This week, C Pam Zhang has a flash fiction story at The Offing that is maybe about vampires but probably about girls, Chinese girls in particular. “Are They Vampires, or Are They Just Chinese?” is written in five brief paragraphs of atmospheric prose that is beautiful and barbed at the same time, like cotton candy wrapped around a railroad spike, or like girls. In one line, the narrator evokes the coy, giggling-behind-the-hand archetype of Chinese femininity, and in the next belies it with chilling sangfroid:
You thought we were fools. You thought we didn’t hear the buzz of your talk. But we hid our own smiles. We’ll wear your fog like the veils we never had. We don’t like the sun anyways.
If we attempt to answer the title’s question, vampire hints include dislike of the sun (above), implied lack of reflection in mirrors, inability to sleep, and a penchant for parasols and sunscreen, all of which (save the mirrors) could be chalked up to insomnia and a fair complexion. Allusions to being Chinese or an immigrant also abound, with references to traveling over the ocean, foreign tongues, and “back home.” But whichever way you read it, the first-person-plural “we” of the narrative voice implies a communal consciousness representative of a group, and whether this “we” is vampire or Chinese or neither, it is definitely female.
He compares our pale faces to the moon. Back home we know the moon’s pocked, riddled, hideous with mortar blows. Here we swallow his compliment, swallow his jokes his semen his bland food.
As Zhang’s Chinese girls/vampires humor their suitor/prey, one gets the feeling of an entire group of people that have been underestimated and misunderstood, and to the detriment of those who would misjudge them. The girls here are biding their time and laying plans. When no one’s looking, they’re swimming naked in the waves and running cars over curbs. They’ve seen far more than any young man. The interweaving of girl and immigrant and vampire is more than just a clever metaphor here; they overlap and run deep, informing each other and suggesting connections beneath the surface. Zhang achieves much in these dense five paragraphs. Chinese/vampire/girl: a people romanticized and ostracized, fetishized and driven into the shadows, and not to be taken for granted.
He shows us the ocean. Saying he knows it well. Saying he’s half fish. We pet him, thinking: boy, we flew over the ocean, skimming the froth, cloaked in metal and the stink of transformation. He catches crabs and brings them to us, where we float them in red chili. When he tries to wipe his chin we watch his wrist in our fingers. Don’t, we say, smiling with our teeth. He mistakes one hunger for another. Sweet boy, red stains dripping. Why don’t we eat? We say we’re watching our figures.
Logo art by Max Winter.