:: Article

Li Fan

By Alexandra Chang.





The residents of Pleasant, too new to have known her when she lived on the block, pick up the stray bottles and cans at the bottom of the street. An ambulance arrives to take the old woman away. She has a stroke by the gutter and dies. She feels suddenly weak and falls to the pavement, letting go of her cart and watching it crash into a parked car; its contents spill down the hill. This has been her routine for the last twelve years and many people in town recognise her, calling her “the Asian recycling lady”. Most people ignore her, some smile, if they ever walk past as she works in front of their homes. She says hello cheerfully and waves to passersby. She pushes her cart up the street, stopping at each house to dig through the garbage and recycling bins that are put out for trash day, looking for the bottles and cans that support her life.

Before heading out, she fingers the colourful, comforting objects—lost and broken earrings, figurines, stuffed animals, hair ties, notebooks—cherishing all the items she has found during her walks around town. She moves into a boarding house with stained carpets after a smiley social worker secures her a room. A police officer handles her roughly and says that she can no longer sleep on the bench outside of the drug store. She makes an effort to forget her previous life. The city possesses the abandoned building and sells it to a developer who tears it down and builds a new, taller complex marketed to local college students. She spends a year on the streets, looking for warm, dry places to sleep, and nobody cares where she has gone because everyone who would have cared is gone too. She abandons her leftover belongings at the front door of a Salvation Army. How did I get here, Mrs Shum wonders to herself.

She drags suitcases of clothes and books and letters out of the unit, determined to find a new place to be. There are too many problems with the building: the roof is leaky, the dry-wall is crumbling, there is mold all over the bathroom, the floorboards are sagging, the windows are cracked, and on and on it seems. She lets the building collapse around her, and in rare moments of lucidity, looks around and is disappointed in her inability to fix the place or herself. She lives in the old building for five more years. There is a funeral with few attendees, and Mrs Shum sits alone at the front, glaring at her husband’s coffin, still angry that he has left her. When the police arrive at her door, Mrs Shum refuses to open it. As she sets the table for a dinner of mapo tofu and hongshoa rou, a bus hits her husband as he jaywalks across a nearby street.

Mrs Shum tends to the house while Mr Shum works at an architecture firm downtown. Mr and Mrs Shum learn to maintain a regimented schedule of weekday breakfasts and dinners together, weekend walks and TV shows, the once-a-month movie nights with friends at the local theatre. They decide that their life can be happy without children. She mourns for a year, clinging to the blanket that would have been his. Mrs Shum gets pregnant again with a son, but miscarries in the fifth month. “This is our forever home,” her husband says to her. After Mr. Shum lands his first job, they purchase a house on Pleasant Street because it is affordable, an old fixer upper with charm, and the hilly street reminds them of the streets in their hometown of Wuhan. Mrs Shum becomes pregnant, but the two agree that it is too soon for them to have a child, so she gets an abortion.

Unconsciously, she lets her former dreams die. To support the two of them, Mrs Shum gets a job as a checker for a local Asian market. She learns English by listening to people talk on radio all day long; she learns to laugh when the Americans laugh. Everything to her looks strange and new, and she watches the people around her with awe. They move to the beautiful country so that Mr Shum can pursue his Masters degree. She cries with joy during their small wedding ceremony. The day they graduate from university, Zeng Shum wraps his arms around her and says, “Let’s get old together. I’ll take care of you and you’ll never have to worry again.” A man in her third-year mathematics course asks her out on a date and she accepts.

She envisions herself holding a position in which she has incredible influence in the community where she lives, where everyone will know and respect her. Her professors tell her she is bright with much potential. She enrols in the academic track towards becoming a government official. “I’m Li Fan,” she says at the registration desk of the university, overwhelmed with the feeling that her life is finally beginning.


Alexandra Chang lives and writes in Ithaca, NY. She is a fiction MFA candidate at Syracuse University. You can find her work and more at: www.alexandrachang.com


Sylvie Lee is an artist and graphic designer who lives in the SF Bay Area. Her work has been featured at West Elm, Pottery Barn Kids, Domino Magazine, and Minted. She works as a graphic designer at Blurb, a book-making and self-publishing platform. sylvieceresdesigns.com


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 6th, 2016.