Original fiction excerpt by Carly Hallman (scroll down for interview)
Seven p.m. and the dusty streets buzzed with lights and life. A stream of workers trickled from the factory gates. Walking in groups of twos, threes, and fours. Laughing and smiling. Off to buy snacks or to enjoy an evening stroll after a grueling shift. The resemblance to the usual afternoon scene in front of my school's gates was uncanny—these workers weren't much older than me or my little sister, and looking at their young faces I understood that it was just circumstance that had created our differences: we were building our futures; they were building our country's export surplus.
We took a train here to Guangzhou to get Grandma a special wheelchair because she's so fat she can't fit into a regular one. Dad wants her, his mother, to be able to go outside and “experience life” in so far as life can be experienced on a sidewalk under a ceaseless cover of pollution. Mom, while understandably fearful for Grandma's safety if such freedom is attained, just wants the old woman out of the house occasionally so that she can have more time to pursue her own interests, which include drinking wine, shopping for dresses online, and gossiping with her cousin on the phone. As for me and my sister, we're just sort of along for the ride, my sister less so than me, and so that's how I found myself outside the factory with Dad while she and Mom stayed in the hotel room digesting their dinners and watching HBO on satellite.
“Hey,” Dad accosted a group of three tittering young workers as I played bodyguard in front of a Sichuan restaurant. I could've stood anywhere, but I liked the way the wafting spices tickled my nose.
Dad adjusted his glasses and held out a hundred yuan note. “I need a chair.”
One of these workers, a pock-faced girl with severe bangs, lunged for the money. “What kind of chair you lookin' for, mister?”
Dad dangled the note just out of her reach. “A fat one.”
The girl glanced at her friends, who nodded with what could've been either approval or indifference. “Yeah?” she said. “Maybe we can work something out.” She and Dad, seeking a little privacy to negotiate, stepped under a liquor store awning. I bit my lip. I had watched and would continue to watch similar scenes play out dozens of times on this week-long trip. Dad paid out bribe after bribe, but no one was able to deliver because this factory only made some, not all, of the parts; unbeknownst to us until later, the chairs were assembled and given their finishing touches in America.
Maybe I should've begun this tale of Grandma's wheelchair by saying this: Truth is very important to me; maybe the most important thing in my life. I'm only sixteen, so a lot of people think I don't know what I'm talking about when I talk about this, but I do. I know that truth is often misunderstood, misinterpreted. I know that truth differs from honesty; that honesty is the act of telling the truth. I know that without truth, there is no justice, there is no peace, there are no stories.
When I grow up, I want to be an investigative journalist. Mom always jokes that I was born in the wrong country and at the wrong time for a job like that. She thinks it's just a phase, that I will grow out of it and grow up to become something proper like a computer engineer or a corporate accountant or a housewife like her. Dad is on my side though; he says I couldn't have been born in a right-er country and at a right-er time, and even if he's wrong and Mom is right, it's not like I'm stuck here. There's a whole world out there to investigate; a million truths to be told.
But back to the fat chair: Unsurprisingly, we left Guangzhou empty-handed. Dad’s brother, my uncle, had been taking care of Grandma, but knowing we'd be back that night, he’d already rejoined his “nagging wife” and “snot-nosed son” (his words, not mine). Our otherwise-dark apartment flickered with the TV's glow, and we dropped our bags in the entryway, and Dad, not missing a step, marched, his head held high, to Grandma's room, where she lay propped up in bed by pillows, staring slack-jawed at a program set in imperial times.
“Mother!” he declared. “We shall go to America to get your chair!”
Grandma's gaze did not stray from the screen.
“To America!” He proclaimed again, adding, “And if we can’t get the chair in America, it's onward to Europe. And if we can’t get it in Europe, it's onward to Africa and—”
My sister, who'd since settled on the living room sofa with her cell phone, which is basically her best and only friend, chimed in, “But Dad, there aren’t fat people in Africa. Everyone there is starving. Why would they have fat chairs there?”
My sister is hardly a genius, but even I had to admit she had a point. However, her interjection did little to deter Dad.
“Well,” he reasoned. “Where else are there fat people?”
I rifled through my mind, memories, things I’d read until: jackpot. “Samoa!” I cried.
From behind his thick glasses, Dad’s eyes sparkled. “Yes, well then it's off to Samoa! And if they don’t have the chairs in Samoa, we shall—”
Mom rolled her eyes. “I think she gets the point, dear.”
But if Grandma got the point, she didn’t show it. It’s not that Grandma is a vegetable or anything like that. Her mind is very sharp, as is her tongue. She’s just a bit on the lazy side, and a bit critical of everything last thing we do, according to Mom, but Dad says it's just geriatric depression, which he attributes largely to her immobility.
Unmoved by Dad's declarations, Grandma continued watching TV and when she finally did say something, it was just about whose pimples she had to pop to get some damn food around here. Mom sighed and clomped into the kitchen. My sister tucked her phone in her pocket and followed after her to help—don’t think my sister is a perfect angel or anything; she only ever helps out in the kitchen because she loves using a knife because she’s a psychopath.
To the soundtrack of sizzling and of the chop, chop, chop of the knife’s blade against the cutting board, I watched Dad’s lean silhouette as it lingered in Grandma’s doorway. “America,” he said, as though planning, plotting, as though disbelieving.
In case you’re wondering, Grandma didn’t get this fat by accident or by chance or by genes; hers was a choice, deliberate. One night, we were sitting around the dinner table chowing down, as we were wont to do, when Grandma cleared her throat and made her big announcement. “I’m much too old for sex orgies,” she began. “And I’m not interested in travel or learning a new skill. So I'm going to devote myself to my deepest passion, to the one constant in my life, to the one thing that has provided me comfort and nourishment through all of my suffering, through all of my years...”
And so Grandma’s World Tour of Food began at a 24-hour dim sum establishment outside the park. She'd announced her intentions to anyone who would listen, including meat stick vendors, garbage pickers, street sweepers, police officers, and the old people who did tai qi in our apartment’s gardens. I'd helped with online publicity, writing about her endeavor on a blog I titled “My Overeating Grandma,” which quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers, and which caught the attention of dozens of curious reporters, many of whom showed up on the big day.
Grandma did not disappoint.
She plowed her way through three steamer baskets of soup-and-meat buns, four baskets of shrimp dumplings, six beef-stuffed rice flour pancakes, one bowl of spicy Sichuan noodles, two-and-a-half bowls of pork and chive porridge, one bowl of black sesame soup, sixteen vegetable balls, and three sweet egg tarts.
My Overeating Grandma took the country by storm. A documentary show was produced. Magazine covers were graced. Many newspaper journalists and many more bloggers covered all angles of her story. Was she an enviable wild woman, liberated and enjoying what precious time she had left on Earth? Or was she a bastion of corruption, of gluttony, of laziness, of what was wrong with the older generation and the younger generation too, and perhaps what was wrong with our entire nation?
In my own blog, I didn't bother with such speculation. I simply documented; I simply told the truth.
In those two short but glorious years, Grandma packed on seventy-some-odd pounds. She'd had a good run, but after visiting nearly all of the restaurants in Beijing—from Xinjiang to Sichuan, Mexican to Indian, Thai to Malaysian—she was understandably a bit bored with the whole thing, and too fat and tired to get out of bed. As suddenly as Grandma's World Tour of Food had begun, it was over.
Bedridden, her spirit waned, but her appetite didn't. She continued to demand massive quantities of food. My parents discussed hiring a personal chef, but Grandma wasn't too keen on the idea thanks to a distrust of strangers and outsiders she inexplicably developed—Mom claimed it was from watching too many films set during the Opium Wars.
As for me, I'd indeed enjoyed a small amount of internet fame with my blog, but the nation grew weary of My Overeating Grandma, no longer canvassing Beijing seeking the hottest new dish, but restricted to her bed, eyes fixed on the TV. As they say, everything passes, and as Grandma's fame declined, so did my blog’s and so did my own. But oh well and never mind, I suppose I still have studying for the college entrance exams to look forward to, right?
Her debut novel, Year of the Goose, is set to be released Dec 8, 2015.
Hometown: This is always a tough question to answer. I was born in San Diego, California. I spent most of my school years in Granbury, Texas, a place I absolutely abhorred. I moved to Austin, Texas for university and my family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. Earlier this year, my parents moved to Anchorage, Alaska. Let’s just say I’m from the U.S.
"I grew up in a mobile home in a Texas town named after a Confederate General....before those [first] months in China, it seemed like traveling and being an expat and all of that was a right reserved for a privileged few—the rich, the glamorous, the Travel Channel hosts."
2006 - Nanjing; study abroad semester
2007-2008 - Yangshuo; volunteer work. Nanjing; language classes
2011-2013 - Beijing; instructor in an after-school program
2013-Present - Beijing; part-time tutor & full-time writer
Most memorable moment from my first year in China: I grew up in a mobile home in a Texas town named after a Confederate General. The first time I came to China (on a full scholarship) was the first time I’d ever left the United States. For me, the entire experience was revelatory: Not only was there a wider world out there, but I (yes, me! awkward, penniless me!) could actually play a part in it. Before those months in China, it seemed like traveling and being an expat and all of that was a right reserved for a privileged few—the rich, the glamorous, the Travel Channel hosts.
Moment I realized China was an important part of my life: Although there are innumerable downsides to living in China as an expat (pollution, traffic chaos, cultural/linguistic barriers, etc.), I returned here in 2011 with a positive attitude, as well as a concrete goal: to write and publish a book. Besides providing inexhaustible inspiration, China is an affordable refuge for those of us with literary/artistic aspirations and an aversion to the traditional workweek. Here, I can work a bare minimum of hours, but live in a pretty nice apartment, eat healthy food, and manage to make my student loan payments. Most importantly, I have time to write. So much time! I can’t imagine having a comparable lifestyle in the U.S. at the moment.
My writing history: Like nearly everyone who wants to be a writer, I’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. I earned a B.A. in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX in 2010. I sold my first novel to Unnamed Press, a cool Los Angeles-based publisher, less than a year ago. That novel, Year of the Goose, will come out in December 2015.
My latest project: I am currently working on a paranormal horror screenplay, four different novels, and a few short stories & essays. Did I mention how much time there is to write?
Favorite word to use in writing: Bashful
One word to describe the process of writing: Endless