This is the moment Amelia realizes she is disappearing. She is slicing ginger root at her high-end restaurant, Shijin, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Savannah Guthrie from the Today Show is interviewing her, and it’s a big deal. Amelia is the first Chinese-American chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. This morning, she demonstrates how to julienne ginger and cautions viewers against drowning their dishes in soy sauce. But as she cuts the skin off the beige stem, she notices her right pinky and ring fingers are fading like a sun-bleached painting, then twinkling in and out of existence. She hides her right hand behind her back, and her heart lurches in her throat.
The pork belly sushi roll and the duck satay with foie gras mousse are a hit with the hosts, who groan with pleasure upon tasting the food. She pinches herself to dull the terror racing in her mind.
Don’t lose face. You’re on national TV.
In the bathroom after the filming, she holds back panicked tears, caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. She scrubs her hands vigorously with soap and water, as if that will resurrect lost limbs.
Bàba and Māma call from Baltimore after the broadcast.
“We’re proud of you, Amelia-Bao,” Bàba says. “But why did you make sushi? Isn’t Shijin a Chinese restaurant?”
“It was just an appetizer, Ba,” Amelia says. “You know Americans. They think sushi is high-class.”
“You couldn’t pay me money to eat that,” Māma says. “It doesn’t even fill you up.”
“Are you French now, too? Chinese people don’t eat foie gras,” Bàba says.
Amelia understands these are the highest compliments she will receive from her parents. Complete love and acceptance are not given to children; maybe grandchildren, but she hasn’t produced any of those. Criticism is love. It means they haven’t given up on you yet, because no one else will tell you what you need to hear.
“I taught a class to new culinary students at the French School this week,” Amelia says.
She doesn’t mention her abbreviated hand, or the anxiety threatening to choke her. It’s rude to make her parents worry, so she holds it in. Filial piety is cultural, but she’s pretty sure it’s burned into her Han Chinese chromosomes as well.
“Good,” Bàba says. “Maybe you can be on faculty someday.”
Amelia considers his comment a win, as she knows he still wishes she’d gotten a PhD in chemical engineering. Maybe he’s given up now, not so much because she’s a decorated chef, but because she’s hit forty and is officially too old for school.
“Nothing’s been offered yet, but there’s interest from Mcintyre’s about a cookbook deal,” Amelia says.
“Nĭ de mìng tài hăo,” Bàba says. Her parents said this phrase often during her childhood, after a weekend in Ocean City or a school trip to Hershey Park. She never knew its meaning until she asked her teacher about it in Chinese School. Yang Lǎoshī laughed and said, “It means your life is too good.” Amelia assumed it meant she was a spoiled American Second Gen, that she could not build character in the fallow soil of privilege. She still aches for Bàba and Māma’s approval, but she will never go to college or graduate school. Maybe this means she will always be a failure in their eyes.
Amelia is in the doctor’s office, hearing the terrible news.
“You’re one of the first in a wave of Second Gen patients to get it. They call it the Vanishing,” Dr. Patel says.
“Can I get antibiotics? Or a finger transplant? I’m a chef. I can’t cook without my hands.”
The doctor shakes her head, her auburn highlights shimmering under the fluorescent lights. “It’s a progressive neurological disease, a result of unrooted immigrant identity and somatized erasure. Basically, you have only a faint grasp of your parents’ culture, and you feel it fading. You don’t know where you came from, and the connections you do have will wither. So, the brain deletes synapses and self-amputates body parts.”
“Am I going to die?”
“Hard to say. You’re Patient Number 103, in America. Patients 78 and 53 also have limbs affected. Patient 34’s brainstem vanished, and he died.” Dr. Patel frowns.
“What am I supposed to do? Just wither away?” Amelia clutches her arm.
“You have two options. Option one cured several dozen patients. They assimilated fully and have since recovered.” Dr. Patel hands her a small cardboard box labeled Second Gen Wellness Assimilation Kit. “It’s not too painful for most. We administer a shot of Generilumab, a repurposed Parkinson’s drug, and the Vanishing stops. You won’t even remember your Second Gen longings, your confusion around meshing two cultures. It stops bothering you, really. Your limbs regenerate and the body adapts.”
Amelia rummages through the kit in a daze. It contains a pamphlet on Generilumab, a Yankees baseball cap, a Costco membership card, a coupon for a six-pack of gluten-free cupcakes, and a brown, wooden laminated sign that reads Live, Laugh, Love!
A strange hollow develops in the pit of her stomach.
This is all that will be left of me? Of Bàba and Māma’s heritage? Of us?
“You can watch the welcome video in the Assimilation Kit,” Dr. Patel says, sensing hesitation.
Amelia opens a flat box in the kit. A small screen hums and plays a video set to cheery pharma music. The actress sports short black hair and a gold nose stud. Tattoos of owls riding motorcycles peek out from under her tank top.
“I’m Samantha, and I’m Second Gen by way of Iran. After my right leg started to fade, I got the Generilumab injection recommended by my doctor. By the next day, my leg reappeared, good as new.” She poses, modeling her functional extremities. “You can’t miss what you don’t remember. My parents said my Farsi was terrible anyway. My mom is a little miffed that I can’t stand saffron now, but she’s so happy I’m OK. Besides, my fiancé is French-Canadian. They say after three generations, we all assimilate. The Vanishing didn’t get the best of me!”
Māma got mad at me when I didn’t eat her pork jiăozi during my vegetarian phase in high school. How can I stop caring about everything that connects me to my parents? To where I came from?
“I can’t do this,” Amelia wheezes, pushing the box onto the floor. “What’s option two?”
“Partially, you already have assimilated, you know,” Dr. Patel says, unblinking. “But option two is Chrononeuro localization, or CNL. It’s not a cure, but it can help you retain your current identity. We use your hereditary genomic database, biometrics, and neurological chronomapping to pinpoint the singular generational event that led to your current discontent and Vanishing symptoms. When you witness your Origination event in the VR, your superego reforms, and stops the erasure.”
“If I do this chrono thing, do I go back to normal? Does my hand grow back?” Amelia says.
“No, the loss of body parts is permanent. CNL may put you into remission, and we don’t know for how long. But you will retain all the memories of your culture passed on from First Gen.”
“Are there side effects?” Amelia asks.
“Yes. We co-administer Idenaturivant to hasten long-term potentiation. Side effects progress in a predictable fashion: first, urinary incontinence, then tactile and visual hallucinations, then the molting sets in. Plus, constant headaches.” Dr. Patel leans forward. “I’ll be frank with you. Two patients have died during CNL treatment.” She produces two sheets of paper and a pen. “Whichever option you choose, you’ll have to sign a waiver.”
Amelia tastes bile in her mouth. “Is there a video for the CNL treatment?”
Dr. Patel shakes her head. “The Idenaturivant pharm rep told me they couldn’t figure out a way to sugar-coat the side effects. Plus, it’s a fifteen percent mortality rate. I think their lawyers wanted to weed out any patients who get seduced by pretty packaging.”
Amelia considers her options. Is it worth dying to retain who she is?
Who is she?
At the CNL VR and infusion center, Amelia lies down on the gurney while the nurse wipes her inner elbow with an alcohol swab.
“Just putting an IV in. You’ll feel a pinch.” His nametag reads Michael Arroyo. His black hair is thick and curly, his arms muscular. She feels safe in his hands. “Do you get claustrophobic?” Michael says, piercing her vein and taping the IV to her forearm.
“No. Just motion-sick easily,” Amelia says.
“The Chrononeuro VR is pretty flat. More about fuzzy memories than a realistic ride. The side effects happen in between scenes, but I’ll be right here when you exit for intermissions.”
“Do you ever worry you’ll get the Vanishing?” Amelia says.
“It’s not contagious,” he says, tugging his blue nitrile gloves. “But sure. My wife is Japanese, and I’m Filipino, but our kids will still assimilate. We can’t afford both Japanese Saturday School and Filipino Sunday School. Besides, my kids’ handwriting is terrible, and that’s in English. Did you know they don’t teach cursive anymore?” He shakes his head.
Amelia tightens her fists and looks down at her right hand. Something feels off. The index and middle fingers are evanescent wisps. Only her thumb remains.
“I’m ready,” Amelia says, her head spinning. “How will I know what’s going on?”
“The Chrononeuro VR accesses your relatives’ memories. You may experience the narrative of your aunt, your father, anyone you share genes with.”
“Where will I go? What time period?”
“Generation Zero.” He taps on the computer screen, diving into 4D maps of her brain, her relatives’ brains. “For you, the Chrononeuro AI has chosen Shanghai, October 4, 1942, during World War Two. Your paternal grandparents lived there. You are first going into the collective memories of your father, and from there, different family members. The VR takes a life of its own.”
“My dad was just a baby in 1942.”
“Nothing is ever forgotten,” Michael says.
“I never met my Yé Yé or Năi Nai. Bàba said Yé Yé was orphaned as a kid and studied engineering at a vocational school. He worked in telecommunications, I think. Bàba didn’t talk about it much.”
Michael nods. “People who grew up amidst traumatic events are unlikely to want to share experiences with their own children. I see it all the time.”
He fits the VR goggles to her face and rolls her on the gurney into the donut-shaped Chrononeuro scanner. After flicking the IV saline drip with his finger, he hooks up a syringe to the port on her line. The medication shoots into her vein, and everything goes black.
Amelia is her infant father, at their home in Shanghai, 56 Xi Ai Xian Si Lu Road. Năi Nai, her grandmother, carries him on her chest in a silk baby carrier. He is the youngest of four siblings. Amelia stares at his tiny hands, all ten fingers present. They are in a narrow room with a desk, a telegraph set, books, and piles of paper. The view outside the open third-floor window is of flat rooftops, dirt roads, errant Studebakers and bicycles, and ox-drawn carts. Earthy anise and animal dung scents waft in.
The Japanese have taken over, and Wang Jingwei’s puppet government rules for them. The central Chinese government has fled to Chongqing, and Yé Yé, Amelia’s grandfather, operates the telegraph communication system between Chongqing and the Shanghai rebels. If Yé Yé’s work is discovered by the Japanese, he could be executed.
Yé Yé enters the room and shuts the door behind him, his face ashen. Quick-speaking Mandarin slices through the air. The Japanese captured Mr. Lai and tortured him. They poured kerosene over his head and lit him on fire. He was brave and did not divulge information on his telegraph station or ours. His family is fleeing Shanghai as we speak.
Năi Nai wraps a thick code book in wax paper and ties it with twine. Last time you had to run, she says, we managed. We’ll do it again. She thrusts the book into her husband’s hands. He climbs onto the ledge outside the window. A knock comes at the front door downstairs, and the adults startle like spirits scared off by firecrackers on New Year’s.
I can’t stay here and endanger you and the kids again. Yé Yé shoves the code book down his shirt. He kisses Năi Nai on the cheek and jumps like a gazelle across the alleyway onto the neighboring rooftop. Năi Nai clutches her son to her chest and Amelia hears her grandmother’s heart thumping. Yé Yé becomes a tiny figure in the distance, jumping from rooftop to rooftop.
Amelia opens her eyes and smells urine. Her gown is wet, but she doesn’t care. She grips the side railing of the gurney and gasps, sitting upright in bed.
Michael is squeezing her arm. “Easy, now. Your neurocircuitry has a hard time processing first-hand generational trauma. It’s a bit of a shock for most.”
“I feel like an idiot. I thought my grandpa worked for a telecommunications company. Like Verizon. Not risking his life as a Chinese rebel in World War Two!” Amelia says, clutching her forehead.
Michael hands her a glass of orange drink. “It’s an IronC cocktail. It’ll help your head settle.”
“Why didn’t Bàba tell me any of this?” Amelia says, gulping the liquid.
“Your father did not process long-term memories at his young age. But we can see his experiences with the CNL.” He squints at her brain scan, eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t have much synaptic reserve.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Your mind is taxed. It’s not a good prognostic sign. You sure you want to go on?”
“I’m not going to assimilate. Let’s go.”
Amelia is her grandfather, held at Number 76, the notorious jail operated by the puppet government. The dirt floor is cold and spiders crawl on the walls. Yé Yé’s parched tongue feels like tissue paper, his head pounding with relentless worry for his family, left to fend for themselves in wartime Shanghai. His arms and legs numb at the idea of the Japanese overtaking the entire country. Last year, Mr. Lai showed him uncensored government photos of the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, now burned into his retinae: Japanese swords pierced into dead women’s genitals, babies flayed open, blood running through the streets, two hundred thousand dead in six weeks.
But on the outside, Yé Yé remains calm and unfazed. The interrogators demand he surrenders to work for the puppet government. Yé Yé claims he will return home, become a farmer, and quit working for the Chinese government. He chats with the prison guard. The guard shows him a photo of his own family—a wife with a pretty face, a little girl with dimples and long pigtails. This war has forced many ordinary people into impossible situations.
Amelia feels a thousand needles descending into her skin, like being scrubbed with a brass pot brush. She wonders if her soul must be annihilated to be cleansed of the Vanishing. The pain hammers like a railroad spike behind her eyeballs, through her ears, and inside her skull. If Michael is beside her, she cannot see him. She sees only a blinding light, samurai swords, and faces on fire, screaming. Cold burns through her body, and she feels like a flash-frozen piece of sea bass.
She can’t breathe.
Does she even want to breathe?
“Amelia!” She hears a voice. “Be strong!” It must be Michael.
She doesn’t feel strong. But maybe she is, if this is who her ancestors were?
Amelia is Năi Nai, who puts on her best silk blouse and skirt. She walks to the Moon Temple to beg the Green Gang to find her husband. The Japanese occupation has sent Dù Yuèshēng, the godfather of the Banghui mafia, running to Hong Kong for safety. But his Green Gang still runs both the Shanghai underworld and overworld. It makes heroin in the wings of Du’s private temple with one hand and runs the National Board of Opium Suppression Bureau with the other. Dù Yuèshēng is blood brothers with Chiang Kai-Shek, who ruled China under the Kuomingtang. He is a powerful man, and his gang members are the street law enforcers.
Shanghai is overrun with colonizers, concessions, sequelae of a dozen unequal treaties – the British who pay debts in opium to the Chinese for their ceramics and silks and teas, the French, who encourage the brothels and gambling, the Hollywood actors who indulge in this city of vice. This war is capping off the Century of Humiliation at the hands of Europeans and Japanese.
Amelia begins to understand how foreign devils came to be an expression.
Năi Nai kneels before the Green Gang associate.
“My husband is a true patriot. Without him, the communications between Shanghai and the government in Chongqing will weaken. Please help us find him. I don’t have much money to spare, but whatever I have, I will give you.”
“We will find a way for you to pay us.”
Tài Qīn Mā
Amelia is Tài Qīn Mā, her great-grandmother, kneeling prostrate at the Buddhist temple. Small and gnarled, her previously bound feet are a relic of Imperial China and the Qīng Dynasty. They are an old symbol of beauty and status. As it made a woman’s hips sway as she walked, the three-inch golden lotus was the prized pinnacle of femininity.
Now her feet ache daily, and the real pressure, while praying, is on her knees. Tài Qīn Mā does not mind. She cannot read the prayer book, but she has it memorized, and chants in a monotone. She lights incense sticks and bows, waving the sticks, and Amelia can smell the woody musk in her nostrils. Tài Qīn Mā bows down in front of the incense bowls, prayer bowls, and worn silk meditation cushions.
“Keep our family together,” Tài Qīn Mā says. “Lǎo Tiān Yé, please watch over us. Let my son come home.”
Buddha didn’t mention whether there is a Lǎo Tiān Yé (God) or not, because who was he to say? But ancestors and God and ghosts reside in Tài Qīn Mā’s bones, down to the marrow. Tài Qīn Mā is not clairvoyant, but after an hour of chanting, Amelia feels the wheel of suffering and rebirth. She sees poppies turned into opium in Dù Yuèshēng’s temple, reborn as heroin in a needle in New York’s East Village, reborn as black tar heroin sold by the Xalisco gangs, reborn as chemical heroin laced with synthetic fentanyl made by Chinese chemists sold online.
Same same, but different.
Amelia is Yé Yé again, traveling in a black Buick in the middle of the night, incredibly, with two bottles of whiskey, and is dropped off in front of his house at 56 Xi Ai Xian Si Lu Road. The Green Gang delivers.
He enters the family home and Năi Nai screams with joy. She and Tài Qīn Mā cling to Yé Yé, sobbing with relief. His three older children come downstairs, peering from the banister, and rush to hug their father. But the celebration is short-lived. With his position compromised, he must leave for Chongqing. He comes back periodically for work, moving his telegraph station, to evade detection by the Japanese. Tài Qīn Mā’s cousin, Mr. Wu, hides him in a silk fabric store in the British-occupied territory.
Soon, the Japanese army advances. The whole family must flee westward, joining thousands of other refugees.
Amelia’s skin bubbles like pork rinds frying on a hot pan. She considers it could be another tactile hallucination, but she’s not sure what’s real anymore, so what does it matter? Her body seethes with heat and she itches all over. She wants to burst all the bubbles and flay her skin with a knife.
Michael said her brain was taxed. Was it because she never went to college? Was it all the cigarettes she smoked in culinary school? The Jack and Cokes probably didn’t help either.
She feels her skin is dead now. Skin cells are always being shed, but it feels dead-dead. She wonders if she’ll emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon. Or, just a skinless amputee.
Dà jīa (Everyone)
Amelia is her family. They flee on a crowded train to Nanjing, then Luoyang, then Xi’An, then Lanzhou, in northern China, on the Yellow River. Water buffalos till the rice fields nearby. In Lanzhou, they sleep on old-fashioned kangs, or raised brick beds. Tree branches burn underneath the bed to generate heat. A lumberyard near their home transports trees on rafts, buoyed by whole sheep skins and cow skins filled with air like giant sausage balloons. Sandstorms full of yellow dust whip at the children’s faces on their way to school, and they cover their faces with Năi Nai’s silk scarves. Their landlord is Muslim and does not eat pork, and the succulent beef and lamb dishes of Lanzhou melt in their mouths.
Firecrackers crackle in the still of the night and shouts erupt in the streets. It’s August 14, 1945, and the Japanese surrender. The children recall newspaper headlines at the bookstore proclaiming atomic bombs were detonated in Japan a few days prior, but they didn’t understand the meaning. The Japanese army retreats. The Ministry of Military Affairs dissolves immediately, and Yé Yé is out of a job.
Civil war erupts between the Nationalist central government and the Red Army led by Máo’s Communist Party. Yé Yé can’t physically get to his new job in Jinan as head of the railroad, due to the obliterated railroad system. Instead, he heads the Ship Management Office in Zhejiang for several months. But as the war rages on, he is offered a position with the Postal and Telecommunication office in Taiwan.
A boat leaves for Taiwan with the entire family on it. Fat tears drop out of Năi Nai’s eyes onto the ground. Taiwan is unfamiliar to mainland Chinese, but they cannot stay in their homeland.
Michael is filling out paperwork when Amelia wakes up. “Only a little blood loss, and your skin is healing nicely,” he says.
“So that was real, the molting,” Amelia says, making a face, touching her arms, the skin like layers of white rice paper over raw pink baby hide.
“Everything is real,” Michael says.
“I gotta talk to my parents.”
Back at her apartment, Amelia calls Bàba and Māma. “I’m coming home next weekend. I’ll take you out to dinner. Pick anywhere you like.”
“How about pizza or steak? Or Ming Gardens,” Bàba says. “Just not Japanese.”
“I understand, Bàba.” Amelia adores ramen eggs and Mario Kart and Haruki Murakami. But she does understand, now. “Bàba, did Yé Yé ever tell you about his work in the war?”
“He always regretted not having higher education, as he felt it hurt his job options. The Hangzhou Vocational School he attended later became Zhejiang University, one of the most prestigious schools in China, but it did him no good. He was proud of his efforts in the war. Even years later, he kept the vacuum tubes for his telegraph set in a safe deposit box.” Bàba says these things with candor. Amelia wonders what it must be like to live in a permanent adrenaline surge, always on the run.
Amelia flexes what’s left of her right hand. Now she imagines what it would be like to be a stub of a person, a torso with the soul of an American Born Chinese fading to vanilla, buying sundry items on Amazon Prime until she dies. She is just a body, a vehicle for consumption. Isn’t that what she has become? A cog in the corporate machine?
They say generational trauma leaves people rootless and unloved.
“I understand what you mean, now,” Amelia says. “Listen, Bàba, Māma, I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news, but I have the Vanishing.”
She can hear their hearts stop.
“What did the doctor say?” Māma says.
“I already did my treatment. I don’t want you to worry about me. And I understand what you mean, Bàba, when you say nĭ de mìng tài hăo. I don’t understand what you’ve been through. I was a spoiled brat.”
Bàba sniffs on the phone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nĭ de mìng tài hăo means you were born under a lucky star.”
“It’s like good things are already in store for you,” Māma says. “We’re like the Greeks. We believe in fate, predetermination.”
All these years, and Amelia had it wrong?
She’s in Dr. Patel’s office again, her right hand just a thumb now.
“How do we know if it worked?” Amelia says.
“Only time will tell. We’re all vanishing, it’s just a question of when,” Dr. Patel says, glancing at her own hands. Her fingers absently touch the gold Ganesh pendant on her collarbone.
Amelia wonders if Dr. Patel is questioning her own choices in life. “You mean this was all for nothing?” she says, feeling duped.
“Not entirely. Your scans showed you may have a shorter remission than others. As long as you retain your Second Gen identity, it’s true, you will vanish to some degree. However, the CNL treatment stopped the deletions for now.”
“I could wind up as a stump. A nubbin of a person, basically,” Amelia says slowly.
“The disease is too new for us to make prognostic predictions.”
“Is there any natural therapy? Would it help to get another CNL treatment?”
Dr. Patel shakes her head. “The brain needs new neural networks to grow, not just old pathways. If you want to stay solid, you must make more memories. Strengthen the synapses you gained.”
“How do I do that? Watch Chinese soaps? Take a Mandarin class?”
Dr. Patel looks sad. “You have to connect. You must find your own way, Amelia. I can’t do that for you.”
Amelia is in the kitchen with her parents in Baltimore, trying to recreate Māma’s beef noodle soup, her qīng chǎo xiārén, her dàn zhēng ròu. She takes notes in a small journal, measures volumes of sauces with teaspoons. The crown jewel is bǎiyè dǔ, or beef tripe, but it is universally repulsive to Americans. Only her friend Estella shares her love for it, and she calls it menudo. The sight of the honeycomb cut sends trypophobic shivers down her spine, but her mouth waters at the memory of the rubbery umami flavor delighting her taste buds as a girl.
“I don’t know how much soy sauce I put in,” Māma says. “Not too little.”
“But not too much,” Bàba adds.
“This won’t be something to serve at your restaurant,” Māma says. “It’s just simple food, nothing fancy.”
“It’s the best thing I’ll ever cook,” Amelia says. “You’re my mother.”
Māma gazes at Amelia’s prosthetic hand and her eyes become glassy. “I just don’t want you to suffer.”
Amelia raises her head. “This is my choice, Māma. The Vanishing has stopped for now, and I’m still me. Besides, when I go on TV to do cooking shows, I don’t have to chop anymore. I can still use my left hand to sauté or flip things with a spatula.”
“Nĭ de mìng tài hăo,” Bàba says.
“Yes,” Amelia says. “Tài hăo.”