Mandarin Slang | The New Engagement

Mandarin Slang

By Brian Alessandro

Anna pinches the skin at the corner of her eyes and pulls, slanting them. She stares at herself in the baroque mirror Aunt Sabina had given her three years earlier for a typically somber Christmas. The mirror’s gilded leaves return Anna’s mimed East Asian expression in a distorted, grotesque blur.  Her husband Yahya watches her shoulder blades come together and spread apart like a wounded starling as he dresses, careful not to wrinkle his recently-pressed suit.

The rectilinear apartment is lousy with shining, silky objects. Traditional curios, shabby-chic credenzas, obscene bas reliefs of denuded muscular men wrestling, and ornate area rugs from Pakistan interrupt the cool flow of pale space; steel intermingling with naked brick face and exposed arterial wood limit the muted expanse.  Shades of brown mix with shades of gray.

Fetishized oriental props hang sparingly throughout the antiseptic living room; kitsch glamour pervades in what can only be construed as an ode to all things gauche; multiple pairs of gilded chopsticks crossed like coats of arms garishly cover one wall, tattered mandalas encased behind scratched Plexiglas frames converge across another like the squares on a chessboard, and Chinese fans with mauve and azure nightingales open wide across a third.

She touches a countertop and the cold sends goose-bumps up her arm. He presses against a window and the immovable glass causes something inside of him to shrink. The gossamer inhabitants become items themselves in the hard, permanent space.  The refined and ageless quarters remind them of their tenuous standing. They are made queasy while fingering fountainheads, moving chairs, and cleaning ceramic toilets. The perfect furnishings reveal to them their tissue, their inevitable corpses.  Sometimes she is agitated by the steady, still climate, and  mollifies her unease by wandering; he calls it pacing. He is often unnerved by the vacuum-like hum of the air conditioner. Though there is not yet a stink, the promise of rot is unavoidable.

He’s relived to see her do something other than thumb through glossy fashion magazines exclusively featuring Chinese models. This business of walking around the high-rise like a zombie or staring at her reflection in the mirror, even if it is to find fault with herself and imagine a different face, is a nice change of pace. Anything, he thinks, is better than thumbing through those magazines.

“That you’re even considering this is absurd,” Yahya says, tightening the belt-buckle around his flat, shaved waist. “Just because those society twits you call friends have all done it doesn’t mean that you need to.”

“I’m not doing it for them, Yahya. It’s for me.”

“I just don’t get why you’re not content remaining as you are.”

“It’s only a minor elective procedure,” says Anna in a deflated sigh. “Don’t make such a fuss over it.”

“It’s voluntary disfigurement, Anna.  You’re electing to knock your face out of shape.”

Anna knows that if she engages him any further a glut of clichés about race, beauty, and identity would be sure to follow. She could accuse him of hypocrisy, which she often did to nil effect, citing his emphatic approval of her recent string of cosmetic surgeries to lift her breasts, erase her Crow’s feet, and tuck her tummy, but, instead, she leaves it alone.

“I married a model of beauty,” says Yahya, touching her porcelain arm as she turns away from him, looking at the baroque mirror, at her high, sanguine cheeks, her small, round mouth, and her penetrating, emerald eyes, which have the power to charm as much as chill. Her bronze hair, thick and lustrous, cascades like Veronica Lake’s—ever photo-ready.

“I was only a canvas, Yahya. You married a canvas.”

“A model of beauty,” he repeats.

“Of white beauty,” she carefully corrects, pouting her small round mouth, lowering her chilling, charming eyes.  Yahya often suspects that she plays up her mousiness.

“Is there any other kind, Anna?”
 Anna clasps her hands together and bows her head, sighing. Yahya kisses her exposed shoulder, brushing his clean-shaven chin against it.  His wife gazes at a vase of hyacinths atop an arabesque lamp table below the baroque mirror.

Though she would never say it aloud, Anna sees Yahya as only an imitation white man—tainted platinum hair, sky blue eyes, and a peachy-white complexion hide well his Southwest Asian origins.  Anna nods, as though responding to something—in accordance with only her self. She unlocks her fingers, and touches Yahya’s heavy, vascular hand, which is by now wrapped around her waist, interrupting her uneven breathing.  

“Zìrán, nánrén jīhū shì yīyàng de, tōngguò shíjiàn, tāmen chú liǎo dédào yào kuān,” says Yahya with perfect enunciation.

Anna quickly translates the Confucian code, it being the only full sentence in Mandarin that she knows: “By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”

“I know,” responds Anna in a sigh. “That’s why I’m doing it, you understand?”

Yahya flinches, grimaces. They’re uncontrollable, his faces. He knows full well that manners matter. He’s told Anna a million times before how they keep civilization cohesive. Otherwise, he would often say to her, usually during dinner, “you end up with savages that require a dictatorship just to control them”. Not unlike China, Russia, or Afghanistan. “If the Subaltern must speak,” Yahya would hiss while munching on escargot and caviar, “he’d better say something decorous.” But Anna would argue that manners are “rarely the issue at hand”.

Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” plays with a soft, lilting frenzy from overhead speakers built into the ceiling—someone is at the door.  Yahya kisses Anna’s ear and moves to answer it. Anna stares down at her fashion magazines strewn across a large, rectangular ottoman, finding the graceful Chinese models on the cover to have a calming effect on her.

Bearing a burgundy burlap valise and a smart slim fit  gunmetal gray suit, Shi Yang introduces herself like a mercenary Avon lady, with a steady smile, firm handshake, and courteous bow. Yahya smirks at her disarming social grace, stepping out of her way to provide her entry into his home.  He detects a strain of superiority in her nod as she enters.

“It’s a great privilege to be consulting on your case, Mr. Nazemi,” she says with only a faint hint of a Northeastern Chinese accent. “I very much admire your company’s approach to clean fuel.”

“Being from Afghanistan, we like the irony of leading the way in the vegetable oil revolution.”

“You have a lovely home, Mr. Nazemi,” Shi Yang continues without acknowledging his attempt at political satire, instead reviewing the Mark Rothkos and Willem De Koonings splashed across the otherwise bare chalk walls. Her black kitten heels clack against the weathered terra cotta floor tiles as she walks under a row of muted amber lighting fixtures,  only glancing at the finished burl wood credenza, on top of which rests a 1952 Bell & Howell 8mm film camera, a cast-iron Remington Rand typewriter, and a yellowing, flaking copy of “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen.     

“Thank you,” he says, closing the door, watching her scrutinize his hold. “Ms. Yang, is it?”

“And a lovely wife,” she adds as she approaches Anna who returns the compliment with a demure smile.  The women shake, kiss each other’s cheeks, and hug. Yahya stares.

Shi Yang inspects Anna’s eyes, touching the white woman’s cheeks, her forehead, fingering skin, and tugging flesh. Anna eyeballs her. Yahya crosses his arms. Waits.  

“You have ideal eyes, Mrs. Nazemi.”

“Thank you, Ms. Yang. But it’s Ms. Zadornov.”

“How modern,” says Shi Yang, glancing at Yahya, who smirks again and nods, almost involuntarily scoffing.

Anna notices Yahya assiduously appraising Shi Yang’s body, longer and more voluptuous than most of the Chinese women he marked as a younger man, though still as lissome as all the others. Pretty, he thinks, in an old Hollywood sort of way, an Asian Ava Gardner, an oriental Louise Brooks. Anna turns back to Shi Yang.  

“As modern as your open marriage,” continues Shi Yang, weightlessly.  

“Full disclosure,” says Yahya.

It must be difficult for a Muslim man, thinks Shi Yang, the tone of her thoughts ringing with sanctimony. Arabian men commit murder at the slightest hint of dishonor, she ruminates.  

“I’m in America,” says Yahya, almost hearing his visitor’s musings, considering the different world he inhabits. “Why cling to prehistoric values?”

“They are values to which the Chinese Government cling.”

“Ms. Yang,” says Anna. “We were honest filling out the request form. We left nothing unreported in our biographical information. I’m sure that the government must appreciate that.”

“And appreciate how we choose to live,” adds Yahya. “I think if propriety and ethics are the concern, it’s the people that criticize who are most inappropriate and unethical, and downright ill-mannered, by compelling us to defend how we choose to live our lives.”

“I meant no disrespect, Mr. Nazemi.” Shi Yang touches her stomach, sits at the teakwood Biedermeier dining table.

“May I fix you a drink?” asks Anna, moving for the crystal and steel bar.

“Just water, please,” says Shi Yang.

Yahya disappears into the kitchen—elevated, translucent, and full of sheen—and pours Shi Yang a highball glass of deionized water.   He hands Shi Yang the glass with an air of obligatory servitude.  She drinks.

“I’m sorry,” says Shi Yang, thinking about the trouble she often has with morality lessons, ethics conversations.  It’s so often so messy. “And I only just arrived.”

“No harm done,” says Yahya.

Anna appreciates how alien the ethics of swinging are to the unaccustomed.

“Most people don’t really understand it,” says Anna. “They assume we do it to appear more Western, that it’s somehow a symbol of how American we are, how liberal-minded.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Only in part,” says Yahya.

“What’s the other part?” asks Shi Yang.

Yahya pauses, wrinkling his mouth.  Anna strokes her neck, turns away.

“I think I’ll have a Bourbon and Ginger Ale,” says Anna, mixing the spirit with soda at the bar.  “How do you like New York, Shi Yang? I think it’s such a strange place.”  

“It’s a city like all others,” says Shi Yang. “Full of mixed, confused, busy colors.”

Anna remembers her father calling New York the capital of excess, a city-state where nobody is ever anything enough, saying that even its superheroes are reliable self-flagellators, finding themselves not fast or strong or smart enough to save anyone.

Yahya considers the Mid-West, a place he idealizes for its clean whiteness.  Anna watches the fat blue veins rise from his wrists and throat, knowing what he must be thinking. Everyone ought to know his or her station.

Shi Yang assays their expressions, their shifts. She retrieves a Manila folder from her Burgundy burlap valise. She opens the folder and reviews documents, forms— sensitive data, precious information.   

“We issued the permit and contract yesterday,” says Shi Yang, pulling several stapled pages from the folder, placing them on the table.

Anna gazes at the materials from afar. So does Yahya, a flash of derision in his eyes. Neither she nor Yahya moves to review the literature.  

“Ms. Zadornov,” continues Shi Yang. “Why do you want to undergo this procedure?”

Anna looks at Yahya, who looks at Shi Yang. “I want a change,” she says.

“Is it such a change if everyone else is doing it? Won’t you be the same, actually, as everyone else?”

“But I’ll be different. From myself.”

“Why is that important?”

“I think it’s important to develop, to keep transforming.”

“Yes, but isn’t internal change much more significant?”

“No one can see that. It’s what’s on the surface that counts.”

Shi Yang registers an unembarrassed bemusement. “Why?”

“Because it can be seen.”

Yahya touches his chest and wheezes, grips the tabletop with his free hand, and doubles over, breathing deeply. Shi Yang watches him like she would a new species of beast unveiled at a zoo or circus. Anna puts down her drink and moves to her husband, rubbing his back, kissing his temple, touching the hand that keeps him from falling.

“It’ll pass, darling,” she whispers.

“Can I do anything?” asks Shi Yang, standing, her mystification dissipating.

“My husband suffers from something like Grave’s Disease, an auto-immune condition he acquired as a teenager back in Herat. It’s pre-cancerous, actually.”

“Fucking China,” Yahya mutters through labored breaths, lowering himself onto the chair across from Shi Yang. He wipes his mouth, coughs, and blows his nose. His genteel smirk becomes something spooky, something ill. Shi Yang stares at the yellowing outline of his face, the sallow forehead, and the monochromatic mouth. The tint of his flesh is a million gradients away from anything living. She sees an animated corpse. It is the threat of death that cures the grief of life—it was one of Shi Yang’s paternal grandfather’s “explications on existence”.  

Anna leaves Yahya as she drifts into the kitchen and swiftly reappears with a glass of deionized water. Yahya takes the water and drinks, restoring a peachy hue to his face—the paroxysm passes.   

“It’s curious, your contempt for China’s acquisition of Afghanistan," begins Shi Yang, “considering the horror such countries as America and—pardon me, Anna—Russia visited upon your land years earlier.”

“I’m ambivalent at most about the whole thing—being a part of the Northern Alliance goes some way in mitigating any contempt I might have for America,” says Yahya, looking at Anna, clenching her fingers. “Russia, on the other hand—well, let’s just say she’s more than made up for any past injustices.”

Shi Yang smiles at Anna. She turns to Yahya, her smile running off her face like a saturated oil portrait.

“Let’s not forget why I’m here, Mr. Nazemi,” says Shi Yang, pulling from her burgundy valise a small black tin case. “Anna, I’ve yet to conduct a proper ophthalmological examination on you. May I?”

Anna nods. Shi Yang smiles. Yahya grumbles. The prominent vein in his neck grows outsized and pulsates.

Shi Yang opens her tin case, revealing an array of thin steel instruments and glass vials of clear liquid. Yahya and Anna watch her, simultaneously amused and disquieted by her deft movements; she handles the utensils with robotic precision. Shi Yang stands, circles Anna, and cradles her head, leading it gently.  She pinches Anna’s eyelids, peeling them back, bugging the compliant white woman’s glassy eyes. Shi Yang administers eye drops that numb the sclera and dilates the pupils; Shi Yang lifts a thin magnifying lens, hovers it over Anna’s eyes, studies the nerves and the blood vessels beneath the emerald irises.  Shi Yang smiles, releasing Anna.

“You’re a candidate, Ms. Zardanov. Stable vision. No traces of corneal disease.”

Anna manages a microscopic smile. Yahya buckles, groans. He grips his love handles and winces. Anna grabs him, hugs him, kisses his shoulder.

Shi Yang looks at Yahya with an exhausted acknowledgment.  “Have you ever had a Gua Sha, Mr. Nazemi?” she asks.

“No, what’s that?” he manages through a whimper.

“It’s a traditional Chinese massage, completely medicinal. I strongly recommend it.”

“I’ll look into it, thanks.”

“I am trained and certified in the technique. I can perform one on you right now if you want to see what it’s like. Perhaps it will give Anna adequate time to make a decision.”

Anna rubs Yahya’s head, tousling his hair.

“Sure, why not?” Yahya stands, removes his shirt.

“I’ll need rocks, coins, and bones,” says Shi Yang, taking off her jacket and rolling up her sleeves.

Strange and scary, thinks Anna, like something out of a horror film—torture porn in her own penthouse involving her own husband; and yet the odd request somehow sends a tingle up her back. Yahya is happy enough to have the conversation shift away from the topic of his wife’s eyes.

Anna gathers three medium-sized Quartzite rocks from the Shinto stone garden of the master bedroom’s indoor wrap-around balcony, bones of leftover porterhouse from the refrigerator, and a handful of American quarters from an Antediluvian Turkish amphora—relics from empires past.  


Yahya drapes himself nakedly over the large rectangular Ottoman, brushing Anna’s fashion magazines to the floor. A towel covers his buttocks. Shi Yang lubricates the implements of therapy with a tube of KY Jelly that Anna had grabbed from their bedside bureau. She begins the curative assault. Yahya grunts, writhes, and grimaces through the ordeal. Deep, gruesome bruises immediately appear all over his back, coating the entirety of it like a turtle shell.  

So many toxins, thinks Shi Yang, as Anna moves away, covering her mouth. They all rise to the top like psychic pus.  Yahya cries out as Shi Yang digs deeper, ravaging skin. Anna cups her ears, leaves the room.  Something rises to the top.

“This is a very Chinese notion,” says Shi Yang, breaking a light sweat. “Nothing significant comes without pain and maybe a little humility.” All rewards can only be received through struggle and sacrifice.

Anna and Yahya’s bedroom is a place of downy comfort and razor-sharp edges, metallic surfaces and bull-nosed furniture, French windows and Corinthian capitals. Pre-Raphaelite oil portraits by Rossetti and Millais hang on opposing walls, offset by Klimt and Schiele originals—cream-skinned beauties with golden walls of hair amid glowing moss gardens balance the gaunt nymphs awkwardly bent in gaudy boxes.

Anna sits on the bed, flips open her laptop, and calls family in the former Soviet Union. A thin, doll-like woman appears on the LED screen. She sits haughtily with her chin up and her eyelids half-staff. She is beautiful and repellent in equal measure—Belle Laide. Masha, Anna’s sister, is twenty years old and statue-still when she speaks.  The girl is good with stoic operations. Her Oriental eyes contribute to the coolness.

“She is here, Masha,” says Anna in Russian. “The representative. I am supposed to decide today.”

“You already know what you’re going to do, Anna,” says Masha in Russian.

“I do.”

“And you know why, too.”


“It’s a fair reason.”

“It feels right.”

Just hearing Masha’s voice is enough to remind Anna of her father’s wintery stay with her two Christmases ago, and what he had said about police brutality, colonialism, and the Chinese ascension. She recalls him grumbling that police only acted brutally when frightened by the righteous reputation of the dark minorities they faced in ghettos and crack houses, and that the Victorian colonialists saved the world from itself, that the colonized people of under-developed nations deserved their occupation as they failed to evolve and needed the guidance and structure of advanced civilizations. He also bemoaned the fumbling into second place of America in the steel, automotive, software, and cotton industries.  “They gave it all away,” he said, packing his luggage for his return flight home to Moscow the day after the predictably mawkish Christmas.

“We were always the in-between people, anyway,” begins Masha, “as Russians, half-way toward white, half-way toward Asian.”

“In the middle, where they all meet,” says Anna, slouching, hanging her head.  “At the nexus.”

“Haven’t you had enough, Anna? Isn’t it time to let go?”

“But we’re the only ones who can afford to let go.”

“It’s not about what your class can afford,” says Masha, her lip snapping into a vicious curl.

Anna nods at her younger sister, the newly Chinese-eyed young lady of superior caste condemnation. Four thousand six hundred miles is not far enough away to quiet her sententious instruction.

The lubrication does little to prevent the skin from chapping. Shi Yang grinds the rocks, then the coins, and then the bones against muscle, flesh, and vertebrae. She thinks about flowers, trees, and birds; thoughts of political juggernauts intrude; the Long March barrels through her arboretum, the Great Leap tears into her aviary. Too much change, too little quiet.  Yahya squirms involuntarily. He can hear Shi Yang almost snicker at his pain.

Ours is a tiger culture, thinks Shi Yang, brushing epidermis like a dishwasher would a steel sponge against a grimy cast-iron pot.  Pain brings humiliation. Humiliation teaches discipline. Fear, shame, and guilt are useful, too—they help shape character as much as praise and encouragement do.

Yahya’s toes curl. His skeleton crumbles. He exhales, tears, and drools. “You should drink a lot of water to flush out the poisons I’ve broken up inside of you,” says Shi Yang, dismounting him.  Yahya feels an erection emerging at the sensation of suddenly being rid of scraping and the weight of Shi Yang’s lithe body. He waits until he goes flaccid to rise and drink.

Shi Yang rinses the antiquated American quarters in the steel kitchen sink. She throws out the gooey steak bone. The bloodied rocks from the Shinto garden soak in the ivory sink of the beige granite en suite. Shi Yang washes her hands, staring at herself inhabiting the lavish chamber in the vanity mirror.

Dead skin. Soil. Traces of copper. Anna examines the eggplant-colored lesions that cover Yahya’s muscular back. Not an inch was missed. It was a thorough scrubbing. She lightly touches the blackest spots. Yahya winces, though does not make a sound, does not twitch.  

Shi Yang reappears, rolling down her sleeves. She lifts her jacket from the chair and puts it on. Anna and Yahya stare at her, forgetting for a moment the actual nature of her visit.  Shi Yang smiles benignly, crossing her fingers at her womb.

“Shall we continue?” she asks the nonplussed couple.

Yahya keeps his shirt off. His back stings too much to weather the press of starched fabric. He sits forward in his chair at the Biedermeier dining table, beside Anna, across from Shi Yang. Everyone drinks deionized water. Everyone glances at the permit and contract at the center of the table.

“I must say, since we’re on the topic of cultural identity and the face,” begins Shi Yang, sitting erect, accenting her regality. “You look quite Caucasian, Mr. Nazemi. Maybe German, or even Irish.”

“Many people do not know this, Ms. Yang, but Afghans, like our Iranian brethren, are the world’s only true Aryans. We’re as pure as possible.”

“Many say that the purest people are those who are inbred,” says Shi Yang, glancing down at her hands crossed on the tabletop. “That incest is the only true safeguard against genetic impurity.”

Yahya tries to mask his disgust, but fails as a scowl pushes through. What a horrific thought, he thinks, muttering under his breath,  “Incest as protectionism.”

Shi Yang mouths the words silently, and to Yahya it seems as though she is prattling gibberish to herself. If one procreates with the seed, she thinks, someone  of his or her ethnicity, the odds are quite good that he or she may end up coupling with a distant relative, spawning something inbred.  

Anna looks down, flinches.  Shi Yang looks at Anna’s mouth, pouting and petulant. The Russian model fixes her gaze on the contract and permit.  

Only incest guarantees cultural integrity, thinks Shi Yang, pondering the new way of the New Chinese, the necessary practices of cousins and siblings, what with the One-Child Policy having been repealed for the sake of global expansion, a whole fleet of people dismissing the laws of nature,  of pheromone logic, repelling kin from one another to prevent inbreeding.

“Sometimes will overrides nature.” Shi Yang recalls her parents, first cousins. All the aristocrats who aped the finest attributes of the Victorians.  “ I should know.”

Yahya’s jaw slackens as he looks cross-eyed at Shi Yang, his soft stare shot through with blushes of pity and revulsion. Shi Yang looks down, touches her loins. Anna crosses her arms over her bosom, continuing to look away from her husband and the guest.  

“My parents have recently passed,” begins Shi Yang, “leaving me with their debt and not a little responsibility tending to their properties. My father’s father denied him books, an education. My father took it upon himself to attend university, buy books—make himself into something worthwhile. My father, ever the stymied scholar, became a professor of history. And a confirmed packrat, hording books and magazine clippings and journals.  The burden of managing his library-sized sentimental and literary effects fell on me, along with the onus of their difficult cultural—and biological—legacy, a new form of respect to the old government.  Motherlands. Fatherlands. They say that shameless parents have shameful kids.”

Yahya and Anna say nothing and their expressions are unreadable.

Shi Yang shrugs, stares. “They’re my parents, and second cousins—you pick the flaws in people you can live with.”

“My white eyes are not flaws,” says Anna, looking at Shi Yang.

Shi Yang stares imploringly at Anna. “There was never a question of that.”

“But I want them slanted anyway.”

“Women across the world have been doing it for the past twenty years. It’s suddenly become quite trendy in Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. It’s almost passé in Sydney and Mumbai already. Unfortunately, the only cities where it hasn’t quite taken hold are those in Latin America, except for Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, and Africa save for Cairo and Casablanca. Wherever there’s affluence, naturally. In fact, it’s quite popular these days in St. Petersburg and Moscow.”

“I know. My sister and several of my girlfriends and cousins have already had it done. They’re very happy with the results, though a few claim that their vision is sometimes compromised.”

“There can be some unpleasant side effects, such as blurred vision, headaches, but that goes away in time. Just take Lutein daily. It improves eye strength.”  

“I read that even men are considering it,” says Anna.

“It’s being called ‘The Power-Look of The Future’ in the fashion magazines, the power-look of the mind. Something of a cultural reversal of aesthetic envy is taking hold—white men becoming envious of the feminine, delicate, refined, hairless, sweat-less, naturally svelte features and bodies of East Asian men, due to the fact that it all signifies intelligence, a sage power. We’re the race, after all, that has become dominant because of our priorities—work, sacrifice, effort, and an intellectually-fueled ego.”

“You’re the race that gave us shark fin soup, dog entrees, scorpion snacks, turtle appetizers, and unstoppable air pollution,” ejaculates Yahya, startling the women.

Shi Yang turns to Yahya. Her smile slithers across her face like an asp.  “And the Egyptians created beauty,” she says.

“Justin Mitchell,” Yahya mumbles, remembering an American friend, a former Marine who lived with him as a roommate for a short while in Kabul when they were in their early twenties, during the US campaign to upset the soviets.  He recalls the flattery he received from people when they mistook the two for brothers, the Marine friend boasting blue eyes, blond hair, and pale skin. And they thought we shared DNA. Yahya reflects fondly with a nasty smile.

Anna stares at Yahya; her eyes twitch back and forth. She turns to Shi Yang. “How soon would I be able to schedule it?”

Yahya glowers at Anna. His moist eyes drip.  She can feel him watching her, but does not even pretend to acknowledge it.  

“You’ve decided then?” asks Shi Yang.

If I decide to go through with it.”

“You should know that it’s irreversible.”

“If I did decide to do it I wouldn’t want it undone.”

Shi Yang smiles at Anna like a schoolteacher would at an illiterate student making an effort to read. She stands and moves to the aging Russian beauty that is softly watching her approach. Shi Yang touches Anna’s forehead and chin, tilting her head back carefully, not unlike an antiques dealer handling an exceptional Romanov tercentenary egg, an imperial Faberge-find.

Anna complies as Shi Yang delicately pries her right eye wide by gently pinching her eyelids and spreading them apart, bugging the eyeball. She then does the same to the left eye. Yahya shifts in his seat and stands. He leaves the women to fetch his shirt, folded over the arm of the couch in the adjoining living room.  

Anna blinks as Shi Yang un-fingers her lids. The two women study each other’s irises, gaze into one another’s dilating pupils.  Men just want to get off, spill their seed; women need too much more than that.

“Your eyes have a sad sense of original ownership, Ms. Zadornov.”

Anna smiles so wide that she squints. Shi Yang touches either side of Anna’s face and kisses her on the mouth. Anna receives her without protest or surprise. Yahya drops his shirt before he can get it on.  

“Is this another new way to pay respect to the old government?” he asks.

“The republic has nothing to do with matters of the heart,” says Shi Yang, slowly pulling her lips away from Anna’s, permitting a fine vine of saliva to follow. The women gaze patiently, hungrily at each other, safe within the insularity.

Matters of the heart?” Yahya's eyes become vegetative and blacken. “What would a product of incest know about matters of the heart?”

Shi Yang leers as something gastric inside of her rumbles. Her reddening, dampening eyes search for clarity. What does this white-looking Afghan man know about life as a Chinese woman, she thinks, taking solace in the comfort that she has been elastic and mature enough to have saved multiple situations and relationships, her parents’ legacy only being one of them.

Yahya and Anna gaze at Shi Yang with feline disinterest.

“Your pride, father,” hisses Shi Yang at a phantom projected into the empty space beside the dining table. “Your pride at the expense of your daughter’s life savings, credit, and peace of mind! Your ego and materialism did this to us! To me!”

“Anna,” says Yahya, thoroughly ignoring Shi Yang’s embarrassing emotive episode. “Aren’t you through with hating yourself this much, to the point of wanting to become somebody else, another race, even?”

Anna looks at her hands. They shake.

Shi Yang also fails to compose herself successfully; she continues to rattle. She thinks of her father’s reckless optimism, of how he never allowed for the possibility of things going wrong. One must believe in—and prepare for—a rainy day, she thinks. The truth is mainly found in despair and disappointment, rarely in happiness and hope. Fatherlands, fathers, nationalism, nations—all delusional bullshit. Possession by the demon of hatred happens slowly, with creeping quiet.

“Incest is not about love, either,” adds Shi Yang, her posture crooked, contrapposto.  

“You should know something about the politics of swinging, Ms. Yang,” says Yahya, lifting his dress shirt from the floor, crumbling it, and tossing it onto the couch. “My wife and I discuss our attractions to other people before allowing each other to pursue them. What you just did was out of line. Again.”

“And I suppose that your erection at my touch during Gua Sha was perfectly in-line?”

Anna looks past Shi Yang, at Yahya, whose mouth is a diagonal slope. Shi Yang, upright again, moves away from Anna, and sits across from her, back in her place, back in perfect, unemotional form.  Anna’s hands stop shaking.

Shi Yang thinks that their open marriage is terribly American, as Western as one couple can get. Some modes of acculturation take bestial forms.  

Yahya incriminates Anna with eyes that breathe fire and fume, though he knows that she is not the guilty party.

“It’s their way of fooling us into believing in the fairytale of free will,” he says, reconstituting as something robotic, cooling. “There’s never been a choice.”

Anna recalls the cold October night a year earlier—two male Chinese soldiers, mere boys, whistled at her as she walked home along 5th Avenue, and told her that she was nearly perfect: all she lacked were oriental eyes—Orientalize!

“Zìrán, nánrén jīhū shì yīyàng de, tōngguò shíjiàn, tāmen chú liǎo dédào yào kuān!” they shouted at her as she hurried away. Anna knew what they meant. It was the one proverb she was forced to learn as a child when the Chinese marched into Moscow and made it their home. It was the one maxim all seven billion-world inhabitants knew intimately. Memorizing it was a pass out of prison.

That night, she stood over the bathroom sink staring at herself in the vanity mirror, pulling the flesh at the corners of her eyes horizontally, constructing an East Asian face—a ritual she would perform daily, satisfying an alternate interiority.

“You would no longer be the daughter of Vladimir and Galina Zadornov, Anna,” says Yahya. “You would no longer look like your parents.”

“I would no longer look white,” she corrects.

“You would no longer look white,” he repeats.

“What is the importance of looking white?” asks Shi Yang, with a shrug.

Anna turns to Yahya and waits. Shi Yang does, too. Yahya looks away from both of them, having already retrieved his wrinkled dress shirt again, and buttons his sleeves.  He coughs, wheezes. Another fit? Anna stands, takes a step toward him. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve.

There’s more truth in fiction than there is in reality. Anna measures Yahya’s resigned face, searching for a registration. She gets nothing. No signal, no reaction. She wonders if he considers her motives; the uncertainty she reads frightens her. My dear, do you believe that I do this to spite you? Why Justin Mitchell, Yahya?

Her husband moves for the front door, opens it slowly, and leaves his home.

“Zìrán, nánrén jīhū shì yīyàng de, tōngguò shíjiàn, tāmen chú liǎo dédào yào kuān,” says Anna with eyes that search and reach and submit.

“Your Mandarin is quite good, Anna,” says Shi Yang, inverting her eyebrows sadly. “But it is only the common Confucian code: ‘By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.’ It’s not enough, though. Neither knowing it nor slanting your eyes will ever truly make you one of us.”

“Slang is for natives.” Anna grieves the exposure of a fantasy. “I know.”

Shi Yang watches Anna walk out of the dining room and into a nearby half-bath. Inside the bathroom Anna again studies her reflection in the vanity mirror, inspecting her face, scrutinizing her pupils. She only briefly widens her eyes and opens her mouth, emitting a barely audible gasp.

By the time Anna emerges from the bathroom Shi Yang is nearly finished packing up her burgundy valise. She leaves only the contract on the Biedermeier dining table. Anna sits and stares at it, studying it as she did her face, with a remote compassion. Shi Yang wonders how solipsistic Anna thinks the Chinese government must be; does she really believe that she will only exist in their eyes if she were to become what she thinks they want her to be?

“Anna,” says Shi Yang.

Anna nods, approving something. She reaches for the pen.  The Chinese agent waits. The white Russian lady signs the contract without reading it.


Brian Alessandro writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, he wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded and continues to edit The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington PostThe Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. Brian currently works in the mental health field.


Join Us!

Mercy, ingenuity, nuance, complex truths, guts and honor still matter! Join us in proclaiming so by purchasing, or giving the gift of, The New Engagement in print.

Order Today!

Follow Us

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."
~ James Baldwin

Help us spread the ethos of compassion and understanding by joining our social media networks and sharing generously!

Contests & Prizes

Flash Fiction Contest
On May 1st, we announced the winners of our Flash Fiction Contest: Thomas Garcia (1st), Rick Krizman (2nd), and Rios de la Luz (3rd). Read more.

The James Baldwin Literature Prize
It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of The James Baldwin Literature Prize of $1,000 to Hafsa Musa. Read more.

The New Engagement

The New Engagement endeavors a novel approach to discovering, introducing, and showcasing writers, artists, and filmmakers, by providing them digital and print platforms, while encouraging and supporting their social-consciousness.