Four months after my father’s passing, I exit my husband’s construction office in Manhattan’s Garment District. I’m leaving work early to visit Mom. Famished, I stop by a nearby Chinese cafe. In the mornings, I purchase milk tea or sweet coffee. Now past lunchtime, trays of freshly baked goods—roast pork buns, steamed sponge cakes, buns filled with crème—beckon behind scratched-up glass. I’ve eaten these treats since I was a kid.
Other Chinese customers shuffle in. We all work in this neighborhood.
I’ve watched these same slovenly men push tipsy racks of clothing up and down the streets. Cigarettes dangle from clenched teeth. Ashes drift onto stacked fabric bolts or swaying cut-out paper patterns. The women remind me of my father’s first cousin’s wife, Chang Sim, who still lives across the street from Mom in Bay Ridge. For years, Chang Sim worked in a sweatshop doing piecework. I imagine the ladies squinting beneath harsh fluorescent lights as they double-stitch edges of a hundred inner seams to the droning hum of their sewing machines.
I recognize them though I’m not sure they recognize me.
“Boo Loo Bow.” I request a Pineapple Bun. It doesn’t actually have pineapple: it named for its golden, crosshatched-encrusted top. It is my favorite snack.
The lady who takes my order, the one with squinched eyes, chin-length bob and slightly wrinkled arms (which makes me realize she’s not much older than I) says, “Ah, Juk-Sin Nue!”
Juk-Sin is what foreign-born Chinese call American Chinese. They say this once we open our mouths, when our non-fluent accent gives us away. She is calling me a Bamboo Shoot Girl. We look “yellow,” yet we are empty inside, like a section of bamboo.
I have been called this since I was four years old.
“Yi goh,” I say, ignoring her. “This one.” I tap the sneeze guard with a stubby finger. I’m just trying to pick up some food.
“Ho lak nue.” She prattles as she grabs the pastry with her tongs and slips it into a cellophane bag. She is saying I am a “very smart girl.” Why? Maybe she thinks, even though I am Americanized, I am still able to speak some Chinese. Sure, I’m smart. See? I’m smarting, okay?
Irritated, I pay and stomp off. By any other standard, I am already accomplished. Born to Chinese immigrants, I did well in school, attended an Ivy League university, married a successful business owner and raised two wonderful girls. I imagine this lady would kill to have my job—my home, my wealth, my life. Nonetheless, to her, I’m still a hollow girl.
Someone calling me Juk-Sin Nue means, “You are not Chinese enough.”
Each time I hear this, I waver between anger and shame. So long as I keep visiting Chinese establishments, this slander will follow me until my dying day. Problem is, I used to interpret this as, “You are not good enough.” On my worst days, I still believe this to be true.
After boarding the R train at Times Square to Brooklyn, I sit next to a middle-aged Chinese couple. I suspect they are heading to Sunset Park. In the 70s, Sunset Park was occupied by Scandinavians and Hispanics. It was where an Italian boy named Cesare lived whom I had a crush on in 7th grade. My brother, Tom, once drove me past his house, officers on surveillance style. Nowadays, Sunset Park’s Chinatown rivals the one in Flushing, Queens; both have long eclipsed Manhattan’s in size. Growing up, my parents rode the R all the way into “the city” to buy groceries in Chinatown once a week. After they retired, Mom and Dad took the much shorter subway ride to Sunset Park. Within the two-hour window allowed by the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority for a transfer, after shopping, they returned via bus.
“Go there, come back, pay once,” Mom would say. “Travel on one fare. Save money.”
The couple next to me bickers. I overhear every 10th word they say—simple words such as “not good,” “next week,” “why?” and “hospital.” The last one I’m not clear about since I get “laundry” and “hospital” mixed up. Since I understand them, they must be speaking Taishanese. At first, I am pleased. Then, I get frustrated. It is as if I am listening underwater.
Mouths move. Heads nod. Faces smile. The full meaning is never clear.
There’s an old tape recording of me at age five asking Mom for a glass of water. “Gnoi hu boi sui, um goy.” I even said, “Please.” Immersed in a culture with its distinct language and rules, I knew I was Chinese. Yet listening to this garbled speech is like being admitted into an exclusive school from birthright, and then getting kicked out. I still know some passwords, a few secret passages, and can even draw a better map of the grounds, but all I can do now is pound on the gates. It is like staring through the clear hard glass of a fishbowl—uncomprehending. Through puckered lips and fluttering tongues, Chinese people see my familiar features and say, “Sure. Come visit. Take a dip. You can swim here, but you’re not really one of us.”
An hour later, chugging along the local track, I arrive at 86th Street, second to last on the R line. Immediately, I am a kid again, with those strange feelings of delight and hope when your whole life lies ahead, unscripted. I step onto the gum-ridden but brightly lit, renovated platform and recall a neglected terminal cloaked with layers of soot. Subway cars once were obscured by graffiti. We would board the one with the conductor on it in order to feel safe. Accompanying Mom and Dad, waiting for the next train, I used to count the neat rows of knobby rivets on the supporting steel columns painted in garish hues of turquoise or mustard. They resembled candy buttons. Tempted, I wanted to lick them.
“No, Dotty,” Dad said, “too dirty.” I withdrew, too cowed to be disobedient.
Standing well back, Mom held my hand tight while gesturing to the tracks below.
“If you fall, hide under there,” she said and pointed out, beneath the yellow wooden edge which lipped over the treacherous drop, a shallow depth of 8 or 9 inches. “Enough room. Train pass you by.” Mom always believed in a safety plan. I used to think she was simply neurotic.
As I head up the stairs, I realize how much I miss taking the N. Going to Chinatown from Bay Ridge, we always transferred at 59th Street to take the quicker commute. The best thing about the N express is that it crosses over the Manhattan Bridge, disgorging from its dark Brooklyn gullet to rumble across the East River. Looking west, the Twin Towers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Upper New York Bay and the Statue of Liberty would flash by, interrupted by criss-crossing steel braces like triple-blade shutters on a projector. I’d twist toward the window sitting high on my haunches, or scramble to the doors for a better view.
Blinking, I emerge at the corner of 86th Street and Fourth Avenue, a short two blocks from my house. Pedestrians head toward the retail strip nearby, anchored by that mecca of discount shopping, Century 21. Restless housewives seeking pre-season sales push strollers. Loutish men sporting neck chains gesticulate mini-soap operas. Plugged-in teens rollick and guffaw. The Greeks, Irish and Italians I recognize from my youth are supplanted by Middle Eastern, North African, Chinese, and even Orthodox families. Now and then, a platinum blond head bobs in the crowd. Bay Ridge still has the only Norwegian Day parade in New York City.
I’m glad to be here, yet I feel discomfited. These people, like the corner shop selling newspapers, candy and tobacco, still look the same. But they don’t reflect an obvious sense of ambition, at least, not the ambition I had as a child. They’d likely be thrilled to have their kids finish school, find good jobs and marry good partners. I wanted something more. Something else.
When I was six, my sister, Mary, let me leaf through her linen-bound, college textbook. H.W. Janson’s History of Art. Marveling at The School of Athens, a 16th century fresco by Raphael featuring the titans of Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, it occurred to me from that very young age, being learned in knowledge made one special. Introduced to Michaelangelo’s noble David, enraptured by Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, I thought, how fascinating to be steeped in history and culture. How wonderful it would be to travel through Europe one day and see classic art firsthand!
In contrast to Mom and Dad who never finished middle school, did not socialize with anyone except Chinese relatives, and absorbed what they knew from The New York Post or the 6pm broadcast of Eyewitness News, I wanted sophisticated, high-minded discourse with peers like Raphael’s dignified group of scholars—so stately in their trailing robes, so serious in their captured exchange. Theology, the Cahiers du Cinéma, or the naming of quarks–all of this seemed way more interesting to me than pedicures, how the sofa needs re-upholstering, or the latest lay-away plan to pay for some pricey item one couldn’t afford. This was what the ladies at the salon talked about the one time Mom indulged me with getting a real haircut in lieu of the trims she gave me at home. It had nothing to do with how much we earned (not much) but everything to do with taste. Though we lived fifteen miles from Manhattan, my neighborhood felt to me provincial and unrefined. We were not the School of Athens.
Riding the N was like journeying to the Emerald City. I didn’t think I would find what I wanted in Bay Ridge.
Strolling along 87th Street, each tuft of grass once reached my kneecaps! Cracks between pavers (which I avoided, lest I break Mom’s back) felt far apart as a football field. I see semi-detached houses with tended front gardens. Today, they look nondescript; back then, they resembled unattainable mansions. A Madonna and Child used to make me wonder why we never went to church. Vehicles laze in coveted driveways. Mom and Dad never owned a car; I only learned how to drive when I turned thirty. One house continues to list. Despite windows set straight, its lintels point down like angry eyebrows. It seems unhappy to rest on soft silt, as ours still does, hence our lopsided kitchen where I watched peas roll from one end to the other.
Turning the corner, I pass the two-story building where my father’s first cousin, Ai Bok, ran a Chinese laundry. Across the street is Chang Sim’s four-story tenement; her husband has also passed. I used to play punchball with her two daughters, Lai and Janet, my cousins, on the sidewalk in front of my house. Home plate was the round metal cap set flush in the pavement where the oil service re-filled our tank. First base was the recessed doors leading from the street to the cellar next to ours. Second base was a crack in the pavement. Third base was the bus stop sign. I can hear the pop of my puny fist hitting that Spaldeen. Running the bases had taken forever. Today, the distance seems so small.
I ring the bottom doorbell which still has Dad’s handwritten notice (Scotch-taped carefully to protect the ink bleeding from rain) announcing, “Ring both Door bells.” When Con Ed shows up to read the meter, the buzzer still sounds upstairs—a tree falling in silent woods.
Locks fumble. I am home.
* * *
“Hi, Dotty,” Mom says.
“Hi, Mom,” I say. We embrace. She greets me with her usual bustle.
On the kitchen island, I see tucked upright in a cut-open tissue box, envelopes salvaged from junk mail; Mom recycles these as note paper. A thermos contains pre-boiled water; she disdains fresh-from-the-tap. Dishes idle in the drying rack above the slim-line dishwasher I insisted on installing, which she has never bothered to use. “Too complicated,” she says. Beyond her homemade curtains, iron bars at the windows keep Mom secure. They always made me feel trapped. A wooden crossbar bars the door that leads to the rear yard. Dad had installed it to prevent break-ins. I spy the key to the padlock securing this door from the inside hanging limp from a metal hook.
“What happens if there’s a fire and it’s smoky?” I asked Mom once, concerned. “Why not keep the key in the lock?”
“Don’t worry,” Mom replied. “We have time.”
Seeing the worrisome key dangling there, I think, there is no more time.
The big difference in the living room is the assemblage of photos on foamcore which hangs on the wall. Before Dad’s wake, I organized this collage to be laser-printed at Kinko’s. Placed on an easel at the funeral home, the poster displayed to all in attendance the richness of his life. Looking at the images, I tick all the memories they conjure up.
Dad and Mom pose with infant Tom in front of the laundry they owned in the Bronx.
Dad waves to the camera on the Great Wall of China.
Dad grins in the midst of an apple orchard. Doffed in a tweed cap, he looks Provençal.
Dad cradles a grandchild in his lap with Mom. They look immensely happy and proud.
Dad is surrounded by his children and grandchildren at Peter Lugar’s. It’s the last photo taken of him. In August 2011, we met to celebrate Dad’s birthday. Squeezing ourselves into the frame, we grinned for the waiter and shouted, “Steak!” as he took our Hom portrait.
“Why do we get together for Gung Gung, not PoPo?” my daughter Chloe had asked.
Chloe called them: Maternal Grandfather, Maternal Grandmother. Mary’s and my children are descended from Mom and Dad’s daughters. We refer to my parents as PoPo and Gung Gung. But Tom’s children refer to them as Paternal Grandparents; they call them Yin Yin and YehYeh. In the traditional Chinese household, one’s relationship to the person who addresses you is highly specific and clear. My mother is Mom or Ma to me. She is PoPo to my daughters and Yin Yin to her daughter-in-law, Pam.
But what Chloe had pointed out was true. Mom’s importance took second place to her husband’s. Dad’s birthday was the date we organized our reunion around. We may have been too busy (or lazy) to schedule two get-togethers. Mom had been overlooked.
“Do you need any help?” I ask. She is bustling at the stove.
“No,” she replies. The table is already set. Chopsticks. Bowls. Paper napkins. I sit.
Scanning the spines on her bookshelf, my eyes rest on her copy of Dad’s autobiography, the one he hand wrote in English describing how he came to America as a Paper Son in 1936 (having memorized someone else’s identity), worked in his father’s Bleecker Street laundry, got drafted in WWII (but not seeing action), journeyed back to China to marry Mom in an arranged marriage, and returned to the US to start a new life as immigrants in the Bronx.
It occurs to me, no one has ever asked Mom how she felt getting hitched to Dad.
She serves a bowl of spaghetti mixed with vegetables. “Your girls good?” Mom asks.
“Sophie’s better. She adores her 7th grade English teacher, and Chloe’s made some good friends this year.” I babble on about safe topics: the weather, our cat, or in case she still watches the news, the current mayor of New York. I speak to my mother mostly in Chinese, ie: Taishanese, lapsing only when I don’t know the words or when I wish to be clear. Mom responds in kind: her Chinese to my pidgin Chinese, her pidgin English to my English. She struggles pronouncing DeBlasio. Although I like spending time with Mom, there are times I hesitate to go into detail. I assume she’s not sophisticated enough to understand.
Once in a while, I think I just might be wrong.
“So, Ma, how did you feel when you got married to Dad?”
It does not seem to surprise her I came out and asked. When I wonder where my forthrightness comes from, I think of how Mom never backed down from questioning the grocery cashier if she was overcharged by 5 cents.
“What?” Mom says. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, how did you feel?” I say, switching to English. “When the matchmaker introduced you to Dad?”
“I feel nothing.”
“What do you mean—nothing?”
“I don’t feel anything.”
“Well, were you nervous? Excited?”
“Most girls obey parents. Never argue. Not excited to get married. Can’t not excited—just follow. Can’t refuse. That’s the way it should be.” Mom sounds nonchalant and typically stoic. I wonder if she’s refusing to answer on purpose. She can’t be that robotic. Stumped, I try again.
“But, were you glad to be married off? To start a new life?”
“You have no choice. You listen to your mommy,” she insists. “You have no choice!”
Her voice trembles. Hiding my shock, I hesitate to ask more; she’s so rarely out of control.
“Only those girls in the village who went to school do what they want,” Mom continues. “More educated, understand more freedom. No education – a cocoon. Tie you up outside.”
Lines etching her tightly pressed lips indicate acceptance. Surrender. Regret.
Mom has been opinionated her entire life. Nothing makes her crazier than people on welfare. “God helps those who help themselves. I come to this country. Have nothing. I work hard. Why those people get free money?” Mom will express her conservative or risk-averse views. “Those transit workers shouldn’t go on strike. Make it hard to get to work!” or, “Why the government pay for First Lady to go on vacation?” or, “Don’t let your girls jump on trampoline. Did you hear? Some girl in Midwest fall. Now she paralyzed. Trampoline very dangerous!”
Wanting Mom’s opinions about marriage, I expected to hear if she thought Dad was good-looking, ie: a decent catch, or, if she felt relieved not to end up a spinster, or, if she felt excited at slipping on the wedding cheongsam. I wore this same red “Long Dress” at my own Chinese wedding banquet, a traditional celebration hosted by my parents for the benefit of our Chinese relatives. I never expected to hear…resignation.
Losing my father had made me think about all the things I thought were already resolved. Though I choose my partner, unlike Mom, and led a comfortable life, I had never shaken off the feeling that I was never quite myself. Sure, I had become successful. For my parents, I epitomized their American dream. Yet, throughout all these years, I could not help but wonder what I lost in return. The name-calling from Pineapple Bun ladies prod me to consider my sense of disconnect. Is there such a thing as assimilating too much? Of course, I could never be all things to all people. But niggling inside me ever since I was little was the incessant hope of reconciling my halves—the outwardly accomplished American versus the dutiful daughter who, ideally, would be effortless in most things Chinese.
Sitting there, pressing her with the difficult questions we so rarely ask of our parents, those “How did you really feel?” inquiries that probe the way a doctor examines a patient, seeking the source of an ailment, I had wanted to know what Mom really thought—about getting married to someone she had never met, about committing herself to a life overseas, about surviving in a foreign place where she could not even understand the language.
I realized just then, listening to her, my mother shared my sense of disconnect. While I felt like staring into a fishbowl, Mom has endured living in a bathyscope all these years.
Dad had written his story. No one has ever asked Mom for hers. Her whole life, Mom has suppressed her emotions. She could not envision anything beyond fulfilling a centuries-old, pre-ordained role. Be the subservient daughter. Be the compliant wife. Yet, a long time ago, Mom was a young girl like I used to be. Wishful. Curious. Naive.
I want to know my mother’s story.
There is so much for me to discover—not just about Mom, but about me.
“Ma, when you were born in China…” I begin, “tell me, what was your house like?”
Mom stops poking her gums and puts the toothpick, pointy end bent and moist, onto the table. Selecting a ballpoint pen, the type emblazoned with the name of a bank, she gropes in her tissue box for an envelope. She seems animated to draw something for me.
She seems glad that I asked.
Scratching little rectangles of blue ink, one after the other, Mom divides them with a lane.