The Chinese translation for only child means “single root.” Meaning one.
The One. The Only.
Ayis, or aunties would give me a look, their lips quivering, disbelief and pity in one sigh.
My parents were married for ten years before they had me, a preemie, born four weeks early. When I was a little girl sharing a queen bed with her, my mother called me bǎobèi. You had a sister, she whispered, a baby to be named Patricia, she was not here. Years later, I understood this to be a miscarriage, though that word was never spoken at home. Bǎobèi means baby or treasure.
You eat like a bird, the Ayis cooed. Too skinny. Was that a compliment or criticism? Eat, eat.
My favorite food was jiao zi, steamed dumplings. The soft skin, the juicy pork middle. Hot little feet sliding down my throat. Wow, so many! My parents’ eyes glowed proud when I slurped and spooned them into my greedy gosling mouth. Food was a way to show love; shoveling food into my belly, a substitute for closeness.
At bedtime, my mother sang a made-up lullaby using my nickname Xiao Mei, or Little Beauty. The name of an ice cream company in Taipei, she told me, turning down the corners of my quilt. Squinting in the dark, I tried to picture it. Taiwan seemed too far away, even in dreams, an imaginary land where my grandfather lived and my other grandparents were buried. I didn’t even know their names.
The word “only” sounds like lonely, synonymous in my mind with another word: alone.
My best friends are only children too. We are sisters, not in blood but kin — the ones who carry a lifetime burden, the ones who must never forget. When my mother-in-law describes an only child, her head tilts to the side as if to say that’s odd, only children are a question mark, an unfinished conversation.
Selfish, anti-social, oddball. Desperate to defy those labels, I was exceptionally good with adults, speaking their language. Twirl in my white dress, balloon skirt spells grace. Smile and clap, bow and disappear. Always a performance. I absorbed their voices so well; now it’s hard to drown them out and listen to the one gurgling in a sea of grief — my own, the one that’s been here all along. Only me.
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