Chuan by Cathy Adams

Chuan was angry, so angry she forgot her English. She ran from her house thinking in her own tongue, not his, not when she was this angry. She was in a town where she couldn’t get lost. Or rather, she shouldn’t. It was dangerous to get angry and lost in a town that was his, the one he grew up in, his people, his country. Reaching a paved stone street, she slowed to a dragging walk. She put out her hand to steady herself against the board and batten wainscoting of the row of green houses extending like game pieces along a narrow sidewalk. She stood up straight, drawing in her breath and forcing herself to look confident as if she knew where she was going, but she did not. Since coming to America, she had been in town by herself only three times, and each time she had carried a map folded up small in her purse that she could open privately in a public restroom stall when she felt lost. Today she had not even brought her purse. She just ran out the door with the awful words they had spoken to one another still stinging the air around her ears.

“Next time I kill you with poison,” she had shouted at him. Jack, her husband, shouted something back, but she couldn’t make it out. She had already tuned out his language.

She hadn’t meant it. Or maybe she did, just for a few seconds. She didn’t even have any poison. She wouldn’t know where to get it, or more importantly, how to ask for it. In China she could have gotten some poison if she asked very sweetly at the right place.

“I have rats, so many rats.” And she would have gotten enough poison to kill a very big rat.

But in America everything was different. Every day she had to settle the things she saw into new categories in her brain. Penny loafers, silver polish, barbeque chips, press-on nails, property tax.   Even their words sounded funny. These people did not push their words out in the right places. Consonants sat like gummy bread on their tongues, not crisp and undulating the way she was used to speaking them. The lady at the butcher shop at the end of her street said things Chuan could never understand, so she pointed and smiled a lot. The lady would not haggle either. Chuan had to pay the price marked on the plastic sticker, not a penny less. Her face hurt after talking to this lady. The second time Chuan had been in the store the lady asked Chuan if she was Vietnamese. “My son died over there. In Vietnam,” she’d said when Chuan didn’t answer. Chuan searched hard for her words and told her she was not Vietnamese.

Sometimes the woman gave her meat with bones when Chuan knew she had pointed at the boneless roast. The wrongness of it made her angry. And if the meat was not something he wanted for dinner, or if it was not cooked the way he liked, it was wrong.

“Tell her you want the lean pork roast. This is nothing but fat and gristle!” His face was pink when he yelled, pink like undercooked meat. Chuan knew how to buy meat, but she could not make the butcher shop lady listen.

On the upper end of the street was the Woolworth store. Once last summer, Chuan went there with the ladies from the Methodist church. They had ordered sodas and shakes. One of them ordered a strawberry drink for her and it had tasted so good, so sweet and cold. Thinking about it now eased some of her anger away until she remembered she had brought no money and could not buy one for herself now even if she could have remembered the name of it. Jack gave her a little money, pin money he called it. But she needed no pins and could not understand why he called it such a name. When she had asked for patio furniture he reminded her that he had paid the “premium” price to bring her there. She knew full well the three levels men paid. Premium was the highest price. It cut the red tape by six months, he had said. She didn’t know what red tape he was talking about. She’d never seen any, but he liked to remind her that there was always red tape to prevent her from getting something she wanted.

Chuan’s feet throbbed in pain as the cold of the stone street penetrated her thin pumps. Kicking off a shoe, she rubbed the ball of her foot. Her big toe popped loudly, and she massaged her heel. She did the same with the other heel, and then flexed her foot in a circle.

Some of the women in China had been in the system for years answering letters from men who offered no serious hope. “You are a pretty one. You will find love fast,” they had all said. Chuan had her picture made at the studio the way her friends told her to, except she insisted on sitting with her hands folded in her lap. And she did not wear the shoes the others brought for her to wear. She never wore such high heeled sandals with a dress. It made her look like the type of woman she was not. She ended up taking the shoes off and being photographed with bare feet. It was the bare feet that got Jack’s attention when he looked through the photographs. He said in his letter that he could tell she was “poor and simple, but a real lady.” After she arrived in America and he married her, he often insisted she go barefoot around the house. Once in summer he even took her shoes away so she would have to go barefoot everywhere. After a week he gave her shoes back, kissed her blistered feet, and told her she was beautiful.

She did as he asked. She had his meal ready each night when he came home. She washed and ironed his clothes. She even taught herself how to use the weed cutting machine that had so frightened her the first time she saw him crank it up and swing it back and forth cutting down all the weeds around the porch. She learned English fast, and she liked to watch TV and talk on the telephone to the neighbors so she could improve everyday. She learned to speak so well he sometimes told her not to.

“I hear customers yak at me everyday. I don’t want to come home and hear it from you,” he had said the week before.

She knew three neighbors well enough to speak to. The women back home had told her she was lucky. She would make friends fast, and she would have if he hadn’t insisted she go places only when he could accompany her. “I don’t want anything happening to you,” he had said. He let her go to town with the church ladies only because they had teased him at the Wednesday service about keeping her locked up. He did not know about the other trips she took alone when he was at work.

“You are lucky, Chuan,” the women at home had said. “You are a nurse. You can get a job in a big American hospital and make lots of money. You and your husband can travel. See Yellow Stone National Park.” But they had not seen it. And she had no license to work as a nurse in the U.S.

“You have to pass a bunch of tests, and I’d have to sign a bunch of papers,” Jack had told her. He tried to dismiss the subject, but Chuan got in front of the television. “I can pass tests. My English is better. You can sign papers.”

This was the first time he’d gotten angry with her. He slammed his glass down on the coffee table and reminded her again that he had paid the “premium” price and he deserved respect for that. “I didn’t bring you over here to take off in some career. Family comes first. American women have forgotten that, but Chinese women are supposed to understand that if the husband says no work then that means no work!”

She went to bed angry that night. Her anger smoldered so long and so deep she could not sleep. She was as trapped as she’d been at home. Perhaps even more trapped. People knew her in her village. She could run to any house, and someone knew her. In his town the people kept their houses locked at night, and she could not get in if she tried, even the homes of the few people that she could call by name.

That morning he had been kinder. He waited patiently at the breakfast table for her to prepare his meal. She did it wordlessly. He took it for obedience and not the anger it was. He smiled as she slid the butter toward him. She did not return the smile. She kept her eyes on the floor the way she had done the first few weeks she had been there. He took it for modesty. She feared that if she looked at him she would fly into a rage and tear at his face with her hands.
“Shawn,” he said. He’d never been able to hear the nuance in the pronunciation of her name – Shoe on – with the two halves pushed together and emphasis on the latter. So she had lost even her name. Everyone now called her Shawn. “Shawn, I brought you here to take care of you. And your job is to take care of me. This is the way the Lord means for things to be between men and women.” They had prayed to this god in his church, but he was not her god, and the only place she heard that the Christian god wanted women to cook, iron, and clean all day was from the white men who went to his church.

She raised her face to his and her lips were white with anger. Everywhere was his. No one knew her who had not known him first. “This is your place,” she hissed.

He raised his eyebrows in a condescending expression. Missing her point once again, he said, “That’s right. And your place is right here at home.” He pushed his plate away, shaking his head. “They said Asian women were demure. Said they don’t bust your chops about stuff. I brought you here because I wanted a sweet, delicate woman who appreciates a man. But I swear, Shawn, you’re not acting like you appreciate much of anything. I take off early every Thursday so I can take you to the beauty shop. My father didn’t even do that much. My mama had to walk to the beauty shop.” He flipped up the newspaper edges and began reading the sports page.

She searched for the words to tell him she was not so delicate as he wanted to think. She was strong and smart, and she knew respect meant more than a ride to the beauty parlor. “I cut off hurt man’s arm. Doctor could not come. Sick babies kept him away. With a saw I cut. Like this.” She made a sawing motion on her own arm with her hand. She smiled, proud at the memory.

Jack’s face wrinkled in disgust and uncertainty. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Am – Am- Amputation. I did this. I was good nurse. I save his life.”

He put his paper down and looked at her a long time after she said this. She began to wonder if he had not understood what she was trying to tell him.

“Don’t tell anybody you did that,” he finally said.

“I save his life,” Chuan repeated, frustrated that he was not impressed with her words.

“Just don’t go telling people you cut some man’s arm off. In America they put women in jail for doing things like that.” Then he added, “For life.”

She knew women got into trouble for cutting off men’s body parts. She’d heard about it on “Hard Copy.” But it wasn’t arms they were talking about. She smiled and he caught it from the corner of his eye.

“Clean up these dishes,” he said.

“No.” She stood firm.

He lowered the corner of his newspaper. “Now Shawn, let’s not make a big stink out of this. Get these breakfast dishes cleaned up and tonight we’ll go down to IHOP, and I’ll buy you some pancakes.” He resumed his newspaper reading.

“No pancakes.”

“No?” He put the paper down on the table. “Are you saying no to me?”

“No, I say no.”

He stood from the table and clenched his fists. He lowered his eyes to meet her upraised ones. “You’ll say no to me in this house only once.”

“I can speak my words,” she said.

“You go acting like that and I can send you right back to where you came from.” A little spray of spittle landed on her cheek. She took a step back, her voice faltering. “You can not. I am your wife. This is America.”

He stepped closer and pointed a finger in her face. “You go talking about cutting off your husband’s arms and I can divorce you, then you won’t have anywhere to go.”

Her pumps were by the door. She pushed past him and quickly slipped her feet inside. Taking her coat from the hook, she turned and screamed the words, “Next time I kill you with poison.” And then she was gone, his threats fading behind her.

On the street Chuan held her shoe in her hand and rested her foot on her knee. Tears blinded her a moment and she shook her head quickly, determined to hold herself together. She slipped the shoe back on and looked around. The other end of the street did not look right. Suddenly she could not remember if she had come from the left or the right. She felt her throat closing up and a paralyzing fear overtook her that was so debilitating it choked out the rest of her anger.

“I can not get lost. I will be so alone,” she thought, and she felt a heart-pounding homesickness for a place she knew, and more importantly, a place that knew her. These streets would open up at any second and swallow her down into darkness so thick all she would be able to do would be crawl on her hands and knees searching out any shape that she could put a name to. The fear rolled up her body and she gasped out loud.

“You okay, lady?” a voice called out. A man in a large gray coat turned back toward her as he kept walking past, sidestepping slowly, unsure of whether to keep going or not. She opened her mouth to answer, but the reply was a squeak. She turned from the man in the coat and ran in the direction of the Woolworth store. When she got to the store, she turned the corner and sideswiped a young couple carrying bags of bath towels. Holding her hands out in front of her in a terrified panic, she pushed past the other exiting shoppers. She kept running until she was across the street moving past a coffee shop, an upholstery shop, and a Sunbeam Thrift store. Then she spotted a fountain in a postage stamp sized park. Bundled in their warm coats, children played, and a few adults milled about trying to catch bits sunlight through the crisp winter air. A white granite fountain blew a chilling gusher of water over a circle of cement swans. Their wings were laced in spiky ice crystals. Jack had brought her here last August, her first month in America. They had placed their hands one over the other atop the swan’s dipping heads and let the water splash warm over their fingers. The gold on Chuan’s finger sparkled under the crystal drops of water. Smiling, she had thrown her head back and said, “I am luckiest woman everywhere.” He had laughed in delight and kissed her lightly on the lips.

Running toward the water, her arms out, her hands open, Chuan ignored the stares from the other park visitors. At the fountain she thrust her hands into the icy water and splashed her face over and over, washing away her wild tears until her shocked skin was red. She opened her eyes and looked down into the fountain, her eyelashes, lips, and nose dripping cold water.

“Ma’am, are you feeling all right?” an old woman asked, her hand reaching for Chuan’s arm.

“I know this place,” Chuan said, a light smile curving her lips. “I am in a place I know.” And she held her left hand under the icy falling water until the red of her fingers outshone the gold.


  1. Tony Press

    I’m a fan of SFWP Journal stories and this one is a good example why. Great character/s, loads of truth, it grabs the heart — all of that and more. This one is special.

  2. Cathy Adams

    Thanks so much, Tony. Your kind words are much appreciated. I am currently working on a novel loosely inspired by this character.


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