“Oh, you are just perfect! You’ll get a nánpéngyou in no time!” she skips around with glee. “Boyfriend, boyfriend, Chang will find a boyfriend,” she trills in a singsong voice. I glance fearfully in the mirror and stare at the intensely revealing neckline. I’ve always tried to dress more like my stepsister, Fen, but this seduction stuff is so sordid and underhanded that I’ve never been good at it. How can modesty be considered such a crime? Fen has been through twenty-some nánpéngyous already, and she’s fourteen, going on fifteen. Almost two years younger than me.
“Where did you find this again?” Māma and I talk like friends rather than a mother and her daughter, and she doesn’t notice at all. “This fabric is kind of…garish.” I wince at how much of an understatement that is.
“I ordered it myself from the emperor’s clothing supplier,” Māma replies, slightly miffed. “And it is not garish, Chang nǚ'ér. My daughter must wear only the best, most avant-garde fashion for her prospective husbands.” I look at the mirror more intently and try to adjust my posture to make the neckline appear a little higher. This is avant-garde? For the Emperor’s sake, I look like a jìnǚ on a three-night streak!
“Mother,” I begin, but she cuts me off.
“You have to wear it! You need a husband…” I can see the desperation in her eyes. Most girls my age are engaged at least, and I, delicate, clever Chang, was her favorite from the moment I turned up on her doorstep. Even in my raggedness, Māma always says she saw “potential” in me. It has never been lived up to. Forget proposing—I’ve never even had a boy even look at me. Why does she have to do this to me?
Fen walks in the room and eyes me up and down, glaring, and I know exactly what she’s thinking: Why does Chang always get all the good stuff? Why does Māma even care about her? I never should have brought her to our house. I do pity her a bit. She was the one who mistook me for her mother’s sister-in-law’s cousin’s daughter on the streets, so technically, I have nothing to do with it.
I remember that day. I was on the run again after being chased out of the alley I had been living in. Fen and Māma were traveling, visiting some diplomat or other. I was ten years old.
“Hey! I know you!” she said. “Aren’t you the disowned Li girl?”
I wasn’t. Never will be.
“No Chinese,” I said . “Ahni, ahni,” No, no. I was lucky that Fen hadn’t understood me, otherwise I would have been arrested straightaway.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she replied, in the affected sympathy that all wealthy people master. An eight, maybe nine-year-old girl, giving me that condescending face? I didn't care if she was clothed in the finest blue silk I had ever seen, she was eight! For a moment, my old Korean spirit flared up inside me before fatigue won out. I just whimpered. “ You've gone wild. Can you understand me? Can you still speak Mandarin?”
I just kept shaking my head, unable to understand her. She sighed.
“I’ll bring you to Māma and we’ll see if you can come with us, okay? We have a very nice house.” Fen took my hand firmly and walked me up to a lavish carriage, where I was received with mild surprise but general graciousness. They petted me and murmured. I didn't know what they said about me, but it looked as if Fen was begging for me to be taken in.
Eventually, Māma agreed, even though she was muttering something in Chinese the whole time.
Fen catches me looking at her, wearing my reminiscing face, the one she hates, and her gaze snaps up to meet her mother’s.
“Māma, can you do my eye shadow?” she says with a container of gold glitter in her hand. Actually, her whole body is covered in a golden shimmer. I have to bite my tongue to keep myself from bursting out laughing. I got her a bottle of bath salts for her birthday that was about half this golden, shimmery stuff. I thought that she might take it as a fashion statement, but I never thought she would wear it like makeup. Her dress is a floor-length Mandarin collar that is so insanely tight around the waist, I have no idea how she’s breathing. It has a slit up the left leg that goes only a couple inches shy of her underwear and tiny blue flowers for the buttons. The silk looks about twice as expensive as mine - I am at a loss as to how she convinced Māma to buy it - and it’s a brilliant lucky red. Those are the only colors on the thing besides, yes, gold. Even the embroidery of the birds and flowers is all in gold. She has on golden false eyelashes, gold pins holding her hair into a bun with a gold tassel hanging down from the largest one. What was she possibly thinking?
“Hold on, Fen,” Māma says, squinting at me critically and ignoring Fen for the moment.
“I’ll do it,” I say, stepping over with my hands out.
“No, you never do it right, I’ll do it myself.” she says abruptly, running out the door. I really wish she didn’t hate me quite as much, or at least respected my makeup application skills enough not to go running out when I offer to do it. I sigh and turn back to my mother. She straightens and smiles.
There is a rap on the door. Without waiting for Māma to let him in, Chao, our butler, enters the room. I nod to him. He nods back, then turns stiffly to my stepmother.
“Nǚshì, madam, the driver wishes to see you,” he says, always much too formal. Māma finally tears her eyes from my dress (or should I say scrap of silk) and follows him downstairs.
“Chang, find Fen and do her eye shadow, please,” she says as a last reminder. I know that Fen will already have done it, so instead I nod and concentrate on arranging my neckline to conceal as much as possible. The party is in half an hour away, and at Ambassador Hu’s house, too - I groan. Though no one ever talks about it, Ambassador Hu is tacitly known to love encouraging young people’s relationships and has one too many empty bedrooms with locks in his house.
In that time, Fen has sidled back into the room, eye shadow on as I expected, looking haughtily and somewhat jealously at my almost completely exposed chest.
“Chang, give up trying to hide yourself. Just go to the party and have some fun for once.” she says, taking me completely by surprise. She sighs irritatedly. “The boys have been waiting forever to catch a glimpse of you. I’ve told them all about my beautiful sister.”
I look at her almost pleadingly and disbelievingly. Fen, helping me out? “How do you enjoy it?” My throat feels sticky, like I’m going to cry. “It’s just... I... it feels so...” revolting, positively disgusting, morally wrong?... “unnatural.”
She gawks at me. “What do you mean, Chang? How should it feel? Most girls your age have already been engaged! Get used to it. Guys like girls. You act all coy and they’ll like you even more.”
I pause, looking for words. “That’s what I don’t like. That whole shower-of-sparks romance thing. It just... feels like there should be... something else.” I start to realize what an idiot I’m sounding like, and how strange this situation is. Fen and I never talk, ever. Generally, we try ignore each other except for Fen throwing venomous glances my way.
“Then what should there be?” she throws her hands up.
I look down at the floor. “Respect, happiness,” I whisper. “A good Confucian household. A relationship that will last beyond two months.”
She looks at me like I’m crazy, though I should be used to that by now. Then her face softens. “When we took you in... I’d always wanted an older sister. Somehow I thought you would be that for me,” she says, then pauses. “You aren’t really the disowned Li girl, are you?”
I’m speechless for a moment, and I consider lying, but in the end, it doesn’t feel right. Fen has never spoken this nicely to me and I want to reciprocate. “No.”
“Well,” Fen sighs. “I guess I’ve always known that. Let’s go; we’ll be late if we stay any longer. Give the boys something to look at, for my sake at least.”
“I can’t.” Even as I say it, I’m pulling up my neckline.
“Just try not to blow it for me, too, then,” Fen says huffily, as if I am an obstinate child. I may as well be. She spins on her heel. “I, for one, plan on having some fun.” she says, looking over her shoulder sharply. Then, with all the drama of a well-bred Chinese socialite, she storms out of the room with a flourish. Wrestling with my feelings about the seduction Fen is advising me to use and why she suddenly broke down in front of me, I can only stare at Fen’s lithe frame and the ridiculous, revealing slit in her dress. Obviously, she’s chastising me even as she walks down the hall - she’s purposely overexposing her leg. I look down at my shoes, disgusted, and try to ignore the salty teardrops falling on my bare collarbone.