These were my stars: tiny little fireworks that my family called xiao pao pao, small street poppers that, when thrown onto the ground, pop. Whenever we visited Chinatown, my sister and I would beg our parents to buy us a box or two, each box containing around 30 little bang snaps. My sister played with hers immediately. I saved mine for when I really needed them.
I kept boxes of these in my drawers and would take out a single xiao pao pao whenever something bad happened. Sometimes two or three. A fight with my sister? Pop. Bad scores in piano competitions? Pop. Pop. Got into trouble? Pop. Pop. Pop. These xiao pao pao were my escape from the world. My problems always seemed smaller when my tiny fingers balanced the small ball of explosives wrapped in paper and flung it on the ground. The satisfying melody of a firework against the concrete silenced the incessant yelling that plagued my memories. The tiniest hint of a spark, the faint lingering smell of sawdust and smoke, all of this lasted for a second. And then it was gone. Flickered. Vanished.
But the days I needed them most were when my sister and I returned home from school, found my mom with swollen, red eyes, and smelled the distinct scent of Chinese herbal medicine wafting from her chest and legs. She would always do her best to hide these secrets from us, but when your body and heart and spirit and mind are all hurting, it’s hard to keep that hidden. On these days, I would step outside with my mom and sister, bring out an entire box of my xiao pao pao, and we would watch as they lived their ephemeral, powerful lives, sparking our hearts with laughter and joy. In these moments, it was the three of us against the stars, and we always won. It made us feel. In control. Fated for happiness. But it was all swept away—we shuffled, cleaned and scurried back into our room—the moment we heard the car pull up and my dad’s thunderous roars from the driveway.
Our lives continued like this for five years. Our happiness was transient lights begging for oxygen. But we were forced to hide them, protect them, shelter them from our harsh reality. We never thought we’d finally be able to let them shine.
It was on that day—the day when the sound of that one-way plane silenced the horrid memories—that my mom, sister and I rid ourselves of the twenty boxes I’d saved. That was the day we watched as all our stars flickered before us one by one. It wasn’t because we needed them. It was because we knew that they had outlived their purpose. They were finally given their breath, their full lives, their time to shine. And we let the stars fizzle on the concrete, refusing to sweep them away, for all the years to come.