I am 14 years old. I am actually not Han Chinese but was born in Xinjing, today’s Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan…well, to tell you the truth, I don’t really know where I was born. I was sold to Ah-Ma when I was about five years-old. The steel frame surrounding my window is decorated with peonies, birds and fairies. Do you know why it’s there? The pretty bars prevent me from escaping. The room I am in is filled with delicate red wood furniture, jasmine incense, silk pillows and jade flowers. It sounds nice but it is a prison. I’m dressed in pink silks and maids braid fresh flowers into my hair everyday. I get to eat and drink as much meat and wine as I want but I am in such pain. My feet were broken when I was five! They curled my feet until my toes tucked beneath my heel and then they bound my feet in tight, silk ribbons. It’s been nine years now and a dull pain remains like a permanent toothache.
Oh no, here comes Ah-Ma with that son-of-a-bitch whose father owns the duck restaurant across the lake. He calls himself the Little Emperor. What a joke! But I have to play the game:
“Hello, if it’s not my lover man! How you grace me with your beautiful face and Ah-Ma, how are you today? I was just on my way to give you a massage but I’m still doing my hair. Now, let me warm some wine and, here, have some jellied fish and some roasted peanuts soaked in salty water prepared by my very own hands, especially for you. How’s your father? Did your best friend pay back his gambling debts? Oh, watch it now! Such naughty hands, going straight for what they like…let me take you to my bed and let us have a bowl full of Black Gold. This Black Gold right here is from London and Ah-Ma only gives it to her most special clients. Good stuff, yes?”
I feel so good now, I feel no pain at all. Fuck this asshole! After getting what he wants he is finally unconscious. I don’t know how he can stay up for so long, drinking that much wine and smoking that much opium. Oh, my head hurts, it’s killing me but I have my private stash of opium. It’s so pretty and golden in the light and it smells so sweet. I will just eat the whole thing! The whole pound! I don’t want to see him when he wakes up, I don’t want to see Ah-ma. I don’t want anything from this life.
“Where am I? Who are you? Sophia? What a funny name. You’ve come to help me? Thank you, that’s very kind of you. Oh, you feel so nice. Are you an angel? You’re my spirit friend? That’s good, that’s so good. I want you to be my spirit friend forever. Never leave me. You promise? Wait a minute if you are a spirit…does that mean…have I died? Yes, I have died, really, I overdosed. Is that what happened? Yes, I remember now… that son-of-a-bitch stayed for three days and I got so tired of serving him. I ate some Black Gold and I know I shouldn’t have eaten so much. They say smoke it, don’t eat it. I must have eaten a pound. Yeah, I killed myself. I don’t want to live. I like it here! Where am I, Sophia, tell me, am I in Heaven?”
Sophia answers, “You’re in the Bardo. It’s a Tibetan word for the world in between worlds. Life after life.”
“Why is it all light and white here? There is nothing but you and me.”
“Because you were confused when you died, so you will be confused in your afterlife.”
“Thank you, Sophia, you have good answers but I don’t understand what you’re saying. I am a good girl. I should go to Heaven, not this strange place called the Bardo! You’re an angel so take me to Heaven. I don’t want to be here!”
Sophia replies, “You will reincarnate into another body. You will live another life and you will learn a few more things.”
“I don’t want to be a prostitute anymore! But you say I can choose?”
The prostitute sees the clouds parting and a figure appears. “Who is she? How old is she? Seventeen? It’s her first time! She looks so scared, poor girl. I will go into her body to help her live a better life – for me and for her. Okay, Sophia, I will do it! Wow, holy shit! This is crazy! I’ve got a new body! I can speak, I can move my arms, I am her!”
Sitting in a restaurant and enjoying my lunch, I suddenly feel an intense pain in my feet. I’ve been feeling a lot of pain in my feet ever since I returned to Los Angeles. I close my eyes and gently massage my feet. The smell of rotting flesh appears and the pain in my feet increases.
Immediately, my imagination conjures up a fourteen year-old girl in a Chinese bedroom situated in a brothel. She’s lavishly and sexily clad in a classic pink silk gown – I love pink silk gowns! She’s crying in bed because she’s in pain. I can feel her pain; it’s a terribly sharp pain like a flaming toothache coming from her feet! Her feet are bound in tight bandages. There is an odor of rotting flesh coming from her feet!
The Chinese bound their women’s feet for over a thousand years. My own grandmother had bound feet – that’s how narrowly I escaped that fate! The tradition was practiced by the wealthy families because they could afford to have their women languish at home instead of work in the fields. The practice effectively barred any woman from social and political control because they were in so much pain that they could hardly think. A girl’s feet were broken in half and the toes curled underneath the heel when she turned five. My grandmother said she lived in excruciating pain for twenty years, crying everyday for her mother and father to stop but to no avail. The pain eventually subsided to a constant, dull ache but it never went away. In her old age (I met my grandmother when she was in her eighties) the pain returned causing her to moan in abject agony.
The practice was considered to be sexy because bound feet forced women to walk with their buttocks sticking out to counterbalance their body weight. For this reason, brothels bought young peasant children and bound their feet to “artificially” upgrade the girls they owned.
In my imagination, I take the ribbons off to free her feet. The prostitute laughs, “Thank you!” I open my eyes and look around, wondering if other people are noticing anything unusual about me. No one is paying attention. I close my eyes again to imagine myself as the teenage prostitute. I relax my mind, almost as if I’m allowing the mental control of my body to be taken over by this other personality of mine. I keep my awareness keenly on how “she” moves my body.
I (ahem, she) picks up a fork and cuts a very small piece of meat (I like meat too). The first thing I notice is that her portion is different than mine. I would have cut a large piece and stuffed it into my mouth in a hurry. I always eat very quickly. She nibbles a little piece of meat. I also notice that she is shaking her feet in delight as she eats. I begin to shake my feet as well. I think to myself, “She behaves like an old-style movie star.”
She corrects me. “I never wanted to be a movie star but a Peking Opera star! I wanted to sing, dance and wear those crazy costumes! I wanted to be the epicenter of those fabulous love stories: the Han Chinese Princess who was sent to marry a Mongolian warrior king because she had conquered the entire Mongolian nation with her grace and beauty. She was actually more powerful than the army.”
I say, “You can hear me?!”
She says, “Of course. I’m in your head.” She laughs a pearly laugh and adds light-heartedly, “I’ve been inside you since your first time.”
She shows me the scene of my first night with my then husband: I was very nervous on my wedding night. I was a seventeen year-old virgin from a Catholic girls school with a Chinese Confucian upbringing. I had held hands with a boy a few times but that was my entire romantic experience with the male species. My ex-husband, who was seven years older than me, was from Hawaii and gave me some Maui Wowie. Simultaneously we shared half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and it worked like magic. I suddenly became a sexy girl, quite comfortable with being naked and having fun with my body.
The Prostitute says, “That’s me. You’re not like that. You think sex is for having children. They really poisoned you with that Confucius good woman stuff and you also had it bad as a Catholic school girl. You think sex for fun is sin. Poor, poor you!” She chuckles.
I ask her, “So, that’s why I’m always drunk and stoned whenever I have sex…I become you!”
She says, “Sometimes you’re sexy and sometimes you’re not sexy at all. There are two of us.”
A scene comes to my mind: I’m waiting for a worker, Carlos, to come and sand my floors. For reasons I didn’t understand at that time, I take off the sturdy cotton jumpsuit I am wearing and saunter around the room completely naked, sashaying my hips from side-to-side. I’m so comfortable with my naked body. I touch my hair and my breasts, admiring myself in the mirror. I take a pink colored silk dress out of my closet and pull it over my naked body. I feel so pretty.
The doorbell rings and there is Carlos! I hop and skip to open the door for him. Carlos comes in with his floor sanding machine. He gets on his knees and begins to strip the floor with some white paste. I’m sitting on the couch with one foot propped up on the seat and the other one dangling off the edge, playfully bouncing in pleasure. I love the way Carlos’ biceps bulge out every time he pushes the sander forwards on the floor. As I watch him work, I am really enjoying my status as property owner and boss.
I cannot wrap my mind around the idea but at the same time I cannot deny that I act completely differently in different scenarios. “I’m confused, my head hurts!” I groan.
The prostitute regards me with pity. “If you use only your logical brain, nothing is going to make sense to you–you’ve got to use your magical mind.”
I say, “You’re a 14-year-old prostitute! What do you know?”
The Prostitute says, “Don’t call me a prostitute! I told you, I am not a prostitute any more. I’m Jenny!”
A few years back, I decided to give myself a new name to begin my new life. Giving oneself a new name was very fashionable among the new age crowd. Most women gave themselves names like Maya, Gaia, Moonstar or Crystal. Somehow, I gave myself a name that I later find trashy.
In my imagination the Prostitute says, “Jenny is a sexy name, which working class men like. They can relate to Jenny.”
In my imagination, I see a scene at the Chinese brothel: a muscular worker comes in bearing a box of sweet cakes for his lady. The Prostitute grabs the box of candies and starts to eat. She laughs, “I love sweet cakes!”
I say, “That’s where my sugar addiction comes from!” I wonder, “Why don’t you like rich guys? Why mess around with lowlifes?”
Jenny says, “My clients from high born families are strange, rough and hard to please. Workers work very hard to make enough money to just have a moment with me, so they’re usually so sweet. When we’re together, we forget the misery of our lives and experience a moment of pure joy together.”
I say, “That’s why you like working men.”
She replies, “You like working men too. You call them proletarian heroes. You admire their skill and their knowledge for building things.”
Suddenly I realize that I am talking to myself! I yap out loud, “Oh shit! I have multiple personality disorder!”
The couple at the next table turns to look at me. The woman leans forward and whispers something to her companion, giving a nod of her head in my direction. I suspect she said, “This woman is talking to herself.” I shoot them a glance and they quickly look away. Inside my head, the prostitute lets out a hearty laugh, which means I let out a hearty laugh.
This is the first time in a long time that I feel completely comfortable in my own body.