She was a mythic creature: mysteriously disappearing in my infancy, glimpsed in blurry snapshots posing in front of American tourist attractions, and then, the day after my sixth birthday, materializing outside the gateway of the airplane that brought me and my brother from Taiwan to Nashville. A stocky Asian lady with oversized glasses, gifted not only with the ability to come and go but with the power to move me—against my will—across hemispheres. Who knew what else she was capable of?

I watched her closely those early days, the better to assess my adversary. She could read road signs. She seemed capable of rudimentary communication with the natives. She was audacious, coolly cutting in line at the bank one day and the next, driving a car to Zayre’s, examining two different pairs of pants, then swapping the tags so she paid the cheaper price, all without arousing the least bit of suspicion from the cashier.

She alone had the ability to operate important household machinery. When I saw her coax four yards of double-knit polyester into the maw of an ancient Singer and emerge, triumphant, with a belted pantsuit, I was as astonished as if she’d spun straw into gold. Her mastery of kitchen appliances was total. The stovetop jumble of buttons and dials, all of it so worn the lettering had rubbed clean away, was as easily deciphered by her as the top line of an eye chart, and she turned out pots of soup and savory meats that, while different than what I was used to, tasted satisfactory. Then there was her cunning deployment of baking soda to abolish unpleasant refrigerator smells—her genius in using a hairdryer to defrost the freezer! It became clear to me that if I was going to survive this place, I would need to make my mother my ally. At least temporarily, until I figured out a way to get back home to my grandmother’s house in Taiwan.

We would ascend the socioeconomic ladder on the wings of our cleanliness and cunning, one arduous rung at a time, and we would drag the sorry asses of my father and brother with us.

And so I became my mother’s acolyte, her confidante, the yes-man who accompanied her to the supermarket and held her purse in the ladies’ room. I had no choice, I tell you! Bitter experience had taught me life was an uncertain business. One minute, I was playing in the dirt at my grandmother’s house, tussling with the mongrel puppy tied to the lychee tree, secure in the knowledge a pillow for me was kept in my Ama’s bed, a little flowered cup on the lowest shelf so I could reach it. The next, I was summoned by strangers half a world away who held a claim of ownership over me—who said they were my parents. Honestly, was there any guarantee I wouldn’t be sent away again, this time to even more distant, inferior relatives? Instinctively, I understood the old mafia edict about keeping your enemies close, and I resolved to stay close to my mother, to cause no trouble, to be as unobtrusive and unshakeable as gum on the bottom of her shoe. It was years before I realized that, really, she was the gum on my shoe—and no amount of pulling and scraping could remove her from my life.

“I was worried about the girl,” she told one of her Taiwanese friends on the phone as I busily pretended to be deaf. “I thought for sure the old lady sunk her hooks into her, turned her against me. Just look how she’s always tried to meddle in my marriage! Lau-ke-po! Reuben might be her son, but at least Connie is my daughter. Cleans up, brings home good grades from school. And quiet! Sometimes I forget she’s in the room with me.”

Securing my mother’s approval was made easier by the fact that my pudgy older brother—despite his exalted position as the only son in a Taiwanese family—was a fuck-up. “Why can’t you be more like mei-mei?” my mother asked when she found a crumpled up report card in Fred’s bookbag or when she doused a fire he set in his lunch box, raising her voice over his feeble claims of innocence. “Why do you always tell lies? Connie is honest! Connie never lies to her mother! Thank God I can count on at least one of my children!” This last was usually punctuated by thwacks from a wire hanger.

Yes, I was the good child, the only one Esther Wang could trust. I made sure of that. But like an institution whose trust leads an employee to embezzle, her absolute conviction in my honesty resulted, of course, in my becoming a liar.

An alliance with my mother formed out of necessity, but can I say I didn’t enjoy playing for a winning team? When I cleared the table, I stacked the dirty dishes with a little swagger. Baba and Fred, those chumps, didn’t know their rice bowl from their elbow. Why, they couldn’t find the kitchen sink if they had a Sherpa and a map! Mama and me on the other hand—we were the ones who made things happen. We made hot food materialize, we made brown rings in the bathtub disappear, we made supermarket cashiers tremble in their Wallabees when they saw the stack of coupons we presented on double coupon day. We made no foolish bets, no useless friendships. We knew when someone was feeding us a line—because everyone was always feeding us a line—and we sure didn’t do anyone any favors unless we got something first. “No, sorry!” my mother barked to old Mrs. Marino when she asked if she could use our phone after she got locked out of her apartment. The chain lock on the front door tautened and through the crack, I could see one of the old lady’s rheumy eyes twitching in consternation. “Phone broken! No work!” my mother insisted. “But Esther, please, my keys—my purse—I don’t understand—” Before Mrs. Marino could finish, her quivering eyeball was eclipsed by the door and my mother muttered, “Lazy old bag, she shuffles around the apartments picking up other people’s trash, there’s no reason she can’t walk to a pay phone downtown. What is she going to ask for next, for me to chew her meat and feed it to her with a spoon?” Oh no, we weren’t born yesterday. We made no mistakes and if we did, it was someone else’s fault. (That someone was usually my father.) We would ascend the socioeconomic ladder on the wings of our cleanliness and cunning, one arduous rung at a time, and we would drag the sorry asses of my father and brother with us.

But despite my careful show of loyalty—doing chores without complaint, listening without comment to her endless tirades—my mother somehow sensed a traitor within me. The antennae on this otherwise insensitive woman! How did she suspect I harbored an attachment to my grandmother, the kind of unwavering, unquestioning love a child should have for her own mother? I’ll never know. But in a demonstration of martial genius, she moved to shore up this weakness in her ranks.

It was a Sunday afternoon. Mama and I had scrubbed the toilet, vacuumed the carpet, started a pot of stewed beef for dinner, and now we were folding linens because we were the only ones in our family who refused to live like pigs, who did all the work around the house, unlike the lunkheads sitting like tree stumps in the living room watching Wide World of Sports. A clear winter sun streamed through the windows of her bedroom and bathed the laundry on the bed in a warm glow.

“Pay attention.” My mother was giving me important instructions. “You have to match the corners of the sheets when you fold them, then match the corners again.” Her smooth black hair (back then, we didn’t have the money for the perms she now treats herself to) was pushed behind her ears, her sturdy neck was as smooth and pale as milk, and I was still young enough, naïve enough, to think my mother was pretty. With one effortless motion, she shook out my flowered sheet (identical to the one on her big bed, how it tickled me that we matched each other!), and I inhaled the scent of clean laundry, wanting bedtime to come so I could slide into fresh sheets, sheets whose every wrinkle had been caressed smooth by Mama’s hands. I tried to fold a pillowcase, but my little fingers made a rumpled mess of it, and I tensed, waiting for the rebuke to fall like hot ash. But she held her fire—she had her sights set on a worthier target.

“Clumsy,” she said, taking the pillowcase from me, “but you’re a good girl.”

She refolded it and looked at me. A strange gleam lit her eyes. “Too bad your grandmother hates girls.”

I was sure I’d misheard her. I didn’t know where to look so I fussed with the laundry, but my fingers no longer worked, they were floppy noodles pushing socks back and forth.

“Your Ama had a saying. Tsaoh ginna, peenh!” A nasal, disdainful sound, almost like the sound of spitting. “Girls, useless. When you were born, she acted like someone swindled her out of house and home. She wouldn’t hold you—wouldn’t even look at you—like if she pretended you didn’t exist, maybe she could make it come true.”

My mother shook her head as if she was recalling a youthful antic. “So different than it was with Fred. Him, it was food and presents, gold rings, red eggs. Parties where she could show him off to all her friends. Baskets of red envelopes overflowing like the Tatu Chi! Baba and me were coming to America, and she begged us to leave him with her. Cried and cried at the thought of losing her baby boy, until her eyes were two oozing mosquito bites. Honestly, it was embarrassing. But you—?”

She placed the pillowcase on top of the folded sheets. “Well. She was willing to put up with you as long as she had him.”

I traced the roses on the bedsheet with my index finger, each its own floral island. Who’d want to sleep on a bed of roses, I thought, and scratch yourself silly from all those thorns? From the other room came the roar of a crowd and an announcer’s voice saying, “That is the fastest time of any of the competitors! A new record!”

My mother stacked the folded laundry in the basket, neat and efficient as an assassin. She waited to deliver the decisive stroke. “Fred is your Ama’s favorite. And that—” she swung the basket onto her hip—“is why you’re my favorite.”

She nodded, satisfied with a job well done, and stepped briskly out of the room.

Silence. My legs ached, my mouth was sour, my blood irradiated with shame and turned to vinegar. My mother had to be wrong about Ama. But how was that possible, when Esther Wang was never wrong about anything? The woman was as infallible as the pope! She knew everything: how long you had to wait after a meal before going in the water, when to bring an umbrella. On family road trips, she was the one who knew—all along—when we were lost. “I knew it,” she would say to my father with smug righteousness, after we’d driven blithely for hours in the wrong direction, “I knew you should have turned left at the Burger Chef.” And then—vindicated in her conviction, which she had (inexplicably!) kept to herself—she would spend the rest of the car ride making herself out to be some kind of Magellan, no, better than Magellan, because she was born with her sense of direction, she didn’t need a map to find the Shoney’s Big Boy in Gatlinburg, all while telling my father he couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag. Much as I wanted him to find some snap in his arsenal—Please, Baba, please, prove she isn’t always right!—he, alas, was always lost, even when he actually knew where he was going.

I went to the window, pulled aside the curtain, and saw an impassive sky full of blinking eyes. Darkness was falling. A red car was parked sideways in the parking lot, a man with short legs bent under the open hood. He popped his head out and waved for a woman in the driver’s seat to turn the ignition. The car coughed weakly, sputtered to life for a moment, and died.

Nowadays, with gap-toothed kids staring from the back of every milk carton and America’s Most Wanted running two times a week, we know all about Stockholm syndrome capture bonding and other nefarious tricks of the kidnapper’s trade. But what does a six-year-old know about mind control? My mother had powers, see? It never occurred to me that my grandmother didn’t love me, but if my mother said so, it had to be true.

I read about a boy abducted by circus performers who grew up believing himself to be half-human, half-lizard. By the time the authorities rescued him, his brain had been scrambled past the point of unscrambling, and he used to creep to school on all fours and sit unblinkingly on the radiator in the classroom, tongue flicking in and out as he practiced his times tables. He sat on a sunny rock at recess—for lunch he insisted on mealworms in a thermos. I guess, what I’m trying to say is—the mind of a child is a delicate, impressionable thing, and in the wrong hands it can be squeezed into something beyond recognition, something that bears no resemblance to its true self, to the point where, even after much frantic rearranging, it remains compromised, warped.

The mind of a child is a delicate, impressionable thing, and in the wrong hands it can be squeezed into something beyond recognition.

I began to examine my memories of living with my grandmother. The affectionate scolding when I played with her sewing shears and cut my finger? Was that just scolding minus the affection? The time she fed me sweet rice broth when I was sick? Was that only so I wouldn’t keep Fred awake with my coughing? The tears that streamed down her cheeks when Fred and I were led away from her at the airport, soaking her collar and turning her face into a puffy pink bao—were those tears all for Fred and not for me?

I stopped palming loose nickels for a one-way ticket back to Taiwan.

We were making dumplings for lunch, methodically separating the flour wrappers and laying them on the kitchen table like cards in a game of solitaire. Fred lolled on the couch as only a first-born son could, watching Fat Albert with his hand in his pants. I, however, did not enjoy the luxury of idleness. I’d lived in Esther and Reuben Wang’s house for a year and a half now, and the more time I spent with them, the more convinced I was of the precarity of my position.

My mother was preoccupied as she chopped the scallions. “We need to make extra, to freeze. We have company coming next week.”

“Oh! Who?” 

“Your Ama.”

An odd minor chord strummed inside my chest. I hadn’t thought about Ama in the longest time. Her house, the village—it seemed like a fairytale, a place where some other, impossibly naïve, Connie lapped warm milk for breakfast and picked her nose in a ditch.

My mother’s knife pounded rapid fire against the cutting board, extruding shreds of green. She tossed the scallions into the bowl and flashed me a look. “What do you think about that?”

It was odd, my mother’s sudden interest in my opinion. Esther Wang was a talker, not a listener. Her words flowed and flowed and flowed, as if from an open hydrant, without regard to anything or anyone in front of her. I couldn’t remember a time she’d ever wanted to know what I thought.

“Um, yeah,” I said. “Okay. Huh.”

She whipped a spoon through the meat filling. “I remember how you cried for Ama when you first came to Nashville. ‘Ama, Ama, Ama,’ all day long! I thought my ears would go numb. I wasn’t sure you even knew how to talk, I’d ask if you wanted food and get ‘Ama,’ I’d tell you to take a bath and it was ‘Boo hoo hoo, Ama.’ Tell you the truth—” she lowered her voice, sharing a secret with me and me alone “—I thought you might be brain damaged. Like maybe your grandmother fed you arsenic, or dropped you on your head. You were such a crybaby.”

Wait, what?

“Thank God you turned out normal.”

Hold on just a minute. Who was she calling a crybaby?

“Fred will sleep on the couch. You’ll share the bed with Ama. It will be like when you were a baby”—she said “baby” with a taunting lilt—“living at her house in Taya.”

Baby? Baby? The hairs on my arm stood on end. I was fired up, ready to charge.

My mother wiped her hands on a towel. “Maybe you can let her give you a bottle.”

“Nuh uh!”

“Maybe you can let her wipe your bottom, for old time’s sake.”

“Nuh uh!”

This woman had the sensitivity of a two-by-four, but somehow—and you had to hand it to her—she had an exquisite, almost feral, sense of timing. She wound the crank another half twist, just enough to make me snap. 

“Let her tuck you into bed. I bet she’d like that.”

“No!” I threw a dumpling wrapper on the table. “I am not going to sleep with the old lady. She’s not allowed in my bed!” 

“Oh really?” Her eyes sparkled. “What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to push her out!”

She smiled.

“I’m going to put dynamite under the bed and blow her up.” I slapped a spoonful of meat into a wrapper. “She’ll bust through the ceiling and shoot into outer space!”

She laughed, and a liquid warmth rushed through my veins and filled every cell of my body.

“I’ll drop a thousand-pound anvil on her side of the bed and squish her flat as a pancake!”

She covered her mouth with her hand, shaking.

“I’ll stuff straw in her nightgown and set her on fire!”

I saw it now—I recognized the expression on her face. It was delight. My mother’s pleasure in me was narcotic and after one hit, I was an addict. I felt radiant, powerful. I needed more.

“I’ll throw her off a cliff! Tie her up with string and leave her on the train tracks! Lock her in a crate with a gorilla and send her to Africa!” Hours of watching Saturday morning cartoons paid off in the ever more elaborate, outrageous plots devised against my grandmother. Oh, the punishments I’d inflict on her elderly sixty-five-year-old ass! I’d bring her to justice for the crimes she had committed. For feeding me porridge and changing my diapers! For sharing my bed! For loving Fred and not me!

“I’ll kick her down the street like a soccer ball! Kick her until her wig falls off! Kick her all the way to the zoo and feed her to the crocodile!”

My mother’s eyes were closed, her head tipped back, she was screeching with laughter. The sound rose from deep in her core and it was like she was breaking apart, like something long imprisoned escaping. It was glorious. Mama and me, we were unstoppable! No one could stand in the face of our righteousness—certainly not the old lady who betrayed us both. Together, we would show Ama the error of her ways. Together, we would make her regret coming to America!

I had my mother right where I wanted her.

In the days leading up to my grandmother’s visit, my mother’s stories became more dramatic, more urgent.

“The old lady bought herself new dentures! Twenty-four carat gold, so she can show them off in the market square. A mouth full of other people’s work, other people’s sweat. Just think of all the toys you could have if we didn’t have to send money to your Ama for solid gold teeth!”

As I pondered the unfairness of having to forgo Barbies so Ama could have teeth—didn’t she eat mostly rice porridge, anyway?—my mother pointedly remarked she was sure Ama would have a nice present for Fred. “I suppose we’ll have to see if she brings you anything.”

I was in a state of fine agitation by the time my grandmother arrived—sulky towards my father, who cared more about his mother’s teeth than my need for a Farrah Fawcett Glamor Center, irritable with my brother, the undeserving favorite of a chauvinist grandmother. I was an angry blister, ready to burst.

Only, when my father brought her home from the airport, she walked into the apartment and said, “Hello, movie star.” Smiling eyes, lipstick the color of a Red Delicious apple. Aside from the gleam of one gold eyetooth, she looked exactly as I remembered her. The angry words withered in my mouth, and I was hers again.

“You’re more beautiful than I remember! I’m sure you’re a good girl, a big help your mother.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said in English, remembering too late she spoke only Taiwanese. A whiff of Tiger Balm brought a flash of memory: she was washing my hair in a metal wash bucket, covering my eyes as she rinsed. Warm water, soothing fingers, her familiar liniment smell.

Ama handed out gifts: a cloth geisha doll for me, a robot for my brother, plus dried plums and fish eggs. I showed her my drawings of princesses in hoop skirts, and after dinner, explained The Carol Burnett Show. “See, it’s funny when you’re poor because you have to do things like cut up curtains to make clothes.”

She patted my arm. “We never had curtains. When your Ba was young, he had one pair of shoes he wore every day until the soles fell off in the mud, and then he had to go barefoot. You and your ge-ge are lucky to have tennis shoes and toys and food in the refrigerator.”

I fell silent, confused. How could we be lucky when Mama always told us we were unlucky—and that our unluckiness was my grandmother’s fault?

My mother decided things had gone far enough. She came into my room at bedtime while Ama was brushing her teeth. I was under the covers with my new doll pressed against my cheek. I’d already given her the most beautiful name I knew, Francesca, the name of a girl with an alcoholic mother in an ABC Afterschool Special. Ama had said I could tell her a story before we fell asleep, and I was happily plotting Francesca’s triumph at the royal ball when my mother straightened the bedspread and said, “Your grandmother was so happy to see Fred, I thought she was going to have a heart attack.”

I blinked. It was true—I remembered now. When Ama saw Fred, she beamed and cupped his hand between hers, tenderly, like it was a rare pet.

“The robot toy must’ve come from one of the big department stores in Taichung. More expensive than that doll made from cheap fabric.”

All of a sudden I noticed the crooked stitching along Francesca’s face, the loose threads hanging from her seams. I pushed the doll away.

“I don’t really play with dolls anymore. They’re babyish.”

She fluffed the pillows. “Remember what you said before?”

I shook my head.

“You said you were going to kick your Ama out of your bed. What happened?”

I studied my nails, pretending to find some dirt that needed attention.

“You’re nothing but talk.”

I’d been in America long enough to understand what it meant to “put your money where your mouth is.” On the playground, reputation was everything: there were those who followed through on every dare, and those who made excuses. The heroes were those who put their money where their mouth was. The losers were full of hot air. My mother had never set foot on a playground, but somehow, she knew this.

“Faker,” she taunted. “Fake big shot.” She laughed as she left the room.

I sat up, electricity shooting through my spine. I was wide awake. I realized I’d been dreaming. Ama, Taiwan—it all seemed so real I didn’t know I’d been dreaming. Here, in the waking world, there were Twinkies in my lunch box, Carol Burnett mugging on TV, scuffed sneakers lined up by the front door. And my mother, in the kitchen making pork bone broth for our dinner tomorrow, an aroma that filled every inch of the house. A hangnail flapped from the edge of my thumb, and I pulled it until the cuticle bled.

Later—alone and in the dark—I’d cry. But at that moment, I laughed. I laughed with my mother until my jaw was stiff.

For the next two weeks, I barely spoke to my grandmother. This was made easier by the fact my mother barely spoke to her too. She plopped dinner on the table and only said things like “Reuben is working late” or “Give me your dirty laundry.” When Ama asked me a question, I looked at the floor and answered coldly, one word, maybe two. At night I curled up on the edge of the bed, careful not to touch any part of her body. If she asked me to fetch her glasses or her purse, I dragged my feet. Bewilderment and hurt hung in her eyes—the corners wilted and filled with tears—but I told myself she had Fred so she certainly didn’t need me. It got so bad my father, the most mild-mannered of men, the kind of guy who, after walking into a door, apologized to it, actually lost his temper.

“You will show your grandmother respect!” he roared, grabbing my ear and shaking it so hard my head jounced around like a pinball.

My mother pushed him away. “Leave the girl alone! How can you blame her for feeling the way she does?”

What was I supposed to do? What were my choices? Any way I turned I found only shame, shame, and more shame! Shame, on the one hand, for not putting my money where my mouth was and letting my grandmother get away with loving my brother more than me. Shame, on the other hand, for my rudeness—cruelty!—to the woman who swaddled me as a baby, who gave me warmth and kindness, whom I loved better than my own mother!

We drove my grandmother to the airport in silence. Ama sat next to me in the back seat and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. She tried to take my hand, but I grabbed it back and crossed my arms so she couldn’t do it again. It wasn’t just that my mother was watching. I had felt wobbly all day, captaining a tiny boat on swelling waves, and I couldn’t trust myself to get close to Ama without capsizing. I knew I must never, ever, let my mother see me cry. My life depended on it.

When we got to the gate, Ama began to sob. She squeezed my brother’s arm. “Don’t forget me. Don’t grow up and forget all about me like mei-mei has.”

He cried too, wrapping his arms around her waist and burying his face in her sweater.

I never hated him as much as I did in that moment. I wanted to dig my fingers into his bulging eyes and squeeze until I felt them pop like ripe grapes. But when my grandmother tried to hug me, I remained as limp and blank as Francesca the cheap fabric doll, and then my father began to shout, “Hurry, they’re calling your plane!” and Ama rushed to the steps of the China Air jet.

Before she disappeared through the cabin door, she turned and waved one last time. As her arm fluttered, it knocked her wig askew so that she suddenly looked disarranged, naked. My mother burst out laughing. “Look at her! She looks like a shorn chicken, doesn’t she? Connie? Don’t you think so?” Later—alone and in the dark—I’d cry. But at that moment, I laughed. I laughed with my mother until my jaw was stiff. I laughed until my stomach hurt, until even my brother and father had to laugh too, so infectious were the convulsions that rippled through our bodies. I laughed until the plane rolled away from the terminal and out of sight. When I looked up, I saw my mother shaking, her eyes closed. Her mouth was open so wide, I could see every one of her yellow teeth, even the ones in the very back.