Chinese School Cinderella

by Tina S. Zhu

Before she flew away, she was one of us in Chinese school. We would gather in the basement of the community college every Saturday morning. She would pass notes with hearts and doodles to Ruby Shang and play a fishing minigame on her cousin’s Game Boy instead of paying attention to Megan Bing’s mom scraping strokes of characters we pretended to care about onto an old chalkboard.

The girl finally won the fishing tournament the Saturday before the Eighth Grade Dance. We awed over the size of the fish when it jumped from the pixelated screen to the classroom, pixels smoothing out into scales and #FF0000 fire truck red transforming into all the shades of red in Danny Li’s hundred colored pencil set. The fish flopped on the carpet and left a stain that we would show our friends in the years to come when they asked, and we would brag about how we were there, how we screamed when the fish asked for water with a voice like Kerry Yang’s chainsmoker grandma speaking in a dialect we didn’t understand. Game Boy Girl tapped Ruby’s shoulder, and together they carried it to the bathroom. We tried to follow, but Ruby was too good to be one of us—her Ba was a plastic surgeon about to uproot the family to California, where he had found a job sculpting the noses of stars under the Hollywood sign. Ruby’s family had a five-car garage. They would go to Europe and not the motherland over summer break. But we were most envious of her because she had the trust of both the fish and the girl. We gathered around the bathroom door, listening to the sound of the tap running and the fish thrashing in the sink when the aunt arrived.

When we heard Game Boy Girl’s aunt’s car keys jangling like a jailer’s, we knew it was over for her. Our parents would tell us never to spread that her aunt and cousins made her do all their laundry, all their cooking and cleaning as payment for taking her in, look at how ke nian this girl was, you should consider yourselves lucky. When the aunt asked us where her foolish niece was, we looked down and said she was in the bathroom. The aunt’s heels clicked as she went down the flicking fluorescent hallway. We held our breaths and waited. We didn’t have to wait long to hear her scream to not break her Game Boy and heard the crunch of the screen under a stiletto. We saw the aunt carry the fish, dead with dull eyes like Game Boy screens powered off, and fold it in half, hamburger style, so it would fit in the trunk of her silver Camry.

We heard the girl’s sobs, our soundtrack as we debated in the parking lot what the fish would taste like in a broth—would it taste like metal, like zeros and ones, or like the shrink-wrapped filets from the frozen section at Wal-Mart? We asked Ruby, and she didn’t know either.

Cut it out, she said. The fish didn’t want to be eaten.

We asked, How do you know?

I saw it in its eyes, she said.

And we believed her because Ruby Shang was always right, though it wasn’t until the Eighth Grade Dance that we saw the truth with our own eyes. Game Boy Girl laughed again after Ruby whispered something in her ear by the lockers, and we wondered how she was going to get to the dance under the nose of her aunt’s dinner party while Ruby waited by the bleachers in the gym strung up with IKEA fairy lights.

Every Friday one of our parents would host a dinner party for them to gossip about us. That evening was the aunt’s turn. She hosted a bash for all our parents, who came for the fish stew. Kerry Yang’s mom smuggled some of the soup and left before the main event, and Kerry said it tasted like how Hudson Fu’s great-uncle said shark fin soup was supposed to taste. After the Yangs left, the fish bones that the girl hid in Tupperware started speaking. Music played from nowhere. The aunt screamed, though whether from shock or anger our parents didn’t know.

What do you want? The bones boomed over the beeps and boops of eight-bit background music.

Our parents strained to hear what the girl said. They didn’t hear because she spoke only for the fish. Her aunt lunged for the bones, only to trip as the bones jumped from her grasp like food in a heartburn medication ad. The bones stopped shaking. Our parents gaped as Game Boy Girl’s feet lifted off the ground, inch by inch as final boss battle music played. Her aunt yelled and tried to weigh her ankles down with the bones, and when that didn’t work, the mugs and plates and weight of her fury. We were told Game Boy Girl smiled in front of her aunt for the first time, a serene smile as she floated through the front door and higher and higher, towards the school and the dance.

We were in the gym, trying to groove to Linkin Park in stiff shoes, trying to not embarrass ourselves in front of our crushes when we saw Game Boy Girl’s face through the windows right under the ceiling. Ruby climbed the bleachers to try to open the window. Danny Li whooped, and all of us gathered around the bleachers as Ruby unlocked the latch and the fire alarm went off. We danced to Linkin Park with the sirens and flashes that made us feel like we were grownups at a real club. That was the last we saw of both of them—Game Boy Girl carrying Ruby out of the window on invisible kingfisher wings serenaded by sirens, facing west towards California.

Tina S. Zhu writes in California. Her words have appeared in X-R-A-Y, Strange Horizons, and Fireside Magazine, and she can be found at or on Twitter @tinaszhu.


Photography by: kazuend