An International Student Trapped in Her Own Injured Brain

"Stars" from HAO by Ye Chun, recommended by Te-Ping Chen

woman and brain

Introduction by Te-Ping Chen

An aquarium humbles you. The splayed wings of a manta ray in one corner, a jellyfish’s numinous parasol in another, and suddenly all around you, water is electric with new meaning. You wander, amazed that the world can hold so many kinds of life and strangeness and beauty, and lose, for a time, your own center of gravity; forget about the parking meter, the hangnail on one finger, the present you have to buy for your niece that afternoon.  

cover of HaoSo it’s fitting that Ye Chun’s “Stars” begins with a flashback to the St. Louis Aquarium, where the main character, Luyao, once saw an eel pulse with light, pulses that remind her of the pain now shaking her skull. She’s experienced a stroke and awakened in the ICU to find that she’s lost most of her language; all she can say is the word hao. Hao for good, yes, okay, the one word that stays shimmering in her brain, saved from Mandarin, her mother tongue. An immigrant who came to the U.S. to pursue an advanced degree, she’s now an immigrant who can’t speak and faces an uncertain future as the wife of a struggling academic and the mother of a six-year-old daughter.  

Ye’s writing taps into that same current of electricity, reminding you that at its best, writing can at once make you forget yourself and feel more alive to the world and its possibilities. The story you have before you now is taken from Ye’s short story collection Hao, which follows the lives of women in the U.S. in China through the lens of motherhood and migration, out this month from Catapult. I read the book earlier this spring, absorbed and admiring, and am so glad to get to share it with you today. How vast the world is, how gloriously unencumbered by any one person’s experience. How thankful I am for fiction that plugs in the cord, lights it up, and reminds us to see it that way.  

Te-Ping Chen
Author of Land of Big Numbers

An International Student Trapped in Her Own Injured Brain

“Stars” by Ye Chun

It’s a swirling, crackling kind of pain, as if an electric eel is twisting inside her skull. Luyao saw such an eel in the St. Louis Aquarium during the winter break: the tank lit up every few seconds with lights powered by the eel’s own voltage charges. The flashing lights had, for some reason, felt like blips of pain, and now, they are in her head, silvery, frantic. She clutches the edge of the podium and sees her students’ eyes all set on her, keenly, like some high-pitched chorus. She falls silent, realizing with a sinking heart that she hasn’t been making sense. She has been speaking not in English, but in Chinese, or more likely, a jumble of the two.

“I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well.” She says the English words, but what comes out of her mouth sounds warped, writhing, even to her own ears. She puts a hand to her head, trying to trace the contours of the phrase “class dismissed.” But as her tongue moves to its supposed position, there is nothing left to trace: the words have vanished from her brain.

Luyao does not quite remember what happens next. Only the image of the eel hunting inside her tight skull, its electricity turning words into puffs of smoke.

The diagnosis is a stroke. A blood clot is killing the brain cells in her left frontal lobe—specifically, the region that controls speech. Luyao, at thirty-seven, third-year doctoral student in economics, and mother of a six-year-old, has lost her ability to speak.

When her husband, Gaoyuan, arrives at the hospital, with one of his jacket collars tugged under the neckline, all she can say is one word, hao. The mellow-voiced doctor asks how she feels, she answers hao; asks her to name pictures of dogs, dolphins, and roses, she replies hao. Good, yes, okay. The most common word in Chinese, which must have been so imprinted in her memory it alone has escaped the calamity. She says hao even when she is shaking her head and slapping her hand on the threadbare sheet of the hospital bed.

She wants to ask Gaoyuan where their daughter is. She can voice her daughter’s name in her brain, Xinxin, a name she picked, meaning happy, flourishing, thriving, homophone to the word for heart and the word for new. “You can’t find another sound with so many good meanings,” she’d said to Gaoyuan. But her mouth has forgotten how to make that sound as well.

Gaoyuan does not read her mind. He’s telling her what the doctor has told him. That she’d passed out, her students called 911, and an ambulance took her to the ICU. It could have been much worse. She could have lost her muscle function, or her language abilities altogether. She can still understand what others say, can still read in her head, albeit slowly.

“Xinxin is with our neighbor,” he says finally. “I’ll bring her tomorrow.”

“Hao,” Luyao says, and means it this time.

When she is alone again, encircled by a beige cubicle curtain in a corner of the hospital room, she moves all her body parts and all of them are still movable. She is lucky, they were trying to tell her. She closes her eyes and wonders if she can still cry out loud, or scream. The patient on the other side of the curtain is turning in bed, trailing long sighs with each toss. Luyao covers her ears to focus. The sound of her daughter’s name. Xinxin. Her body quivers, her mouth fumbles, her tongue queries. But no sound except the accursed hao makes its way out into the air.

The next day, clinging to her father’s leg, Xinxin looks at Luyao as though unsure if she is her real mother. The little girl once told Luyao where she had been before her birth: “I was so small,” Xinxin said when she was around three. “I was invisible. I was sneaky, hiding from you. Then I jumped out in front of you.” Luyao had felt both chill and momentary illumination. There seemed to be truth in her daughter’s baby talk—this jump from being invisible to being in front of her, this will to be born and seen. If only she could think it out. But she had no time to dwell. She had been constantly busy since she went back to school, mentally absent from her daughter’s logic and riddles and inventions. Only the afternoon before the stroke, Luyao stretched out an arm to stop Xinxin from climbing onto her lap: “Don’t interrupt me, please. Go read a book or draw a picture.”

“Mama?” Xinxin asks tentatively.

“Hao, hao.” Luyao opens her arms.

Scott, a young speech therapist with perfectly aligned teeth, is singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He asks Luyao to hum along and swings her arms with his to match the rhythm. He looks at her mouth closely as if expecting something miraculous. When he finishes the song, he moves on to “Happy Birthday.” But nothing comes out of Luyao’s mouth except more off-tune humming.

Scott says that it was an experiment. Rhythm and melody are controlled by the right side of the brain which is not damaged in Luyao’s case. People with her condition can sometimes blurt out the lyrics when they hum along with nursery songs. “But it probably only works for native speakers,” he says.

Luyao learned those songs roughly the same time she started learning English—in middle school, in a small town in China where all her English teachers had learned their English from someone who was also Chinese. With each new teacher, Luyao inherited a different set of mispronunciations and accents, and had to unlearn and learn again. Though she was never particularly interested in English, her father had decided that she would major in the language. He predicted it would be useful, foreseeing more trade between China and English-speaking countries. He himself had majored in Russian when the two countries had called each other brothers. Luyao’s pronunciations and accents continued to morph according to the professors she studied with, most of them also Chinese. She continued to learn the language perfunctorily, memorizing rules and combinations to pass exams. But in her junior year, when she was able to read unabridged literature in English, the language started to make sense to her. What seemed to be randomly arranged letters were able to generate views of far-off places she couldn’t otherwise see.

After seven years of administrative work at an American pharmaceutical company in Shanghai, Luyao decided that was not what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She applied for schools in America and got a student visa to pursue an MA in literature. She met Gaoyuan, a graduate student in math at the same East Coast university. After they graduated, neither of them could find a job, and legally they had only one year to stay. Gaoyuan applied for computer science programs and was accepted by a midwestern university. Luyao was pregnant. She moved with Gaoyuan to the college town, changed her visa from F1 to F2, and took care of the baby while applying for graduate study at the same school. This time, she too had to change majors. Business administration? Economics? Accounting? Management? Marketing? Finance? Gaoyuan made a list.

After gaining an MA in economics, Luyao was given a speaking test at the beginning of her PhD program. A computer voice asked her to open a pamphlet to page one, study a map, and give directions from a gym to a restaurant. It asked her why smoking was harmful, and what her favorite album and TV program were. Luyao had not expected to be asked such irrelevant questions and was irritated by the male voice that kept interrupting her before she could finish. “I have no TV,” she half-yelled at the computer. “Even if I had one, I wouldn’t have time to watch any programs.” The next day, she was informed that she had failed the test. Not only was she not allowed to teach, she had to take speaking classes.

The language instructor, Vickie, spent the next two semesters training her and other international prospective teaching assistants to speak like native speakers, which involved frequent self-recording and redoing until she and her fellow students believed that every syllable they pronounced sounded native. There was also a weekly tutorial during which Luyao sat in front of Vickie and her computer and spoke. According to Vickie, when native speakers spoke, all the words in a sentence were linked together, forming an unbroken purple line on her computer screen. “Focus,” Vickie would say. “If you focus all your energy on the sound of the words, you will be able to do it.” But Luyao would false-start, stumble, stutter. From time to time, she even had the paralytic feeling that she didn’t know any of the words at all—they looked like alien codes, disconnected from any neurons in her brain.

Now the feeling is no longer metaphorical. As Scott dramatically shapes his mouth around the word hello, the words how are you, and thank you, and see you, words Luyao had learned at the age of twelve, with her first English teacher who spoke English as though smacking her lips on candy—Luyao is angry.

She has compromised and strived for nothing.

She is angry that her father had made her major in English, when she could have majored in Chinese and in that case would never have thought of coming to study in America, where a stroke would be waiting down the road. She is angry at Gaoyuan for persuading her to switch majors. How many times when she was reading an economics textbook did she wish she were reading a novel or a book of poetry. How many sleep-deprived nights had she spent writing papers of little interest to her. She is angry at Vickie, whom she was still running into from time to time on campus and, each time, Luyao could see the words she spoke manifest themselves as broken lines on Vickie’s computer screen. She’d fear that Vickie would say to her, “Let’s give it another try. Let’s stand here and do this till you make all the words link.” Luyao is angry that during the year and half when she was finally teaching, she couldn’t help but think that her students were younger versions of Vickie, listening intently, with hidden dissatisfaction, for the unlinked words staggering out of her mouth.

Now she will never teach again, nor will she earn a PhD. She is now a disabled person who can speak no words. Except hao. Which is a mockery. It must have survived to tell her that she has ruined her life by saying hao when she should have said bu hao. She has compromised and strived for nothing.

“How was the therapy?” Gaoyuan asks at dinner.

Luyao says nothing because she doesn’t want to say hao. He continues to look at her, so she gives him a nod. “What words were you practicing today?” This is his final school year: he’s applying for jobs and preparing for defense at the same time. Before the stroke, Luyao had been helping him edit cover letters. Their dinner conversations often had to do with the job market. Now, he doesn’t talk much about it.

Luyao shakes her head, looking away.

“I learned the seasons today,” Xinxin says in English.

Xinxin began speaking English to them soon after she started preschool. Luyao wanted her daughter to be a natural bilingual, an uncompromising one, able to switch between Chinese and English effortlessly, as she herself couldn’t—and most certainly cannot now. She had only spoken to Xinxin in Chinese since her birth, but a few months into preschool, Xinxin began to respond in English, asking why she needed to speak Chinese—no one else at school did. Luyao told her because it was easier  to be bilingual now than later, but oftentimes, she found herself speaking English with her daughter, too tired to switch back to Chinese. She tried to make it a rule that the family would only speak Chinese at home, but more and more, she and her husband caught themselves pulled into English by their daughter, who had also started to correct their pronunciation.

“Good, what are the seasons?” Gaoyuan says in English, with a reinforced interest.

“Spring, summer, fall, winter.”

“Very good. What do you know about them?”

“Spring is tornados and kind of warm. Summer is next to sunset. It looks like lots of suns. Pink is fall. Fall means leaves turn colors and the rain is kind of cold. Winter is snow. I like winter the best. No, actually I like every season the best.”

“That’s great, Xinxin.” Gaoyuan rubs her hair.

Luyao wants to ask her daughter to repeat what she has just said. She tries to say the words in her head so that she won’t forget them: Summer is next to sunset…Pink is fall…I like every season the best. So strange and lovely. If only she could stay inside her daughter’s words and never come out.

In the morning, after dropping off her daughter at school, she walks to the park and sits down on a bench. A magnolia is in full bloom, its large pink flowers open deep, like sturdy throats caroling a celebratory song. A robin flits between the branches, warbling away without giving it a second thought.

Yesterday, Scott also taught her to say “My name is Luyao.” His pronunciation of her name was so off it sounded like someone else’s name. Still, she mimicked him. She was learning to say her own name in the wrong way.

During her first speaking class, Vickie had come in one day wrapped in a white sheet, a spiky cardboard crown on her head, a flashlight in her hand. She handed out copies of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and read it out loud. Then with more emphasis, she read again the verses containing the words “tired,” “poor,” “huddled masses,” and “wretched refuse.” “You’re the ‘wretched refuse’ in this poem,” Vickie then said to the class. “But this is a great country and we’re here to help you.”

But she was too sure. She had forgotten the Eastern wisdom that the only certainty is uncertainty.

Luyao had to let it go, the way she let go many of those little darts thrown her way. She had to grow thick-skinned, she told herself, and her second-class status was only temporary. In five years, she would get her PhD and become a professor. But she was too sure. She had forgotten the Eastern wisdom that the only certainty is uncertainty. Now, she has indeed become the “wretched refuse.”

The hospital bill comes. Despite her student health insurance coverage, her portion is still five figures. She tears up the bill and throws it in the trashcan. Her and Gaoyuan’s combined stipends could barely make ends meet. Now with hers gone, they won’t be able to pay rent for this one-bedroom apartment, where all three of them are still co-sleeping, on one mattress that covers just about the bedroom’s entire floor. They will have to ask for loans from their families back in China.

She wants to go back to China. She and Gaoyuan had talked about going back many times, and the agreement was to do it if they couldn’t find a job here even with a PhD. They didn’t want to go back defeated, but they were nostalgic. Gaoyuan said the first thing he would do after his defense was to reread all of Jin Yong’s wuxia novels. What Luyao wanted to reread was Tang poems, and she wanted to have the right mindset to read them, which she didn’t foresee having anytime soon. They both knew what they were nostalgic for was not exactly the present-day China, as the country had changed so much in the last decade they could hardly keep up. Nor was it what the country had been when they lived there. But it must be there somewhere.

If it were up to her, Luyao would like to have her Chinese back. She would give away all her hard-earned English just to be able to speak like a normal Chinese again. She forms a conversation with Gaoyuan in her head:

“Can you just get a job in China so we can go back?”

“Are you sure now is a good time?

“Yes, I’m sure. I don’t want to live here another day.”

“But how will living in China be different?”

“I’ll try to get my Chinese back. We’ll be close to our families.”

“Do you really want to go back in your current condition?”

“What do you mean? Am I a disgrace now? Am I making you lose face?”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

“What do you mean then?”

“I’m just being practical. What jobs do you think are available in China for people who can’t speak well?”

“The same kind as here: cleaning dishes, mopping floors, wiping toilets…”

“Do you want to do that kind of work in China?”

“Why? Do you think people will judge me, making me a cautionary tale for those who go abroad?”

“I just don’t see you doing that kind of work in China, with two master’s degrees and…”

“That person no longer exists.”

“Besides, one gets paid higher for that kind of work here than there.”

“I’m not going to be your dependent, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

To that, she can’t imagine how Gaoyuan will respond.

He will probably just shake his head and walk away.

Luyao has waitressed at Chinese restaurants during almost all her summer breaks and has never told any of her friends or family in China about it. It is true that no one will judge her here, as she hardly knows anyone except other Chinese students who are more or less in the same boat—minus the stroke. She will ask the owner of the restaurant she’s worked for the last two summers to let her do the cleaning work that even Chinese students won’t do. Maybe she can bring leftover food home to save on grocery costs. Maybe she will even learn how to cook those greasy Americanized Chinese dishes. “Wretched refuse” or not, she will survive.

Her daughter’s bedtime routine has changed. Now, Xinxin reads a book to Luyao before sleep. She points at each word and reads it out loud, modeling patiently for her to mimic, to work her lips, tongue, and vocal cords into mechanical sounds. Xinxin’s favorite book is A House Is a House for Me, which Luyao had bought at a library sale before her stroke. She’d read it night after night to Xinxin, to the extent that one night after she finished reading, Luyao asked Xinxin to make up verses to the same effect. “What is a window a house for?” she asked.

“A window is a house for outside,” Xinxin said. 

“Wow, that’s beautiful…What is outside a house for?”

“Outside is a house for future.” 

“Hmm, I like it. And future?” 

“Future is a house for everyone.”

“That’s really nice. What about everyone?” 

“Everyone is a house for bones.”

Luyao felt her bones rattle, like those skeletons hung in people’s yards on Halloweens. But her daughter’s face was tranquil. The lines had all come out of her mouth without a pause, like she’d known them all along, known them intuitively. And she said the word bones without the least aversion, as if it was as neutral as, say, water or air.

Now, mimicking her daughter saying words from the book, Luyao thinks of Xinxin’s poem again: Future is a house for everyone. / Everyone is a house for bones. She repeats the lines in her mind, and the paradox seems to be making a clearing in its thickets. A small clearing, but nevertheless she feels that as long as she can squeeze in and lie down there, she’ll be all right for a while.

One night after a long day at the Chinese restaurant, about two months post-stroke, Luyao lies on the mattress with her daughter, waiting for her to fall asleep so that she can get up and finish cleaning. That’s all she does now, cleaning. Her forearms shoot pain. Her knee joints feel like two handfuls of nails. The cracks on her fingers never close. Earlier, she wasn’t paying attention to Xinxin’s speech tutorial. She put the book away and gestured her daughter to sleep. She feels sore to the bone. Each of the bones she houses complains.

Xinxin turns in bed. Luyao can tell something is bothering her. Her daughter has not confided in her since her stroke—must have figured that her mother can offer no words of comfort anyway. Luyao pictures what could have happened to Xinxin at school. Maybe another boy walked over to her while pulling down the corner of his eyes, saying, “I’m Chinese, I can’t see.” Or another girl told her she couldn’t be her friend anymore because she didn’t believe in God and would go to hell. Or the girl who told Xinxin that the Easter Bunny didn’t bring her anything because he didn’t recognize her as an American said another damaging thing. Back then, Luyao was able to tell Xinxin that those children were ignorant, that she was born here. She is every bit as American as any other child.

She would give away all her hard-earned English just to be able to speak like a normal Chinese again.

Now Luyao has about thirty words she can form with her mouth. She still has no spontaneous sentences. She draws Xinxin to her arms and kisses her head. Xinxin sighs, and then starts to sing a lullaby. It is the lullaby Luyao had made up for her when she was a newborn. It’s in Chinese. A simple melody with lyrics all about something or someone falling sleep, starting with the stars, then the moon, the trees, the birds, or the streets, the streetlamps, and after every seven lines is the refrain “Xinxin ye yao shui jiao le”—Xinxin is also falling asleep.

Now Xinxin is singing it, improvising, inserting Chinese nouns she knows in the lyrics. Then, she stops. In the quiet, Luyao hears her own voice, clear and supple like water, singing the refrain, “Xinxin ye yao shui jiao le.” Unable to believe it’s true, she sings it again. For the first time since her stroke, she is able to say a sentence, and her daughter’s name, effortlessly.

Luyao and Xinxin are both laughing when Gaoyuan appears at the door. Luyao sings it to him.

“Hao, hao, tai hao le,” Gaoyuan says.

Luyao says hao too, and for the first time, it seems, she feels the immense goodness in this word.

Later that night, after her daughter falls asleep, Luyao cleans the kitchen and takes the trash out of the apartment to the dumpster. On her walk back, she counts seven stars above her head. She knows there are countless others up there, only that the night is not dark enough to reveal them. Like the words in her mind, they are there somewhere, none missing. She keeps her face raised and says Xinxin ye yao shui jiao le to the seven stars.

She looks around the sky and sees more. With care, she says the words she has relearned so far one by one. She says each word quietly, slowly, as if dedicating them to each of the stars. Hello. Thank you. See you. More stars emerge from the infinity.

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