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Yao's Girl

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Yao's Girl

Li En minced no words: in Mandarin she told the truth: "I hope to become Yao Ming's wife"

The family watched basketball in order to enjoy the Rockets' new Chinese player. They took pride in him the way they would have taken pride in a Chinese astronaut or new high-tech millionaire. Li En, sitting between her parents, tried to pretend that she wasn't really paying attention to the TV. She mostly looked down at a needlepoint cat in its frame.

"This Mr. Moochie needs a haircut," her father said. "Look at himÐ'--he looks like he's been in a tornado."

"He's Moochie," Li En corrected, "not Mr. Moochie."

"What kind of name is that?" her father asked. "Is it American?"

"Yes," Li En said. Then she reminded him that most Americans thought Yao was a funny name.

Her father raised his eyebrows; he specialized in keeping his body still in the midst of movement. He went to the window where he could look out at her fourteen-year-old twin brothers, Tommy and Timmy, as they practiced on the trampoline in their driveway. Her father didn't have to call out any instructions. Li En and her brothers could read his mantra in his eyes: "Elbows against ribs, kneecaps at lips, chin on chest."

Until she grew too tall and too old, Li En had also practiced as many as three hours a day. At twelve, the high point of her life, she won the Texas girls' "Best Overall" trophy. On that day, at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, in Fort Worth, while the judges observed, her father took the trophy from her dry hands and held it aloft. He closed his eyes as if in prayer. The judges lowered their heads to join him. He seemed to point the tip of the trophy toward downtown Fort Worth, but he actually aimed much further east. "We showed the f**king communists," he whispered to his daughter. When he placed the trophy back in her hands, it no longer felt like it belonged to her.

Even now, twenty-seven years after he escaped from Saigon on the day that the communists torched his gymnastics academy, her father was still showing them, although he had changed instrumentsÐ'--from Li En to his twin sons, with whom he roamed the Southwest, gathering trophies.

She envied the boys, small and agile, built for gymnastics, built for America, where they had been born. At church, and even in the neighborhood, people had begun to call Li En "Auntie," because she was twelve years older and much taller than her brothers. She and her parents were Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, her brothers just plain old Texans.

Her father returned to the couch when the third quarter started. "I don't think they need so many players," he said. "Just one to throw the ball to Yao. And I think if he knew he would not get second opportunities, he would not miss so many times."

Li En had respect but no love for her father. She had not forgiven him for dropping her training when she passed five feet eight inches. "You should specialize in something else," he said, and he insisted that she go to junior college and study computers. When she shot past six feet, he became embarrassed by her size and sent her mother to Mr. Feng, the card reader who lived above the dollar store on South Main Street.

Mr. Feng said the reason for Li En's unusual height was the inauspicious hour of her creation. He told her mother, "You were in flight, your business lay in ruin, Granny sat in the boat beside you coughing up blood, pirates roamed the South China Sea, and still you and your husband, at such a moment, created a child."

In her own defense Li En's mother told the card reader that they had not been trying to create a child. "I just wanted to keep him alive. He kept saying he wished he had stayed with his academy. He was screaming, 'If I didn't burn let me drown!' He said he was going into the water. I placed my body on top of his, trying to keep him from the Gulf of Thailand."

"You are fortunate Li En is merely tall," the card reader told her mother. "This is not so bad."

"It makes it difficult for her to marry," her mother said.

"Perhaps I can be of assistance," the card reader said.

Li En refused his help. She also refused to accompany her father and brothers to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where her father wanted to once more include her in a competition. "You can catch," he said. "Timmy on one shoulder, Tommy on the other. Then we will have a killer dismount. As you somersault forward, the boys will do backflips from your shoulders. This will win first prize in family category."

Li En did not want this kind of family category. She wanted to start her own family. She was twenty-six and without prospects. At church her mother prayed, and at Crystal Nail, where she lacquered and lengthened, her mother asked customers about eligible young men. She kept Li En's graduation photo mounted in the right corner of her mirror, so that every customer would see her daughter, diploma in hand.

Her mother continued to visit Mr. Feng the card reader, who advised the family on all things, especially matters requiring cultural insight. When her father began to be called "Jack" at Happy Donut, where he worked the night shift, he thought his wife should also take a new name. He came up with Jean. Mr. Feng advised otherwise. Because she worked at Crystal Nail, he said, where every employee had an Asian name, "Jean" would sound as if she was trying to pass for a customer. Without any advice Li En refused to become Lee Anne, and her father did not insist, because, she knew, he had long ago given up all hope for her.

As they watched the game, Li En could hardly stand to see so many players pull at Yao and raise their hands in front of his face whenever he tried to shoot. She could tell how polite he was by the way he shook his head in apology whenever he allowed someone to take the ball from him.

"This is a strange game," her father said. "There is no holding any muscles in position, no somersaulting; only jumping and throwing a ball. Without a ball it would be far better." When he left the living



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