In Mandarin Chinese, “guāi” (乖) is a word that adults often use to praise well-behaved children: kids who do what they are told. The word is not only associated with obedience, but also goodness; it represents an aspirational and virtuous quality. This piece explores the implications of the word from the point of view of a young girl in a Taiwanese-American family, the middle child between two brothers.
On Sunday afternoons, after church, Mama and Baba take us to 99 Ranch. They’ve been going to this Asian grocery store, I don’t know, probably since they left Taiwan and came to the United States.
Today, I don’t want to go.
My toes hurt from the new shoes Mama wanted me to wear for church. They look like doll shoes: white and round, with a Velcro strap across the foot. I wasn’t sure how to feel about them, but when I put them on, Mama smiled in that proud way, the way she did when I won the Bible verse memorization contest and beat Irene, the star student in my Sunday school class. So I’m wearing them. They didn’t hurt right away, but now my pinky toes are squished.
I just want to go home. But Mama and Ollie are only two steps away from the entrance and Baba is already telling Derek to grab a cart, so I don’t say anything.
The sliding doors open. Our shopping cart rattles over the metal threshold, and a rainbow sea of fruits and vegetables greets us. My shoes squeak on the linoleum floor. The supermarket smells like dirt, like the bitter Chinese medicine that Mama makes us drink when we’re sick, and like the beach. Mama and Baba join all the other Asian moms and dads to go look for whatever they look for. They leave me and my two brothers in the only area that we care about in the whole store: the snack aisle.
For a moment, I forget about my shoes. Colorful packets of round, juicy gummies catch my eye: kiwi, muscat (I think that means grape), lychee, peach, and apple flavors lined up in a row. A tall, skinny boy walks past me and reaches for a bag of shrimp chips on a high shelf. Further down the aisle, two girls hold a box of Choco Pies, mini chocolate-covered cakes with a creamy marshmallow filling. Across from them, a little boy about Ollie’s height hugs a bag of milky White Rabbit candies wrapped in rice paper.
My mouth waters. I could spend a whole day in this aisle, looking through each row. But there are so many other kids without their parents here, bad and noisy, getting in the way. They pick up bags, crumple them, and put them back in the wrong places. Mama would yell at me if I did that. I’m getting annoyed because we don’t have much time; Derek, Ollie, and I each get to put only one snack in the cart—that’s always the rule—and we have to decide before Mama and Baba finish their shopping.
Derek is annoyed, too. He has that look on his face, the scary one that lets you know you shouldn’t mess with him. Taller and older than the rest of us, he pushes his way through the crowd. Some glare at him but are too afraid to do anything else. I trail behind, excusing myself each time I squeeze past someone, the way Mama taught me. Ollie holds on to me, his sweaty little hand in mine.
When we get to Derek, he’s already made his choice: a Taiwanese corn puff snack in a lime green bag called Guāi Guāi (乖乖). It’s Chinese for “(be) good,” or “obedient.” Mama said it to me this morning when I was putting on my shoes. Guāi guāi, listen to Mama. I think it’s kind of funny that Derek got this because he listens to loud rap music with bad words and is getting a C in math and is definitely not guāi.
But the snack is really good: crunchy, sweet, and addicting. There’s even a toy in the bag and it’s a surprise every time. Everybody likes it in my Sunday school class; it’s one of the best prizes we can get by redeeming the stickers we earn for reading Bible stories. Last time, I saved up fifteen stickers for three whole bags. I was so proud of myself, until Mama told me that Irene had two more stickers than me and that I should be reading more. I don’t really like Irene.
Ollie tugs on my hand. He’s found some chips with a yellow Pikachu on the bag. I have no idea what flavor they are, so he probably doesn’t know either; I bet he just grabbed them because he’s obsessed with watching Pokémon right now. But I don’t have time to tell him to pick something else because I’m still torn between the cookies-and-cream Pocky and the strawberry Yan Yan when I hear Baba’s voice yell out, “Kids, we’re checking out!”
I quickly place both of them back on the shelf—in their original places—and grab a box of chocolate-filled Koala’s March cookies instead. Ollie will probably like these, too; maybe I’ll let him have some. I look around, and Derek is nowhere to be seen. Stupid Derek. He never waits for us. He’s probably already sprinted to the register and slam-dunked his Guāi Guāi into the cart. So I start running, pulling Ollie along behind me because he’s so slow and will never make it before Baba starts paying, faster and faster, my feet hurt but it doesn’t matter, we’re almost there, I turn the corner, and bam! I crash into a shopping cart.
On the other side of the cart is a lady with a neat hair bun, reaching toward a delicately balanced tower of tomatoes. The cart’s handle shoves into her back, propelling her forward, and I watch in horror as the tower collapses. A wave of tomatoes tumble to the floor, fast and eager, like Derek and his wild friends jumping into a pool on a summer day, splashing water everywhere.
Ollie is sprawled out on the floor next to me, still clutching his chips. Somehow, I still have my koala cookies, too. My right shoe has a dark smudge from where it dragged, and my left shoulder throbs.
I look up. Mama, the lady with the cart, and a store worker are all there. Tomatoes surround us.
The other Asian moms and dads have stopped what they’re doing, gawking, murmuring to each other and shaking their heads. I feel like a zoo animal, and I want to hide behind Mama. But Mama is a flapping bird, flitting here, picking up tomatoes there, saying sorry, sorry a hundred times in Chinese to the shopping cart lady and the worker. The worker is annoyed. She sighs and wags her finger. But the lady that I crashed into is nicer. She pats me on the head and says to Mama, it’s OK, she has two boys at home, she knows how kids can be. Then she says with a smile, like she is making a joke, that she’d heard girls were less wild, but it looks like maybe not!
The lady tousles my hair and laughs. I frown and smooth it back down with my hands. The joke wasn’t funny, because I’m not wild. I’m not like the other kids in the snack aisle. I’m not like Derek. And all the other moms and dads are still watching. Maybe some of them even go to our church. Mama gives the lady a tight-lipped smile, but her face turns the color of the tomatoes.
She drags me and Ollie to the register, where Baba and Derek are waiting for us. Baba takes Ollie’s Pikachu chips and drops them on the belt behind Derek’s snack. I reach to give my chocolate koalas to Baba, but Mama snatches them out of my hand. She flings them to the side, and they land in a pile of mooncakes where they don’t belong.
Chén Xiǎotíng, she says, emphasizing each syllable. How many times has she told me not to run in the store? Why won’t I behave? Why won’t I listen to her? Mama rarely says my Chinese name, so I should be scared, but I can’t take my eyes off the koalas, discarded and abandoned, and all I feel is anger and confusion.
I did listen to her. I behaved, not like all the other kids. Ollie was just too slow, we wouldn’t have made it in time—I want to say all these things, and more, but tears spring to my eyes and what escapes my mouth is a wild cry: Derek ran, too, I just know he did, how come only I’m getting punished.
Before I can say anything else, Mama says she doesn’t want to hear it, I should know better, I’m setting a bad example, Ollie and I could have been hurt, and yes, maybe Derek ran, too, but well, boys will be boys, she expected more from me, girls can’t behave like this. She keeps going. Didn’t I hear that lady call me wild, now my new shoes are dirty, she just bought them last week, how is she going to show her face in this market or at church again, and why couldn’t I just be more like Irene who sits still and gets straight A’s and is guāi?
At this, Baba puts his hand on Mama’s arm. He looks like he’s about to say something, but then Ollie pulls at his leg and he turns away from her. Derek stands next to the shopping cart, still and quiet, as if he doesn’t have a part in all of this.
In the parking lot, I climb into the last row of the car. Derek sits in the middle row next to Ollie and rips open his bag of Guāi Guāi. The sweet fragrance reaches my nostrils. His loud crunches grate on my ears as he gobbles up the whole bag without sharing a single one. Ollie eats two of his mystery chips, makes a face, and dumps the rest out on the floor.
Tears stream down my face, snot forming in my nose. I sniff, softly at first, then hard, and the mucus travels back up and resurfaces in my mouth. I swallow. It isn’t until after we get home, after I take off my painful shoes, after I go to my room and finally stop crying, that I wonder: will I be guāi if I just don’t run and keep my shoes clean and listen to Mama, or are there more rules that I don’t know, because I get straight A’s, too.
MORE FROM WINTER 2023 (4:3)
A Conversation with Esperanza Cintrón, Maria S. Picone, Managing Editor
Stubborn Writers Contest Winner — Fish Mother, Natalie Harris-Spencer
Palomita Azul, Sofia Romero
Just Like Her but Selling Pharmaceuticals, David Morgan O’Connor
Tuesday May Never Come, Mario Aliberto III
Guai Guai, Jennifer Luh
Common Flower Parts, Sharon Lin
Stubborn Writers Contest Winner — เข้าใจ (kaojai) // to understand, lit. to enter the heart (n.), Max Pasakorn
A Chronically Unhealthy Health Care System, Renee Cronley
No Context Autoimmune Disorder, Allison Thung
Geometries of Benediction, V.C. McCabe
Recycling died, like Santa and God., Katie Kemple
November Ends, Samuel Adeyemi
Recurrence, Mollie O’Leary
Self Portrait in a Type of Mirror, Alison Lubar
Philemaphobia or the Fear of Kissing, Judy Kaber
Old Photos, Yvette R. Murray