FICTION | Hungry Ghosts
There’s something about the words “饿鬼” (hungry ghost) that absolutely terrifies me. It’s the guttural sound of the “è” — “ugh” but hard, urgent, carnal, more a grunt than a word. It’s the word “我,” wǒ — me, I — within it, coupled with the radical 饣, shí — to consume, to eat, to hunger: a word that reduces the ego to its most carnal need. And then the word 鬼, guǐ, meaning ghost, ghoul, plot, both the end of the syllable and the word itself curling sinisterly upward at the edge, trapping within it the word 厶: private, secret, selfish.
The idea itself has its roots in India, in the Sanskrit word preta. Pretas are supposed to have been corrupted, compulsive, jealous people in a previous life. They are invisible to the eye, but some believe they can be discerned by certain people in distressed mental states. Those unlucky enough to have seen them and lucky enough to have survived it describe ghouls that are human-like but for their sunken, mummified skin, their skinny, malnourished limbs, their distended bellies, their wide, imploring eyes, bugging out of deep-set sockets.
The myth of the preta supposedly spread through East and Southeast Asia through the transmission of Buddhism — though the preta seem antithetical to any idea of religion, of peace. In Thailand, the hungry ghost, pret, are said to be tall, skinny, leering out from the shadows. In Japanese, the hungry ghost — gaki — can be slang for an impetuous child, a spoiled brat. And indeed, the failure to complete the Buddhist and Confucian ritual of honoring one’s ancestors through the offering of food can provoke a hungry ghost, gasping, discontent, prowling in search of those who drove it to hunger.
The failure to honor one’s ancestors through the offering of food can provoke a hungry ghost, gasping, discontent, prowling in search of those who drove it to hunger.
But we were dutiful, careful, respectful. From my room sometimes a waft of smoke would curl through the screen and I’d roll my desk chair over to the window to see my grandmother in the backyard bent gently over a small fire, feeding it slices of newspaper. The smoke of the burned paper would rise to the heavens and manifest into money, food, riches for our ancestors, she said. We were supposed to burn paper money, paper gold bars, little specialty trinkets to be found in Chinese stores, but out here, in the vast American nowhere, we had to make do. My ancestors could read The Fayetteville Observer in the afterlife.
Usually I’d stay put, working on whatever “creative” bullshit I called work, but occasionally she would summon me outside as well, to honor an anniversary or a holiday or an ancestor. Standing in the backyard, which my grandma had coaxed into a veritable wilderness, with trellises of hanging plants strung criss-crossed on clotheslines overhead, it was hard not to believe in the shadowy world she tended to. It felt like any one of those tendrils that swooned above us could just as easily wrap about my wrists, my ankles, my throat, and pull me into that dimension where the dead hungered so.
I wasn’t really thinking about any of that — about ghosts, certainly about etymologies, even about hunger itself — while in Paris. Preta to me meant only the chain restaurant Pret-a-manger, which I ate relentlessly until I learned it was an American brand masquerading as Parisian. In a sense I was doing the same: wandering Europe in the vain hope that my two-and-a-half years of academic French would fool somebody into thinking I was European. More often I was mistaken for Vietnamese, a relic of empire.
I was staying in hostels, hoping something interesting would happen to me, my mother’s credit card in hand. I was tempting fate: had my cards, cash — passport, even — stuffed messily into the breast pocket of a jacket. I drank relentlessly, flirted aggressively, hating myself a little, hating even half-heartedly the guys I flirted with. Sometimes I felt the sick pleasure of wishing I would wake up post-blackout to a missing wallet, a stolen passport, the lock on my locker smashed, its contents ransacked. But I didn’t even get pickpocketed in Rome.
I drank relentlessly, flirted aggressively, hating myself a little, hating even half-heartedly the guys I flirted with.
I’d left around a year after college, after a season of bumming around at home, working odd jobs, thinking waitressing or bartending would lead me into an adventure, at least a story. Didn’t happen. It was uniformly unpleasant, most of it spent trying not to work, standing outside, listening to Sharon bitch about her deadbeat husband, her deadbeat adult children as she chain-smoked, the whole summer flitting away in a tobacco haze.
But I was reading Hemingway, reading Joyce, reading F. Scott — I became convinced that adventure could not be found in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I wanted the feeling of something real. I’d badgered my parents instead for a Europe trip, saying it’d be my last hurrah before a lifetime of working a 9 to 5, despite having no real intention of ever working, thinking I’d write a novel or something and fall easily into a fortune. Rightly, they weren’t convinced. Then I said that all the white kids did it, at Brown and elsewhere, that, really, it was a tradition for the post-graduate American elite. That did it: my Chinese immigrant parents wanted nothing more than to give me all the advantages of the upper-middle-class white kid. And so I was here.
“Avez-vouz un euro à dépenser?” called a raggedy-looking man with beard and bowl, as I flitted past him. Do you have a euro, something something.
“Je suis désolé,” replied Étienne, looking the man in the eye evenly, who dipped his head as we walked on.
“You know,” Étienne said, to me, in a lightly accented English. “You could give them something.”
“I have,” I said defensively. “Just not that time.”
“Or treat them like people,” he said, rubbing his jaw. “Give eye contact. Say something.”
“I think he’d just make fun of my French,” I said, only half kidding.
Étienne looked at me, saying nothing. But I knew what he was thinking: that I was some rich American, simultaneously spoiled and self-conscious, so self-centered that the act of giving a euro to a hungry man could somehow be about me. That he was virtuous because he had looked a homeless man in the eye, because he bartended and bartended authentically, not a transplant, a wannabe, but a native Parisian. I hated him in that second, wanted to snarl that he was a walking cliché: a stuck-up Parisian that would call an American lazy despite a workweek of like 30 hours, who wore his hair long and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, trying to become un scénariste. But I knew also that the sincerity of his clichéness also made him attractive to me. He seemed to sense it in me, my indignation, and I thought I detected some smugness.
I’d told him before, a number of times, in fact, each time he invoked Americanism as the archetype of privilege, about growing up Chinese in America, how fucking hard it was, the racist bullshit I’d heard from teachers, strangers, lovers. How my parents had toiled for decades with only the dream of America to drive them, about the Cultural Revolution that cleaved my mother country, killed millions, split a history in two.
I’d told him before, each time he invoked Americanism as the archetype of privilege, about growing up Chinese in America, how fucking hard it was, the racist bullshit I’d heard from teachers, strangers, lovers.
“But you were born in Durham?” Etienne had said, having quickly picked up the American trait of passive aggression, or else genuinely confused, which was worse.
“Yes, I was born in Durham,” I said, resigned, hating the sound of the round American “r.”
Truth was, adventure, that feeling of something real, with a hard “r,” could be found in China. One year, my father and I had taken a sort of pilgrimage to Dandong, in the Northeast, near Korea, where my family had lived since the beginning of the line. We had been welcomed, mere hours after emerging groggily from a dingy airport, by a rowdy crowd of nearly a hundred relatives and near-relatives and friends of relatives who had just wanted to tag along. We went table to table, thanking them, listened to life stories distilled into nearly indiscernible Mandarin, held babies, held wrinkled, warm old hands, ate an overwhelming amount of food. Then we’d returned to an aunt’s house and realized just how much labor must have paid for that lavish dinner, lavish by their standards: saw dirt floors, saw toilets little more than holes in the ground, what poverty looked and felt and smelled like. I remember I wouldn’t even eat the food my aunt prepared.
“We’re going to visit family,” she had announced one day, and I wasn’t surprised when we went traipsing through calf-deep mud in a lashing rain that made the heat bloom, was startled only when my aunt plunged her hand into the muck, sweeping a wet clump away, then shook her head: “Not here.” We were, apparently, here to visit dead family. I thought, sickeningly, of grey fingers sticking out of the dirt to meet live ones, groping out of the grave for our warm flesh.
I thought, sickeningly, of grey fingers sticking out of the dirt to meet live ones, groping out of the grave for our warm flesh.
“We do this to honor our dead,” she said to me, once we had found the gravesites, little more than a little pile of stones, only a touch more artificial than the landscape itself. “Like this,” she said, clasping a little batch of incense in her hands, getting on her knees and bending fully over one, two, three times. I did the same, feeling absurd, but also feeling deep in my gut a twinge of something else.
“These were forgotten customs,” my aunt mused. The rain, mercifully, had abated somewhat, and now we could make out little houses. During the Cultural Revolution, she told me, these customs were lost, forgotten in the turmoil and din. And in the aftermath, with millions upon millions dead of empty stomachs, buried in the seized countryside, slowly the people had tried to remember: remember their rituals, remember their dead. They had begun again to kowtow, to burn paper, to leave food for those before them who had died for hunger. Who had hungered for life itself.
The Cultural Revolution: it was such unmitigated horror that the sublimity of it rose up like a collective phantom, turned my stomach. It had sent my parents to a new country, to the fertile land of the American South where at least it hadn’t been their blood that tilled the soil. I was a refugee of that holocaust, or more accurately, an escapee: never in my young life had I gone hungry.
Having bummed around for a couple hours at Étienne’s bar, hoping he’d, what? Blow off his shift and finally decide to sleep with me? Having slurped down a few oysters and drunk my fair share of wine; having become somewhat belligerent, accusing him of only liking French girls, a form of racism, I’d drunkenly added; having been subjected to the French giggling of the other bartenders while Étienne wiped the bar, brow furrowed, ever the stoic, or so I shouted at him in mangled French, I decided, finally, to throw something at him that might move him.
“I’m going to the killing fields,” I announced. Finally, he looked up, and I felt a burst of pleasure at the thought that he might worry about me.
“No, you are not,” he said. He looked at me for a second, then continued wiping the bar.
“I am,” I said, growing bolder at the thought of being someone who would think to go to the killing fields. “I’m going to write a story.”
“A what story?” he shot back. “A story about a rich American girl who goes to the killing fields and feels sad?”
“No, a real story, a reported story,” I said, making it all up on the spot. “I’ll knock on doors. Talk to people. Real people. Talk about their family members who died. And not just that, I’ll talk about the societal issues that haven’t ended.”
Étienne literally snorted. “What societal issues do you know about?”
“Poverty,” I said. “Racism.”
Étienne was shaking his head, “You Americans,” he said, almost sadly.
“I am,” I said, “I’m going.” And I stumbled to my feet with my jacket and walked out without paying the bill. I didn’t say it but I didn’t need to: I’ll show you.
“Avez-vouz un euro à dépenser?” called the same man as before, sitting at the same post, looking even more raggedy and huddled, this deep into the night.
“Désolé,” I said to him, softly, walking hurriedly past. Then I felt a grip, icy and hard, wrap around my ankle and stopped, stunned; spun around. But he sat more than a meter away, an impossible distance to reach, hands still under his bowl, in which shone one measly coin. “J’ai faim,” he spat at me. I’m hungry.
“I’m sorry,” I sputtered, in English, feeling the weight of the oysters and wine in my stomach, feeling queasy. I’m embarrassed to say — I turned and ran.
The guy who sat beside me on the bus, he told me: In his village, people had gone hungry for years and years. People keeled over in the streets, laid there listlessly, died right there, it was that bad.
Really, I’d murmured, drowsy from the bottle of vodka we shared. And how did your people survive?
Oh, he said. Well they sold books.
Books? They could survive like that?
Oh yes, he said. Yes. In times like that, of famine, of hunger — people need stories, more than food, more than money, more than anything.
In times of famine, of hunger — people need stories, more than food, more than money, more than anything.
I must have smiled. Somewhere, I felt warm and content: drinking with strangers, hearing their stories, on my way to do perhaps the first real thing of my life.
Then I awoke with a blistering hangover, the roof of my mouth hot and dry, to the lights coming on on the night bus. “Sortez le bus,” the driver announced to me, the only passenger to sleep so deeply, simply enough even for me to understand. “Dernier arrêt!” Last stop.
“No-” I said. “Wait,” my head exploding as I stood. The driver had gotten out of the bus and was helping lift a bag for a passenger. I grabbed my things and ran down the steps of the bus.
“Help, I’ve missed my stop- j’ai…passé mon arret,” I said lamely. “I was supposed to get off at-” I pawed at my jacket to discover that the zippers were down, the pockets turned out.
“That guy!” I said incredulously. “He stole my wallet! My phone!” thinking, I smiled at him. I sat with him. The driver shook his head mutely, not understanding. “My wallet!” I shouted, knowing how hysterical I sounded. “Wall-et!” He shook his head again.
“Gare?” he said.
“No, not gare!” I shouted with a harsh American “r.” “My wallet! Money!” I rubbed my thumb and index finger together in what American movies must have taught me to be the universal signal for money. He pointed. “Là,” he said. I looked in that direction, squinted, stepped a single footfall in that direction. It was a mistake. I spun around at the sound of the door hissing shut, watched the bus pull away.
“This has to be a mistake,” I said, out loud, teeth chattering, pulling my sweater tightly around me. Here it was, here a moment I seemed to have always dreamed of, a moment of excitement, of danger, and yet all I wanted was to be safe at home, wrapped in my sheets. Then I saw in mid-distance a tall grey form, half-obscured by a thin sheet of rain, lumbering slowly, painfully, toward me. I stepped toward him, then stopped, afraid.
He passed into the halo of a streetlamp and for a brief second I saw him lit up in all his hideousness, his skin mottled and fallen in chunks, sunken into thin, avian bones. Seeing me, he seemed to remember a coldness and wrapped his tattered sweater about himself, mirroring me. He had a big, bloated, belly, and I saw what was left of his Adam’s apple move up and down in a gulp.
I saw him lit up in all his hideousness, his skin mottled and fallen in chunks, sunken into thin, avian bones.
“No,” I said, veering backward. Behind him I thought I could see other molten grey forms in the night, thought I saw something glint off the streetlights. I turned to see another ghoul beside me on the ground, his elbows crooked outward like a massive insect, sending his face downward into the pavement, where his long, distended tongue fervently slurped up rainwater.
The ghoul with the ratty sweater had now come closer. “Please,” he said, in English, his teeth chattering. “Could you spare a-”
“No,” I said, more firmly than I felt.
“Please,” he said. He was so close I could hear his rattling breath and see straight into his grey throat, pulsing slowly, hungrily.
“No, really, I don’t have anything.”
“Please,” he said again.
I saw now that his teeth were not chattering; they were gnashing. I felt his fingers tug on the hem of my jacket. “Please,” he whispered hoarsely, and as he said the words I saw his teeth, bared and blackened, his tongue moistened, glimmering in the streetlight. “Please, I’m so hungry — I’m so hungry.”