art by Tais Teng
by Shelly Li
Uncle Tang repeats the same proverb when he beats me: "Hitting you is loving you." He's not my uncle by blood, though he's done more for me than any blood relative has. My mother could not have had a brother anyway, due to China's One Child Policy when she was growing up in the early 2020s.
Ignoring the tingling bruises on my back, I walk to the kitchen. A few dirty plates sit in the soapy hot water on one side of the sink, not enough to prompt a Bot to begin washing. Uncle and I are the only humans running the restaurant.
It's been a slow afternoon. Most days, above the humming of the kitchen Bots stretching clumps of dough into stringy noodles--Uncle's noodles are famous in Hangzhou, partly because even the middle class can afford the price--I can hear the conversations of business partners talking prices and politics, or the chattering of students as they grab a bite to eat before rushing off with their bags bulging with schoolbooks.
I wish I could go to school. I haven't seen the inside of a classroom for five years now, since I was eight when my mother died and Uncle told me that education was a need for some and for others, like me, an impossible luxury.
The water pours out of the tap when it detects my presence and washes away the lines of blood running down gashes on my arm, where Uncle's fingernails cut through. I look down at the water hitting the sink, waves bunching around the drain like a wedding dress's ruffles.
It's times like these that I hate my mother, for letting my father leave, for falling ill. I hate that pang in my chest every time I clear out plates and chopsticks for kids my age, the ones who come in dressed in their weekend outfits, wearing accessories that cost a year of my salary. They hold expensive devices like babies hold rattles, debate AI boxing contenders. Of course, around their necks every kid always wears a jade stone, depicting either their zodiac or, if their parents are extremely well off, a Buddha. With Christianity flowing strong through the country, Buddhism is now a hobby for the pretentious, we-are-open-minded section of the upper class. Like all parents, my mother gave me a jade necklace. I was born in the year of the dragon.
I look down at my empty neckline. Everything seems to always rush past me, never through.
A dragon, I am not.