are not meant for me. I will make all things red; I will roar myself into submission.
I am creasing and decreasing. I fold myself so small that you could keep me in your pocket. I’d like to live there, nestled in loose change.
Once Nian stops eating, Nian is tamed. He is unable to take. He is only taken from.
SEVEN LIU is a creative writing sophomore at the The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas. She enjoys writing experimental poetry and short plays. Her writing influences include Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and her general influences are Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, and other female hysterics.