Hua Tang’s Daughter Gets a Tattoo

by

10/22/2022

Neighborhood: East Village

23 minutes away from the East Village, Manhattan, and Hua Tang’s mascara has already snowballed beneath her lashes.

I don’t look any better — glancing at my window reflection, I register, my resemblance to the racist portrayals of Chinese people in 19th-century American comics. My eyes are swollen to the point where my field of vision is reduced. The Uber driver, frightened by either my appearance or the frantic Mandarin discourse in the backseat, can’t stop glancing at the rearview mirror.

“I think I should go alone,” I finally tell Hua Tang, in a weak attempt to break up the argument. I am no longer the daughter that always wants her supervision. Hua Tang looks hurt and opens her mouth reflexively to retort. Then, deciding on maturity, she leans away and swallows her sentence.

Hua Tang closes her eyes after a while. This is her go-to move, a short duration cool-down exercise that relieves her from the stresses of having a rebellious daughter. Even when relaxed, her forehead displays three wrinkle lines between her brows, printed vertically across her skin like rivers. A few years ago in Disneyland, those same lines had made my throat tighten as she squinted into a park map that she held close to her face. When I noted it, she was indifferent about this new feature, outlining for me the troubles of aging with a biochemistry major’s nonchalance. How could she be so detached from her own physical state? I remember thinking that she is not young anymore.

As I make my way off the Uber, Hua Tang trails behind me. I debate with myself and decide against protesting her presence, so we navigate together, through the odor of weed that permeates the streets of downtown Manhattan. Eventually we find the store — a dingy little shop swarming with heavily pierced people, the typical East Village tattoo parlor. A neon sign with the words “Whatever tattoo” is propped against the storefront, fluorescent against the concrete backdrop. It is intimidating in a plastic, vulgar type of way.

I enter, but Hua Tang hesitates. If not for getting pregnant on a certain day in November of 2002 and deciding to keep the kid in her stomach, this would not be a place she would ever wind up in during the course of her life. She is here due to her daughter, who gets starry-eyed at the idea of forearms and necks swirling with permanent ink and enjoys little metal needles poking through cartilage bone. Eventually, Hua Tang steps into the store and watches with a complicated expression as her daughter, once just a tiny thing squirming about in her womb, converses confidently with the artist. “Hi, how are you? What brings you here today? First tat? That’s always exciting! Can you handle the pain? You’ll have to. What does mom over there think?”

Hua Tang shrugs. She looks timid standing in this 100-square-foot space, surrounded by flashing displays of nose and tongue and belly piercing and hundreds of tattoo samples staring down at the top of her head. Throughout the duration of her 49 years of life she has faced countless adversities — shrugging off leg injuries and wrestling with scholarship opportunities as an underprivileged student, navigating the United States without language assistance as a clueless girl from rural China. Never though has she voluntarily placed herself in such close proximity to a thing she was certain she didn’t want.

Feeling guilty, I shake off this thought and focus on the alcohol wipes grazing against my skin. The tattoo artist turns the needle gun on, and I watch with equal levels of terror and excitement as the slender piece of metal vibrates with bloodthirsty gusto. At this moment, it occurs to me: I had thought through all aspects of my tattoo, minus the actual process of getting it. I turn around helplessly and locate Hua Tang in the center of the shop, pacing around aimlessly like a cute little middle-aged Asian lady ghost.

The adrenaline makes my head dizzy as I lie down on the cold leather seats of the parlor. “Mom,” I blurt out. “Could you hold my hand?”

She hurries over and extends her right palm, the same hand I used to hold many years ago, when the gesture didn’t seem childlike or silly. Squeezing her hand, I return to the children’s hospital in Beijing, shying away from a needle in one of those ugly vaccination rooms with clashing wallpaper. In the present, Hua Tang’s eyes are closed, three lines of wrinkles flowing down her skin like rivers. Back in the vaccination room in Beijing, they had yet to form.

“It’s okay,” she tells me in the present moment, the way she so often did when I was young. “It’ll be over before you know it.”

***

Linsey Liao (she/her) is a student from Brooklyn, New York. She’s an adrenaline junky and a sucker for romance, indie music and sake. She’s attempting to get a B.A. from NYU with a minor in creative writing. In her spare time, she’s either playing the electric bass or editing for Polyphony Lit and Washington Square News.

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