"A girl doesn't need a new dress every week," Mama says gently. "You could be more like your sister in this regard. A Dragon doesn't need frills, lace, and bows. Pearl's too practical for all that."
"Baba can afford it," May retorts.
My father's jaw tightens. Is it something May said, or is he getting ready to criticize me again? He opens his mouth to speak, but my sister cuts him off.
"Here we are in the seventh month and already the heat is unbearable. Baba, when are you sending us to Kuling? You don't want Mama and me to get sick, do you? Summer brings such unpleasantness to the city, and we're always happier in the mountains at this time of year."
May has tactfully left me out of her questions. I prefer to be an afterthought. But all her chattering is really just a way to distract our parents. My sister catches my eye, nods almost imperceptibly, and quickly stands. "Come, Pearl. Let's get ready."
I push back my chair, grateful to be saved from my father's disapproval.
"No!" Baba pounds his fist on the table. The dishes rattle. Mama shivers in surprise. I freeze in place. People on our street admire my father for his business acumen. He's lived the dream of every native-born Shanghainese, as well as every Shanghailander-those foreigners who've come here from around the world to find their fortunes. He started with nothing and turned himself and his family into something. Before I was born, he ran a rickshaw business in Canton, not as an owner but as a subcontractor, who rented rickshaws at seventy cents a day and then rented them to a minor subcontractor at ninety cents a day before they were rented to the rickshaw pullers at a dollar a day. After he made enough money, he moved us to Shanghai and opened his own rickshaw business. "Better opportunities," he-and probably a million others in the city-likes to say. Baba has never told us how he became so wealthy or how he earned those opportunities, and I don't have the courage to ask. Everyone agrees-even in families-that it's better not to inquire about the past, because everyone in Shanghai has come here to get away from something or has something to hide.
May doesn't care about any of that. I look at her and know exactly what she wants to say: I don't want to hear you tell us you don't like our hair. I don't want to hear that you don't want us to show our bare arms or too much of our legs. No, we don't want to get "regular full-time jobs." You may be my father, but for all your noise you're a weak man and I don't want to listen to you. Instead, she just tilts her head and looks down at my father in such a way that he's powerless before her. She learned this trick as a toddler and has perfected it as she's gotten older. Her ease, her effortlessness, melts everyone. A slight smile comes to her lips. She pats his shoulder, and his eyes are drawn to her fingernails, which, like mine, have been painted and stained red by applying layers of red balsam blossom juice. Touching-even in families-isn't completely taboo, but it certainly isn't accepted. A good and proper family offer no kisses, no hugs, no pats of affection. So May knows exactly what she's doing when she touches our father. In his distraction and repulsion, she spins away, and I hurry after her. We've taken a few steps when Baba calls out.
"Please don't go."
But May, in her usual way, just laughs. "We're working tonight. Don't wait up."
I follow her up the stairs, our parents' voices accompanying us in a kind of discordant song. Mama carries the melody: "I pity your husbands. 'I need shoes.' 'I want a new dress.' 'Will you buy us tickets to the opera?' " Baba, in his deeper voice, beats out the bass: "Come back here. Please come back. I need to tell you something." May ignores them, and I try to, admiring the way she closes her ears to their words and insistence. We're opposites in this and so many things.
Excerpted from Shanghai Girls by Lisa See Copyright © 2009 by Lisa See. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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