"the shu nu"

creative nonfiction

Recognized by Scholastic with National Gold Medal

The Shu Nu walks, legs long and graceful,

on the squeaky white tiles of high-end stores.

The Shu Nu sits, knees touching, leaned delicately

to one side, in the glass bus station.

The Shu Nu picks up a piece of

delicately chopped cucumber, one hand holding

chopsticks, the other 

carefully cupping underneath.

The Shu Nu speaks

not unless spoken to,

and when spoken to, she answers

in a low voice, so as not to startle, 

disrupt.

Shu nu has no direct translation. 

In Chinese, it means something like 

“elegant, obedient girl”. 

It is a term commonly used 

to describe the type of girl every parent 

should try to raise their daughter to be, 

the type of girl every husband

would want. 

Shu nus fill Chinese romance shows 

like flocks of sheep;

they spatter the fronts of magazines 

and advertising posters 

with wide, shy eyes

and white sheet skin

and red lips slightly 

parted

almost as if scared;

they serve at restaurants and hotels 

dutifully, 

bowing every time they answer 

a customer’s question. 

 

I should be more like her.


 

respectful

respectable

hard-working

humble. 

 

there is internal submission 

to the larger ways of the world.











 

 

 

They see hua yi, they see eagles—brave and free;

these are the ones who have traveled to the land

across the ocean, whose skins

have worn their country’s colors with pride, whose souls

have expanded with newfound individuality, whose tongues

have strengthened enough to 

speak beyond the script.

 

The Shu Nu enters the public bathroom

and splashes cold faucet water onto her face.

She stares at herself for a long time in the mirror,

pressing her hand against the cold silver surface.

If only she could step through the looking glass

and become the hua yi.

My feet turn outward with each heavy step
that echoes in the tunnels of underground markets.
I squat, jacket dipping in dust and crumbs,
in the smog-filled streets. 
I use my bare hands to grab slabs of
sauce-covered roast duck,
stuffing the meat greedily
into my mouth.
I speak
when told not to speak,
and my speech often clangs and screeches,
scraping against the edges
of taboo, of controversy.
The name they give me is lao mei, 
“old” American, the mother of which
is lao wai, foreigner,
distancer, 
double entendre.
It is a term that invites subtle hostility,
and simultaneous curiosity.
Foreign children of Chinese parents
are watched closely as they travel
through streets—intrigues, 
abominations;
these are the ones 
who have forgotten the shapes
and the shades 
of their native language.
These are the ones whose skin
have darkened, whose souls
have fattened, whose tongues
have sharpened enough to
blatantly pierce
the common etiquette.
My grandparents and aunts and uncles tell me

 

Being a shu nu, they say, is about more than
being lady-like. Shu nu are

 


 

 

Beyond external appearance,


 

This is the right path, they tell me, and by right,
they mean oldest and smoothest.
But I am not liquid,
I do not flow like water through the paths of
the known world. I 
am brick, solid and stubborn.
When I plant myself down,
I am loud and firm.
When I move, I crash and tumble and cause
commotion.
When I see shu nus in the streets, I see swans,
but when I watch more closely,
I find their eyes gazing back at me.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I enter the public bathroom
and splash cold faucet water onto my face.
I stare at myself for a long time in the mirror,
pressing my hand against the cold silver surface.
If only I could step through the looking glass
and become the shu nu.

For a long time, we linger there,

side                                               by                                               side

side

by

side.

Then, we both walk away.