When I was twelve years old, two things happened to me. The first is that I became a chess champion. Who would’ve thought? Back when we lived in the States, I had never even touched a chess board. I was a Girl Scout. I played rec volleyball and went roller skating with friends. Nobody I knew played chess – it was like something that old retired people did.
But one day in China, one of the girls at my school asked me if I wanted to learn. “My mom is great at chess,” she said. “Come on, she’ll teach you how to play.” And so I did. I listened to her explain the moves of the pieces. I savored the funny names – rook, knight, bishop. And I won my very first game. I won the second game, too. And the third.
“Your daughter has a gift,” the woman told my father. So he began to drag me around the countryside, and to big tournaments in the city, where I played against some of the toughest chess opponents and won match after match.
But that was not the most important thing that happened to me that year.
I had always suspected that there was life on other planets. No, not just microscopic life, like bacteria or amoeba. Real, intelligent living creatures, like humans. It’s why I wanted to become an astronaut. Someday, I wanted to travel to a distant planet and meet these other beings, and study them.
“That is a ridiculous goal,” my parents told me. “There is no intelligent life on other planets. That is only science fiction.”
But they were wrong. I found out that one summer day when I was twelve. I was pretending to be a real astronaut, climbing up into my spaceship.
But that day, something was different. As I sat down in my spaceship treehouse, the walls suddenly began to glow like stars. Strange lights danced around, and faint voices began to whisper in a language I had never heard. I sat very still, arms wrapped around my knees.
Suddenly, there was a loud sound, and a hot blast that roared past me and burned off my clothes. I screamed and screamed. And then it stopped. I was sitting alone and naked in the middle of my treehouse, which was now charred black from fire, snakes of smoke still rising into the air.
I climbed down the ladder so quickly that I nearly fell to the ground. Then I walked around the yard, which was filled with oddly shaped black rocks and puddles. I climbed on the biggest rock, which still felt hot beneath my bare feet. I splashed in the puddles.
“Aliens!” I called out as I jumped around from rock to puddle, rock to puddle. “Aliens? Where are you?”
But the only beings that appeared were Ye ye and Nai nai. And they did not look happy to see me.
“You terrible girl!” Ye Ye scolded. “You’ve burned down your lovely treehouse!”
“No!” I shook my head insistenly. “It wasn’t me, I swear! It was the aliens! I heard them! I saw—”
“Such a liar,” said Nai Nai, her face twisted into an angry scowl. “Go inside now and clean up. You shall be punished for this bad behavior.”
I hung my head and trudged toward the house, my heart heavy. That was the day that I realized that I hated China.