We are the lucky ones, my mother reminds me after a freighter carrying 286 illegal immigrants from Fujian province crashed a quarter-mile off the coast of Rockaway, Queens. The Golden Venture ran aground in June 1993 after enduring a 112-day odyssey across 17,000 miles. The news of terrified men and women leaping into icy water in the middle of the night haunted us. Dozens of Chinese people attempted to swim ashore; five drowned and two died of a heart attack. Those that survived would most likely be deported. It sent tremors through the Chinese-American community. We felt both fortunate and foolish; fortunate for making it to this country, foolish for complaining about stifling work conditions, long hours and under the table wages that kept us from getting ahead.
I wipe my hands on the front of my tee-shirt, turning the red fabric a blotchy, crimson red. It’s cool against my belly. My fingertips are pale and prune-y from washing dishes.
Juo ka li, juo ka li, my mother says impatiently. Hurry, hurry.
She parks me on the couch in our living room and squats in front of the entertainment system, letting out a loud half-groan, half-sigh. The guttural sound reminds me of countryside Mainlanders from Wenzhou, squatting along unpaved streets. She works 10-14 hour days at the garment factory six, seven days a week with my stepfather.
Where’d they go? I ask in our native Wenzhounese dialect. They are my stepfather, half-brother and half-sister.
Their father took them somewhere. Why do you care, she says, inserting a VHS into the player.
I imagine my stepfather driving James and Dina to the Carvel on Francis Lewis Boulevard for ice cream or to my step-grandmother’s house on the other side of Queens.
We lived in Whitestone, a 20-minute drive from Flushing, Queens where the Chinese-immigrant population is surpassing that of Manhattan’s Chinatown. An immigrant from any province or city in China can be found among our diverse hotpot community. The only thing more impressive is that everyone seems to know everyone else, and everyone has an opinion. The Taiwanese think they are better than the Mainlanders from Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai; the Mainlanders think they are better than us, countryside folks from lowly, ignorant provinces of Fujian Fuzhou, Wenzhou.
My mother grabs the remote from the jade coffee table and flips through the channels, her pale arm illuminated in quick flashes of light from the TV. Usually after dinner, my mother and stepfather retire to their master bedroom, and James and Dina join them to watch Taiwanese sitcoms or movies until bedtime. I’m not allowed in. He’s not my real father, my mother explained, and certain things, therefore, are impossible.
What are we watching? I ask, equally excited and suspicious. I’m twelve years old and I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve spent together, just the two of us. In my experience, good things only happen to James and Dina.
Great-grandma’s funeral, she says, taking the opposite side of the U-shaped couch.
I make an “O” with my mouth before it’s drowned out by hoarse cries coming from the speakers. I hadn’t been told she was sick. My thighs peel off the couch when I shift, the leather sticky even though it’s been days since I waxed the couch with Kiwi Shoe polish, the same cylinder can I use for my parents’ shoes. I pull my knees up to my chest and wrap my arms around my legs. My mother abhors anything that is not lady-like so I resist the urge to stretch the shirt over my knees.
I’ve never seen a funeral on T.V. or in real life, and I haven’t been back to Wenzhou, China since I left at the age of seven. It’s been five years—the exact length of time my mother left me with my grandparents after my father passed away and she came to the United States for a better life.
I’m amazed by how unfamiliar Wenzhou seems to me now.
The funeral looks like a bad marching band with musicians playing discordantly and people crying. Brass gongs and drums of various sizes beat out of sync and the wailers sound like xiqu, Chinese opera singers. A man I don’t recognize marches solemnly, cradling a portrait-sized frame with a black and white photo of my great-grandmother. I barely recognize her. She’s not smiling in it. My mother never smiles in photos, either. Smiling gives you wrinkles and creases, she always tells me.
I start to ask when she died, but my mother tisks from between her teeth and I shut up.
I peek over at her. Her face is free of make up and the dark spots she’s conscientious of covering are invisible from where I sit. Her short hair, usually coiffed and bobbed, falls naturally around her sharp chin. Married off to my father at the age of seventeen and remarried by twenty-four, my mother is a hard, pragmatic woman whose survival instinct trumps any other need. There’s a flash of something white cupped in her boney hand. Her moist eyes reflect mourners holding a banner with thick strokes of black calligraphy that is both familiar and indecipherable. I can’t tell what is more startling; the “movie” or watching her dab the corners of her eyes with Kleenex.
I turn away from her, unsure of where to look. I pick at the crack in the armrest instead. The newly applied polish made the thin fracture slick to the touch. I run my finger along the web-like scar and the consistency is like rubbing tiger balm on an old wound.
My mother hates it when I cry. Tears mean weakness, and weakness is not allowed in her house. I suddenly feel unsafe and distant, marooned somewhere where my mother permits herself tears. Feelings are a luxury and luxury is left to those with fathers. In one motion, I lift and stretch my tee-shirt over my knees and cocoon my lower body.
Marriages and funerals in China are known to be the most extravagant milestones in a person’s life; families will often spend more than their means to show face. Hundreds of people have come to pay their respects to my great grandma. My extended family is wearing traditional funeral garb; a one-size-fits-all vest made of fine hay-like material, with a matching, comically pointy hat. The vests are pulled over loose unadorned white shirts and pants tied with a piece of raw twine that hangs awkwardly from the waist.
Buddhist funeral ceremonies last three days and my great-grandmother’s procession back in our native country is no different. I begin to wonder if my parents, aunts and uncles paid the mourners to come and cry. It’s commonly known that good wailers, the ones that weep and cry the loudest, are more expensive. I wonder if this VHS tape is ours or if we are on a rotation and need to give the video to the next relative once we are done with it.
Before my mother came to the U.S. on her own, and before she married my father, she—along with her four older siblings—grew up during the aftermath of China’s worst famine. When the Great Leap Forward started in 1958, Mao Zedong’s campaign was to grow the industrial sector through steel production in the city and collective agriculture in the rural areas. He migrated tens of millions of peasants and farmers to mine ore and limestone, to cut trees for charcoal and to smelt metal for major factories. Men that worked in rice patties all their lives went into jobs they had no expertise in, and when the senseless campaign started falling apart, officials fabricated numbers to save face and keep up appearances. Around the same time, meals were slowly confined to local communes. Coal was rationed, families were forbidden to cook at home or farm for themselves. Kitchens were raided for woks and cooking utensils. Once confiscated, pots and pans, along with farm equipment, bicycles and even door handles were melted for steel production.
To Mao Zedong, individual lives did not matter. With a bit of sacrifice—human lives—China could catch up with the Soviets, the Taiwanese, Great Britain and the United States. Actions were ostensibly taken for the greater good, for the transformation of China. According to Mao, the end justified the means. When the country began starving, there was not a single vegetable garden standing to soften the catastrophe. Since production had been mismanaged from the beginning and based on exaggerated grain numbers, it was also hidden from national and international news, and the world was unprepared for it. By the end of the campaign, an estimated 45 million farmers, peasants and wrong party-affiliated families had died.
By 1964, when my mother, the youngest of five kids was born, our family, like every other family, was deeply affected by Mao’s reign. There was a sense of dissociation and mistrust. Paranoia was as rampant as blind loyalty to Chairman Mao. Anyone that criticized or complained was immediately beaten, kidnapped, jailed or killed. When people went missing, no one dared whisper their name. To protect themselves, most acted like nothing was wrong. Appearances had to be kept. Even now, the topic of the Great Famine is taboo in China and no official records exist.
One of the only things my mother said about her youth was that it was a decade after the Great Famine, and yet, they were still starving. Even though we were in Queens by then, she whispered it as if she might be overheard. Things were said in secret or not at all. Denial, secrecy and paranoia are survival skills she no longer needs, but after years of habit, they are old friends that remain at her side.
The famine affected the women more than it did the men; women carried the weight of empty stomachs. Meat was saved for the men and milk from the local cow for the boys. The country was being told the economy was doing much better than it actually was. It was under these circumstances that my grandfather married my mother off to a man fifteen years her senior. He came from a well-known, middle-class family and would take care of her. When my mother protested, my grandfather’s final word on the subject was, “It’s one less mouth to feed.”
In China, a widow with a child was a bad omen. When my father passed away a year after I was born, her only asset, her piety and prospect as a wife, was gone. Suddenly, she found herself worse off than she’d started out. In the weeks following my father’s death, she put on a clean dress and carried me to his family’s house. It is customary for a man’s extended family to take in and provide for his widow and children.
Wenzhou summers are brutal and by the time she walked across town, she was dripping with sweat and dirt was caked to her skin. No one offered her water as we waited. The way my mother tells it, she set me down on a table with a large bowl of fruit. Food was scarce and fresh fruit was impossible to come by. It was common courtesy to hide what you had. When my aunt finally met us, I was playing with the bunch of bananas. She said they barely had enough for themselves and turned us away without offering me a single banana.
My mother lifts the tissue to her face.
Not all of the mourners are old, but they are the ones noticeably hunched over, in need of support. Slow in their trek, the azis and nie nies reach for the forearms of their grandchildren. The camera is drawn to them; there is a lifetime of hardship on their faces. It is hardship that my mother cannot fully shake and I cannot fully understand.
The camera lens focuses on someone I recognize, Nie nie wears the same white and straw uniform as the rest of the mourners. The stiff material shifts up her shoulders as two men help her stand and a discrete, kind hand reaches to pull her vest back down. But something seems out of place. Then it hits me: my grandmother has not lost weight, she has shrunk. I sink further in the plush leather couch. We haven’t seen each other in years, and it’s not only distance, but years that keep us from each other now.
Nie nie used to chase me around in the one bedroom above the nail shop my grandfather owned, her hands looped in the tiny arms of my pajamas. Bath time was always a feat, but what she lacked in energy she made up in patience. She’d let me run around wet and naked until I grew tired or cold. Then she’d get me.
Nie nie gave birth to two sons and three daughters through the worst of the famine and then kept them safe during the Cultural Revolution and the mobilization of the Red Guards. Azi made a living by selling individual nails and other essential hardware. He was a stoic, apolitical, gargoyle-like man that always had a smoke to offer a neighbor and yet, was calculating and stingy with his own children. With the money he gave her, Nie nie expertly haggled at the market, made her family’s clothes and spent most of her time in the kitchen with a butcher knife in hand. For special occasions, she spent days braising cow tongues and hearts and cleaning pig intestines so the flavor of meat could be stretched out to an entire week.
My mother rarely talks about her mother. When Azi married my mother off to my father, Nie nie did nothing to protect her. My mother didn’t blame her, but she grew hard where my grandmother remained soft. Nie nie did not make it her business to control how many hands of mahjong Azi played or to curb his smoking habits. In my mother’s eyes, her mother was weak. With a country controlled by fear and a stomach that was always empty, she watched her mother with rising anger and resentment. She kept her distance, believing my grandmother’s weakness contagious.
Looking at Nie nie’s face, I see our family’s features. Her forlorn expression reminds me of my uncle’s long face and muscular jaw, and the deep-set bags under her eyes make me think of my mother’s oldest sister. I search for the person who let me sleep on top of her chest every night, lulled by the steady rise and fall of her breathing. I search for Wenzhou; the morning chatter of villagers passing by the market, the feel of hot dirt between my bare toes and the sound of neighborhood boys squabbling. Her face tied all of it together. Nie nie looks directly into the camera and I want to shout out to her.
In my grandparents’ neighborhood in Wenzhou, older boys and boys my age often played card games in the unpaved streets. Girls can’t play, they told me. On the rare occasions they dealt me in and I beat them, I’d come home dirty and bruised. You don’t have any parents, they shouted bitterly after they lost. She’s never coming for you! I was quick to use my fists to make them pay. To sooth my anger and quiet my restlessness, Nie nie used to tell me about the life that awaited me. She sang Shi Shang Zhi You Mama Hao. Roughly translated, it went like this:
Mama is the best in the world
With a mom you have the most valuable treasure
Jump into your mom's heart
And you will find happiness!
Mama is the best in the world
Without your mom, you are like a blade of grass
Away from your mom's heart
Where will you find happiness?
Nie nie held me tight on her lap, her voice a yearning whisper in my ear. It was a different type of whisper, one that held hopes and dreams. My mother was going to come and take me to America. I would have a mother just like the kids in the village and get to see her everyday. We would live in a big beautiful house, in a city where the roads were paved with gold, the parks had playgrounds and the stores were filled with all kinds of toys and candy.
Like what kind? I would ask. And Nie nie would imagine for me.
Mei, beautiful. Gai, world. Mei Gai, America. The possibilities would be endless.
The reality in this red brick house in Queens is that my mother is constantly anxious about losing her new family because of her past. I fight with James, the son of my mother’s new family. When she’s not angry with me, my mother sits with my half-siblings on her lap, patiently feeding them from the tips of her chopsticks. She peels Asian pears, apples, grapefruit, lychee and cuts oranges, persimmons, star fruit, melon and places it all on a side plate. A small mountain of fruit.
When I was around James and Dina’s age, international calling cards were still costly, but my grandparents installed a phone so my mother could call every two weeks. There were only one or two other families with phones in the village and it was a big deal. Nie nie and I would wait all day on Saturdays or Sundays. When she finally called, the service went in and out, and the static seemed to worsen with the shouting. Are you behaving? Are you listening to... static. Did you try on the new dress... static. I hated dresses. I liked riding my tricycle. Putting on the dress meant taking a bath first, and then I wouldn’t be allowed to go outside afterwards. The boys would laugh at me. As soon as I could get off the phone, I ran outside and left my grandmother shouting across the Pacific.
Nie nie was the one who pulled my weedy hair into a tight ponytail every morning. She was there when all the children in the village were plagued with intestinal worms. She watched over me as I squatted, shitting worms that still squirmed in the dirt. Seeing Nie nie on the video, I was seized by an overwhelming feeling that things were wrong; backwards. Suddenly I didn't care about all the opportunities here in America, I wanted my grandmother back.
It wasn’t until 1991, the year rainfall and floods in eastern China caused a reported 3,000 deaths in the Anhui, Jiangsu and Henan provinces, that my mother finally reappeared in my life. I was seven years old.
On the day my mother returned to Wenzhou to get me, the heels of her stilettos echoed sharply down the long corridor of Wenzhou Yongqiang International Airport. Her hair was fashionably cropped, dyed and styled, her face freshly made up. Somehow after an 18-hour flight, she was wearing pressed business slacks and an impossibly starched shirt.
Azi, Nie nie, and I had all bathed from water heated on the stove that day. We had combed our hair and gotten dressed up. We spent half the day traveling to the city by boat and then by bus, and it was the first time I had ever seen my grandparents turned around and lost.
When my mother walked out of the arrival gate in three inch black heels, I didn’t recognize her. Like China’s disillusioned leader, she sacrificed for a greater good and then, she was transformed. She had been away long enough to learn to dress well and leave behind her countryside manners. Azi called it “acting big.”
It isn’t customary for adults to be physical, so my mother only exchanged words with her father and reached for her mother’s hand. I hid behind my Nie nie’s black slacks until my mother squatted down and we were eye level with each other. She told me to come out. I recognized the static voice, but still held tightly to Nie nie’s leg. You know me, my mother said over and over.
Buddhists believe certain things are transferrable to the afterlife, so funerals are a necessary display of earthly wealth. Stacks of fake gold money for burning overflow nearby tables, tall sticks of smoking incense carry prayers high into the heavens, and bowls of fresh oranges and tiny cups of rice wine are set to satiate the Gods. Silk quilts of red, green and gold are laid one on top of another, as if my great-grandmother, who never had such extravagance in life, would suddenly need it in death. And then the camera focuses in and I see her; a tiny, still woman in plain black qipao resting in a rich maroon casket, hands positioned one on top of the other.
Visiting my great-grandmother had meant long days, spoiled appetites and unrestricted bike rides. When I was six and seven, sometimes Nie nie needed a break from my back talk, need for attention and constant hunger for love. I didn’t mind. Out closer to the mountains, with fewer people around, it seemed to matter less that my father was dead and my mother had abandoned me. I’d pedal my way up the mountain behind my great-grandmother’s sparse cottage, where a lush green world of wild peach and lychee awaited. I returned sticky-mouthed and exhausted, a tiny recycled plastic bag of fruit dangling from the handle of my tricycle.
Ai yo ah, my great-grandmother would say. Did you trouble Mr. Y again? Suddenly I remembered she didn’t like it when I accepted fruit from Mr. Y, who only tolerated me because I was her great-granddaughter. They had been friends their entire lives; Mr. Y protected the mountain and took care of orchards. I explained quickly that I actually found the fruit on the side of the road. After averting my eyes, I let the slippery lychee pit slide from one pocket of my cheek to the other. It still tasted like mountain and sweet water. My gritty nails were brown and crusted from cracking open lychees. When I dared to look back at her, her thick gray bun, piled smoothly behind her ears, was nodding and her lips were parted in laughter.
In the distance, I think I can make out groves of wild lychee trees swaying back and forth in the video, waving. It’s turning into a windy day there—I can hear the harsh rasping of air against the sound equipment. Barrels of tin cans burning gold paper money send thick trails of smoke upward to the Buddhas.
Where are your feelings? my mother asks, speaking for the first time since she sat down. Don’t you remember them?
The sweet earthy taste of lychee rises from deep in my throat, flooding to the bitter corners of my tongue. She scrunches the only evidence of her feelings deep into the palm of her hand and stands up. The way she moves tells me I have disappointed her. It takes me a moment to understand she’s accusing me of not having any feelings.
Hurry up, they’ll be back soon, she presses.
I can’t tell if she’s referring to my stepfather and half siblings or my feelings. Why do we have to hurry? Why did we have to wait until they were out of the house to watch my great-grandmother’s funeral? I think about what we have left behind in order to move forward. I think about the distance that remains between us when we stand only a few feet away from one another. She squats down to the entertainment center and ejects the tape.
You have things to do, she reminds me. I am trying to catch up to her, to the way she compartmentalizes her feelings, the way she’s learned to survive, and who she wants me to be.
The raw T.V. static is the only sound between us. It leaves me among four generations of women: my great-grandmother resting on the mountain where she spent her whole life; my grandmother above the nail store where she raised five children and a grandchild; my mother; and me. I thought everything would be possible once my mother and I were together. It is all exactly as promised; a nice school, a beautiful house, green parks, paved roads and a mother.
But she has an entire list, things we have to do and be to keep our place. She spent years building a new life, and now, she holds onto it as if she’s afraid it will crumble under the added pressure of her scarlet letter. She has set a clear, invisible line, and we must all adhere to it. Everything has a place in the house, dinner must consist of four dishes with meat and soup and my stepfather and his son must be held up on a pedestal. If she does all of this correctly, we’ll be able to stay.
She’s escaped one set of confines only to create another. She does not see that she is the one that cannot accept me into her new family, and they—my stepfather, my half-brother and half-sister—follow her lead. By isolating me, she isolates herself; we are one and the same. If they cannot accept me, they cannot accept a part of her.
My place with my mother, the one Nie nie and I imagined together for years, is a false one. Yet I still want her to treat me the way Nie nie did. I expect her to make up for the time we lost together and I resent the reality she presents—that I am living on the charity of my stepfather. In different ways every day, she tells me I am a drain on her resources, a burden, an extra mouth to feed. I have yet to learn that she’s not capable of giving me more or seeing it in any other way, and all she can do is pass on anxieties and fears as she experiences them.
I swallow the taste of lychees three times, as if prostrating before the image of my great-grandmother and paying my respect. My mother turns and waits expectantly in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. The salt and pepper static of the T.V. casts her in flashes of underexposed silhouettes. I slide my legs out from under my shirt and turn off the static before following her shadow into the kitchen.
Anna Qu was born in Wenzhou, China, but considers herself a native New Yorker. Her nonfiction essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, XOJane, Jezebel, and other publications. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives and works in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a memoir. Her work can be found at AnnaQu.com.