My Country

There were the Christmas beetles, dirty brown, like bulbous baby cockroaches, that clustered around the holes of the school drinking fountains every summer. When we turned the faucets at recess, after playing tag with Tarik and Ahmed and Hussein and Fatima, we’d spray them right into our mouths and scream.

There were the lady beetles, cartoon-like in their colorful bodies, that the white kids said were a sign of good luck. A blondie named Crystal accidentally squashed one with her butt and spent the afternoon crying.

There were the crickets that looked like aliens, that gave me the shivers, but I wasn’t allowed to stomp on those because Mum said they were friendly, that she used to play with them in Saigon. You’d use chopsticks to tickle their antennae, she said, and they’d jump. It sounded like the most boring thing in the world. Didn’t she have Pokémon or Dragon Ball Z on TV? She had TV, she said. But it was to watch the famous singers belt their tunes. To watch the war around her in fuzzy black and white. But mostly to watch the tunes.

There were the Huntsman spiders, which grew to the size of a hand, a face, a toilet seat and were hairy all over. Those were all bark, no bite, some bloke said. Spiders don’t bark, I said. We were taught in kindergarten to cover them with a glass jar, slide cardboard underneath, and take them outside to be set free. I don’t know anyone who has ever done that. Maybe Crystal.

There were the venomous Redback spiders, which we were allowed to kill because it was them or us.

There were the Funnel-Web spiders, which I only ever saw in pictures. I read about them when I was nine, on the Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM. If you ever saw one in the flesh, it was the end of the world. Or something like that.

There were the Daddy-Long-Legs spiders, which were kind of a joke.

There were so many spiders.

There were the moths that ate our clothes, leaving little holes in our skivvies and undies, making us look like we were poor, because we were, but the moths didn’t help. They weren’t scary, but Dad said to be careful about how you kill them, because they might explode into a plume of powder. He never explained how you’re meant to kill them, though. They kept eating our clothes.

There were the mosquitoes that ate me alive, the ones Mum said were after either my sweet blood or my sticky skin.

There were the earthworms that Mum said were good for our veggie patch. There were the gut worms that Mum said made my brother and I too skinny. There was the time Mum asked me whether I had an itchy butt, and I blushed, because didn’t everyone? There was the candle she held to my exposed butt crack to lure out my maybe-worms, because they supposedly liked heat; like moth to a flame, like gut worm to a birthday candle. There was me yelling, “Too hot! Too hot!” There was the giant white tablet that the doctor made me swallow. If I did have worms squirming through me, that would do the trick. There was Mum’s inability to ever admit she was wrong, about the worms, about the candle, about what was best for me. There was my inability to stop apologizing, to stop compensating for her, for her, always for her.

There were the head lice she caught on Bidong Island, the lice that jumped from refugee to refugee, the refugees who bathed in sea water, shat in the sand, and used blocks of rationed tea as pillows. There were the head lice I caught in Year Five, probably from one of the girls who was stickier than me, probably from touching heads when we were playing Twister, probably from rolling on the carpet as we choreographed our Spice Girls dance. There was Mum threatening to shave my head. There was Mum patiently combing my hair for eggs.

There were the Christmas beetles that I found, years later, in my parent’s home. I was ready to kill, to smite the tiny cockroach-looking bugaboos, until I recognized them and remembered how mean we were to Tarik and Hussein and Ahmed and Fatima after the Twin Towers fell, because it was better them than us. As little kids, as adults, it is always better them than us.

There was the sunburnt country full of bugs that followed me, bit me, burrowed deep into my body. There was the urge to belong in a hostile place, where the mozzies guzzled so much of my blood that they must’ve known how I felt, and so must’ve their babies, and their babies, and their babies.

There were the bugs I combed from my blind dog; the blind dog that navigates my parent’s home from memory, because she has never known another home; the blind dog that I held as I cried and I cried, because this was home, yet how could it possibly be home?

There were the bugs that gathered outside my window when I was grown, when I had three gray hairs, the memory of me suspended in their tiny bodies, who shimmied on the other side of the glass as if to pay tribute. We remember you, girlie, they said as they criss-crossed and crawled all over each other. Guess what, guess what—they ascended into the sky carrying fragments of me, collected over time—we’ll remember you.

First published in The Penn Review, Spring 2019