Aaron Fai translates Wang Wei

That Place They Call Deer Park Hermitage

On returning to that lonely mountain, you will again find moss
so green and so vibrant you would think it were made by a god.
The moss is provided for by a bit of sun that returns day after day
to penetrate the forest canopy and somehow sustain this shade of green
that at first you recognize, but at second glance is otherworldly.
Not a soul up on that mountain, none besides you to witness this miracle
and yet the faint sound of a human voice endures, all the way up there.





Aaron Fai / 費頌倫 is a graduate of the creative writing programs at UCLA, UC Davis, and the University of Oregon, and he serves as associate editor of Grand Journal.

Wang Wei was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, and this poem was the subject of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger.




Alice Fong-Yi Liu

Geographic Tongue

My tongue is geographic now. Segmented and floating with dark crevices and divides between floating islands coated lightly with white. It has not returned to its prior state, of smoother pinkness. Permanently altered during my pregnancy. I avoid staring too much at it, like the ridges on the sides of my belly that will forever have tiger stripes of skin that had once gotten almost purple with irritation at the stretch they were forced to perform, wrinkled and paler than the skin next to it. My body and mind, the same yet forever altered.

When my daughter was a year and a half, her tongue pulled her forward. Her need for texture and taste overwhelmed her, driving her to her goals. 

At that age, there was no filter. When she saw something, thought something, she had to do it. No ego to the id.

She was mobile, alternating between crawling and toppling around like a drunken sailor with her attempts to stand up and propel. Unlike her twin brother, who cautiously stood, searching for his center of gravity, then slowly lowering himself back to the ground; she would instead hoist herself up and fling herself forward, taking two or three steps, ending in a crash to the ground. This normally ended with a scream of frustration at the inefficiency of the world.

I will always remember the one day when her eyes fixated. She wanted something badly. Walking was out, it was too slow. Back to the crawl she went, which she could do with ferocious speed. She zipped across the floor. Glancing down, I noticed her determination, but her goal had not dawned on me. Across the room from her, I watched her and was dumbstruck when I realized her goal.

Finding her father’s shoes across the room, her eyes focused, her tongue dripping with desire. She reached it, her tiny fingers grasping onto something that she yanked with determination. A few yanks and it was off and in her mouth. Chewing with satisfaction, like a truck driver with beef jerky. My brain raced like turkeys running in a circle of panic, trying to understand what had happened.

Then, I shouted to my husband, “Oh good lord. Can you pull that out of her mouth, it’s a dried worm.”

We all sat watching her in wonder and horror. She seemed so pleased with herself. A smacking sound as she chomped away at it.

Before any of us could reach her, the worm was long gone.

The tongue wants what it wants.


My third date with my husband was at a ribs place. I neatly polished off a pile of ribs, managing not to get any sauce on me, each bone, white and smooth with no trace of meat. They laid in a neat pyramid next to his, that were mildly bitten, meat all over them.

“My father would be impressed by how clean your bones are,” he said. His father grew up in Texas during the Great Depression and gave him a lot of crap for not cleaning his bones enough. A unique bridge between the divide of my side, a child of Chinese immigrants and his with a multi-generational white Texan.

His father and I agreed, the meat right next to the bone had the most flavor.

Throughout my life, my mom and I would sit on the couch watching Chinese soap operas while gnawing away at marinated duck wings and chicken feet. Clean bones would pile up on a plate in front of us, as we chewed at the gristle on each end. It was a lot of effort for little content, but exceptionally satisfying.

My grandmother would often poach chicken, dunking it in boiling water and plunging it into cold, to get that perfect texture. Armed with a cleaver and no regard for where the bones were in the chicken, she could be heard all through the house, whacking away at it, until it laid in pieces perfect to be picked up by chopsticks.

Once in high school, a blond-haired girl said to me with disdain, “Oh, I don’t eat any meat with bones in it.”

I remember thinking, if you grew up in my house, you would have starved.

The horror in my teenage years of liking something that others did not was palpable. The comments that meat in Chinese food was cut small so you couldn’t identify the source. The judgement was vivid, painful, insidious. The association of poverty and race all mixed together. A mass of complex emotions and judgment formed around the deeply embedded parts of myself that were taught to hate myself, and it would take decades to untwine. 

In response, I learned how to be very presentable. Depending on your generational reference, Pygmallion’d, My Fair Lady’d, Pretty Woman’d myself. Thank goodness the newest generation seems to be breaking from this. I learned how to cut meat flawlessly off a bone without ever having to lift it. For proper etiquette, I learned what fork to use, how to sit properly, how to appear perfectly. Though honestly it always left me feeling uncomfortable, a bit out of place, regardless of how good I could pull it off. It took much later in life to learn to embrace the part of me that was lost in the process. To return to the part of me that found such joy and happiness in cleaning a bone thoroughly while sitting next to my mom. The shift is a continual process, but on good days, it leaves me feeling more comfortable anywhere I am, as who I am, not trying to contort myself into meeting someone else’s expectation.


When my daughter was two, shortly after she had a taste of worm, she would glare at me as I ate ribs or drumsticks in front of her. Her eyes would get that same glint of determination she had when she went after that worm.

Finally, relenting, I searched out a rib that had no end cap and handed it to her. She quickly and efficiently polished the entire thing off, leaving a perfectly clean bone. Her brother was wholly uninterested, more content to keep chewing on bread and fruit.

My daughter now sits with me, as we watch tv, eating marinated duck wings that I acquired from the Chinese grocery store. Our pile of bones in front of us. 


I asked my dentist about my tongue. She said it is called “geographic tongue” and there isn’t much that can be done about it. Its fissures permanently in place, its outward appearance forever changed. It has not affected my ability to taste. She asked me if it bothers me and I don’t know how to answer. It’s different. Less aesthetically attractive to some, it feels uniquely mine. It feels earned. A post pregnancy complication, but also a badge of honor. Like eating the bones with my mother and daughter, it is mine in a way that nothing else is. The shift is deep and internal, yet also shallow and external. The future shines a light where all these things are integrated.


Alice Fong-Yi Liu is a Chinese-American author whose writing focuses on identity, growing up with immigrant parents, parenting, caretaking, and a career in cybersecurity. Her writing explores vulnerability, trauma, and healing, often through food, family, and technology. alice-liu.com.




Noah Kawaguchi

The Were-Rabbit

昔々、or in other words, once upon a time, or something like that, there was a young boy. He lived not on a farm, but also not too far from many farms, mostly corn. The thing about corn is that unlike, for example, Shibuya Crossing, corn stays dark and quiet at night, making the details of various celestial bodies much harder to ignore. On some nights, the boy looked up and saw a friendly semicircle, or even a smiling crescent. On other nights, the boy looked up and saw himself looking back, which disturbed him greatly. You see, on those nights, a round looking-glass, probably much like those that were revered in ancient times, would amble across this corner of the cosmos, causing the boy to be afflicted with a gruesome transformation that exposed his true nature. As any casual viewer of the reflection in the sky on those nights will tell you, sometimes a man could be seen more clearly, while other times, a rabbit prevailed. Yet, as those who know the true story will tell you, the physical form back on Earth was usually somewhere in between. Unfortunately, corn is extremely dangerous for rabbits to consume, due to both its nutritional content and its physical shape. So, when the boy looked in the mirror in the moon for a man, but instead some sort of half rabbit thing looked back, he was very disappointed. After some time, the boy found himself too distracted by earthly obligations to spend so much time gazing at the sky, and whenever he did catch a moment to look up, he rarely saw much more than craters. Eventually, he made his peace with all the corn around him that he couldn’t eat when some new friends gave him some nice big radishes and he even learned how to prepare a few dishes using them. But every now and then, on particularly clear nights, the two heavenly figures return to peer down on the boy, and the Were-Rabbit resurfaces. He’s much friendlier now, but still that same blended being who had trouble eating corn. おしまい、or in other words, the end, or something like that. 

Noah Kawaguchi is a musician, writer, and researcher. Born in Tennessee and raised in Ohio, he is a mixed Shin-Nisei Japanese American. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory, where he majored in Jazz Studies and minored in East Asian Studies. He is currently an MA student in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. Recent work, up-to-date information, and social media links are available at noahkawaguchi.com. Photo by Mido Lee, art by Noah Kawaguchi.




jonah wu

One new comment on, “what are you thinking? are you well? 3 hr lofi beats to study/relax to”

Don’t worry, you are still sixteen years old. Even if life has escorted you well beyond your college years, don’t worry, in your body you are still sixteen. Yes, you can still love life. Or: are able to. Your hand curls around an ambition in the shape of a Keroppi gel pen. And your gaze admires your desk set-up: covered in manga-style sketches and cheap Hello Kitty accessories, it is so far untainted by responsibility. You are bad at studying. You are good at dreaming. Out of Keroppi flows out an incredible number of adjectives — daunting, towering, loud, orgasmic, titillating. You want to share this list with your friends, giggling. No one has ever seen this group of words together, in this order, before. You are the first one. In the comments section of this lo-fi playlist, someone is writing a story. Something encouraging, something that anyone might read and feel heartened by, as chill beats pluck a hum inside their calm. Something like, you are in a safe place, not everything is about the here and now, sometimes it is about what we can’t yet see. Mom knocks on your door; you ignore her because you are in a fight with her. Arguments about college, about those insufferably gilded Ivies, or why can’t I just go to state school, I don’t have the grades. I am not some holy foundation of genius, I am barely holy. I am barely keeping it together. When I’m in class I want to cry. I don’t know what’s happening on the board. The teacher’s voice is a drone, so I try my best to discreetly look out the window and fly, fly away. I am good at dreaming. I am sixteen, and yet I cannot fathom what it would be like to be eighteen. Already I am stressed about money. Will I be able to support myself, I have no skills, I was never good at anything. How does one even go about finding a job, maintaining a job. There are already countless movies and TV shows about how everyone hates their job, so how will you survive one. It’ll be about ten years before someone lets you in on the secret that we don’t live to work, and in retrospect, you think it’s a little sad how early on you were inducted into the frantic lies of endless labor. Mom knocks on your door, says, “Is it okay to come in?” At least she asks. You grumble, sure, and the portal squeaks open. In that shadowed rectangle Mom is the only thing with a face. Her eyes are thin and weary. She doesn’t smile. But she does say, “Little one, I did everything wrong.” Ah, the impossible words. So this is a dream. You were always good at dreaming. She continues, “I did everything the wrong way, I realize this now. You don’t deserve this. One day you will be free. From me, binding my fate to yours, from burdening you before your birth. I didn’t know any better. I came from somewhere else, I came with very little—” Two hundred dollars and the clothes on your back, you interrupt, for how many times have you heard this story— “Yes, that, and my motorcycle too, my Black Betty, I named it after an American song I had only heard once, because I thought it would make me more American. But this country was cruel to me and carved its scars into my back. Its rage invaded me until I mistook it for myself. So instead of inventing no, I came up with new weapons for my rancor. My tongue into a whip. My fear into a razorblade. My artillery became ingenious in their poisons, but at what cost. You know the cost. Better than anyone. You share the shape of my scars, born of that burrowing, parasitic anger that had transformed me beyond your recognition. By my own hand, I fractured your innocence. Your vulnerability. Your willingness to open doors, especially in my direction. Years from now, when our bodies turn frail, the ensuing silence between us stretches for so long it becomes its own river. So I must tell you what I know, while you’re here, while I still can. Little one, I think one day you will be free. You have always been good at dreaming. Your life, though difficult, will not hinder you the way it has hindered me. Because of simply who you are. The word I know for freedom is 自由, made up of the words for ‘self’ and ‘reason.’ Isn’t that beautiful. You, my child, are the only thing in my life that’s ever determined its own truth. And, one day, when you’ve finally broken that ugly curse I myself laid across your back, you will come to love life, truly, openly, without compunction, and without conditions.”

You stand up. Keroppi rolls to the floor, beaming his happy grin in all directions. He, too, is dreaming of a free life. Reaching forward, you take your mother’s hand, which is so much smaller than you remember. Don’t worry, Mom, you tell her, I am doing okay now. I’m really doing okay. I am thinking of the future where we can be together again and laugh. I am thinking of brightness, and how to get you free too. My mom’s smile is a rarity, but it’s hers. It robs the room of all remaining shadow, and you are still sixteen years old in your body, you still have so much life to love.


jonah wu is a queer, non-binary Chinese American writer and filmmaker currently residing in Los Angeles, CA. Their work can be found in Longleaf Review, beestung, Jellyfish Review, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Seventh Wave, smoke and mold, and the Los Suelos anthology. They are a three-time Pushcart nominee and winner of Brave New Weird: The Best New Weird Horror of 2022. You can follow them on Twitter or Instagram @rabblerouses.




Cherry Lou Sy

The Wake

God made funeral homes so that we could get together. Parlor rooms filled with us, the friends, the family, the foes, and the strangers alike, elbow to elbow, so that if one sneezed from the door, the droplets could land like ricocheting rubber bullets onto a window several feet away on someone’s sleeve. When God made Paradise, no one knew there’d be funeral homes. “The dead gotta live somewhere,” Amah said while smoking a rolled-up cigarette made of dried tobacco leaves on top of Angkong’s coffin and staring at his face made strangely alive with make-up. Amah’s black teeth showed through her smile and said, “I’m a widow now.” Uncle Chin said nothing but picked at his nose with his pinkie finger, fishing for a booger then he spat at the spittoon next to him and then he suddenly lifted his left bum cheek and broke wind. Amah looked at Uncle Chin and yelled, “You coulda done that away from me!” Uncle Chin just smiled and said, “Go on and finish the story, Ma.” Uncle Chin licked his long incisor teeth with his tongue. 

The wake just started, and we were all there because we were hungry and full of our tears. So Amah took a paring knife and an imported apple while the sun through the window panes beat down on her brow, the sweat dripping down from her neck to the hollow between her breasts. She pared the skin off the red fruit, discarding the peel on the floor and the flies came promptly to eat. Amah sliced the white apple flesh section by section, ignoring the sun that shone through the windowpane, ignoring the drip of sweat between her breasts, ignoring the rest of us while our saliva dripped from our mouths. “I’m gonna tell you about my funeral,” she said while Uncle Chin scratched behind his ear. He tried to grab an apple slice, but Amah was too fast and swallowed all the cut pieces whole. “Not yet,” Amah said. Uncle Chin, agitated, rubbed his belly. We all followed suit and rubbed our bellies too.

“There will be a casket and in that casket a body. Around that casket will be lined with white and red flowers because I will have reached eighty by then.”

Uncle Chin’s long tooth started growing, each strand of his bushy eyebrows twitching.

“Long white candles and sandalwood incense will burn. From wall-to-wall, a paper compound all for me! Paper houses and paper cars and paper servants. Gold-covered Hell money with red cinnabar-paste stamps. A white ceramic bowl will be filled with burned paper so I can live a good life in the other side!”

Uncle Chin’s hairs started growing, the roots getting thicker and coarser from a cat’s whisker to a horse’s tail.

“The room will be lined with gladiola flower bouquets and garlands of marigold and gardenias and sampaguitas and jasmine.”

Uncle Chin’s eyes changed colors, almost amber-yellow with slits for irises.

“People will be sitting on folding chairs; the air conditioners will be blasting so high they won’t need paper fans to cool themselves.”

Uncle Chin’s voice changed and a low growl emitted from his throat.

“White walls.”

The walls of the funeral home, as if hearing themselves called forth, came into being. In a blink, twenty years passed. Amah’s white skin, devoid of blood, looked supple from the thick smears of light foundation the funeral director laid on it. Her white hair was fine like the silkiest of silks. She smelled faintly of chloroform and perfume. She wore a red qipao that she looked like an apple. The qipao hid the incisions in her body from years of surgeries and the last post-mortem examination, the autopsy, to determine whether seeds grew into forests in her body from too much sun, too much cold, too much smoke, too much life after death.

The monks came, said sutras over her small body. The priest came and read from the Bible, a verse from Corinthians, a verse from Psalms. 

It was as Amah said – the white-walled room was filled from ceiling to floor with flowers and incense and wall-to-wall paper houses and hell money to burn and accompany her in the afterlife. 

We turned to Uncle Chin who had never worn a suit and tie before, not even at Angkong’s funeral. All the hair fell off from his skin he even had no eyebrows left. He cried over Amah’s body. All of us, the mourners, were around him, elbow-to-elbow, sneezing and crying, our teeth as long as Uncle Chin’s ready to devour the dead. 


Cherry Lou Sy is playwright & writer originally from the Philippines of Chinese & Filipino heritage. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY. A graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School for her BA & the MA English Lit & MFA Playwriting program at Brooklyn College where she is also an Adjunct Lecturer. Her debut novel LOVE CAN’T FEED YOU about a fractured immigrant family is coming out in Fall ’24 published by Dutton Press. She is an alum of Tin House & VONA. She is published or will be published by JMWW, HAD, Cheap Pop, Hybrid Harpy, Shenandoah, and Massachusetts Review.




K-Ming Chang

The Umbilical Telephone

In our house we have a big beige telephone, absorbent as a loaf of bread. It turns stale when we’re silent, so we talk as much as possible. We talk to spurn death, to keep every creature fresh. The phone plugs into the kitchen wall, and we’re not allowed to pick it up when it rings, not even when it says our names personally, because the telephone is a terrible gossip who will leak ancestral secrets too damp for our digestion. But the whole house leans in to listen, the walls clasping together like palms, the stovetop growing ears, the chairs limping close on their lopsided legs. 

The telephone was installed before the house was built. At first it was plugged into the ground, and neighborhood girls could pick up the receiver and eavesdrop on tree roots and flower testicles and soon-to-be-extinct vegetables ranting about the lack of rain. They could also hear worms rejoicing that there was no rain, because when it rains, they get flooded out of the mud and the girls slurp them into their nostrils, which the worms find disorienting and rude. The daughters could also hear dead people gossiping underground, because the urge to talk shit is subterranean, a staple in every state of consciousness: Can you believe my funeral was so cheap? one of them said. Better than me, the other said. I got buried next to the sidewalk, beneath a municipal tree! Some shit about how much easier it would be to visit me! But a lot of people litter here, and not deliciously. All inedible bits, glass bottles and cigarette butts. I haven’t had anything to eat this century!

Then, when the house was built, the telephone received its own wall in its own kitchen, where it is hooked now, the receiver arguing with the raccoons who raise their young inside the walls and shred the electrical wiring. 

The telephone’s cord is umbilical. Plastic hadn’t been invented yet when the landline was installed. The cord is purple and pulsing, fat-veined and bulging in the middle where it must have swallowed several handfuls of beetles. Our mothers wrap the cord in duct-tape and saran-wrap, a blood-soaked waistcoat, and tells us never to approach with our tongues unsheathed: If we nick the cord, our lineage will hemorrhage.   

It is through the umbilical telephone, throbbing like a flayed snake, that our mothers speak to the island. The island is full of complaints. Where did all my daughters go? the island asks. The island is a mother because everyone leaves it. The island asks, why don’t you nibble inland? Why don’t you become blood and follow the stream of this umbilical cord, reentering my premises? Why don’t you tell the girls about me? Why do you say, things were different then, expectations were different then, I let your father say such things to me, humiliate me in this way, shut the car door on my knuckles, tell me I cannot leave or he will kill himself, because I was born to shoulder other lives, I was born to be sorry on behalf of his actions, but I cannot remove myself any more than I can remove my own bones, because I am different, I am some other animal, and this is where I belong, mothered by the dirt of degradation? I am strong, yes, I am your mother, yes, I do not allow those beneath me to yank me around by my umbilical cord, but it is different, yes, it is different with him, because I was born on a planet whose gravity is not yours? I was born to flower on this unforgivable planet, while you are free to find other meaning? And you will never be able to trim me free of this orbit? Is that what you say to your daughters? Is that how you tell them to unhand their hopes, to save themselves? Is that why, for generations, they will be reaching out to you with both hands and an open belly button, gaping for the plug of their umbilical cords, long gone, so that they might return to the lives they lived in your bodies, when you shared the same blood, when your mind was their mind, when there was still hope that they could, through the welding of your flesh, change your fate and chisel your choices into their own weapons? You must forgive your daughters. They want only to control what they cannot. They are parasites, wanting to grip you like steering wheels, to pilot you from inside your skin. They think they can fix the hurts you have been handed, the ones that still haunt them. Tell them to focus on their own damn lives.  

The problem with an umbilical telephone is that the quality of the call is not very good. Sometimes you can’t hear a voice above the glugging current of blood, and all you can do is tune into a stranger’s soured heart. No worries, our mothers say, sometimes you need to sacrifice quality for longevity. Our mothers talk for a long time with their mothers and their mothers’ mothers and their mothers’ mothers’ mothers. They talk after dinner every single night, lining up to dial the umbilical telephone, laughing or weeping or cursing as they twist the umbilical cord around their wrists and ankles, as they try to wrangle the signal, squeezing the cord like an udder to milk out the love they want, the love they never received in any kind of writing, wringing the cord into the width of trickling water when they don’t want to hear anymore, ripping the cord out of the wall when they get angry. Then apologizing, kneeling to sew the cord back into its socket, to lick around it, to draw a belly button on the wall with a laundry marker, blue-black and smearing like mold, pulsing with our pasts. 

HELLO GOOD MORNING, our mothers shout. They assume it is always morning on the other end of the line. Our mothers’ mothers’ mothers know how to voice our veins, how to articulate every twisted artery in our bodies: How can you avenge us? they ask.

In response, our mothers multiply their offers, offer flimsy alternatives: By punishing our careless sons and flaying our faithless husbands? By refusing to pay retail prices? By blowing up our daughters into balloons and then snipping the strings so that they can’t ever be reeled down and married to the terror of meat? By telling them to go, go, go as we allow our sons to go? By teaching them not to pave the street like roadkill, allowing any old vehicle to eviscerate their souls? By teaching them the word no, which was obliterated from their vocabulary at birth, the n given to night and the o offered to ghost? But our mothers’ mothers’ mothers do not answer. They know it is too late. Too late. When our mothers had not yet known us, there had been a chance: if only we knew how to speak through the thickness of amniotic fluid, we would have been able to say, No, not him, never him. Run away. But since our cords were snipped, we have lost a direct line of communication, and now our help is limited to mumbling in the backseat of cars and rolling our words around in our rice bowls. 

One day, we are playing underneath the kitchen counter, taking turns dangling like monkeys. My cousins Mandy and Yangyang teach me how to hook my heels over the countertop and hang upside down, our braids flipping up like beef tongues, our fingers gripping the edge of the counter so hard that our knuckles split. Hermit crabs crawl out of them, and we are glad that they are leaving us. We are hollow no longer, housing nothing but our hunger. 

We can’t explain it, the need for girls to dangle upside down. It’s a necessity. On every playground, in every house, a girl dangles upside down. It’s because our blood distrusts this planet’s gravity, which is designed to entrap us, and so we chase our thoughts upwards, filling our skulls into fishbowls. If our skulls do not hug all of our blood, we feel a kind of weightlessness, like our minds will marry into a bird’s family.  

That day we dangle from the kitchen counter, the umbilical telephone rings. The ringtone is three million fish leaping out of the sea, an endless silver ribboning. The call is coming too early, and our mothers are not home yet. Mandy says we should pick up anyway. Yangyang says no, we’re not supposed to pick up the umbilical telephone, because it secretes information that we don’t need, and how will we carry its awful excess? We know too much already. 

Mandy wins, and she slithers up to the wall and picks up the telephone. She nods once, twice, even though nodding is not audible. Still, the umbilical cord is flexible and transcribes her movement, rippling when she nods, so that whoever is on the other end can understand her chin’s intentions. After a few seconds, Mandy hooks the phone back into the receiver. The umbilical cord jumps a few times, bucking with blood, and then settles into its usual lankness, drooling down the wall. 

What did it say? Yangyang says. Was it our mothers calling to yell at us? I say. 

I heard our mothers, but they sounded like they were growing gills, Mandy says. It sounded like they were talking from three or more mouths at once. But I think one of them said, when you’re finally born, save the cord. Don’t bury it or eat it or burn it or throw it away or some stupid shit like that. Keep the cord, pickle it, and someday, when you’re stranded somewhere so far from any memory of your mother and your teeth ache because you’ve been gnashing on all the miles you’ve traveled without anyone asking where you are going and how I might meet you there, you’ll plug the cord into a surface, maybe the soil and maybe the sky, maybe your own belly button or maybe a lover’s butt, and when you dangle upside down at just the right angle, a voice on the other end will say hello, it’s me, your mother, why aren’t you home? When are you coming over?

One day the umbilical cord telephone detaches itself from the wall, its mucus plug popping out wet as an eyeball, and it slithers into our throats, exiting through our assholes. It strings us into jewelry, routing our blood into a bracelet. We match our mothers, but smaller. We have joined the chain of their deathless communication, their unintelligible longing. We become pregnant with everything they have given up: diplomas, a trip to see penguins, days and days of nothing, money, lovers with gorgeous hair, our bellies swelling and swelling. The pain is bearable, even precious, when we are together and can expel it as laughter. 

Between our legs, we dribble a trail of names, abandoned hobbies, forbidden pets. When we walk around the neighborhood in loose formation, we drag the umbilical cord along the ground, and cars leap into the air to avoid running over it. They understand the sacred nature of our chaining, the threading of our torsos. We are comforted by the company of the cord. We eavesdrop on each other’s intestines and swap remedies for constipation and loose bowel movements. We digest worlds into worms, and when our mothers’ mothers’ mothers call us to ask, how will you avenge us? all our blood will chorus at once, gargling bells. We are the lyrics to their losses, and we will inherit their song, this sinewed silence, and repeat it for all our lives and deaths, praying for its extinction, for the day when to remember is not to mourn or to rage but to rain upon the world. To beat the ground until we can grow from it. To become beasts gutted of goodness. To be free. 


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice books Bestiary and Gods of Want (One World/Random House), and two forthcoming books, a novel titled Organ Meats (One World) and a novella titled Cecilia (Coffee House Press). She lives in California.




Grace Hwang Lynch

A Fracture Never Goes Away

The throbbing of my cheek was louder than any alarm clock. My worries have always lived in a clenched jaw, but on this morning the tension escaped, spreading down my neck and deep into my ear. I should have been rousing my teenagers to buy binder paper and sneakers for high school or extra-long sheets for the college dorm. Instead, I stayed curled up in bed, pressing a pillow to my cheek like a cartoon character with a toothache. The pain came from somewhere deep, radiating from the left lower molar into my jaw and affecting the whole side of my face. My head tingled, and my eardrums vibrated at the slightest sound.

Over the phone, I described the situation to my dentist. He told me to come in during the lunch hour, the slot reserved for emergencies. Dental checkups were one of the things that I had been avoiding for months. I had an appointment scheduled a few months earlier; it was cancelled when the Bay Area went into shelter-in-place, as TVs blared about the “China virus.” A few months later, stylists began cutting hair outside, restaurants set up tables on the sidewalk, and shops opened up for browsing. A routine dental cleaning—face-to-face, mouth wide open—still seemed like an unnecessary elective appointment.

But this was August, and the clinic was allowing one patient at a time, with R2-D2-sized air purifiers and vacuum tubes to suck up ‘particulate matter.’ I stripped off my mask as the dentist greeted me from behind the cone of his N95 mask. With his deep-set brown eyes, he looked like a sad toucan. His eyebrows furrowed at the array of black and white images on the computer monitor, and he murmured a series of numbers to his assistant. They sounded like police codes, dispassionate ways to talk about all the things that can go wrong inside a mouth. The beak pointed toward me. When did the pain start? “Last week,” I lied, knowing that the pain really started months ago. 

                                 Is it sensitive to cold? Yes.
                                 To heat? Yes.
                                 To pressure? Yes.
                                 Does the pain radiate to other parts of your jaw? Yes.
                                 Does your ear hurt? A little, I lied again.
                                 Do you wear a night guard? I used to, but it didn’t fit anymore. (It hadn’t for
                                 years, but a new one wasn’t covered by insurance.)

“We can try a crown, but the tooth may be too damaged and need to be extracted,” he said. Rubbery goo filled my mouth to make an impression for a new night guard. A temporary crown was placed atop my cracked molar, and I’d have to come back in a few weeks for the permanent one.


A crown holds a damaged tooth together. Like a helmet, this thin layer of porcelain protects the tooth from further shock, which could shatter the weakened enamel. A damaged tooth can look fine to the naked eye. Made mostly of calcium, the pearly white exterior feels nothing. But even a tiny chip or microscopic fissure can allow bacteria to creep into the pulp, the soft living core of flesh, blood vessels, and nerves. The infection can grow deep in these channels, sometimes unnoticed. Teeth are said to be the densest matter in the human body. But not so strong that they are impervious to the pressure exerted by clenched jaw muscles. My father also grinds his teeth. I have seen the muscles bulging on the sides of his face in moments of stress. Maybe I look like that too, and I just don’t know it.


This particular toothache began one morning in June. I woke up with sand in my mouth, but I hadn’t been to the beach. The days blurred together after malls re-opened and police shot Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, but before the summer COVID surge and cancellation of fall classes. Around that time, old friends from high school or church would sometimes comment aggressively on my Facebook posts. “But are they dying?” one woman asked, in response to a news article reporting increasing infection rates. Instead of arguing with them, I shut my laptop just like I closed my jaw, hoping that if I didn’t see the conflict, I wouldn’t feel it.

That gritty morning, I opened my mouth wide in front of the bathroom mirror and spotted a V-shaped notch missing from in my left lower molar, second from the back. My eyes darted away from my reflection and towards the drawer. If I didn’t see the hole, maybe it didn’t exist. I grabbed a tube of sensitivity-reducing toothpaste, special ingredients from Japan designed to re-calcify damaged enamel, instead of just numbing the pain with medication. When I finally went to the dentist weeks later, I asked him to be generous with Novocaine. “Nineteen,” he murmured to the assistant, as we waited for the sensations to dull. 


Crowning a tooth is a more complicated than putting a helmet on your head. A layer of enamel needs to be removed, so when the crown sits over it, the repaired tooth still fits neatly with its neighbors. But removing a layer of enamel is not like peeling off a beanie. The tooth must be ground down, with a whirring tool that rattles your skull and gives off an odor of waiting outside a Taipei crematorium after your grandmother’s funeral. Then a temporary crown is lightly glued on that sanded-down molar, like being sent home with a birthday hat after brain surgery. You have to be extra careful until it’s time to pluck off the temporary crown and cement the custom-made porcelain shell onto the raw nub. 

At the end of September, the pain came humming back. By early October, it grew to a constant din, like the election news or debates over opening elementary schools. I hurt when I ate, drank cold water, sipped hot coffee, or simply breathed. I donned big black headphones during my video meetings, because the tiny pods felt like knives on my ear drums. 

Over the years, there have been other times when I woke up with sand in my mouth: after a sleepless night with my colicky first baby, after a red-eye flight to visit colleges on the East Coast when that baby turned 16, and a few times in between. Each time, the tooth was crowned and life went on. But in October 2020, I could no longer tune out the pain. The next time I called the dentist, he suggested a root canal later in the month. I went on antibiotics while I waited for the appointment. Even with the medication, the pain became its own a 24-hour news cycle, a ticker of all possible outcomes: Tooth extraction! Dental implants! Insurance co-pays! Nerve damage! At night, I clutched my husband like a giant teddy bear. I couldn’t cry when his colleague was put on a ventilator, our son’s high school graduation was cancelled, or my mother whispered that “China is trying to kill us all,” but now silent tears spilled onto his shoulder. I watched the clock until it was 8 a.m., when the dentist’s office opened. 

“Come in at nine,” the receptionist told me. 

More X-rays, more prodding. The dentist tilted his head to the side. “The left side of your face looks swollen,” he announced. “What we can do is open the tooth up and relieve some of the pressure, clean out some of the infection.” What he described sounded like a root canal. He numbed me up, two shots this time. “You might feel a little prick,” he said. I gave him a thumbs up. A tiny drill whinnied as it bored into Tooth 19. The dentist made grunting noises and mumbled more codes to his assistant. Suddenly, searing pain! Like what you would expect if a drill bit touched a live nerve. Then it was over. “The nerves in the tooth are almost completely dead,” the dentist said. 

Bacteria can creep through chips and fissures to infect the pulp of the tooth. Infection causes pain, and when the germs spread the pain radiates to your jaw or your ear. The holes were patched with temporary putty, until my checkup in a few weeks, like having brain surgery and going home with gauze wrapped around your head. “I had a similar root canal on a tooth twenty years ago,” the dentist confided, in a moment of empathy. “It held up until just recently, and I need to have it extracted.” 

By my October checkup, the pain subsided, and I was cautiously optimistic. The dentist sealed up the repaired molar. I slept with my new mouth guard, and I stretched my neck before bed. Schools would open in January, and cable news projected that Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States. But a nagging sensation crept back. Not exactly pain, just an unsettled feeling. The Monday before Thanksgiving, my jaw swelled tight and Tooth 19 winced at the touch of a spoon. Infection numbers were rising, and public health experts warned people not to gather for the holiday. 

This time, the toucan shook his head. He could no longer help me. I’d have to see an endodontist. In the days after the presidential election, when the winner had yet to be certified, I went to the specialist’s office for a last attempt to salvage my molar. A CAT scan revealed a gum infection, but no obvious cracks. The endodontist challenged me to a terrible game of would-you-rather: Another root canal? Or surgery to open up my gums and repair the roots? Surprisingly, tooth extraction wasn’t one of the choices. On Thanksgiving, I ate mashed potatoes, counting the days until my next procedure. 

After three shots of Novocaine, the drilling began. I plugged tiny white pods in my ears this time and hit play on the Hamilton soundtrack, hopefully loud and lengthy enough to distract me. The rap opera about the founding of the United States only slightly dulled the vibrations; after all, they were coming from inside my head. King George questioned this new nation that would keep on replacing whoever’s in charge, closing his soliloquy with a villainous laugh.

The endodontist mumbled a sound of surprise. There was a tiny fissure deep inside the molar. “It is bonded, which will preserve the tooth for a while,” he said. “But a fracture never goes away.” 

At home, I curled up on couch, eating ice cream while streaming Christmas movies. For the first day or two, I popped painkillers every few hours, afraid of what I might experience if the numbing wore off. In a week or so, the pain became merely discomfort. Joe Biden was certified as the next president, but a dull ache in my jaw never fully subsided. Even with my reinforced molar, the left side of my neck tensed up as I watched flag-carrying protesters breech the White House just six days into the next year. 


In various ancient traditions, teeth are believed to be connected to other aspects of our being. At the root of dental problems is not poor oral hygiene, but unresolved psychic issues. 

“Our teeth act like stoic warehouses, holding onto suppressed or distorted emotional energy,” writes Melior Simms, an Australian life coach who goes by The Holistic Tooth Fairy. Traditional Chinese medicine associates each incisor, bicuspid, or molar with an energetic meridian. Tooth 19 is situated on the lung meridian. Could it have anything to do with the global respiratory pandemic? This molar also correlates with the emotions of chronic grief, sadness, and feeling trapped—feelings that are all too familiar to me.

A few days after President Biden was sworn in, I went back to my regular dentist for a checkup. The x-ray showed Tooth 19 to be structurally sound. Still, it didn’t feel quite right. The dentist, with his air purifiers and digital cameras, suggested that the root of the issue may not be related to dental care. “What’s causing you so much stress that you grind your teeth so much?” he asked. “You have to change that.” But how do I change the stress of living as an Asian woman in an increasingly divided America? 

So I go to physical therapy. I go to psychotherapy. I do more yoga exercises, and I wear my nightguard religiously. Some mornings I wake up with the familiar tension—in my jaw, my neck or my cheek—and I remove the molded plastic from my mouth and check for telltale shards of calcium. I sigh with relief to find my teeth have survived another night, but I don’t take for granted that they always will.


Grace Hwang Lynch is a Taiwanese American journalist and essayist in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley with a B.A. in Rhetoric, she got her start as a broadcast journalist, before becoming a freelance writer and editor. She is an alum of the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) and Tin House writing workshops. Her reporting on Asian America can be found at PRI, NPR, and NBC Asian America. Her essays have been published by Tin House, Catapult, Paste, and more. The anthologies Lavanderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash, and Word and Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting have included her work. In 2021, she created the literary reading series: Kòo-Sū: A Taiwanese Storytelling Experience. She is currently finishing a memoir-in-essays about food as a lens understanding family and the history of Taiwan. Follow her @gracehwanglynch on Twitter or Instagram, or at gracehwanglynch.com.