excerpt from “Little Bee’s Kindergarten”



Last week I called my grandmother and asked her to come run the kindergarten with me. She said she didn’t want to. She didn’t know how. “It’s very simple,” I said, and went on demonstrating to her how the kindergarten would be run. I’d decided on the name Little Bee's Kindergarten. It would be a fairly small one with a total enrollment of 10 to 15, situated on the mini train track in the courtyard of Westfield Mall. She said she didn’t want to know because even if she knew, she wouldn’t be patient enough to run a kindergarten.
     Last night I dreamed of my grandmother again. I was walking beside her, walking her to the hospital, holding her left arm. It felt warm in my hand. She turned her head to talk to me, and I thought she seemed happy. Waking up, I almost feel unsure. If we were really walking to the hospital, how could she be so happy? Maybe it wasn’t a hospital. Maybe it was an old folks’ home. Would that be a more suitable destination, one that could make her smile on the way? The only thing I know for certain is that she knew where we were going and she felt prepared, content.

Every time before I fly back to the states, I always go visit my grandparents one last time. If I’m not careful enough as to leave no gap between this visit and my departure, my grandmother will come knock on our door the next day. I can sense it when she is coming. While we say goodbye after dinner, I can look at her face and tell if she’ll show up. I’ll tell my mother, “We can’t go out today. Grandma is coming.” “How do you know?” my mother will say. “She didn’t tell me.” “We had eye contact yesterday,” I’ll say, “when we were waving goodbye.”
      Last winter I realized I’d become taller than my grandfather when we both stood straight. I felt ashamed for putting on that pair of boots with thick soles. I felt ashamed for wanting to be taller than I was.

Little Bee's Kindergarten is a toy train in Westfield Mall, Santa Clarita, California. The tuition is collected on a daily basis and the rate is 20 dollars per day. Included in it are the costs of 2 meals (breakfast and lunch; dinner is optional), technology fee, book fare, toy fare, and maintenance fee. On each day one kindergarten staff member (my grandmother or I) will remain close by, right beside the train track, to sound the horn, distribute books and toys, and keep the children safe.

Once when I was in the kindergarten, I shat my pants. That was the only time I remember and, I am sure, the only time I actually shat my pants. I was around 3. My grandmother came to take me home. I didn’t cry at all, and she wasn’t telling me it was all right, or it was natural, or it was something that would happen when you were 3. Maybe because of that, the lack of conversation, of sounds in general, I don’t remember the whole walk from the kindergarten back home. What I remember is the angle of my right arm, which was pointing upwards, away from me, ending in my grandmother’s left hand. The only way for me to walk beside my grandmother is to walk on her left.

There were chances when I could have ended up unborn. My grandmother wasn’t going to marry my grandfather because she didn’t like how he looked. He was so scrawny, though she herself was too. Most people were anyway. She didn’t want to marry this man, though she had accompanied him every morning to the soccer field, where he had to finish his morning jogging. It was a duty but also an honor bestowed on my grandmother, who had been leader of the Party branch at their college. My grandfather was weak, slow at running. His mental and physical health had both become my grandmother’s responsibility. Then he wanted to marry her and she refused. Then, after graduation, she was dispatched from Hangzhou, Zhejiang, to Taiyuan, Shanxi, an inland city far up north, 883 miles away. A few months later, he arrived at her door. Three years later, they got married (end of the first chance of my unbirth).

Yesterday was the Lunar New Year. Today I wake up and see 3 family portraits taken on a cellphone. My parents, my grandparents, my grandfather from my father’s side, my mother’s younger brother and his wife, my father’s elder brother and his wife: all standing in front of the restaurant where they have just had their new-year dinner. My grandfather is the only one with the mouth hanging open. His face assumes a bemused expression, almost surprised, like he is not yet ready to be photographed. He is the second tallest person in the picture. Looking at it, I wonder if any of my worries about my grandmother are grounded in reality. She hasn’t changed, or so it seems, since 8 years ago. Maybe it’s the magic of a photograph. It suits certain people especially well. I can make this comparison because there is another family portrait in my parents’ bedroom, taken 8 years ago when my grandparents celebrated their golden anniversary. Everyone else in that picture has changed in their own way, but my grandparents appear to remain the same. Maybe when one gets older time starts to take a different approach: first it changes your face, then it leaves your face alone and marches down your spine, crumpling it up so you are shorter and shorter and shorter, doubled, almost. Then eventually it returns to your face. Maybe my grandparents have been in the spine stage. It’s hard to determine how long the stage will last.

Little Bee's Kindergarten is a necessary move towards the improvement of kindergarten education. Children in kindergartens are prone to unfair treatment, such as bad meals, lack of versatile toys, forced afternoon naps, impractical and thus useless learning, unreasonable blaming, etc. Among all the possibilities, it is unreasonable blaming that hurts children the most.
     Here is an example:
     Once when I was around 5 years old, our teacher showed us a model rocket and a book that came with it. She told us the name of each part and what its function was. She opened the book and held it high for us to see an illustration of how a rocket was shot into space. All the children sitting around me were nodding, so I nodded too. I don’t remember at which point I started to apply a rhythm to it. I was nodding so fast everything in my vision turned to a blur. Then my eyes were closed for a while. When I reopened them, the teacher was staring right at me. She said, “I’ve been watching you the whole afternoon. You are not behaving. Do you think I didn’t see what you were doing? I’ve been watching you all the time.” She kept staring at me a little longer before resuming her lecture on rockets. I stopped listening. Thirteen years later I learned that my grandmother had worked in the development team for rocket fuel. So she had been a Party branch leader and one of the people working towards building a rocket. But what were we supposed to feel when we were confronted with that model rocket at the age of 5? What did they want us to remember? Why had the teacher been watching me the whole afternoon? Had she really? I was always the one kid who needed the least watching. I was good at doing as told. I barely talked. She couldn’t have been watching me the whole afternoon.
     There is very little shame in shitting your pants in kindergarten because almost everyone will do it once or twice, and you are even rewarded for doing it: you go home. Most of the shame comes from being called out, being recognized in the middle of some inappropriate behavior, sometimes pressed to account for it too. I propose that the best solution to this problem, this sudden, unreasonable blaming and the surge of negative emotions it causes, is to minimize direct interactions between teachers and the children. Little Bee's Kindergarten, therefore, is designed as a kindergarten where the presence of the teacher is rarely sensed.

Once my mother said, “30 years later I am 80, your grandmother is 110; 70 years later I am 120, your grandmother is 150.” My mother is also 30 years older than me. When I was 5 I thought women could only bear children at the age of 30.
     Yesterday I drew a tarot card for my grandmother’s health this year. I sensed an intense energy on my right-hand side but couldn’t settle on a single card. Finally I drew out Death, reversed. Yet in this context what difference would the reverse make?

The basic structure of Little Bee's Kindergarten is like this:

screen1                                                                 screen2
t r a c k t r a c k t r a c k t r a c k t r a c k t r a c k t r a c k t r a c k
k                         train→                                              t
c                                                                             r
a                                                                             a
r                                                                      train↓ c
t                                                                             k
k                               changing                                      t
c                               settings                                      r
a                               with                                          a
r                               fake                                          c
t                               animals                                       k
k                                                                             t
c  train↑                                                                     r
a                                                                             a
r                                                                             c
t                                      ←train                                 k
k c a r t k c a r t k c a r t k c a r t k c a r t k c a r t k c a r t k c a r t
screen3                    gate (teacher’s station)                     screen4

As can be seen from the layout, at Little Bee’s Kindergarten, there is no classroom per se: children will spend the whole day onboard a toy train circling the track, which is built in the shape of a square around changing settings with fake animals. Installed at every turn of the track is a screen the size of the average projection screen used in a classroom. The content shown on each screen changes 5 times daily. In the morning when the children first board the train, the breakfast menu of that day is displayed on the screen. After breakfast, it changes into a selection of books and toys, and the children can choose one or 2 of each. Later, the lunch menu comes up. After lunch there come all the choices of afternoon activities, including reading, playing with a toy, free drawing and writing, and getting off the train to play with the fake animals in the center of the track. Little Bee's Kindergarten also provides one additional meal to those who can’t go back home for dinner, and the menu is the next thing shown on the screen. Eventually before being dispatched, the children can make a final selection and decide which setting and which animal they would like to see tomorrow. The seats are equipped with buttons so the children can indicate their choices easily. Teacher’s Station is the place where the teacher (my grandmother or I) will stay for the majority of our day at the kindergarten. It is from here that breakfast, lunch, dinner, and books and toys are delivered to each child. This is also the spot from which we will give our words of encouragement to the children and sound the horn. When the toy train passes Teacher’s Station, the teacher is going to hold out their hand and pat everyone’s shoulder, saying, “Well done!” Then the horn will be sounded twice, followed by a warm “Goodbye!” Such is all the interaction that is supposed to happen between teachers and students.
     Last time when I went to Westfield, the setting in the center of Little Bee's Kindergarten was a small bamboo forest with 3 fake grand pandas. It was almost the Lunar New Year. The temporary teacher on duty that day had dyed her hair blonde, and now it was a color that resembled calcified bones. In order not to make her aware of my presence, I observed them from behind a pillar on the second floor. She seemed to enjoy sounding horns quite a bit, but fell short when it came to encouraging the little passengers. Instead of patting them on their shoulders, she stretched her fingers wide open but merely tapped them in the palm. The worst was that when children not enrolled in the kindergarten showed interest, she sold them tickets and let them board the train. This should be strictly prohibited at all times. It should also be made explicit that some children don’t like being touched in the palm, since palms can be ticklish.

It is very hard to imagine any part of my grandmother’s body being ticklish, although there has to be at least one. Or does there? I remember once, after going to my grandparents’, my father said to me, “You must like your grandmother a lot. You always smile when you see her and so does she.” Having a ticklish body part means to have a body part that, when tickled by someone else, makes you laugh uncontrollably. Once you have acknowledged that, simply recalling past experiences of being tickled should be enough to make you laugh too. My grandmother has ticklish grandchildren but not really ticklish children. Within our family the most beloved photo of her and me shows her holding the 2-year-old me in her left arm, giving me a huge peeled apple with the other hand. I appear to be laughing, astonished by this round, pale yellow object that could cover half my face and is edible at the same time. My grandmother is laughing too. Our mouths open towards each other. That would be around the time when she had successfully taught me that “Grandma” was too complicated a word and she didn’t have the patience to wait long, so she invented a simple word and spoke it to me everyday. Ever since I first opened my mouth to address her, she has been called “abu.” It is so simple and easy that my mother wasn’t convinced I was referring to my grandmother. She believed it had only been a random word I produced as an infant, up to the point when I finally realized “abu” equals “grandma.” Years later it became a word that brought me much shame. None of my friends addressed their grandmother this way. It’s not even the word for “grandma” in any dialect.

In Sumerian religion, Abu was a god, though only a minor one. He was a god of plants, one of the 8 deities born to relieve the illness of Enki, the god of water, knowledge, mischief, crafts, and creation. Abu is father of plants and vegetation.

My grandmother is the only one in my family who has a green thumb.

Shanxi is a province famous for its coal-mining industry. Both of my grandparents studied chemical engineering, and they were in the same class; otherwise my grandmother wouldn’t have been assigned the task of watching my grandfather jog around the soccer field. After graduation, my grandmother was assigned to Shanxi, to one of the coal factories in the rather deserted plateau, and my grandfather was assigned a teaching job at the university. Besides being scrawny, another common feature of their life was being assigned: from position to position, from place to place. It wasn’t their choice to accept or decline. From here the story takes on 3 possibilities:

  1. My grandmother had not intended to move that far and only took it on as a test for my grandfather, to see if he loved her enough to go after her and propose again. If this is the truth, then she had liked my grandfather from the beginning and was confident he would come for her.
  2. My grandmother was very excited to be assigned to such a remote place because she had never been that far from home. Yet after 3 years, the excitement wore out and the reality sank in, and she started to regret leaving. When my grandfather showed up, she agreed to marry him because once they were married, she would be allowed to relocate to where her husband was.
  3. My grandmother accepted this assignment as merely another assignment and didn’t think much about my grandfather or his proposal. However, when he repeatedly showed up during a time span of 3 years, she was moved because it was indeed a long distance, especially when there was only the slowest train running between those 2 places. So she reconsidered and accepted his proposal.

I grew up hearing only the first version of the story, but one day my mother made a slip and mentioned Possibility 2. The reality, of course, would have been a mixture. There are 4 possible ways to make a mixture: 1+2, 1+3, 2+3, 1+2+3. So we have a total of 7 possibilities of why my grandparents got married.

There are many who don’t think much of kindergarten education, such as my grandparents and my father. My father didn’t attend kindergarten and there was no kindergarten at my grandparents’ time. I don’t remember learning anything useful during that time period either. If we are to improve this situation, it will be crucial to determine what exactly should be taught to children of that age. At Little Bee's Kindergarten, every child needs to design their own rocket and finish the blueprint by the time of graduation.

My grandmother was born in Nantong in 1934, Year of the Dog, and my grandfather in Suzhou in 1935, Year of the Pig. Both cities belong to Jiangsu Province, a province in South East China, though not so east as to border the sea. This year is again Year of the Dog. It is my grandmother’s year. She is turning 84 in December. A friend of mine once said, “If an elder person can live past 84 safely, they can go on living for another 5 years without a problem.” I don’t believe that. I believe it’s just a myth that you will always have bad luck in your year. In fact I have just passed my year, Year of the Rooster, and it turned out to be my favorite year thus far. As the only daughter of my parents’, I started a relationship with a girl shortly before my 24th birthday.
     When I was still in kindergarten, I remember finding it funny how my grandmother’s Chinese zodiac sign is the fierce dog and my grandfather’s the gentle, amiable, ultimately edible pig. I’d always seen dogs as male symbols, which at that time meant I would choose the pronoun “he” when I pictured a dog in my mind. It also happened that my mother’s younger brother was born in Year of the Lamb and his wife Year of the Horse, which played out to me like an accidental gender reversal. My own parents brought this reversal to a whole different level: my mother’s sign is the dragon, my father’s the rabbit. When I was little, simply remembering these facts was satisfying. I believed I had a special family.
     Learning to place her own family into a social class, my grandmother for the first time came face to face with the word “bourgeoisie”. Her father had a small fruit store. Starting with bourgeoisie, words flooded towards her: wealth, capital, means of production, landlord, corruption, working class, cutting ties. She went to a female-only high school. Her parents had wanted her to go on to a female-only university and study to be a teacher. They signed her up for the exam. On the day of that exam, my grandmother escaped home and jumped onto a train bound for Hangzhou, the capital of the neighboring province, Zhejiang. She never went back home. She never saw her parents again.

If your family is not special in a positive sense, why keep a family? If your kindergarten is not special and does not satisfy your expectations, why attend kindergarten? I hated my kindergarten but loved my family on the same ground, the precondition of being or not being special. My kindergarten was ordinary. I believed my family was special because my grandmother ran away from her family, which had been special to her in a hazardous way, and became a female professor at a top-tier university. And I used to feel so fortunate that she’d escaped; otherwise, I wouldn’t even have been born (end of the 2nd chance of my unbirth).

Once we all gathered in the auditorium, every student and teacher at my kindergarten. There was a thunderstorm. Every so often, I saw lightning against the darkening sky. We were given toys. We sat playing in the auditorium seats, guarded by the teachers pacing about. It fitted almost too perfectly into the monster phobia I’d developed from watching Ultraman. Then my grandmother walked in.
     To this day I still don’t understand why the teachers had thought it necessary to settle us in the auditorium. Was remaining in the classroom not safe? Was a window leaking? Sometimes I’m convinced it’s only a dream, even though I know it is not.

In designing a rocket, the biggest challenge lies in accommodating all the passengers. The rocket needs to be divided into cabins, and assigning each cabin can be quite an exhausting task. Children in Little Bee's Kindergarten are faced with this task every day. For this purpose, the train which is in itself a major part of the kindergarten must be reasonably spacious. Each car should be wide enough so that drawing tables can fit in easily, leaving space for the children to wander around, immersed in their thoughts. There also needs to be doors that make it possible for them to enter different cars, should they find it helpful to discuss with their friends an idea or a problem they encounter. The train has no dining car, but in the last car are 10 beds for them to take their afternoon nap undisturbed. Out of sanitary consideration, no toilet is installed aboard the train, but a bathroom is easily accessible if one steps off the train and takes the nearest turn. The kindergarten is, after all, in the Westfield Mall courtyard. It is important that the teacher on duty establish it concretely that they should not go window-shopping casually as they wish. An unusually long bathroom trip will be counted as either a half absence or an absence, depending on the length.
     When they are studying, the children at Little Bee's Kindergarten devote much of their time to practicing combinatorics. Here is an example of the kind of problems they deal with:

  1. My mother has 1 sibling.
  2. My father has 2 siblings.
  3. The 3 siblings each have a daughter. Together there are 4 daughters.
  4. Three of the 4 daughters live on the same continent.
  5. Only 1 daughter can be reached by train.
  6. The daughter of the youngest sibling lives the 2nd farthest from home.
  7. The oldest of the 4 daughters lives the closest to home.
  8. I am the 2nd oldest and the 3rd farthest from home.
  9. My grandmother does not take planes. My grandfathers from both sides do.

If you are to design a rocket, how many cabins does the rocket need and how should the passengers be arranged?
     Rockets, when they are carrying people, are called space shuttles instead. So it should be stated that most children in Little Bee's Kindergarten are trying to design their own space shuttle. It is not obligated. A satellite is an option too.


Yuxin Zhao is a writer from Hangzhou, China and currently based in the UK. She writes
experimental fiction and poetry on migration and/or immigration, family history, and queer desire.
Her writing has appeared in Full Stop, 7x7 LA, O BOD, and rivulet. Three Forms of Exhaustion,
a chapbook, was published as part of the DanceNotes chaplet series. 

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