On a cold day, my mother told me the Chinese new year was about to begin. Another beneficent animal was coming; it would help those under its sign for the next twelve months.
I wondered if, at the moment of transition, we would see fireworks, gather in a crowd, and shout into the night sky.
“In the city where I grew up,” my mother said, “children would go out to a street—there was one special street—and get a glass toy. It looked like a wide bottle, and when you blew into it, the bottom would snap in and out.”
I could picture the glass bottom changing from concave to convex with the air from a child’s breath.
“The name of the toy was the sound it made, bun dong. We would hear this all day: bun dong, bun dong. But the glass would easily break, and you were lucky to have a whole toy by the end of the day.”
At night, I opened our front door and looked across the narrow street. The darkness wasn’t total over a mown cornfield—patches of ice glowed with reflected light. Maybe the source was the Milky Way, but more likely it was a streetlight attached to a telephone pole. To either side of our front steps was a house with lit windows. One neighbor had a Confederate flag hanging from a rod on his porch.
I scanned the sky for the moon but couldn’t find it. Maybe it had risen in total shadow, or maybe it hadn’t risen at all.
I took a flask from my chemistry set and tried to fashion it into a bun dong toy. The glass was rigid, unresponsive to my deep breathing. However, I could blow across the top of the flask to make notes. I could pour water into the container to change the tone and produce a melody. With my talent, I could join a jug band. But I wanted a New Year’s toy. An empty water bottle wouldn’t work—the plastic didn’t have enough snap. I needed something tinnier. An empty tuna can fit well over my face, but when I inhaled and exhaled, the bottom surface did not pop.
I went into my parents’ bedroom and rooted in my mother’s trunk, looking for a sample of the glass toy. The box was filled with clothing—silk dresses in bright colors, high heels, hand fans. I contemplated the clothing, rubbing the fabric between my fingers. The bright-blue and -red colors matched those of the Confederate flag on the neighbor’s house.
I stopped when my mother came in. She took an ink drawing from the trunk and smoothed it with her hand. “The rice paper got wrinkled during my boat trip to America,” she explained.
In the middle of the drawing was a bamboo stem with black pointed leaves. On the bottom right were four characters. “The writing means ‘Drawing shapes, drawing colors,’ or ‘Drawing music, drawing colors,’ ” my mother said.
I wanted to make musical notes and that rose like colors. I went into my father’s workroom and found a tiny drum: a miniature bongo with a handle. It had balls on strings that would hit the “skins” when the handle was rotated. The sound was satisfying—I could send the thumps a long way. I went out to the street and began to drum up a storm.
Presently, the neighbor with the Confederate flag opened his door and stepped onto his porch. He was wearing a sheriff’s uniform. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
“Celebrating,” I said. “My year is coming.”
“Well, knock it off.”
I quit the drumming.