Original illustration © Jia Sung
“Don’t eat pigs,” she said. “So I can kiss you, if we meet again.” That was how she said it, in Mandarin. Pigs, not pork. The line went dead. I was out of calling-card credits again.
We’d met a year earlier, in 2002, at the Shanghai Municipal Physical Sports School. She was fourteen, I was fifteen. She played soccer, I played softball. She was a Uighur Muslim who’d never heard of metropolitan Singapore, I was a Straits Chinese atheist who didn’t know pastoral Xinjiang existed.
A soccer coach, trawling rural northwestern China for athletic girls from underprivileged backgrounds, lied to their parents: If your daughter trains hard, she might be selected for the 2008 Beijing Olympics! In truth, the girls were only ever intended as a minority Xinjiang team for his majority Han Chinese girls to spar against in Shanghai. My Singaporean all-girls softball team was visiting their facility for a training trip. We were from a tiny Southeast Asian city-state that desalinated its seawater and had the highest number of millionaires per capita.
Mandarin was the only common tongue we had between us, but unlike for the Han Chinese, it was the first language for neither of us. We spoke slangy Singlish; the Uighurs spoke Turkic Uighur. When the Uighur girls began singing a traditional folk song to a clapped beat, it was clearly a cultural performance rather than a social invitation, but I took my chances. I’d never once used Mandarin this way as I walked up to the girl with the palest, longest, thinnest fingers I’d ever seen and said, “Want to dance?”
She laughed shyly, pushing me toward their captain.
Nuoerguli, the captain, was seventeen. She played goalie. Her short hair was curly on top, like Justin Timberlake’s. Their coach gave them mandatory crew cuts when they arrived, for hygiene, and confiscated their passports, for safekeeping. The girl watched me dance with her captain, hiding her smile in the upturned neck of her zippered windbreaker.
I asked Nuoerguli about her.
Her jersey number was 12. She played forward. Her name was Maidina.
That night, Jia, our pitcher, advised: Don’t start.
“Start what?” I said.
Jia had a girlfriend back home whom we called Jams.
Jia, one of our fiercest players on the field, would trail her girlfriend dutifully with a bonbons bag as Jams strode through pick-and-mix candy stores, wordlessly indicating which sweets she wanted by flipping the tops of the plastic boxes open before sailing out like a queen, leaving Jia to gather up and pay for her assorted selection. Jams said she’d marry Jia as soon as she bought her a pink diamond ring. When the time came, Jia said, they’d migrate.
“Where?” I said.
“There must be somewhere,” Jia said.
The next day, I wrote Maidina a letter. In the evening, a Xinjiang junior passed me an enormous rose. Its petals were spritzed in cologne. There was an accompanying note in blocky Mandarin characters. “Maidina is too young for you,” Nuoerguli had written. Pretty amazing: a seventeen-year-old girl appealing to the anti-pedophiliac in a fifteen-year-old girl in regard to a fourteen-year-old girl.
Our Singaporean teacher-in-charge, with whom I was rooming, found out. Such “behavior” was “unnatural.” I was barred from training, locked in the room for a day “for your own good.” I peed on her toothbrush. (Sorry-not-sorry you had to find out this way, Miss Ann.) We left 126 Water-Electricity Street on a Sunday. I spent the day before wondering what would happen if I refused to board the plane. But at that age, my life was not mine, nor was Maidina’s hers.
On Sunday morning, before the plane left, a pint-sized Xinjiang player named Mukadasi conveyed a message: Meet behind the cafeteria. Bring a camera. When I got there, I saw her and Maidina scaling the padlocked gate to get in.
Mukadasi said, “Five minutes.”
Maidina and I stood apart, awkward and too inexperienced for words, between a rubbish dump and a cafeteria. Mukadasi hissed, “What are you waiting for!” She took my camera and arranged us under a tree. Maidina stood stiff, arms by her sides. I went as close as I dared. She smelled like baby powder, and I wanted to hold her hand.
The flash went off.
“Wash the negatives in Singapore,” Mukadasi said. “If you send back this picture to Maidina, that means you’re together. Got it?”
I said nothing.
“Gotta go,” Mukadasi said, pulling Maidina away.
When the picture was developed, our shoulders were touching. Maidina looked like an Ottoman prince, unsmiling, flung out of time. My hands were jammed into my pockets, and I had a sheepish half-smile on my face. Most unforgivably, my eyes were closed. Cursing myself, I sent it to Shanghai.
Back in Singapore, tipsy on e33 (4 percent alcohol) at our Christmas softball chalet, Jia and I scaled a breakwater at three in the morning. I shouted to the sea that I wanted to move to China and be with Maidina.
“What about all those ACS boys?” Jia said, suspicious.
“What about them?” I said.
“Okay,” she shrugged. “So—what’ll you do in China?”
I’d done my research. Xinjiang had a wonderful climate for grapes, dates, melons.
“We’ll have a raisin farm,” I said.
On the last day of 2002, we went to Mad Monks, a lesbian club flanking the Singapore River. It doesn’t exist anymore. The bouncer was a butch in her thirties. I was stunned: There are old lesbians in Singapore? Patently underaged, we were told to run out the back in the event of a police raid. Inside, there were adult butches in binders dirty dancing with adult ah lians in halter tops. Online anglophone definitions of this Hokkien slang word suggest a “skimpily dressed girl gangster with tattoos,” an “unsophisticated hillbilly seen in unsavory places,” a “distasteful (Singaporean Chinese) female who speaks bad English, is lowly educated, crude, loud, foulmouthed,” but this does nothing to capture the demotic reverence encoded in the term, which is not half as pejorative as it sounds: the ah lian is always hot, sassy, and ready to hold her own in a fight. Wow, I smirked to myself, watching them dance. It was so not a phase. At midnight, I wanted to call Maidina, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. Her curfew was nine o’clock. Happy New Year to me. My love had no future, nor any end in sight. My friends were having a ball on the dance floor. Standing in line for the bathroom, I started to cry. A tall girl in a long-sleeved shirt approached me. She asked for my number.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m crying.”
“Yeah,” she said. “But you quite pretty when you cry leh.”
I gave her my number. Then I went into the toilet and threw up.
School reopened for 2003. That summer, t.A.T.u. released “Not Gonna Get Us” and “All The Things She Said.” Trapped behind a fence in their MTV, Julia and Lena kiss in school uniform in the rain, under the Muscovite public’s disapproving stares.
Jia and I went to HMV and bought their CD, 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane.
We sang their you-and-me-against-the-world Eurodance hooks like a call and response: Not gonna get / not gonna get us! / They don’t understand / they don’t understand us!
One day Jia said we couldn’t listen to t.A.T.u. anymore.
She’d found out online that they were two wannabes who hated each other, paired up by a male producer who wrote their lyrics. What else to sing along to? At fifteen years old, in that hemisphere, without a personal computer, I was not savvy enough for Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, or even Tegan and Sara (millennial mind-blow: it was t.A.T.u.’s cover of “How Soon Is Now” that led me to the Smiths).
Meanwhile, in Shanghai, Maidina was fast blossoming from wallflower to rake. In one breath she said the fact that we couldn’t really know anything about each other was the best way for two people to remain together forever.
In the next breath she told me not to call again.
She asked me to say our password (I love you in Uighur: Menn shxxni yakshi korimen, or at least that was how I spelled it in my diary phonetically), then passed the phone to the latest chick writing her crush letters, telling us to introduce ourselves. She told me her grandmother was “a Soviet.” She said the Han Chinese athletes tried to get them repatriated by complaining the Uighurs were dirty, noisy, and heretic (they were not heretic; they were Muslim). But she didn’t care, because on the field, they whupped those Han Chinese asses. I asked if she considered me Han Chinese. I was descended from them on my father’s side.
“Nah,” she said.
“What am I to you,” I said, crossing my fingers for something romantic.
“A farang,” she said.
She’d taught me that Uighur word before: “mad person; foreigner; other.”
Finally, of course, we had to betray.
Maidina put it this way: “Babe, I’m seeing someone whose body is in the same country as mine.” I don’t want to come across like a masochistic linguaphile, but this sounds even more brutal and fantastic in Uighur-accented Mandarin. To this day, I have never met anyone who speaks the way she does, and I don’t know where she learned to talk like that, part Clark Gable part Chinese epic verse part neighborhood fuccboi. Back then, I was winded. Her girl was a Han Chinese tennis player whose name translated to Red Dream Mountain.
So I too went with a real girl, instead of the fly-by-night dream.
Right then it hardly mattered to me who: either you were Maidina, or you were not Maidina. I let myself be wooed by a bespectacled basketballer. Her jersey number was also 12, and she played forward, too (though the sport was different, this was of some comfort to me). She knew all about Maidina and regarded her aura stoically from a respectful distance. We held hands in public. If you find present-day Singapore oppressive, you’d have perished back then. Schoolboys heckled us on public transport. If we were in uniform, members of the public called our school to complain. Once, a balding middle-aged man pushed paper into my face as we were walking down Orchard Road, at the traffic light intersection between the Heeren and Cineleisure.
It was a pamphlet of two screaming bodies licked by flames.
When I opened it up it read: It Is Never Too Late to Seek Salvation.
Ten years later, I’d still be a heathen en route to hell: living with my filmmaker girlfriend in Brooklyn, writing a novel that, among other things, circumambulated an affair between Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.
Maidina and I reconnected over WeChat. I visited her in Xinjiang in 2014. She’d put on a little weight around the hips. She ran a late-night provision shop of her own in Ürümqi, slept behind the counter on a mattress. Her girlfriend was an incredibly beautiful part-time kindergarten teacher whose eyelashes looked perpetually wet.
If Shadiyah passed ten men on the street, Maidina told me with pride, nine turned back to look. Even though I no longer hankered after Maidina, I could not help but feel a pinch of envy for the way she made this compliment to her girlfriend sound charmingly anachronistic, like a folkloric idiom of yore.
Over spicy hot pot, they told me I should’ve visited during Hami melon season. They told me CCP cadres were trying to replace the Uighur language with “national” Mandarin, and that during the 2009 demonstration-turned-riot, they saw Uighur men thrown down manholes. I didn’t know what to say to this, and Shadiyah gave Maidina a look as if to say it would be best to say nothing at all. They changed the subject. They told me they were getting married next year, before they got too old.
“Wow,” I said, impressed. “A civil partnership?”
“Oh no,” they laughed. They were marrying men.
“Whomever my parents choose,” Shadiyah said.
I looked at Maidina.
“What,” she said, offended. “You think I can’t get a man the moment I grow my hair out?”
I hadn’t realized until then that, while my resources and education would open up into choices for me, Maidina’s life could only tighten around her as she grew up. I could feel the blood drain from my face when she went on to say: Surely you don’t intend to go on this way for good? People will talk, and what about disgracing your parents?
Before I left Ürümqi, Maidina asked in jest whether I still ate pork.
Pork, she said this time, not pigs. “Yes,” I said, somehow disappointed.
Kissing me chastely on the cheek in the middle of a busy street, she told me in this life, between us, it was too early and it was too late. “Don’t let me catch sight of you in another life,” she said, “because that’ll be the end of you, I’ll never let you go. Do you understand me at all?”
The whole time I was in Ürümqi, Maidina refused to let me pay for anything.
“When I visit you in America,” she said with a rueful smile, like we both knew it’d never happen. “Then you can pay for everything. Deal?”
The last thing she bought me was a chalice full of pomegranate juice at a roadside bazaar, freshly squeezed by a crinkly-eyed Uighur granny in a headscarf. You stood at the stall till you finished your drink and returned the chalice, which would be reused. Across from us, I saw a sheep being slaughtered, knife held close to its throat. It happened so quickly I didn’t even know what I was looking at till I saw fresh blood, the color of my pomegranate juice, pooling on the ground. There was a second sheep tethered close by, and I asked Maidina if she thought it knew what was coming. “I think it might have an inkling,” she whispered into my ear, taking my hand and guiding me away so I wouldn’t go on looking.
Back when I quit pork for her, nominally halal for lips two thousand miles away, I would have given anything to hold her hand. Suddenly I was fifteen again, wet-eared and wild-hearted, running around a softball field.
Jia and I were sing-shouting “Not Gonna Get Us.”
The more we shouted, the faster we ran. I had the feeling that we were running for nothing less than our lives. Jia grabbed my wrists. We spun till we tumbled onto warm grass.
The sky was definitely falling down. I was so dizzy. Should I catch my breath, or scream at the top of my lungs? I couldn’t see how we’d ever figure anything out. But the sun was so bright, and I didn’t have enough breath left to be afraid. There was no way they were going to get us.
Amanda Lee Koe was the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize. Her debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star, named a most anticipated book of the summer by ELLE, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, LitHub, Thrillist and others, was published this month by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
Last / Next Article