The world was too new for you. You lacked words and understanding. Flailing fists and splitting cries, you made your suffering known.
In those first days of your life, we lived on the grounds of the Tianjin New Star Textiles Factory, in a square room with a bed and table. The paper-thin walls conducted the cacophony of lives. Woks hissed and beds squeaked. You wailed, but our neighbors were kind. “She is a singer,” said Old Man Lin, insisting that your cries didn’t bother him when we visited for the Mid-Autumn.
Your father spent most of his time at the Factory, but I didn’t mind. It gave me time to be alone with you, to study the dimple in your cheek, the silk of your feet. One flesh cleaved in two. Wo de nu er. My daughter.
Somewhere I heard that if you looked at beautiful girls, your daughter would be beautiful, so I cut pictures of pretty women from magazines and taped them above our bed. I studied those photos, even held you up close so you could see them too, because I believed then that if you wanted something badly enough the universe might pay attention, might mold your wanting into reality, and I wanted you to be beautiful. Beautiful girls attracted the best husbands, and a good husband was the key to a good life.
I read that if you ate walnuts your breast milk would produce a compound that made your child clever, so I went from vendor to vendor until finally I found someone who sold me a half-kilo for two weeks’ salary. “Foolish woman. How could you be so wasteful?” your father said when I returned with nothing from the market other than that bag of walnuts. But I was happy. I ate the half-kilo in three days, munching on the walnuts even after they started to taste like chalk and blister my mouth.
Your father was right. I was foolish. Wasteful. I spent my energy asking the universe to give me a beautiful, smart daughter who could make it far in life, who could achieve things. I forgot to ask the universe to teach you respect, and now you are a daughter who hangs up on her own mother.
This morning you called to announce your engagement. Now I am cleaning the kitchen. Spraying solution, wiping away grease with rags cut from your old college t-shirts. It is important to keep a tidy house, a clean kitchen.
You surprised me. In that moment, all I could think to say was: “Who, the white guy from Thanksgiving?” And of course you became angry, spat his name in pieces (“Mack. En. Zie!”) “Don’t shout,” I said, but this only made you angrier. Why couldn’t I just be happy for you like a normal mom, you demanded.
I said the only thing I could think of to say. “Ni zenme gan.” How dare you. “Tell me. As a mother, how have I wronged you, for you to talk to me this way?” I asked you in Chinese, even though you only ever speak to me in English, a language that cripples my tongue. In my 58 years, I have seen many things: a new country, a new life. I’ve scrubbed toilets and waited tables, all for you. For you, I left my parents, could not even return to my mother’s side when she died. I may not have been a worthy daughter—but never while my mother was alive did I ever raise my voice to her, ever accuse her of being not normal.
You didn’t say much in reply, just that you had things to do (you always have so much to do) and hung up the phone. But our conversation wasn’t finished. We’d hardly begun. Tell me, can you really marry this man without hearing all that your mother has to say?
When your mind is busy, you must occupy your hands, your feet. You must not stop moving. And so I vacuum even though I did so yesterday, painting beige chevrons into the tan carpet, willing the machine’s roar to drown out the din in my head.
Your father hated watching me clean, so he kept to himself after you left home for college. By the time he died, our paths only intersected at mealtimes or on our way to our bedrooms. Still, it comforted me to know that there was someone who depended on this house other than me.
This house was the only thing I ever asked for from your father. “Aiya, when you don’t earn, you don’t know how hard money is to come by,” he protested. But how can I explain something like this to you? Our first home in this country was a basement shared with three other Chinese couples, split into quadrants by sheets. This house was something to show for everything that came before. An exterior carved of stone and brick. Inside, the master bedroom had a walk-in closet that was larger than our first four homes in America; there were marble floors in the bathroom and a travertine backsplash in the kitchen; skylights poured sunshine into an open den. It was everything we imagined a life in America to be.
Your father relented. For this, I am grateful. The house keeps me company, gives this aging woman something to do. Something to care for.
On the living room mantle are each of your class photos, arranged in order from your toothy elementary years to your college graduation in cap and gown. I pick each up and dust them off before returning them to their place. You’re smiling in all but the one from tenth grade. In that one, your lips are a line, your eyes blank buttons. You had broken up with your first love and had made me promise not to tell your father. It never would have occurred to me in the first place. He would have been furious—both at the boy and at you, for dating at such a young age—and we both would have borne his anger.
That was when you still told me things. Last Thanksgiving was the first I’d ever even heard of Mackenzie. I was surprised to learn that you’d met him before your father died, had in fact been with this man for over a year by the time you told me. “I didn’t want you to freak out,” you explained. Freak out—what a thing to imagine.
I began preparing weeks beforehand, washing your linens and cleaning the house, gathering ingredients for your favorite childhood dishes—hongshao rou and mapo tofu and egg and tomato—and watching video tutorials of the American dishes that I’d have to learn for Mackenzie’s sake.
By way of introduction, Mackenzie clamped my hand and shook hard. He called me by your father’s last name and presented me with several bottles of wine, one of which you two drank at dinner and the others of which now sit on the kitchen counter, something to look at but not something I will ever drink. He wore a button-down shirt and a blazer, like something your father might wear to a conference. He looked to be much older than your 31 years, but I found out later that he was only 32. I can never tell how old white people are.
At the dinner table, you sat next to him, across from me. I couldn’t help but think that you two looked not at all alike. Say what you will about my post-natal superstitions; I believe that staring at those pictures of pretty girls turned you into one of them. You looked lovely that night. Your black hair shone, fell in sheets around your shoulders. Your cheeks were rosy with blush, your skin clear and bright. Next to you, Mackenzie looked slimy, dishonest. His gel-slicked hair was greasy, unclean, and if he weren’t so tall—over one point eight meters, by my estimation—he’d have been positively fat.
He barely ate and kept his phone on the table, screen facing up. “I’m sorry, work,” he said each time it buzzed, but I could tell his mind was never on the question posed to him, nor the answer he gave in reply. I gleaned that he was a lawyer, and you had met him online. He came from money and spent it on things it had never occurred to me to want, like designer shoes and gaudy watches. I could see he had taught you how to enjoy wine, which you now swirled and smelled in your glass before drinking. You had not taught him how to use chopsticks and did not encourage him to sample your favorite Chinese foods. You seemed to eat less of it yourself.
At one point, you were telling me that Mackenzie had gone to Harvard and was making over $300,000 at the most prestigious law firm in New York. “Enough of that,” he interrupted, disdain clouding his expression. Inside of me a flare of anger unfurled towards this man, this stranger, who thought he had the right to tell my daughter what was or wasn’t beneath her. The first Christmas party I went to with your father, when I struggled to return the other wives’ compliments of my hair, of my dress, he muttered “bie shuole.” “Stop talking, or else get better at English,” before turning his attention back to his boss. Leaving me with my clumsy words stuck in my mouth like a gluey dumpling.
At the Thanksgiving table, I bit my tongue and swallowed my food. I didn’t want to embarrass you, so I pretended not to notice that you had stopped talking. Instead, I offered you some tofu. Here, daughter, I wanted to say. Mama knows what it’s like to be told by a man, to shut up, to stop being an embarrassment. Mama knows. Have some tofu.
Later that evening, we argued.
“He’s dismissive, rude,” I said. “He barely ate, barely listens. Something’s not right with him.”
“Ma, you’re being sensitive,” you said. “He’s stressed because of work. And you have to know it’s not easy to talk to you.”
“What do you mean, not easy to talk to me?”
“I don’t mean anything, Ma. I’m just saying it’s not easy to talk to you when you don’t really speak English.”
“Speak English? Speak English? Why don’t you speak Chinese?”
“Ma, I don’t want to fight.”
“Who is fighting? I’m not fighting. You’re the one trying to fight with your own mother! I’m just trying to tell you the truth about this man. Fatty barely listens when you talk, how can he make you happy?”
“Fatty? Mom, what’s wrong with you? Why would you call him that?”
“Speak Chinese! I call him Fatty because that’s what he is. He’s fat. What’s the problem? What, now you won’t even let me say the most obvious of truths?”
“Please don’t call him that.”
“I’ll call him whatever I want. Don’t you realize, Mama is telling you all this for your own good? Fatty doesn’t listen to you when you talk, how can he make you happy? I can tell just by looking at him that he doesn’t love you!”
“Ma, what do you know about love?”
And I slapped you. “No one else in this entire world will tell you the truth, because no one else in this world loves you more than your mother. You hear me? No one loves you more than your mother! I’m telling you never to give up your life for a man, and this is how you repay me?” You left then, slamming my bedroom door on your way out, one palm covering the redness blooming on your right cheek.
I regretted it instantly. The pain of your cheek stung my palm. But in that moment, I saw a lifetime of you waiting for Mackenzie to turn from his phone; I saw you being told to bie shuole. Stop talking. Do you know how hard a lifetime of not talking is? Do you know how hard a lifetime of waiting is?
When you were small, your father liked to take you to museums or to the park, leaving me behind to prepare the meals. Once, you two were gone well past our usual dinner time, long after I had laid out dinner on the table. It was six o’clock, then seven, then eight, and I sat watching the steam rising off the food grow wispier and wispier until it dissipated, leaving only cold food hardening under the yellow glow of the kitchen light. I was worried; in those days there was no way to reach you, no number to call. When you finally came back, you were flushed with excitement, bursting with stories about the great day you’d had: you’d learned that dinosaurs had been killed by an asteroid millions of years ago, you’d seen fossils and a full-size restored mammoth, freeze-frozen in a glacier, its meal still digesting in its belly. After the museum, your father had taken you for dinner and you’d ordered a cheeseburger with onion rings, and the waitress had been so delighted by your excitement that she’d brought you a sundae, free of charge. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked your father. “It’s just like you, to begrudge me a day with my own daughter,” he said, and then started saying something to you in English.
I looked at you, only seven years old, but still, I thought, old enough to notice your mother sitting under the unforgiving yellow kitchen light, the food sitting limply in front of me. I thought maybe you’d notice what I had long ceased to expect from your father. But you were too young to notice, and I was foolish for hoping you would.
I’ve finished cleaning the kitchen, the great room, all the corridors and the bedrooms. I want to pick up the phone, to tell you that Mama shouldn’t have hurt you the evening I met Mackenzie. Mama did it because she doesn’t want you to ever sit at a kitchen table, waiting for a man to get off his phone. To allow you to speak. And now my hands and feet are idle. I wonder: if I told you this now, would you listen?
The final room to put in order is your father’s. It has too much space for the few pieces of furniture it holds. The air in the room is stagnant. I move quickly, stripping away the old sheets and pillowcases, replacing them with freshly laundered ones.
I wasn’t ready to be a widow, to stop being a wife. It happened without warning, on a Wednesday morning like any other. He had been at work for a few hours when I received a call that made me drop the glass I had been holding, spilling water over the carpet. I didn’t ask his secretary how she found him. Who wants to know the details of how someone goes? Just to know that it had been a heart attack, that it had been painless and quick—this was sufficient for me.
Not for you, though. I watched you at the wake, fingers intertwined with the secretary’s, hungrily pulling details of his final moments, as if through her retelling you could somehow be there with him, to guide him home. It occurred to me, watching you, that I should be the one feeling this way, hungry to know how he left, wishing I could have been there with him. But I didn’t feel this way. I didn’t know what to feel. I couldn’t cry. What good would that have done? In the end, doesn’t death escort each of us out its long corridor, alone?
Our guests saw my dry eyes and stony face, and they thought me strong. But you didn’t think me strong. At the end of the night, when it was just the two of us, it was time to discuss your father’s will. “Your father has some assets that I’m going to need help accessing,” is what I said—and I watched as a curtain drew over your face, clouds over your eyes.
“Right now? This, after everything, is what you choose to talk about?”
“What else do you want to talk about?”
“Baba just died, and this is what you want to talk about right now? I know it’s too much to ask you to feel a thing for him, but you could at least try. What did he do to you, to cause you to be so hateful to him?” In an instant, you had transformed from my daughter to my enemy, set out to destroy me. All the things I never said to him, I said to you. I couldn’t help myself.
“There are no daughters in the world like you. You are no daughter to me. You know nothing about me, and who are you to assume! You’re just like him. You’re nothing like me. You’re not my daughter, you’re not my daughter!” I said, and as you turned to leave the tears finally came to me.
This morning you called to announce your engagement. Now the sun sets, casting your father’s room in faded oranges, tired reds. There is nothing left for me to clean, nothing left for me to do. I sit on your father’s bed and look out the window, around the room, at my hands.
My hands move on their own, feeling for the phone that I’ve kept in my pocket. I hoped that you would call, but the screen shows what I’ve known would be there all along: no missed calls, no new messages.
Once, we were one flesh, now we are cleaved in two. You once cried to me your secrets, and now you hang up on me.
If I could ask the universe for anything, it would be a common tongue, a way for us to speak to each other, to just talk, about everything, about anything: how to make mapo tofu, or a funny thing that happened at work. There would be no need to talk about anything in particular, a great comfort in sharing the mundane. Over time the mundane might swell and give way to something greater, until one morning you’d call to announce your engagement and I’d respond, “Who, that white guy from Thanksgiving?” and you’d laugh with affection and chide your silly old mother.
You’d ask me what I thought of him, and I’d pause for a moment before saying: nu er, only you know if this man is right for you or not. Mama only knows he doesn’t eat Chinese food and thinks you shouldn’t talk about things that are beneath you.
I hope that he loves you—but I worry he doesn’t. I imagine him as a doting father, a distant husband. I imagine him speaking with your daughter in a secret language, sharing favorite foods and refusing your tofu. Maybe you’ll say something that embarrasses them, something that betrays that you are not one of them. Maybe it will grow to be too much for you, so over time you crawl into a carapace of your own making to protect yourself from the loneliness of it all.
Maybe in that private carapace you build for yourself a world in which you don’t need love. You convince yourself that the watery depths of the ocean aren’t that different from the vast expanse of the sky. Why breathe, if you can just hold your breath, is what you tell yourself, over and over, until you believe in your bones that there is no difference between breath and no breath.
Or maybe all of this is just nonsense and Mackenzie loves you in a way your silly old ma doesn’t know anything about. Maybe he loves you so much that you begin to see the fullness of your beauty, the greatness of your being. You revel in the bits of each other that you see in your daughter, and the three of you travel through life together like a pack of wolves, confident in each other, unafraid. And when one day, your husband dies before you do, nothing can be said to make the pain more bearable, so neither of you says anything but you cry and you cry and in each other’s arms, you make your suffering known.
This is how our conversation would go, if we could start this over from the beginning of time, when you laid your head, no larger than a plum, on my breast, and filled me with wonder. Now again, I am filled with a sort of wonder, though it is less joy and more pain. I peer across the chasm that seems always to trap the words I want to say, and wonder if there’s hope that this time, we might set things right.
I look down at my hands gripping the phone. I begin to dial your number.
Stacey Wang is a lifelong writer and reader whose fiction focuses on universal stories told from the Asian-American lens. She graduated from Duke University and Harvard Law School. She currently lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and three cats.