Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Who she is

My cousin (left), her daughter (center), and her husband (right).

May 17, 1988.
On the morning of Xiao Yan Li’s (李小燕) eighteenth birthday, the air, diffusing through the opaque windows, was as hot and suffocating as normal. There were no signs of celebration. Not even a tinge of love did she feel, as she watched her mother, preparing her younger brother and sister for school. She envied their boiled eggs and new school uniforms. Soon, she was bored at the sight of it, for she knew that she would never be treated the same and that going to school was just a dream. For many mornings and nights, she had thought about the same fantasy of going to school, meeting new friends, and reaching above the low ceiling of her potential. But she now quit, for it was no longer a dream of a teenager girl. She had finally become an adult, and her dreams and wishes had now all been shattered and destroyed into millions of pieces. She was angry and hateful, not toward her parents who had lost affection since she was born, but toward herself and the harshness of the reality.

At noon Xiao Yan was in a room all by herself, the only time without cold supervision and bitter sarcasm from her mother. At the age of eighteen, she became a professional needlewoman and a dispassionate working machine. She was working tirelessly in the house. Though she earned fifteen yuans a day, she never had a penny in her pocket. Her parents would use all the money to provide for their family. An old neighbor came by the door that day, as usual, and brought in more clothes for her to sew. Xiao Yan did not know how long she must have waited for the delivery. Seeing the neighbor at the door comforted her. It became an illusion that for a moment, she was ordinary. Soon the neighbor left the front door, and her life went back to reality. For the next six hours of her life she would only be dedicated to sewing, free of mind, body, and dreams. Xiao Yan looked at the locked refrigerator and front door– tears oozing down her cheeks and penetrating through her rugged clothing. Looking at her scarred hand, she wondered how long she could bear her isolation from the outside world.

Xiao Yan had never left the house for the past few years, partially because she was albino. Her permanent white hair and crossed eyes at the time of birth had humiliated the parents and reminded them of this shameful memory everyday whenever they caught the sight of her. Her mother had even suggested to Xiao Yan’s grandmother to drown Xiao Yan when she was still an infant. Though the grandmother later persuaded the mother to raise the young Xiao Yan herself, she was sent back to her mother once she was capable of babysitting her siblings. For the parents, locking her in the house was the best option for them to hide the fact from the public. Often relatives would come to the house, and Xiao Yan would hide upstairs. She, too, was embarrassed by her frightful physical appearance.

Later that night, the parents came home arguing downstairs. Five more hours and Xiao Yan would become eighteen. She had never expected her parents to buy a cake for her after all these years ignoring her existence. Still, she hoped the mother would allow her to cook herself a noodle soup with red colored egg. She never recaptured that same hope again after the mother ran upstairs. Without explanation, she started beating Xiao Yan. “Because of you, my husband looks down on me,” the mother screamed in anger. What was left of her, after the beating, was a young girl without love and passion.

For the next two days, Xiao Yan had no food, and the parents took away all her remaining allowance, fearing that she would escape. On the third day, a neighbor, who saw what happened, gave her 10 yuans. Xiao Yan saw hope from this money, though she did not where she could escape to.  She feared that if she had escaped to a relative’s house, his parents would eventually find her. But she was determined to escape; with 10 Yuan in her hand, anything was possible for her.

At five o’clock in the morning on May 20th, Xiao Yan was prepared to leave the house and her misery behind her. Though she didn’t have any extra clothes or savings on her, 10 Yuan was enough, especially for a desperate young adult who could no longer endure the oppression of mind and body. As she made for the front door, she heard footsteps from upstairs, in the parents’ bedroom. Each footstep came with rising anxiety. After making sure that her father was going to the bathroom upstairs, Xiao Yan opened the front door. It had been a long time since she had inhaled the fresh air. This would be her first journey, alone, to see the world that had almost closed its door on her.

Xiao Yan ran as fast as she could to the harbor, bare footed. Unsure of what her future might be, she boarded the ship to Tang Xia, a town where no one knew her. For the next four years of her life, she spent her time at the Buddhist convent. She was convinced that the world she lived in was meaningless and cruel. She wondered why the siblings who were also albino received better treatment than her. In reality, Xiao Yan did not have the worst physical appearance among her siblings; she was the only one with the burden of misery and rejection.

I knew my cousin Xiao Yan since I was barely able to walk on my own. Prior to interviewing my mother, I never noticed her disability. Not until a few weeks ago did I learn that Xiao Yan’s parents were first cousins. Because of this marriage, Xiao Yan inherited albinism from her grandfather. Though she would bring me home from Kindergarten, she never discussed her life before she started working for my mother, at the age of 24. This memoir helped me to clarify all the disconnected memories I had about my cousin. I had always known the tension between Xiao Yan and her parents, but never understood why she was never invited to any of my aunt’s family celebrations. For the past few years since my family moved to America, my mother still keeps in close contact with her on telephone and gives her financial support.

1 comment

1 emilymusgrove { 12.27.08 at 7:08 pm }

It is so terrible how your cousin was treated by her parents. Her parents seem to have had a lot of insecurity and shame themselves, but I feel like transferring those feelings to their innocent daughter is very inconsiderate. The beginning of Xiao Yan’s story is depressing, but then she gets a chance for escape and she takes it. To me, your cousin’s story seems to be about taking risks to gain the opportunity to overcome obstacles when life cannot get much worse. I’m glad she escaped. Xiao Yan now seems to have a loving family and I’m sure she knows how not to treat her daughter.