CARRY THE OCEAN
by Xian Mao
At their grandmother’s funeral, Andy cried someone else’s tears.
The transmitter behind their ear blinked quietly, an unobtrusive blue light overshadowed by the orange and gold of the autumn sunset. All over their body there was a dull ache, a stiffness of the joint as they helped lift the casket towards the body’s cremation. It was good to be carrying depression right now, a dull ennui that made it a struggle to care. Better than anger; better to be silent than to explode, to invoke a confrontation at the most unwelcome space.
They reached within themself and touched upon other emotions. Grief, there was plenty of grief, and grief was good. Grief was what they should be feeling now, as the body wrapped in white cloth was lifted into the oven, and a pungent black smoke filled the air. Soon it will become dust, or smog, they thought. And smog is what makes these glorious sunsets.
Grief was a familiar feeling. They had carried the grief of so many different people, grief for friends, lovers, pets and family. At the beginning, the crushing burden made them weep uncontrollably, but now they had learned to separate their soul from their mind, to trap the foreign feeling in a small compartment of their brain, so only the transmitter with the stamped “C” on the side would reveal their status as a carrier.
Whose tears were being shed? Probably not theirs, they would be disappointed if it was. At this point shedding tears without reimbursement was a waste of energy. Perhaps it was their current client; after all, tears could be shed without feeling, dull and hot attempts to find emotion. Or else, it was the long history of clients who requested them to feel but not for them to cry. And Andy didn’t, not until now.
They left early, without any exchange of words between them and their parents. They drew stares on the bus in their mourning clothes. Not being able to drive was one price they had to pay for making money from carrying other people’s emotions.
Their grandmother’s ashes would be shipped to China to rest alongside her second husband. The first Zhangs to come to America would not be buried upon its soil; there was some irony in that.
Zhang Hong carried herself, her first husband, and her first child to America through opening doors, and she planted herself on foreign soil with roots so deep they held even when her first husband left. They stretched deeper as she remarried, another immigrant from the North, and had another child. Andy’s mother was the first child, whom Zhang Hong named Mandy, from the Chinese name she choose for the infant as they flew across the ocean, a name that meant graceful guide. The second child she named Man Song, to plant this family onto foreign soil as stubbornly as a pine tree. Her children and grandchildren did not inherit her surname, but there was no mistake as to whose name was used to represent the family clan.
Mandy grew up on the elixir of the American dream, went to a prestigious school, legally changed her name to read Amanda on her identity papers, and made life comfortable for her children. In a fit of hypocrisy and filial piety, she let her mother name the child. And once again, Zhang Hong chose a name in Chinese with an English equivalent, and another generation of Zhangs inherited a name disguised to be American. The second generation should be one of peace, Zhang Hong reasoned. Peace, after the wars the immigrant parents and first generation children waged to plant roots upon the ground. Andy, not short for Andrew or Anderson, was a stillbirth.
The second child grew up, absorbing the love that was meant for two children. And when their birth name began to chaff, when the box labeled “girl,” then “woman” felt like prisons, they took on that ambiguous name instead, the name that had not previously known breath.
Zhang Hong fought for her family, found a home with imperfect English, learned how to drive and always made sure they ate before she did. Mandy fought, too, educating herself and giving her and her half-brother the quintessential American childhood, followed by a quintessential American adolescence. Then as a mother Amanda fought for her only child, so Andy grew up with no reason to fight.
If Amanda was the family’s success story, Andy was the disappointment. Their childhood was too soft, too wide, so mediocrity was allowed to settle in like a layer of dust.
Perhaps if they had been born a generation earlier, they would not be so passionless, so dull. But the person they made and were made into was mostly hollow, and thus perfect to fill with the unwanted emotions of those who could afford to feel only what they want to feel.
When they came home, Jiang Wuzhen had set the table with the best dishes she knew how to cook. Clumsily shelled shrimp marinated in tomato and soy sauce, nian gao stir-fried with vegetables, and bitter melon soup. Foods for a wedding, the new year and a cold winter evening, laid out so her roommate could wash out the taste of funeral from their mouth.
“This is really good,” Andy said, pouring the soup on top of their rice and staining the clear broth red with shrimp sauce. “You really didn’t have to do this.”
Wuzhen shrugged. “I’m between clients, and I like cooking. The shrimp’s not very good though. And the melon soup is too bland.”
“Stop it, everything’s perfect.” Andy caught themself as they choked on a mouthful of rice and began to cough. They waved Wuzhen to sit down as she rushed to help them.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked. “You know, it wouldn’t be much for me to take your client. I can fill out the transfer forms online. You deserve a break.”
“I’m fine,” Andy said, eating another spoonful of soup and wanting salt. Pretzels. They suddenly really wanted pretzels. It would be an abomination to eat cheap store-bought pretzels with the dinner Wuzhen labored to cook, but the hunger still gnawed at them. The emotion transmission often carried with it other traces of the client. For Andy, it was often food cravings. For Wuzhen, it was music, fragments of pop songs that would not leave her head.
They stood up and went to the cupboard, rummaging through the many bags of junk food sealed with rubber bands.
“You know the thing I don’t get? How they expect me to be some kind of continuation. I don’t even share a last name with them, but I’m supposed to be Step Three in the Zhang Assimilation into America or something. Well guess what, laolao, mom already has that covered, and you can fuck off back to China where history cares about you. Congratulations, you succeeded in living long enough to see the fruits of the fruits of your labor grow up to be a fucking failure.”
They found an old bag of off-brand pretzels, probably stale by now. The rubber band flicked their hand as they untied it, leaving a red line that quickly faded away.
“And do you know what? She never let my mom be hungry. The woman must have lost twenty pounds the first few years, raising my mom alone like that. And so my mom followed in her footsteps. Our house was filled with food, it was shameful, but my mom hoarded like there wasn’t a supermarket down the street, like a doomsday prepper. And she kept on telling me, ‘be grateful you’re not hungry,’ but she’s never known hunger either. And I tried, I hid food and threw away my lunches because I wanted to know battle, because it somehow made them better people. But I’m just the epilogue to her success story.”
There were only cubed grains of salt at the bottom of the bag. Wuzhen walked over and hugged them, smoke from the day’s cooking lingering in her hair. She softly hummed a song, and Andy remembered the tune. It was a Cantonese pop song from the eighties, a song their grandmother used to play even though she didn’t speak the language, first off an ancient stereo that still could read tapes, and later from the file they had downloaded for her.
“Why am I still hungry?”
The soup was cold.
On her bed, Wuzhen kicked around in her sheets and stared at her phone screen. She still had about twenty minutes of free international minutes stored on her phone. She could make a call right now, type in the one phone number she has memorized and press the green button. Or, sign into the free app everyone back home was using and make a call from there.
The minutes passed into hours, until it was no longer a convenient time to place a call to Hebei. She sighed, and with the finality of giving up rolled onto her back and tried to sleep before her shift. There wasn’t much time for sleep, more like an extended period of rest between a blink of her eyes.
Her phone was, as always, silent. Obviously, as she had changed her number, erased all of her contacts save those for work and a select few friends, and deleted all of the social networking apps previously installed. Andy had introduced her to the concept of No Contact, and for two years the two of them lived without so much as a murmur from their families. It felt foreign to her, an act so similar to betrayal. But she was in America, and it was no fault of hers if she became more and more Americanized, more Westernized, more of the child her parents raised her brother to be.
Wuzhen’s parents were of the single-child generation, who did not know how to give equal love for two children. Her brother, carrier of the family’s name, was also the carrier of the family’s dream. With him, her parents set their sights across the ocean to America, fed him ideals of individualism until he was full of hope and expectation. As the younger she was insurance, the good Chinese child to raise and nourish until the day came when she was to repay the debt. “Mind your brother,” they would say. “Take care of him,” even though he was three years older. He had free reign over her, took the love right out of her hands, while her parents laughed and called it sibling rivalry.
But still she held him when he received his exam scores, let his tears soak into her so she could become an ocean to buoy him. She took the dreams their parents dreamt for him and carried them to reality, the other, less wanted child. When she walked away from her family, he was the one she missed the most, perhaps the only one of them who could understand. Yet he was more loyal to their parents because of all the extra love, and she could not trust him to choose her, prioritize her over the web called family.
She was surprised when Andy ended their silence. Betrayed, almost, as the more American of the two of them could not resist the weight of Chinese values. It made her want to try and reach out, through channels only known by the younger generation. How could she explain herself? I went to America and became a lesbian. I had a mental breakdown and left school. I am carrying the sorrows of others to survive.
Better to keep to the silence. The silence knew how to explain itself.
She got up and began dressing for her shift. She checked her phone; there was a notification from Andy, a link to an article in the Times.
“Who Carries Our Depression: An Insider Look At the Emotional Carrier Service.”
“The article is bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.”
“’Though I do not fit the major demographic of emotional recipients, known as carriers within the community, I soon found myself accepted into their world,’” Wuzhen read. “’The other end of a treatment available to those with monetary means and an easily diverted conscience.’”
“The old, ‘I’m privileged but I’m going to mention it so I get a free pass on the shit I’m doing,’” Andy said. “Two months. He was a carrier for two months and he thinks he can write a long-form article with the gall to end it with the line ‘And eventually, I too learned to bear the burden with grace.’ It’s utter exploitation.”
“Maybe you’re just saying that because this was the article you wanted to write.”
“But this is my article, Wuzhen. I’ve had a draft going for a year; I’ve been a carrier for two and a half. I could write something ten times as good as this but now everyone will say I’m the copycat.”
“If you had published before him,” Wuzhen said slowly. “And got a decent advance, maybe even some jobs because of the exposure, would you still be carrying?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why is it your story? If Lara or Shanae had written something, would you still be mad? I mean, it’s not like this is your thing exclusively.”
Andy punched the table. “But my story is. Please stop being reasonable, I don’t need you to be a therapist right now.”
“I’m trying to help, Andy. I can’t go and assassinate the author for you.”
It all seemed like a cruel joke, reading the article, and then rereading it as more and more of their friends shared it on public channels. It wasn’t just that the article was bad; already, the carrier community was publishing responses and thinkpieces. The emotions that regularly invaded their mind, the anger and sadness and emptiness, was their gateway to their narrative. Somebody else had told their story, and not even well. Publishing an article was their way of coming out to their family, of telling them their story without facing them directly. It would be difficult to deny what was printed, difficult to pretend their voice was merely the whisper of the wind.
“Now what do I tell my family? All they have to go off of is this terrible article.”
“You don’t have to go,” Wuzhen said. “Stay with me and watch terrible mainland entertainment.”
Andy smiled. “Sure, even if I only understand half of what everyone is saying, I don’t recognize any of the celebrities and the humor flies over my head. But I made a promise, and it’s the first New Year without my grandma and all. I think I have to go.”
“Take care of yourself.”
“I know. Thank you for taking care of me.”
Wuzhen’s phone lit up with a notification. She looked at it and her face went still for a moment. “It’s nothing,” she said, after Andy inquired.
The dinner table was missing a generation. Andy sat between their two cousins and tried to focus on the taste of the food, richer than they remembered. Their cousins were having a conversation over their head. Uncle Mansong’s wife gave them pitying looks and tried to talk to them about what their plans were for the future.
Andy missed their grandmother; not the woman who raised their mother, but the old, smiling woman who would listen to them talk about feminism and neo-imperialism, nodding at every key point, though they suspected she only understood half of what was said.
It wasn’t long before the carrier article was brought up. One of their cousins piped up about how some of their rich classmates were enrolled in carrier programs in lieu of working with campus mental health services. Their aunt praised the author of the article for being “so brave” to be a carrier for a whole two months. Andy gripped their chopsticks and imagined all sorts of violence they could enact. It’s not me, it’s the client. Perhaps that was one advantage to being a carrier: all the ugly thoughts no longer belonged to you, but to the anonymous client whose dark secrets you were carrying.
After dinner Andy lit sticks of incense at the altar in the living room. This year, alongside fake gold and real porcelain statues of the Buddha and Guan Yin, was a professional photograph of Zhang Hong taken when her hair was starting to turn gray. The makeup covered almost all of the tiredness in her eyes.
Amanda walked beside her. “You know, Mansong told me Ari might be enrolling in a carrier program soon. College life has been hard for her lately.”
“Good for Ari,” Andy said, looking straight ahead. “But since when has college been easy for someone?”
“I think it’s shameful,” Amanda said. “To sign up and give your pain to someone else. Pain is an unavoidable part of life. If you don’t feel pain, how are you human?”
“Some people are only able to live when the pain is taken away. Carriers are giving many people back their lives.”
“But what does their life matter if they do not carry the consequences of their own actions and thoughts? These people use their money to avoid the negative. And shame on those who take that money instead of finding a real job.”
The soft blue light flickered like a heartbeat, the shadow and darkness of someone else’s life. The smoke from the incense danced towards the ceiling, lifted by an unknown wind. Andy wanted to pull back their hair and show Mandy their transceiver, wanted to pull it off their skin and ask her to deny the blood pouring from her child’s head.
As they looked at her mother’s face, they could see the daughter she was seeing. Through those eyes the burden of being the less imperfect child, the eldest of the third generation of the Zhang family, turned their shoulders to stone.
Streaming the CCTV New Years Gala was not as distracting as Wuzhen had hoped. The email kept creeping in the back of her mind, the conditions she tried to comprehend fully, the sum of money estimated for her services. The client wanted someone in America, someone young, preferably female. The thought of him made Wuzhen shiver, but the thought of his money pulled her in the opposite direction, to a place she didn’t know her heart could go. All this for a body…well, I never believed that I had a soul anyways.
The lock turned and Andy stumbled in, tears frozen on the side of their cheeks and red lines blooming on their cheek.
“You’re back early,” she said from her spot on the couch. “I thought you were staying the night.”
Andy sat down next to her. “I tried, I really did. And then I left because my family is a fucking mess of people who pretend to understand each other even when we’re all on different planets.” As they spoke they rhythmically clawed at their neck, until Wuzhen seized their hand. She held them, with the gala in the background, as their rigid body slowly melted into sobs. She held them until the quiet returned, and afterwards they ate cold dumplings together. Andy was almost back to normal, watching the sketches with lazy interest and laughing belatedly as Wuzhen explained the jokes. She still kept on holding their hand, so they wouldn’t act on the urge to self injure. It was comforting to have their warmth beside her, to feel so stable next to someone so fragile. I have it in me to leave them, she realized.
“I got a strange offer a few days ago,” she said.
Andy raised their head. “What kind of offer?”
“One I can’t refuse.”
Andy laughed, but then paused. “That was a joke, right?” You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, they meant.
Wuzhen almost gave in to it, almost just kissed them goodnight and kept it all to herself. But she was the kind of person to follow through, and she cared too much about Andy to not tell them and go through it alone.
“I guess he found me through the carrier service. I may have to talk with the agency about confidentiality. But he’s offering me a fortune in exchange for a day in my brain.”
Andy had to pause and think through the last few words. “Consciousness transfer? Isn’t that illegal?”
“The regulations are less strict in the mainland, if you know the right people.”
“So you’re going to let yourself become a product some rich businessman can buy?”
“Not exactly. The client will be uploaded.”
Andy laughed, a cruel, sharp sound against the background chatter of the gala, which was showcasing a new music group. “Even better, a dead rich businessman. You’re not going to do it, are you?” Wuzhen looked ahead and said nothing. “Wuzhen, you’re body’s not worth it.”
“I can go home with that money,” she whispered. “It’s been fun here but I don’t think I should stay. I don’t want this to be my home.” Andy clutched her hand tighter. “I want to go back to a place where at least I’m not a stranger. Just, don’t be around when it happens. I don’t want you to see me like that.” She laid her head on Andy’s shoulder and closed her eyes, breathing in the person who for the past two years was the most familiar thing, the next best thing to home.
Andy had a schedule planned, when each coffee shop opened to when each bar closed. There was a couch waiting for them in a friend’s house, and they had all the cables and chargers necessary to waste a day.
They left early in the morning, body wracked by someone else’s nightmares of fire and gunshots. They walked through the smog-filled dawn, brilliant and orange and pink, until the daytime buses began their routes. They filled the day with the smell of coffee and overpriced pastries. They tried to not think about where Wuzhen would be, someone else’s mind within her body. Tried not to think of Wuzhen gone, going back to her country after so long. It wasn’t hard to blame themself for not being a better friend, a better host, a better home so she would want to stay. But what did they know of immigration? It was a story of the past generations. Zhang Hong never spoke of it, while Amanda embodied it, made it her story and guide. It was a secondhand experience that defined two people, but Andy was used to carrying shadows.
Word by word, slow as the drips of water falling from a cavern ceiling, they began to write their story.
I have been a carrier for two years and three months now, but that is not my story. My story began two generations ago, when my grandmother immigrated to America as an unskilled worker from Harbin. I am a second-generation Chinese immigrant, and a third-generation disappointment. For two years and three months, I have carried the sadness, boredom, anger and anxiety of others, but for most of my life I have carried the traumas of immigration and otherness felt by my grandmother and my mother. I can only write from myself, about myself, for myself, and yet the way I conceptualize pain is not individual but generational, communal, and so I carry my burdens not with grace but with silent resignation. Perhaps my bowed head looks noble, but it is only something I have learned from watching those whose backs bore heavier burdens.
They reread the paragraph, deleted half of what was written, but kept on writing. They wrote, to remind themself why they deserved to be alive.
When the allotted day passed, Wuzhen felt her body return to herself, like being undressed, but she was the coat and not the person. She felt more hollow now that she was whole, as if the man had taken something with him, even if he never belonged inside her, even if every part of her was accounted for.
She stepped into the shower and stayed there. A part of her mind counted the minutes, the numbers on the utilities bill climbing slowly, and she hated it. You don’t have to worry about this anymore. She had checked the moment the man left, and the money was already deposited in her account. Enough for one year in Beijing. Enough to find a road that was actually a road, instead of the slow meandering towards anonymous old age and a pointless death that was her current life.
The water was cold. Her body felt dirty, and as she shivered she waited for the filth to wash away. The water stung her eyes; there was salt in them, she was crying an endless ocean. After a few minutes, she switched to the hottest setting, waited for the water to warm until the shower was encased in steam. She opened her mouth and let the scalding liquid burn her tongue. Her body felt raw, was the color of spam.
The filth still lingered.
Their goodbye felt like a poem:
Two months of getting affairs in order, searching for a room, quitting her job, going off the carrier list.
Sending the new draft to editors, waiting to hear back.
A half-hearted apology from their mother, in a red envelope.
A crowded airport, the thirteen hour flight that felt like a lifetime.
The apartment felt larger with Wuzhen gone. But she had left shadows of herself, in the floral plates she deemed too fragile to take with her, in the couch the two of them sat together when she first told Andy about what she was going to do. It was time to look for a new roommate; the apartment was too lonely for one person. Someone else’s sadness ran in their ears, so Andy pushed their spirit out from their brain and through their fingertips, filling the spaces where Wuzhen was.
Xian Mao grew up for the most part in Salt Lake City, where every view was a postcard.