Jieyan Wang

Contest - Creative Nonfiction

Jieyan Wang is a writer and rising first-year college student at Harvard University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Passages North, Witness, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She is also a reader for The Adroit Journal.


How the Body Contains Flight

I used to believe I would grow into a birdcage. When I was five, I ran my fingers over my ribs, thinking they were gilding themselves in gold. “Look, I’m shining,” I said to my mother, pointing at my chest. She replied she couldn’t see it and repeated that my body was as soft as it’s ever been. She kept doing this while tucking my hair behind my ear until I started to cry. Or, it wasn’t really a cry but more of a murmur. I didn’t know the words to explain “I can feel myself growing.” It was only later I could say, “I want to become strong enough to hold something beautiful inside me.” Even then, I didn’t follow it up with, “Because that’s what you can do, Ma. That’s what you’ve always done.”

My mother once taught me that the heart is a winged creature: it always goes where your body doesn’t want to land. When she was in her twenties, she crossed the Pacific Ocean into America, where we are today. “I never saw the water,” she explained to me, “I flew here over cloud cover.” Over a decade later, she held me in her hands and told my father, “Somehow, I think we should name her blue, what expands until it smiles.” In the end, yan became part of my name, meaning a scholar who listens more than she should. Yan: in Mandarin, it’s also the sound for swallow, a bird born with its eyes closed.

A Chinese children’s song goes, “The swallow returns for the freshness of springtime.” We are always searching for the youngest parts of ourselves. Sprouts upon sprouts. My mother thumbs book pages the same way she did when she was in high school, just a little younger than I am now. She tells me I’m becoming tall, too tall. But really, all I’m doing is clasping my hands on my chest and wondering which is thicker: my memories or the body that felt them. Even in spring, the wind is cold enough to make me shiver.

Will I be as brave as my mother? I think of birdcages, how they keep flight in no matter how sharp the beak is. Although I’m old enough to no longer believe I am a gold waiting to unfold, I still trace the lines of my ribs, feel the breaths pushing under them. “Listen,” I say to my body, “We’re going far someday.” When it fades, its ending will be soft to touch.

I have been pondering what it means to grow up. Last year, I turned eighteen and graduated from high school, and despite this entry into adulthood, I still ask many of the questions I asked as a child. Who am I meant to be? Years from now, what will I remember about today? This piece marks the distance between these questions and the answers they seek.