When I was five, the white daisies in my backyard were almost taller than me. I remembered kissing the daisies, pretending they were my ballroom dancing partners, like the ones I saw on TV.
I had named the tallest white daisy, Mr. White, for I believed that my prince charming would be as white and beautiful as Mr. White.
At times, after I saw a boy I liked, I would rush home and pluck a white daisy. Then, slowly picking out each petal, I chanted, "He likes me. He likes me not." But I was five.
The blooming daisies had signified my happy days at home as a child. However, the daisies did not last very long. When Mr. White was gone, so were my happy days.
Whenever I invited my school's friends over to my house, I would always stand proud next to my bedroom door, watching my friends' envious gaze.
My room had curtains the color of lilac, and embroidered with intricate designs of cherry blossoms.
The sheets were cleaned every week, with the maids boiling them in hot water and ironing them until they shone.
Ma took a great pride in her wonderful skill of training the servants in the house, while Ba worked all day for his company.
He rarely noticed the china that had been polished extra clean today or the water colored painting that had been added to Ma's extensive collection.
Ma had been brought up in an aristocratic Chinese merchant's family who had moved from China to seek a greater fortune. She still carried the aura of a Chinese imperial empress.
She wore her elegant silk cheongsam, and combed her hair into a neat bun everyday. Ma missed her family, and would always talk about her life in China.
"I remembered the dinners we had in the dining hall. Roasted ducks, suckling pigs, dumplings, pan-fried boars and steamed chickens. So many, so good.
Look at the food on our table now, I tell you, it is nothing compared to it!" Ma boasted, and observed Ba's expression, hoping to trigger a sense of guilt in him.
Ba would only cringe and look away.
The food on our table was not at all pathetic. Considering that it was enough to feed six children and two adults, it was quite a feast.
We had roasted chickens, stir fried long beans, clay pot tofu and sometimes a suckling pig.
My two elder half-sisters always got the bigger pieces of chicken, while my three younger brothers got the drumsticks. I ate whatever was left of the dishes.
Ma would say to me, "Boys need strength to work next time. Bigger girls eat more. Ying, you so small, eat less la.
" Although I thought that my puny arms were probably the result of eating too little, I kept quiet.
Other than the meals, life was great for me. In school, I was the brightest student, always scoring perfect on any test.
At home, I got new silk cheongsam every week, as Ma insisted that her daughters look like goddesses in the neighborhood. I watered my daisies everyday so that they glowed like the sun.
But not all the time.
One day, a patch of dark clouds had shielded the noon sun, blanketing all the light I needed to read my book. The sky got so gloomy that it was gloomier than Ma's face on her moody days.
Then, flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder all came simultaneously. After praying that it wouldn't rain for 40 days and 40 nights, I shrieked and ran to Ma.
"Aiya, bushihaoshi," muttered Ma, which meant it was not a good thing in Mandarin. "Go shut the windows, Ying!"
As I slowly walked towards the windows of the living room, terrified, the front door yanked open. The doorframe trembled and I screamed. Ba had come home.
"Shut up, stupid girl!" yelled Ba, whose hair and work clothes were matted wet against his body. Ba dragged his feet and walked upstairs, dripping wet.
I could see Ma's horrified expression from the corner of my eyes.
"Let me go teach this father of yours a lesson!" rebuked Ma as she stomped upstairs. Just then, my sisters and brothers came downstairs to watch the scene.
"Ey! What's the commotion about?"
"Jiejie, make the thunder go away!"
"Why are Ba and Ma mad?"
I was on the verge of spitting back all of the questions and comments my two bossy sisters and three immature brothers made with a distressed yowl.
I bawled instead, because I was scared, and I was terrified, and I was hungry.
After the rainy day's incident, Ba rarely came home. He missed our dinners, he came home drunk, he growled at us, and he always told us to shut up.
"Don't go to school anymore, Ying. You so old already! Your Ba lost his job and the family needs you now," declared Ma one day I came home from school.
"What? No! I just learned 10 new English words today, I need to learn English!" I protested, for school was the haven for knowing the world I would never get to see.
"Learning English huh? The language of the hongmaoren, the whites! Why you like them so much? They take advantage of us!" scolded Ma.
I had always detested the word, hongmaoren, for they meant red-haired people literally, which I found it so stereotypical.
"That is not true! If I learn English, I'll go to university, get a good job and live a good life!"
"Don't care! You are not going to school," proclaimed Ma sternly.
Day by day, I saw my mom withering away like the white daisies in the backyard.
Her eyes looked blank and soulless, as if her life had been drained away, like tea being sieved away from its leaves.
Ba came home one night drunk, and it was way past midnight. As he stumbled around the house, I could hear Ma's china falling onto the floor, shattering into pieces.
Just then, Ma bellowed while my youngest brother, Didi shrieked.
"Stop it! You are scaring the children!" begged Ma, while she clawed at Ba's back.
All my siblings had awakened. They sat quietly in the living room, gaping at our strange Ba. Ma tried to cover up my younger brothers' eyes with her silk nightgown.
I stood as still as statue lest Ma or Ba noticed me.
"Oh, I knew this would happen. Oh why didn't I listen to Baba, to Mama? I threw my perfect life away in China to suffer with you! Marrying you was a mistake!" wailed Ma in Mandarin.
"You little wretch! How dare you raise your voice at me? Your place is to accept your fate and obey! I'd like for you to get outside and rot in hell!" Ba then threw the glass beer bottle at Ma.
Blood trickled down Ma's temple like a running faucet. My stupid half-sisters stood and screamed while some servants and I ran to get bandages.
The following nights, the same thing happened with each time getting worse. Us children had learned to stay in our rooms.
All our servants had left; either we couldn't afford them or they couldn't afford to put up with our family.
Ba had turned into this monster that I'd never known, like an unleashed malevolent beast preying on us. Ma's bruises grew in an extensive amount, along with her weeping and wailing.
I had dropped out of school, tending to my brothers' every need. I now spent more time with my white daisies as my brothers napped or played.
Not being used to doing house chores, Ma stayed in bed and groaned all day. Therefore, cooking, cleaning and washing became a daily ritual for me.
Day by day, Ma started to talk to herself in her room, then on the streets.
One day after feeding my always-hungry brothers, I went to water my white daisies and Mr. White.
As I watered, I felt as if the daisies were straightening their stalks to savor the essence of life to recover from their withering state.
If only someone would water our family with the essence of life, to tell us what we were missing out in life.
"Are you talking to them again? God, you are getting stupider each day," smirked Zhu, the eldest. Here she was, mocking me while I slaved away so that she could stay in school!
"You know, if you still can't make my room right, I will tell Ma about your cuckoo behaviors..." Zhu threatened, although Ma seemed to be the cuckoo one these days.
I wished I could tell her that her name literally translated to pig in Mandarin, except written differently, but I think she knew.
Then, squinting her ebony eyes at me and giving me a crooked smile, Zhu reached out to Mr. White, snap and he was gone. I cried for two days and two nights.
That night, Ba came home drunkenly and yelled at us. We sat still as we were used to the scene replaying every night, with Ba proceeding to whip Ma with his belt. I always shut my eyes and ears.
But that night, Ma was not home.
"Look, Ma! Ma! Ma!" screamed Didi as he pointed to the window. A woman in her undergarment was singing and dancing. As if on cue, she suddenly cried.
"That lowlife, is your Ma!" grumbled Ba and smashed his beer bottle. I couldn't recognize Ma, the woman who had taught us to act like a lady and a gentleman.
Then one day, a man in a suit visited us, and brought Ma away.
"It has come to our attention that your Ma has lost herself lately. Therefore, she will be put under the care of the professionals. Your Big Aunt Mary will now be your guardian.
You will come with her to Florida," announced the man in a suit with a polite smile.
"Do you think Florida has bigger cars? You can now practice your English, pighead," whispered Zhu. Feeding off my fury for strength, I punched her. I've had enough of her insults and ignorance.
What will happen to Ba and Ma?
"And to Zhu and Fang," the man pointed to my half-sisters, "Aunt Jiachi, sister of your late father, will take you back to China," he said, authoritatively.
Later, from what I eavesdropped on my half-sisters, Ma was going to a mental institution, known to us as "the place for cuckoos."
In a week, we were all packed for a new chapter of our lives. The morning of departure, I ran to see my daisies for one last time.
Scattered with dried brown leaves and littered with trash, the backyard was bare of life. The daisies were slashed away clean. Just like Mr. White, Ba and Ma.