by K-Ming Chang
My mother and her classmates called him Cai Tou. He was the new boy in their class, the one born in a city, and he had a bald spot on the back of his head that was white as a shucked-out eye. It was basically a birthmark, my mother explained, but not. Every time my mother told me this story, she reached out her hand and jerked out a few strands of my hair. Like that, she said, but much harder. Cai Tou was one of seven children, same as my mother, but the difference was that he lived in a two-story house with a maid, plus his father was a professor of English. Say something in English, my mother said to him, but he never answered. He knocked his forehead with both fists and said oops, I swallowed all of it. They called him Cai Tou because of his head, but he ended up impressing everyone on sports day by running faster than all the other boys in the class. Later, they found out it was because a wasp had stung his penis and he was running to ventilate his crotch, but because of his record 100-meter dash, they stopped calling him Cai Tou for an entire week. The name returned one day when they were standing in the fruit fields, shooting the watermelons with pistols—it was practice for someday shooting soldiers, my mother said, though watermelons are much more delicious to hit. While my mother and her classmates rubied their lips with watermelon rinds, Cai Tou confronted them, twining himself with the vines. He argued that the nickname Cai Tou was the Taiwanese word for radish, and since every Taiwanese word accrued a fine of one dollar—one girl got caught calling to her mother in Taiwanese and got fined so bad she had to sell her roof the week before a typhoon—it was illegal to call him Cai Tou. Call me by my Mandarin name, he said, though no one remembered it. His real name was like something-something sun, my mother said. Some of the kids were scared off and no longer called him by any name, but my mother said she wasn’t afraid of fines, since the teachers knew she couldn’t pay up. Instead, they kept a word debt, hitting her a total number of times at the end of every month, one stroke for each Taiwanese word they overheard.
There was this one time, my mother said, when my first sister called out HEY, LITTLE SISTER as I passed her in the hallway, and they took her out to the hills and beat her with some kind of branch. But every time they hit her, she swore in Taiwanese, which added another stroke to her debt, so by the time they finished with her, she had no bones left. She’s still alive, though, my mother said. Right, I know that, I said to my mother. Aunt Iris came just yesterday to hang up this crucifix, the one with the missing ribs. Right, my mother said, anyway, I wasn’t afraid of the fines. It was Cai Tou who cried whenever I got fined. He used to stand outside the classroom while I got beat, and afterwards, when I came dog-crawling out, he’d give me a pig’s blood cake to reimburse the blood I’d paid from the vein, even though I couldn’t really give him anything in return, and then he’d say he was sorry, like he was the one who loaded the words into my mouth and fired them. He was that kind of boy, bloodsoft, sorry. By the end of every month, the teachers calculated two hundred words of debt, and I paid it all with my generous rear end. That’s why I’ve got such a fat ass. I’ve layered it like a cake. Now I’m impervious to blades. Any fist would get buried in all this frosting. Okay, I said, but what happened to Cai Tou? Oh yeah, my mother said. He grew up and his father gambled away all his family’s money and the house was damned to debt. Cai Tou’s mother said it was all our fault, that we rotted him like a fly-studded rind, that we corrupted his blood to mud. By the time we were in high school, he was as poor as us, and he still looked like a radish, with that bright spot beating like a moth at the back of his head. We used to flick at it with our forefinger or try to hit it with a pebble. I really wanted to press my pistol to it. Not really to shoot him or anything, just to see if the mouth would fit, match the shape of it. I like to see a reason for something. Anyway, you’re lucky, my mother said to me, because it’s not illegal to say radish anymore, and now when I say it, Cai Tou, I think of him in that watermelon field, his head lowered so far forward we could see that birthmark salting his scalp, and he asked for his real name back, which was something-something meadow. He begged us not to call him that dirt-word anymore, but the way it feels in my mouth now, Cai Tou, without any debt tethered to it: saying it is sweet as watermelon meat.
I wouldn’t know, I said to my mother, you never taught me any Taiwanese. My mother smiled at me, spitting the shell of a watermelon seed between my feet, and said that’s good. It’s better not to know how much you owe.
My mother grew up teaching me Mandarin but not Taiwanese—she always told me it was a “less useful language” to learn. During quarantine, she began to actively teach me more and more Taiwanese, and it became a new shared language between us. One day, she told me the story of Radish Head, a boy her classmates used to tease in school. She told me that Radish Head would try to get them to stop calling him Cai Tou by saying it was a Taiwanese word, but he couldn’t ever really prove that it was Taiwanese. She also told me that you could be fined for speaking Taiwanese (or be punished in other ways), and I became haunted by the story of a boy who was navigating both interpersonal relationships and systemic language suppression, harnessing and weaponizing one to address the other. His story began to fuse with another story of a boy my mother told me about: a rich kid in the neighborhood whose money came from his father, a professor of English. Once again, language, status, and capital were intimately linked. Writing this story helped me delve deeply into those ties between language loss and historical trauma, but through the lens of memory and childhood relationships.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.