Iowa Writes

YIYUN LI
from The Ground Floor


hey called me Carp at school because I had a big head. I was not the only child who had a big head, but I was the only one stuck with the name of the most stupid fish, the one that had landed on people's dinner plates more than any other fish I had known. Other children had other nicknames—Ping-Pong Ball, Eggplant, Light Bulb—all better than mine because they were not my nickname.

It was not any better at home. Sister Jin called me Piglet. Grandpa called me Little. Mom, when she was in a good mood, called me Bunny, Penguin, Duckling, any name of a harmless animal, but when her sunny mood turned overcast, as it often did without warning, I became Wolverine. Dad was the only one who used my real name, but he spoke the least in the family, so it did not help much.

A second floor auntie called me Rubber Doll, a name reminding me of the mud-covered rubber boots the grownups wore on rainy days. The upper level aunties all called me Little Fat Jin, meaning I was the fat little sister of Jin. Uncles in the building usually responded only with a nod when I greeted them, and when they needed to say a word to me, they called me Li's Daughter.

They called me Carp at school because I had a big head. I was not the only child who had a big head, but I was the only one stuck with the name of the most stupid fish, the one that had landed on people's dinner plates more than any other fish I had known. Other children had other nicknames—Ping-Pong Ball, Eggplant, Light Bulb—all better than mine because they were not my nickname.

It was not any better at home. Sister Jin called me Piglet. Grandpa called me Little. Mom, when she was in a good mood, called me Bunny, Penguin, Duckling, any name of a harmless animal, but when her sunny mood turned overcast, as it often did without warning, I became Wolverine. Dad was the only one who used my real name, but he spoke the least in the family, so it did not help much.

A second floor auntie called me Rubber Doll, a name reminding me of the mud-covered rubber boots the grownups wore on rainy days. The upper level aunties all called me Little Fat Jin, meaning I was the fat little sister of Jin. Uncles in the building usually responded only with a nod when I greeted them, and when they needed to say a word to me, they called me Li's Daughter.

I was seven going on eight, anxiously waiting for the day I would be the respectable age of ten, when my real name would take a firmer stand.

"Ten years old and you are done with your human years," Grandpa warned me. This was the ancient tale he had told me: at the beginning of the world, Man was assigned a life span of ten years. As he grew older and smarter, Man, naturally, was not satisfied with the short ten years he got. He went to God and asked for more years, but God refused, saying the request would throw off the balance of the world. Man cried and cried, and his tears moved a hundred animals. One by one they entered the palace of God, and asked to give up a year of their own lives for Man. God assented, and Man got another hundred years. "That's why you never hear of a person older than a hundred and ten," Grandpa said. "And a man is a pure human being only in the first ten years. Ten years old and you start to live your animal years."

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


YIYUN LI

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. She earned MFA degrees in fiction and nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa and currently teaches at Mills College in Oakland, California. Her essay "The Ground Floor" was first published in The Iowa Review in Fall 2004.

This page was first displayed
on June 24, 2006

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