May doesn’t care about any of that. I look at her and know exactly what she wants to say: I don’t want to hear you tell us you don’t like our hair. I don’t want to hear that you don’t want us to show our bare arms or too much of our legs. No, we don’t want to get “regular full-time jobs.” You may be my father, but for all your noise you’re a weak man and I don’t want to listen to you. Instead, she just tilts her head and looks down at my father in such a way that he’s powerless before her. She learned this trick as a toddler and has perfected it as she’s gotten older. Her ease, her effortlessness, melts everyone. A slight smile comes to her lips. She pats his shoulder, and his eyes are drawn to her fingernails, which, like mine, have been painted and stained red by applying layers of red balsam blossom juice. Touching—even in families—isn’t completely taboo, but it certainly isn’t accepted. A good and proper family offer no kisses, no hugs, no pats of affection. So May knows exactly what she’s doing when she touches our father. In his distraction and repulsion, she spins away, and I hurry after her. We’ve taken a few steps when Baba calls out.
“Please don’t go.”
But May, in her usual way, just laughs. “We’re working tonight. Don’t wait up.”
I follow her up the stairs, our parents’ voices accompanying us in a kind of discordant song. Mama carries the melody: “I pity your husbands. ‘I need shoes.’ ‘I want a new dress.’ ‘Will you buy us tickets to the opera?’” Baba, in his deeper voice, beats out the bass: “Come back here. Please come back. I need to tell you something.” May ignores them, and I try to, admiring the way she closes her ears to their words and insistence. We’re opposites in this and so many things.
Whenever you have two sisters—or siblings of any number or either
sex—comparisons are made. May and I were born in Yin Bo Village, less than a half day’s walk from Canton. We’re only three years apart, but we couldn’t be more different. She’s funny; I’m criticized for being too somber. She’s tiny and has an adorable fleshiness to her; I’m tall and thin. May, who just graduated from high school, has no interest in reading anything beyond the gossip columns; I graduated from college five weeks ago.
My first language was Sze Yup, the dialect spoken in the Four Districts in Kwangtung province, where our ancestral home is located. I’ve had American and British teachers since I was five, so my English is close to perfect. I consider myself fluent in four languages—British English, American English, the Sze Yup dialect (one of many Cantonese dialects), and the Wu dialect (a unique version of Mandarin spoken only in Shanghai). I live in an international city, so I use English words for Chinese cities and places like Canton, Chungking, and Yunnan; I use the Cantonese cheongsam instead of the Mandarin ch’i pao for our Chinese dresses; I say boot instead of trunk; I use the Mandarin fan gwaytze¬—foreign devils—and the Cantonese lo fan—white ghosts—interchangeably when speaking about foreigners; and I use the Cantonese word for little sister—moy moy—instead of the Mandarin—mei mei—to talk about May. My sister has no facility with languages. We moved to Shanghai when May was a baby, and she never learned Sze Yup beyond words for certain dishes and ingredients. May knows only English and the Wu dialect. Leaving the peculiarities of dialects aside, Mandarin and Cantonese have about as much in common as English and German—related but unintelligible to nonspeakers. Because of this, my parents and I sometimes take advantage of May’s ignorance, using Sze Yup to trick and deceive her.
Mama insists May and I couldn’t change who we are even if we tried. May is supposed to be as complacent and content as the Sheep in whose year she was born. The Sheep is the most feminine of the signs, Mama says. It’s fashionable, artistic, and compassionate. The Sheep needs someone to take care of her, so she’ll always be sure to have food, shelter, and clothing. At the same time, the Sheep is known to smother others with affection. Good fortune smiles on the Sheep because of its peaceful nature and kind heart, but—and it’s a big but, according to Mama—the Sheep sometimes thinks only of itself and its own comforts.
I have a Dragon’s striving desire, which can never be properly filled. “There’s nowhere you can’t go with your big flapping feet,” Mama frequently tells me. However, a Dragon, the most powerful of the signs, also has its drawbacks. “A Dragon is loyal, demanding, responsible, a tamer of the fates,” Mama has told me, “but you, my Pearl, will always be hampered by the vapors that come from your mouth.”
Am I jealous of my sister? How can I be jealous when even I adore her? We share Long—Dragon—as our generational name. I am Pearl Dragon, and May is Beautiful Dragon. She’s taken the Western spelling of her name, but in Mandarin mei is one of the words for beautiful and she is that. My duty as May’s elder sister is to protect her, make sure she follows the right path, and indulge her for the preciousness of her existence and place of love in our family. Yes, sometimes I get angry with her: for example, when she wore my favorite pink silk Italian high heels without permission and they were ruined in the rain. But here’s the thing: my sister loves me. I’m her jie jie—her elder sister. In the hierarchy of the Chinese family, I will always and forever be above her, even if my family doesn’t love me as much as they love her.