The Joy Luck Club
Copyright © 1989 by Amy Tan
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ISBN: 0-7953-1073-0
To my mother
and the memory of her mother
You asked me once
what I would remember.
This, and much more.
The author is grateful to her weekly writers’ group for kindness and criticism during the writing of
this book. Special thanks also to Louis DeMattei, Robert Foothorap, Gretchen Schields, Amy
Hempel, Jennifer Barth, and my family in China and America. And a thousand flowers each to
three people whom I have had the joy and the luck to know: my editor, Faith Sale, for her belief in
this book; my agent, Sandra Dijkstra, for saving my life; and my teacher, Molly Giles, who told me
to start over again and then patiently guided me to the end.
Feathers From a Thousand LI Away
Jing-Mei Woo: The Joy Luck Club
An-Mei Hsu: Scar
Lindo Jong: The Red Candle
Ying-Ying St. Clair: The Moon Lady
The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates
Waverly Jong: Rules of the Game
Lena St. Clair: The Voice from the Wall
Rose Hsu Jordan: Half and Half
Jing-Mei Woo: Two Kinds
American Translation
Lena St. Clair: Rice Husband
Waverly Jong: Four Directions
Rose Hsu Jordan: Without Wood
Jing-Mei Woo: Best Quality
Queen Mother of the Western Skies
An-Mei Hsu: Magpies
Ying-Ying St. Clair: Waiting Between the Trees
Lindo Jong: Double Face
Jing-Mei Woo: A Pair of Tickets
The Joy Luck Club
Suyuan Woo
An-mei Hsu
Lindo Jong
Ying-ying St. Clair
Jing-mei “June” Woo
Rose Hsu Jordan
Waverly Jong
Lena St. Clair
Born in 1952 in Oakland, California to Chinese immigrant parents, Amy Tan followed her own
path. Over the objections of her mother, she majored in college in writing and linguistics and
pursued a career in business writing.
Any Tan’s relationship with her mother was very difficult. An opportunity to travel with her
mother back to China brought a new perspective.
Amy Tan’s first fiction efforts were short stories. These attracted an agent, Sandra Dijkstra, who
sold what became The Joy Luck Club to Putnam’s. When published in 1986 The Joy Luck Club
spent 40 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list. It was nominated for the National Book
Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a recipient of the Commonwealth
Gold Award and the Bay Area Book Award. The Joy Luck Club was adapted into a feature film in
1994, for which Amy Tan was a co-screenwriter with Ron Bass and a co-producer with Bass and
Wayne Wang.
A stunning literary achievement, The Joy Luck Club explores the tender and tenacious bond
between four daughters and their mothers. The daughters know one side of their mothers, but they
don’t know about their earlier never-spoken of lives in China. The mothers want love and
obedience from their daughters, but they don’t know the gifts that the daughters keep to themselves.
Heartwarming and bittersweet, this is a novel for mother, daughters, and those that love them.
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Feathers From a Thousand LI Away
The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a
foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in
hopes of becoming a goose, and now look!—it is too beautiful to eat.
Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide,
stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: “In America I
will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the
loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make
her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow
any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan—a creature that
became more than what was hoped for.”
But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away
from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory.
And then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left
Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and
swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give
her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it
comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year after year,
for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.
Jing-Mei Woo
The Joy Luck Club
My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother,
whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago. My father thinks
she was killed by her own thoughts.
“She had a new idea inside her head,” said my father. “But before it could come out of her
mouth, the thought grew too big and burst. It must have been a very bad idea.”
The doctor said she died of a cerebral aneurysm. And her friends at the Joy Luck Club said
she died just like a rabbit: quickly and with unfinished business left behind. My mother was
supposed to host the next meeting of the Joy Luck Club.
The week before she died, she called me, full of pride, full of life: “Auntie Lin cooked red
bean soup for Joy Luck. I’m going to cook black sesame-seed soup.”
“Don’t show off,” I said.
“It’s not showoff.” She said the two soups were almost the same, chabudwo. Or maybe she
said butong, not the same thing at all. It was one of those Chinese expressions that means the better
half of mixed intentions. I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.
My mother started the San Francisco version of the Joy Luck Club in 1949, two years before I was
born. This was the year my mother and father left China with one stiff leather trunk filled only with
fancy silk dresses. There was no time to pack anything else, my mother had explained to my father
after they boarded the boat. Still his hands swam frantically between the slippery silks, looking for
his cotton shirts and wool pants.
When they arrived in San Francisco, my father made her hide those shiny clothes. She wore
the same brown-checked Chinese dress until the Refugee Welcome Society gave her two hand-medown dresses, all too large in sizes for American women. The society was composed of a group of
white-haired American missionary ladies from the First Chinese Baptist Church. And because of
their gifts, my parents could not refuse their invitation to join the church. Nor could they ignore the
old ladies’ practical advice to improve their English through Bible study class on Wednesday
nights and, later, through choir practice on Saturday mornings. This was how my parents met the
Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs. My mother could sense that the women of these families also
had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express
in their fragile English. Or at least, my mother recognized the numbness in these women’s faces.
And she saw how quickly their eyes moved when she told them her idea for the Joy Luck Club.
Joy Luck was an idea my mother remembered from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin,
before the Japanese came. That’s why I think of Joy Luck as her Kweilin story. It was the story she
would always tell me when she was bored, when there was nothing to do, when every bowl had
been washed and the Formica table had been wiped down twice, when my father sat reading the
newspaper and smoking one Pall Mall cigarette after another, a warning not to disturb him. This is
when my mother would take out a box of old ski sweaters sent to us by unseen relatives from
Vancouver. She would snip the bottom of a sweater and pull out a kinky thread of yarn, anchoring
it to a piece of cardboard. And as she began to roll with one sweeping rhythm, she would start her
story. Over the years, she told me the same story, except for the ending, which grew darker, casting
long shadows into her life, and eventually into mine.
“I dreamed about Kweilin before I ever saw it,” my mother began, speaking Chinese. “I dreamed
of jagged peaks lining a curving river, with magic moss greening the banks. At the tops of these
peaks were white mists. And if you could float down this river and eat the moss for food, you
would be strong enough to climb the peak. If you slipped, you would only fall into a bed of soft
moss and laugh. And once you reached the top, you would be able to see everything and feel such
happiness it would be enough to never have worries in your life ever again.
“In China, everybody dreamed about Kweilin. And when I arrived, I realized how shabby my
dreams were, how poor my thoughts. When I saw the hills, I laughed and shuddered at the same
time. The peaks looked like giant fried fish heads trying to jump out of a vat of oil. Behind each
hill, I could see shadows of another fish, and then another and another. And then the clouds would
move just a little and the hills would suddenly become monstrous elephants marching slowly
toward me! Can you see this? And at the root of the hill were secret caves. Inside grew hanging
rock gardens in the shapes and colors of cabbage, winter melons, turnips, and onions. These were
things so strange and beautiful you can’t ever imagine them.
“But I didn’t come to Kweilin to see how beautiful it was. The man who was my husband
brought me and our two babies to Kweilin because he thought we would be safe. He was an
officer with the Kuomintang, and after he put us down in a small room in a two-story house, he
went off to the northwest, to Chungking.
“We knew the Japanese were winning, even when the newspapers said they were not. Every
day, every hour, thousands of people poured into the city, crowding the sidewalks, looking for
places to live. They came from the East, West, North, and South. They were rich and poor,
Shanghainese, Cantonese, northerners, and not just Chinese, but foreigners and missionaries of
every religion. And there was, of course, the Kuomintang and their army officers who thought they
were top level to everyone else.
“We were a city of leftovers mixed together. If it hadn’t been for the Japanese, there would
have been plenty of reason for fighting to break out among these different people. Can you see it?
Shanghai people with north-water peasants, bankers with barbers, rickshaw pullers with Burma
refugees. Everybody looked down on someone else. It didn’t matter that everybody shared the
same sidewalk to spit on and suffered the same fast-moving diarrhea. We all had the same stink,
but everybody complained someone else smelled the worst. Me? Oh, I hated the American air
force officers who said habba-habba sounds to make my face turn red. But the worst were the
northern peasants who emptied their noses into their hands and pushed people around and gave
everybody their dirty diseases.
“So you can see how quickly Kweilin lost its beauty for me. I no longer climbed the peaks to
say, How lovely are these hills! I only wondered which hills the Japanese had reached. I sat in the
dark corners of my house with a baby under each arm, waiting with nervous feet. When the sirens
cried out to warn us of bombers, my neighbors and I jumped to our feet and scurried to the deep
caves to hide like wild animals. But you can’t stay in the dark for so long. Something inside of you
starts to fade and you become like a starving person, crazy-hungry for light. Outside I could hear
the bombing. Boom! Boom! And then the sound of raining rocks. And inside I was no longer hungry
for the cabbage or the turnips of the hanging rock garden. I could only see the dripping bowels of
an ancient hill that might collapse on top of me. Can you imagine how it is, to want to be neither
inside nor outside, to want to be nowhere and disappear?
“So when the bombing sounds grew farther away, we would come back out like newborn
kittens scratching our way back to the city. And always, I would be amazed to find the hills against
the burning sky had not been torn apart.
“I thought up Joy Luck on a summer night that was so hot even the moths fainted to the ground,
their wings were so heavy with the damp heat. Every place was so crowded there was no room for
fresh air. Unbearable smells from the sewers rose up to my second-story window and the stink had
nowhere else to go but into my nose. At all hours of the night and day, I heard screaming sounds. I
didn’t know if it was a peasant slitting the throat of a runaway pig or an officer beating a half-dead
peasant for lying in his way on the sidewalk. I didn’t go to the window to find out. What use would
it have been? And that’s when I thought I needed something to do to help me move.
“My idea was to have a gathering of four women, one for each corner of my mah jong table. I
knew which women I wanted to ask. They were all young like me, with wishful faces. One was an
army officer’s wife, like myself. Another was a girl with very fine manners from a rich family in
Shanghai. She had escaped with only a little money. And there was a girl from Nanking who had
the blackest hair I have ever seen. She came from a low-class family, but she was pretty and
pleasant and had married well, to an old man who died and left her with a better life.
“Each week one of us would host a party to raise money and to raise our spirits. The hostess
had to serve special dyansyin foods to bring good fortune of all kinds—dumplings shaped like
silver money ingots, long rice noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of
course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life.
“What fine food we treated ourselves to with our meager allowances! We didn’t notice that
the dumplings were stuffed mostly with stringy squash and that the oranges were spotted with
wormy holes. We ate sparingly, not as if we didn’t have enough, but to protest how we could not
eat another bite, we had already bloated ourselves from earlier in the day. We knew we had
luxuries few people could afford. We were the lucky ones.
“After filling our stomachs, we would then fill a bowl with money and put it where everyone
could see. Then we would sit down at the mah jong table. My table was from my family and was
of a very fragrant red wood, not what you call rosewood, but hong mu, which is so fine there’s no
English word for it. The table had a very thick pad, so that when the mah jong pai were spilled
onto the table the only sound was of ivory tiles washing against one another.
“Once we started to play, nobody could speak, except to say ‘Pung!’ or ‘Chr!’ when taking a
tile. We had to play with seriousness and think of nothing else but adding to our happiness through
winning. But after sixteen rounds, we would again feast, this time to celebrate our good fortune.
And then we would talk into the night until the morning, saying stories about good times in the past
and good times yet to come.
“Oh, what good stories! Stories spilling out all over the place! We almost laughed to death. A
rooster that ran into the house screeching on top of dinner bowls, the same bowls that held him
quietly in pieces the next day! And one about a girl who wrote love letters for two friends who
loved the same man. And a silly foreign lady who fainted on a toilet when firecrackers went off
next to her.
“People thought we were wrong to serve banquets every week while many people in the city
were starving, eating rats and, later, the garbage that the poorest rats used to feed on. Others
thought we were possessed by demons—to celebrate when even within our own families we had
lost generations, had lost homes and fortunes, and were separated, husband from wife, brother
from sister, daughter from mother. Hnnnh! How could we laugh, people asked.
“It’s not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries.
But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already
unbearable. How much can you wish for a favorite warm coat that hangs in the closet of a house
that burned down with your mother and father inside of it? How long can you see in your mind
arms and legs hanging from telephone wires and starving dogs running down the streets with halfchewed hands dangling from their jaws? What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and
wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness?
“So we decided to hold parties and pretend each week had become the new year. Each week
we could forget past wrongs done to us. We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted,
we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could
hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy
My mother used to end the story on a happy note, bragging about her skill at the game. “I won
many times and was so lucky the others teased that I had learned the trick of a clever thief,” she
said. “I won tens of thousands of yuan. But I wasn’t rich. No. By then paper money had become
worthless. Even toilet paper was worth more. And that made us laugh harder, to think a
thousand-yuan note wasn’t even good enough to rub on our bottoms.”
I never thought my mother’s Kweilin story was anything but a Chinese fairy tale. The endings
always changed. Sometimes she said she used that worthless thousand-yuan note to buy a half-cup
of rice. She turned that rice into a pot of porridge. She traded that gruel for two feet from a pig.
Those two feet became six eggs, those eggs six chickens. The story always grew and grew.
And then one evening, after I had begged her to buy me a transistor radio, after she refused
and I had sulked in silence for an hour, she said, “Why do you think you are missing something you
never had?” And then she told me a completely different ending to the story.
“An army officer came to my house early one morning,” she said, “and told me to go quickly
to my husband in Chungking. And I knew he was telling me to run away from Kweilin. I knew what
happened to officers and their families when the Japanese arrived. How could I go? There were no
trains leaving Kweilin. My friend from Nanking, she was so good to me. She bribed a man to steal
a wheelbarrow used to haul coal. She promised to warn our other friends.
“I packed my things and my two babies into this wheelbarrow and began pushing to
Chungking four days before the Japanese marched into Kweilin. On the road I heard news of the
slaughter from people running past me. It was terrible. Up to the last day, the Kuomintang insisted
that Kweilin was safe, protected by the Chinese army. But later that day, the streets of Kweilin
were strewn with newspapers reporting great Kuomintang victories, and on top of these papers,
like fresh fish from a butcher, lay rows of people—men, women, and children who had never lost
hope, but had lost their lives instead. When I heard this news, I walked faster and faster, asking
myself at each step, Were they foolish? Were they brave?
“I pushed toward Chungking, until my wheel broke. I abandoned my beautiful mah jong table
of hong mu. By then I didn’t have enough feeling left in my body to cry. I tied scarves into slings
and put a baby on each side of my shoulder. I carried a bag in each hand, one with clothes, the
other with food. I carried these things until deep grooves grew in my hands. And I finally dropped
one bag after the other when my hands began to bleed and became too slippery to hold onto
“Along the way, I saw others had done the same, gradually given up hope. It was like a
pathway inlaid with treasures that grew in value along the way. Bolts of fine fabric and books.
Paintings of ancestors and carpenter tools. Until one could see cages of ducklings now quiet with
thirst and, later still, silver urns lying in the road, where people had been too tired to carry them
for any kind of future hope. By the time I arrived in Chungking I had lost everything except for
three fancy silk dresses which I wore one on top of the other.”
“What do you mean by ‘everything’?” I gasped at the end. I was stunned to realize the story
had been true all along. “What happened to the babies?”
She didn’t even pause to think. She simply said in a way that made it clear there was no more
to the story: “Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.”
When I arrive at the Hsus’ house, where the Joy Luck Club is meeting tonight, the first person I see
is my father. “There she is! Never on time!” he announces. And it’s true. Everybody’s already
here, seven family friends in their sixties and seventies. They look up and laugh at me, always
tardy, a child still at thirty-six.
I’m shaking, trying to hold something inside. The last time I saw them, at the funeral, I had
broken down and cried big gulping sobs. They must wonder now how someone like me can take
my mother’s place. A friend once told me that my mother and I were alike, that we had the same
wispy hand gestures, the same girlish laugh and sideways look. When I shyly told my mother this,
she seemed insulted and said, “You don’t even know little percent of me! How can you be me?”
And she’s right. How can I be my mother at Joy Luck?
“Auntie, Uncle,” I say repeatedly, nodding to each person there. I have always called these
old family friends Auntie and Uncle. And then I walk over and stand next to my father.
He’s looking at the Jongs’ pictures from their recent China trip. “Look at that,” he says
politely, pointing to a photo of the Jongs’ tour group standing on wide slab steps. There is nothing
in this picture that shows it was taken in China rather than San Francisco, or any other city for that
matter. But my father doesn’t seem to be looking at the picture anyway. It’s as though everything
were the same to him, nothing stands out. He has always been politely indifferent. But what’s the
Chinese word that means indifferent because you can’t see any differences? That’s how troubled I
think he is by my mother’s death.
“Will you look at that,” he says, pointing to another nondescript picture.
The Hsus’ house feels heavy with greasy odors. Too many Chinese meals cooked in a too
small kitchen, too many once fragrant smells compressed onto a thin layer of invisible grease. I
remember how my mother used to go into other people’s houses and restaurants and wrinkle her
nose, then whisper very loudly: “I can see and feel the stickiness with my nose.”
I have not been to the Hsus’ house in many years, but the living room is exactly the same as I
remember it. When Auntie An-mei and Uncle George moved to the Sunset district from Chinatown
twenty-five years ago, they bought new furniture. It’s all there, still looking mostly new under
yellowed plastic. The same turquoise couch shaped in a semicircle of nubby tweed. The colonial
end tables made out of heavy maple. A lamp of fake cracked porcelain. Only the scroll-length
calendar, free from the Bank of Canton, changes every year.
I remember this stuff, because when we were children, Auntie An-mei didn’t let us touch any
of her new furniture except through the clear plastic coverings. On Joy Luck nights, my parents
brought me to the Hsus’. Since I was the guest, I had to take care of all the younger children, so
many children it seemed as if there were always one baby who was crying from having bumped its
head on a table leg.
“You are responsible,” said my mother, which meant I was in trouble if anything was spilled,
burned, lost, broken, or dirty. I was responsible, no matter who did it. She and Auntie An-mei
were dressed up in funny Chinese dresses with stiff stand-up collars and blooming branches of
embroidered silk sewn over their breasts. These clothes were too fancy for real Chinese people, I
thought, and too strange for American parties. In those days, before my mother told me her Kweilin
story, I imagined Joy Luck was a shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gathering of the Ku Klux
Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war.
But tonight, there’s no mystery. The Joy Luck aunties are all wearing slacks, bright print
blouses, and different versions of sturdy walking shoes. We are all seated around the dining room
table under a lamp that looks like a Spanish candelabra. Uncle George puts on his bifocals and
starts the meeting by reading the minutes:
“Our capital account is $24,825, or about $6,206 a couple, $3,103 per person. We sold
Subaru for a loss at six and three-quarters. We bought a hundred shares of Smith International at
seven. Our thanks to Lindo and Tin Jong for the goodies. The red bean soup was especially
delicious. The March meeting had to be canceled until further notice. We were sorry to have to bid
a fond farewell to our dear friend Suyuan and extended our sympathy to the Canning Woo family.
Respectfully submitted, George Hsu, president and secretary.”
That's it. I keep thinking the others will start talking about my mother, the wonderful
friendship they shared, and why I am here in her spirit, to be the fourth corner and carry on the idea
my mother came up with on a hot day in Kweilin.
But everybody just nods to approve the minutes. Even my father’s head bobs up and down
routinely. And it seems to me my mother’s life has been shelved for new business.
Auntie An-mei heaves herself up from the table and moves slowly to the kitchen to prepare
the food. And Auntie Lin, my mother’s best friend, moves to the turquoise sofa, crosses her arms,
and watches the men still seated at the table. Auntie Ying, who seems to shrink even more every
time I see her, reaches into her knitting bag and pulls out the start of a tiny blue sweater.
The Joy Luck uncles begin to talk about stocks they are interested in buying. Uncle Jack, who
is Auntie Ying’s younger brother, is very keen on a company that mines gold in Canada.
“It’s a great hedge on inflation,” he says with authority. He speaks the best English, almost
accentless. I think my mother’s English was the worst, but she always thought her Chinese was the
best. She spoke Mandarin slightly blurred with a Shanghai dialect.
“Weren’t we going to play mah jong tonight?” I whisper loudly to Auntie Ying, who’s slightly
“Later,” she says, “after midnight.”
“Ladies, are you at this meeting or not?” says Uncle George. After everybody votes
unanimously for the Canada gold stock, I go into the kitchen to ask Auntie An-mei why the Joy
Luck Club started investing in stocks.
“We used to play mah jong, winner take all. But the same people were always winning, the
same people always losing,” she says. She is stuffing wonton, one chopstick jab of gingery meat
dabbed onto a thin skin and then a single fluid turn with her hand that seals the skin into the shape
of a tiny nurse’s cap. “You can't have luck when someone else has skill. So long time ago, we
decided to invest in the stock market. There’s no skill in that. Even your mother agreed.”
Auntie An-mei takes count of the tray in front of her. She’s already made five rows of eight
wonton each. “Forty wonton, eight people, ten each, five row more,” she says aloud to herself, and
then continues stuffing. “We got smart. Now we can all win and lose equally. We can have stock
market luck. And we can play mah jong for fun, just for a few dollars, winner take all. Losers take
home leftovers! So everyone can have some joy. Smart-hanh?”
I watch Auntie An-mei make more wonton. She has quick, expert fingers. She doesn’t have to
think about what she is doing. That’s what my mother used to complain about, that Auntie An-mei
never thought about what she was doing.
“She’s not stupid,” said my mother on one occasion, “but she has no spine. Last week, I had a
good idea for her. I said to her, Let’s go to the consulate and ask for papers for your brother. And
she almost wanted to drop her things and go right then. But later she talked to someone. Who
knows who? And that person told her she can get her brother in bad trouble in China. That person
said FBI will put her on a list and give her trouble in the U.S. the rest of her life. That person said,
You ask for a house loan and they say no loan, because your brother is a communist. I said, You
already have a house! But still she was scared.
“Aunti An-mei runs this way and that,” said my mother, “and she doesn’t know why.”
As I watch Auntie An-mei, I see a short bent woman in her seventies, with a heavy bosom and
thin, shapeless legs. She has the flattened soft fingertips of an old woman. I wonder what Auntie
An-mei did to inspire a lifelong stream of criticism from my mother. Then again, it seemed my
mother was always displeased with all her friends, with me, and even with my father. Something
was always missing. Something always needed improving. Something was not in balance. This one
or that had too much of one element, not enough of another.
The elements were from my mother’s own version of organic chemistry. Each person is made
of five elements, she told me.
Too much fire and you had a bad temper. That was like my father, whom my mother always
criticized for his cigarette habit and who always shouted back that she should keep her thoughts to
herself. I think he now feels guilty that he didn’t let my mother speak her mind.
Too little wood and you bent too quickly to listen to other people’s ideas, unable to stand on
your own. This was like my Auntie An-mei.
Too much water and you flowed in too many directions, like myself, for having started half a
degree in biology, then half a degree in art, and then finishing neither when I went off to work for a
small ad agency as a secretary, later becoming a copywriter.
I used to dismiss her criticisms as just more of her Chinese superstitions, beliefs that
conveniently fit the circumstances. In my twenties, while taking Introduction to Psychology, I tried
to tell her why she shouldn’t criticize so much, why it didn’t lead to a healthy learning
“There’s a school of thought,” I said, “that parents shouldn’t criticize children. They should
encourage instead. You know, people rise to other people’s expectations. And when you criticize,
it just means you’re expecting failure.”
“That’s the trouble,” my mother said. “You never rise. Lazy to get up. Lazy to rise to
“Time to eat,” Auntie An-mei happily announces, bringing out a steaming pot of the wonton
she was just wrapping. There are piles of food on the table, served buffet style, just like at the
Kweilin feasts. My father is digging into the chow mein, which still sits in an oversize aluminum
pan surrounded by little plastic packets of soy sauce. Auntie An-mei must have bought this on
Clement Street. The wonton soup smells wonderful with delicate sprigs of cilantro floating on top.
I’m drawn first to a large platter of chaswei, sweet barbecued pork cut into coin-sized slices, and
then to a whole assortment of what I’ve always called finger goodies—thin-skinned pastries filled
with chopped pork, beef, shrimp, and unknown stuffings that my mother used to describe as
“nutritious things.”
Eating is not a gracious event here. It’s as though everybody had been starving. They push
large forkfuls into their mouths, jab at more pieces of pork, one right after the other. They are not
like the ladies of Kweilin, who I always imagined savored their food with a certain detached
And then, almost as quickly as they started, the men get up and leave the table. As if on cue,
the women peck at last morsels and then carry plates and bowls to the kitchen and dump them in
the sink. The women take turns washing their hands, scrubbing them vigorously. Who started this
ritual? I too put my plate in the sink and wash my hands. The women are talking about the Jongs’
China trip, then they move toward a room in the back of the apartment. We pass another room,
what used to be the bedroom shared by the four Hsu sons. The bunk beds with their scuffed,
splintery ladders are still there. The Joy Luck uncles are already seated at the card table. Uncle
George is dealing out cards, fast, as though he learned this technique in a casino. My father is
passing out Pall Mall cigarettes, with one already dangling from his lips.
And then we get to the room in the back, which was once shared by the three Hsu girls. We
were all childhood friends. And now they’ve all grown and married and I’m here to play in their
room again. Except for the smell of camphor, it feels the same—as if Rose, Ruth, and Janice might
soon walk in with their hair rolled up in big orange-juice cans and plop down on their identical
narrow beds. The white chenille bedspreads are so worn they are almost translucent. Rose and I
used to pluck the nubs out while talking about our boy problems. Everything is the same, except
now a mahogany-colored mah jong table sits in the center. And next to it is a floor lamp, a long
black pole with three oval spotlights attached like the broad leaves of a rubber plant.
Nobody says to me, “Sit here, this is where your mother used to sit.” But I can tell even
before everyone sits down. The chair closest to the door has an emptiness to it. But the feeling
doesn’t really have to do with the chair. It’s her place on the table. Without having anyone tell me,
I know her corner on the table was the East.
The East is where things begin, my mother once told me, the direction from which the sun
rises, where the wind comes from.
Auntie An-mei, who is sitting on my left, spills the tiles onto the green felt tabletop and then
says to me, “Now we wash tiles.” We swirl them with our hands in a circular motion. They make a
cool swishing sound as they bump into one another.
“Do you win like your mother?” asks Auntie Lin across from me. She is not smiling.
“I only played a little in college with some Jewish friends.”
“Annh! Jewish mah jong,” she says in disgusted tones. “Not the same thing.” This is what my
mother used to say, although she could never explain exactly why.
“Maybe I shouldn’t play tonight. I’ll just watch,” I offer.
Auntie Lin looks exasperated, as though I were a simple child: “How can we play with just
three people? Like a table with three legs, no balance. When Auntie Ying’s husband died, she
asked her brother to join. Your father asked you. So it’s decided.”
“What’s the difference between Jewish and Chinese mah jong?” I once asked my mother. I
couldn’t tell by her answer if the games were different or just her attitude toward Chinese and
Jewish people.
“Entirely different kind of playing,” she said in her English explanation voice. “Jewish mah
jong, they watch only for their own tile, play only with their eyes.”
Then she switched to Chinese: “Chinese mah jong, you must play using your head, very tricky.
You must watch what everybody else throws away and keep that in your head as well. And if
nobody plays well, then the game becomes like Jewish mah jong. Why play? There’s no strategy.
You’re just watching people make mistakes.”
These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages,
which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese.
“So what’s the difference between Chinese and Jewish mah jong?” I ask Auntie Lin.
“Aii-ya,” she exclaims in a mock scolding voice. “Your mother did not teach you anything?”
Auntie Ying pats my hand. “You a smart girl. You watch us, do the same. Help us stack the
tiles and make four walls.”
I follow Auntie Ying, but mostly I watch Auntie Lin. She is the fastest, which means I can
almost keep up with the others by watching what she does first. Auntie Ying throws the dice and
I’m told that Auntie Lin has become the East wind. I’ve become the North wind, the last hand to
play. Auntie Ying is the South and Auntie An-mei is the West. And then we start taking tiles,
throwing the dice, counting back on the wall to the right number of spots where our chosen tiles
lie. I rearrange my tiles, sequences of bamboo and balls, doubles of colored number tiles, odd tiles
that do not fit anywhere.
“Your mother was the best, like a pro,” says Auntie An-mei while slowly sorting her tiles,
considering each piece carefully.
Now we begin to play, looking at our hands, casting tiles, picking up others at an easy,
comfortable pace. The Joy Luck aunties begin to make small talk, not really listening to each other.
They speak in their special language, half in broken English, half in their own Chinese dialect.
Auntie Ying mentions she bought yarn at half price, somewhere out in the avenues. Auntie An-mei
brags about a sweater she made for her daughter Ruth’s new baby. “She thought it was storebought,” she says proudly.
Auntie Lin explains how mad she got at a store clerk who refused to let her return a skirt with
a broken zipper. “I was chiszle,” she says, still fuming, “mad to death.”
“But Lindo, you are still with us. You didn’t die,” teases Auntie Ying, and then as she laughs
Auntie Lin says ‘Pung!’ and ‘Mah jong!’ and then spreads her tiles out, laughing back at Auntie
Ying while counting up her points. We start washing tiles again and it grows quiet. I’m getting
bored and sleepy.
“Oh, I have a story,” says Auntie Ying loudly, startling everybody. Auntie Ying has always
been the weird auntie, someone lost in her own world. My mother used to say, “Auntie Ying is not
hard of hearing. She is hard of listening.”
“Police arrested Mrs. Emerson’s son last weekend,” Auntie Ying says in a way that sounds as
if she were proud to be the first with this big news. “Mrs. Chan told me at church. Too many TV
set found in his car.”
Auntie Lin quickly says, “Aii-ya, Mrs. Emerson good lady,” meaning Mrs. Emerson didn’t
deserve such a terrible son. But now I see this is also said for the benefit of Auntie An-mei, whose
own youngest son was arrested two years ago for selling stolen car stereos. Auntie An-mei is
rubbing her tile carefully before discarding it. She looks pained.
“Everybody has TVs in China now,” says Auntie Lin, changing the subject. “Our family there
all has TV sets—not just black-and-white, but color and remote! They have everything. So when
we asked them what we should buy them, they said nothing, it was enough that we would come to
visit them. But we bought them different things anyway, VCR and Sony Walkman for the kids. They
said, No, don’t give it to us, but I think they liked it.”
Poor Auntie An-mei rubs her tiles ever harder. I remember my mother telling me about the
Hsus’ trip to China three years ago. Auntie An-mei had saved two thousand dollars, all to spend on
her brother’s family. She had shown my mother the insides of her heavy suitcases. One was
crammed with See’s Nuts & Chews, M & M’s, candy-coated cashews, instant hot chocolate with
miniature marshmallows. My mother told me the other bag contained the most ridiculous clothes,
all new: bright California-style beachwear, baseball caps, cotton pants with elastic waists,
bomber jackets, Stanford sweatshirts, crew socks.
My mother had told her, “Who wants those useless things? They just want money.” But Auntie
An-mei said her brother was so poor and they were so rich by comparison. So she ignored my
mother’s advice and took the heavy bags and their two thousand dollars to China. And when their
China tour finally arrived in Hangzhou, the whole family from Ningbo was there to meet them. It
wasn’t just Auntie An-mei’s little brother, but also his wife’s stepbrothers and stepsisters, and a
distant cousin, and that cousin’s husband and that husband’s uncle. They had all brought their
mothers-in-law and children, and even their village friends who were not lucky enough to have
overseas Chinese relatives to show off.
As my mother told it, “Auntie An-mei had cried before she left for China, thinking she would
make her brother very rich and happy by communist standards. But when she got home, she cried to
me that everyone had a palm out and she was the only one who left with an empty hand.”
My mother confirmed her suspicions. Nobody wanted the sweatshirts, those useless clothes.
The M & M’s were thrown in the air, gone. And when the suitcases were emptied, the relatives
asked what else the Hsus had brought.
Auntie An-mei and Uncle George were shaken down, not just for two thousand dollars’ worth
of TVs and refrigerators but also for a night’s lodging for twenty-six people in the Overlooking the
Lake Hotel, for three banquet tables at a restaurant that catered to rich foreigners, for three special
gifts for each relative, and finally, for a loan of five thousand yuan in foreign exchange to a
cousin’s so-called uncle who wanted to buy a motorcycle but who later disappeared for good
along with the money. When the train pulled out of Hangzhou the next day, the Hsus found
themselves depleted of some nine thousand dollars’ worth of goodwill. Months later, after an
inspiring Christmastime service at the First Chinese Baptist Church, Auntie An-mei tried to recoup
her loss by saying it truly was more blessed to give than to receive, and my mother agreed, her
longtime friend had blessings for at least several lifetimes.
Listening now to Auntie Lin bragging about the virtues of her family in China, I realize that
Auntie Lin is oblivious to Auntie An-mei’s pain. Is Auntie Lin being mean, or is it that my mother
never told anybody but me the shameful story of Auntie An-mei’s greedy family?
“So, Jing-mei, you go to school now?” says Auntie Lin.
“Her name is June. They all go by their American names,” says Auntie Ying.
“That’s okay,” I say, and I really mean it. In fact, it’s even becoming fashionable for
American-born Chinese to use their Chinese names.
“I’m not in school anymore, though,” I say. “That was more than ten years ago.”
Auntie Lin’s eyebrows arch. “Maybe I’m thinking of someone else daughter,” she says, but I
know right away she’s lying. I know my mother probably told her I was going back to school to
finish my degree, because somewhere back, maybe just six months ago, we were again having this
argument about my being a failure, a “college drop-off,” about my going back to finish.
Once again I had told my mother what she wanted to hear: “You’re right. I’ll look into it.”
I had always assumed we had an unspoken understanding about these things: that she didn’t
really mean I was a failure, and I really meant I would try to respect her opinions more. But
listening to Auntie Lin tonight reminds me once again: My mother and I never really understood
one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said,
while my mother heard more. No doubt she told Auntie Lin I was going back to school to get a
Auntie Lin and my mother were both best friends and arch enemies who spent a lifetime
comparing their children. I was one month older than Waverly Jong, Auntie Lin’s prized daughter.
From the time we were babies, our mothers compared the creases in our belly buttons, how
shapely our earlobes were, how fast we healed when we scraped our knees, how thick and dark
our hair, how many shoes we wore out in one year, and later, how smart Waverly was at playing
chess, how many trophies she had won last month, how many newspapers had printed her name,
how many cities she had visited.
I know my mother resented listening to Auntie Lin talk about Waverly when she had nothing to
come back with. At first my mother tried to cultivate some hidden genius in me. She did housework
for an old retired piano teacher down the hall who gave me lessons and free use of a piano to
practice on in exchange. When I failed to become a concert pianist, or even an accompanist for the
church youth choir, she finally explained that I was late-blooming, like Einstein, who everyone
thought was retarded until he discovered a bomb.
Now it is Auntie Ying who wins this hand of mah jong, so we count points and begin again.
“Did you know Lena move to Woodside?” asks Auntie Ying with obvious pride, looking
down at the tiles, talking to no one in particular. She quickly erases her smile and tries for some
modesty. “Of course, it’s not best house in neighborhood, not million-dollar house, not yet. But it’s
good investment. Better than paying rent. Better than somebody putting you under their thumb to rub
you out.”
So now I know Auntie Ying’s daughter, Lena, told her about my being evicted from my
apartment on lower Russian Hill. Even though Lena and I are still friends, we have grown
naturally cautious about telling each other too much. Still, what little we say to one another often
comes back in another guise. It’s the same old game, everybody talking in circles.
“It’s getting late,” I say after we finish the round. I start to stand up, but Auntie Lin pushes me
back down into the chair.
“Stay, stay. We talk awhile, get to know you again,” she says. “Been a long time.”
I know this is a polite gesture on the Joy Luck aunties’ part—a protest when actually they are
just as eager to see me go as I am to leave. “No, I really must go now, thank you, thank you,” I say,
glad I remembered how the pretense goes.
“But you must stay! We have something important to tell you, from your mother,” Auntie Ying
blurts out in her too-loud voice. The others look uncomfortable, as if this were not how they
intended to break some sort of bad news to me.
I sit down. Auntie An-mei leaves the room quickly and returns with a bowl of peanuts, then
quietly shuts the door. Everybody is quiet, as if nobody knew where to begin.
It is Auntie Ying who finally speaks. “I think your mother die with an important thought on her
mind,” she says in halting English. And then she begins to speak in Chinese, calmly, softly.
“Your mother was a very strong woman, a good mother. She loved you very much, more than
her own life. And that’s why you can understand why a mother like this could never forget her
other daughters. She knew they were alive, and before she died she wanted to find her daughters in
The babies in Kweilin, I think. I was not those babies. The babies in a sling on her shoulder.
Her other daughters. And now I feel as if I were in Kweilin amidst the bombing and I can see these
babies lying on the side of the road, their red thumbs popped out of their mouths, screaming to be
reclaimed. Somebody took them away. They’re safe. And now my mother’s left me forever, gone
back to China to get these babies. I can barely hear Auntie Ying’s voice.
“She had searched for years, written letters back and forth,” says Auntie Ying. “And last year
she got an address. She was going to tell your father soon. Aii-ya, what a shame. A lifetime of
Auntie An-mei interrupts with an excited voice: “So your aunties and I, we wrote to this
address,” she says. “We say that a certain party, your mother, want to meet another certain party.
And this party write back to us. They are your sisters, Jing-mei.”
My sisters, I repeat to myself, saying these two words together for the first time.
Auntie An-mei is holding a sheet of paper as thin as wrapping tissue. In perfectly straight
vertical rows I see Chinese characters written in blue fountain-pen ink. A word is smudged. A
tear? I take the letter with shaking hands, marveling at how smart my sisters must be to be able to
read and write Chinese.
The aunties are all smiling at me, as though I had been a dying person who has now
miraculously recovered. Auntie Ying is handing me another envelope. Inside is a check made out
to June Woo for $1,200. I can’t believe it.
“My sisters are sending me money?” I ask.
“No, no,” says Auntie Lin with her mock exasperated voice. “Every year we save our mah
jong winnings for big banquet at fancy restaurant. Most times your mother win, so most is her
money. We add just a little, so you can go Hong Kong, take a train to Shanghai, see your sisters.
Besides, we all getting too rich, too fat.” she pats her stomach for proof.
“See my sisters,” I say numbly. I am awed by this prospect, trying to imagine what I would
see. And I am embarrassed by the end-of-the-year-banquet lie my aunties have told to mask their
generosity. I am crying now, sobbing and laughing at the same time, seeing but not understanding
this loyalty to my mother.
“You must see your sisters and tell them about your mother’s death,” says Auntie Ying. “But
most important, you must tell them about her life. The mother they did not know, they must now
“See my sisters, tell them about my mother,” I say, nodding. “What will I say? What can I tell
them about my mother? I don’t know anything. She was my mother.”
The aunties are looking at me as if I had become crazy right before their eyes.
“Not know your own mother?” cries Auntie An-mei with disbelief. “How can you say? Your
mother is in your bones!”
“Tell them stories of your family here. How she became success,” offers Auntie Lin.
“Tell them stories she told you, lessons she taught, what you know about her mind that has
become your mind,” says Auntie Ying. “You mother very smart lady.”
I hear more choruses of “Tell them, tell them” as each Auntie frantically tries to think what
should be passed on.
“Her kindness.”
“Her smartness.”
“Her dutiful nature to family.”
“Her hopes, things that matter to her.”
“The excellent dishes she cooked.”
“Imagine, a daughter not knowing her own mother!”
And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as
ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see
daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when
they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their
daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist.
They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from
generation to generation.
“I will tell them everything,” I say simply, and the aunties look at me with doubtful faces.
“I will remember everything about her and tell them,” I say more firmly. And gradually, one
by one, they smile and pat my hand. They still look troubled, as if something were out of balance.
But they also look hopeful that what I say will become true. What more can they ask? What more
can I promise?
They go back to eating their soft boiled peanuts, saying stories among themselves. They are
young girls again, dreaming of good times in the past and good times yet to come. A brother from
Ningbo who makes his sister cry with joy when he returns nine thousand dollars plus interest. A
youngest son whose stereo and TV repair business is so good he sends leftovers to China. A
daughter whose babies are able to swim like fish in a fancy pool in Woodside. Such good stories.
The best. They are the lucky ones.
And I am sitting at my mother’s place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin.
An-Mei Hsu
When I was a young girl in China, my grandmother told me my mother was a ghost. This did not
mean my mother was dead. In those days, a ghost was anything we were forbidden to talk about.
So I knew Popo wanted me to forget my mother on purpose, and this is how I came to remember
nothing of her. The life that I knew began in the large house in Ningpo with the cold hallways and
tall stairs. This was my uncle and auntie’s family house, where I lived with Popo and my little
But I often heard stories of a ghost who tried to take children away, especially strong-willed
little girls who were disobedient. Many times Popo said aloud to all who could hear that my
brother and I had fallen out of the bowels of a stupid goose, two eggs that nobody wanted, not even
good enough to crack over rice porridge. She said this so that the ghosts would not steal us away.
So you see, to Popo we were also very precious.
All my life, Popo scared me. I became even more scared when she grew sick. This was in
1923, when I was nine years old. Popo had swollen up like an overripe squash, so full her flesh
had gone soft and rotten with a bad smell. She would call me into her room with the terrible stink
and tell me stories. “An-mei,” she said, calling me by my school name. “Listen carefully.” She told
me stories I could not understand.
One was about a greedy girl whose belly grew fatter and fatter. This girl poisoned herself
after refusing to say whose child she carried. When the monks cut open her body, they found inside
a large white winter melon.
“If you are greedy, what is inside you is what makes you always hungry,” said Popo.
Another time, Popo told me about a girl who refused to listen to her elders. One day this bad
girl shook her head so vigorously to refuse her auntie’s simple request that a little white ball fell
from her ear and out poured all her brains, as clear as chicken broth.
“Your own thoughts are so busy swimming inside that everything else gets pushed out,” Popo
told me.
Right before Popo became so sick she could no longer speak, she pulled me close and talked
to me about my mother. “Never say her name,” she warned. “To say her name is to spit on your
father’s grave.”
The only father I knew was a big painting that hung in the main hall. He was a large,
unsmiling man, unhappy to be so still on the wall. His restless eyes followed me around the house.
Even from my room at the end of the hall, I could see my father’s watching eyes. Popo said he
watched me for any signs of disrespect. So sometimes, when I had thrown pebbles at other
children at school, or had lost a book through carelessness, I would quickly walk by my father with
a know-nothing look and hide in a corner of my room where he could not see my face.
I felt our house was so unhappy, but my little brother did not seem to think so. He rode his
bicycle through the courtyard, chasing chickens and other children, laughing over which ones
shrieked the loudest. Inside the quiet house, he jumped up and down on Uncle and Auntie’s best
feather sofas when they were away visiting village friends.
But even my brother’s happiness went away. One hot summer day when Popo was already
very sick, we stood outside watching a village funeral procession marching by our courtyard. Just
as it passed our gate, the heavy framed picture of the dead man toppled from its stand and fell to
the dusty ground. An old lady screamed and fainted. My brother laughed and Auntie slapped him.
My auntie, who had a very bad temper with children, told him he had no shou, no respect for
ancestors or family, just like our mother. Auntie had a tongue like hungry scissors eating silk cloth.
So when my brother gave her a sour look, Auntie said our mother was so thoughtless she had fled
north in a big hurry, without taking the dowry furniture from her marriage to my father, without
bringing her ten pairs of silver chopsticks, without paying respect to my father’s grave and those of
our ancestors. When my brother accused Auntie of frightening our mother away, Auntie shouted
that our mother had married a man named Wu Tsing who already had a wife, two concubines, and
other bad children.
And when my brother shouted that Auntie was a talking chicken without a head, she pushed
my brother against the gate and spat on his face.
“You throw strong words at me, but you are nothing,” Auntie said. “You are the son of a
mother who has so little respect she has become ni, a traitor to our ancestors. She is so beneath
others that even the devil must look down to see her.”
That is when I began to understand the stories Popo taught me, the lessons I had to learn for
my mother. “When you lose your face, An-mei,” Popo often said, “it is like dropping your necklace
down a well. The only way you can get it back is to fall in after it.”
Now I could imagine my mother, a thoughtless woman who laughed and shook her head, who
dipped her chopsticks many times to eat another piece of sweet fruit, happy to be free of Popo, her
unhappy husband on the wall, and her two disobedient children. I felt unlucky that she was my
mother and unlucky that she had left us. These were the thoughts I had while hiding in the corner of
my room where my father could not watch me.
I was sitting at the top of the stairs when she arrived. I knew it was my mother even though I had
seen her in all my memory. She stood just inside the doorway so that her face became a dark
shadow. She was much taller than my auntie, almost as tall as my uncle. She looked strange, too,
like the missionary ladies at our school who were insolent and bossy in their too-tall shoes,
foreign clothes, and short hair.
My auntie quickly looked away and did not call her by name or offer her tea. An old servant
hurried away with a displeased look. I tried to keep very still, but my heart felt like crickets
scratching to get out of a cage. My mother must have heard, because she looked up. And when she
did, I saw my own face looking back at me. Eyes that stayed wide open and saw too much.
In Popo’s room my auntie protested, “Too late, too late,” as my mother approached the bed.
But this did not stop my mother.
“Come back, stay here,” murmured my mother to Popo. “Nuyer is here. Your daughter is
back.” Popo’s eyes were open, but now her mind ran in many different directions, not staying long
enough to see anything. If Popo’s mind had been clear she would have raised her two arms and
flung my mother out of the room.
I watched my mother, seeing her for the first time, this pretty woman with her white skin and
oval face, not too round like Auntie’s or sharp like Popo’s. I saw that she had a long white neck,
just like the goose that had laid me. That she seemed to float back and forth like a ghost, dipping
cool cloths to lay on Popo’s bloated face. As she peered into Popo’s eyes, she clucked soft
worried sounds. I watched her carefully, yet it was her voice that confused me, a familiar sound
from a forgotten dream.
When I returned to my room later that afternoon, she was there, standing tall. And because I
remember Popo told me not to speak her name, I stood there, mute. She took my hand and led me to
the settee. And then she also sat down as though we had done this every day.
My mother began to loosen my braids and brush my hair with long sweeping strokes.
“An-mei, you have been a good daughter?” she asked, smiling a secret look.
I looked at her with my know-nothing face, but inside I was trembling. I was the girl whose
belly held a colorless winter melon.
“An-mei, you know who I am,” she said with a small scold in her voice. This time I did not
look for fear my head would burst and my brains would dribble out of my ears.
She stopped brushing. And then I could feel her long smooth fingers rubbing and searching
under my chin, finding the spot that was my smooth-neck scar. As she rubbed this spot, I became
very still. It was as though she were rubbing the memory back into my skin. And then her hand
dropped and she began to cry, wrapping her hands around her own neck. She cried with a wailing
voice that was so sad. And then I remembered the dream with my mother’s voice.
I was four years old. My chin was just above the dinner table, and I could see my baby brother
sitting on Popo’s lap, crying with an angry face. I could hear voices praising a steaming dark soup
brought to the table, voices murmuring politely, “Ching! Ching!”—Please, eat!
And then the talking stopped. My uncle rose from his chair. Everyone turned to look at the
door, where a tall woman stood. I was the only one who spoke.
“Ma,” I had cried, rushing off my chair, but my auntie slapped my face and pushed me back
down. Now everyone was standing up and shouting, and I heard my mother’s voice crying, “Anmei! An-mei!” Above this noise, Popo’s shrill voice spoke.
“Who is this ghost? Not an honored widow. Just a numberthree concubine. If you take your
daughter, she will become like you. No face. Never able to lift up her head.”
Still my mother shouted for me to come. I remember her voice so clearly now. An-mei! Anmei! I could see my mother’s face across the table. Between us stood the soup pot on its heavy
chimney-pot stand—rocking slowly, back and forth. And then with one shout this dark boiling soup
spilled forward and fell all over my neck. It was as though everyone’s anger were pouring all over
This was the kind of pain so terrible that a little child should never remember it. But it is still
in my skin’s memory. I cried out loud only a little, because soon my flesh began to burst inside and
out and cut off my breathing air.
I could not speak because of this terrible choking feeling. I could not see because of all the
tears that poured out to wash away the pain. But I could hear my mother’s crying voice. Popo and
Auntie were shouting. And then my mother’s voice went away.
Later that night Popo’s voice came to me.
“An-mei, listen carefully.” Her voice had the same scolding tone she used when I ran up and
down the hallway. “An-mei, we have made your dying clothes and shoes for you. They are all
white cotton.”
I listened, scared.
“An-mei,” she murmured, now more gently. “Your dying clothes are very plain. They are not
fancy, because you are still a child. If you die, you will have a short life and you will still owe
your family a debt. Your funeral will be very small. Our mourning time for you will be very
And then Popo said something that was worse than the burning on my neck.
“Even your mother has used up her tears and left. If you do not get well soon, she will forget
Popo was very smart. I came hurrying back from the other world to find my mother.
Every night I cried so that both my eyes and my neck burned. Next to my bed sat Popo. She
would pour cool water over my neck from the hollowed cup of a large grapefruit. She would pour
and pour until my breathing became soft and I could fall asleep. In the morning, Popo would use
her sharp fingernails like tweezers and peel off the dead membranes.
In two years’ time, my scar became pale and shiny and I had no memory of my mother. That is
the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so
much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain.
I worshipped this mother from my dream. But the woman standing by Popo’s bed was not the
mother of my memory. Yet I came to love this mother as well. Not because she came to me and
begged me to forgive her. She did not. She did not need to explain that Popo chased her out of the
house when I was dying. This I knew. She did not need to tell me she married Wu Tsing to
exchange one unhappiness for another. I knew this as well.
Here is how I came to love my mother. How I saw in her my own true nature. What was
beneath my skin. Inside my bones.
It was late at night when I went to Popo’s room. My auntie said it was Popo’s dying time and
I must show respect. I put on a clean dress and stood between my auntie and uncle at the foot of
Popo’s bed. I cried a little, not too loud.
I saw my mother on the other side of the room. Quiet and sad. She was cooking a soup,
pouring herbs and medicines into the steaming pot. And then I saw her pull up her sleeve and pull
out a sharp knife. She put this knife on the softest part of her arm. I tried to close my eyes, but
could not.
And then my mother cut a piece of meat from her arm. Tears poured from her face and blood
spilled to the floor.
My mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to
try to cure her mother this one last time. She opened Popo’s mouth, already too tight from trying to
keep her spirit in. She fed her this soup, but that night Popo flew away with her illness.
Even though I was young, I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain.
This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou so deep it is in your bones. The pain of
the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember
what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before
her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.
Lindo Jong
The Red Candle
I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you
promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she
has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise.
I watched this same movie when you did not come. The American soldier promises to come
back and marry the girl. She is crying with a genuine feeling and he says, “Promise! Promise!
Honey-sweetheart, my promise is as good as gold.” Then he pushes her onto the bed. But he
doesn’t come back. His gold is like yours, it is only fourteen carats.
To Chinese people, fourteen carats isn’t real gold. Feel my bracelets. They must be twentyfour carats, pure inside and out.
It’s too late to change you, but I’m telling you this because I worry about your baby. I worry
that someday she will say, “Thank you, Grandmother, for the gold bracelet. I’ll never forget you.”
But later, she will forget her promise. She will forget she had a grandmother.
In this same war movie, the American soldier goes home and he falls to his knees asking another
girl to marry him. And the girl’s eyes run back and forth, so shy, as if she had never considered this
before. And suddenly!—her eyes look straight down and she knows now she loves him, so much
she wants to cry. “Yes,” she says at last, and they marry forever.
This was not my case. Instead, the village matchmaker came to my family when I was just two
years old. No, nobody told me this, I remember it all. It was summertime, very hot and dusty
outside, and I could hear cicadas crying in the yard. We were under some trees in our orchard. The
servants and my brothers were picking pears high above me. And I was sitting in my mother’s hot
sticky arms. I was waving my hand this way and that, because in front of me floated a small bird
with horns and colorful paper-thin wings. And then the paper bird flew away and in front of me
were two ladies. I remember them because one lady made watery “shrrhh, shrrhh” sounds. When I
was older, I came to recognize this as a Peking accent, which sounds quite strange to Taiyuan
people’s ears.
The two ladies were looking at my face without talking. The lady with the watery voice had a
painted face that was melting. The other lady had the dry face of an old tree trunk. She looked first
at me, then at the painted lady.
Of course, now I know the tree-trunk lady was the old village matchmaker, and the other was
Huang Taitai, the mother of the boy I would be forced to marry. No, it’s not true what some
Chinese say about girl babies being worthless. It depends on what kind of girl baby you are. In my
case, people could see my value. I looked and smelled like a precious buncake, sweet with a good
clean color.
The matchmaker bragged about me: “An earth horse for an earth sheep. This is the best
marriage combination.” She patted my arm and I pushed her hand away. Huang Taitai whispered in
her shrrhh-shrrhh voice that perhaps I had an unusually bad pichi, a bad temper. But the
matchmaker laughed and said, “Not so, not so. She is a strong horse. She will grow up to be a hard
worker who serves you well in your old age.”
And this is when Huang Taitai looked down at me with a cloudy face as though she could
penetrate my thoughts and see my future intentions. I will never forget her look. Her eyes opened
wide, she searched my face carefully and then she smiled. I could see a large gold tooth staring at
me like the blinding sun and then the rest of her teeth opened wide as if she were going to swallow
me down in one piece.
This is how I became betrothed to Huang Taitai’s son, who I later discovered was just a
baby, one year younger than I. His name was Tyan-yu—tyan for “sky,” because he was so
important, and yu, meaning “leftovers,” because when he was born his father was very sick and his
family thought he might die. Tyan-yu would be the leftover of his father’s spirit. But his father
lived and his grandmother was scared the ghosts would turn their attention to this baby boy and
take him instead. So they watched him carefully, made all his decisions, and he became very
But even if I had known I was getting such a bad husband, I had no choice, now or later. That
was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid oldfashioned customs. In other cities already, a man could choose his own wife, with his parents’
permission of course. But we were cut off from this type of new thought. You never heard if ideas
were better in another city, only if they were worse. We were told stories of sons who were so
influenced by bad wives that they threw their old, crying parents out into the street. So, Taiyuanese
mothers continued to choose their daughters-in-law, ones who would raise proper sons, care for
the old people, and faithfully sweep the family burial grounds long after the old ladies had gone to
their graves.
Because I was promised to the Huangs’ son for marriage, my own family began treating me as
if I belonged to somebody else. My mother would say to me when the rice bowl went up to my
face too many times, “Look how much Huang Taitai’s daughter can eat.”
My mother did not treat me this way because she didn’t love me. She would say this biting
back her tongue, so she wouldn’t wish for something that was no longer hers.
I was actually a very obedient child, but sometimes I had a sour look on my face—only
because I was hot or tired or very ill. This is when my mother would say, “Such an ugly face. The
Huangs won’t want you and our whole family will be disgraced.” And I would cry more to make
my face uglier.
“It’s no use,” my mother would say. “We have made a contract. It cannot be broken.” And I
would cry even harder.
I didn’t see my future husband until I was eight or nine. The world that I knew was our family
compound in the village outside of Taiyuan. My family lived in a modest two-story house with a
smaller house in the same compound, which was really just two side-by-side rooms for our cook,
an everyday servant, and their families. Our house sat on a little hill. We called this hill Three
Steps to Heaven, but it was really just centuries of hardened layers of mud washed up by the Fen
River. On the east wall of our compound was the river, which my father said liked to swallow
little children. He said it had once swallowed the whole town of Taiyuan. The river ran brown in
the summer. In the winter, the river was blue-green in the narrow fast-moving spots. In the wider
places, it was frozen still, white with cold.
Oh, I can remember the new year when my family went to the river and caught many fish—
giant slippery creatures plucked while they were still sleeping in their frozen riverbeds—so fresh
that even after they were gutted they would dance on their tails when thrown into the hot pan.
That was also the year I first saw my husband as a little boy. When the firecrackers went off,
he cried loud—wah!—with a big open mouth even though he was not a baby.
Later I would see him at red-egg ceremonies when one-month-old boy babies were given
their real names. He would sit on his grandmother’s old knees, almost cracking them with his
weight. And he would refuse to eat everything offered to him, always turning his nose away as
though someone were offering him a stinky pickle and not a sweet cake.
So I didn’t have instant love for my future husband the way you see on television today. I
thought of this boy more like a troublesome cousin. I learned to be polite to the Huangs and
especially to Huang Taitai. My mother would push me toward Huang Taitai and say, “What do you
say to your mother?” And I would be confused, not knowing which mother she meant. So I would
turn to my real mother and say, “Excuse me, Ma,” and then I would turn to Huang Taitai and
present her with a little goodie to eat, saying, “For you, Mother.” I remember it was once a lump of
syaumei, a little dumpling I loved to eat. My mother told Huang Taitai I had made this dumpling
especially for her, even though I had only poked its steamy sides with my finger when the cook
poured it onto the serving plate.
My life changed completely when I was twelve, the summer the heavy rains came. The Fen
River which ran through the middle of my family’s land flooded the plains. It destroyed all the
wheat my family had planted that year and made the land useless for years to come. Even our house
on top of the little hill became unlivable. When we came down from the second story, we saw the
floors and furniture were covered with sticky mud. The courtyards were littered with uprooted
trees, broken bits of walls, and dead chickens. We were so poor in all this mess.
You couldn’t go to an insurance company back then and say, Somebody did this damage, pay
me a million dollars. In those days, you were unlucky if you had exhausted your own possibilities.
My father said we had no choice but to move the family to Wushi, to the south near Shanghai,
where my mother’s brother owned a small flour mill. My father explained that the whole family,
except for me, would leave immediately. I was twelve years old, old enough to separate from my
family and live with the Huangs.
The roads were so muddy and filled with giant potholes that no truck was willing to come to
the house. All the heavy furniture and bedding had to be left behind, and these were promised to
the Huangs as my dowry. In this way, my family was quite practical. The dowry was enough, more
than enough, said my father. But he could not stop my mother from giving me her chang, a necklace
made out of a tablet of red jade. When she put it around my neck, she acted very stern, so I knew
she was very sad. “Obey your family. Do not disgrace us,” she said. “Act happy when you arrive.
Really, you’re very lucky.”
The Huangs’ house also sat next to the river. While our house had been flooded, their house was
untouched. This is because their house sat higher up in the valley. And this was the first time I
realized the Huangs had a much better position than my family. They looked down on us, which
made me understand why Huang Taitai and Tyan-yu had such long noses.
When I passed under the Huangs’ stone-and-wood gateway arch, I saw a large courtyard with
three or four rows of small, low buildings. Some were for storing supplies, others for servants and
their families. Behind these modest buildings stood the main house.
I walked closer and stared at the house that would be my home for the rest of my life. The
house had been in the family for many generations. It was not really so old or remarkable, but I
could see it had grown up along with the family. There were four stories, one for each generation:
great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children. The house had a confused look. It had
been hastily built and then rooms and floors and wings and decorations had been added on in every
which manner, reflecting too many opinions. The first level was built of river rocks held together
by straw-filled mud. The second and third levels were made of smooth bricks with an exposed
walkway to give it the look of a palace tower. And the top level had gray slab walls topped with a
red tile roof. To make the house seem important, there were two large round pillars holding up a
veranda entrance to the front door. These pillars were painted red, as were the wooden window
borders. Someone, probably Huang Taitai, had added imperial dragon heads at the corners of the
Inside, the house held a different kind of pretense. The only nice room was a parlor on the
first floor, which the Huangs used to receive guests. This room contained tables and chairs carved
out of red lacquer, fine pillows embroidered with the Huang family name in the ancient style, and
many precious things that gave the look of wealth and old prestige. The rest of the house was plain
and uncomfortable and noisy with the complaints of twenty relatives. I think with each generation
the house had grown smaller inside, more crowded. Each room had been cut in half to make two.
No big celebration was held when I arrived. Huang Taitai didn’t have red banners greeting
me in the fancy room on the first floor. Tyan-yu was not there to greet me. Instead, Huang Taitai
hurried me upstairs to the second floor and into the kitchen, which was a place where family
children didn’t usually go. This was a place for cooks and servants. So I knew my standing.
That first day, I stood in my best padded dress at the low wooden table and began to chop
vegetables. I could not keep my hands steady. I missed my family and my stomach felt bad,
knowing I had finally arrived where my life said I belonged. But I was also determined to honor
my parents’ words, so Huang Taitai could never accuse my mother of losing face. She would not
win that from our family.
As I was thinking this I saw an old servant woman stooping over the same low table gutting a
fish, looking at me from the corner of her eye. I was crying and I was afraid she would tell Huang
Taitai. So I gave a big smile and shouted, “What a lucky girl I am. I’m going to have the best life.”
And in this quick-thinking way I must have waved my knife too close to her nose because she cried
angrily, “Shemma bende ren!”—What kind of fool are you? And I knew right away this was a
warning, because when I shouted that declaration of happiness, I almost tricked myself into
thinking it might come true.
I saw Tyan-yu at the evening meal. I was still a few inches taller than he, but he acted like a
big warlord. I knew what kind of husband he would be, because he made special efforts to make
me cry. He complained the soup was not hot enough and then spilled the bowl as if it were an
accident. He waited until I had sat down to eat and then would demand another bowl of rice. He
asked why I had such an unpleasant face when looking at him.
Over the next few years, Huang Taitai instructed the other servants to teach me how to sew
sharp corners on pillowcases and to embroider my future family’s name. How can a wife keep her
husband’s household in order if she has never dirtied her own hands, Huang Taitai used to say as
she introduced me to a new task. I don’t think Huang Taitai ever soiled her hands, but she was very
good at calling out orders and criticism.
“Teach her to wash rice properly so that the water runs clear. Her husband cannot eat muddy
rice,” she’d say to a cook servant.
Another time, she told a servant to show me how to clean a chamber pot: “Make her put her
own nose to the barrel to make sure it’s clean.” That was how I learned to be an obedient wife. I
learned to cook so well that I could smell if the meat stuffing was too salty before I even tasted it. I
could sew such small stitches it looked as if the embroidery had been painted on. And even Huang
Taitai complained in a pretend manner that she could scarcely throw a dirty blouse on the floor
before it was cleaned and on her back once again, causing her to wear the same clothes every day.
After a while I didn’t think it was a terrible life, no, not really. After a while, I hurt so much I
didn’t feel any difference. What was happier than seeing everybody gobble down the shiny
mushrooms and bamboo shoots I had helped to prepare that day? What was more satisfying than
having Huang Taitai nod and pat my head when I had finished combing her hair one hundred
strokes? How much happier could I be after seeing Tyan-yu eat a whole bowl of noodles without
once complaining about its taste or my looks? It’s like those ladies you see on American TV these
days, the ones who are so happy they have washed out a stain so the clothes look better than new.
Can you see how the Huangs almost washed their thinking into my skin? I came to think of
Tyan-yu as a god, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to
think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I wanted to please, someone I should follow and
obey without question.
When I turned sixteen on the lunar new year, Huang Taitai told me she was ready to welcome
a grandson by next spring. Even if I had not wanted to marry, where would I go live instead? Even
though I was strong as a horse, how could I run away? The Japanese were in every corner of
“The Japanese showed up as uninvited guests,” said Tyan-yu’s grandmother, “and that’s why
nobody else came.” Huang Taitai had made elaborate plans, but our wedding was very small.
She had asked the entire village and friends and family from other cities as well. In those
days, you didn’t do RSVP. It was not polite not to come. Huang Taitai didn’t think the war would
change people’s good manners. So the cook and her helpers prepared hundreds of dishes. My
family’s old furniture had been shined up into an impressive dowry and placed in the front parlor.
Huang Taitai had taken care to remove all the water and mud marks. She had even commissioned
someone to write felicitous messages on red banners, as if my parents themselves had draped these
decorations to congratulate me on my good luck. And she had arranged to rent a red palanquin to
carry me from her neighbor’s house to the wedding ceremony.
A lot of bad luck fell on our wedding day, even though the matchmaker had chosen a lucky
day, the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, when the moon is perfectly round and bigger than any
other time of the year. But the week before the moon arrived, the Japanese came. They invaded
Shansi province, as well as the provinces bordering us. People were nervous. And the morning of
the fifteenth, on the day of the wedding celebration, it began to rain, a very bad sign. When the
thunder and lightning began, people confused it with Japanese bombs and would not leave their
I heard later that poor Huang Taitai waited many hours for more people to come, and finally,
when she could not wring any more guests out of her hands, she decided to start the ceremony.
What could she do? She could not change the war.
I was at the neighbor’s house. When they called me to come down and ride the red palanquin,
I was sitting at a small dressing table by an open window. I began to cry and thought bitterly about
my parents’ promise. I wondered why my destiny had been decided, why I should have an unhappy
life so someone else could have a happy one. From my seat by the window I could see the Fen
River with its muddy brown waters. I thought about throwing my body into this river that had
destroyed my family’s happiness. A person has very strange thoughts when it seems that life is
about to end.
It started to rain again, just a light rain. The people from downstairs called up to me once
again to hurry. And my thoughts became more urgent, more strange.
I asked myself, What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river
changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and
outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized
it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn’t see the wind itself, but I could
see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful
red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts
inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.
I threw my head back and smiled proudly to myself. And then I draped the large embroidered
red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I
was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never
forget myself.
When I arrived at the wedding, I had the red scarf over my face and couldn’t see anything in
front of me. But when I bent my head forward, I could see out the sides. Very few people had
come. I saw the Huangs, the same old complaining relatives now embarrassed by this poor
showing, the entertainers with their violins and flutes. And there were a few village people who
had been brave enough to come out for a free meal. I even saw servants and their children, who
must have been added to make the party look bigger.
Someone took my hands and guided me down a path. I was like a blind person walking to my
fate. But I was no longer scared. I could see what was inside me.
A high official conducted the ceremony and he talked too long about philosophers and models
of virtue. Then I heard the matchmaker speak about our birthdates and harmony and fertility. I
tipped my veiled head forward and I could see her hands unfolding a red silk scarf and holding up
a red candle for everyone to see.
The candle had two ends for lighting. One length had carved gold characters with Tyan-yu’s
name, the other with mine. The matchmaker lighted both ends and announced, “The marriage has
begun.” Tyan yanked the scarf off my face and smiled at his friends and family, never even looking
at me. He reminded me of a young peacock I once saw that acted as if he had just claimed the
entire courtyard by fanning his still-short tail.
I saw the matchmaker place the lighted red candle in a gold holder and then hand it to a
nervous-looking servant. This servant was supposed to watch the candle during the banquet and all
night to make sure neither end went out. In the morning the matchmaker was supposed to show the
result, a little piece of black ash, and then declare, “This candle burned continuously at both ends
without going out. This is a marriage that can never be broken.”
I still can remember. That candle was a marriage bond that was worth more than a Catholic
promise not to divorce. It meant I couldn’t divorce and I couldn’t ever remarry, even if Tyan-yu
died. That red candle was supposed to seal me forever with my husband and his family, no excuses
And sure enough, the matchmaker made her declaration the next morning and showed she had
done her job. But I know what really happened, because I stayed up all night crying about my
After the banquet, our small wedding party pushed us and half carried us up to the third floor to our
small bedroom. People were shouting jokes and pulling boys from underneath the bed. The
matchmaker helped small children pull red eggs that had been hidden between the blankets. The
boys who were about Tyan-yu’s age made us sit on the bed side by side and everybody made us
kiss so our faces would turn red with passion. Firecrackers exploded on the walkway outside our
open window and someone said this was a good excuse for me to jump into my husband’s arms.
After everyone left, we sat there side by side without words for many minutes, still listening
to the laughing outside. When it grew quiet, Tyan-yu said, “This is my bed. You sleep on the sofa.”
He threw a pillow and a thin blanket to me. I was so glad! I waited until he fell asleep and then I
got up quietly and went outside, down the stairs and into the dark courtyard.
Outside it smelled as if it would soon rain again. I was crying, walking in my bare feet and
feeling the wet heat still inside the bricks. Across the courtyard I could see the matchmaker’s
servant through a yellow-lit open window. She was sitting at a table, looking very sleepy as the
red candle burned in its special gold holder. I sat down by a tree to watch my fate being decided
for me.
I must have fallen asleep because I remember being startled awake by the sound of loud
cracking thunder. That’s when I saw the matchmaker’s servant running from the room, scared as a
chicken about to lose its head. Oh, she was asleep too, I thought, and now she thinks it’s the
Japanese. I laughed. The whole sky became light and then more thunder came, and she ran out of
the courtyard and down the road, going so fast and hard I could see pebbles kicking up behind her.
Where does she think she’s running to, I wondered, still laughing. And then I saw the red candle
flickering just a little with the breeze.
I was not thinking when my legs lifted me up and my feet ran me across the courtyard to the
yellow-lit room. But I was hoping—I was praying to Buddha, the goddess of mercy, and the full
moon—to make that candle go out. It fluttered a little and the flame bent down low, but still both
ends burned strong. My throat filled with so much hope that it finally burst and blew out my
husband’s end of the candle.
I immediately shivered with fear. I thought a knife would appear and cut me down dead. Or
the sky would open up and blow me away. But nothing happened, and when my senses came back,
I walked back to my room with fast guilty steps.
The next morning the matchmaker made her proud declaration in front of Tyan-yu, his parents,
and myself. “My job is done,” she announced, pouring the remaining black ash onto the red cloth. I
saw her servant’s shame-faced, mournful look.
I learned to love Tyan-yu, but it is not how you think. From the beginning, I would always become
sick thinking he would someday climb on top of me and do his business. Every time I went into our
bedroom, my hair would already be standing up. But during the first months, he never touched me.
He slept in his bed, I slept on my sofa.
In front of his parents, I was an obedient wife, just as they taught me. I instructed the cook to
kill a fresh young chicken every morning and cook it until pure juice came out. I would strain this
juice myself into a bowl, never adding any water. I gave this to him for breakfast, murmuring good
wishes about his health. And every night I would cook a special tonic soup called tounau, which
was not only very delicious but has eight ingredients that guarantee long life for mothers. This
pleased my mother-in-law very much.
But it was not enough to keep her happy. One morning, Huang Taitai and I were sitting in the
same room, working on our embroidery. I was dreaming about my childhood, about a pet frog I
once kept named Big Wind. Huang Taitai seemed restless, as if she had an itch in the bottom of her
shoe. I heard her huffing and then all of a sudden she stood up from her chair, walked over to me,
and slapped my face.
“Bad wife!” she cried. “If you refuse to sleep with my son, I refuse to feed you or clothe
you.” So that’s how I knew what my husband had said to avoid his mother’s anger. I was also
boiling with anger, but I said nothing, remembering my promise to my parents to be an obedient
That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was
relieved. The next night, I lay straight down on the bed next to him. And still he didn’t touch me. So
the next night, I took off my gown.
That’s when I could see what was underneath Tyan-yu. He was scared and turned his face. He
had no desire for me, but it was his fear that made me think he had no desire for any woman. He
was like a little boy who had never grown up. After a while I was no longer afraid. I even began to
think differently toward Tyan-yu. It was not like the way a wife loves a husband, but more like the
way a sister protects a younger brother. I put my gown back on and lay down next to him and
rubbed his back. I knew I no longer had to be afraid. I was sleeping with Tyanyu. He would never
touch me and I had a comfortable bed to sleep on.
After more months had passed and my stomach and breasts remained small and flat, Huang
Taitai flew into another kind of rage. “My son says he’s planted enough seeds for thousands of
grandchildren. Where are they? It must be you are doing something wrong.” And after that she
confined me to the bed so that her grandchildren’s seeds would not spill out so easily.
Oh, you think it is so much fun to lie in bed all day, never getting up. But I tell you it was
worse than a prison. I think Huang Taitai became a little crazy.
She told the servants to take all sharp things out of the room, thinking scissors and knives
were cutting off her next generation. She forbade me from sewing. She said I must concentrate and
think of nothing but having babies. And four times a day, a very nice servant girl would come into
my room, apologizing the whole time while making me drink a terrible-tasting medicine.
I envied this girl, the way she could walk out the door. Sometimes as I watched her from my
window, I would imagine I was that girl, standing in the courtyard, bargaining with the traveling
shoe mender, gossiping with other servant girls, scolding a handsome delivery man in her high
teasing voice.
One day, after two months had gone by without any results, Huang Taitai called the old
matchmaker to the house. The matchmaker examined me closely, looked up my birthdate and the
hour of my birth, and then asked Huang Taitai about my nature. Finally, the matchmaker gave her
conclusions: “It’s clear what has happened. A woman can have sons only if she is deficient in one
of the elements. Your daughter-in-law was born with enough wood, fire, water, and earth, and she
was deficient in metal, which was a good sign. But when she was married, you loaded her down
with gold bracelets and decorations and now she has all the elements, including metal. She’s too
balanced to have babies.”
This turned out to be joyous news for Huang Taitai, for she liked nothing better than to
reclaim all her gold and jewelry to help me become fertile. And it was good news for me too.
Because after the gold was removed from my body, I felt lighter, more free. They say this is what
happens if you lack metal. You begin to think as an independent person. That day I started to think
about how I would escape this marriage without breaking my promise to my family.
It was really quite simple. I made the Huangs think it was their idea to get rid of me, that they
would be the ones to say the marriage contract was not valid.
I thought about my plan for many days. I observed everyone around me, the thoughts they
showed in their faces, and then I was ready. I chose an auspicious day, the third day of the third
month. That’s the day of the Festival of Pure Brightness. On this day, your thoughts must be clear
as you prepare to think about your ancestors. That’s the day when everyone goes to the family
graves. They bring hoes to clear the weeds and brooms to sweep the stones and they offer
dumplings and oranges as spiritual food. Oh, it’s not a somber day, more like a picnic, but it has
special meaning to someone looking for grandsons.
On the morning of that day, I woke up Tyan-yu and the entire house with my wailing. It took
Huang Taitai a long time to come into my room. “What’s wrong with her now,” she cried from her
room. “Go make her be quiet.” But finally, after my wailing didn’t stop, she rushed into my room,
scolding me at the top of her voice.
I was clutching my mouth with one hand and my eyes with another. My body was writhing as
if I were seized by a terrible pain. I was quite convincing, because Huang Taitai drew back and
grew small like a scared animal.
“What’s wrong, little daughter? Tell me quickly,” she cried.
“Oh, it’s too terrible to think, too terrible to say,” I said between gasps and more wailing.
After enough wailing, I said what was so unthinkable. “I had a dream,” I reported. “Our
ancestors came to me and said they wanted to see our wedding. So Tyan-yu and I held the same
ceremony for our ancestors. We saw the matchmaker light the candle and give it to the servant to
watch. Our ancestors were so pleased, so pleased.…”
Huang Taitai looked impatient as I began to cry softly again. “But then the servant left the
room with our candle and a big wind came and blew the candle out. And our ancestors became
very angry. They shouted that the marriage was doomed! They said that Tyan-yu’s end of the
candle had blown out! Our ancestors said Tyan-yu would die if he stayed in this marriage!”
Tyan-yu’s face turned white. But Huang Taitai only frowned. “What a stupid girl to have such
bad dreams!” And then she scolded everybody to go back to bed.
“Mother,” I called to her in a hoarse whisper. “Please don’t leave me! I am afraid! Our
ancestors said if the matter is not settled, they would begin the cycle of destruction.”
“What is this nonsense!” cried Huang Taitai, turning back toward me. Tyan-yu followed her,
wearing his mother’s same frowning face. And I knew they were almost caught, two ducks leaning
into the pot.
“They knew you would not believe me,” I said in a remorseful tone, “because they know I do
not want to leave the comforts of my marriage. So our ancestors said they would plant the signs, to
show our marriage is now rotting.”
“What nonsense from your stupid head,” said Huang Taitai, sighing. But she could not resist.
“What signs?”
“In my dream, I saw a man with a long beard and a mole on his cheek.”
“Tyan-yu’s grandfather?” asked Huang Taitai. I nodded, remembering the painting I had
observed on the wall.
“He said there are three signs. First, he has drawn a black spot on Tyan-yu’s back, and this
spot will grow and eat away Tyan-yu’s flesh just as it ate away our ancestor’s face before he
Huang Taitai quickly turned to Tyan-yu and pulled his shirt up. “Ai-ya!” she cried, because
there it was, the same black mole, the size of a fingertip, just as I had always seen it these past five
months of sleeping as sister and brother.
“And then our ancestor touched my mouth,” and I patted my cheek as if it already hurt. “He
said my teeth would start to fall out one by one, until I could no longer protest leaving this
Huang Taitai pried open my mouth and gasped upon seeing the open spot in the back of my
mouth where a rotted tooth fell out four years ago.
“And finally, I saw him plant a seed in a servant girl’s womb. He said this girl only pretends
to come from a bad family. But she is really from imperial blood, and…”
I lay my head down on the pillow as if too tired to go on. Huang Taitai pushed my shoulder,
“What does he say?”
“He said the servant girl is Tyan-yu’s true spiritual wife. And the seed he has planted will
grow into Tyan-yu’s child.”
By mid-morning they had dragged the matchmaker’s servant over to our house and extracted
her terrible confession.
And after much searching they found the servant girl I liked so much, the one I had watched
from my window every day. I had seen her eyes grow bigger and her teasing voice become smaller
whenever the handsome delivery man arrived. And later, I had watched her stomach grow rounder
and her face become longer with fear and worry.
So you can imagine how happy she was when they forced her to tell the truth about her
imperial ancestry. I heard later she was so struck with this miracle of marrying Tyan-yu she
became a very religious person who ordered servants to sweep the ancestors’ graves not just once
a year, but once a day.
There’s no more to the story. They didn’t blame me so much. Huang Taitai got her grandson. I got
my clothes, a rail ticket to Peking, and enough money to go to America. The Huangs asked only that
I never tell anybody of any importance about the story of my doomed marriage.
It’s a true story, how I kept my promise, how I sacrificed my life. See the gold metal I can
now wear. I gave birth to your brothers and then your father gave me these two bracelets. Then I
had you. And every few years, when I have a little extra money, I buy another bracelet. I know
what I’m worth. They’re always twenty-four carats, all genuine.
But I’ll never forget. On the day of the Festival of Pure Brightness, I take off all my bracelets.
I remember the day when I finally knew a genuine thought and could follow where it went. That
was the day I was a young girl with my face under a red marriage scarf. I promised not to forget
How nice it is to be that girl again, to take off my scarf, to see what is underneath and feel the
lightness come back into my body!
Ying-Ying St. Clair
The Moon Lady
For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out. And because I
remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me. She sits by her fancy swimming
pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her
why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid.
All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody
could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list
of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table.
And I want to tell her this: We are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not
hearing, unknown by others.
I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain,
the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water.
Yet today I can remember a time when I ran and shouted, when I could not stand still. It is my
earliest recollection: telling the Moon Lady my secret wish. And because I forgot what I wished
for, that memory remained hidden from me all these many years.
But now I remember the wish, and I can recall the details of that entire day, as clearly as I see
my daughter and the foolishness of her life.
In 1918, the year that I was four, the Moon Festival arrived during an autumn in Wushi that
was unusually hot, terribly hot. When I awoke that morning, the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, the
straw mat covering my bed was already sticky. Everything in the room smelled of wet grass
simmering in the heat.
Earlier in the summer, the servants had covered all the windows with bamboo curtains to
drive out the sun. Every bed was covered with a woven mat, our only bedding during the months of
constant wet heat. And the hot bricks of the courtyard were crisscrossed with bamboo paths.
Autumn had come, but without its cool mornings and evenings. And so the stale heat still remained
in the shadows behind the curtains, heating up the acrid smells of my chamber pot, seeping into my
pillow, chafing the back of my neck and puffing up my cheeks, so that I awoke that morning with a
restless complaint.
There was another smell, outside, something burning, a pungent fragrance that was half sweet
and half bitter. “What’s that stinky smell?” I asked my amah, who always managed to appear next
to my bed the instant I was awake. She slept on a cot in a little room next to mine.
“It is the same as I explained yesterday,” she said, lifting me out of my bed and setting me on
her knee. And my sleepy mind tried to remember what she had told me upon waking the morning
“We are burning the Five Evils,” I said drowsily, then squirmed out of her warm lap. I
climbed on top of a little stool and looked out the window into the courtyard below. I saw a green
coil curled in the shape of a snake, with a tail that billowed yellow smoke. The other day, Amah
had shown me that the snake had come out of a colorful box decorated with five evil creatures: a
swimming snake, a jumping scorpion, a flying centipede, a dropping-down spider, and a springing
lizard. The bite of any one of these creatures could kill a child, explained Amah. So I was relieved
to think we had caught the Five Evils and were burning their corpses. I didn’t know the green coil
was merely incense used to chase away mosquitoes and small flies.
That day, instead of dressing me in a light cotton jacket and loose trousers, Amah brought out
a heavy yellow silk jacket and skirt outlined with black bands.
“No time to play today,” said Amah, opening the lined jacket. “Your mother has made you
new tiger clothes for the Moon Festival.…” She lifted me into the pants. “Very important day, and
now you are a big girl, so you can go to the ceremony.”
“What is a ceremony?” I asked as Amah slipped the jacket over my cotton undergarments.
“It is a proper way to behave. You do this and that, so the gods do not punish you,” said
Amah as she fastened my frog clasps.
“What kind of punishment?” I asked boldly.
“Too many questions!” cried Amah. “You do not need to understand. Just behave, follow your
mother’s example. Light the incense, make an offering to the moon, bow your head. Do not shame
me, Ying-ying.”
I bowed my head with a pout. I noticed the black bands on my sleeves, the tiny embroidered
peonies growing from curlicues of gold thread. I remembered watching my mother pushing a silver
needle in and out, gently nudging flowers and leaves and vines to bloom on the cloth.
And then I heard voices in the courtyard. Standing on my stool, I strained to find them.
Somebody was complaining about the heat: “…feel my arm, steamed soft clear to the bone.” Many
relatives from the north had arrived for the Moon Festival and were staying for the week.
Amah tried to pull a wide comb through my hair and I pretended to tumble off the stool as
soon as she reached a knot.
“Stand still, Ying-ying!” she cried, her usual lament, while I giggled and wobbled on the
stool. And then she yanked the full length of my hair like the reins of a horse and before I could fall
off the stool again, she quickly twisted my hair into a single braid off to the side, weaving into it
five strands of colorful silk. She wound my braid into a tight ball, then arranged and snipped the
loose silk strands until they fell into a neat tassel.
She spun me around to inspect her handiwork. I was roasting in the lined silk jacket and pants
obviously made with a cooler day in mind. My scalp was burning with the pain of Amah’s
attentions. What kind of day could be worth so much suffering?
“Pretty,” pronounced Amah, even though I wore a scowl on my face.
“Who is coming today?” I asked.
“Dajya”—All the family—she said happily. “We are all going to Tai Lake. The family has
rented a boat with a famous chef. And tonight at the ceremony you will see the Moon Lady.”
“The Moon Lady! The Moon Lady!” I said, jumping up and down with great delight. And
then, after I ceased to be amazed with the pleasant sounds of my voice saying new words, I tugged
Amah’s sleeve and asked: “Who is the Moon Lady?”
“Chang-o. She lives on the moon and today is the only day you can see her and have a secret
wish fulfilled.”
“What is a secret wish?”
“It is what you want but cannot ask,” said Amah.
“Why can’t I ask?”
“This is because…because if you ask it…it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire,” said
Amah. “Haven’t I taught you—that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask,
only listen.”
“Then how will the Moon Lady know my wish?”
“Ai! You ask too much already! You can ask her because she is not an ordinary person.”
Satisfied at last, I immediately said: “Then I will tell her I don’t want to wear these clothes
“Ah! Did I not just explain?” said Amah. “Now that you have mentioned this to me, it is not a
secret wish anymore.”
During the morning meal nobody seemed in a hurry to go to the lake; this person and that
always eating one more thing. And after breakfast everybody kept talking about things of little
consequence. I grew more worried and unhappy by the minute.
“…Autumn moon warms. O! Geese shadows return.” Baba was reciting a long poem he had
deciphered from ancient stone inscriptions.
“The third word in the next line,” explained Baba, “was worn off the slab, its meaning
washed away by centuries of rain, almost lost to posterity forever.”
“Ah, but fortunately,” said my uncle, his eyes twinkling, “you are a dedicated scholar of
ancient history and literature. You were able to solve it, I think.”
My father responded with the line: “Mist flowers radiant. O!…”
Mama was telling my aunt and the old ladies how to mix various herbs and insects to produce
a balm: “This you rub here, between these two spots. Rub it vigorously until your skin heats and
the achiness is burned out.”
“Ai! But how can I rub a swollen foot?” lamented the old lady. “Both inside and outside have
a sour painful feeling. Too tender to even touch!”
“It is the heat,” complained another old auntie. “Cooking all your flesh dry and brittle.”
“And burning your eyes!” exclaimed my great-aunt.
I sighed over and over again every time they started a new topic. Amah finally noticed me and
gave me a mooncake in the shape of a rabbit. She said I could sit in the courtyard and eat it with
my two little half-sisters, Number Two and Number Three.
It is easy to forget about a boat when you have a rabbit mooncake in your hand. The three of
us walked quickly out of the room, and as soon as we passed through the moongate that led to the
inner courtyard, we tumbled and shrieked, running to see who could get to the stone bench first. I
was the biggest, so I sat in the shady part, where the stone slab was cool. My half-sisters sat in the
sun. I broke off a rabbit ear for each of them. The ears were just dough, no sweet filling or egg
yolk inside, but my half-sisters were too little to know any better.
“Sister likes me better,” said Number Two to Number Three.
“Me better,” said Number Three to Number Two.
“Don’t make trouble,” I said to them both. I ate the rabbit’s body, rolling my tongue over my
lips to lick off the sticky bean paste.
We picked crumbs off one another, and after we finished our treat it grew quiet and once
again I became restless. Suddenly I saw a dragonfly with a large crimson body and transparent
wings. I leapt off the bench and ran to chase it, and my half-sisters followed me, jumping and
thrusting their hands upward as it flew away.
“Ying-ying!” I heard Amah call, and Number Two and Number Three ran off. Amah was
standing in the courtyard and my mother and the other ladies were now coming through the
moongate. Amah rushed over and bent down to smooth my yellow jacket. “Syin yifu!
Yidafadwo!”—Your new clothes! Everything, all over the place!—she cried in a show of distress.
My mother smiled and walked over to me. She smoothed some of my wayward hairs back in
place and tucked them into my coiled braid. “A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is
his nature,” she said. “But a girl should stand still. If you are still for a very long time, a dragonfly
will no longer see you. Then it will come to you and hide in the comfort of your shadow.” The old
ladies clucked in agreement and then they all left me in the middle of the hot courtyard.
Standing perfectly still like that, I discovered my shadow. At first it was just a dark spot on
the bamboo mats that covered the courtyard bricks. It had short legs and long arms, a dark coiled
braid just like mine. When I shook my head, it shook its head. We flapped our arms. We raised one
leg. I turned to walk away and it followed me. I turned back around quickly and it faced me. I
lifted the bamboo mat to see if I could peel off my shadow, but it was under the mat, on the brick. I
shrieked with delight at my shadow’s own cleverness. I ran to the shade under the tree, watching
my shadow chase me. It disappeared. I loved my shadow, this dark side of me that had my same
restless nature.
And then I heard Amah calling me again. “Ying-ying! It is time. Are you ready to go to the
lake?” I nodded my head and began to run toward her, my self running ahead. “Slowly, go slowly,”
admonished Amah.
Our entire family was already standing outside, chatting excitedly. Everybody was dressed in
important-looking clothes. Baba was in a new brown-colored gown, which while plain was of an
obviously fine-quality silk weave and workmanship. Mama had on a jacket and skirt with colors
that were the reverse of mine: black silk with yellow bands. My half-sisters wore rose-colored
tunics and so did their mothers, my father’s concubines. My older brother had on a blue jacket
embroidered with shapes resembling Buddha scepters for long life. Even the old ladies had put on
their best clothes to celebrate: Mama’s aunt, Baba’s mother and her cousin, and Great-uncle’s fat
wife, who still plucked her forehead bald and always walked as if she were crossing a slippery
stream, two tiny steps and then a scared look.
The servants had already packed and loaded a rickshaw with the day’s basic provisions: a
woven hamper filled with zong zi—the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, some filled with
roasted ham, some with sweet lotus seeds; a small stove for boiling water for hot tea; another
hamper containing cups and bowls and chopsticks; a cotton sack of apples, pomegranates, and
pears; sweaty earthen jars of preserved meats and vegetables; stacks of red boxes lined with four
mooncakes each; and of course, sleeping mats for our afternoon nap.
Then everybody climbed into rickshaws, the younger children sitting next to their amahs. At
the last moment, before we all set off, I wriggled out of Amah’s grasp and jumped out of the
rickshaw. I climbed into the rickshaw with my mother in it, which displeased Amah, because this
was presumptuous behavior on my part and also because Amah loved me better than her own. She
had given up her own child, a baby son, when her husband had died and she had come to our house
to be my nursemaid. But I was very spoiled because of her; she had never taught me to think about
her feelings. So I thought of Amah only as someone for my comfort, the way you might think of a
fan in the summer or a heater in the winter, a blessing you appreciate and love only when it is no
longer there.
When we arrived at the lake, I was disappointed to feel no cooling breezes. Our rickshaw
pullers were soaked with sweat and their mouths were open and panting like horses. At the dock, I
watched as the old ladies and men started climbing aboard a large boat our family had rented. The
boat looked like a floating teahouse, with an open-air pavilion larger than the one in our courtyard.
It had many red columns and a peaked tile roof, and behind that what looked like a garden house
with round windows.
When it was our turn, Amah grasped my hand tightly and we bounced across the plank. But as
soon as my feet touched the deck, I sprang free and, together with Number Two and Number Three,
I pushed my way past people’s legs enclosed in billows of dark and bright silk clothes—trying to
see who would be the first to run the length of the boat.
I loved the unsteady feeling of almost falling one way then another. Red lanterns hanging from
the roof and railings swayed, as if pushed by a breeze. My half-sisters and I ran our fingers over
benches and small tables in the pavilion. We traced our fingers over the patterns of the ornamental
wood railings and poked our faces through openings to see the water below. And then there were
more things to find!
I opened a heavy door leading into the garden house and ran past a room that looked like a
large sitting area. My sisters followed behind laughing. Through another door, I saw people in a
kitchen. A man holding a big cleaver turned and saw us, then called to us, as we shyly smiled and
backed away.
At the rear of the boat we saw poor-looking people: a man feeding sticks into a tall chimney
stove, a woman chopping vegetables, and two rough-looking boys squatting close to the edge of the
boat, holding what looked to be a piece of string attached to a wire-mesh cage lying just below the
surface of the water. They gave us not even a glance.
We returned to the front of the boat, just in time to see the dock moving away from us. Mama
and the other ladies were already seated on benches around the pavilion, fanning themselves
furiously and slapping the sides of each other’s heads when mosquitoes lighted. Baba and Uncle
were leaning over a rail, talking in deep, serious voices. My brother and some of his boy cousins
had found a long bamboo stick and were poking the water as if they could make the boat go faster.
The servants were seated in a cluster at the front, heating water for tea, shelling roasted gingko
nuts, and emptying out hampers of food for a noonday meal of cold dishes.
Even though Tai Lake is one of the largest in all of China, that day it seemed crowded with
boats: rowboats, pedal boats, sailboats, fishing boats, and floating pavilions like ours. So we often
passed other people leaning out to trail their hands in the cool water, some drifting by asleep
beneath a cloth canopy or oil-coated umbrella.
Suddenly I heard people crying, “Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!” and I thought, At last, the day has begun! I
raced to the pavilion and found aunts and uncles laughing as they used chopsticks to pick up
dancing shrimp, still squirming in their shells, their tiny legs bristling. So this was what the mesh
cage beneath the water had contained, freshwater shrimp, which my father was now dipping into a
spicy bean-curd sauce and popping into his mouth with two bites and a swallow.
But the excitement soon waned, and the afternoon seemed to pass like any other at home. The
same listlessness after the meal. A little drowsy gossip with hot tea. Amah telling me to lie down
on my mat. The quiet as everyone slept through the hottest part of the day.
I sat up and saw Amah was still asleep, lying askew on her sleeping mat. I wandered to the
back of the boat. The rough-looking boys were removing a large, squawking long-necked bird from
a bamboo cage. The bird had a metal ring around its neck. One boy held onto the bird, wrapping
his arms around the bird’s wings. The other tied a thick rope to a loop on the metal neck ring. Then
they released the bird and it swooped with a flurry of white wings, hovered over the edge of the
boat, then sat on top of the shiny water. I walked over to the edge and looked at the bird. He
looked back at me warily with one eye. Then the bird dove under the water and disappeared.
One of the boys threw a raft made of hollow reed flutes into the water and then dove in and
emerged on top of the raft. In a few seconds, the bird also emerged, its head struggling to hold onto
a large fish. The bird jumped onto the raft and then tried to swallow the fish, but of course, with
the ring around its neck, it could not. In one motion, the boy on the raft snatched the fish from the
bird’s mouth and threw it to the other boy on the boat. I clapped my hands and the bird dove under
water again.
For the next hour, while Amah and everybody else slept, I watched like a hungry cat waiting
its turn, as fish after fish appeared in the bird’s beak only to land in a wooden pail on the boat.
Then the boy in the water cried to the other, “Enough!” and the boy on the boat shouted to someone
high atop the part of the boat I could not see. And loud clanks and hissing sounds erupted as once
again the boat began to move. Then the boy next to me dove into the water. Both boys got on the
raft and crouched in the middle like two birds perched on a branch. I waved to them, envying their
carefree ways, and soon they were far away, a little yellow spot bobbing on the water.
It would have been enough to see this one adventure. But I stayed, as if caught in a good
dream. And sure enough, I turned around and a sullen woman was now squatting in front of the
bucket of fish. I watched as she took out a sharp, thin knife and began to slice open the fish bellies,
pulling out the red slippery insides and throwing them over her shoulder into the lake. I saw her
scrape off the fish scales, which flew in the air like shards of glass. And then there were two
chickens that no longer gurgled after their heads were chopped off. And a big snapping turtle that
stretched out its neck to bite a stick, and—whuck!—off fell its head. And dark masses of thin
freshwater eels, swimming furiously in a pot. Then the woman carried everything, without a word,
into the kitchen. And there was nothing else to see.
It was not until then, too late, that I saw my new clothes—and the spots of bloods, flecks of
fish scales, bits of feather and mud. What a strange mind I had! In my panic, in hearing waking
voices toward the front of the boat, I quickly dipped my hands in the bowl of turtle’s blood and
smeared this on my sleeves, and on the front of my pants and jacket. And this is what I truly
thought: that I could cover these spots by painting all my clothes crimson red, and that if I stood
perfectly still no one would notice this change.
That is how Amah found me: an apparition covered with blood. I can still hear her voice,
screaming in terror, running over to see what pieces of my body were missing, what leaky holes
had appeared. And when she found nothing, after inspecting my ears and my nose and counting my
fingers, she called me names, using words I had never heard before. But they sounded evil, the
way she hurled and spat the words out. She yanked off my jacket, pulled off my pants. She said I
smelled like “something evil this” and I looked like “something evil that.” Her voice was
trembling not so much with anger as with fear. “Your mother, now she will be glad to wash her
hands of you,” Amah said with great remorse. “She will banish us both to Kunming.” And then I
was truly frightened, because I had heard that Kunming was so far away nobody ever came to visit,
and that it was a wild place surrounded by a stone forest ruled by monkeys. Amah left me crying
on the back of the boat, standing in my white cotton undergarments and tiger slippers.
I had truly expected my mother to come soon. I imagined her seeing my soiled clothes, the
little flowers she had worked so hard to make. I thought she would come to the back of the boat
and scold me in her gentle way. But she did not come. Oh, once I heard some footsteps, but I saw
only the faces of my half-sisters pressed to the door window. They looked at me wide-eyed,
pointed to me, and then laughed and scampered off.
The water had turned a deep golden color, and then red, purple, and finally black. The sky
had darkened and red lantern lights started to glow all over the lake. I could hear people talking
and laughing, some voices from the front of our boat, some from other boats next to us. And then I
heard the wooden kitchen door banging open and shut and the air filled with good rich smells. The
voices from the pavilion cried in happy disbelief, “Ai! Look at this! And this!” I was hungry to be
I listened to their banquet while dangling my legs over the back. And although it was night, it
was bright outside. I could see my reflection, my legs, my hands leaning on the edge, and my face.
And above my head, I saw why it was so bright. In the dark water, I could see the full moon, a
moon so warm and big it looked like the sun. And I turned around so I could find the Moon Lady
and tell her my secret wish. But right at that moment, everybody else must have seen her too.
Because firecrackers exploded, and I fell into the water not even hearing my own splash.
I was surprised by the cool comfort of the water, so that at first I was not frightened. It was
like weightless sleep. And I expected Amah to come immediately and pick me up. But in the instant
that I began to choke, I knew she would not come. I thrashed my arms and legs under the water.
The sharp water had swum up my nose, into my throat and eyes, and this made me thrash even
harder. “Amah!” I tried to cry and I was so angry at her for abandoning me, for making me wait
and suffer unnecessarily. And then a dark shape brushed by me and I knew it was one of the Five
Evils, a swimming snake.
It wrapped around me and squeezed my body like a sponge, then tossed me into the choking
air—and I fell headlong into a rope net filled with writhing fish. Water gushed out of my throat, so
that now I was choking and wailing.
When I turned my head, I saw four shadows, with the moon in back of them. A dripping figure
was climbing into the boat. “Is it too small? Should we throw it back? Or is it worth some
money?” said the dripping man, panting. And the others laughed. I became quiet. I knew who these
people were. When Amah and I passed people like these in the streets, she would put her hands
over my eyes and ears.
“Stop now,” scolded the woman in the boat, “you’ve frightened her. She thinks we’re
brigands who are going to sell her for a slave.” And then she said in a gentle voice, “Where are
you from, little sister?”
The dripping man bent down and looked at me. “Oh, a little girl. Not a fish!”
“Not a fish! Not a fish!” murmured the others, chuckling.
I began to shiver, too scared to cry. The air smelled dangerous, the sharp odors of gunpowder
and fish.
“Do not pay any attention to them,” said the woman. “Are you from another fishing boat?
Which one? Do not be afraid. Point.”
Out on the water I saw rowboats and pedal boats and sailboats, and fishing boats like this
one, with a long bow and small house in the middle. I looked hard, my heart beating fast.
“There!” I said, and pointed to a floating pavilion filled with laughing people and lanterns.
“There! There!” And I began to cry, desperate to reach my family and be comforted. The fishing
boat glided swiftly over, toward the good cooking smells.
“E!” called the woman up to the boat. “Have you lost a little girl, a girl who fell in the
There were some shouts from the floating pavilion, and I strained to see faces of Amah, Baba,
Mama. People were crowded on one side of the pavilion, leaning over, pointing, looking into our
boat. All strangers, laughing red faces, loud voices. Where was Amah? Why did my mother not
come? A little girl pushed her way through some legs.
“That’s not me!” she cried. “I’m here. I didn’t fall in the water.” The people in the boat
roared with laughter and turned away.
“Little sister, you were mistaken,” said the woman as the fishing boat glided away. I said
nothing. I began to shiver again. I had seen nobody who cared that I was missing. I looked out over
the water at the hundreds of dancing lanterns. Firecrackers were exploding and I could hear more
people laughing. The farther we glided, the bigger the world became. And I now felt I was lost
The woman continued to stare at me. My braid was unfurled. My undergarments were wet and
gray. I had lost my slippers and was barefoot.
“What shall we do?” said one of the men quietly. “Nobody to claim her.”
“Maybe she is a beggar girl,” said one of the men. “Look at her clothes. She is one of those
children who ride the flimsy rafts to beg for money.”
I was filled with terror. Maybe this was true. I had turned into a beggar girl, lost without my
“Anh! Don’t you have eyes?” said the woman crossly. “Look at her skin, too pale. And her
feet, the bottoms are soft.”
“Put her on the shore, then,” said the man. “If she truly has a family, they will look for her
“Such a night!” sighed another man. “Always someone falling in on holiday nights. Drunken
poets and little children. Lucky she didn’t drown.” They chatted like this, back and forth, moving
slowly toward shore. One man pushed the boat with a long bamboo pole and we glided between
other boats. When we reached the dock, the man who had fished me out of the water lifted me out
of the boat with his fishy-smelling hands.
“Be careful next time, little sister,” called the woman as their boat glided away.
On the dock, with the bright moon behind me, I once again saw my shadow. It was shorter this
time, shrunken and wild-looking. We ran together over to some bushes along a walkway and hid.
In this hiding place I could hear people talking as they walked by. I could hear frogs and crickets.
And then—flutes and tinkling cymbals, a sounding gong and drums!
I looked through the branches of the bushes and in front I could see a crowd of people and,
above them, a stage holding up the moon. A young man burst out from the side of a stage and told
the crowd, “And now the Moon Lady will come and tell her sad tale to you, in a shadow play,
classically sung.”
The Moon Lady! I thought, and the very sound of those magic words made me forget my
troubles. I heard more cymbals and gongs and then a shadow of a woman appeared against the
moon. Her hair was undone and she was combing it. She began to speak. Such a sweet, wailing
“My fate and my penance,” she began to lament, pulling her long fingers through her hair, “to
live here on the moon, while my husband lives on the sun. So that each day and each night, we pass
each other, never seeing one another, except this one evening, the night of the mid-autumn moon.”
The crowd moved closer. The Moon Lady plucked her lute and began her singing tale.
On the other side of the moon I saw the silhouette of a man appear. The Moon Lady held her
arms out to embrace him—“O! Hou Yi, my husband, Master Archer of the Skies!” she sang. But
her husband did not seem to notice her. He was gazing at the sky. And as the sky grew brighter, his
mouth began to open wide—in horror or delight, I could not tell.
The Moon Lady clutched her throat and fell into a heap, crying, “The drought of ten suns in the
eastern sky!” And just as she sang this, the Master Archer pointed his magic arrows and shot down
nine suns which burst open with blood. “Sinking into a simmering sea!” she sang happily, and I
could hear these suns sizzling and crackling in death.
And now a fairy—the Queen Mother of the Western Skies!—was flying toward the Master
Archer. She opened a box and held up a glowing ball—no, not a baby sun but a magic peach, the
peach of everlasting life! I could see the Moon Lady pretending to be busy with her embroidery,
but she was watching her husband. She saw him hide the peach in a box. And then the Master
Archer raised his bow and vowed to fast for one year to show he had the patience to live forever.
And after he ran off, the Moon Lady wasted not one moment to find the peach and eat it!
As soon as she tasted it, she began to rise, then fly—not like the Queen Mother—but like a
dragonfly with broken wings. “Flung from this earth by my own wantonness!” she cried just as her
husband dashed back home, shouting, “Thief! Life-stealing wife!” He picked up his bow, aimed an
arrow at his wife and—with the rumblings of a gong, the sky went black.
Wyah! Wyah! The sad lute music began again as the sky on the stage lightened. And there
stood the poor lady against a moon as bright as the sun. Her hair was now so long it swept the
floor, wiping up her tears. An eternity had passed since she last saw her husband, for this was her
fate: to stay lost on the moon, forever seeking her own selfish wishes.
“For woman is yin,” she cried sadly, “the darkness within, where untempered passions lie.
And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds.”
At the end of her singing tale, I was crying, shaking with despair. Even though I did not
understand her entire story, I understood her grief. In one small moment, we had both lost the
world, and there was no way to get it back.
A gong sounded, and the Moon Lady bowed her head and looked serenely to the side. The
crowd clapped vigorously. And now the same young man as before came out on the stage and
announced, “Wait, everybody! The Moon Lady has consented to grant one secret wish to each
person here.…” The crowd stirred with excitement, people murmuring in high voices. “For a small
monetary donation…” continued the young man. And the crowd laughed and groaned, then began to
disperse. The young man shouted, “A once-a-year opportunity!” But nobody was listening to him,
except my shadow and me in the bushes.
“I have a wish! I have one!” I shouted as I ran forward in my bare feet. But the young man
paid no attention to me and walked off the stage. I kept running toward the moon to tell the Moon
Lady what I wanted, because now I knew what my wish was. I darted fast as a lizard behind the
stage, to the other side of the moon.
I saw her, standing still for just a moment. She was beautiful, ablaze with the light from a
dozen kerosene lamps. And then she shook her long shadowy tresses and began to walk down the
“I have a wish,” I said in a whisper, and still she did not hear me. So I walked closer yet,
until I could see the face of the Moon Lady: shrunken cheeks, a broad oily nose, large glaring teeth,
and red-stained eyes. A face so tired that she wearily pulled off her hair, her long gown fell from
her shoulders. And as the secret wish fell from my lips, the Moon Lady looked at me and became a
For many years, I could not remember what I wanted that night from the Moon Lady, or how it was
that I was found again by my family. Both of these things seemed an illusion to me, a wish granted
that could not be trusted. And so even though I was found—later that night after Amah, Baba,
Uncle, and the others shouted for me along the waterway—I never believed my family found the
same girl.
And then, over the years, I forgot the rest of what happened that day: the pitiful story the
Moon Lady sang, the pavilion boat, the bird with the ring on its neck, the tiny flowers blooming on
my sleeve, the burning of the Five Evils.
But now that I am old, moving every year closer to the end of my life, I also feel closer to the
beginning. And I remember everything that happened that day because it has happened many times
in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I
lost myself.
I remember all these things. And tonight, on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, I also
remember what I asked the Moon Lady so long ago. I wished to be found.
The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates
“Do not ride your bicycle around the corner,” the mother had told the daughter when
she was seven.
“Why not!” protested the girl.
“Because then I cannot see you and you will fall down and cry and I will not hear you.”
“How do you know I’ll fall?” whined the girl.
“It is in a book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you
outside the protection of this house.”
“I don’t believe you. Let me see the book.”
“It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me.”
“What are they, then?” the girl demanded. “Tell me the twenty-six bad things.”
But the mother sat knitting in silence.
“What twenty-six!” shouted the girl.
The mother still did not answer her.
“You can’t tell me because you don’t know! You don’t know anything!” And the girl ran
outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in her hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached
the corner.
Waverly Jong
Rules of the Game
I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning
arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess
“Bite back your tongue,” scolded my mother when I cried loudly, yanking her hand toward the
store that sold bags of salted plums. At home, she said, “Wise guy, he not go against wind. In
Chinese we say, Come from South, blow with wind—poom!—North will follow. Strongest wind
cannot be seen.”
The next week I bit back my tongue as we entered the store with the forbidden candies. When
my mother finished her shopping, she quietly plucked a small bag of plums from the rack and put it
on the counter with the rest of the items.
My mother imparted her daily truths so she could help my older brothers and me rise above
our circumstances. We lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Like most of the other Chinese
children who played in the back alleys of restaurants and curio shops, I didn’t think we were poor.
My bowl was always full, three five-course meals every day, beginning with a soup full of
mysterious things I didn’t want to know the names of.
We lived on Waverly Place, in a warm, clean, two-bedroom flat that sat above a small
Chinese bakery specializing in steamed pastries and dim sum. In the early morning, when the alley
was still quiet, I could smell fragrant red beans as they were cooked down to a pasty sweetness.
By daybreak, our flat was heavy with the odor of fried sesame balls and sweet curried chicken
crescents. From my bed, I would listen as my father got ready for work, then locked the door
behind him, one-two-three clicks.
At the end of our two-block alley was a small sandlot playground with swings and slides
well-shined down the middle with use. The play area was bordered by wood-slat benches where
old-country people sat cracking roasted watermelon seeds with their golden teeth and scattering
the husks to an impatient gathering of gurgling pigeons. The best playground, however, was the
dark alley itself. It was crammed with daily mysteries and adventures. My brothers and I would
peer into the medicinal herb shop, watching old Li dole out onto a stiff sheet of white paper the
right amount of insect shells, saffron-colored seeds, and pungent leaves for his ailing customers. It
was said that he once cured a woman dying of an ancestral curse that had eluded the best of
American doctors. Next to the pharmacy was a printer who specialized in gold-embossed wedding
invitations and festive red banners.
Farther down the street was Ping Yuen Fish Market. The front window displayed a tank
crowded with doomed fish and turtles struggling to gain footing on the slimy green-tiled sides. A
hand-written sign informed tourists, “Within this store, is all for food, not for pet.” Inside, the
butchers with their blood-stained white smocks deftly gutted the fish while customers cried out
their orders and shouted, “Give me your freshest,” On less crowded market days, we would
inspect the crates of live frogs and crabs which we were warned not to poke, boxes of dried
cuttlefish, and row upon row of iced prawns, squid, and slippery fish. The sanddabs made me
shiver each time; their eyes lay on one flattened side and reminded me of my mother’s story of a
careless girl who ran into a crowded street and was crushed by a cab. “Was smash flat,” reported
my mother.
At the corner of the alley was Hong Sing’s, a four-table café with a recessed stairwell in
front that led to a door marked “Tradesmen.” My brothers and I believed the bad people emerged
from this door at night. Tourists never went to Hong Sing’s, since the menu was printed only in
Chinese. A Caucasian man with a big camera once posed me and my playmates in front of the
restaurant. He had us move to the side of the picture window so the photo would capture the
roasted duck with its head dangling from a juice-covered rope. After he took the picture, I told him
he should go into Hong Sing’s and eat dinner. When he smiled and asked me what they served, I
shouted, “Guts and duck’s feet and octopus gizzards!” Then I ran off with my friends, shrieking
with laughter as we scampered across the alley and hid in the entryway grotto of the China Gem
Company, my heart pounding with hope that he would chase us.
My mother named me after the street that we lived on: Waverly Place Jong, my official name
for important American documents. But my family called me Meimei, “Little Sister.” I was the
youngest, the only daughter. Each morning before school, my mother would twist and yank on my
thick black hair until she had formed two tightly wound pigtails. One day, as she struggled to
weave a hard-toothed comb through my disobedient hair, I had a sly thought.
I asked her, “Ma, what is Chinese torture?” My mother shook her head. A bobby pin was
wedged between her lips. She wetted her palm and smoothed the hair above my ear, then pushed
the pin in so that it nicked sharply against my scalp.
“Who say this word?” she asked without a trace of knowing how wicked I was being. I
shrugged my shoulders and said, “Some boy in my class said Chinese people do Chinese torture.”
“Chinese people do many things,” she said simply. “Chinese people do business, do
medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture.”
My older brother Vincent was the one who actually got the chess set. We had gone to the
annual Christmas party held at the First Chinese Baptist Church at the end of the alley. The
missionary ladies had put together a Santa bag of gifts donated by members of another church.
None of the gifts had names on them. There were separate sacks for boys and girls of different
One of the Chinese parishioners had donned a Santa Claus costume and a stiff paper beard
with cotton balls glued to it. I think the only children who thought he was the real thing were too
young to know that Santa Claus was not Chinese. When my turn came up, the Santa man asked me
how old I was. I thought it was a trick question; I was seven according to the American formula
and eight by the Chinese calendar. I said I was born on March 17, 1951. That seemed to satisfy
him. He then solemnly asked if I had been a very, very good girl this year and did I believe in
Jesus Christ and obey my parents. I knew the only answer to that. I nodded back with equal
Having watched the other children opening their gifts, I already knew that the big gifts were
not necessarily the nicest ones. One girl my age got a large coloring book of biblical characters,
while a less greedy girl who selected a smaller box received a glass vial of lavender toilet water.
The sound of the box was also important. A ten-year-old boy had chosen a box that jangled when
he shook it. It was a tin globe of the world with a slit for inserting money. He must have thought it
was full of dimes and nickels, because when he saw that it had just ten pennies, his face fell with
such undisguised disappointment that his mother slapped the side of his head and led him out of the
church hall, apologizing to the crowd for her son who had such bad manners he couldn’t appreciate
such a fine gift.
As I peered into the sack, I quickly fingered the remaining presents, testing their weight,
imagining what they contained. I chose a heavy, compact one that was wrapped in shiny silver foil
and a red satin ribbon. It was a twelve-pack of Life Savers and I spent the rest of the party
arranging and rearranging the candy tubes in the order of my favorites. My brother Winston chose
wisely as well. His present turned out to be a box of intricate plastic parts; the instructions on the
box proclaimed that when they were properly assembled he would have an authentic miniature
replica of a World War II submarine.
Vincent got the chess set, which would have been a very decent present to get at a church
Christmas party, except it was obviously used and, as we discovered later, it was missing a black
pawn and a white knight. My mother graciously thanked the unknown benefactor, saying, “Too
good. Cost too much.” At which point, an old lady with fine white, wispy hair nodded toward our
family and said with a whistling whisper, “Merry, merry Christmas.”
When we got home, my mother told Vincent to throw the chess set away. “She not want it. We
not want it,” she said, tossing her head stiffly to the side with a tight, proud smile. My brothers had
deaf ears. They were already lining up the chess pieces and reading from the dog-eared instruction
I watched Vincent and Winston play during Christmas week. The chess board seemed to hold
elaborate secrets waiting to be untangled. The chessmen were more powerful than Old Li’s magic
herbs that cured ancestral curses. And my brothers wore such serious faces that I was sure
something was at stake that was greater than avoiding the tradesmen’s door to Hong Sing’s.
“Let me! Let me!” I begged between games when one brother or the other would sit back with
a deep sigh of relief and victory, the other annoyed, unable to let go of the outcome. Vincent at first
refused to let me play, but when I offered my Life Savers as replacements for the buttons that filled
in for the missing pieces, he relented. He chose the flavors: wild cherry for the black pawn and
peppermint for the white knight. Winner could eat both.
As our mother sprinkled flour and rolled out small doughy circles for the steamed dumplings
that would be our dinner that night, Vincent explained the rules, pointing to each piece. “You have
sixteen pieces and so do I. One king and queen, two bishops, two knights, two castles, and eight
pawns. The pawns can only move forward one step, except on the first move. Then they can move
two. But they can only take men by moving crossways like this, except in the beginning, when you
can move ahead and take another pawn.”
“Why?” I asked as I moved my pawn. “Why can’t they move more steps?”
“Because they’re pawns,” he said.
“But why do they go crossways to take other men. Why aren’t there any women and
“Why is the sky blue? Why must you always ask stupid questions?” asked Vincent. “This is a
game. These are the rules. I didn’t make them up. See. Here. In the book.” He jabbed a page with a
pawn in his hand. “Pawn. P-A-W-N. Pawn. Read it yourself.”
My mother patted the flour off her hands. “Let me see book,” she said quietly. She scanned the
pages quickly, not reading the foreign English symbols, seeming to search deliberately for nothing
in particular.
“This American rules,” she concluded at last. “Every time people come out from foreign
country, must know rules. You not know, judge say, Too bad, go back. They not telling you why so
you can use their way go forward. They say, Don’t know why, you find out yourself. But they
knowing all the time. Better you take it, find out why yourself.” She tossed her head back with a
satisfied smile.
I found out about all the whys later. I read the rules and looked up all the big words in a
dictionary. I borrowed books from the Chinatown library. I studied each chess piece, trying to
absorb the power each contained.
I learned about opening moves and why it’s important to control the center early on; the
shortest distance between two points is straight down the middle. I learned about the middle game
and why tactics between two adversaries are like clashing ideas; the one who plays better has the
clearest plans for both attacking and getting out of traps. I learned why it is essential in the
endgame to have foresight, a mathematical understanding of all possible moves, and patience; all
weaknesses and advantages become evident to a strong adversary and are obscured to a tiring
opponent. I discovered that for the whole game one must gather invisible strengths and see the
endgame before the game begins.
I also found out why I should never reveal “why” to others. A little knowledge withheld is a
great advantage one should store for future use. That is the power of chess. It is a game of secrets
in which one must show and never tell.
I loved the secrets I found within the sixty-four black and white squares. I carefully drew a
handmade chessboard and pinned it to the wall next to my bed, where at night I would stare for
hours at imaginary battles. Soon I no longer lost any games or Life Savers, but I lost my
adversaries. Winston and Vincent decided they were more interested in roaming the streets after
school in their Hopalong Cassidy cowboy hats.
On a cold spring afternoon, while walking home from school, I detoured through the
playground at the end of our alley. I saw a group of old men, two seated across a folding table
playing a game of chess, others smoking pipes, eating peanuts, and watching. I ran home and
grabbed Vincent’s chess set, which was bound in a cardboard box with rubber bands. I also
carefully selected two prized rolls of Life Savers. I came back to the park and approached a man
who was observing the game.
“Want to play?” I asked him. His face widened with surprise and he grinned as he looked at
the box under my arm.
“Little sister, been a long time since I play with dolls,” he said, smiling benevolently. I
quickly put the box down next to him on the bench and displayed my retort.
Lau Po, as he allowed me to call him, turned out to be a much better player than my brothers. I
lost many games and many Life Savers. But over the weeks, with each diminishing roll of candies,
I added new secrets. Lau Po gave me the names. The Double Attack from the East and West
Shores. Throwing Stones on the Drowning Man. The Sudden Meeting of the Clan. The Surprise
from the Sleeping Guard. The Humble Servant Who Kills the King. Sand in the Eyes of Advancing
Forces. A Double Killing Without Blood.
There were also the fine points of chess etiquette. Keep captured men in neat rows, as welltended prisoners. Never announce “Check” with vanity, lest someone with an unseen sword slit
your throat. Never hurl pieces into the sandbox after you have lost a game, because then you must
find them again, by yourself, after apologizing to all around you. By the end of the summer, Lau Po
had taught me all he knew, and I had become a better chess player.
A small weekend crowd of Chinese people and tourists would gather as I played and
defeated my opponents one by one. My mother would join the crowds during these outdoor
exhibition games. She sat proudly on the bench, telling my admirers with proper Chinese humility,
“Is luck.”
A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local
chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately
wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as
we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They
would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.
“Is shame you fall down nobody push you,” said my mother.
During my first tournament, my mother sat with me in the front row as I waited for my turn. I
frequently bounced my legs to unstick them from the cold metal seat of the folding chair. When my
name was called, I leapt up. My mother unwrapped something in her lap. It was her chang, a small
tablet of red jade which held the sun’s fire. “Is luck,” she whispered, and tucked it into my dress
pocket. I turned to my opponent, a fifteen-year-old boy from Oakland. He looked at me, wrinkling
his nose.
As I began to play, the boy disappeared, the color ran out of the room, and I saw only my
white pieces and his black ones waiting on the other side. A light wind began blowing past my
ears. It whispered secrets only I could hear.
“Blow from the South,” it murmured. “The wind leaves no trail.” I saw a clear path, the traps
to avoid. The crowd rustled. “Shhh! Shhh!” said the corners of the room. The wind blew stronger.
“Throw sand from the East to distract him.” The knight came forward ready for the sacrifice. The
wind hissed, louder and louder. “Blow, blow, blow. He cannot see. He is blind now. Make him
lean away from the wind so he is easier to knock down.”
“Check,” I said, as the wind roared with laughter. The wind died down to little puffs, my own
My mother placed my first trophy next to a new plastic chess set that the neighborhood Tao
society had given to me. As she wiped each piece with a soft cloth, she said, “Next time win more,
lose less.”
“Ma, it’s not how many pieces you lose,” I said. “Sometimes you need to lose pieces to get
“Better to lose less, see if you really need.”
At the next tournament, I won again, but it was my mother who wore the triumphant grin.
“Lost eight piece this time. Last time was eleven. What I tell you? Better off lose less!” I was
annoyed, but I couldn’t say anything.
I attended more tournaments, each one farther away from home. I won all games, in all
divisions. The Chinese bakery downstairs from our flat displayed my growing collection of
trophies in its window, amidst the dust-covered cakes that were never picked up. The day after I
won an important regional tournament, the window encased a fresh sheet cake with whippedcream frosting and red script saying, “Congratulations, Waverly Jong, Chinatown Chess
Champion.” Soon after that, a flower shop, headstone engraver, and funeral parlor offered to
sponsor me in national tournaments. That’s when my mother decided I no longer had to do the
dishes. Winston and Vincent had to do my chores.
“Why does she get to play and we do all the work,” complained Vincent.
“Is new American rules,” said my mother. “Meimei play, squeeze all her brains out for win
chess. You play, worth squeeze towel.”
By my ninth birthday, I was a national chess champion. I was still some 429 points away from
grand-master status, but I was touted as the Great American Hope, a child prodigy and a girl to
boot. They ran a photo of me in Life magazine next to a quote in which Bobby Fischer said, “There
will never be a woman grand master.” “Your move, Bobby,” said the caption.
The day they took the magazine picture I wore neatly plaited braids clipped with plastic
barrettes trimmed with rhinestones. I was playing in a large high school auditorium that echoed
with phlegmy coughs and the squeaky rubber knobs of chair legs sliding across freshly waxed
wooden floors. Seated across from me was an American man, about the same age as Lau Po,
maybe fifty. I remember that his sweaty brow seemed to weep at my every move. He wore a dark,
malodorous suit. One of his pockets was stuffed with a great white kerchief on which he wiped his
palm before sweeping his hand over the chosen chess piece with great flourish.
In my crisp pink-and-white dress with scratchy lace at the neck, one of two my mother had
sewn for these special occasions, I would clasp my hands under my chin, the delicate points of my
elbows poised lightly on the table in the manner my mother had shown me for posing for the press.
I would swing my patent leather shoes back and forth like an impatient child riding on a school
bus. Then I would pause, suck in my lips, twirl my chosen piece in midair as if undecided, and
then firmly plant it in its new threatening place, with a triumphant smile thrown back at my
opponent for good measure.
I no longer played in the alley of Waverly Place. I never visited the playground where the
pigeons and old men gathered. I went to school, then directly home to learn new chess secrets,
cleverly concealed advantages, more escape routes.
But I found it difficult to concentrate at home. My mother had a habit of standing over me
while I plotted out my games. I think she thought of herself as my protective ally. Her lips would
be sealed tight, and after each move I made, a soft “Hmmmmph” would escape from her nose.
“Ma, I can’t practice when you stand there like that,” I said one day. She retreated to the
kitchen and made loud noises with the pots and pans. When the crashing stopped, I could see out of
the corner of my eye that she was standing in the doorway. “Hmmmph!” Only this one came out of
her tight throat.
My parents made many concessions to allow me to practice. One time I complained that the
bedroom I shared was so noisy that I couldn’t think. Thereafter, my brothers slept in a bed in the
living room facing the street. I said I couldn’t finish my rice; my head didn’t work right when my
stomach was too full. I left the table with half-finished bowls and nobody complained. But there
was one duty I couldn’t avoid. I had to accompany my mother on Saturday market days when I had
no tournament to play. My mother would proudly walk with me, visiting many shops, buying very
little. “This my daughter Wave-ly Jong,” she said to whoever looked her way.
One day, after we left a shop I said under my breath, “I wish you wouldn’t do that, telling
everybody I’m your daughter.” My mother stopped walking. Crowds of people with heavy bags
pushed past us on the sidewalk, bumping into first one shoulder, then another.
“Aiii-ya. So shame be with mother?” She grasped my hand even tighter as she glared at me.
I looked down. “It’s not that, it’s just so obvious. It’s just so embarrassing.”
“Embarrass you be my daughter?” Her voice was cracking with anger.
“That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I said.”
“What you say?”
I knew it was a mistake to say anything more, but I heard my voice speaking. “Why do you
have to use me to show off? If you want to show off, then why don’t you learn to play chess.”
My mother’s eyes turned into dangerous black slits. She had no words for me, just sharp
I felt the wind rushing around my hot ears. I jerked my hand out of my mother’s tight grasp and
spun around, knocking into an old woman. Her bag of groceries spilled to the ground.
“Aii-ya! Stupid girl!” my mother and the woman cried. Oranges and tin cans careened down
the sidewalk. As my mother stooped to help the old woman pick up the escaping food, I took off.
I raced down the street, dashing between people, not looking back as my mother screamed
shrilly, “Meimei! Meimei!” I fled down an alley, past dark curtained shops and merchants washing
the grime off their windows. I sped into the sunlight, into a large street crowded with tourists
examining trinkets and souvenirs. I ducked into another dark alley, down another street, up another
alley. I ran until it hurt and I realized I had nowhere to go, that I was not running from anything. The
alleys contained no escape routes.
My breath came out like angry smoke. It was cold. I sat down on an upturned plastic pail next
to a stack of empty boxes, cupping my chin with my hands, thinking hard. I imagined my mother,
first walking briskly down one street or another looking for me, then giving up and returning home
to await my arrival. After two hours, I stood up on creaking legs and slowly walked home.
The alley was quiet and I could see the yellow lights shining from our flat like two tiger’s
eyes in the night. I climbed the sixteen steps to the door, advancing quietly up each so as not to
make any warning sounds. I turned the knob; the door was locked. I heard a chair moving, quick
steps, the locks turning—click! click! click!—and then the door opened.
“About time you got home,” said Vincent. “Boy, are you in trouble.”
He slid back to the dinner table. On a platter were the remains of a large fish, its fleshy head
still connected to bones swimming upstream in vain escape. Standing there waiting for my
punishment, I heard my mother speak in a dry voice.
“We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us.”
Nobody looked at me. Bone chopsticks clinked against the insides of bowls being emptied
into hungry mouths.
I walked into my room, closed the door, and lay down on my bed. The room was dark, the
ceiling filled with shadows from the dinnertime lights of neighboring flats.
In my head, I saw a chessboard with sixty-four black and white squares. Opposite me was my
opponent, two angry black slits. She wore a triumphant smile. “Strongest wind cannot be seen,”
she said.
Her black men advanced across the plane, slowly marching to each successive level as a
single unit. My white pieces screamed as they scurried and fell off the board one by one. As her
men drew closer to my edge, I felt myself growing light. I rose up into the air and flew out the
window. Higher and higher, above the alley, over the tops of tiled roofs, where I was gathered up
by the wind and pushed up toward the night sky until everything below me disappeared and I was
I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.
Lena St. Clair
The Voice from the Wall
When I was little, my mother told me my great-grandfather had sentenced a beggar to die in the
worst possible way, and that later the dead man came back and killed my great-grandfather. Either
that, or he died of influenza one week later.
I used to play out the beggar’s last moments over and over again in my head. In my mind, I
saw the executioner strip off the man’s shirt and lead him into the open yard. “This traitor,” read
the executioner, “is sentenced to die the death of a thousand cuts.” But before he could even raise
the sharp sword to whittle his life away, they found the beggar’s mind had already broken into a
thousand pieces. A few days later, my great-grandfather looked up from his books and saw this
same man looking like a smashed vase hastily put back together. “As the sword was cutting me
down,” said the ghost, “I thought this was the worst I would ever have to endure. But I was wrong.
The worst is on the other side.” And the dead man embraced my great-grandfather with the jagged
pieces of his arm and pulled him through the wall, to show him what he meant.
I once asked my mother how he really died. She said, “In bed, very quickly, after being sick
for only two days.”
“No, no, I mean the other man. How was he killed? Did they slice off his skin first? Did they
use a cleaver to chop up his bones? Did he scream and feel all one thousand cuts?”
“Annh! Why do you Americans have only these morbid thoughts in your mind?” cried my
mother in Chinese. “That man has been dead for almost seventy years. What does it matter how he
I always thought it mattered, to know what is the worst possible thing that can happen to you,
to know how you can avoid it, to not be drawn by the magic of the unspeakable. Because, even as a
young child, I could sense the unspoken terrors that surrounded our house, the ones that chased my
mother until she hid in a secret dark corner of her mind. And still they found her. I watched, over
the years, as they devoured her, piece by piece, until she disappeared and became a ghost.
As I remember it, the dark side of my mother sprang from the basement in our old house in
Oakland. I was five and my mother tried to hide it from me. She barricaded the door with a
wooden chair, secured it with a chain and two types of key locks. And it became so mysterious that
I spent all my energies unraveling this door, until the day I was finally able to pry it open with my
small fingers, only to immediately fall headlong into the dark chasm. And it was only after I
stopped screaming—I had seen the blood of my nose on my mother’s shoulder—only then did my
mother tell me about the bad man who lived in the basement and why I should never open the door
again. He had lived there for thousands of years, she said, and was so evil and hungry that had my
mother not rescued me so quickly, this bad man would have planted five babies in me and then
eaten us all in a six-course meal, tossing our bones on the dirty floor.
And after that I began to see terrible things. I saw these things with my Chinese eyes, the part
of me I got from my mother. I saw devils dancing feverishly beneath a hole I had dug in the
sandbox. I saw that lightning had eyes and searched to strike down little children. I saw a beetle
wearing the face of a child, which I promptly squashed with the wheel of my tricycle. And when I
became older, I could see things that Causasian girls at school did not. Monkey rings that would
split in two and send a swinging child hurtling through space. Tether balls that could splash a
girl’s head all over the playground in front of laughing friends.
I didn’t tell anyone about the things I saw, not even my mother. Most people didn’t know I
was half Chinese, maybe because my last name is St. Clair. When people first saw me, they
thought I looked like my father, English-Irish, big-boned and delicate at the same time. But if they
looked really close, if they knew that they were there, they could see the Chinese parts. Instead of
having cheeks like my father’s sharp-edged points, mine were smooth as beach pebbles. I didn’t
have his straw-yellow hair or his white skin, yet my coloring looked too pale, like something that
was once darker and had faded in the sun.
And my eyes, my mother gave me my eyes, no eyelids, as if they were carved on a jack-o’lantern with two swift cuts of a short knife. I used to push my eyes in on the sides to make them
rounder. Or I’d open them very wide until I could see the white parts. But when I walked around
the house like that, my father asked me why I looked so scared.
I have a photo of my mother with this same scared look. My father said the picture was taken
when Ma was first released from Angel Island Immigration Station. She stayed there for three
weeks, until they could process her papers and determine whether she was a War Bride, a
Displaced Person, a Student, or the wife of a Chinese-American citizen. My father said they didn’t
have rules for dealing with the Chinese wife of a Caucasian citizen. Somehow, in the end, they
declared her a Displaced Person, lost in a sea of immigration categories.
My mother never talked about her life in China, but my father said he saved her from a
terrible life there, some tragedy she could not speak about. My father proudly named her in her
immigration papers: Betty St. Clair, crossing out her given name of Gu Ying-ying. And then he put
down the wrong birthyear, 1916 instead of 1914. So, with the sweep of a pen, my mother lost her
name and became a Dragon instead of a Tiger.
In this picture you can see why my mother looks displaced. She is clutching a large clamshaped bag, as though someone might steal this from her as well if she is less watchful. She has on
an ankle-length Chinese dress with modest vents at the side. And on top she is wearing a
Westernized suit jacket, awkwardly stylish on my mother’s small body, with its padded shoulders,
wide lapels, and oversize cloth buttons. This was my mother’s wedding dress, a gift from my
father. In this outfit she looks as if she were neither coming from nor going to someplace. Her chin
is bent down and you can see the precise part in her hair, a neat white line drawn from above her
left brow then over the black horizon of her head.
And even though her head is bowed, humble in defeat, her eyes are staring up past the camera,
wide open.
“Why does she look scared?” I asked my father.
And my father explained: It was only because he said “Cheese,” and my mother was
struggling to keep her eyes open until the flash went off, ten seconds later.
My mother often looked this way, waiting for something to happen, wearing this scared look.
Only later she lost the struggle to keep her eyes open.
“Don’t look at her,” said my mother as we walked through Chinatown in Oakland. She had
grabbed my hand and pulled me close to her body. And of course I looked. I saw a woman sitting
on the sidewalk, leaning against a building. She was old and young at the same time, with dull eyes
as though she had not slept for many years. And her feet and her hands—the tips were as black as
if she had dipped them in India ink. But I knew they were rotted.
“What did she do to herself?” I whispered to my mother.
“She met a bad man,” said my mother. “She had a baby she didn’t want.”
And I knew that was not true. I knew my mother made up anything to warn me, to help me
avoid some unknown danger. My mother saw danger in everything, even in other Chinese people.
Where we lived and shopped, everyone spoke Cantonese or English. My mother was from Wushi,
near Shanghai. So she spoke Mandarin and a little bit of English. My father, who spoke only a few
canned Chinese expressions, insisted my mother learn English. So with him, she spoke in moods
and gestures, looks and silences, and sometimes a combination of English punctuated by
hesitations and Chinese frustration: “Shwo buchulai”—Words cannot come out. So my father
would put words in her mouth.
“I think Mom is trying to say she’s tired,” he would whisper when my mother became moody.
“I think she’s saying we’re the best darn family in the country!” he’d exclaim when she had
cooked a wonderfully fragrant meal.
But with me, when we were alone, my mother would speak in Chinese, saying things my
father could not possibly imagine. I could understand the words perfectly, but not the meanings.
One thought led to another without connection.
“You must not walk in any direction but to school and back home,” warned my mother when
she decided I was old enough to walk by myself.
“Why?” I asked.
“You can’t understand these things,” she said.
“Why not?”
“Because I haven’t put it in your mind yet.”
“Why not?”
“Aii-ya! Such questions! Because it is too terrible to consider. A man can grab you off the
streets, sell you to someone else, make you have a baby. Then you’ll kill the baby. And when they
find this baby in a garbage can, then what can be done? You’ll go to jail, die there.”
I knew this was not a true answer. But I also made up lies to prevent bad things from
happening in the future. I often lied when I had to translate for her, the endless forms, instructions,
notices from school, telephone calls. “Shemma yisz?”—What meaning?—she asked me when a
man at a grocery store yelled at her for opening up jars to smell the insides. I was so embarrassed I
told her that Chinese people were not allowed to shop there. When the school sent a notice home
about a polio vaccination, I told her the time and place, and added that all students were now
required to use metal lunch boxes, since they had discovered old paper bags can carry polio
“We’re moving up in the world,” my father proudly announced, this being the occasion of his
promotion to sales supervisor of a clothing manufacturer. “Your mother is thrilled.”
And we did move up, across the bay to San Francisco and up a hill in North Beach, to an
Italian neighborhood, where the sidewalk was so steep I had to lean into the slant to get home from
school each day. I was ten and I was hopeful that we might be able to leave all the old fears behind
in Oakland.
The apartment building was three stories high, two apartments per floor. It had a renovated
façade, a recent layer of white stucco topped with connected rows of metal fire-escape ladders.
But inside it was old. The front door with its narrow glass panes opened into a musty lobby that
smelled of everybody’s life mixed together. Everybody meant the names on the front door next to
their little buzzers: Anderson, Giordino, Hayman, Ricci, Sorci, and our name, St. Clair. We lived
on the middle floor, stuck between cooking smells that floated up and feet sounds that drifted
down. My bedroom faced the street, and at night, in the dark, I could see in my mind another life.
Cars struggling to climb the steep, fog-shrouded hill, gunning their deep engines and spinning their
wheels. Loud, happy people, laughing, puffing, gasping: “Are we almost there?” A beagle
scrambling to his feet to start his yipping yowl, answered a few seconds later by fire truck sirens
and an angry woman hissing, “Sammy! Bad dog! Hush now!” And with all this soothing
predictability, I would soon fall asleep.
My mother was not happy with the apartment, but I didn’t see that at first. When we moved in,
she busied herself with getting settled, arranging the furniture, unpacking dishes, hanging pictures
on the wall. It took her about one week. And soon after that, when she and I were walking to the
bus stop, she met a man who threw her off balance.
He was a red-faced Chinese man, wobbling down the sidewalk as if he were lost. His runny
eyes saw us and he quickly stood up straight and threw out his arms, shouting, “I found you! Suzie
Wong, girl of my dreams! Hah!” And with his arms and mouth wide open, he started rushing
toward us. My mother dropped my hand and covered her body with her arms as if she were naked,
unable to do anything else. In that moment as she let go, I started to scream, seeing this dangerous
man lunging closer. I was still screaming after two laughing men grabbed this man and, shaking
him, said, “Joe, stop it, for Chrissake. You’re scaring that poor little girl and her maid.”
The rest of the day—while riding on the bus, walking in and out of stores, shopping for our
dinner—my mother trembled. She clutched my hand so tightly it hurt. And once when she let go of
my hand to take her wallet out of her purse at the cash register, I started to slip away to look at the
candy. She grabbed my hand back so fast I knew at that instant how sorry she was that she had not
protected me better.
As soon as we got home from grocery shopping, she began to put the cans and vegetables
away. And then, as if something were not quite right, she removed the cans from one shelf and
switched them with the cans on another. Next she walked briskly into the living room and moved a
large round mirror from the wall facing the front door to a wall by the sofa.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She whispered something in Chinese about “things not being balanced,” and I thought she
meant how things looked, not how things felt. And then she started to move the larger pieces: the
sofa, chairs, end tables, a Chinese scroll of goldfish.
“What’s going on here?” asked my father when he came home from work.
“She’s making it look better,” I said.
And the next day, when I came home from school, I saw she had again rearranged everything.
Everything was in a different place. I could see that some terrible danger lay ahead.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked her, afraid she would give me a true answer.
But she whispered some Chinese nonsense instead: “When something goes against your
nature, you are not in balance. This house was built too steep, and a bad wind from the top blows
all your strength back down the hill. So you can never get ahead. You are always rolling
And then she started pointing to the walls and doors of the apartment. “See how narrow this
doorway is, like a neck that has been strangled. And the kitchen faces this toilet room, so all your
worth is flushed away.”
“But what does it mean? What’s going to happen if it’s not balanced?” I asked my mother.
My father explained it to me later. “Your mother is just practicing her nesting instincts,” he
said. “All mothers get it. You’ll see when you’re older.”
I wondered why my father never worried. Was he blind? Why did my mother and I see
something more?
And then a few days later, I found out that my father had been right all along. I came home
from school, walked into my bedroom, and saw it. My mother had rearranged my room. My bed
was no longer by the window but against a wall. And where my bed once was—now there stood a
used crib. So the secret danger was a ballooning stomach, the source of my mother’s imbalance.
My mother was going to have a baby.
“See,” said my father as we both looked at the crib. “Nesting instincts. Here’s the nest. And
here’s where the baby goes.” He was so pleased with this imaginary baby in the crib. He didn’t
see what I later saw. My mother began to bump into things, into table edges as if she forgot her
stomach contained a baby, as if she were headed for trouble instead. She did not speak of the joys
of having a new baby; she talked about a heaviness around her, about things being out of balance,
not in harmony with one another. So I worried about that baby, that it was stuck somewhere
between my mother’s stomach and this crib in my room.
With my bed against the wall, the nighttime life of my imagination changed. Instead of street
sounds, I began to hear voices coming from the wall, from the apartment next door. The front-door
buzzer said a family called the Sorcis lived there.
That first night I heard the muffled sound of someone shouting. A woman? A girl? I flattened
my ear against the wall and heard a woman’s angry voice, then another, the higher voice of a girl
shouting back. And now, the voices turned toward me, like fire sirens turning onto our street, and I
could hear the accusations fading in and out: Who am I to say!…Why do you keep buggin’ me?…
Then get out and stay out!…rather die rather be dead!…Why doncha then!
Then I heard scraping sounds, slamming, pushing and shouts and then whack! whack! whack!
Someone was killing. Someone was being killed. Screams and shouts, a mother had a sword high
above a girl’s head and was starting to slice her life away, first a braid, then her scalp, an
eyebrow, a toe, a thumb, the point of her cheek, the slant of her nose, until there was nothing left,
no sounds.
I lay back against my pillow, my heart pounding at what I had just witnessed with my ears and
my imagination. A girl had just been killed. I hadn’t been able to stop myself from listening. I
wasn’t able to stop what happened. The horror of it all.
But the next night, the girl came back to life with more screams, more beating, her life once
more in peril. And so it continued, night after night, a voice pressing against my wall telling me
that this was the worst possible thing that could happen: the terror of not knowing when it would
ever stop.
Sometimes I heard this loud family across the hallway that separated our two apartment
doors. Their apartment was by the stairs going up to the third floor. Ours was by the stairs going
down to the lobby.
“You break your legs sliding down that banister, I’m gonna break your neck,” a woman
shouted. Her warnings were followed by the sounds of feet stomping on the stairs. “And don’t
forget to pick up Pop’s suits!”
I knew their terrible life so intimately that I was startled by the immediacy of seeing her in
person for the first time. I was pulling the front door shut while balancing an armload of books.
And when I turned around, I saw her coming toward me just a few feet away and I shrieked and
dropped everything. She snickered and I knew who she was, this tall girl whom I guessed to be
about twelve, two years older than I was. Then she bolted down the stairs and I quickly gathered
up my books and followed her, careful to walk on the other side of the street.
She didn’t seem like a girl who had been killed a hundred times. I saw no traces of bloodstained clothes; she wore a crisp white blouse, a blue cardigan sweater, and a blue-green pleated
skirt. In fact, as I watched her, she seemed quite happy, her two brown braids bouncing jauntily in
rhythm to her walk. And then, as if she knew that I was thinking about her, she turned her head. She
gave me a scowl and quickly ducked down a side street and walked out of my sight.
Every time I saw her after that, I would pretend to look down, busy rearranging my books or
the buttons on my sweater, guilty that I knew everything about her.
My parents’ friends Auntie Su and Uncle Canning picked me up at school one day and took me to
the hospital to see my mother. I knew this was serious because everything they said was
unnecessary but spoken with solemn importance.
“It is now four o’clock,” said Uncle Canning, looking at his watch.
“The bus is never on time,” said Auntie Su.
When I visited my mother in the hospital, she seemed half asleep, tossing back and forth. And
then her eyes popped open, staring at the ceiling.
“My fault, my fault. I knew this before it happened,” she babbled. “I did nothing to prevent
“Betty darling, Betty darling,” said my father frantically. But my mother kept shouting these
accusations to herself. She grabbed my hand and I realized her whole body was shaking. And then
she looked at me, in a strange way, as if she were begging me for her life, as if I could pardon her.
She was mumbling in Chinese.
“Lena, what’s she saying?” cried my father. For once, he had no words to put in my mother’s
And for once, I had no ready answer. It struck me that the worst possible thing had happened.
That what she had been fearing had come true. They were no longer warnings. And so I listened.
“When the baby was ready to be born,” she murmured, “I could already hear him screaming
inside my womb. His little fingers, they were clinging to stay inside. But the nurses, the doctor,
they said to push him out, make him come. And when his head popped out, the nurses cried, His
eyes are wide open! He sees everything! Then his body slipped out and he lay on the table,
steaming with life.
“When I looked at him, I saw right away. His tiny legs, his small arms, his thin neck, and then
a large head so terrible I could not stop looking at it. This baby’s eyes were open and his head—it
was open too! I could see all the way back, to where his thoughts were supposed to be, and there
was nothing there. No brain, the doctor shouted! His head is just an empty eggshell!
“And then this baby, maybe he heard us, his large head seemed to fill with hot air and rise up
from the table. The head turned to one side, then to the other. It looked right through me. I knew he
could see everything inside me. How I had given no thought to killing my other son! How I had
given no thought to having this baby!”
I could not tell my father what she had said. He was so sad already with this empty crib in his
mind. How could I tell him she was crazy?
So this is what I translated for him: “She says we must all think very hard about having
another baby. She says she hopes this baby is very happy on the other side. And she thinks we
should leave now and go have dinner.”
After the baby died, my mother fell apart, not all at once, but piece by piece, like plates
falling off a shelf one by one. I never knew when it would happen, so I became nervous all the
time, waiting.
Sometimes she would start to make dinner, but would stop halfway, the water running full
steam in the sink, her knife poised in the air over half-chopped vegetables, silent, tears flowing.
And sometimes we’d be eating and we would have to stop and put our forks down because she had
dropped her face into her hands and was saying. “Mei gwansyi”—It doesn’t matter. My father
would just sit there, trying to figure out what it was that didn’t matter this much. And I would leave
the table, knowing it would happen again, always a next time.
My father seemed to fall apart in a different way. He tried to make things better. But it was as
if he were running to catch things before they fell, only he would fall before he could catch
“She’s just tired,” he explained to me when we were eating dinner at the Gold Spike, just the
two of us, because my mother was lying like a statue on her bed. I knew he was thinking about her
because he had this worried face, staring at his dinner plate as if it were filled with worms instead
of spaghetti.
At home, my mother looked at everything around her with empty eyes. My father would come
home from work, patting my head, saying, “How’s my big girl,” but always looking past me,
toward my mother. I had such fears inside, not in my head but in my stomach. I could no longer see
what was so scary, but I could feel it. I could feel every little movement in our silent house. And at
night, I could feel the crashing loud fights on the other side of my bedroom wall, this girl being
beaten to death. In bed, with the blanket edge lying across my neck, I used to wonder which was
worse, our side or theirs? And after thinking about this for a while, after feeling sorry for myself, it
comforted me somewhat to think that this girl next door had a more unhappy life.
But one night after dinner our doorbell rang. This was curious, because usually people rang
the buzzer downstairs first.
“Lena, could you see who it is?” called my father from the kitchen. He was doing the dishes.
My mother was lying in bed. My mother was now always “resting” and it was as if she had died
and become a living ghost.
I opened the door cautiously, then swung it wide open with surprise. It was the girl from next
door. I stared at her with undisguised amazement. She was smiling back at me, and she looked
ruffled, as if she had fallen out of bed with her clothes on.
“Who is it?” called my father.
“It’s next door!” I shouted to my father. “It’s…”
“Teresa,” she offered quickly.
“It’s Teresa!” I yelled back to my father.
“Invite her in,” my father said at almost the same moment that Teresa squeezed past me and
into our apartment. Without being invited, she started walking toward my bedroom. I closed the
front door and followed her two brown braids that were bouncing like whips beating the back of a
She walked right over to my window and began to open it. “What are you doing?” I cried.
She sat on the window ledge, looked out on the street. And then she looked at me and started to
giggle. I sat down on my bed watching her, waiting for her to stop, feeling the cold air blow in
from the dark opening.
“What’s so funny?” I finally said. It occurred to me that perhaps she was laughing at me, at my
life. Maybe she had listened through the wall and heard nothing, the stagnant silence of our
unhappy house.
“Why are you laughing?” I demanded.
“My mother kicked me out,” she finally said. She talked with a swagger, seeming to be proud
of this fact. And then she snickered a little and said, “We had this fight and she pushed me out the
door and locked it. So now she thinks I’m going to wait outside the door until I’m sorry enough to
apologize. But I’m not going to.”
“Then what are you going to do?” I asked breathlessly, certain that her mother would kill her
for good this time.
“I’m going to use your fire escape to climb back into my bedroom,” she whispered back.
“And she’s going to wait. And when she gets worried, she’ll open the front door. Only I won’t be
there! I’ll be in my bedroom, in bed.” She giggled again.
“Won’t she be mad when she finds you?”
“Nah, she’ll just be glad I’m not dead or something. Oh, she’ll pretend to be mad, sort of. We
do this kind of stuff all the time.” And then she slipped through my window and soundlessly made
her way back home.
I stared at the open window for a long time, wondering about her. How could she go back?
Didn’t she see how terrible her life was? Didn’t she recognize it would never stop?
I lay down on my bed waiting to hear the screams and shouts. And late at night I was still
awake when I heard the loud voices next door. Mrs. Sorci was shouting and crying, You stupida
girl. You almost gave me a heart attack. And Teresa was yelling back, I coulda been killed. I
almost fell and broke my neck. And then I heard them laughing and crying, crying and laughing,
shouting with love.
I was stunned. I could almost see them hugging and kissing one another. I was crying for joy
with them, because I had been wrong.
And in my memory I can still feel the hope that beat in me that night. I clung to this hope, day
after day, night after night, year after year. I would watch my mother lying in her bed, babbling to
herself as she sat on the sofa. And yet I knew that this, the worst possible thing, would one day
stop. I still saw bad things in my mind, but now I found ways to change them. I still heard Mrs.
Sorci and Teresa having terrible fights, but I saw something else.
I saw a girl complaining that the pain of not being seen was unbearable. I saw the mother
lying in bed in her long flowing robes. Then the girl pulled out a sharp sword and told her mother,
“Then you must die the death of a thousand cuts. It is the only way to save you.”
The mother accepted this and closed her eyes. The sword came down and sliced back and
forth, up and down, whish! whish! whish! And the mother screamed and shouted, cried out in terror
and pain. But when she opened her eyes, she saw no blood, no shredded flesh.
The girl said, “Do you see now?”
The mother nodded: “Now I have perfect understanding. I have already experienced the
worst. After this, there is no worst possible thing.”
And the daughter said, “Now you must come back, to the other side. Then you can see why
you were wrong.”
And the girl grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her through the wall.
Rose Hsu Jordan
Half and Half
As proof of her faith, my mother used to carry a small leatherette Bible when she went to the First
Chinese Baptist Church every Sunday. But later, after my mother lost her faith in God, that
leatherette Bible wound up wedged under a too-short table leg, a way for her to correct the
imbalances of life. It’s been there for over twenty years.
My mother pretends that Bible isn’t there. Whenever anyone asks her what it’s doing there,
she says, a little too loudly, “Oh, this? I forgot.” But I know she sees it. My mother is not the best
housekeeper in the world, and after all these years that Bible is still clean white.
Tonight I’m watching my mother sweep under the same kitchen table, something she does
every night after dinner. She gently pokes her broom around the table leg propped up by the Bible.
I watch her, sweep after sweep, waiting for the right moment to tell her about Ted and me, that
we’re getting divorced. When I tell her, I know she’s going to say, “This cannot be.”
And when I say that it is certainly true, that our marriage is over, I know what else she will
say: “Then you must save it.”
And even though I know it’s hopeless—there’s absolutely nothing left to save—I’m afraid if I
tell her that, she’ll still persuade me to try.
I think it’s ironic that my mother wants me to fight the divorce. Seventeen years ago she was
chagrined when I started dating Ted. My older sisters had dated only Chinese boys from church
before getting married.
Ted and I met in a politics of ecology class when he leaned over and offered to pay me two
dollars for the last week’s notes. I refused the money and accepted a cup of coffee instead. This
was during my second semester at UC Berkeley, where I had enrolled as a liberal arts major and
later changed to fine arts. Ted was in his third year in pre-med, his choice, he told me, ever since
he dissected a fetal pig in the sixth grade.
I have to admit that what I initially found attractive in Ted were precisely the things that made
him different from my brothers and the Chinese boys I had dated: his brashness; the assuredness in
which he asked for things and expected to get them; his opinionated manner; his angular face and
lanky body; the thickness of his arms; the fact that his parents immigrated from Tarrytown, New
York, not Tientsin, China.
My mother must have noticed these same differences after Ted picked me up one evening at
my parents’ house. When I returned home, my mother was still up, watching television.
“He is American,” warned my mother, as if I had been too blind to notice. A waigoren.”
“I’m American too,” I said. “And it’s not as if I’m going to marry him or something.”
Mrs. Jordan also had a few words to say. Ted had casually invited me to a family picnic, the
annual clan reunion held by the polo fields in Golden Gate Park. Although we had dated only a few
times in the last month—and certainly had never slept together, since both of us lived at home—
Ted introduced me to all his relatives as his girlfriend, which, until then, I didn’t know I was.
Later, when Ted and his father went off to play volleyball with the others, his mother took my
hand, and we started walking along the grass, away from the crowd. She squeezed my palm
warmly but never seemed to look at me.
“I’m so glad to meet you finally,” Mrs. Jordan said. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t really Ted’s
girlfriend, but she went on. “I think it’s nice that you and Ted are having such a lot of fun together.
So I hope you won’t misunderstand what I have to say.”
And then she spoke quietly about Ted’s future, his need to concentrate on his medical studies,
why it would be years before he could even think about marriage. She assured me she had nothing
whatsoever against minorities; she and her husband, who owned a chain of office-supply stores,
personally knew many fine people who were Oriental, Spanish, and even black. But Ted was
going to be in one of those professions where he would be judged by a different standard, by
patients and other doctors who might not be as understanding as the Jordans were. She said it was
so unfortunate the way the rest of the world was, how unpopular the Vietnam War was.
“Mrs. Jordan, I am not Vietnamese,” I said softly, even though I was on the verge of shouting.
“And I have no intention of marrying your son.”
When Ted drove me home that day, I told him I couldn’t see him anymore. When he asked me
why, I shrugged. When he pressed me, I told him what his mother had said, verbatim, without
“And you’re just going to sit there! Let my mother decide what’s right?” he shouted, as if I
were a co-conspirator who had turned traitor. I was touched that Ted was so upset.
“What should we do?” I asked, and I had a pained feeling I thought was the beginning of love.
In those early months, we clung to each other with a rather silly desperation, because, in spite
of anything my mother or Mrs. Jordan could say, there was nothing that really prevented us from
seeing one another. With imagined tragedy hovering over us, we became inseparable, two halves
creating the whole: yin and yang. I was victim to his hero. I was always in danger and he was
always rescuing me. I would fall and he would lift me up. It was exhilarating and draining. The
emotional effect of saving and being saved was addicting to both of us. And that, as much as
anything we ever did in bed, was how we made love to each other: conjoined where my
weaknesses needed protection.
“What should we do?” I continued to ask him. And within a year of our first meeting we were
living together. The month before Ted started medical school at UCSF we were married in the
Episcopal church, and Mrs. Jordan sat in the front pew, crying as was expected of the groom’s
mother. When Ted finished his residency in dermatology, we bought a run-down three-story
Victorian with a large garden in Ashbury Heights. Ted helped me set up a studio downstairs so I
could take in work as a free-lance production assistant for graphic artists.
Over the years, Ted decided where we went on vacation. He decided what new furniture we
should buy. He decided we should wait until we moved into a better neighborhood before having
children. We used to discuss some of these matters, but we both knew the question would boil
down to my saying, “Ted, you decide.” After a while, there were no more discussions. Ted simply
decided. And I never thought of objecting. I preferred to ignore the world around me, obsessing
only over what was in front of me: my T-square, my X-acto knife, my blue pencil.
But last year Ted’s feelings about what he called “decision and responsibility” changed. A
new patient had come to him asking what she could do about the spidery veins on her cheeks. And
when he told her he could suck the red veins out and make her beautiful again, she believed him.
But instead, he accidentally sucked a nerve out, and the left side of her smile fell down and she
sued him.
After he lost the malpractice lawsuit—his first, and a big shock to him I now realize—he
started pushing me to make decisons. Did I think we should buy an American car or a Japanese
car? Should we change from whole-life to term insurance? What did I think about that candidate
who supported the contras? What about a family?
I thought about things, the pros and the cons. But in the end I would be so confused, because I
never believed there was ever any one right answer, yet there were many wrong ones. So
whenever I said, “You decide,” or “I don’t care,” or “Either way is fine with me,” Ted would say
in his impatient voice, “No, you decide. You can’t have it both ways, none of the responsibility,
none of the blame.”
I could feel things changing between us. A protective veil had been lifted and Ted now
started pushing me about everything. He asked me to decide on the most trivial matters, as if he
were baiting me. Italian food or Thai. One appetizer or two. Which appetizer. Credit card or cash.
Visa or MasterCard.
Last month, when he was leaving for a two-day dermatology course in Los Angeles, he asked
if I wanted to come along and then quickly, before I could say anything, he added, “Never mind,
I’d rather go alone.”
“More time to study,” I agreed.
“No, because you can never make up your mind about anything,” he said.
And I protested, “But it’s only with things that aren’t important.”
“Nothing is important to you, then,” he said in a tone of disgust.
“Ted, if you want me to go, I’ll go.”
And it was as if something snapped in him. “How the hell did we ever get married? Did you
just say ‘I do’ because the minister said ‘repeat after me’? What would you have done with your
life if I had never married you? Did it ever occur to you?”
This was such a big leap in logic, between what I said and what he said, that I thought we
were like two people standing apart on separate mountain peaks, recklessly leaning forward to
throw stones at one another, unaware of the dangerous chasm that separated us.
But now I realize Ted knew what he was saying all along. He wanted to show me the rift.
Because later that evening he called from Los Angeles and said he wanted a divorce.
Ever since Ted’s been gone, I’ve been thinking, Even if I had expected it, even if I had known
what I was going to do with my life, it still would have knocked the wind out of me.
When something that violent hits you, you can’t help but lose your balance and fall. And after
you pick yourself up, you realize you can’t trust anybody to save you—not your husband, not your
mother, not God. So what can you do to stop yourself from tilting and falling all over again?
My mother believed in God’s will for many years. It was as if she had turned on a celestial faucet
and goodness kept pouring out. She said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our
way, only I thought she said “fate,” because she couldn’t pronounce that “th” sound in “faith.”
And later, I discovered that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that
somehow you’re in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not
denying any possibility, good or bad. I was just saying, If there is a choice, dear God or whatever
you are, here’s where the odds should be placed.
I remember the day I started thinking this, it was such a revelation to me. It was the day my
mother lost her faith in God. She found that things of unquestioned certainty could never be trusted
We had gone to the beach, to a secluded spot south of the city near Devil’s Slide. My father
had read in Sunset magazine that this was a good place to catch ocean perch. And although my
father was not a fisherman but a pharmacist’s assistant who had once been a doctor in China, he
believed in his nengkan, his ability to do anything he put his mind to. My mother believed she had
nengkan to cook anything my father had a mind to catch. It was this belief in their nengkan that had
brought my parents to America. It had enabled them to have seven children and buy a house in the
Sunset district with very little money. It had given them the confidence to believe their luck would
never run out, that God was on their side, that the house gods had only benevolent things to report
and our ancestors were pleased, that lifetime warranties meant our lucky streak would never
break, that all the elements were in balance, the right amount of wind and water.
So there we were, the nine of us: my father, my mother, my two sisters, four brothers, and
myself, so confident as we walked along our first beach. We marched in single file across the cool
gray sand, from oldest to youngest. I was in the middle, fourteen years old. We would have made
quite a sight, if anyone else had been watching, nine pairs of bare feet trudging, nine pairs of shoes
in hand, nine black-haired heads turned toward the water to watch the waves tumbling in.
The wind was whipping the cotton trousers around my legs and I looked for some place
where the sand wouldn’t kick into my eyes. I saw we were standing in the hollow of a cove. It was
like a giant bowl, cracked in half, the other half washed out to sea. My mother walked toward the
right, where the beach was clean, and we all followed. On this side, the wall of the cove curved
around and protected the beach from both the rough surf and the wind. And along this wall, in its
shadow, was a reef ledge that started at the edge of the beach and continued out past the cove
where the waters became rough. It seemed as though a person could walk out to sea on this reef,
although it looked very rocky and slippery. On the other side of the cove, the wall was more
jagged, eaten away by the water. It was pitted with crevices, so when the waves crashed against
the wall, the water spewed out of these holes like white gulleys.
Thinking back, I remember that this beach cove was a terrible place, full of wet shadows that
chilled us and invisible specks that flew into our eyes and made it hard for us to see the dangers.
We were all blind with the newness of this experience: a Chinese family trying to act like a typical
American family at the beach.
My mother spread out an old striped bedspread, which flapped in the wind until nine pairs of
shoes weighed it down. My father assembled his long bamboo fishing pole, a pole he had made
with his own two hands, remembering its design from his childhood in China. And we children sat
huddled shoulder to shoulder on the blanket, reaching into the grocery sack full of bologna
sandwiches, which we hungrily ate salted with sand from our fingers.
Then my father stood up and admired his fishing pole, its grace, its strength. Satisfied, he
picked up his shoes and walked to the edge of the beach and then onto the reef to the point just
before it was wet. My two older sisters, Janice and Ruth, jumped up from the blanket and slapped
their thighs to get the sand off. Then they slapped each other’s back and raced off down the beach
shrieking. I was about to get up and chase them, but my mother nodded toward my four brothers
and reminded me: “Dangsying tamende shenti,” which means “Take care of them,” or literally,
“Watch out for their bodies.” These bodies were the anchors of my life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and
Bing. I fell back onto the sand, groaning as my throat grew tight, as I made the same lament:
“Why?” Why did I have to care for them?
And she gave me the same answer: “Yiding.”
I must. Because they were my brothers. My sisters had once taken care of me. How else could
I learn responsibility? How else could I appreciate what my parents had done for me?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke were twelve, ten, and nine, old enough to keep themselves loudly
amused. They had already buried Luke in a shallow grave of sand so that only his head stuck out.
Now they were starting to pat together the outlines of a sand-castle wall on top of him.
But Bing was only four, easily excitable and easily bored and irritable. He didn’t want to
play with the other brothers because they had pushed him off to the side, admonishing him, “No,
Bing, you’ll just wreck it.”
So Bing wandered down the beach, walking stiffly like an ousted emperor, picking up shards
of rock and chunks of driftwood and flinging them with all his might into the surf. I trailed behind,
imagining tidal waves and wondering what I would do if one appeared. I called to Bing every now
and then, “Don’t go too close to the water. You’ll get your feet wet.” And I thought how much I
seemed like my mother, always worried beyond reason inside, but at the same time talking about
the danger as if it were less than it really was. The worry surrounded me, like the wall of the cove,
and it made me feel everything had been considered and was now safe.
My mother had a superstition, in fact, that children were predisposed to certain dangers on
certain days, all depending on their Chinese birthdate. It was explained in a little Chinese book
called The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates. There, on each page, was an illustration of some terrible
danger that awaited young innocent children. In the corners was a description written in Chinese,
and since I couldn’t read the characters, I could only see what the picture meant.
The same little boy appeared in each picture: climbing a broken tree limb, standing by a
falling gate, slipping in a wooden tub, being carried away by a snapping dog, fleeing from a bolt of
lightning. And in each of these pictures stood a man who looked as if he were wearing a lizard
costume. He had a big crease in his forehead, or maybe it was actually that he had two round
horns. In one picture, the lizard man was standing on a curved bridge, laughing as he watched the
little boy falling forward over the bridge rail, his slippered feet already in the air.
It would have been enough to think that even one of these dangers could befall a child. And
even though the birthdates corresponded to only one danger, my mother worried about them all.
This was because she couldn’t figure out how the Chinese dates, based on the lunar calendar,
translated into American dates. So by taking them all into account, she had absolute faith she could
prevent every one of them.
The sun had shifted and moved over the other side of the cove wall. Everything had settled
into place. My mother was busy keeping sand from blowing onto the blanket, then shaking sand out
of shoes, and tacking corners of blankets back down again with the now clean shoes. My father
was still standing at the end of the reef, patiently casting out, waiting for nengkan to manifest itself
as a fish. I could see small figures farther down on the beach, and I could tell they were my sisters
by their two dark heads and yellow pants. My brothers’ shrieks were mixed with those of seagulls.
Bing had found an empty soda bottle and was using this to dig sand next to the dark cove wall. And
I sat on the sand, just where the shadows ended and the sunny part began.
Bing was pounding the soda bottle against the rock, so I called to him, “Don’t dig so hard.
You’ll bust a hole in the wall and fall all the way to China.” And I laughed when he looked at me
as though he thought what I said was true. He stood up and started walking toward the water. He
put one foot tentatively on the reef, and I warned him, “Bing.”
“I’m gonna see Daddy,” he protested.
“Stay close to the wall, then, away from the water,” I said. “Stay away from the mean fish.”
And I watched as he inched his way along the reef, his back hugging the bumpy cove wall. I
still see him, so clearly that I almost feel I can make him stay there forever.
I see him standing by the wall, safe, calling to my father, who looks over his shoulder toward
Bing. How glad I am that my father is going to watch him for a while! Bing starts to walk over and
then something tugs on my father’s line and he’s reeling as fast as he can.
Shouts erupt. Someone has thrown sand in Luke’s face and he’s jumped out of his sand grave
and thrown himself on top of Mark, thrashing and kicking. My mother shouts for me to stop them.
And right after I pull Luke off Mark, I look up and see Bing walking alone to the edge of the reef.
In the confusion of the fight, nobody notices. I am the only one who sees what Bing is doing.
Bing walks one, two, three steps. His little body is moving so quickly, as if he spotted
something wonderful by the water’s edge. And I think, He’s going to fall in . I’m expecting it. And
just as I think this, his feet are already in the air, in a moment of balance, before he splashes into
the sea and disappears without leaving so much as a ripple in the water.
I sank to my knees watching that spot where he disappeared, not moving, not saying anything.
I couldn’t make sense of it. I was thinking, Should I run to the water and try to pull him out? Should
I shout to my father? Can I rise on my legs fast enough? Can I take it all back and forbid Bing from
joining my father on the ledge?
And then my sisters were back, and one of them said, “Where’s Bing?” There was silence for
a few seconds and then shouts and sand flying as everyone rushed past me toward the water’s
edge. I stood there unable to move as my sisters looked by the cove wall, as my brothers
scrambled to see what lay behind pieces of driftwood. My mother and father were trying to part
the waves with their hands.
We were there for many hours. I remember the search boats and the sunset when dusk came. I
had never seen a sunset like that: a bright orange flame touching the water’s edge and then fanning
out, warming the sea. When it became dark, the boats turned their yellow orbs on and bounced up
and down on the dark shiny water.
As I look back, it seems unnatural to think about the colors of the sunset and boats at a time
like that. But we all had strange thoughts. My father was calculating minutes, estimating the
temperature of the water, readjusting his estimate of when Bing fell. My sisters were calling,
“Bing! Bing!” as if he were hiding in some bushes high above the beach cliffs. My brothers sat in
the car, quietly reading comic books. And when the boats turned off their yellow orbs, my mother
went for a swim. She had never swum a stroke in her life, but her faith in her own nengkan
convinced her that what these Americans couldn’t do, she could. She could find Bing.
And when the rescue people finally pulled her out of the water, she still had her nengkan
intact. Her hair, her clothes, they were all heavy with the cold water, but she stood quietly, calm
and regal as a mermaid queen who had just arrived out of the sea. The police called off the search,
put us all in our car, and sent us home to grieve.
I had expected to be beaten to death, by my father, by my mother, by my sisters and brothers. I
knew it was my fault. I hadn’t watched him closely enough, and yet I saw him. But as we sat in the
dark living room, I heard them, one by one whispering their regrets.
“I was selfish to want to go fishing,” said my father.
“We shouldn’t have gone for a walk,” said Janice, while Ruth blew her nose yet another time.
“Why’d you have to throw sand in my face?” moaned Luke. “Why’d you have to make me
start a fight?”
And my mother quietly admitted to me, “I told you to stop their fight. I told you to take your
eyes off him.”
If I had had any time at all to feel a sense of relief, it would have quickly evaporated, because
my mother also said, “So now I am telling you, we must go and find him, quickly, tomorrow
morning.” And everybody’s eyes looked down. But I saw it as my punishment: to go out with my
mother, back to the beach, to help her find Bing’s body.
Nothing prepared me for what my mother did the next day. When I woke up, it was still dark
and she was already dressed. On the kitchen table was a thermos, a teacup, the white leatherette
Bible, and the car keys.
“Is Daddy ready?” I asked.
“Daddy’s not coming,” she said.
“Then how will we get there? Who will drive us?”
She picked up the keys and I followed her out the door to the car. I wondered the whole time
as we drove to the beach how she had learned to drive overnight. She used no map. She drove
smoothly ahead, turning down Geary, then the Great Highway, signaling at all the right times,
getting on the Coast Highway and easily winding the car around the sharp curves that often led
inexperienced drivers off and over the cliffs.
When we arrived at the beach, she walked immediately down the dirt path and over to the end
of the reef ledge, where I had seen Bing disappear. She held in her hand the white Bible. And
looking out over the water, she called to God, her small voice carried up by the gulls to heaven. It
began with “Dear God” and ended with “Amen,” and in between she spoke in Chinese.
“I have always believed in your blessings,” she praised God in that same tone she used for
exaggerated Chinese compliments. “We knew they would come. We did not question them. Your
decisions were our decisions. You rewarded us for our faith.
“In return we have always tried to show our deepest respect. We went to your house. We
brought you money. We sang your songs. You gave us more blessings. And now we have
misplaced one of them. We were careless. This is true. We had so many good things, we couldn’t
keep them in our mind all the time.
“So maybe you hid him from us to teach us a lesson, to be more careful with your gifts in the
future. I have learned this. I have put it in my memory. And now I have come to take Bing back.”
I listened quietly as my mother said these words, horrifed. And I began to cry when she
added, “Forgive us for his bad manners. My daughter, this one standing here, will be sure to teach
him better lessons of obedience before he visits you again.”
After her prayer, her faith was so great that she saw him, three times, waving to her from just
beyond the first wave. “Nale!”—There! And she would stand straight as a sentinel, until three
times her eyesight failed her and Bing turned into a dark spot of churning seaweed.
My mother did not let her chin fall down. She walked back to the beach and put the Bible
down. She picked up the thermos and teacup and walked to the water’s edge. Then she told me that
the night before she had reached back into her life, back when she was a girl in China, and this is
what she had found.
“I remember a boy who lost his hand in a firecracker accident,” she said. “I saw the shreds of
this boy’s arm, his tears, and then I heard his mother’s claim that he would grow back another
hand, better than the last. This mother said she would pay back an ancestral debt ten times over.
She would use a water treatment to soothe the wrath of Chu Jung, the three-eyed god of fire. And
true enough, the next week this boy was riding a bicycle, both hands steering a straight course past
my astonished eyes!”
And then my mother became very quiet. She spoke again in a thoughtful, respectful manner.
“An ancestor of ours once stole water from a sacred well. Now the water is trying to steal
back. We must sweeten the temper of the Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea. And then we must
make him loosen his coils from Bing by giving him another treasure he can hide.”
My mother poured out tea sweetened with sugar into the teacup, and threw this into the sea.
And then she opened her fist. In her palm was a ring of watery blue sapphire, a gift from her
mother, who had died many years before. This ring, she told me, drew coveting stares from women
and made them inattentive to the children they guarded so jealously. This would make the Coiling
Dragon forgetful of Bing. She threw the ring into the water.
But even with this, Bing did not appear right away. For an hour or so, all we saw was
seaweed drifting by. And then I saw her clasp her hands to her chest, and she said in a wondrous
voice, “See, it’s because we were watching the wrong direction.” And I too saw Bing trudging
wearily at the far end of the beach, his shoes hanging in his hand, his dark head bent over in
exhaustion. I could feel what my mother felt. The hunger in our hearts was instantly filled. And then
the two of us, before we could even get to our feet, saw him light a cigarette, grow tall, and
become a stranger.
“Ma, let’s go,” I said as softly as possible.
“He’s there,” she said firmly. She pointed to the jagged wall across the water. “I see him. He
is in a cave, sitting on a little step above the water. He is hungry and a little cold, but he has
learned now not to complain too much.”
And then she stood up and started walking across the sandy beach as though it were a solid
paved path, and I was trying to follow behind, struggling and stumbling in the soft mounds. She
marched up the steep path to where the car was parked, and she wasn’t even breathing hard as she
pulled a large inner tube from the trunk. To this lifesaver, she tied the fishing line from my father’s
bamboo pole. She walked back and threw the tube into the sea, holding onto the pole.
“This will go where Bing is. I will bring him back,” she said fiercely. I had never heard so
much nengkan in my mother’s voice.
The tube followed her mind. It drifted out, toward the other side of the cove where it was
caught by stronger waves. The line became taut and she strained to hold on tight. But the line
snapped and then spiraled into the water.
We both climbed toward the end of the reef to watch. The tube had now reached the other
side of the cove. A big wave smashed it into the wall. The bloated tube leapt up and then it was
sucked in, under the wall and into a cavern. It popped out. Over and over again, it disappeared,
emerged, glistening black, faithfully reporting it had seen Bing and was going back to try to pluck
him from the cave. Over and over again, it dove and popped back up again, empty but still hopeful.
And then, after a dozen or so times, it was sucked into the dark recess, and when it came out, it
was torn and lifeless.
At that moment, and not until that moment, did she give up. My mother had a look on her face
that I’ll never forget. It was one of complete despair and horror, for losing Bing, for being so
foolish as to think she could use faith to change fate. And it made me angry—so blindingly angry—
that everything had failed us.
I know now that I had never expected to find Bing, just as I know now I will never find a way to
save my marriage. My mother tells me, though, that I should still try.
“What’s the point?” I say. “There’s no hope. There’s no reason to keep trying.”
“Because you must,” she says. “This is not hope. Not reason. This is your fate. This is your
life, what you must do.”
“So what can I do?”
And my mother says, “You must think for yourself, what you must do. If someone tells you,
then you are not trying.” And then she walks out of the kitchen to let me think about this.
I think about Bing, how I knew he was in danger, how I let it happen. I think about my
marriage, how I had seen the signs, really I had. But I just let it happen. And I think now that fate is
shaped half by expectation, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love,
faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation.
My mother, she still pays attention to it. That Bible under the table, I know she sees it. I
remember seeing her write in it before she wedged it under.
I lift the table and slide the Bible out. I put the Bible on the table, flipping quickly through the
pages, because I know it’s there. On the page before the New Testament begins, there’s a section
called “Deaths,” and that’s where she wrote “Bing Hsu” lightly, in erasable pencil.
Jing-Mei Woo
Two Kinds
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a
restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house
with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.
“Of course you can be prodigy, too,” my mother told me when I was nine. “You can be best
anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she is only best tricky.”
America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come here in 1949 after losing
everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters,
twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get
We didn’t immediately pick the right kind of prodigy. At first my mother thought I could be a
Chinese Shirley Temple. We’d watch Shirley’s old movies on TV as though they were training
films. My mother would poke my arm and say, “Ni kan”—You watch. And I would see Shirley
tapping her feet, or singing a sailor song, or pursing her lips into a very round O while saying, “Oh
my goodness.”
“Ni kan,” said my mother as Shirley’s eyes flooded with tears. “You already know how.
Don’t need talent for crying!”
Soon after my mother got this idea about Shirley Temple, she took me to a beauty training
school in the Mission district and put me in the hands of a student who could barely hold the
scissors without shaking. Instead of getting big fat curls, I emerged with an uneven mass of crinkly
black fuzz. My mother dragged me off to the bathroom and tried to wet down my hair.
“You look like Negro Chinese,” she lamented, as if I had done this on purpose.
The instructor of the beauty training school had to lop off these soggy clumps to make my hair
even again. “Peter Pan is very popular these days,” the instructor assured my mother. I now had
hair the length of a boy’s, with straight-across bangs that hung at a slant two inches above my
eyebrows. I liked the haircut and it made me actually look forward to my future fame.
In fact, in the beginning, I was just as excited as my mother, maybe even more so. I pictured
this prodigy part of me as many different images, trying each one on for size. I was a dainty
ballerina girl standing by the curtains, waiting to hear the right music that would send me floating
on my tiptoes. I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity.
I was Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon music filling the air.
In all of my imaginings, I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect. My
mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach. I would never feel the need to
sulk for anything.
But sometimes the prodigy in me became impatient. “If you don’t hurry up and get me out of
here, I’m disappearing for good,” it warned. “And then you’ll always be nothing.”
Every night after dinner, my mother and I would sit at the Formica kitchen table. She would
present new tests, taking her examples from stories of amazing children she had read in Ripley’s
Believe It or Not, or Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, and a dozen other magazines she kept
in a pile in our bathroom. My mother got these magazines from people whose houses she cleaned.
And since she cleaned many houses each week, we had a great assortment. She would look through
them all, searching for stories about remarkable children.
The first night she brought out a story about a three-year-old boy who knew the capitals of all
the states and even most of the European countries. A teacher was quoted as saying the little boy
could also pronounce the names of the foreign cities correctly.
“What’s the capital of Finland?” my mother asked me, looking at the magazine story.
All I knew was the capital of California, because Sacramento was the name of the street we
lived on in Chinatown. “Nairobi!” I guessed, saying the most foreign word I could think of. She
checked to see if that was possibly one way to pronounce “ Helsinki” before showing me the
The tests got harder—multiplying numbers in my head, finding the queen of hearts in a deck of
cards, trying to stand on my head without using my hands, predicting the daily temperatures in Los
Angeles, New York, and London.
One night I had to look at a page from the Bible for three minutes and then report everything I
could remember. “Now Jehoshaphat had riches and honor in abundance and…that’s all I
remember, Ma,” I said.
And after seeing my mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to
die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations. Before going to bed that night, I
looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and when I saw only my face staring back—and that
it would always be this ordinary face—I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made highpitched
noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror.
And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me—because I had never seen that face
before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me
was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather
thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what
I’m not.
So now on nights when my mother presented her tests, I performed listlessly, my head
propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was. I got so bored I started counting the
bellows of the foghorns out on the bay while my mother drilled me in other areas. The sound was
comforting and reminded me of the cow jumping over the moon. And the next day, I played a game
with myself, seeing if my mother would give up on me before eight bellows. After a while I
usually counted only one, maybe two bellows at most. At last she was beginning to give up hope.
Two or three months had gone by without any mention of my being a prodigy again. And then
one day my mother was watching The Ed Sullivan Show on TV. The TV was old and the sound
kept shorting out. Every time my mother got halfway up from the sofa to adjust the set, the sound
would go back on and Ed would be talking. As soon as she sat down, Ed would go silent again.
She got up, the TV broke into loud piano music. She sat down. Silence. Up and down, back and
forth, quiet and loud. It was like a stiff embraceless dance between her and the TV set. Finally she
stood by the set with her hand on the sound dial.
She seemed entranced by the music, a little frenzied piano piece with this mesmerizing
quality, sort of quick passages and then teasing lilting ones before it returned to the quick playful
“Ni kan,” my mother said, calling me over with hurried hand gestures, “Look here.”
I could see why my mother was fascinated by the music. It was being pounded out by a little
Chinese girl, about nine years old, with a Peter Pan haircut. The girl had the sauciness of a Shirley
Temple. She was proudly modest like a proper Chinese child. And she also did this fancy sweep
of a curtsy, so that the fluffy skirt of her white dress cascaded slowly to the floor like the petals of
a large carnation.
In spite of these warning signs, I wasn’t worried. Our family had no piano and we couldn’t
afford to buy one, let alone reams of sheet music and piano lessons. So I could be generous in my
comments when my mother bad-mouthed the little girl on TV.
“Play note right, but doesn’t sound good! No singing sound,” complained my mother.
“What are you picking on her for?” I said carelessly. “She’s pretty good. Maybe she’s not the
best, but she’s trying hard.” I knew almost immediately I would be sorry I said that.
“Just like you,” she said. “Not the best. Because you not trying.” She gave a little huff as she
let go of the sound dial and sat down on the sofa.
The little Chinese girl sat down also to play an encore of “Anitra’s Dance” by Grieg. I
remember the song, because later on I had to learn how to play it.
Three days after watching The Ed Sullivan Show, my mother told me what my schedule
would be for piano lessons and piano practice. She had talked to Mr. Chong, who lived on the first
floor of our apartment building. Mr. Chong was a retired piano teacher and my mother had traded
housecleaning services for weekly lessons and a piano for me to practice on every day, two hours
a day, from four until six.
When my mother told me this, I felt as though I had been sent to hell. I whined and then kicked
my foot a little when I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Why don’t you like me the way I am? I’mnot a genius! I can’t play the piano. And even if I
could, I wouldn’t go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!” I cried.
My mother slapped me. “Who ask you be genius?” she shouted. “Only ask you be your best.
For you sake. You think I want you be genius? Hnnh! What for! Who ask you!”
“So ungrateful,” I heard her mutter in Chinese. “If she had as much talent as she has temper,
she would be famous now.”
Mr. Chong, whom I secretly nicknamed Old Chong, was very strange, always tapping his
fingers to the silent music of an invisible orchestra. He looked ancient in my eyes. He had lost
most of the hair on top of his head and he wore thick glasses and had eyes that always looked tired
and sleepy. But he must have been younger than I thought, since he lived with his mother and was
not yet married.
I met Old Lady Chong once and that was enough. She had this peculiar smell like a baby that
had done something in its pants. And her fingers felt like a dead person’s, like an old peach I once
found in the back of the refrigerator; the skin just slid off the meat when I picked it up.
I soon found out why Old Chong had retired from teaching piano. He was deaf. “Like
Beethoven!” he shouted to me. “We’re both listening only in our head!” And he would start to
conduct his frantic silent sonatas.
Our lessons went like this. He would open the book and point to different things, explaining
their purpose: “Key! Treble! Bass! No sharps or flats! So this is C major! Listen now and play
after me!”
And then he would play the C scale a few times, a simple chord, and then, as if inspired by an
old, unreachable itch, he gradually added more notes and running trills and a pounding bass until
the music was really something quite grand.
I would play after him, the simple scale, the simple chord, and then I just played some
nonsense that sounded like a cat running up and down on top of garbage cans. Old Chong smiled
and applauded and then said, “Very good! But now you must learn to keep time!”
So that’s how I discovered that Old Chong’s eyes were too slow to keep up with the wrong
notes I was playing. He went through the motions in half-time. To help me keep rhythm, he stood
behind me, pushing down on my right shoulder for every beat. He balanced pennies on top of my
wrists so I would keep them still as I slowly played scales and arpeggios. He had me curve my
hand around an apple and keep that shape when playing chords. He marched stiffly to show me
how to make each finger dance up and down, staccato like an obedient little soldier.
He taught me all these things, and that was how I also learned I could be lazy and get away
with mistakes, lots of mistakes. If I hit the wrong notes because I hadn’t practiced enough, I never
corrected myself. I just kept playing in rhythm. And Old Chong kept conducting his own private
So maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and
I might have become a good pianist at that young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be
anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant
Over the next year, I practiced like this, dutifully in my own way. And then one day I heard
my mother and her friend Lindo Jong both talking in a loud bragging tone of voice so others could
hear. It was after church, and I was leaning against the brick wall wearing a dress with stiff white
petticoats. Auntie Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, who was about my age, was standing farther down
the wall about five feet away. We had grown up together and shared all the closeness of two
sisters squabbling over crayons and dolls. In other words, for the most part, we hated each other. I
thought she was snotty. Waverly Jong had gained a certain amount of fame as “Chinatown’s Littlest
Chinese Chess Champion.”
“She bring home too many trophy,” lamented Auntie Lindo that Sunday. “All day she play
chess. All day I have no time do nothing but dust off her winnings.” She threw a scolding look at
Waverly, who pretended not to see her.
“You lucky you don’t have this problem,” said Auntie Lindo with a sigh to my mother.
And my mother squared her shoulders and bragged: “Our problem worser than yours. If we
ask Jing-mei wash dish, she hear nothing but music. It’s like you can’t stop this natural talent.”
And right then, I was determined to put a stop to her foolish pride.
A few weeks later, Old Chong and my mother conspired to have me play in a talent show
which would be held in the church hall. By then, my parents had saved up enough to buy me a
secondhand piano, a black Wurlitzer spinet with a scarred bench. It was the showpiece of our
living room.
For the talent show, I was to play a piece called “Pleading Child” from Schumann’s Scenes
from Childhood. It was a simple, moody piece that sounded more difficult than it was. I was
supposed to memorize the whole thing, playing the repeat parts twice to make the piece sound
longer. But I dawdled over it, playing a few bars and then cheating, looking up to see what notes
followed. I never really listened to what I was playing. I daydreamed about being somewhere else,
about being someone else.
The part I liked to practice best was the fancy curtsy: right foot out, touch the rose on the
carpet with a pointed foot, sweep to the side, left leg bends, look up and smile.
My parents invited all the couples from the Joy Luck Club to witness my debut. Auntie Lindo
and Uncle Tin were there. Waverly and her two older brothers had also come. The first two rows
were filled with children both younger and older than I was. The littlest ones got to go first. They
recited simple nursery rhymes, squawked out tunes on miniature violins, twirled Hula Hoops,
pranced in pink ballet tutus, and when they bowed or curtsied, the audience would sigh in unison,
“Awww,” and then clap enthusiastically.
When my turn came, I was very confident. I remember my childish excitement. It was as if I
knew, without a doubt, that the prodigy side of me really did exist. I had no fear whatsoever, no
nervousness. I remember thinking to myself, This is it! This is it! I looked out over the audience, at
my mother’s blank face, my father’s yawn, Auntie Lindo’s stiff-lipped smile, Waverly’s sulky
expression. I had on a white dress layered with sheets of lace, and a pink bow in my Peter Pan
haircut. As I sat down I envisioned people jumping to their feet and Ed Sullivan rushing up to
introduce me to everyone on TV.
And I started to play. It was so beautiful. I was so caught up in how lovely I looked that at
first I didn’t worry how I would sound. So it was a surprise to me when I hit the first wrong note
and I realized something didn’t sound quite right. And then I hit another and another followed that.
A chill started at the top of my head and began to trickle down. Yet I couldn’t stop playing, as
though my hands were bewitched. I kept thinking my fingers would adjust themselves back, like a
train switching to the right track. I played this strange jumble through two repeats, the sour notes
staying with me all the way to the end.
When I stood up, I discovered my legs were shaking. Maybe I had just been nervous and the
audience, like Old Chong, had seen me go through the right motions and had not heard anything
wrong at all. I swept my right foot out, went down on my knee, looked up and smiled. The room
was quiet, except for Old Chong, who was beaming and shouting, “Bravo! Bravo! Well done!” But
then I saw my mother’s face, her stricken face. The audience clapped weakly, and as I walked
back to my chair, with my whole face quivering as I tried not to cry, I heard a little boy whisper
loudly to his mother, “That was awful,” and the mother whispered back, “Well, she certainly
And now I realized how many people were in the audience, the whole world it seemed. I was
aware of eyes burning into my back. I felt the shame of my mother and father as they sat stiffly
throughout the rest of the show.
We could have escaped during intermission. Pride and some strange sense of honor must have
anchored my parents to their chairs. And so we watched it all: the eighteen-year-old boy with a
fake mustache who did a magic show and juggled flaming hoops while riding a unicycle. The
breasted girl with white makeup who sang from Madama Butterfly and got honorable mention.
And the eleven-year-old boy who won first prize playing a tricky violin song that sounded like a
busy bee.
After the show, the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs from the Joy Luck Club came up to my
mother and father.
“Lots of talented kids,” Auntie Lindo said vaguely, smiling broadly.
“That was somethin’ else,” said my father, and I wondered if he was referring to me in a
humorous way, or whether he even remembered what I had done.
Waverly looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. “You aren’t a genius like me,” she said
matter-of-factly. And if I hadn’t felt so bad, I would have pulled her braids and punched her
But my mother’s expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had
lost everything. I felt the same way, and it seemed as if everybody were now coming up, like
gawkers at the scene of an accident, to see what parts were actually missing. When we got on the
bus to go home, my father was humming the busy-bee tune and my mother was silent. I kept thinking
she wanted to wait until we got home before shouting at me. But when my father unlocked the door
to our apartment, my mother walked in and then went to the back, into the bedroom. No
accusations. No blame. And in a way, I felt disappointed. I had been waiting for her to start
shouting, so I could shout back and cry and blame her for all my misery.
I assumed my talent-show fiasco meant I never had to play the piano again. But two days
later, after school, my mother came out of the kitchen and saw me watching TV.
“Four clock,” she reminded me as if it were any other day. I was stunned, as though she were
asking me to go through the talent-show torture again. I wedged myself more tightly in front of the
“Turn off TV,” she called from the kitchen five minutes later.
I didn’t budge. And then I decided. I didn’t have to do what my mother said anymore. I wasn’t
her slave. This wasn’t China. I had listened to her before and look what happened. She was the
stupid one.
She came out from the kitchen and stood in the arched entryway of the living room. “Four
clock,” she said once again, louder.
“I’m not going to play anymore,” I said nonchalantly. “Why should I? I’m not a genius.”
She walked over and stood in front of the TV. I saw her chest was heaving up and down in an
angry way.
“No!” I said, and I now felt stronger, as if my true self had finally emerged. So this was what
had been inside me all along.
“No! I won’t!” I screamed.
She yanked me by the arm, pulled me off the floor, snapped off the TV. She was frighteningly
strong, half pulling, half carrying me toward the piano as I kicked the throw rugs under my feet.
She lifted me up and onto the hard bench. I was sobbing by now, looking at her bitterly. Her chest
was heaving even more and her mouth was open, smiling crazily as if she were pleased I was
“You want me to be someone that I’m not!” I sobbed. “I’ll never be the kind of daughter you
want me to be!”
“Only two kinds of daughters,” she shouted in Chinese. “Those who are obedient and those
who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!”
“Then I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother,” I shouted. As I said
these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but
it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.
“Too late change this,” said my mother shrilly.
And I could sense her anger rising to its breaking point. I wanted to see it spill over. And
that’s when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. “Then I
wish I’d never been born!” I shouted. “I wish I were dead! Like them.”
It was as if I had said the magic words. Alakazam!—and her face went blank, her mouth
closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away
like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.
It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. In the years that followed, I failed her so
many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations. I didn’t get
straight As. I didn’t become class president. I didn’t get into Stanford. I dropped out of college.
For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.
And for all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible
accusations afterward at the piano bench. All that remained unchecked, like a betrayal that was
now unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that
failure was inevitable.
And even worse, I never asked her what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope?
For after our struggle at the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. The lessons
stopped. The lid to the piano was closed, shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams.
So she surprised me. A few years ago, she offered to give me the piano, for my thirtieth
birthday. I had not played in all those years. I saw the offer as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous
burden removed.
“Are you sure?” I asked shyly. “I mean, won’t you and Dad miss it?”
“No, this your piano,” she said firmly. “Always your piano. You only one can play.”
“Well, I probably can’t play anymore,” I said. “It’s been years.”
“You pick up fast,” said my mother, as if she knew this was certain. “You have natural talent.
You could been genius if you want to.”
“No I couldn’t.”
“You just not trying,” said my mother. And she was neither angry nor sad. She said it as if to
announce a fact that could never be disproved. “Take it,” she said.
But I didn’t at first. It was enough that she had offered it to me. And after that, every time I
saw it in my parents’ living room, standing in front of the bay windows, it made me feel proud, as
if it were a shiny trophy I had won back.
Last week I sent a tuner over to my parents’ apartment and had the piano reconditioned, for
purely sentimental reasons. My mother had died a few months before and I had been getting things
in order for my father, a little bit at a time. I put the jewelry in special silk pouches. The sweaters
she had knitted in yellow, pink, bright orange—all the colors I hated—I put those in moth-proof
boxes. I found some old Chinese silk dresses, the kind with little slits up the sides. I rubbed the old
silk against my skin, then wrapped them in tissue and decided to take them home with me.
After I had the piano tuned, I opened the lid and touched the keys. It sounded even richer than
I remembered. Really, it was a very good piano. Inside the bench were the same exercise notes
with handwritten scales, the same secondhand music books with their covers held together with
yellow tape.
I opened up the Schumann book to the dark little piece I had played at the recital. It was on
the left-hand side of the page, “Pleading Child.” It looked more difficult than I remembered. I
played a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me.
And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side. It was called
“Perfectly Contented.” I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but the same flowing
rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. “Pleading Child” was shorter but slower; “Perfectly
Contented” was longer, but faster. And after I played them both a few times, I realized they were
two halves of the same song.
American Translation
“Wah!” cried the mother upon seeing the mirrored armoire in the master suite of her
daughter’s new condominium. “You cannot put mirrors at the foot of the bed. All your marriage
happiness will bounce back and turn the opposite way.”
“Well, that’s the only place it fits, so that’s where it stays,” said the daughter, irritated
that her mother saw bad omens in everything. She had heard these warnings all her life.
The mother frowned, reaching into her twice-used Macy’s bag. “Hunh, lucky I can fix it
for you, then.” And she pulled out the gilt-edged mirror she had bought at the Price Club last
week. It was her housewarming present. She leaned it against the headboard, on top of the two
“You hang it here,” said the mother, pointing to the wall above. “This mirror sees that
mirror—haule!—multiply your peach-blossom luck.”
“What is peach-blossom luck?”
The mother smiled, mischief in her eyes. “It is in here,” she said, pointing to the mirror.
“Look inside. Tell me, am I not right? In this mirror is my future grandchild, already sitting on
my lap next spring.”
And the daughter looked—and haule! There it was: her own reflection looking back at her.
Lena St. Clair
Rice Husband
To this day, I believe my mother has the mysterious ability to see things before they happen. She
has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan: If the lips are gone, the teeth will be
cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another.
But she does not predict when earthquakes will come, or how the stock market will do. She
sees only bad things that affect our family. And she knows what causes them. But now she laments
that she never did anything to stop them.
One time when I was growing up in San Francisco, she looked at the way our new apartment
sat too steeply on the hill. She said the new baby in her womb would fall out dead, and it did.
When a plumbing and bathroom fixtures store opened up across the street from our bank, my
mother said the bank would soon have all its money drained away. And one month later, an officer
of the bank was arrested for embezzlement.
And just after my father died last year, she said she knew this would happen. Because a
philodendron plant my father had given her had withered and died, despite the fact that she
watered it faithfully. She said the plant had damaged its roots and no water could get to it. The
autopsy report she later received showed my father had had ninety-percent blockage of the arteries
before he died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-four. My father was not Chinese like my
mother, but English-Irish American, who enjoyed his five slices of bacon and three eggs sunnyside
up every morning.
I remember this ability of my mother’s, because now she is visiting my husband and me in the
house we just bought in Woodside. And I wonder what she will see.
Harold and I were lucky to find this place, which is near the summit of Highway 9, then a leftright-left down three forks of unmarked dirt roads, unmarked because the residents always tear
down the signs to keep out salesmen, developers, and city inspectors. We are only a forty-minute
drive to my mother’s apartment in San Francisco. This became a sixty-minute ordeal coming back
from San Francisco, when my mother was with us in the car. After we got to the two-lane winding
road to the summit, she touched her hand gently to Harold’s shoulder and softly said, “Ai, tire
squealing.” And then a little later, “Too much tear and wear on car.”
Harold had smiled and slowed down, but I could see his hands were clenched on the steering
wheel of the Jaguar, as he glanced nervously in his rearview mirror at the line of impatient cars
that was growing by the minute. And I was secretly glad to watch his discomfort. He was always
the one who tailgated old ladies in their Buicks, honking his horn and revving the engine as if he
would run them over unless they pulled over.
And at the same time, I hated myself for being mean-spirited, for thinking Harold deserved
this torment. Yet I couldn’t help myself. I was mad at Harold and he was exasperated with me.
That morning, before we picked my mother up, he had said, “You should pay for the exterminators,
because Mirugai is your cat and so they’re your fleas. It’s only fair.”
None of our friends could ever believe we fight over something as stupid as fleas, but they
would also never believe that our problems are much, much deeper than that, so deep I don’t even
know where bottom is.
And now that my mother is here—she is staying for a week, or until the electricians are done
rewiring her building in San Francisco—we have to pretend nothing is the matter.
Meanwhile she asks over and over again why we had to pay so much for a renovated barn
and a mildew-lined pool on four acres of land, two of which are covered with redwood trees and
poison oak. Actually she doesn’t really ask, she just says, “Aii, so much money, so much,” as we
show her different parts of the house and land. And her laments always compel Harold to explain
to my mother in simple terms: “Well, you see, it’s the details that cost so much. Like this wood
floor. It’s hand-bleached. And the walls here, this marbleized effect, it’s hand-sponged. It’s really
worth it.”
And my mother nods and agrees: “Bleach and sponge cost so much.”
During our brief tour of the house, she’s already found the flaws. She says the slant of the
floor makes her feel as if she is “running down.” She thinks the guest room where she will be
staying—which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof—has “two lopsides.” She sees
spiders in high corners and even fleas jumping up in the air—pah! pah! pah!—like little spatters of
hot oil. My mothers knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a
She can see all this. And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts. But then I look
around and everything she’s said is true. And this convinces me she can see what else is going on,
between Harold and me. She knows what’s going to happen to us. Because I remember something
else she saw when I was eight years old.
My mother had looked in my rice bowl and told me I would marry a bad man.
“Aii, Lena,” she had said after that dinner so many years ago, “your future husband have one
pock mark for every rice you not finish.”
She put my bowl down. “I once know a pock-mark man. Mean man, bad man.”
And I thought of a mean neighbor boy who had tiny pits in his cheeks, and it was true, those
marks were the size of rice grains. This boy was about twelve and his name was Arnold.
Arnold would shoot rubber bands at my legs whenever I walked past his building on my way
home from school, and one time he ran over my doll with his bicycle, crushing her legs below the
knees. I didn’t want this cruel boy to be my future husband. So I picked up that cold bowl of rice
and scraped the last few grains into my mouth, then smiled at my mother, confident my future
husband would be not Arnold but someone whose face was as smooth as the porcelain in my now
clean bowl.
But my mother sighed. “Yesterday, you not finish rice either.” I thought of those unfinished
mouthfuls of rice, and then the grains that lined my bowl the day before, and the day before that. By
the minute, my eight-year-old heart grew more and more terror-stricken over the growing
possibility that my future husband was fated to be this mean boy Arnold. And thanks to my poor
eating habits, his hideous face would eventually resemble the craters of the moon.
This would have been a funny incident to remember from my childhood, but it is actually a
memory I recall from time to time with a mixture of nausea and remorse. My loathing for Arnold
had grown to such a point that I eventually found a way to make him die. I let one thing result from
another. Of course, all of it could have been just loosely connected coincidences. And whether
that’s true or not, I know the intention was there. Because when I want something to happen—or
not happen—I begin to look at all events and all things as relevant, an opportunity to take or avoid.
I found the opportunity. The same week my mother told me about the rice bowl and my future
husband, I saw a shocking film at Sunday school. I remember the teacher had dimmed the lights so
that all we could see were silhouettes of one another. Then the teacher looked at us, a roomful of
squirmy, well-fed Chinese-American children, and she said, “This film will show you why you
should give tithings to God, to do God’s work.”
She said, “I want you to think about a nickel’s worth of candy money, or however much you
eat each week—your Good and Plentys, your Necco wafers, your jujubes—and compare that to
what you are about to see. And I also want you to think about what your true blessings in life really
And then she set the film projector clattering away. The film showed missionaries in Africa
and India. These good souls worked with people whose legs were swollen to the size of tree
trunks, whose numb limbs had become as twisted as jungle vines. But the most terrible of the
afflictions were men and women with leprosy. Their faces were covered with every kind of
misery I could imagine: pits and pustules, cracks and bumps, and fissures that I was sure erupted
with the same vehemence as snails writhing in a bed of salt. If my mother had been in the room, she
would have told me these poor people were victims of future husbands and wives who had failed
to eat platefuls of food.
After seeing this film, I did a terrible thing. I saw what I had to do so I would not have to
marry Arnold. I began to leave more rice in my bowl. And then I extended my prodigal ways
beyond Chinese food. I did not finish my creamed corn, broccoli, Rice Krispies, or peanut butter
sandwiches. And once, when I bit into a candy bar and saw how lumpy it was, how full of secret
dark spots and creamy goo, I sacrificed that as well.
I considered that probably nothing would happen to Arnold, that he might not get leprosy,
move to Africa and die. And this somehow balanced the dark possibility that he might.
He didn’t die right away. In fact, it was some five years later, by which time I had become
quite thin. I had stopped eating, not because of Arnold, whom I had long forgotten, but to be
fashionably anorexic like all the other thirteen-year-old girls who were dieting and finding other
ways to suffer as teenagers. I was sitting at the breakfast table, waiting for my mother to finish
packing a sack lunch which I always promptly threw away as soon as I rounded the corner. My
father was eating with his fingers, dabbing the ends of his bacon into the egg yolks with one hand,
while holding the newspaper with the other.
“Oh my, listen to this,” he said, still dabbing. And that’s when he announced that Arnold
Reisman, a boy who lived in our old neighborhood in Oakland, had died of complications from
measles. He had just been accepted to Cal State Hayward and was planning to become a
“‘Doctors were at first baffled by the disease, which they report is extremely rare and
generally attacks children between the ages of ten and twenty, months to years after they have
contracted the measles virus,’ ” read my father. “‘The boy had had a mild case of the measles
when he was twelve, reported his mother. Problems this year were first noticed when the boy
developed motor coordination problems and mental lethargy which increased until he fell into a
coma. The boy, age seventeen, never regained consciousness.’
“Didn’t you know that boy?” asked my father, and I stood there mute.
“This is shame,” said my mother, looking at me. “This is terrible shame.”
And I thought she could see through me and that she knew I was the one who had caused
Arnold to die. I was terrified.
That night, in my room, I gorged myself. I had stolen a halfgallon of strawberry ice cream
from the freezer, and I forced spoonful after spoonful down my throat. And later, for several hours
after that, I sat hunched on the fire escape landing outside my bedroom, retching back into the ice
cream container. And I remember wondering why it was that eating something good could make me
feel so terrible, while vomiting something terrible could make me feel so good.
The thought that I could have caused Arnold’s death is not so ridiculous. Perhaps he was
destined to be my husband. Because I think to myself, even today, how can the world in all its
chaos come up with so many coincidences, so many similarities and exact opposites? Why did
Arnold single me out for his rubber-band torture? How is it that he contracted measles the same
year I began consciously to hate him? And why did I think of Arnold in the first place—when my
mother looked in my rice bowl—and then come to hate him so much? Isn’t hate merely the result of
wounded love?
And even when I can finally dismiss all of this as ridiculous, I still feel that somehow, for the
most part, we deserve what we get. I didn’t get Arnold. I got Harold.
Harold and I work at the same architectural firm, Livotny & Associates. Only Harold Livotny
is a partner and I am an associate. We met eight years ago, before he started Livotny & Associates.
I was twenty-eight, a project assistant, and he was thirty-four. We both worked in the restaurant
design and development division of Harned Kelley & Davis.
We started seeing each other for working lunches, to talk about the projects, and we would
always split the tab right in half, even though I usually ordered only a salad because I have this
tendency to gain weight easily. Later, when we started meeting secretly for dinner, we still divided
the bill.
And we just continued that way, everything right down the middle. If anything, I encouraged
it. Sometimes I insisted on paying for the whole thing: meal, drinks, and tip. And it really didn’t
bother me.
“Lena, you’re really extraordinary,” Harold said after six months of dinners, five months of
post-prandial lovemaking, and one week of timid and silly love confessions. We were lying in
bed, between new purple sheets I had just bought for him. His old set of white sheets was stained
in revealing places, not very romantic.
And he nuzzled my neck and whispered, “I don’t think I’ve ever met another woman, who’s
so together…”—and I remember feeling a hiccup of fear upon hearing the words “another
woman,” because I could imagine dozens, hundreds of adoring women eager to buy Harold
breakfast, lunch, and dinner to feel the pleasure of his breath on their skin.
Then he bit my neck and said in a rush, “Nor anyone who’s as soft and squishy and lovable as
you are.”
And with that, I swooned inside, caught off balance by this latest revelation of love,
wondering how such a remarkable person as Harold could think I was extraordinary.
Now that I’m angry at Harold, it’s hard to remember what was so remarkable about him. And
I know they’re there, the good qualities, because I wasn’t that stupid to fall in love with him, to
marry him. All I can remember is how awfully lucky I felt, and consequently how worried I was
that all this undeserved good fortune would someday slip away. When I fantasized about moving in
with him, I also dredged up my deepest fears: that he would tell me I smelled bad, that I had
terrible bathroom habits, that my taste in music and television was appalling. I worried that Harold
would someday get a new prescription for his glasses and he’d put them on one morning, look me
up and down, and say, “Why, gosh, you aren’t the girl I thought you were, are you?”
And I think that feeling of fear never left me, that I would be caught someday, exposed as a
sham of a woman. But recently, a friend of mine, Rose, who’s in therapy now because her
marriage has already fallen apart, told me those kinds of thoughts are commonplace in women like
“At first I thought it was because I was raised with all this Chinese humility,” Rose said. “Or
that maybe it was because when you’re Chinese you’re supposed to accept everything, flow with
the Tao and not make waves. But my therapist said, Why do you blame your culture, your
ethnicity? And I remembered reading an article about baby boomers, how we expect the best and
when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more, because it’s all diminishing
returns after a certain age.”
And after my talk with Rose, I felt better about myself and I thought, Of course, Harold and I
are equals, in many respects. He’s not exactly handsome in the classic sense, although clearskinned and certainly attractive in that wiry intellectual way. And I may not be a raving beauty, but
a lot of women in my aerobics class tell me I’m “exotic” in an unusual way, and they’re jealous
that my breasts don’t sag, now that small breasts are in. Plus, one of my clients said I have
incredible vitality and exuberance.
So I think I deserve someone like Harold, and I mean in the good sense and not like bad
karma. We’re equals. I’m also smart. I have common sense. And I’m intuitive, highly so. I was the
one who told Harold he was good enough to start his own firm.
When we were still working at Harned Kelley & Davis, I said, “Harold, this firm knows just
what a good deal it has with you. You’re the goose who lays the golden egg. If you started your
own business today, you’d walk away with more than half of the restaurant clients.”
And he said, laughing, “Half? Boy, that’s love.”
And I shouted back, laughing with him, “More than half! You’re that good. You’re the best
there is in restaurant design and development. You know it and I know it, and so do a lot of
restaurant developers.”
That was the night he decided to “go for it,” as he put it, which is a phrase I have personally
detested ever since a bank I used to work for adopted the slogan for its employee productivity
But still, I said to Harold, “Harold, I want to help you go for it, too. I mean, you’re going to
need money to start this business.”
He wouldn’t hear of taking any money from me, not as a favor, not as a loan, not as an
investment, or even as the down payment on a partnership. He said he valued our relationship too
much. He didn’t want to contaminate it with money. He explained, “I wouldn’t want a handout any
more than you’d want one. As long as we keep the money thing separate, we’ll always be sure of
our love for each other.”
I wanted to protest. I wanted to say, “No! I’m not really this way about money, the way we’ve
been doing it. I’m really into giving freely. I want…” But I didn’t know where to begin. I wanted
to ask him who, what woman, had hurt him this way, that made him so scared about accepting love
in all its wonderful forms. But then I heard him saying what I’d been waiting to hear for a long,
long time.
“Actually, you could help me out if you moved in with me. I mean, that way I could use the
five hundred dollars’ rent you paid to me…”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” I said immediately, knowing how embarrassed he was to have to
ask me that way. I was so deliriously happy that it didn’t matter that the rent on my studio was
really only four hundred thirty-five. Besides, Harold’s place was much nicer, a two-bedroom flat
with a two-hundred-forty-degree view of the bay. It was worth the extra money, no matter whom I
shared the place with.
So within the year, Harold and I quit Harned Kelley & Davis and he started Livotny &
Associates, and I went to work there as a project coordinator. And no, he didn’t get half the
restaurant clients of Harned Kelley & Davis. In fact, Harned Kelley & Davis threatened to sue if
he walked away with even one client over the next year. So I gave him pep talks in the evening
when he was discouraged. I told him how he should do more avantgarde thematic restaurant
design, to differentiate himself from the other firms.
“Who needs another brass and oakwood bar and grill?” I said. “Who wants another pasta
place in sleek Italian moderno? How many places can you go to with police cars lurching out of
the walls? This town is chockablock with restaurants that are just clones of the same old themes.
You can find a niche. Do something different every time. Get the Hong Kong investors who are
willing to sink some bucks into American ingenuity.”
He gave me his adoring smile, the one that said, “I love it when you’re so naive.” And I
adored his looking at me like that.
So I stammered out my love. “You…you…could do new theme eating places…a…a…Home
on the Range! All the home-cooked mom stuff, mom at the kitchen range with a gingham apron and
mom waitresses leaning over telling you to finish your soup.
“And maybe…maybe you could do a novel-menu restaurant…foods from fiction…
sandwiches from Lawrence Sanders murder mysteries, just desserts from Nora Ephron’s
Heartburn. And something else with a magic theme, or jokes and gags, or…”
Harold actually listened to me. He took those ideas and he applied them in an educated,
methodical way. He made it happen. But still, I remember, it was my idea.
And today Livotny & Associates is a growing firm of twelve full-time people, which
specializes in thematic restaurant design, what I still like to call “theme eating.” Harold is the
concept man, the chief architect, the designer, the person who makes the final sales presentation to
a new client. I work under the interior designer, because, as Harold explains, it would not seem
fair to the other employees if he promoted me just because we are now married—that was five
years ago, two years after he started Livotny & Associates. And even though I am very good at
what I do, I have never been formally trained in this area. When I was majoring in Asian-American
studies, I took only one relevant course, in theater set design, for a college production of Madama
At Livotny & Associates, I procure the theme elements. For one restaurant called The
Fisherman’s Tale, one of my prized findings was a yellow varnished wood boat stenciled with the
name “Overbored,” and I was the one who thought the menus should dangle from miniature fishing
poles, and the napkins be printed with rulers that have inches translating into feet. For a Lawrence
of Arabia deli called Tray Sheik, I was the one who thought the place should have a bazaar effect,
and I found the replicas of cobras lying on fake Hollywood boulders.
I love my work when I don’t think about it too much. And when I do think about it, how much
I get paid, how hard I work, how fair Harold is to everybody except me, I get upset.
So really, we’re equals, except that Harold makes about seven times more than what I make.
He knows this, too, because he signs my monthly check, and then I deposit it into my separate
checking account.
Lately, however, this business about being equals started to bother me. It’s been on my mind,
only I didn’t really know it. I just felt a little uneasy about something. And then about a week ago,
it all became clear. I was putting the breakfast dishes away and Harold was warming up the car so
we could go to work. And I saw the newspaper spread open on the kitchen counter, Harold’s
glasses on top, his favorite coffee mug with the chipped handle off to the side. And for some
reason, seeing all these little domestic signs of familiarity, our daily ritual, made me swoon inside.
But it was as if I were seeing Harold the first time we made love, this feeling of surrendering
everything to him, with abandon, without caring what I got in return.
And when I got into the car, I still had the glow of that feeling and I touched his hand and said,
“Harold, I love you.” And he looked in the rearview mirror, backing up the car, and said, “I love
you, too. Did you lock the door?” And just like that, I started to think, It’s just not enough.
Harold jingles the car keys and says, “I’m going down the hill to buy stuff for dinner. Steaks
okay? Want anything special?”
“We’re out of rice,” I say, discreetly nodding toward my mother, whose back is turned to me.
She’s looking out the kitchen window, at the trellis of bougainvillea. And then Harold is out the
door and I hear the deep rumble of the car and then the sound of crunching gravel as he drives
My mother and I are alone in the house. I start to water the plants. She is standing on her
tiptoes, peering at a list stuck on our refrigerator door.
The list says “Lena” and “Harold” and under each of our names are things we’ve bought and
how much they cost:
chicken, veg., bread, broccoli, shampoo, beer $19.63
Maria (clean + tip)$65 groceries
(see shop list) $55.15
petunias, potting soil $14.11
Photo developing $13.83
Garage stuff $25.35
Bathroom stuff $5.41
Car stuff $6.57
Light Fixtures $87.26
Road gravel $19.99
Gas $22.00
Car Smog Check $35
Movies & Dinner $65
Ice Cream $4.50
The way things are going this week, Harold’s already spent over a hundred dollars more, so
I’ll owe him around fifty from my checking account.
“What is this writing?” asks my mother in Chinese.
“Oh, nothing really. Just things we share,” I say as casually as I can.
And she looks at me and frowns but doesn’t say anything. She goes back to reading the list,
this time more carefully, moving her finger down each item.
And I feel embarrassed, knowing what she’s seeing. I’m relieved that she doesn’t see the
other half of it, the discussions. Through countless talks, Harold and I reached an understanding
about not including personal things like “mascara,” and “shaving lotion,” “hair spray” or “Bic
shavers,” “tampons,” or “athlete’s foot powder.”
When we got married at city hall, he insisted on paying the fee. I got my friend Robert to take
photos. We held a party at our apartment and everybody brought champagne. And when we bought
the house, we agreed that I should pay only a percentage of the mortgage based on what I earn and
what he earns, and that I should own an equivalent percentage of community property; this is
written in our prenuptial agreement. Since Harold pays more, he had the deciding vote on how the
house should look. It is sleek, spare, and what he calls “fluid,” nothing to disrupt the line, meaning
none of my cluttered look. As for vacations, the one we choose together is fifty-fifty. The others
Harold pays for, with the understanding that it’s a birthday or Christmas present, or an anniversary
And we’ve had philosophical arguments over things that have gray borders, like my birth
control pills, or dinners at home when we entertain people who are really his clients or my old
friends from college, or food magazines that I subscribe to but he also reads only because he’s
bored, not because he would have chosen them for himself.
And we still argue about Mirugai, the cat—not our cat, or my cat, but the cat that was his gift
to me for my birthday last year.
“This, you do not share!” exclaims my mother in an astonished voice. And I am startled,
thinking she had read my thoughts about Mirugai. But then I see she is pointing to “ice cream” on
Harold’s list. My mother must remember the incident on the fire escape landing, where she found
me, shivering and exhausted, sitting next to that container of regurgitated ice cream. I could never
stand the stuff after that. And then I am startled once again to realize that Harold has never noticed
that I don’t eat any of the ice cream he brings home every Friday evening.
“Why you do this?”
My mother has a wounded sound in her voice, as if I had put the list up to hurt her. I think how
to explain this, recalling the words Harold and I have used with each other in the past: “So we can
eliminate false dependencies…be equals…love without obligation…” But these are words she
could never understand.
So instead I tell my mother this: “I don’t really know. It’s something we started before we got
married. And for some reason we never stopped.”
When Harold returns from the store, he starts the charcoal. I unload the groceries, marinate
the steaks, cook the rice, and set the table. My mother sits on a stool at the granite counter, drinking
from a mug of coffee I’ve poured for her. Every few minutes she wipes the bottom of the mug with
a tissue she keeps stuffed in her sweater sleeve.
During dinner, Harold keeps the conversation going. He talks about the plans for the house:
the skylights, expanding the deck, planting flower beds of tulips and crocuses, clearing the poison
oak, adding another wing, building a Japanese-style tile bathroom. And then he clears the table and
starts stacking the plates in the dishwasher.
“Who’s ready for dessert?” he asks, reaching into the freezer.
“I’m full,” I say.
“Lena cannot eat ice cream,” says my mother.
“So it seems. She’s always on a diet.”
“No, she never eat it. She doesn’t like.”
And now Harold smiles and looks at me puzzled, expecting me to translate what my mother
has said.
“It’s true,” I say evenly. “I’ve hated ice cream almost all my life.”
Harold looks at me, as if I, too, were speaking Chinese and he could not understand.
“I guess I assumed you were just trying to lose weight.… Oh well.”
“She become so thin now you cannot see her,” says my mother. “She like a ghost, disappear.”
“That’s right! Christ, that’s great,” exclaims Harold, laughing, relieved in thinking my mother
is graciously trying to rescue him.
After dinner, I put clean towels on the bed in the guest room. My mother is sitting on the bed.
The room has Harold’s minimalist look to it: the twin bed with plain white sheets and white
blanket, polished wood floors, a bleached oakwood chair, and nothing on the slanted gray walls.
The only decoration is an odd-looking piece right next to the bed: an end table made out of a
slab of unevenly cut marble and thin crisscrosses of black lacquer wood for the legs. My mother
puts her handbag on the table and the cylindrical black vase on top starts to wobble. The freesias
in the vase quiver.
“Careful, it’s not too sturdy,” I say. The table is a poorly designed piece that Harold made in
his student days. I’ve always wondered why he’s so proud of it. The lines are clumsy. It doesn’t
bear any of the traits of “fluidity” that are so important to Harold these days.
“What use for?” asks my mother, jiggling the table with her hand. “You put something else on
top, everything fall down. Chunwang chihan.”
I leave my mother in her room and go back downstairs. Harold is opening the windows to let
the night air in. He does this every evening.
“I’m cold,” I say.
“What’s that?”
“Could you close the windows, please.”
He looks at me, sighs and smiles, pulls the windows shut, and then sits down cross-legged on
the floor and flips open a magazine. I’m sitting on the sofa, seething, and I don’t know why. It’s not
that Harold has done anything wrong. Harold is just Harold.
And before I even do it, I know I’m starting a fight that is bigger than I know how to handle.
But I do it anyway. I go to the refrigerator and I cross out “ice cream” on Harold’s side of the list.
“What’s going on here?”
“I just don’t think you should get credit for your ice cream anymore.”
He shrugs his shoulders, amused. “Suits me.”
“Why do you have to be so goddamn fair!” I shout.
Harold puts his magazine down, now wearing his openmouthed exasperated look. “What is
this? Why don’t you say what’s really the matter?”
“I don’t know.… I don’t know. Everything…the way we account for everything. What we
share. What we don’t share. I’m so tired of it, adding things up, subtracting, making it come out
even. I’m sick of it.”
“You were the one who wanted the cat.”
“What are you talking about?”
“All right. If you think I’m being unfair about the exterminators, we’ll both pay for it.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Then tell me, please, what is the point?”
I start to cry, which I know Harold hates. It always makes him uncomfortable, angry. He
thinks it’s manipulative. But I can’t help it, because I realize now that I don’t know what the point
of this argument is. Am I asking Harold to support me? Am I asking to pay less than half? Do I
really think we should stop accounting for everything? Wouldn’t we continue to tally things up in
our head? Wouldn’t Harold wind up paying more? And then wouldn’t I feel worse, less than
equal? Or maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe Harold is a bad man.
Maybe I’ve made him this way.
None of it seems right. Nothing makes sense. I can admit to nothing and I am in complete
“I just think we have to change things,” I say when I think I can control my voice. Only the rest
comes out like whining. “We need to think about what our marriage is really based on…not this
balance sheet, who owes who what.”
“Shit,” Harold says. And then he sighs and leans back, as if he were thinking about this.
Finally he says in what sounds like a hurt voice, “Well, I know our marriage is based on a lot more
than a balance sheet. A lot more. And if you don’t then I think you should think about what else you
want, before you change things.”
And now I don’t know what to think. What am I saying? What’s he saying? We sit in the room,
not saying anything. The air feels muggy. I look out the window, and out in the distance is the
valley beneath us, a sprinkling of thousands of lights shimmering in the summer fog. And then I
hear the sound of glass shattering, upstairs, and a chair scrapes across a wood floor.
Harold starts to get up, but I say, “No, I’ll go see.”
The door is open, but the room is dark, so I call out, “Ma?”
I see it right away: the marble end table collapsed on top of its spindly black legs. Off to the
side is the black vase, the smooth cylinder broken in half, the freesias strewn in a puddle of water.
And then I see my mother sitting by the open window, her dark silhouette against the night sky.
She turns around in her chair, but I can’t see her face.
“Fallen down,” she says simply. She doesn’t apologize.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, and I start to pick up the broken glass shards. “I knew it would
“Then why you don’t stop it?” asks my mother.
And it’s such a simple question.
Waverly Jong
Four Directions
I had taken my mother out to lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant in hopes of putting her in a
good mood, but it was a disaster.
When we met at the Four Directions Restaurant, she eyed me with immediate disapproval.
“Ai-ya! What’s the matter with your hair?” she said in Chinese.
“What do you mean, ‘What’s the matter,’ ” I said. “I had it cut.” Mr. Rory had styled my hair
differently this time, an asymmetrical blunt-line fringe that was shorter on the left side. It was
fashionable, yet not radically so.
“Looks chopped off,” she said. “You must ask for your money back.”
I sighed. “Let’s just have a nice lunch together, okay?”
She wore her tight-lipped, pinched-nose look as she scanned the menu, muttering, “Not too
many good things, this menu.” Then she tapped the waiter’s arm, wiped the length of her chopsticks
with her finger, and sniffed: “This greasy thing, do you expect me to eat with it?” She made a show
of washing out her rice bowl with hot tea, and then warned other restaurant patrons seated near us
to do the same. She told the waiter to make sure the soup was very hot, and of course, it was by her
tongue’s expert estimate “not even lukewarm.”
“You shouldn’t get so upset,” I said to my mother after she disputed a charge of two extra
dollars because she had specified chrysanthemum tea, instead of the regular green tea. “Besides,
unnecessary stress isn’t good for your heart.”
“Nothing is wrong with my heart,” she huffed as she kept a disparaging eye on the waiter.
And she was right. Despite all the tension she places on herself—and others—the doctors
have proclaimed that my mother, at age sixty-nine, has the blood pressure of a sixteen-year-old and
the strength of a horse. And that’s what she is. A Horse, born in 1918, destined to be obstinate and
frank to the point of tactlessness. She and I make a bad combination, because I’m a Rabbit, born in
1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign
of criticism.
After our miserable lunch, I gave up the idea that there would ever be a good time to tell her
the news: that Rich Schields and I were getting married.
“Why are you so nervous?” my friend Marlene Ferber had asked over the phone the other
night. “It’s not as if Rich is the scum of the earth. He’s a tax attorney like you, for Chrissake. How
can she criticize that?”
“You don’t know my mother,” I said. “She never thinks anybody is good enough for anything.”
“So elope with the guy,” said Marlene.
“That’s what I did with Marvin.” Marvin was my first husband, my high school sweetheart.
“So there you go,” said Marlene.
“So when my mother found out, she threw her shoe at us,” I said. “And that was just for
My mother had never met Rich. In fact, every time I brought up his name—when I said, for
instance, that Rich and I had gone to the symphony, that Rich had taken my four-year-old daughter,
Shoshana, to the zoo—my mother found a way to change the subject.
“Did I tell you,” I said as we waited for the lunch bill at Four Directions, “what a great time
Shoshana had with Rich at the Exploratorium? He—”
“Oh,” interrupted my mother, “I didn’t tell you. Your father, doctors say maybe need
exploratory surgery. But no, now they say everything normal, just too much constipated.” I gave up.
And then we did the usual routine.
I paid for the bill, with a ten and three ones. My mother pulled back the dollar bills and
counted out exact change, thirteen cents, and put that on the tray instead, explaining firmly: “No
tip!” She tossed her head back with a triumphant smile. And while my mother used the restroom, I
slipped the waiter a five-dollar bill. He nodded to me with deep understanding. While she was
gone, I devised another plan.
“Choszle!”—Stinks to death in there!—muttered my mother when she returned. She nudged
me with a little travel package of Kleenex. She did not trust other people’s toilet paper. “Do you
need to use?”
I shook my head. “But before I drop you off, let’s stop at my place real quick. There’s
something I want to show you.”
My mother had not been to my apartment in months. When I was first married, she used to
drop by unannounced, until one day I suggested she should call ahead of time. Ever since then, she
has refused to come unless I issue an official invitation.
And so I watched her, seeing her reaction to the changes in my apartment—from the pristine
habitat I maintained after the divorce, when all of a sudden I had too much time to keep my life in
order—to this present chaos, a home full of life and love. The hallway floor was littered with
Shoshana’s toys, all bright plastic things with scattered parts. There was a set of Rich’s barbells in
the living room, two dirty snifters on the coffee table, the disemboweled remains of a phone that
Shoshana and Rich took apart the other day to see where the voices came from.
“It’s back here,” I said. We kept walking, all the way to the back bedroom. The bed was
unmade, dresser drawers were hanging out with socks and ties spilling over. My mother stepped
over running shoes, more of Shoshana’s toys, Rich’s black loafers, my scarves, a stack of white
shirts just back from the cleaner’s.
Her look was one of painful denial, reminding me of a time long ago when she took my
brothers and me down to a clinic to get our polio booster shots. As the needle went into my
brother’s arm and he screamed, my mother looked at me with agony written all over her face and
assured me, “Next one doesn’t hurt.”
But now, how could my mother not notice that we were living together, that this was serious
and would not go away even if she didn’t talk about it? She had to say something.
I went to the closet and then came back with a mink jacket that Rich had given me for
Christmas. It was the most extravagant gift I had ever received.
I put the jacket on. “It’s sort of a silly present,” I said nervously. “It’s hardly ever cold
enough in San Francisco to wear mink. But it seems to be a fad, what people are buying their
wives and girlfriends these days.”
My mother was quiet. She was looking toward my open closet, bulging with racks of shoes,
ties, my dresses, and Rich’s suits. She ran her fingers over the mink.
“This is not so good,” she said at last. “It is just leftover strips. And the fur is too short, no
long hairs.”
“How can you criticize a gift!” I protested. I was deeply wounded. “He gave me this from his
“That is why I worry,” she said.
And looking at the coat in the mirror, I couldn’t fend off the strength of her will anymore, her
ability to make me see black where there was once white, white where there was once black. The
coat looked shabby, an imitation of romance.
“Aren’t you going to say anything else?” I asked softly.
“What I should say?”
“About the apartment? About this?” I gestured to all the signs of Rich lying about.
She looked around the room, toward the hall, and finally she said, “You have career. You are
busy. You want to live like mess what I can say?”
My mother knows how to hit a nerve. And the pain I feel is worse than any other kind of
misery. Because what she does always comes as a shock, exactly like an electric jolt, that grounds
itself permanently in my memory. I still remember the first time I felt it.
I was ten years old. Even though I was young, I knew my ability to play chess was a gift. It was
effortless, so easy. I could see things on the chessboard that other people could not. I could create
barriers to protect myself that were invisible to my opponents. And this gift gave me supreme
confidence. I knew what my opponents would do, move for move. I knew at exactly what point
their faces would fall when my seemingly simple and childlike strategy would reveal itself as a
devastating and irrevocable course. I loved to win.
And my mother loved to show me off, like one of my many trophies she polished. She used to
discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies.
“I told my daughter, Use your horses to run over the enemy,” she informed one shopkeeper.
“She won very quickly this way.” And of course, she had said this before the game—that and a
hundred other useless things that had nothing to do with my winning.
To our family friends who visited she would confide, “You don’t have to be so smart to win
chess. It is just tricks. You blow from the North, South, East, and West. The other person becomes
confused. They don’t know which way to run.”
I hated the way she tried to take all the credit. And one day I told her so, shouting at her on
Stockton Street, in the middle of a crowd of people. I told her she didn’t know anything, so she
shouldn’t show off. She should shut up. Words to that effect.
That evening and the next day she wouldn’t speak to me. She would say stiff words to my
father and brothers, as if I had become invisible and she was talking about a rotten fish she had
thrown away but which had left behind its bad smell.
I knew this strategy, the sneaky way to get someone to pounce back in anger and fall into a
trap. So I ignored her. I refused to speak and waited for her to come to me.
After many days had gone by in silence, I sat in my room, staring at the sixty-four squares of
my chessboard, trying to think of another way. And that’s when I decided to quit playing chess.
Of course I didn’t mean to quit forever. At most, just for a few days. And I made a show of it.
Instead of practicing in my room every night, as I always did, I marched into the living room and
sat down in front of the television set with my brothers, who stared at me, an unwelcome intruder. I
used my brothers to further my plan; I cracked my knuckles to annoy them.
“Ma!” they shouted. “Make her stop. Make her go away.”
But my mother did not say anything.
Still I was not worried. But I could see I would have to make a stronger move. I decided to
sacrifice a tournament that was coming up in one week. I would refuse to play in it. And my mother
would certainly have to speak to me about this. Because the sponsors and the benevolent
associations would start calling her, asking, shouting, pleading to make me play again.
And then the tournament came and went. And she did not come to me, crying, “Why are you
not playing chess?” But I was crying inside, because I learned that a boy whom I had easily
defeated on two other occasions had won.
I realized my mother knew more tricks than I had thought. But now I was tired of her game. I
wanted to start practicing for the next tournament. So I decided to pretend to let her win. I would
be the one to speak first.
“I am ready to play chess again,” I announced to her. I had imagined she would smile and then
ask me what special thing I wanted to eat.
But instead, she gathered her face into a frown and stared into my eyes, as if she could force
some kind of truth out of me.
“Why do you tell me this?” she finally said in sharp tones. “You think it is so easy. One day
quit, next day play. Everything for you is this way. So smart, so easy, so fast.”
“I said I’ll play,” I whined.
“No!” she shouted, and I almost jumped out of my scalp. “It is not so easy anymore.”
I was quivering, stunned by what she said, in not knowing what she meant. And then I went
back to my room. I stared at my chessboard, its sixty-four squares, to figure out how to undo this
terrible mess. And after staring like this for many hours, I actually believed that I had made the
white squares black and the black squares white, and everything would be all right.
And sure enough, I won her back. That night I developed a high fever, and she sat next to my
bed, scolding me for going to school without my sweater. In the morning she was there as well,
feeding me rice porridge flavored with chicken broth she had strained herself. She said she was
feeding me this because I had the chicken pox and one chicken knew how to fight another. And in
the afternoon, she sat in a chair in my room, knitting me a pink sweater while telling me about a
sweater that Auntie Suyuan had knit for her daughter June, and how it was most unattractive and of
the worst yarn. I was so happy that she had become her usual self.
But after I got well, I discovered that, really, my mother had changed. She no longer hovered
over me as I practiced different chess games. She did not polish my trophies every day. She did
not cut out the small newspaper item that mentioned my name. It was as if she had erected an
invisible wall and I was secretly groping each day to see how high and how wide it was.
At my next tournament, while I had done well overall, in the end the points were not enough. I
lost. And what was worse, my mother said nothing. She seemed to walk around with this satisfied
look, as if it had happened because she had devised this strategy.
I was horrified. I spent many hours every day going over in my mind what I had lost. I knew it
was not just the last tournament. I examined every move, every piece, every square. And I could no
longer see the secret weapons of each piece, the magic within the intersection of each square. I
could see only my mistakes, my weaknesses. It was as though I had lost my magic armor. And
everybody could see this, where it was easy to attack me.
Over the next few weeks and later months and years, I continued to play, but never with that
same feeling of supreme confidence. I fought hard, with fear and desperation. When I won, I was
grateful, relieved. And when I lost, I was filled with growing dread, and then terror that I was no
longer a prodigy, that I had lost the gift and had turned into someone quite ordinary.
When I lost twice to the boy whom I had defeated so easily a few years before, I stopped
playing chess altogether. And nobody protested. I was fourteen.
“You know, I really don’t understand you,” said Marlene when I called her the night after I had
shown my mother the mink jacket. “You can tell the IRS to piss up a rope, but you can’t stand up to
your own mother.”
“I always intend to and then she says these little sneaky things, smoke bombs and little barbs,
“Why don’t you tell her to stop torturing you,” said Marlene. “Tell her to stop ruining your
life. Tell her to shut up.”
“That’s hilarious,” I said with a half-laugh. “You want me to tell my mother to shut up?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s explicitly stated in the law, but you can’t ever tell a Chinese
mother to shut up. You could be charged as an accessory to your own murder.”
I wasn’t so much afraid of my mother as I was afraid for Rich. I already knew what she
would do, how she would attack him, how she would criticize him. She would be quiet at first.
Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another
word, and another, each one flung out like a little piece of sand, one from this direction, another
from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. And
even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth
would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he
was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating
This happened to my first marriage, to Marvin Chen, with whom I had eloped when I was
eighteen and he was nineteen. When I was in love with Marvin, he was nearly perfect. He
graduated third in his class at Lowell and got a full scholarship to Stanford. He played tennis. He
had bulging calf muscles and one hundred forty-six straight black hairs on his chest. He made
everyone laugh and his own laugh was deep, sonorous, masculinely sexy. He prided himself on
having favorite love positions for different days and hours of the week; all he had to whisper was
“Wednesday afternoon” and I’d shiver.
But by the time my mother had had her say about him, I saw his brain had shrunk from
laziness, so that now it was good only for thinking up excuses. He chased golf and tennis balls to
run away from family responsibilities. His eye wandered up and down other girls’ legs, so he
didn’t know how to drive straight home anymore. He liked to tell big jokes to make other people
feel little. He made a loud show of leaving ten-dollar tips to strangers but was stingy with presents
to family. He thought waxing his red sports car all afternoon was more important than taking his
wife somewhere in it.
My feelings for Marvin never reached the level of hate. No, it was worse in a way. It went
from disappointment to contempt to apathetic boredom. It wasn’t until after we separated, on nights
when Shoshana was asleep and I was lonely, that I wondered if perhaps my mother had poisoned
my marriage.
Thank God, her poison didn’t affect my daughter, Shoshana. I almost aborted her, though.
When I found out I was pregnant, I was furious. I secretly referred to my pregnancy as my
“growing resentment,” and I dragged Marvin down to the clinic so he would have to suffer through
this too. It turned out we went to the wrong kind of clinic. They made us watch a film, a terrible bit
of puritanical brainwash. I saw those little things, babies they called them even at seven weeks,
and they had tiny, tiny fingers. And the film said that the baby’s translucent fingers could move, that
we should imagine them clinging for life, grasping for a chance, this miracle of life. If they had
shown anything else except tiny fingers—so thank God they did. Because Shoshana really was a
miracle. She was perfect. I found every detail about her to be remarkable, especially the way she
flexed and curled her fingers. From the very moment she flung her fist away from her mouth to cry,
I knew my feelings for her were inviolable.
But I worried for Rich. Because I knew my feelings for him were vulnerable to being felled
by my mother’s suspicions, passing remarks, and innuendos. And I was afraid of what I would then
lose, because Rich Schields adored me in the same way I adored Shoshana. His love was
unequivocal. Nothing could change it. He expected nothing from me; my mere existence was
enough. And at the same time, he said that he had changed—for the better—because of me. He was
embarrassingly romantic; he insisted he never was until he met me. And this confession made his
romantic gestures all the more ennobling. At work, for example, when he would staple “FYI—For
Your Information” notes to legal briefs and corporate returns that I had to review, he signed them
at the bottom: “FYI—Forever You & I.” The firm didn’t know about our relationship, and so that
kind of reckless behavior on his part thrilled me.
The sexual chemistry was what really surprised me, though. I thought he’d be one of those
quiet types who was awkwardly gentle and clumsy, the kind of mild-mannered guy who says, “Am
I hurting you?” when I can’t feel a thing. But he was so attuned to my every movement I was sure
he was reading my mind. He had no inhibitions, and whatever ones he discovered I had he’d pry
away from me like little treasures. He saw all those private aspects of me—and I mean not just
sexual private parts, but my darker side, my meanness, my pettiness, my self-loathing—all the
things I kept hidden. So that with him I was completely naked, and when I was, when I was feeling
the most vulnerable—when the wrong word would have sent me flying out the door forever—he
always said exactly the right thing at the right moment. He didn’t allow me to cover myself up. He
would grab my hands, look me straight in the eye and tell me something new about why he loved
I’d never known love so pure, and I was afraid that it would become sullied by my mother.
So I tried to store every one of these endearments about Rich in my memory, and I planned to call
upon them again when the time was necessary.
After much thought, I came up with a brilliant plan. I concocted a way for Rich to meet my
mother and win her over. In fact, I arranged it so my mother would want to cook a meal especially
for him. I had some help from Auntie Suyuan. Auntie Su was my mother’s friend from way back.
They were very close, which meant they were ceaselessly tormenting each other with boasts and
secrets. And I gave Auntie Su a secret to boast about.
After walking through North Beach one Sunday, I suggested to Rich that we stop by for a
surprise visit to my Auntie Su and Uncle Canning. They lived on Leavenworth, just a few blocks
west of my mother’s apartment. It was late afternoon, just in time to catch Auntie Su preparing
Sunday dinner.
“Stay! Stay!” she had insisted.
“No, no. It’s just that we were walking by,” I said.
“Already cooked enough for you. See? One soup, four dishes. You don’t eat it, only have to
throw it away. Wasted!”
How could we refuse? Three days later, Auntie Suyuan had a thank-you letter from Rich and
me. “Rich said it was the best Chinese food he has ever tasted,” I wrote.
And the next day, my mother called me, to invite me to a belated birthday dinner for my
father. My brother Vincent was bringing his girlfriend, Lisa Lum. I could bring a friend, too.
I knew she would do this, because cooking was how my mother expressed her love, her
pride, her power, her proof that she knew more than Auntie Su. “Just be sure to tell her later that
her cooking was the best you ever tasted, that it was far better than Auntie Su’s,” I told Rich.
“Believe me.”
The night of the dinner, I sat in the kitchen watching her cook, waiting for the right moment to
tell her about our marriage plans, that we had decided to get married next July, about seven months
away. She was chopping eggplant into wedges, chattering at the same time about Auntie Suyuan:
“She can only cook looking at a recipe. My instructions are in my fingers. I know what secret
ingredients to put in just by using my nose!” And she was slicing with such a ferocity, seemingly
inattentive to her sharp cleaver, that I was afraid her fingertips would become one of the
ingredients of the red-cooked eggplant and shredded pork dish.
I was hoping she would say something first about Rich. I had seen her expression when she
opened the door, her forced smile as she scrutinized him from head to toe, checking her appraisal
of him against that already given to her by Auntie Suyuan. I tried to anticipate what criticisms she
would have.
Rich was not only not Chinese, he was a few years younger than I was. And unfortunately, he
looked much younger with his curly red hair, smooth pale skin, and the splash of orange freckles
across his nose. He was a bit on the short side, compactly built. In his dark business suits, he
looked nice but easily forgettable, like somebody’s nephew at a funeral. Which was why I didn’t
notice him the first year we worked together at the firm. But my mother noticed everything.
“So what do you think of Rich?” I finally asked, holding my breath.
She tossed the eggplant in the hot oil and it made a loud, angry hissing sound. “So many spots
on his face,” she said.
I could feel the pinpricks on my back. “They’re freckles. Freckles are good luck, you know,”
I said a bit too heatedly in trying to raise my voice above the din of the kitchen.
“Oh?” she said innocently.
“Yes, the more spots the better. Everybody knows that.”
She considered this a moment and then smiled and spoke in Chinese: “Maybe this is true.
When you were young, you got the chicken pox. So many spots, you had to stay home for ten days.
So lucky, you thought.”
I couldn’t save Rich in the kitchen. And I couldn’t save him later at the dinner table.
He had brought a bottle of French wine, something he did not know my parents could not
appreciate. My parents did not even own wineglasses. And then he also made the mistake of
drinking not one but two frosted glasses full, while everybody else had a half-inch “just for taste.”
When I offered Rich a fork, he insisted on using the slippery ivory chopsticks. He held them
splayed like the knock-kneed legs of an ostrich while picking up a large chunk of sauce-coated
eggplant. Halfway between his plate and his open mouth, the chunk fell on his crisp white shirt and
then slid into his crotch. It took several minutes to get Shoshana to stop shrieking with laughter.
And then he had helped himself to big portions of the shrimp and snow peas, not realizing he
should have taken only a polite spoonful, until everybody had had a morsel.
He had declined the sautéed new greens, the tender and expensive leaves of bean plants
plucked before the sprouts turn into beans. And Shoshana refused to eat them also, pointing to
Rich: “He didn’t eat them! He didn’t eat them!”
He thought he was being polite by refusing seconds, when he should have followed my
father’s example, who made a big show of taking small portions of seconds, thirds, and even
fourths, always saying he could not resist another bite of something or other, and then groaning that
he was so full he thought he would burst.
But the worst was when Rich criticized my mother’s cooking, and he didn’t even know what
he had done. As is the Chinese cook’s custom, my mother always made disparaging remarks about
her own cooking. That night she chose to direct it toward her famous steamed pork and preserved
vegetable dish, which she always served with special pride.
“Ai! This dish not salty enough, no flavor,” she complained, after tasting a small bite. “It is
too bad to eat.”
This was our family’s cue to eat some and proclaim it the best she had ever made. But before
we could do so, Rich said, “You know, all it needs is a little soy sauce.” And he proceeded to
pour a riverful of the salty black stuff on the platter, right before my mother’s horrified eyes.
And even though I was hoping throughout the dinner that my mother would somehow see
Rich’s kindness, his sense of humor and boyish charm, I knew he had failed miserably in her eyes.
Rich obviously had had a different opinion on how the evening had gone. When we got home
that night, after we put Shoshana to bed, he said modestly, “Well. I think we hit it off A-o-kay.” He
had the look of a dalmatian, panting, loyal, waiting to be petted.
“Uh-hmm,” I said. I was putting on an old nightgown, a hint that I was not feeling amorous. I
was still shuddering, remembering how Rich had firmly shaken both my parents’ hands with that
same easy familiarity he used with nervous new clients. “Linda, Tim,” he said, “we’ll see you
again soon, I’m sure.” My parents’ names are Lindo and Tin Jong, and nobody, except a few older
family friends, ever calls them by their first names.
“So what did she say when you told her?” And I knew he was referring to our getting married.
I had told Rich earlier that I would tell my mother first and let her break the news to my father.
“I never had a chance,” I said, which was true. How could I have told my mother I was
getting married, when at every possible moment we were alone, she seemed to remark on how
much expensive wine Rich liked to drink, or how pale and ill he looked, or how sad Shoshana
seemed to be.
Rich was smiling. “How long does it take to say, Mom, Dad, I’m getting married?”
“You don’t understand. You don’t understand my mother.”
Rich shook his head. “Whew! You can say that again. Her English was so bad. You know,
when she was talking about that dead guy showing up on Dynasty, I thought she was talking about
something that happened in China a long time ago.”
That night, after the dinner, I lay in bed, tense. I was despairing over this latest failure, made
worse by the fact that Rich seemed blind to it all. He looked so pathetic. So pathetic, those words!
My mother was doing it again, making me see black where I once saw white. In her hands, I
always became the pawn. I could only run away. And she was the queen, able to move in all
directions, relentless in her pursuit, always able to find my weakest spots.
I woke up late, with teeth clenched and every nerve on edge. Rich was already up, showered,
and reading the Sunday paper. “Morning, doll,” he said between noisy munches of cornflakes. I put
on my jogging clothes and headed out the door, got into the car, and drove to my parents’
Marlene was right. I had to tell my mother—that I knew what she was doing, her scheming
ways of making me miserable. By the time I arrived, I had enough anger to fend off a thousand
flying cleavers.
My father opened the door and looked surprised to see me. “Where’s Ma?” I asked, trying to
keep my breath even. He gestured to the living room in back.
I found her sleeping soundly on the sofa. The back of her head was resting on a white
embroidered doily. Her mouth was slack and all the lines in her face were gone. With her smooth
face, she looked like a young girl, frail, guileless, and innocent. One arm hung limply down the
side of the sofa. Her chest was still. All her strength was gone. She had no weapons, no demons
surrounding her. She looked powerless. Defeated.
And then I was seized with a fear that she looked like this because she was dead. She had
died when I was having terrible thoughts about her. I had wished her out of my life, and she had
acquiesced, floating out of her body to escape my terrible hatred.
“Ma!” I said sharply. “Ma!” I whined, starting to cry.
And her eyes slowly opened. She blinked. Her hands moved with life. “Shemma? Meimeiah? Is that you?”
I was speechless. She had not called me Meimei, my childhood name, in many years. She sat
up and the lines in her face returned, only now they seemed less harsh, soft creases of worry. “Why
are you here? Why are you crying? Something has happened!”
I didn’t know what to do or say. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, I had gone from being
angered by her strength, to being amazed by her innocence, and then frightened by her
vulnerability. And now I felt numb, strangely weak, as if someone had unplugged me and the
current running through me had stopped.
“Nothing’s happened. Nothing’s the matter. I don’t know why I’m here,” I said in a hoarse
voice. “I wanted to talk to you.…I wanted to tell you…Rich and I are getting married.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting to hear her protests, her laments, the dry voice delivering
some sort of painful verdict.
“Jrdaule”—I already know this—she said, as if to ask why I was telling her this again.
“You know?”
“Of course. Even if you didn’t tell me,” she said simply.
This was worse than I had imagined. She had known all along, when she criticized the mink
jacket, when she belittled his freckles and complained about his drinking habits. She disapproved
of him. “I know you hate him,” I said in a quavering voice. “I know you think he’s not good
enough, but I…”
“Hate? Why do you think I hate your future husband?”
“You never want to talk about him. The other day, when I started to tell you about him and
Shoshana at the Exploratorium, you…you changed the subject…you started talking about Dad’s
exploratory surgery and then…”
“What is more important, explore fun or explore sickness?”
I wasn’t going to let her escape this time. “And then when you met him, you said he had spots
on his face.”
She looked at me, puzzled. “Is this not true?”
“Yes, but, you said it just to be mean, to hurt me, to…”
“Ai-ya, why do you think these bad things about me?” Her face looked old and full of sorrow.
“So you think your mother is this bad. You think I have a secret meaning. But it is you who has this
meaning. Ai-ya! She thinks I am this bad!” She sat straight and proud on the sofa, her mouth
clamped tight, her hands clasped together, her eyes sparkling with angry tears.
Oh, her strength! her weakness!—both pulling me apart. My mind was flying one way, my
heart another. I sat down on the sofa next to her, the two of us stricken by the other.
I felt as if I had lost a battle, but one that I didn’t know I had been fighting. I was weary. “I’m
going home,” I finally said. “I’m not feeling too good right now.”
“You have become ill?” she murmured, putting her hand on my forehead.
“No,” I said. I wanted to leave. “I…I just don’t know what’s inside me right now.”
“Then I will tell you,” she said simply. And I stared at her. “Half of everything inside you,”
she explained in Chinese, “is from your father’s side. This is natural. They are the Jong clan,
Cantonese people. Good, honest people. Although sometimes they are bad-tempered and stingy.
You know this from your father, how he can be unless I remind him.”
And I was thinking to myself, Why is she telling me this? What does this have to do with
anything? But my mother continued to speak, smiling broadly, sweeping her hand. “And half of
everything inside you is from me, your mother’s side, from the Sun clan in Taiyuan.” She wrote the
characters out on the back of an envelope, forgetting that I cannot read Chinese.
“We are a smart people, very strong, tricky, and famous for winning wars. You know Sun
Yat-sen, hah?”
I nodded.
“He is from the Sun clan. But his family moved to the south many centuries ago, so he is not
exactly the same clan. My family has always live in Taiyuan, from before the days of even Sun
Wei. Do you know Sun Wei?”
I shook my head. And although I still didn’t know where this conversation was going, I felt
soothed. It seemed like the first time we had had an almost normal conversation.
“He went to battle with Genghis Khan. And when the Mongol soldiers shot at Sun Wei’s
warriors—heh!—their arrows bounced off the shields like rain on stone. Sun Wei had made a kind
of armor so strong Genghis Khan believed it was magic!”
“Genghis Khan must have invented some magic arrows, then,” I said. “After all, he conquered
My mother acted as if she hadn’t heard me right. “This is true, we always know how to win.
So now you know what is inside you, almost all good stuff from Taiyuan.”
“I guess we’ve evolved to just winning in the toy and electronics market,” I said.
“How do you know this?” she asked eagerly.
“You see it on everything. Made in Taiwan.”
“Ai!” she cried loudly. “I’m not from Taiwan!”
And just like that, the fragile connection we were starting to build snapped.
“I was born in China, in Taiyuan,” she said. “Taiwan is not China.”
“Well, I only thought you said ‘Taiwan’ because it sounds the same,” I argued, irritated that
she was upset by such an unintentional mistake.
“Sound is completely different! Country is completely different!” she said in a huff. “People
there only dream that it is China, because if you are Chinese you can never let go of China in your
We sank into silence, a stalemate. And then her eyes lighted up. “Now listen. You can also
say the name of Taiyuan is Bing. Everyone from that city calls it that. Easier for you to say. Bing, it
is a nickname.”
She wrote down the character, and I nodded as if this made everything perfectly clear. “The
same as here,” she added in English. “You call Apple for New York. Frisco for San Francisco.”
“Nobody calls San Francisco that!” I said, laughing. “People who call it that don’t know any
“Now you understand my meaning,” said my mother triumphantly.
I smiled.
And really, I did understand finally. Not what she had just said. But what had been true all
I saw what I had been fighting for: It was for me, a scared child, who had run away a long
time ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible
barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny
ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could
finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her
sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in.
Rich and I have decided to postpone our wedding. My mother says July is not a good time to go to
China on our honeymoon. She knows this because she and my father have just returned from a trip
to Beijing and Taiyuan.
“It is too hot in the summer. You will only grow more spots and then your whole face will
become red!” she tells Rich. And Rich grins, gestures his thumb toward my mother, and says to me,
“Can you believe what comes out of her mouth? Now I know where you get your sweet, tactful
“You must go in October. That is the best time. Not too hot, not too cold. I am thinking of
going back then too,” she says authoritatively. And then she hastily adds: “Of course not with you!”
I laugh nervously, and Rich jokes: “That’d be great, Lindo. You could translate all the menus
for us, make sure we’re not eating snakes or dogs by mistake.” I almost kick him.
“No, this is not my meaning,” insists my mother. “Really, I am not asking.”
And I know what she really means. She would love to go to China with us. And I would hate
it. Three weeks’ worth of her complaining about dirty chopsticks and cold soup, three meals a day
—well, it would be a disaster.
Yet part of me also thinks the whole idea makes perfect sense. The three of us, leaving our
differences behind, stepping on the plane together, sitting side by side, lifting off, moving West to
reach the East.
Rose Hsu Jordan
Without Wood
I used to believe everything my mother said, even when I didn’t know what she meant. Once when
I was little, she told me she knew it would rain because lost ghosts were circling near our
windows, calling “Woo-woo” to be let in. She said doors would unlock themselves in the middle
of the night unless we checked twice. She said a mirror could see only my face, but she could see
me inside out even when I was not in the room.
And all these things seemed true to me. The power of her words was that strong.
She said that if I listened to her, later I would know what she knew: where true words came
from, always from up high, above everything else. And if I didn’t listen to her, she said my ear
would bend too easily to other people, all saying words that had no lasting meaning, because they
came from the bottom of their hearts, where their own desires lived, a place where I could not
The words my mother spoke did come from up high. As I recall, I was always looking up at
her face as I lay on my pillow. In those days my sisters and I all slept in the same double bed.
Janice, my oldest sister, had an allergy that made one nostril sing like a bird at night, so we called
her Whistling Nose. Ruth was Ugly Foot because she could spread her toes out in the shape of a
witch’s claw. I was Scaredy Eyes because I would squeeze shut my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see
the dark, which Janice and Ruth said was a dumb thing to do. During those early years, I was the
last to fall asleep. I clung to the bed, refusing to leave this world for dreams.
“Your sisters have already gone to see Old Mr. Chou,” my mother would whisper in Chinese.
According to my mother, Old Mr. Chou was the guardian of a door that opened into dreams. “Are
you ready to go see Old Mr. Chou, too?” And every night I would shake my head.
“Old Mr. Chou takes me to bad places,” I cried.
Old Mr. Chou took my sisters to sleep. They never remembered anything from the night
before. But Old Mr. Chou would swing the door wide open for me, and as I tried to walk in, he
would slam it fast, hoping to squash me like a fly. That’s why I would always dart back into
But eventually Old Mr. Chou would get tired and leave the door unwatched. The bed would
grow heavy at the top and slowly tilt. And I would slide headfirst, in through Old Mr. Chou’s door,
and land in a house without doors or windows.
I remember one time I dreamt of falling through a hole in Old Mr. Chou’s floor. I found
myself in a nighttime garden and Old Mr. Chou was shouting, “Who’s in my backyard?” I ran
away. Soon I found myself stomping on plants with veins of blood, running through fields of
snapdragons that changed colors like stoplights, until I came to a giant playground filled with row
after row of square sandboxes. In each sandbox was a new doll. And my mother, who was not
there but could see me inside out, told Old Mr. Chou she knew which doll I would pick. So I
decided to pick one that was entirely different.
“Stop her! Stop her!” cried my mother. As I tried to run away, old Mr. Chou chased me,
shouting, “See what happens when you don’t listen to your mother!” And I became paralyzed, too
scared to move in any direction.
The next morning, I told my mother what happened, and she laughed and said, “Don’t pay
attention to Old Mr. Chou. He is only a dream. You only have to listen to me.”
And I cried, “But Old Mr. Chou listens to you too.”
More than thirty years later, my mother was still trying to make me listen. A month after I told
her that Ted and I were getting a divorce, I met her at church, at the funeral of China Mary, a
wonderful ninety-two-year-old woman who had played godmother to every child who passed
through the doors of the First Chinese Baptist Church.
“You are getting too thin,” my mother said in her pained voice when I sat down next to her.
“You must eat more.”
“I’m fine,” I said, and I smiled for proof. “And besides, wasn’t it you who said my clothes
were always too tight?”
“Eat more,” she insisted, and then she nudged me with a little spiral-bound book hand-titled
“Cooking the Chinese Way by China Mary Chan.” They were selling them at the door, only five
dollars each, to raise money for the Refugee Scholarship Fund.
The organ music stopped and the minister cleared his throat. He was not the regular pastor; I
recognized him as Wing, a boy who used to steal baseball cards with my brother Luke. Only later
Wing went to divinity school, thanks to China Mary, and Luke went to the county jail for selling
stolen car stereos.
“I can still hear her voice,” Wing said to the mourners. “She said God made me with all the
right ingredients, so it’d be a shame if I burned in hell.”
“Already cre-mated,” my mother whispered matter-of-factly, nodding toward the altar, where
a framed color photo of China Mary stood. I held my finger to my lips the way librarians do, but
she didn’t get it.
“That one, we bought it.” She was pointing to a large spray of yellow chrysanthemums and
red roses. “Thirty-four dollars. All artificial, so it will last forever. You can pay me later. Janice
and Matthew also chip in some. You have money?”
“Yes, Ted sent me a check.”
Then the minister asked everyone to bow in prayer. My mother was quiet at last, dabbing her
nose with Kleenex while the minister talked: “I can just see her now, wowing the angels with her
Chinese cooking and gung-ho attitude.”
And when heads lifted, everyone rose to sing hymn number 335, China Mary’s favorite: “You
can be an an-gel, ev-ery day on earth…”
But my mother was not singing. She was staring at me. “Why does he send you a check?” I
kept looking at the hymnal, singing: “Send-ing rays of sun-shine, full of joy from birth.”
And so she grimly answered her own question: “He is doing monkey business with someone
Monkey business? Ted? I wanted to laugh—her choice of words, but also the idea! Cool,
silent, hairless Ted, whose breathing pattern didn’t alter one bit in the height of passion? I could
just see him, grunting “Ooh-ooh-ooh” while scratching his armpits, then bouncing and shrieking
across the mattress trying to grab a breast.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Why not?”
“I don’t think we should talk about Ted now, not here.”
“Why can you talk about this with a psyche-atric and not with mother?”
“Psyche-atricks,” she corrected herself.
“A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you,” she said above the singing voices. “A
psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.”
Back home, I thought about what she said. And it was true. Lately I had been feeling
hulihudu. And everything around me seemed to be heimongmong. These were words I had never
thought about in English terms. I suppose the closest in meaning would be “confused” and “dark
But really, the words mean much more than that. Maybe they can’t be easily translated
because they refer to a sensation that only Chinese people have, as if you were falling headfirst
through Old Mr. Chou’s door, then trying to find your way back. But you’re so scared you can’t
open your eyes, so you get on your hands and knees and grope in the dark, listening for voices to
tell you which way to go.
I had been talking to too many people, my friends, everybody it seems, except Ted. To each
person I told a different story. Yet each version was true, I was certain of it, at least at the moment
that I told it.
To my friend Waverly, I said I never knew how much I loved Ted until I saw how much he
could hurt me. I felt such pain, literally a physical pain, as if someone had torn off both my arms
without anesthesia, without sewing me back up.
“Have you ever had them torn off with anesthesia? God! I’ve never seen you so hysterical,”
said Waverly. “You want my opinion, you’re better off without him. It hurts only because it’s taken
you fifteen years to see what an emotional wimp he is. Listen, I know what it feels like.”
To my friend Lena, I said I was better off without Ted. After the initial shock, I realized I
didn’t miss him at all. I just missed the way I felt when I was with him.
“Which was what?” Lena gasped. “You were depressed. You were manipulated into thinking
you were nothing next to him. And now you think you’re nothing without him. If I were you, I’d get
the name of a good lawyer and go for everything you can. Get even.”
I told my psychiatrist I was obsessed with revenge. I dreamt of calling Ted up and inviting
him to dinner, to one of those trendy who’s-who places, like café Majestic or Rosalie’s. And after
he started the first course and was nice and relaxed, I would say, “It’s not that easy, Ted.” From
my purse I would take out a voodoo doll which Lena had already lent me from her props
department. I would aim my escargot fork at a strategic spot on the voodoo doll and I would say,
out loud, in front of all the fashionable restaurant patrons, “Ted, you’re just such an impotent
bastard and I’m going to make sure you stay that way.” Wham!
Saying this, I felt I had raced to the top of a big turning point in my life, a new me after just
two weeks of psychotherapy. But my psychiatrist just looked bored, his hand still propped under
his chin. “It seems you’ve been experiencing some very powerful feelings,” he said, sleepy-eyed.
“I think we should think about them more next week.”
And so I didn’t know what to think anymore. For the next few weeks, I inventoried my life,
going from room to room trying to remember the history of everything in the house: things I had
collected before I met Ted (the hand-blown glasses, the macrame wall hangings, and the rocker I
had recaned); things we bought together right after we were married (most of the big furniture);
things people gave us (the glass-domed clock that no longer worked, three sake sets, four teapots);
things he picked out (the signed lithographs, none of them beyond number twenty-five in a series of
two hundred fifty, the Steuben crystal strawberries); and things I picked out because I couldn’t
bear to see them left behind (the mismatched candlestick holders from garage sales, an antique
quilt with a hole in it, odd-shaped vials that once contained ointments, spices, and perfumes).
I had started to inventory the bookshelves when I got a letter from Ted, a note actually,
written hurriedly in ballpoint on his prescription notepad. “Sign 4x where indicated,” it read. And
then in fountain-pen blue ink, “enc: check, to tide you over until settlement.”
The note was clipped to our divorce papers, along with a check for ten thousand dollars,
signed in the same fountain-pen blue ink on the note. And instead of being grateful, I was hurt.
Why had he sent the check with the papers? Why the two different pens? Was the check an
afterthought? How long had he sat in his office determining how much money was enough? And
why had he chosen to sign it with that pen?
I still remember the look on his face last year when he carefully undid the gold foil wrap, the
surprise in his eyes as he slowly examined every angle of the pen by the light of the Christmas tree.
He kissed my forehead. “I’ll use it only to sign important things,” he had promised me.
Remembering that, holding the check, all I could do was sit on the edge of the couch feeling
my head getting heavy at the top. I stared at the x’s on the divorce papers, the wording on the
prescription notepad, the two colors of ink, the date of the check, the careful way in which he
wrote, “Ten thousand only and no cents.”
I sat there quietly, trying to listen to my heart, to make the right decision. But then I realized I
didn’t know what the choices were. And so I put the papers and the check away, in a drawer
where I kept store coupons which I never threw away and which I never used either.
My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood.
Born without wood so that I listened to too many people. She knew this, because once she had
almost become this way.
“A girl is like a young tree,” she said. “You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing
next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other
people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind.
And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until
someone pulls you out and throws you away.”
But by the time she told me this, it was too late. I had already begun to bend. I had started
going to school, where a teacher named Mrs. Berry lined us up and marched us in and out of
rooms, up and down hallways while she called out, “Boys and girls, follow me.” And if you didn’t
listen to her, she would make you bend over and whack you with a yardstick ten times.
I still listened to my mother, but I also learned how to let her words blow through me. And
sometimes I filled my mind with other people’s thoughts—all in English—so that when she looked
at me inside out, she would be confused by what she saw.
Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese
opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American
version was much better.
It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There
were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing. That’s how I felt
about my situation with Ted. There was so much to think about, so much to decide. Each decision
meant a turn in another direction.
The check, for example. I wondered if Ted was really trying to trick me, to get me to admit
that I was giving up, that I wouldn’t fight the divorce. And if I cashed it, he might later say the
amount was the whole settlement. Then I got a little sentimental and imagined, only for a moment,
that he had sent meten thousand dollars because he truly loved me; he was telling me in his own
way how much I meant to him. Until I realized that ten thousand dollars was nothing to him, that I
was nothing to him.
I thought about putting an end to this torture and signing the divorce papers. And I was just
about to take the papers out of the coupon drawer when I remembered the house.
I thought to myself, I love this house. The big oak door that opens into a foyer filled with
stained-glass windows. The sunlight in the breakfast room, the south view of the city from the front
parlor. The herb and flower garden Ted had planted. He used to work in the garden every
weekend, kneeling on a green rubber pad, obsessively inspecting every leaf as if he were
manicuring fingernails. He assigned plants to certain planter boxes. Tulips could not be mixed with
perennials. A cutting of aloe vera that Lena gave me did not belong anywhere because we had no
other succulents.
I looked out the window and saw the calla lilies had fallen and turned brown, the daisies had
been crushed down by their own weight, the lettuce gone to seed. Runner weeds were growing
between the flagstone walkways that wound between the planter boxes. The whole thing had
grown wild from months of neglect.
And seeing the garden in this forgotten condition reminded me of something I once read in a
fortune cookie: When a husband stops paying attention to the garden, he’s thinking of pulling up
roots. When was the last time Ted pruned the rosemary back? When was the last time he squirted
Snail B-Gone around the flower beds?
I quickly walked down to the garden shed, looking for pesticides and weed killer, as if the
amount left in the bottle, the expiration date, anything would give me some idea of what was
happening in my life. And then I put the bottle down. I had the sense someone was watching me and
I went back in the house, this time to call a lawyer. But as I started to dial, I became confused.
I put the receiver down. What could I say? What did I want from divorce—when I never knew
what I had wanted from marriage?
The next morning, I was still thinking about my marriage: fifteen years of living in Ted’s
shadow. I lay in bed, my eyes squeezed shut, unable to make the simplest decisions.
I stayed in bed for three days, getting up only to go to the bathroom or to heat up another can
of chicken noodle soup. But mostly I slept. I took the sleeping pills Ted had left behind in the
medicine cabinet. And for the first time I can recall, I had no dreams. All I could remember was
falling smoothly into a dark space with no feeling of dimension or direction. I was the only person
in this blackness. And every time I woke up, I took another pill and went back to this place.
But on the fourth day, I had a nightmare. In the dark, I couldn’t see Old Mr. Chou, but he said
he would find me, and when he did, he would squish me into the ground. He was sounding a bell,
and the louder the bell rang the closer he was to finding me. I held my breath to keep from
screaming, but the bell got louder and louder until I burst awake.
It was the phone. It must have rung for an hour nonstop. I picked it up.
“Now that you are up, I am bringing you leftover dishes,” said my mother. She sounded as if
she could see me now. But the room was dark, the curtains closed tight.
“Ma, I can’t…” I said. “I can’t see you now. I’m busy.”
“Too busy for mother?”
“I have an appointment…with my psychiatrist.”
She was quiet for a while. “Why do you not speak up for yourself?” she finally said in her
pained voice. “Why can you not talk to your husband?”
“Ma,” I said, feeling drained. “Please. Don’t tell me to save my marriage anymore. It’s hard
enough as it is.”
“I am not telling you to save your marriage,” she protested. “I only say you should speak up.”
When I hung up, the phone rang again. It was my psychiatrist’s receptionist. I had missed my
appointment that morning, as well as two days ago. Did I want to reschedule? I said I would look
at my schedule and call back.
And five minutes later the phone rang again.
“Where’ve you been?” It was Ted.
I began to shake. “Out,” I said.
“I’ve been trying to reach you for the last three days. I even called the phone company to
check the line.”
And I knew he had done that, not out of any concern for me, but because when he wants
something, he gets impatient and irrational about people who make him wait.
“You know it’s been two weeks,” he said with obvious irritation.
“Two weeks?”
“You haven’t cashed the check or returned the papers. I wanted to be nice about this, Rose. I
can get someone to officially serve the papers, you know.”
“You can?”
And then without missing a beat, he proceeded to say what he really wanted, which was more
despicable than all the terrible things I had imagined.
He wanted the papers returned, signed. He wanted the house. He wanted the whole thing to be
over as soon as possible. Because he wanted to get married again, to someone else.
Before I could stop myself, I gasped. “You mean you were doing monkey business with
someone else?” I was so humiliated I almost started to cry.
And then for the first time in months, after being in limbo all that time, everything stopped. All
the questions: gone. There were no choices. I had an empty feeling—and I felt free, wild. From
high inside my head I could hear someone laughing.
“What’s so funny?” said Ted angrily.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just that…” and I was trying hard to stifle my giggles, but one of them
escaped through my nose with a snort, which made me laugh more. And then Ted’s silence made
me laugh even harder.
I was still gasping when I tried to begin again in a more even voice: “Listen, Ted, sorry…I
think the best thing is for you to come over after work.” I didn’t know why I said that, but I felt
right saying it.
“There’s nothing to talk about, Rose.”
“I know,” I said in a voice so calm it surprised even me. “I just want to show you something.
And don’t worry, you’ll get your papers. Believe me.”
I had no plan. I didn’t know what I would say to him later. I knew only that I wanted Ted to
see me one more time before the divorce.
What I ended up showing him was the garden. By the time he arrived, the late-afternoon
summer fog had already blown in. I had the divorce papers in the pocket of my windbreaker. Ted
was shivering in his sports jacket as he surveyed the damage to the garden.
“What a mess,” I heard him mutter to himself, trying to shake his pant leg loose of a
blackberry vine that had meandered onto the walkway. And I knew he was calculating how long it
would take to get the place back into order.
“I like it this way,” I said, patting the tops of overgrown carrots, their orange heads pushing
through the earth as if about to be born. And then I saw the weeds: Some had sprouted in and out of
the cracks in the patio. Others had anchored on the side of the house. And even more had found
refuge under loose shingles and were on their way to climbing up to the roof. No way to pull them
out once they’ve buried themselves in the masonry; you’d end up pulling the whole building down.
Ted was picking up plums from the ground and tossing them over the fence into the neighbor’s
yard. “Where are the papers?” he finally said.
I handed them to him and he stuffed them in the inside pocket of his jacket. He faced me and I
saw his eyes, the look I had once mistaken for kindness and protection. “You don’t have to move
out right away,” he said. “I know you’ll want at least a month to find a place.”
“I’ve already found a place,” I said quickly, because right then I knew where I was going to
live. His eyebrows raised in surprise and he smiled—for the briefest moment—until I said,
“What’s that?” he said sharply. His eyebrows were still up, but now there was no smile.
“I said I’m staying here,” I announced again.
“Who says?” He folded his arms across his chest, squinted his eyes, examining my face as if
he knew it would crack at any moment. That expression of his used to terrify me into stammers.
Now I felt nothing, no fear, no anger. “I say I’m staying, and my lawyer will too, once we
serve you the papers,” I said.
Ted pulled out the divorce papers and stared at them. His x’s were still there, the blanks were
still blank. “What do you think you’re doing? Exactly what?” he said.
And the answer, the one that was important above everything else, ran through my body and
fell from my lips: “You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away.”
I saw what I wanted: his eyes, confused, then scared. He was hulihudu. The power of my
words was that strong.
That night I dreamt I was wandering through the garden. The trees and bushes were covered
with mist. And then I spotted Old Mr. Chou and my mother off in the distance, their busy
movements swirling the fog around them. They were bending over one of the planter boxes.
“There she is!” cried my mother. Old Mr. Chou smiled at me and waved. I walked up to my
mother and saw that she was hovering over something, as if she were tending a baby.
“See,” she said, beaming. “I have just planted them this morning, some for you, some for me.”
And below the heimongmong, all along the ground, were weeds already spilling out over the
edges, running wild in every direction.
Jing-Mei Woo
Best Quality
Five months ago, after a crab dinner celebrating Chinese New Year, my mother gave me my “life’s
importance,” a jade pendant on a gold chain. The pendant was not a piece of jewelry I would have
chosen for myself. It was almost the size of my little finger, a mottled green and white color,
intricately carved. To me, the whole effect looked wrong: too large, too green, too garishly ornate.
I stuffed the necklace in my lacquer box and forgot about it.
But these days, I think about my life’s importance. I wonder what it means, because my
mother died three months ago, six days before my thirty-sixth birthday. And she’s the only person I
could have asked, to tell me about life’s importance, to help me understand my grief.
I now wear that pendant every day. I think the carvings mean something, because shapes and
details, which I never seem to notice until after they’re pointed out to me, always mean something
to Chinese people. I know I could ask Auntie Lindo, Auntie An-mei, or other Chinese friends, but I
also know they would tell me a meaning that is different from what my mother intended. What if
they tell me this curving line branching into three oval shapes is a pomegranate and that my mother
was wishing me fertility and posterity? What if my mother really meant the carvings were a branch
of pears to give me purity and honesty? Or ten-thousand-year droplets from the magic mountain,
giving me my life’s direction and a thousand years of fame and immortality?
And because I think about this all the time, I always notice other people wearing these same
jade pendants—not the flat rectangular medallions or the round white ones with holes in the
middle but ones like mine, a two-inch oblong of bright apple green. It’s as though we were all
sworn to the same secret covenant, so secret we don’t even know what we belong to. Last
weekend, for example, I saw a bartender wearing one. As I fingered mine, I asked him, “Where’d
you get yours?”
“My mother gave it to me,” he said.
I asked him why, which is a nosy question that only one Chinese person can ask another; in a
crowd of Caucasians, two Chinese people are already like family.
“She gave it to me after I got divorced. I guess my mother’s telling me I’m still worth
And I knew by the wonder in his voice that he had no idea what the pendant really meant.
At last year’s Chinese New Year dinner, my mother had cooked eleven crabs, one crab for
each person, plus an extra. She and I had bought them on Stockton Street in Chinatown. We had
walked down the steep hill from my parents’ flat, which was actually the first floor of a six-unit
building they owned on Leavenworth near California. Their place was only six blocks from where
I worked as a copywriter for a small ad agency, so two or three times a week I would drop by
after work. My mother always had enough food to insist that I stay for dinner.
That year, Chinese New Year fell on a Thursday, so I got off work early to help my mother
shop. My mother was seventyone, but she still walked briskly along, her small body straight and
purposeful, carrying a colorful flowery plastic bag. I dragged the metal shopping cart behind.
Every time I went with her to Chinatown, she pointed out other Chinese women her age.
“Hong Kong ladies,” she said, eyeing two finely dressed women in long, dark mink coats and
perfect black hairdos. “Cantonese, village people,” she whispered as we passed women in knitted
caps, bent over in layers of padded tops and men’s vests. And my mother—wearing lightblue
polyester pants, a red sweater, and a child’s green down jacket—she didn’t look like anybody
else. She had come here in 1949, at the end of a long journey that started in Kweilin in 1944; she
had gone north to Chungking, where she met my father, and then they went southeast to Shanghai
and fled farther south to Hong Kong, where the boat departed for San Francisco. My mother came
from many different directions.
And now she was huffing complaints in rhythm to her walk downhill. “Even you don’t want
them, you stuck,” she said. She was fuming again about the tenants who lived on the second floor.
Two years ago, she had tried to evict them on the pretext that relatives from China were coming to
live there. But the couple saw through her ruse to get around rent control. They said they wouldn’t
budge until she produced the relatives. And after that I had to listen to her recount every new
injustice this couple inflicted on her.
My mother said the gray-haired man put too many bags in the garbage cans: “Cost me extra.”
And the woman, a very elegant artist type with blond hair, had supposedly painted the
apartment in terrible red and green colors. “Awful,” moaned my mother. “And they take bath, two
three times every day. Running the water, running, running, running, never stop!”
“Last week,” she said, growing angrier at each step, “the waigoren accuse me.” She referred
to all Caucasians as waigoren, foreigners. “They say I put poison in a fish, kill that cat.”
“What cat?” I asked, even though I knew exactly which one she was talking about. I had seen
that cat many times. It was a big one-eared tom with gray stripes who had learned to jump on the
outside sill of my mother’s kitchen window. My mother would stand on her tiptoes and bang the
kitchen window to scare the cat away. And the cat would stand his ground, hissing back in
response to her shouts.
“That cat always raising his tail to put a stink on my door,” complained my mother.
I once saw her chase him from her stairwell with a pot of boiling water. I was tempted to ask
if she really had put poison in a fish, but I had learned never to take sides against my mother.
“So what happened to that cat?” I asked.
“That cat gone! Disappear!” She threw her hands in the air and smiled, looking pleased for a
moment before the scowl came back. “And that man, he raise his hand like this, show me his ugly
fist and call me worst Fukien landlady. I not from Fukien. Hunh! He know nothing!” she said,
satisfied she had put him in his place.
On Stockton Street, we wandered from one fish store to another, looking for the liveliest
“Don’t get a dead one,” warned my mother in Chinese. “Even a beggar won’t eat a dead one.”
I poked the crabs with a pencil to see how feisty they were. If a crab grabbed on, I lifted it out
and into a plastic sack. I lifted one crab this way, only to find one of its legs had been clamped
onto by another crab. In the brief tug-of-war, my crab lost a limb.
“Put it back,” whispered my mother. “A missing leg is a bad sign on Chinese New Year.”
But a man in a white smock came up to us. He started talking loudly to my mother in
Cantonese, and my mother, who spoke Cantonese so poorly it sounded just like her Mandarin, was
talking loudly back, pointing to the crab and its missing leg. And after more sharp words, that crab
and its leg were put into our sack.
“Doesn’t matter,” said my mother. “This number eleven, extra one.”
Back home, my mother unwrapped the crabs from their newspaper liners and then dumped
them into a sinkful of cold water. She brought out her old wooden board and cleaver, then chopped
the ginger and scallions, and poured soy sauce and sesame oil into a shallow dish. The kitchen
smelled of wet newspapers and Chinese fragrances.
Then, one by one, she grabbed the crabs by their back, hoisted them out of the sink and shook
them dry and awake. The crabs flexed their legs in midair between sink and stove. She stacked the
crabs in a multileveled steamer that sat over two burners on the stove, put a lid on top, and lit the
burners. I couldn’t bear to watch so I went into the dining room.
When I was eight, I had played with a crab my mother had brought home for my birthday
dinner. I had poked it, and jumped back every time its claws reached out. And I determined that the
crab and I had come to a great understanding when it finally heaved itself up and walked clear
across the counter. But before I could even decide what to name my new pet, my mother had
dropped it into a pot of cold water and placed it on the tall stove. I had watched with growing
dread, as the water heated up and the pot began to clatter with this crab trying to tap his way out of
his own hot soup. To this day, I remember that crab screaming as he thrust one bright red claw out
over the side of the bubbling pot. It must have been my own voice, because now I know, of course,
that crabs have no vocal cords. And I also try to convince myself that they don’t have enough
brains to know the difference between a hot bath and a slow death.
For our New Year celebration, my mother had invited her longtime friends Lindo and Tin
Jong. Without even asking, my mother knew that meant including the Jongs’ children: their son
Vincent, who was thirty-eight years old and still living at home, and their daughter, Waverly, who
was around my age. Vincent called to see if he could also bring his girlfriend, Lisa Lum. Waverly
said she would bring her new fiancé, Rich Schields, who, like Waverly, was a tax attorney at
Price Waterhouse. And she added that Shoshana, her four-year-old daughter from a previous
marriage, wanted to know if my parents had a VCR so she could watch Pinocchio, just in case she
got bored. My mother also reminded me to invite Mr. Chong, my old piano teacher, who still lived
three blocks away at our old apartment.
Including my mother, father, and me, that made eleven people. But my mother had counted
only ten, because to her way of thinking Shoshana was just a child and didn’t count, at least not as
far as crabs were concerned. She hadn’t considered that Waverly might not think the same way.
When the platter of steaming crabs was passed around, Waverly was first and she picked the
best crab, the brightest, the plumpest, and put it on her daughter’s plate. And then she picked the
next best for Rich and another good one for herself. And because she had learned this skill, of
choosing the best, from her mother, it was only natural that her mother knew how to pick the nextbest ones for her husband, her son, his girlfriend, and herself. And my mother, of course,
considered the four remaining crabs and gave the one that looked the best to Old Chong, because
he was nearly ninety and deserved that kind of respect, and then she picked another good one for
my father. That left two on the platter: a large crab with a faded orange color, and number eleven,
which had the torn-off leg.
My mother shook the platter in front of me. “Take it, already cold,” said my mother.
I was not too fond of crab, every since I saw my birthday crab boiled alive, but I knew I
could not refuse. That’s the way Chinese mothers show they love their children, not through hugs
and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab.
I thought I was doing the right thing, taking the crab with the missing leg. But my mother cried,
“No! No! Big one, you eat it. I cannot finish.”
I remember the hungry sounds everybody else was making—cracking the shells, sucking the
crab meat out, scraping out tidbits with the ends of chopsticks—and my mother’s quiet plate. I was
the only one who noticed her prying open the shell, sniffing the crab’s body and then getting up to
go to the kitchen, plate in hand. She returned, without the crab, but with more bowls of soy sauce,
ginger, and scallions.
And then as stomachs filled, everybody started talking at once.
“Suyuan!” called Auntie Lindo to my mother. “Why you wear that color?” Auntie Lindo
gestured with a crab leg to my mother’s red sweater.
“How can you wear this color anymore? Too young!” she scolded.
My mother acted as though this were a compliment. “Emporium Capwell,” she said.
“Nineteen dollar. Cheaper than knit it myself.”
Auntie Lindo nodded her head, as if the color were worth this price. And then she pointed her
crab leg toward her future son-in-law, Rich, and said, “See how this one doesn’t know how to eat
Chinese food.”
“Crab isn’t Chinese,” said Waverly in her complaining voice. It was amazing how Waverly
still sounded the way she did twenty-five years ago, when we were ten and she had announced to
me in that same voice, “You aren’t a genius like me.”
Auntie Lindo looked at her daughter with exasperation. “How do you know what is Chinese,
what is not Chinese?” And then she turned to Rich and said with much authority, “Why you are not
eating the best part?”
And I saw Rich smiling back, with amusement, and not humility, showing in his face. He had
the same coloring as the crab on his plate: reddish hair, pale cream skin, and large dots of orange
freckles. While he smirked, Auntie Lindo demonstrated the proper technique, poking her chopstick
into the orange spongy part: “You have to dig in here, get this out. The brain is most tastiest, you
Waverly and Rich grimaced at each other, united in disgust. I heard Vincent and Lisa whisper
to each other, “Gross,” and then they snickered too.
Uncle Tin started laughing to himself, to let us know he also had a private joke. Judging by his
preamble of snorts and leg slaps, I figured he must have practiced this joke many times: “I tell my
daughter, Hey, why be poor? Marry rich!” He laughed loudly and then nudged Lisa, who was
sitting next to him, “Hey, don’t you get it? Look what happen. She gonna marry this guy here. Rich.
’Cause I tell her to, marry Rich.”
“When are you guys getting married?” asked Vincent.
“I should ask you the same thing,” said Waverly. Lisa looked embarrassed when Vincent
ignored the question.
“Mom, I don’t like crab!” whined Shoshana.
“Nice haircut,” Waverly said to me from across the table.
“Thanks, David always does a great job.”
“You mean you still go to that guy on Howard Street?” Waverly asked, arching one eyebrow.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
I could sense the danger, but I said it anyway: “What do you mean, afraid? He’s always very
“I mean, he is gay,” Waverly said. “He could have AIDS. And he is cutting your hair, which
is like cutting a living tissue. Maybe I’m being paranoid, being a mother, but you just can’t be too
safe these days.…”
And I sat there feeling as if my hair were coated with disease.
“You should go see my guy,” said Waverly. “Mr. Rory. He does fabulous work, although he
probably charges more than you’re used to.”
I felt like screaming. She could be so sneaky with her insults. Every time I asked her the
simplest of tax questions, for example, she could turn the conversation around and make it seem as
if I were too cheap to pay for her legal advice.
She’d say things like, “I really don’t like to talk about important tax matters except in my
office. I mean, what if you say something casual over lunch and I give you some casual advice.
And then you follow it, and it’s wrong because you didn’t give me the full information. I’d feel
terrible. And you would too, wouldn’t you?”
At that crab dinner, I was so mad about what she said about my hair that I wanted to
embarrass her, to reveal in front of everybody how petty she was. So I decided to confront her
about the free-lance work I’d done for her firm, eight pages of brochure copy on its tax services.
The firm was now more than thirty days late in paying my invoice.
“Maybe I could afford Mr. Rory’s prices if someone’s firm paid me on time,” I said with a
teasing grin. And I was pleased to see Waverly’s reaction. She was genuinely flustered,
I couldn’t resist rubbing it in: “I think it’s pretty ironic that a big accounting firm can’t even
pay its own bills on time. I mean, really, Waverly, what kind of place are you working for?”
Her face was dark and quiet.
“Hey, hey, you girls, no more fighting!” said my father, as if Waverly and I were still children
arguing over tricycles and crayon colors.
“That’s right, we don’t want to talk about this now,” said Waverly quietly.
“So how do you think the Giants are going to do?” said Vincent, trying to be funny. Nobody
I wasn’t about to let her slip away this time. “Well, every time I call you on the phone, you
can’t talk about it then either,” I said.
Waverly looked at Rich, who shrugged his shoulders. She turned back to me and sighed.
“Listen, June, I don’t know how to tell you this. That stuff you wrote, well, the firm decided it
was unacceptable.”
“You’re lying. You said it was great.”
Waverly sighed again. “I know I did. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. I was trying to see if
we could fix it somehow. But it won’t work.”
And just like that, I was starting to flail, tossed without warning into deep water, drowning
and desperate. “Most copy needs fine-tuning,” I said. “It’s…normal not to be perfect the first time.
I should have explained the process better.”
“June, I really don’t think…”
“Rewrites are free. I’m just as concerned about making it perfect as you are.”
Waverly acted as if she didn’t even hear me. “I’m trying to convince them to at least pay you
for some of your time. I know you put a lot of work into it…I owe you at least that for even
suggesting you do it.”
“Just tell me what they want changed. I’ll call you next week so we can go over it, line by
“June—I can’t,” Waverly said with cool finality. “It’s just not…sophisticated. I’m sure what
you write for your other clients is wonderful. But we’re a big firm. We need somebody who
understands that…our style.” She said this touching her hand to her chest, as if she were referring
to her style.
Then she laughed in a lighthearted way. “I mean, really, June.” And then she started speaking
in a deep television-announcer voice: “Three benefits, three needs, three reasons to buy…
Satisfaction guaranteed…for today’s and tomorrow’s tax needs…”
She said this in such a funny way that everybody thought it was a good joke and laughed. And
then, to make matters worse, I heard my mother saying to Waverly: “True, cannot teach style. June
not sophisticate like you. Must be born this way.”
I was surprised at myself, how humiliated I felt. I had been outsmarted by Waverly once
again, and now betrayed by my own mother. I was smiling so hard my lower lip was twitching
from the strain. I tried to find something else to concentrate on, and I remember picking up my
plate, and then Mr. Chong’s, as if I were clearing the table, and seeing so sharply through my tears
the chips on the edges of these old plates, wondering why my mother didn’t use the new set I had
bought her five years ago.
The table was littered with crab carcasses. Waverly and Rich lit cigarettes and put a crab
shell between them for an ashtray. Shoshana had wandered over to the piano and was banging
notes out with a crab claw in each hand. Mr. Chong, who had grown totally deaf over the years,
watched Shoshana and applauded: “Bravo! Bravo!” And except for his strange shouts, nobody said
a word. My mother went to the kitchen and returned with a plate of oranges sliced into wedges. My
father poked at the remnants of his crab. Vincent cleared his throat, twice, and then patted Lisa’s
It was Auntie Lindo who finally spoke: “Waverly, you let her try again. You make her do too
fast first time. Of course she cannot get it right.”
I could hear my mother eating an orange slice. She was the only person I knew who crunched
oranges, making it sound as if she were eating crisp apples instead. The sound of it was worse than
gnashing teeth.
“Good one take time,” continued Auntie Lindo, nodding her head in agreement with herself.
“Put in lotta action,” advised Uncle Tin. “Lotta action, boy, that’s what I like. Hey, that’s all
you need, make it right.”
“Probably not,” I said, and smiled before carrying the plates to the sink.
That was the night, in the kitchen, that I realized I was no better than who I was. I was a
copywriter. I worked for a small ad agency. I promised every new client, “We can provide the
sizzle for the meat.” The sizzle always boiled down to “Three Benefits, Three Needs, Three
Reasons to Buy.” The meat was always coaxial cable, T-1 multiplexers, protocol converters, and
the like. I was very good at what I did, succeeding at something small like that.
I turned on the water to wash the dishes. And I no longer felt angry at Waverly. I felt tired and
foolish, as if I had been running to escape someone chasing me, only to look behind and discover
there was no one there.
I picked up my mother’s plate, the one she had carried into the kitchen at the start of the
dinner. The crab was untouched. I lifted the shell and smelled the crab. Maybe it was because I
didn’t like crab in the first place. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with it.
After everybody left, my mother joined me in the kitchen. I was putting dishes away. She put
water on for more tea and sat down at the small kitchen table. I waited for her to chastise me.
“Good dinner, Ma,” I said politely.
“Not so good,” she said, jabbing at her mouth with a toothpick.
“What happened to your crab? Why’d you throw it away?”
“Not so good,” she said again. “That crab die. Even a beggar don’t want it.”
“How could you tell? I didn’t smell anything wrong.”
“Can tell even before cook!” She was standing now, looking out the kitchen window into the
night. “I shake that crab before cook. His legs—droopy. His mouth—wide open, already like a
dead person.”
“Why’d you cook it if you knew it was already dead?”
“I thought…maybe only just die. Maybe taste not too bad. But I can smell, dead taste, not
“What if someone else had picked that crab?”
My mother looked at me and smiled. “Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already
know this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different.”
She said it in a way as if this were proof—proof of something good. She always said things
that didn’t make any sense, that sounded both good and bad at the same time.
I was putting away the last of the chipped plates and then I remembered something else. “Ma,
why don’t you ever use those new dishes I bought you? If you didn’t like them, you should have
told me. I could have changed the pattern.”
“Of course, I like,” she said, irritated. “Sometime I think something is so good, I want to save
it. Then I forget I save it.”
And then, as if she had just now remembered, she unhooked the clasp of her gold necklace
and took it off, wadding the chain and the jade pendant in her palm. She grabbed my hand and put
the necklace in my palm, then shut my fingers around it.
“No, Ma,” I protested. “I can’t take this.”
“Nala, nala”—Take it, take it—she said, as if she were scolding me. And then she continued
in Chinese. “For a long time, I wanted to give you this necklace. See, I wore this on my skin, so
when you put it on your skin, then you know my meaning. This is your life’s importance.”
I looked at the necklace, the pendant with the light green jade. I wanted to give it back. I
didn’t want to accept it. And yet I also felt as if I had already swallowed it.
“You’re giving this to me only because of what happened tonight,” I finally said.
“What happen?”
“What Waverly said. What everybody said.”
“Tss! Why you listen to her? Why you want to follow behind her, chasing her words? She is
like this crab.” My mother poked a shell in the garbage can. “Always walking sideways, moving
crooked. You can make your legs go the other way.”
I put the necklace on. It felt cool.
“Not so good, this jade,” she said matter-of-factly, touching the pendant, and then she added
in Chinese: “This is young jade. It is a very light color now, but if you wear it every day it will
become more green.”
My father hasn’t eaten well since my mother died. So I am here, in the kitchen, to cook him
dinner. I’m slicing tofu. I’ve decided to make him a spicy bean-curd dish. My mother used to tell
me how hot things restore the spirit and health. But I’m making this mostly because I know my
father loves this dish and I know how to cook it. I like the smell of it: ginger, scallions, and a red
chili sauce that tickles my nose the minute I open the jar.
Above me, I hear the old pipes shake into action with a thunk! and then the water running in
my sink dwindles to a trickle. One of the tenants upstairs must be taking a shower. I remember my
mother complaining: “Even you don’t want them, you stuck.” And now I know what she meant.
As I rinse the tofu in the sink, I am startled by a dark mass that appears suddenly at the
window. It’s the one-eared tomcat from upstairs. He’s balancing on the sill, rubbing his flank
against the window.
My mother didn’t kill that damn cat after all, and I’m relieved. And then I see this cat rubbing
more vigorously on the window and he starts to raise his tail.
“Get away from there!” I shout, and slap my hand on the window three times. But the cat just
narrows his eyes, flattens his one ear, and hisses back at me.
Queen Mother of the Western Skies
Hwai dungsyi”—You bad little thing—said the woman, teasing her baby
granddaughter. “Is Buddha teaching you to laugh for no reason?” As the baby continued to
gurgle, the woman felt a deep wish stirring in her heart.
“Even if I could live forever,” she said to the baby, “I still don’t know which way I would
teach you. I was once so free and innocent. I too laughed for no reason.
“But later I threw away my foolish innocence to protect myself. And then I taught my
daughter, your mother, to shed her innocence so she would not be hurt as well.
“Hwai dungsyi, was this kind of thinking wrong? If I now recognize evil in other people, is
it not because I have become evil too? If I see someone has a suspicious nose, have I not
smelled the same bad things?”
The baby laughed, listening to her grandmother’s laments.
“O! O! You say you are laughing because you have already lived forever, over and over
again? You say you are Syi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, now come back to
give me the answer! Good, good, I am listening.…
“Thank you, Little Queen. Then you must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose
your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever.”
An-Mei Hsu
Yesterday my daughter said to me, “My marriage is falling apart.”
And now all she can do is watch it falling. She lies down on a psychiatrist couch, squeezing
tears out about this shame. And, I think, she will lie there until there is nothing more to fall, nothing
left to cry about, everything dry.
She cried, “No choice! No choice!” She doesn’t know. If she doesn’t speak, she is making a
choice. If she doesn’t try, she can lose her chance forever.
I know this, because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow
other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.
And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it
is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was
born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the
same way.
I know how it is to be quiet, to listen and watch, as if your life were a dream. You can close
your eyes when you no longer want to watch. But when you no longer want to listen, what can you
do? I can still hear what happened more than sixty years ago.
My mother was a stranger to me when she first arrived at my uncle’s house in Ningpo. I was nine
years old and had not seen her for many years. But I knew she was my mother, because I could feel
her pain.
“Do not look at that woman,” warned my aunt. “She has thrown her face into the eastwardflowing stream. Her ancestral spirit is lost forever. The person you see is just decayed flesh, evil,
rotted to the bone.”
And I would stare at my mother. She did not look evil. I wanted to touch her face, the one that
looked like mine.
It is true, she wore strange foreign clothes. But she did not speak back when my aunt cursed
her. Her head bowed even lower when my uncle slapped her for calling him Brother. She cried
from her heart when Popo died, even though Popo, her mother, had sent her away so many years
before. And after Popo’s funeral, she obeyed my uncle. She prepared herself to return to Tientsin,
where she had dishonored her widowhood by becoming the third concubine to a rich man.
How could she leave without me? This was a question I could not ask. I was a child. I could
only watch and listen.
The night before she was to leave, she held my head against her body, as if to protect me from
a danger I could not see. I was crying to bring her back before she was even gone. And as I lay in
her lap, she told me a story.
“An-mei,” she whispered, “have you seen the little turtle that lives in the pond?” I nodded.
This was a pond in our courtyard and I often poked a stick in the still water to make the turtle swim
out from underneath the rocks.
“I also knew that turtle when I was a small child,” said my mother. “I used to sit by the pond
and watch him swimming to the surface, biting the air with his little beak. He is a very old turtle.”
I could see that turtle in my mind and I knew my mother was seeing the same one.
“This turtle feeds on our thoughts,” said my mother. “I learned this one day, when I was your
age, and Popo said I could no longer be a child. She said I could not shout, or run, or sit on the
ground to catch crickets. I could not cry if I was disappointed. I had to be silent and listen to my
elders. And if I did not do this, Popo said she would cut off my hair and send me to a place where
Buddhist nuns lived.
“That night, after Popo told me this, I sat by the pond, looking into the water. And because I
was weak, I began to cry. Then I saw this turtle swimming to the top and his beak was eating my
tears as soon as they touched the water. He ate them quickly, five, six, seven tears, then climbed
out of the pond, crawled onto a smooth rock and began to speak.
“The turtle said, ‘I have eaten your tears, and this is why I know your misery. But I must warn
you. If you cry, your life will always be sad.’
“Then the turtle opened his beak and out poured five, six, seven pearly eggs. The eggs broke
open and from them emerged seven birds, who immediately began to chatter and sing. I knew from
their snow-white bellies and pretty voices that they were magpies, birds of joy. These birds bent
their beaks to the pond and began to drink greedily. And when I reached out my hand to capture
one, they all rose up, beat their black wings in my face, and flew up into the air, laughing.
“‘Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your
tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must
learn to swallow your own tears.’ ”
But after my mother finished her story, I looked at her and saw she was crying. And I also
began to cry again, that this was our fate, to live like two turtles seeing the watery world together
from the bottom of the little pond.
In the morning, I awoke to hear—not the bird of joy—but angry sounds in the distance. I
jumped out of my bed and ran quietly to my window.
Out in the front courtyard, I saw my mother kneeling, scratching the stone pathway with her
fingers, as if she had lost something and knew she could not find it again. In front of her stood
Uncle, my mother’s brother, and he was shouting.
“You want to take your daughter and ruin her life as well!” Uncle stamped his foot at this
impertinent thought. “You should already be gone.”
My mother did not say anything. She remained bent on the ground, her back as rounded as the
turtle in the pond. She was crying with her mouth closed. And I began to cry in the same way,
swallowing those bitter tears.
I hurried to get dressed. And by the time I ran down the stairs and into the front room, my
mother was about to leave. A servant was taking her trunk outside. My auntie was holding onto my
little brother’s hand. Before I could remember to close my mouth, I shouted, “Ma!”
“See how your evil influence has already spread to your daughter!” exclaimed my uncle.
And my mother, her head still bowed, looked up at me and saw my face. I could not stop my
tears from running down. And I think, seeing my face like this, my mother changed. She stood up
tall, with her back straight, so that now she was almost taller than my uncle. She held her hand out
to me and I ran to her. She said in a quiet, calm voice: “An-mei, I am not asking you. But I am
going back to Tientsin now and you can follow me.”
My auntie heard this and immediately hissed. “A girl is no better than what she follows! Anmei, you think you can see something new, riding on top of a new cart. But in front of you, it is just
the ass of the same old mule. Your life is what you see in front of you.”
And hearing this made me more determined to leave. Because the life in front of me was my
uncle’s house. And it was full of dark riddles and suffering that I could not understand. So I turned
my head away from my auntie’s strange words and looked at my mother.
Now my uncle picked up a porcelain vase. “Is this what you want to do?” said my uncle.
“Throw your life away? If you follow this woman, you can never lift your head again.” He threw
that vase on the ground, where it smashed into many pieces. I jumped, and my mother took my
Her hand was warm. “Come, An-mei. We must hurry,” she said, as if observing a rainy sky.
“An-mei!” I heard my aunt call piteously from behind, but then my uncle said, “Swanle!”—
Finished!—“She is already changed.”
As I walked away from my old life, I wondered if it were true, what my uncle had said, that I
was changed and could never lift my head again. So I tried. I lifted it.
And I saw my little brother, crying so hard as my auntie held onto his hand. My mother did not
dare take my brother. A son can never go to somebody else’s house to live. If he went, he would
lose any hope for a future. But I knew he was not thinking this. He was crying, angry and scared,
because my mother had not asked him to follow.
What my uncle had said was true. After I saw my brother this way, I could not keep my head
In the rickshaw on our way to the railway station, my mother murmured, “Poor An-mei, only
you know. Only you know what I have suffered.” When she said this, I felt proud, that only I could
see these delicate and rare thoughts.
But on the train, I realized how far behind I was leaving my life. And I became scared. We
traveled for seven days, one day by rail, six days by steamer boat. At first, my mother was very
lively. She told me stories of Tientsin whenever my face looked back at where we had just been.
She talked of clever peddlers who served every kind of simple food: steamed dumplings,
boiled peanuts, and my mother’s favorite, a thin pancake with an egg dropped in the middle,
brushed with black bean paste, then rolled up—still finger-hot off the griddle!—and handed to the
hungry buyer.
She described the port and its seafood and claimed it was even better than what we ate in
Ningpo. Big clams, prawns, crab, all kinds of fish, salty and freshwater, the best—otherwise why
would so many foreigners come to this port?
She told me about narrow streets with crowded bazaars. In the early morning peasants sold
vegetables I had never seen or eaten before in my life—and my mother assured me I would find
them so sweet, so tender, so fresh. And there were sections of the city where different foreigners
lived—Japanese, White Russians, Americans, and Germans—but never together, all with their
own separate habits, some dirty, some clean. And they had houses of all shapes and colors, one
painted in pink, another with rooms that jutted out at every angle like the backs and fronts of
Victorian dresses, others with roofs like pointed hats and wood carvings painted white to look like
And in the wintertime I would see snow, she said. My mother said, In just a few months, the
period of the Cold Dew would come, then it would start to rain, and then the rain would fall more
softly, more slowly until it became white and dry as the petals of quince blossoms in the spring.
She would wrap me up in fur-lined coats and pants, so if it was bitter cold, no matter!
She told me many stories until my face was turned forward, looking toward my new home in
Tientsin. But when the fifth day came, as we sailed closer toward the Tientsin gulf, the waters
changed from muddy yellow to black and the boat began to rock and groan. I became fearful and
sick. And at night I dreamed of the eastward-flowing stream my aunt had warned me about, the
dark waters that changed a person forever. And watching those dark waters from my sickbed on
the boat, I was scared that my aunt’s words had come true. I saw how my mother was already
beginning to change, how dark and angry her face had become, looking out over the sea, thinking
her own thoughts. And my thoughts, too, became cloudy and confused.
On the morning of the day we were supposed to arrive in Tientsin, she went into our sleeping
cabin wearing her white Chinese mourning dress. And when she returned to the sitting room on the
top deck, she looked like a stranger. Her eyebrows were painted thick at the center, then long and
sharp at the corners. Her eyes had dark smudges around them and her face was pale white, her lips
dark red. On top of her head, she wore a small brown felt hat with one large brown-speckled
feather swept across the front. Her short hair was tucked into this hat, except for two perfect curls
on her forehead that faced each other like black lacquer carvings. She had on a long brown dress
with a white lace collar that fell all the way to her waist and was fastened down with a silk rose.
This was a shocking sight. We were in mourning. But I could not say anything. I was a child.
How could I scold my own mother? I could only feel shame seeing my mother wear her shame so
In her gloved hands she held a large cream-colored box with foreign words written on top:
“Fine English-Tailored Apparel, Tientsin.” I remember she had put the box down between us and
told me: “Open it! Quickly!” She was breathless and smiling. I was so surprised by my mother’s
new strange manner, it was not until many years later, when I was using this box to store letters
and photographs, that I wondered how my mother had known. Even though she had not seen me for
many years, she had known that I would someday follow her and that I should wear a new dress
when I did.
And when I opened that box, all my shame, my fears, they fell away. Inside was a new starchwhite dress. It had ruffles at the collar and along the sleeves and six tiers of ruffles for a skirt. The
box also contained white stockings, white leather shoes, and an enormous white hair bow, already
shaped and ready to be fastened on with two loose ties.
Everything was too big. My shoulders kept slipping out of the large neck hole. The waist was
big enough to fit two of me. But I did not mind. She did not mind. I raised my arms and stood
perfectly still. She drew out pins and thread and with little tucks here and there stuffed in the loose
materials, then filled the toes of the shoes with tissue paper, until everything fit. Wearing those
clothes, I felt as if I had grown new hands and feet and I would now have to learn to walk in a new
And then my mother became somber again. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching
as our boat drew closer and closer to the dock.
“An-mei, now you are ready to start your new life. You will live in a new house. You will
have a new father. Many sisters. Another little brother. Dresses and good things to eat. Do you
think all this will be enough to be happy?”
I nodded quietly, thinking about the unhappiness of my brother in Ningpo. My mother did not
say anything more about the house, or my new family, or my happiness. And I did not ask any
questions, because now a bell was sounding and a ship’s steward was calling our arrival in
Tientsin. My mother gave quick instructions to our porter, pointed to our two small trunks and
handed him money, as if she had done this every day of her life. And then she carefully opened
another box and pulled out what looked to be five or six dead foxes with open beady eyes, limp
paws, and fluffy tails. She put this scary sight around her neck and shoulders, then grabbed my
hand tight as we moved down the aisle with the crowd of people.
There was no one at the harbor to meet us. My mother walked slowly down the rampway,
through the baggage platform, looking nervously from side to side.
“An-mei, come! Why are you so slow!” she said, her voice filled with fear. I was dragging
my feet, trying to stay in those too-large shoes as the ground beneath me swayed. And when I was
not watching which way my feet were moving, I looked up and saw everybody was in a hurry,
everybody seemed unhappy: families with old mothers and fathers, all wearing dark, somber
colors, pushing and pulling bags and crates of their life’s possessions; pale foreign ladies dressed
like my mother, walking with foreign men in hats; rich wives scolding maids and servants
following behind carrying trunks and babies and baskets of food.
We stood near the street, where rickshaws and trucks came and went. We held hands, thinking
our own thoughts, watching people arriving at the station, watching others hurrying away. It was
late morning, and although it seemed warm outside, the sky was gray and clouding over.
After a long time of standing and seeing no one, my mother sighed and finally shouted for a
During this ride, my mother argued with the rickshaw puller, who wanted extra cash to carry
the two of us and our luggage. Then she complained about the dust from the ride, the smell of the
street, the bumpiness of the road, the lateness of the day, the ache in her stomach. And when she
had finished with these laments, she turned her complaints to me: a spot on my new dress, a tangle
in my hair, my twisted stockings. I tried to win back my mother, pointing to ask her about a small
park, a bird flying above us, a long electric streetcar that passed us sounding its horn.
But she became only more cross and said: “An-mei, sit still. Do not look so eager. We are
only going home.”
And when we finally arrived home, we were both exhausted.
I knew from the beginning our new home would not be an ordinary house. My mother had told
me we would live in the household of Wu Tsing, who was a very rich merchant. She said this man
owned many carpet factories and lived in a mansion located in the British Concession of Tientsin,
the best section of the city where Chinese people could live. We lived not too far from Paima Di,
Racehorse Street, where only Westerners could live. And we were also close to little shops that
sold only one kind of thing: only tea, or only fabric, or only soap.
The house, she said, was foreign-built; Wu Tsing liked foreign things because foreigners had
made him rich. And I concluded that was why my mother had to wear foreign-style clothes, in the
manner of newly rich Chinese people who liked to display their wealth on the outside.
And even though I knew all this before I arrived, I was still amazed at what I saw.
The front of the house had a Chinese stone gate, rounded at the top, with big black lacquer
doors and a threshold you had to step over. Within the gates I saw the courtyard and I was
surprised. There were no willows or sweet-smelling cassia trees, no garden pavilions, no benches
sitting by a pond, no tubs of fish. Instead, there were long rows of bushes on both sides of a wide
brick walkway and to each side of those bushes was a big lawn area with fountains. And as we
walked down the walkway and got closer to the house, I saw this house had been built in the
Western style. It was three stories high, of mortar and stone, with long metal balconies on each
floor and chimneys at every corner.
When we arrived, a young servant woman ran out and greeted my mother with cries of joy.
She had a high scratchy voice: “Oh Taitai, you’ve already arrived! How can this be?” This was
Yan Chang, my mother’s personal maid, and she knew how to fuss over my mother just the right
amount. She had called my mother Taitai, the simple honorable title of Wife, as if my mother were
the first wife, the only wife.
Yan Chang called loudly to other servants to take our luggage, called another servant to bring
tea and draw a hot bath. And then she hastily explained that Second Wife had told everyone not to
expect us for another week at least. “What a shame! No one to greet you! Second Wife, the others,
gone to Peking to visit her relatives. Your daughter, so pretty, your same look. She’s so shy, eh?
First Wife, her daughters…gone on a pilgrimage to another Buddhist temple…Last week, a
cousin’s uncle, just a little crazy, came to visit, turned out not to be a cousin, not an uncle, who
knows who he was.…”
As soon as we walked into that big house, I became lost with too many things to see: a curved
staircase that wound up and up, a ceiling with faces in every corner, then hallways twisting and
turning into one room then another. To my right was a large room, larger than I had ever seen, and
it was filled with stiff teakwood furniture: sofas and tables and chairs. And at the other end of this
long, long room, I could see doors leading into more rooms, more furniture, then more doors. To
my left was a darker room, another sitting room, this one filled with foreign furniture: dark green
leather sofas, paintings with hunting dogs, armchairs, and mahogany desks. And as I glanced in
these rooms I would see different people, and Yan Chang would explain: “This young lady, she is
Second Wife’s servant. That one, she is nobody, just the daughter of cook’s helper. This man takes
care of the garden.”
And then we were walking up the staircase. We came to the top of the stairs and I found
myself in another large sitting room. We walked to the left, down a hall, past one room, and then
stepped into another. “This is your mother’s room,” Yan Chang told me proudly. “This is where
you will sleep.”
And the first thing I saw, the only thing I could see at first, was a magnificent bed. It was
heavy and light at the same time: soft rose silk and heavy, dark shiny wood carved all around with
dragons. Four posts held up a silk canopy and at each post dangled large silk ties holding back
curtains. The bed sat on four squat lion’s paws, as if the weight of it had crushed the lion
underneath. Yan Chang showed me how to use a small step stool to climb onto the bed. And when I
tumbled onto the silk coverings, I laughed to discover a soft mattress that was ten times the
thickness of my bed in Ningpo.
Sitting in this bed, I admired everything as if I were a princess. This room had a glass door
that led to a balcony. In front of the window door was a round table of the same wood as the bed.
It too sat on carved lion’s legs and was surrounded by four chairs. A servant had already put tea
and sweet cakes on the table and was now lighting the houlu, a small stove for burning coal.
It was not that my uncle’s house in Ningpo had been poor. He was actually quite well-to-do.
But this house in Tientsin was amazing. And I thought to myself, My uncle was wrong. There was
no shame in my mother’s marrying Wu Tsing.
While thinking this, I was startled by a sudden clang! clang! clang! followed by music. On the
wall opposite the bed was a big wooden clock with a forest and bears carved into it. The door on
the clock had burst open and a tiny room full of people was coming out. There was a bearded man
in a pointed cap seated at a table. He was bending his head over and over again to drink soup, but
his beard would dip in the bowl first and stop him. A girl in a white scarf and blue dress was
standing next to the table and she was bending over and over again to give the man more of this
soup. And next to the man and girl was another girl with a skirt and short jacket. She was swinging
her arm back and forth, playing violin music. She always played the same dark song. I can still
hear it in my head after these many years—ni-ah! nah! nah! nah! nah-ni-nah!
This was a wonderful clock to see, but after I heard it that first hour, then the next, and then
always, this clock became an extravagant nuisance. I could not sleep for many nights. And later, I
found I had an ability: to not listen to something meaningless calling to me.
I was so happy those first few nights, in this amusing house, sleeping in the big soft bed with
my mother. I would lie in this comfortable bed, thinking about my uncle’s house in Ningpo,
realizing how unhappy I had been, feeling sorry for my little brother. But most of my thoughts flew
to all the new things to see and do in this house.
I watched hot water pouring out of pipes not just in the kitchen but also into washbasins and
bathtubs on all three floors of the house. I saw chamber pots that flushed clean without servants
having to empty them. I saw rooms as fancy as my mother’s. Yan Chang explained which ones
belonged to First Wife and the other concubines, who were called Second Wife and Third Wife.
And some rooms belonged to no one. “They are for guests,” said Yan Chang.
On the third floor were rooms for only the men servants, said Yan Chang, and one of the
rooms even had a door to a cabinet that was really a secret hiding place from sea pirates.
Thinking back, I find it hard to remember everything that was in that house; too many good
things all seem the same after a while. I tired of anything that was not a novelty. “Oh, this,” I said
when Yan Chang brought me the same sweet meats as the day before. “I’ve tasted this already.”
My mother seemed to regain her pleasant nature. She put her old clothes back on, long
Chinese gowns and skirts now with white mourning bands sewn at the bottoms. During the day, she
pointed to strange and funny things, naming them for me: bidet, Brownie camera, salad fork,
napkin. In the evening, when there was nothing to do, we talked about the servants: who was
clever, who was diligent, who was loyal. We gossiped as we cooked small eggs and sweet
potatoes on top of the houlu just to enjoy their smell. And at night, my mother would again tell me
stories as I lay in her arms falling asleep.
If I look upon my whole life, I cannot think of another time when I felt more comfortable:
when I had no worries, fears, or desires, when my life seemed as soft and lovely as lying inside a
cocoon of rose silk. But I remember clearly when all that comfort became no longer comfortable.
It was perhaps two weeks after we had arrived. I was in the large garden in back, kicking a
ball and watching two dogs chase it. My mother sat at a table watching me play. And then I heard a
horn off in the distance, shouts, and those two dogs forgot the ball and ran off barking in high happy
My mother had the same fearful look she wore in the harbor station. She walked quickly into
the house. I walked around the side of the house toward the front. Two shiny black rickshaws had
arrived and behind them a large black motorcar. A manservant was taking luggage out of one
rickshaw. From another rickshaw, a young maid jumped out.
All the servants crowded around the motorcar, looking at their faces in the polished metal,
admiring the curtained windows, the velvet seats. Then the driver opened the back door and out
stepped a young girl. She had short hair with rows of waves. She looked to be only a few years
older than I, but she had on a woman’s dress, stockings, and high heels. I looked down at my own
white dress covered with grass stains and I felt ashamed.
And then I saw the servants reaching into the backseat of the motorcar and a man was slowly
being lifted by both arms. This was Wu Tsing. He was a big man, not tall, but puffed out like a
bird. He was much older than my mother, with a high shiny forehead and a large black mole on one
nostril. He wore a Western suit jacket with a vest that closed too tightly around his stomach, but
his pants were very loose. He groaned and grunted as he heaved himself out and into view. And as
soon as his shoes touched the ground, he began to walk toward the house, acting as though he saw
no one, even though people greeted him and were busy opening doors, carrying his bags, taking his
long coat. He walked into the house like that, with this young girl following him. She was looking
behind at everyone with a simpering smile, as if they were there to honor her. And when she was
hardly in the door, I heard one servant remark to another, “Fifth Wife is so young she did not bring
any of her own servants, only a wet nurse.”
I looked up at the house and saw my mother looking down from her window, watching
everything. So in this clumsy way, my mother found out that Wu Tsing had taken his fourth
concubine, who was actually just an afterthought, a foolish bit of decoration for his new motorcar.
My mother was not jealous of this young girl who would now be called Fifth Wife. Why
should she be? My mother did not love Wu Tsing. A girl in China did not marry for love. She
married for position, and my mother’s position, I later learned, was the worst.
After Wu Tsing and Fifth Wife arrived home, my mother often stayed in her room working on
her embroidery. In the afternoon, she and I would go on long silent rides in the city, searching for a
bolt of silk in a color she could not seem to name. Her unhappiness was this same way. She could
not name it.
And so, while everything seemed peaceful, I knew it was not. You may wonder how a small
child, only nine years old, can know these things. Now I wonder about it myself. I can remember
only how uncomfortable I felt, how I could feel the truth with my stomach, knowing something
terrible was going to happen. And I can tell you, it was almost as bad as how I felt some fifteen
years later when the Japanese bombs started to fall and, listening in the distance, I could hear soft
rumbles and knew that what was coming was unstoppable.
A few days after Wu Tsing had arrived home, I awoke in the middle of the night. My mother
was rocking my shoulder gently.
“An-mei, be a good girl,” she said in a tired voice. “Go to Yan Chang’s room now.”
I rubbed my eyes and as I awoke I saw a dark shadow and began to cry. It was Wu Tsing.
“Be quiet. Nothing is the matter. Go to Yan Chang,” my mother whispered.
And then she lifted me down slowly to the cold floor. I heard the wooden clock begin to sing
and Wu Tsing’s deep voice complaining of the chill. And when I went to Yan Chang, it was as
though she had expected me and knew I would be crying.
The next morning I could not look at my mother. But I saw that Fifth Wife had a swollen face
like mine. And at breakfast that morning, in front of everybody, her anger finally erupted when she
shouted rudely to a servant for serving her so slowly. Everyone, even my mother, stared at her for
her bad manners, criticizing a servant that way. I saw Wu Tsing throw her a sharp look, like a
father, and she began to cry. But later that morning, Fifth Wife was smiling again, prancing around
in a new dress and new shoes.
In the afternoon, my mother spoke of her unhappiness for the first time. We were in a
rickshaw going to a store to find embroidery thread. “Do you see how shameful my life is?” she
cried. “Do you see how I have no position? He brought home a new wife, a low-class girl, darkskinned, no manners! Bought her for a few dollars from a poor village family that makes mudbrick
tiles. And at night when he can no longer use her, he comes to me, smelling of her mud.”
She was crying now, rambling like a crazy woman: “You can see now, a fourth wife is less
than a fifth wife. An-mei, you must not forget. I was a first wife, yi tai, the wife of a scholar. Your
mother was not always Fourth Wife, Sz Tai!”
She said this word, sz, so hatefully I shuddered. It sounded like the sz that means “die.” And I
remembered Popo once telling me four is a very unlucky number because if you say it in an angry
way, it always comes out wrong.
The Cold Dew came. It became chilly, and Second Wife and Third Wife, their children and
servants returned home to Tientsin. There was a big commotion when they arrived. Wu Tsing had
allowed the new motorcar to be sent to the railway station, but of course that was not enough to
carry them all back. So behind the motorcar came a dozen or so rickshaws, bouncing up and down
like crickets following a large shiny beetle. Women began to pour out of the motorcar.
My mother was standing behind me, ready to greet everybody. A woman wearing a plain
foreign dress and large, ugly shoes walked toward us. Three girls, one of whom was my age,
followed behind.
“This is Third Wife and her three daughters,” said my mother.
Those three girls were even more shy than I. They crowded around their mother with bowed
heads and did not speak. But I continued to stare. They were as plain as their mother, with big
teeth, thick lips, and eyebrows as bushy as a caterpillar. Third Wife welcomed me warmly and
allowed me to carry one of her packages.
I felt my mother’s hand stiffen on my shoulder. “And there is Second Wife. She will want you
to call her Big Mother,” she whispered.
I saw a woman wearing a long black fur coat and dark Western clothes, very fancy. And in
her arms she held a little boy with fat rosy cheeks who looked to be two years old.
“He is Syaudi, your littlest brother,” my mother whispered. He wore a cap made out of the
same dark fur and was winding his little finger around Second Wife’s long pearl necklace. I
wondered how she could have a baby this young. Second Wife was handsome enough and seemed
healthy, but she was quite old, perhaps forty-five. She handed the baby to a servant and then began
to give instructions to the many people who still crowded around her.
And then Second Wife walked toward me, smiling, her fur coat gleaming with every step. She
stared, as if she were examining me, as if she recognized me. Finally she smiled and patted my
head. And then with a swift, graceful movement of her small hands, she removed her long pearly
strand and put it around my neck.
This was the most beautiful piece of jewelry I had ever touched. It was designed in the
Western style, a long strand, each bead the same size and of an identical pinkish tone, with a heavy
brooch of ornate silver to clasp the ends together.
My mother immediately protested: “This is too much for a small child. She will break it. She
will lose it.”
But Second Wife simply said to me: “Such a pretty girl needs something to put the light on her
I could see by the way my mother shrank back and became quiet that she was angry. She did
not like Second Wife. I had to be careful how I showed my feelings: not to let my mother think
Second Wife had won me over. Yet I had this reckless feeling. I was overjoyed that Second Wife
had shown me this special favor.
“Thank you, Big Mother,” I said to Second Wife. And I was looking down to avoid showing
her my face, but still I could not help smiling.
When my mother and I had tea in her room later that afternoon, I knew she was angry.
“Be careful, An-mei,” she said. “What you hear is not genuine. She makes clouds with one
hand, rain with the other. She is trying to trick you, so you will do anything for her.”
I sat quietly, trying not to listen to my mother. I was thinking how much my mother
complained, that perhaps all of her unhappiness sprang from her complaints. I was thinking how I
should not listen to her.
“Give the necklace to me,” she said suddenly.
I looked at her without moving.
“You do not believe me, so you must give me the necklace. I will not let her buy you for such
a cheap price.”
And when I still did not move, she stood up and walked over, and lifted that necklace off.
And before I could cry to stop her, she put the necklace under her shoe and stepped on it. When she
put it on the table, I saw what she had done. This necklace that had almost bought my heart and
mind now had one bead of crushed glass.
Later she removed that broken bead and knotted the space together so the necklace looked
whole again. She told me to wear the necklace every day for one week so I would remember how
easy it is to lose myself to something false. And after I wore those fake pearls long enough to learn
this lesson, she let me take them off. Then she opened a box, and turned to me: “Now can you
recognize what is true?” And I nodded.
She put something in my hand. It was a heavy ring of watery blue sapphire, with a star in its
center so pure that I never ceased to look at that ring with wonder.
Before the second cold month began, First Wife returned from Peking, where she kept a house
and lived with her two unmarried daughters. I remember thinking that First Wife would make
Second Wife bow to her ways. First Wife was the head wife, by law and by custom.
But First Wife turned out to be a living ghost, no threat to Second Wife, who had her strong
spirit intact. First Wife looked quite ancient and frail with her rounded body, bound feet, her oldstyle padded jacket and pants, and plain, lined face. But now that I remember her, she must not
have been too old, maybe Wu Tsing’s age, so she was perhaps fifty.
When I met First Wife, I thought she was blind. She acted as if she did not see me. She did not
see Wu Tsing. She did not see my mother. And yet she could see her two daughters, two spinsters
beyond the marriageable age; they were at least twenty-five. And she always regained her sight in
time to scold the two dogs for sniffing in her room, digging in the garden outside her window, or
wetting on a table leg.
“Why does First Wife sometimes see and sometimes not see?” I asked Yan Chang one night
as she helped me bathe.
“First Wife says she sees only what is Buddha perfection,” said Yan Chang. “She says she is
blind to most faults.”
Yan Chang said that First Wife chose to be blind to the unhappiness of her marriage. She and
Wu Tsing had been joined in tyandi, heaven and earth, so theirs was a spiritual marriage arranged
by a matchmaker, ordered by his parents, and protected by the spirits of their ancestors. But after
the first year of marriage, First Wife had given birth to a girl with one leg too short. And this
misfortune led First Wife to begin a trek to Buddhist temples, to offer alms and tailored silk gowns
in honor of Buddha’s image, to burn incense and pray to Buddha to lengthen her daughter’s leg. As
it happened, Buddha chose instead to bless First Wife with another daughter, this one with two
perfect legs, but—alas!—with a brown tea stain splashed over half her face. With this second
misfortune, First Wife began to go on so many pilgrimages to Tsinan, just a half-day’s train ride to
the south, that Wu Tsing bought her a house near the Thousand Buddha Cliff and Bubbling Springs
Bamboo Grove. And every year he increased the allowance she needed to manage her own
household there. So twice a year, during the coldest and hottest months of the year, she returned to
Tientsin to pay her respects and suffer sight unseen in her husband’s household. And each time she
returned, she remained in her bedroom, sitting all day like a Buddha, smoking her opium, talking
softly to herself. She did not come downstairs for meals. Instead she fasted or ate vegetarian meals
in her room. And Wu Tsing would make a mid-morning visit in her bedroom once a week, drinking
tea for half an hour, inquiring about her health. He did not bother her at night.
This ghost of a woman should have caused no suffering to my mother, but in fact she put ideas
into her head. My mother believed she too had suffered enough to deserve her own household,
perhaps not in Tsinan, but one to the east, in little Petaiho, which was a beautiful seaside resort
filled with terraces and gardens and wealthy widows.
“We are going to live in a house of our own,” she told me happily the day snow fell on the
ground all around our house. She was wearing a new silk fur-lined gown the bright turquoise color
of kingfisher feathers. “The house will not be as big as this one. It will be very small. But we can
live by ourselves, with Yan Chang and a few other servants. Wu Tsing has promised this already.”
During the coldest winter month, we were all bored, adults and children alike. We did not
dare go outside. Yan Chang warned me that my skin would freeze and crack into a thousand pieces.
And the other servants always gossiped about everyday sights they had seen in town: the back
stoops of stores always blocked with the frozen bodies of beggars. Man or woman, you couldn’t
tell, they were so dusty with a thick cover of snow.
So every day we stayed in the house, thinking of ways to amuse ourselves. My mother looked
at foreign magazines and clipped out pictures of dresses she liked, and then she went downstairs to
discuss with the tailor how such a dress could be made using the materials available.
I did not like to play with Third Wife’s daughters, who were as docile and dull as their
mother. Those girls were content looking out the window all day, watching the sun come up and go
down. So instead, Yan Chang and I roasted chestnuts on top of the little coal stove. And burning
our fingers while eating these sweet nuggets, we naturally started to giggle and gossip. Then I
heard the clock clang and the same song began to play. Yan Chang pretended to sing badly in the
classic opera style and we both laughed out loud, remembering how Second Wife had sung
yesterday evening, accompanying her quavering voice on a three-stringed lute and making many
mistakes. She had caused everyone to suffer through this evening’s entertainment, until Wu Tsing
declared it was enough suffering by falling asleep in his chair. And laughing about this, Yan Chang
told me a story about Second Wife.
“Twenty years ago, she had been a famous Shantung sing-song girl, a woman of some respect,
especially among married men who frequented teahouses. While she had never been pretty, she
was clever, an enchantress. She could play several musical instruments, sing ancient tales with
heartbreaking clarity, and touch her finger to her cheek and cross her tiny feet in just the right
“Wu Tsing had asked her to be his concubine, not for love, but because of the prestige of
owning what so many other men wanted. And this sing-song girl, after she had seen his enormous
wealth and his feebleminded first wife, consented to become his concubine.
“From the start, Second Wife knew how to control Wu Tsing’s money. She knew by the way
his face paled at the sound of the wind that he was fearful of ghosts. And everybody knows that
suicide is the only way a woman can escape a marriage and gain revenge, to come back as a ghost
and scatter tea leaves and good fortune. So when he refused her a bigger allowance, she did
pretend-suicide. She ate a piece of raw opium, enough to make her sick, and then sent her maid to
tell Wu Tsing she was dying. Three days later, Second Wife had an allowance even bigger than
what she had asked.
“She did so many pretend-suicides, we servants began to suspect she no longer bothered to
eat the opium. Her acting was potent enough. Soon she had a better room in the house, her own
private rickshaw, a house for her elderly parents, a sum for buying blessings at temples.
“But one thing she could not have: children. And she knew Wu Tsing would soon become
anxious to have a son who could perform the ancestral rites and therefore guarantee his own
spiritual eternity. So before Wu Tsing could complain about Second Wife’s lack of sons, she said:
‘I have already found her, a concubine suitable to bear your sons. By her very nature, you can see
she is a virgin.’ And this was quite true. As you can see, Third Wife is quite ugly. She does not
even have small feet.
“Third Wife was of course indebted to Second Wife for arranging this, so there was no
argument over management of the household. And even though Second Wife did not need to lift a
finger, she oversaw the purchase of food and supplies, she approved the hiring of servants, she
invited relatives on festival days. She found wet nurses for each of the three daughters Third Wife
bore for Wu Tsing. And later, when Wu Tsing was again impatient for a son and began to spend
too much money in teahouses in other cities, Second Wife arranged it so that your mother became
Wu Tsing’s third concubine and fourth wife!”
Yan Chang revealed this story in such a natural and lively way that I applauded her clever
ending. We continued to crack chestnuts open, until I could no longer remain quiet.
“What did Second Wife do so my mother would marry Wu Tsing?” I asked timidly.
“A little child cannot understand such things!” she scolded.
I immediately looked down and remained silent, until Yan Chang became restless again to
hear her own voice speak on this quiet afternoon.
“Your mother,” said Yan Chang, as if talking to herself, “is too good for this family.”
“Five years ago—your father had died only one year before—she and I went to Hangchow to
visit the Six Harmonies Pagoda on the far side of West Lake. Your father had been a respected
scholar and also devoted to the six virtues of Buddhism enshrined in this pagoda. So your mother
kowtowed in the pagoda, pledging to observe the right harmony of body, thoughts, and speech, to
refrain from giving opinions, and to shun wealth. And when we boarded the boat to cross the lake
again, we sat opposite a man and a woman. This was Wu Tsing and Second Wife.
“Wu Tsing must have seen her beauty immediately. Back then your mother had hair down to
her waist, which she tied high up on her head. And she had unusual skin, a lustrous pink color.
Even in her white widow’s clothes she was beautiful! But because she was a widow, she was
worthless in many respects. She could not remarry.
“But this did not stop Second Wife from thinking of a way. She was tired of watching her
household’s money being washed away in so many different teahouses. The money he spent was
enough to support five more wives! She was anxious to quiet Wu Tsing’s outside appetite. So she
conspired with Wu Tsing to lure your mother to his bed.
“She chatted with your mother, discovered that she planned to go to the Monastery of the
Spirits’ Retreat the next day. And Second Wife showed up at that place as well. And after more
friendly talk, she invited your mother to dinner. Your mother was so lonely for good conversation
she gladly accepted. And after the dinner, Second Wife said to your mother, ‘Do you play mah
jong? Oh, it doesn’t matter if you play badly. We are only three people now and cannot play at all
unless you would be kind enough to join us tomorrow night.’
“The next night, after a long evening of mah jong, Second Wife yawned and insisted my
mother spend the night. ‘Stay! Stay! Don’t be so polite. No, your politeness is really more
inconvenient. Why wake the rickshaw boy?’ said Second Wife. ‘Look here, my bed is certainly big
enough for two.’
“As your mother slept soundly in Second Wife’s bed, Second Wife got up in the middle of the
night and left the dark room, and Wu Tsing took her place. When your mother awoke to find him
touching her beneath her undergarments, she jumped out of bed. He grabbed her by her hair and
threw her on the floor, then put his foot on her throat and told her to undress. Your mother did not
scream or cry when he fell on her.
“In the early morning, she left in a rickshaw, her hair undone and with tears streaming down
her face. She told no one but me what had happened. But Second Wife complained to many people
about the shameless widow who had enchanted Wu Tsing into bed. How could a worthless widow
accuse a rich woman of lying?
“So when Wu Tsing asked your mother to be his third concubine, to bear him a son, what
choice did she have? She was already as low as a prostitute. And when she returned to her
brother’s house and kowtowed three times to say good-bye, her brother kicked her, and her own
mother banned her from the family house forever. That is why you did not see your mother again
until your grandmother died. Your mother went to live in Tientsin, to hide her shame with Wu
Tsing’s wealth. And three years later, she gave birth to a son, which Second Wife claimed as her
“And that is how I came to live in Wu Tsing’s house,” concluded Yan Chang proudly.
And that was how I learned that the baby Syaudi was really my mother’s son, my littlest
In truth, this was a bad thing that Yan Chang had done, telling me my mother’s story. Secrets
are kept from children, a lid on top of the soup kettle, so they do not boil over with too much truth.
After Yan Chang told me this story, I saw everything. I heard things I had never understood
I saw Second Wife’s true nature.
I saw how she often gave Fifth Wife money to go visit her poor village, encouraging this silly
girl to “show your friends and family how rich you’ve become!” And of course, her visits always
reminded Wu Tsing of Fifth Wife’s low-class background and how foolish he had been to be lured
by her earthy flesh.
I saw Second Wife koutou to First Wife, bowing with deep respect while offering her more
opium. And I knew why First Wife’s power had been drained away.
I saw how fearful Third Wife became when Second Wife told her stories of old concubines
who were kicked out into the streets. And I knew why Third Wife watched over Second Wife’s
health and happiness.
And I saw my mother’s terrible pain as Second Wife bounced Syaudi on her lap, kissing my
mother’s son and telling this baby, “As long as I am your mother, you will never be poor. You will
never be unhappy. You will grow up to own this household and care for me in my old age.”
And I knew why my mother cried in her room so often. Wu Tsing’s promise of a house—for
becoming the mother of his only son—had disappeared the day Second Wife collapsed from
another bout of pretend-suicide. And my mother knew she could do nothing to bring the promise
I suffered so much after Yan Chang told me my mother’s story. I wanted my mother to shout at
Wu Tsing, to shout at Second Wife, to shout at Yan Chang and say she was wrong to tell me these
stories. But my mother did not even have the right to do this. She had no choice.
Two days before the lunar new year, Yan Chang woke me when it was still black outside.
“Quickly!” she cried, pulling me along before my mind and eyes could work together.
My mother’s room was brightly lit. As soon as I walked in I could see her. I ran to her bed
and stood on the footstool. Her arms and legs were moving back and forth as she lay on her back.
She was like a soldier, marching to nowhere, her head looking right then left. And now her whole
body became straight and stiff as if to stretch herself out of her body. Her jaw was pulled down
and I saw her tongue was swollen and she was coughing to try to make it fall out.
“Wake up!” I whispered, and then I turned and saw everybody standing there: Wu Tsing, Yan
Chang, Second Wife, Third Wife, Fifth Wife, the doctor.
“She has taken too much opium,” cried Yan Chang. “The doctor says he can do nothing. She
has poisoned herself.”
So they were doing nothing, only waiting. I also waited those many hours.
The only sounds were that of the girl in the clock playing the violin. And I wanted to shout to
the clock and make its meaningless noise be silent, but I did not.
I watched my mother march in her bed. I wanted to say the words that would quiet her body
and spirit. But I stood there like the others, waiting and saying nothing.
And then I recalled her story about the little turtle, his warning not to cry. And I wanted to
shout to her that it was no use. There were already too many tears. And I tried to swallow them
one by one, but they came too fast, until finally my closed lips burst open and I cried and cried,
then cried all over again, letting everybody in the room feed on my tears.
I fainted with all this grief and they carried me back to Yan Chang’s bed. So that morning,
while my mother was dying, I was dreaming.
I was falling from the sky down to the ground, into a pond. And I became a little turtle lying at
the bottom of this watery place. Above me I could see the beaks of a thousand magpies drinking
from the pond, drinking and singing happily and filling their snow-white bellies. I was crying hard,
so many tears, but they drank and drank, so many of them, until I had no more tears left and the
pond was empty, everything as dry as sand.
Yan Chang later told me my mother had listened to Second Wife and tried to do pretendsuicide. False words! Lies! She would never listen to this woman who caused her so much
I know my mother listened to her own heart, to no longer pretend. I know this because why
else did she die two days before the lunar new year? Why else did she plan her death so carefully
that it became a weapon?
Three days before the lunar new year, she had eaten ywansyau, the sticky sweet dumpling that
everybody eats to celebrate. She ate one after the other. And I remember her strange remark. “You
see how this life is. You cannot eat enough of this bitterness.” And what she had done was eat
ywansyau filled with a kind of bitter poison, not candied seeds or the dull happiness of opium as
Yan Chang and the others had thought. When the poison broke into her body, she whispered to me
that she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one.
The stickiness clung to her body. They could not remove the poison and so she died, two days
before the new year. They laid her on a wooden board in the hallway. She wore funeral clothes far
richer than those she had worn in life. Silk undergarments to keep her warm without the heavy
burden of a fur coat. A silk gown, sewn with gold thread. A headdress of gold and lapis and jade.
And two delicate slippers with the softest leather soles and two giant pearls on each toe, to light
her way to nirvana.
Seeing her this last time, I threw myself on her body. And she opened her eyes slowly. I was
not scared. I knew she could see me and what she had finally done. So I shut her eyes with my
fingers and told her with my heart: I can see the truth, too. I am strong, too.
Because we both knew this: that on the third day after someone dies, the soul comes back to
settle scores. In my mother’s case, this would be the first day of the lunar new year. And because it
is the new year, all debts must be paid, or disaster and misfortune will follow.
So on that day, Wu Tsing, fearful of my mother’s vengeful spirit, wore the coarsest of white
cotton mourning clothes. He promised her visiting ghost that he would raise Syaudi and me as his
honored children. He promised to revere her as if she had been First Wife, his only wife.
And on that day, I showed Second Wife the fake pearl necklace she had given me and crushed
it under my foot.
And on that day, Second Wife’s hair began to turn white.
And on that day, I learned to shout.
I know how it is to live your life like a dream. To listen and watch, to wake up and try to
understand what has already happened.
You do not need a psychiatrist to do this. A psychiatrist does not want you to wake up. He
tells you to dream some more, to find the pond and pour more tears into it. And really, he is just
another bird drinking from your misery.
My mother, she suffered. She lost her face and tried to hide it. She found only greater misery
and finally could not hide that. There is nothing more to understand. That was China. That was
what people did back then. They had no choice. They could not speak up. They could not run away.
That was their fate.
But now they can do something else. Now they no longer have to swallow their own tears or
suffer the taunts of magpies. I know this because I read this news in a magazine from China.
It said that for thousands of years birds had been tormenting the peasants. They flocked to
watch peasants bent over in the fields, digging the hard dirt, crying into the furrows to water the
seeds. And when the people stood up, the birds would fly down and drink the tears and eat the
seeds. So children starved.
But one day, all these tired peasants—from all over China—they gathered in fields
everywhere. They watched the birds eating and drinking. And they said, “Enough of this suffering
and silence!” They began to clap their hands, and bang sticks on pots and pans and shout, “Sz! Sz!
Sz!”—Die! Die! Die!
And all these birds rose in the air, alarmed and confused by this new anger, beating their
black wings, flying just above, waiting for the noise to stop. But the people’s shouts only grew
stronger, angrier. The birds became more exhausted, unable to land, unable to eat. And this
continued for many hours, for many days, until all those birds—hundreds, thousands, and then
millions!—fluttered to the ground, dead and still, until not one bird remained in the sky.
What would your psychiatrist say if I told him that I shouted for joy when I read that this had
Ying-Ying St. Clair
Waiting Between the Trees
My daughter has put me in the tiniest of rooms in her new house.
“This is the guest bedroom,” Lena said in her proud American way.
I smiled. But to Chinese ways of thinking, the guest bedroom is the best bedroom, where she
and her husband sleep. I do not tell her this. Her wisdom is like a bottomless pond. You throw
stones in and they sink into the darkness and dissolve. Her eyes looking back do not reflect
I think this to myself even though I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body.
There is a part of her mind that is part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang from me like a
slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though
from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to
penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved.
This room has ceilings that slope downward toward the pillow of my bed. Its walls close in
like a coffin. I should remind my daughter not to put any babies in this room. But I know she will
not listen. She has already said she does not want any babies. She and her husband are too busy
drawing places that someone else will build and someone else will live in. I cannot say the
American word that she and her husband are. It is an ugly word.
“Arty-tecky,” I once pronounced it to my sister-in-law.
My daughter had laughed when she heard this. When she was a child, I should have slapped
her more often for disrespect. But now it is too late. Now she and her husband give me money to
add to my so-so security. So the burning feeling I have in my hand sometimes, I must pull it back
into my heart and keep it inside.
What good does it do to draw fancy buildings and then live in one that is useless? My
daughter has money, but everything in her house is for looking, not even for good-looking. Look at
this end table. It is heavy white marble on skinny black legs. A person must always think not to put
a heavy bag on this table or it will break. The only thing that can sit on the table is a tall black
vase. The vase is like a spider leg, so thin only one flower can be put in. If you shake the table, the
vase and flower will fall down.
All around this house I see the signs. My daughter looks but does not see. This is a house that
will break into pieces. How do I know? I have always known a thing before it happens.
When I was a young girl in Wushi, I was lihai. Wild and stubborn. I wore a smirk on my face. Too
good to listen. I was small and pretty. I had tiny feet which made me very vain. If a pair of silk
slippers became dusty, I threw them away. I wore costly imported calfskin shoes with little heels. I
broke many pairs and ruined many stockings running across the cobblestone courtyard.
I often unraveled my hair and wore it loose. My mother would look at my wild tangles and
scold me: “Aii-ya, Ying-ying, you are like the lady ghosts at the bottom of the lake.”
These were the ladies who drowned their shame and floated in living people’s houses with
their hair undone to show their everlasting despair. My mother said I would bring shame into the
house, but I only giggled as she tried to tuck my hair up with long pins. She loved me too much to
get angry. I was like her. That was why she named me Ying-ying, Clear Reflection.
We were one of the richest families in Wushi. We had many rooms, each filled with big,
heavy tables. On each table was a jade jar sealed airtight with a jade lid. Each jar held unfiltered
British cigarettes, always the right amount. Not too much, not too little. The jars were made just for
these cigarettes. I thought nothing of these jars. They were junk in my mind. Once my brothers and I
stole a jar and poured the cigarettes out onto the streets. We ran down to a large hole that had
opened up in the street, where underneath water flowed. There we squatted along with the children
who lived by the gutter. We scooped up cups of dirty water, hoping to find a fish or unknown
treasure. We found nothing, and soon our clothes were washed over with mud and we were
unrecognizable from the children who lived on the streets.
We had many riches in that house. Silk rugs and jewels. Rare bowls and carved ivory. But
when I think back on that house, and it is not often, I think of that jade jar, the muddied treasure I
did not know I was holding in my hand.
There is another thing I remember clearly about that house.
I was sixteen. It was the night my youngest aunt got married. She and her new husband had
already retired to the room they would share in the big house with her new mother-in-law and the
rest of her new family.
Many of the visiting family members lingered at our house, sitting around the big table in the
main room, everybody laughing and eating peanuts, peeling oranges, and laughing more. A man
from another town was seated with us, a friend of my aunt’s new husband. He was older than my
oldest brother, so I called him Uncle. His face was reddened from drinking whiskey.
“Ying-ying,” he called hoarsely to me as he rose from his chair. “Maybe you are still hungry,
isn’t it so?”
I looked around the table, smiling at everyone because of this special attention given to me. I
thought he would pull a special treat from a large sack he was reaching into. I hoped for some
sweetened cookies. But he pulled out a watermelon and put it on the table with a loud pung.
“Kai gwa?”—Open the watermelon—he said, poising a large knife over the perfect fruit.
Then he sank the knife in with a mighty push and his huge mouth roared a laugh so big I could
see all the way back to his gold teeth. Everyone at the table laughed loudly. My face burned from
embarrassment, because at that time I did not understand.
Yes, it is true I was a wild girl, but I was innocent. I did not know what an evil thing he did
when he cut open that watermelon. I did not understand until six months later when I was married
to this man and he hissed drunkenly to me that he was ready to kai gwa.
This was a man so bad that even today I cannot speak his name. Why did I marry this man? It
was because the night after my youngest aunt’s wedding, I began to know a thing before it
Most of the relatives had left the next morning. And by the evening, my half-sisters and I were
bored. We were sitting at the same large table, drinking tea and eating roasted watermelon seeds.
My half-sisters gossiped loudly, while I sat cracking seeds and laying their flesh in a pile.
My half-sisters were all dreaming of being married to worthless young boys from families not
as good as ours. My half-sisters did not know how to reach very high for a good thing. They were
the daughters of my father’s concubines. I was the daughter of my father’s wife.
“His mother will treat you like a servant…” chided one half-sister upon hearing the other’s
“A madness on his uncle’s side…” retorted the other half-sister.
When they tired of teasing one another, they asked me whom I wanted to marry.
“I know of no one,” I told them haughtily.
It was not that boys did not interest me. I knew how to attract attention and be admired. But I
was too vain to think any one boy was good enough for me.
Those were the thoughts in my head. But thoughts are of two kinds. Some are seeds that are
planted when you are born, placed there by your father and mother and their ancestors before them.
And some thoughts are planted by others. Maybe it was the watermelon seeds I was eating: I
thought of that laughing man from the night before. And just then, a large wind blew in from the
north and the flower on the table split from its stem and fell at my feet.
This is the truth. It was as if a knife had cut the flower’s head off as a sign. Right then, I knew
I would marry this man. It was not with joy that I thought this, but wonderment that I could know it.
And soon I began to hear this man mentioned by my father and uncle and aunt’s new husband.
At dinner his name was spooned into my bowl along with my soup. I found him staring at me
across from my uncle’s courtyard, hu-huing, “See, she cannot turn away. She is already mine.”
True enough, I did not turn away. I fought his eyes with mine. I listened to him with my nose
held high, sniffing the stink of his words when he told me my father would not likely give the
dowry he required. I pushed so hard to keep him from my thoughts that I fell into a marriage bed
with him.
My daughter does not know that I was married to this man so long ago, twenty years before
she was even born.
She does not know how beautiful I was when I married this man. I was far more pretty than
my daughter, who has country feet and a large nose like her father’s.
Even today, my skin is still smooth, my figure like a girl’s. But there are deep lines in my
mouth where I used to wear smiles. And my poor feet, once so small and pretty! Now they are
swollen, callused, and cracked at the heels. My eyes, so bright and flashy at sixteen, are now
yellow-stained, clouded.
But I still see almost everything clearly. When I want to remember, it is like looking into a
bowl and finding the last grains of rice you did not finish.
There was an afternoon on Tai Lake soon after this man and I married. I remember this is
when I came to love him. This man had turned my face toward the late-afternoon sun. He held my
chin and stroked my cheek and said, “Ying-ying, you have tiger eyes. They gather fire in the day.
At night they shine golden.”
I did not laugh, even though this was a poem he said very badly. I cried with honest joy. I had
a swimming feeling in my heart like a creature thrashing to get out and wanting to stay in at the
same time. That is how much I came to love this man. This is how it is when a person joins your
body and there is a part of your mind that swims to join that person against your will.
I became a stranger to myself. I was pretty for him. If I put slippers on my feet, it was to
choose a pair that I knew would please him. I brushed my hair ninety-nine times a night to bring
luck to our marital bed, in hopes of conceiving a son.
The night he planted the baby, I again knew a thing before it happened. I knew it was a boy. I
could see this little boy in my womb. He had my husband’s eyes, large and wide apart. He had
long tapered fingers, fat earlobes, and slick hair that rose high to reveal a large forehead.
It is because I had so much joy then that I came to have so much hate. But even when I was my
happiest, I had a worry that started right above my brow, where you know a thing. This worry later
trickled down to my heart, where you feel a thing and it becomes true.
My husband started to take many business trips to the north. These trips began soon after we
married, but they became longer after the baby was put in my womb. I remembered that the north
wind had blown luck and my husband my way, so at night when he was away, I opened wide my
bedroom windows, even on cold nights, to blow his spirit and heart back my way.
What I did not know is that the north wind is the coldest. It penetrates the heart and takes the
warmth away. The wind gathered such a force that it blew my husband past my bedroom and out
the back door. I found out from my youngest aunt that he had left me to live with an opera singer.
Later still, when I overcame my grief and came to have nothing in my heart but loathing
despair, my youngest aunt told me of others. Dancers and American ladies. Prostitutes. A girl
cousin younger even than I was. She left mysteriously for Hong Kong soon after my husband
So I will tell Lena of my shame. That I was rich and pretty. I was too good for any one man.
That I became abandoned goods. I will tell her that at eighteen the prettiness drained from my
cheeks. That I thought of throwing myself in the lake like the other ladies of shame. And I will tell
her of the baby I killed because I came to hate this man so much.
I took this baby from my womb before it could be born. This was not a bad thing to do in
China back then, to kill a baby before it is born. But even then, I thought it was bad, because my
body flowed with terrible revenge as the juices of this man’s firstborn son poured from me.
When the nurses asked what they should do with the lifeless baby, I hurled a newspaper at
them and said to wrap it like a fish and throw it in the lake. My daughter thinks I do not know what
it means to not want a baby.
When my daughter looks at me, she sees a small old lady. That is because she sees only with
her outside eyes. She has no chuming, no inside knowing of things. If she had chuming, she would
see a tiger lady. And she would have careful fear.
I was born in the year of the Tiger. It was a very bad year to be born, a very good year to be a
Tiger. That was the year a very bad spirit entered the world. People in the countryside died like
chickens on a hot summer day. People in the city became shadows, went into their homes and
disappeared. Babies were born and did not get fatter. The flesh fell off their bones in days and they
The bad spirit stayed in the world for four years. But I came from a spirit even stronger, and I
lived. This is what my mother told me when I was old enough to know why I was so heartstrong in
my ways.
Then she told me why a tiger is gold and black. It has two ways. The gold side leaps with its
fierce heart. The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not
being seen, waiting patiently for things to come. I did not learn to use my black side until after the
bad man left me.
I became like the ladies of the lake. I threw white clothes over the mirrors in my bedroom so I
did not have to see my grief. I lost my strength, so I could not even lift my hands to place pins in
my hair. And then I floated like a dead leaf on the water until I drifted out of my mother-in-law’s
house and back to my family home.
I went to the country outside of Shanghai to live with a second cousin’s family. I stayed in this
country home for ten years. If you ask me what I did during these long years, I can only say I
waited between the trees. I had one eye asleep, the other open and watching.
I did not work. My cousin’s family treated me well because I was the daughter of the family
who supported them. The house was shabby, crowded with three families. It was not a comfort to
be there, and that is what I wanted. Babies crawled on the floor with the mice. Chickens came in
and out like my relatives’ graceless peasant guests. We all ate in the kitchen amidst the hot frying
grease. And the flies! If you left a bowl with even a few grains of rice, you would find it covered
with hungry flies so thick it looked like a living bowl of black bean soup. This is how poor the
country was.
After ten years, I was ready. I was no longer a girl but a strange woman. A still-married
woman with no husband. I went to the city with both eyes open. It was as if the bowl of black flies
had been poured out onto the streets. Everywhere there were people moving, unknown men
pushing against unknown women and no one caring.
With the money from my family, I bought fresh clothes, modern straight suits. I cut off my long
hair in the manner that was stylish, like a young boy. I was so tired of doing nothing for so many
years I decided to work. I became a shopgirl.
I did not need to learn to flatter women. I knew the words they wanted to hear. A tiger can
make a soft prrrn-prrn noise deep within its chest and make even rabbits feel safe and content.
Even though I was a grown woman, I became pretty again. This was a gift. I wore clothes far
better and more expensive than what was sold in the store. And this made women buy the cheap
clothes, because they thought they could look as pretty as I.
It was at this shop, working like a peasant, that I met Clifford St. Clair. He was a large, pale
American man who bought the store’s cheap-style clothes and sent them overseas. It was his name
that made me know I would marry him.
“Mistah Saint Clair,” he said in English when he introduced himself to me.
And then he added in his thick, flat Chinese, “Like the angel of light.”
I neither liked him nor disliked him. I thought him neither attractive nor unattractive. But this I
knew. I knew he was the sign that the black side of me would soon go away.
Saint courted me for four years in his strange way. Even though I was not the owner of the
shop, he always greeted me, shaking hands, holding them too long. From his palms water always
poured, even after we married. He was clean and pleasant. But he smelled like a foreigner, a
lamb-smell stink that can never be washed away.
I was not unkind. But he was kechi, too polite. He bought me cheap gifts: a glass figurine, a
prickly brooch of cut glass, a silver-colored cigarette lighter. Saint acted as if these gifts were
nothing, as if he were a rich man treating a poor country girl to things we had never seen in China.
But I saw his look as he watched me open the boxes. Anxious and eager to please. He did not
know that such things were nothing to me, that I was raised with riches he could not even imagine.
I always accepted these gifts graciously, always protesting just enough, not too little, not too
much. I did not encourage him. But because I knew this man would someday be my husband, I put
these worthless trinkets carefully into a box, wrapping each with tissue. I knew that someday he
would ask to see them again.
Lena thinks Saint saved me from the poor country village that I said I was from. She is right.
She is wrong. My daughter does not know that Saint had to wait patiently for four years like a dog
in front of a butcher shop.
How is it that I finally came out and let him marry me? I was waiting for the sign I knew
would come. I had to wait until 1946.
A letter came from Tientsin, not from my family, who thought I was dead. It was from my
youngest aunt. Even before I opened the letter I knew. My husband was dead. He had long since
left his opera singer. He was with some worthless girl, a young servant. But she had a strong spirit
and was reckless, more so than even he. When he tried to leave her, she had already sharpened her
longest kitchen knife.
I thought this man had long ago drained everything from my heart. But now something strong
and bitter flowed and made me feel another emptiness in a place I didn’t know was there. I cursed
this man aloud so he could hear. You had dog eyes. You jumped and followed whoever called you.
Now you chase your own tail.
So I decided. I decided to let Saint marry me. So easy for me. I was the daughter of my
father’s wife. I spoke in a trembly voice. I became pale, ill, and more thin. I let myself become a
wounded animal. I let the hunter come to me and turn me into a tiger ghost. I willingly gave up my
chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain.
Now I was a tiger that neither pounced nor lay waiting between the trees. I became an unseen
Saint took me to America, where I lived in houses smaller than the one in the country. I wore
large American clothes. I did servant’s tasks. I learned the Western ways. I tried to speak with a
thick tongue. I raised a daughter, watching her from another shore. I accepted her American ways.
With all these things, I did not care. I had no spirit.
Can I tell my daughter that I loved her father? This was a man who rubbed my feet at night. He
praised the food that I cooked. He cried honestly when I brought out the trinkets I had saved for the
right day, the day he gave me my daughter, a tiger girl.
How could I not love this man? But it was the love of a ghost. Arms that encircled but did not
touch. A bowl full of rice but without my appetite to eat it. No hunger. No fullness.
Now Saint is a ghost. He and I can now love equally. He knows the things I have been hiding
all these years. Now I must tell my daughter everything. That she is the daughter of a ghost. She has
no chi. This is my greatest shame. How can I leave this world without leaving her my spirit?
So this is what I will do. I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has
already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it
becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my
black side. I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit
loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my
spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.
I hear my daughter speaking to her husband downstairs. They say words that mean nothing.
They sit in a room with no life in it.
I know a thing before it happens. She will hear the vase and table crashing to the floor. She
will come up the stairs and into my room. Her eyes will see nothing in the darkness, where I am
waiting between the trees.
Lindo Jong
Double face
My daughter wanted to go to China for her second honeymoon, but now she is afraid.
“What if I blend in so well they think I’m one of them?” Waverly asked me. “What if they
don’t let me come back to the United States?”
“When you go to China,” I told her, “you don’t even need to open your mouth. They already
know you are an outsider.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked. My daughter likes to speak back. She likes to
question what I say.
“Aii-ya,” I said. “Even if you put on their clothes, even if you take off your makeup and hide
your fancy jewelry, they know. They know just watching the way you walk, the way you carry your
face. They know you do not belong.”
My daughter did not look pleased when I told her this, that she didn’t look Chinese. She had a
sour American look on her face. Oh, maybe ten years ago, she would have clapped her hands—
hurray!—as if this were good news. But now she wants to be Chinese, it is so fashionable. And I
know it is too late. All those years I tried to teach her! She followed my Chinese ways only until
she learned how to walk out the door by herself and go to school. So now the only Chinese words
she can say are sh-sh, houche, chr fan, and gwan deng shweijyau. How can she talk to people in
China with these words? Pee-pee, choo-choo train, eat, close light sleep. How can she think she
can blend in? Only her skin and her hair are Chinese. Inside—she is all American-made.
It’s my fault she is this way. I wanted my children to have the best combination: American
circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?
I taught her how American circumstances work. If you are born poor here, it’s no lasting
shame. You are first in line for a scholarship. If the roof crashes on your head, no need to cry over
this bad luck. You can sue anybody, make the landlord fix it. You do not have to sit like a Buddha
under a tree letting pigeons drop their dirty business on your head. You can buy an umbrella. Or go
inside a Catholic church. In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody
else gives you.
She learned these things, but I couldn’t teach her about Chinese character. How to obey
parents and listen to your mother’s mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings
behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. Why easy things are not worth
pursuing. How to know your own worth and polish it, never flashing it around like a cheap ring.
Why Chinese thinking is best.
No, this kind of thinking didn’t stick to her. She was too busy chewing gum, blowing bubbles
bigger than her cheeks. Only that kind of thinking stuck.
“Finish your coffee,” I told her yesterday. “Don’t throw your blessings away.”
“Don’t be so old-fashioned, Ma,” she told me, finishing her coffee down the sink. “I’m my
own person.”
And I think, How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?
My daughter is getting married a second time. So she asked me to go to her beauty parlor, her
famous Mr. Rory. I know her meaning. She is ashamed of my looks. What will her husband’s
parents and his important lawyer friends think of this backward old Chinese woman?
“Auntie An-mei can cut me,” I say.
“Rory is famous,” says my daughter, as if she had no ears. “He does fabulous work.”
So I sit in Mr. Rory’s chair. He pumps me up and down until I am the right height. Then my
daughter criticizes me as if I were not there. “See how it’s flat on one side,” she accuses my head.
“She needs a cut and a perm. And this purple tint in her hair, she’s been doing it at home. She’s
never had anything professionally done.”
She is looking at Mr. Rory in the mirror. He is looking at me in the mirror. I have seen this
professional look before. Americans don’t really look at one another when talking. They talk to
their reflections. They look at others or themselves only when they think nobody is watching. So
they never see how they really look. They see themselves smiling without their mouth open, or
turned to the side where they cannot see their faults.
“How does she want it?” asked Mr. Rory. He thinks I do not understand English. He is
floating his fingers through my hair. He is showing how his magic can make my hair thicker and
“Ma, how do you want it?” Why does my daughter think she is translating English for me?
Before I can even speak, she explains my thoughts: “She wants a soft wave. We probably shouldn’t
cut it too short. Otherwise it’ll be too tight for the wedding. She doesn’t want it to look kinky or
And now she says to me in a loud voice, as if I had lost my hearing, “Isn’t that right, Ma? Not
too tight?”
I smile. I use my American face. That’s the face Americans think is Chinese, the one they
cannot understand. But inside I am becoming ashamed. I am ashamed she is ashamed. Because she
is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me.
Mr. Rory pats my hair more. He looks at me. He looks at my daughter. Then he says
something to my daughter that really displeases her: “It’s uncanny how much you two look alike!”
I smile, this time with my Chinese face. But my daughter’s eyes and her smile become very
narrow, the way a cat pulls itself small just before it bites. Now Mr. Rory goes away so we can
think about this. I hear him snap his fingers, “Wash! Mrs. Jong is next!”
So my daughter and I are alone in this crowded beauty parlor. She is frowning at herself in
the mirror. She sees me looking at her.
“The same cheeks,” she says, She points to mine and then pokes her cheeks. She sucks them
outside in to look like a starved person. She puts her face next to mine, side by side, and we look
at each other in the mirror.
“You can see your character in your face,” I say to my daughter without thinking. “You can
see your future.”
“What do you mean?” she says.
And now I have to fight back my feelings. These two faces, I think, so much the same! The
same happiness, the same sadness, the same good fortune, the same faults.
I am seeing myself and my mother, back in China, when I was a young girl.
My mother—your grandmother—once told me my fortune, how my character could lead to good
and bad circumstances. She was sitting at her table with the big mirror. I was standing behind her,
my chin resting on her shoulder. The next day was the start of the new year. I would be ten years by
my Chinese age, so it was an important birthday for me. For this reason maybe she did not criticize
me too much. She was looking at my face.
She touched my ear. “You are lucky,” she said. “You have my ears, a big thick lobe, lots of
meat at the bottom, full of blessings. Some people are born so poor. Their ears are so thin, so
close to their head, they can never hear luck calling to them. You have the right ears, but you must
listen to your opportunities.”
She ran her thin finger down my nose. “You have my nose. The hole is not too big, so your
money will not be running out. The nose is straight and smooth, a good sign. A girl with a crooked
nose is bound for misfortune. She is always following the wrong things, the wrong people, the
worst luck.”
She tapped my chin and then hers. “Not too short, not too long. Our longevity will be
adequate, not cut off too soon, not so long we become a burden.”
She pushed my hair away from my forehead. “We are the same,” concluded my mother.
“Perhaps your forehead is wider, so you will be even more clever. And your hair is thick, the
hairline is low on your forehead. This means you will have some hardships in your early life. This
happened to me. But look at my hairline now. High! Such a blessing for my old age. Later you will
learn to worry and lose your hair, too.”
She took my chin in her hand. She turned my face toward her, eyes facing eyes. She moved my
face to one side, then the other. “The eyes are honest, eager,” she said. “They follow me and show
respect. They do not look down in shame. They do not resist and turn the opposite way. You will
be a good wife, mother, and daughter-in-law.”
When my mother told me these things, I was still so young. And even though she said we
looked the same, I wanted to look more the same. If her eye went up and looked surprised, I
wanted my eye to do the same. If her mouth fell down and was unhappy, I too wanted to feel
I was so much like my mother. This was before our circumstances separated us: a flood that
caused my family to leave me behind, my first marriage to a family that did not want me, a war
from all sides, and later, an ocean that took me to a new country. She did not see how my face
changed over the years. How my mouth began to droop. How I began to worry but still did not lose
my hair. How my eyes began to follow the American way. She did not see that I twisted my nose
bouncing forward on a crowded bus in San Francisco. Your father and I, we were on our way to
church to give many thanks to God for all our blessings, but I had to subtract some for my nose.
It’s hard to keep your Chinese face in America. At the beginning, before I even arrived, I had
to hide my true self. I paid an American-raised Chinese girl in Peking to show me how.
“In America,” she said, “you cannot say you want to live there forever. If you are Chinese,
you must say you admire their schools, their ways of thinking. You must say you want to be a
scholar and come back to teach Chinese people what you have learned.”
“What should I say I want to learn?” I asked. “If they ask me questions, if I cannot answer…”
“Religion, you must say you want to study religion,” said this smart girl. “Americans all have
different ideas about religion, so there are no right and wrong answers. Say to them, I’m going for
God’s sake, and they will respect you.”
For another sum of money, this girl gave me a form filled out with English words. I had to
copy these words over and over again as if they were English words formed from my own head.
Next to the word NAME, I wrote Lindo Sun. Next to the word BIRTHDATE, I wrote May 11, 1918,
which this girl insisted was the same as three months after the Chinese lunar new year. Next to the
word BIRTHPLACE, I put down Taiyuan, China. And next to the word OCCUPATION, I wrote student of
I gave the girl even more money for a list of addresses in San Francisco, people with big
connections. And finally, this girl gave me, free of charge, instructions for changing my
circumstances. “First,” she said, “you must find a husband. An American citizen is best.”
She saw my surprise and quickly added, “Chinese! Of course, he must be Chinese. ‘Citizen’
does not mean Caucasian. But if he is not a citizen, you should immediately do number two. See
here, you should have a baby. Boy or girl, it doesn’t matter in the United States. Neither will take
care of you in your old age, isn’t that true?” And we both laughed.
“Be careful, though,” she said. “The authorities there will ask you if you have children now
or if you are thinking of having some. You must say no. You should look sincere and say you are
not married, you are religious, you know it is wrong to have a baby.”
I must have looked puzzled, because she explained further: “Look here now, how can an
unborn baby know what it is not supposed to do? And once it has arrived, it is an American citizen
and can do anything it wants. It can ask its mother to stay. Isn’t that true?”
But that is not the reason I was puzzled. I wondered why she said I should look sincere. How
could I look any other way when telling the truth?
See how truthful my face still looks. Why didn’t I give this look to you? Why do you always
tell your friends that I arrived in the United States on a slow boat from China? This is not true. I
was not that poor. I took a plane. I had saved the money my first husband’s family gave me when
they sent me away. And I had saved money from my twelve years’ work as a telephone operator.
But it is true I did not take the fastest plane. The plane took three weeks. It stopped everywhere:
Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, Hawaii. So by the time I arrived, I did not look sincerely
glad to be here.
Why do you always tell people that I met your father in the Cathay House, that I broke open a
fortune cookie and it said I would marry a dark, handsome stranger, and that when I looked up,
there he was, the waiter, your father. Why do you make this joke? This is not sincere. This was not
true! Your father was not a waiter, I never ate in that restaurant. The Cathay House had a sign that
said “Chinese Food,” so only Americans went there before it was torn down. Now it is a
McDonald’s restaurant with a big Chinese sign that says mai dong lou—“wheat,” “east,”
“building.” All nonsense. Why are you attracted only to Chinese nonsense? You must understand
my real circumstances, how I arrived, how I married, how I lost my Chinese face, why you are the
way you are.
When I arrived, nobody asked me questions. The authorities looked at my papers and stamped
me in. I decided to go first to a San Francisco address given to me by this girl in Peking. The bus
put me down on a wide street with cable cars. This was California Street. I walked up this hill and
then I saw a tall building. This was Old St. Mary’s. Under the church sign, in handwritten Chinese
characters, someone had added: “A Chinese Ceremony to Save Ghosts from Spiritual Unrest 7A.M.
and 8:30 A.M.” I memorized this information in case the authorities asked me where I worshipped
my religion. And then I saw another sign across the street. It was painted on the outside of a short
building: “Save Today for Tomorrow, at Bank of America.” And I thought to myself, This is where
American people worship. See, even then I was not so dumb! Today that church is the same size,
but where that short bank used to be, now there is a tall building, fifty stories high, where you and
your husband-to-be work and look down on everybody.
My daughter laughed when I said this. Her mother can make a good joke.
So I kept walking up this hill. I saw two pagodas, one on each side of the street, as though
they were the entrance to a great Buddha temple. But when I looked carefully, I saw the pagoda
was really just a building topped with stacks of tile roofs, no walls, nothing else under its head. I
was surprised how they tried to make everything look like an old imperial city or an emperor’s
tomb. But if you looked on either side of these pretend-pagodas, you could see the streets became
narrow and crowded, dark, and dirty. I thought to myself, Why did they choose only the worst
Chinese parts for the inside? Why didn’t they build gardens and ponds instead? Oh, here and there
was the look of a famous ancient cave or a Chinese opera. But inside it was always the same
cheap stuff.
So by the time I found the address the girl in Peking gave me, I knew not to expect too much.
The address was a large green building, so noisy, children running up and down the outside stairs
and hallways. Inside number 402, I found an old woman who told me right away she had wasted
her time waiting for me all week. She quickly wrote down some addresses and gave them to me,
keeping her hand out after I took the paper. So I gave her an American dollar and she looked at it
and said, “Syaujye”—Miss—“we are in America now. Even a beggar can starve on this dollar.”
So I gave her another dollar and she said, “Aii, you think it is so easy getting this information?” So
I gave her another and she closed her hand and her mouth.
With the addresses this old woman gave me, I found a cheap apartment on Washington Street.
It was like all the other places, sitting on top of a little store. And through this three-dollar list, I
found a terrible job paying me seventy-five cents an hour. Oh, I tried to get a job as a salesgirl, but
you had to know English for that. I tried for another job as a Chinese hostess, but they also wanted
me to rub my hands up and down foreign men, and I knew right away this was as bad as fourthclass prostitutes in China! So I rubbed that address out with black ink. And some of the other jobs
required you to have a special relationship. They were jobs held by families from Canton and
Toishan and the Four Districts, southern people who had come many years ago to make their
fortune and were still holding onto them with the hands of their great-grandchildren.
So my mother was right about my hardships. This job in the cookie factory was one of the
worst. Big black machines worked all day and night pouring little pancakes onto moving round
griddles. The other women and I sat on high stools, and as the little pancakes went by, we had to
grab them off the hot griddle just as they turned golden. We would put a strip of paper in the center,
then fold the cookie in half and bend its arms back just as it turned hard. If you grabbed the
pancake too soon, you would burn your fingers on the hot, wet dough. But if you grabbed too late,
the cookie would harden before you could even complete the first bend. And then you had to throw
these mistakes in a barrel, which counted against you because the owner could sell those only as
After the first day, I suffered ten red fingers. This was not a job for a stupid person. You had
to learn fast or your fingers would turn into fried sausages. So the next day only my eyes burned,
from never taking them off the pancakes. And the day after that, my arms ached from holding them
out ready to catch the pancakes at just the right moment. But by the end of my first week, it became
mindless work and I could relax enough to notice who else was working on each side of me. One
was an older woman who never smiled and spoke to herself in Cantonese when she was angry.
She talked like a crazy person. On my other side was a woman around my age. Her barrel
contained very few mistakes. But I suspected she ate them. She was quite plump.
“Eh, Syaujye,” she called to me over the loud noise of the machines. I was grateful to hear her
voice, to discover we both spoke Mandarin, although her dialect was coarse-sounding. “Did you
ever think you would be so powerful you could determine someone else’s fortune?” she asked.
I didn’t understand what she meant. So she picked up one of the strips of paper and read it
aloud, first in English: “Do not fight and air your dirty laundry in public. To the victor go the
soils.” Then she translated in Chinese: “You shouldn’t fight and do your laundry at the same time.
If you win, your clothes will get dirty.”
I still did not know what she meant. So she picked up another one and read in English:
“Money is the root of all evil. Look around you and dig deep.” And then in Chinese: “Money is a
bad influence. You become restless and rob graves.”
“What is this nonsense?” I asked her, putting the strips of paper in my pocket, thinking I
should study these classical American sayings.
“They are fortunes,” she explained. “American people think Chinese people write these
“But we never say such things!” I said. “These things don’t make sense. These are not
fortunes, they are bad instructions.”
“No, Miss,” she said, laughing, “it is our bad fortune to be here making these and somebody
else’s bad fortune to pay to get them.”
So that is how I met An-mei Hsu. Yes, yes, Auntie An-mei, now so old-fashioned. An-mei
and I still laugh over those bad fortunes and how they later became quite useful in helping me catch
a husband.
“Eh, Lindo,” An-mei said to me one day at our workplace. “Come to my church this Sunday.
My husband has a friend who is looking for a good Chinese wife. He is not a citizen, but I’m sure
he knows how to make one.” So that is how I first heard about Tin Jong, your father. It was not like
my first marriage, where everything was arranged. I had a choice. I could choose to marry your
father, or I could choose not to marry him and go back to China.
I knew something was not right when I saw him: He was Cantonese! How could An-mei think
I could marry such a person? But she just said: “We are not in China anymore. You don’t have to
marry the village boy. Here everybody is now from the same village even if they come from
different parts of China.” See how changed Auntie An-mei is from those old days.
So we were shy at first, your father and I, neither of us able to speak to each other in our
Chinese dialects. We went to English class together, speaking to each other in those new words
and sometimes taking out a piece of paper to write a Chinese character to show what we meant. At
least we had that, a piece of paper to hold us together. But it’s hard to tell someone’s marriage
intentions when you can’t say things aloud. All those little signs—the teasing, the bossy, scolding
words—that’s how you know if it is serious. But we could talk only in the manner of our English
teacher. I see cat. I see rat. I see hat.
But I saw soon enough how much your father liked me. He would pretend he was in a Chinese
play to show me what he meant. He ran back and forth, jumped up and down, pulling his fingers
through his hair, so I knew—mangjile!—what a busy, exciting place this Pacific Telephone was,
this place where he worked. You didn’t know this about your father—that he could be such a good
actor? You didn’t know your father had so much hair?
Oh, I found out later his job was not the way he decribed it. It was not so good. Even today,
now that I can speak Cantonese to your father, I always ask him why he doesn’t find a better
situation. But he acts as if we were in those old days, when he couldn’t understand anything I said.
Sometimes I wonder why I wanted to catch a marriage with your father. I think An-mei put the
thought in my mind. She said, “In the movies, boys and girls are always passing notes in class.
That’s how they fall into trouble. You need to start trouble to get this man to realize his intentions.
Otherwise, you will be an old lady before it comes to his mind.”
That evening An-mei and I went to work and searched through strips of fortune cookie papers,
trying to find the right instructions to give to your father. An-mei read them aloud, putting aside
ones that might work: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Don’t ever settle for a pal.” “If such
thoughts are in your head, it’s time to be wed.” “Confucius say a woman is worth a thousand
words. Tell your wife she’s used up her total.”
We laughed over those. But I knew the right one when I read it. It said: “A house is not home
when a spouse is not at home.” I did not laugh. I wrapped up this saying in a pancake, bending the
cookie with all my heart.
After school the next afternoon, I put my hand in my purse and then made a look, as if a mouse
had bitten my hand. “What’s this?” I cried. Then I pulled out the cookie and handed it to your
father. “Eh! So many cookies, just to see them makes me sick. You take this cookie.”
I knew even then he had a nature that did not waste anything. He opened the cookie and he
crunched it in his mouth, and then read the piece of paper.
“What does it say?” I asked. I tried to act as if it did not matter. And when he still did not
speak, I said, “Translate, please.”
We were walking in Portsmouth Square and already the fog had blown in and I was very cold
in my thin coat. So I hoped your father would hurry and ask me to marry him. But instead, he kept
his serious look and said, “I don’t know this word ‘spouse.’ Tonight I will look in my dictionary.
Then I can tell you the meaning tomorrow.”
The next day he asked me in English, “Lindo, can you spouse me?” And I laughed at him and
said he used that word incorrectly. So he came back and made a Confucius joke, that if the words
were wrong, then his intentions must also be wrong. We scolded and joked with each other all day
long like this, and that how we decided to get married.
One month later we had a ceremony in the First Chinese Baptist Church, where we met. And
nine months later your father and I had our proof of citizenship, a baby boy, your big brother
Winston. I named him Winston because I liked the meaning of those two words “wins ton.” I
wanted to raise a son who would win many things, praise, money, a good life. Back then, I thought
to myself, At last I have everything I wanted. I was so happy, I didn’t see we were poor. I saw
only what we had. How did I know Winston would die later in a car accident? So young! Only
Two years after Winston was born, I had your other brother, Vincent. I named him Vincent,
which sounds like “win cent,” the sound of making money, because I was beginning to think we did
not have enough. And then I bumped my nose riding on the bus. Soon after that you were born.
I don’t know what caused me to change. Maybe it was my crooked nose that damaged my
thinking. Maybe it was seeing you as a baby, how you looked so much like me, and this made me
dissatisfied with my life. I wanted everything for you to be better. I wanted you to have the best
circumstances, the best character. I didn’t want you to regret anything. And that’s why I named you
Waverly. It was the name of the street we lived on. And I wanted you to think, This is where I
belong. But I also knew if I named you after this street, soon you would grow up, leave this place,
and take a piece of me with you.
Mr. Rory is brushing my hair. Everything is soft. Everything is black.
“You look great, Ma,” says my daughter. “Everyone at the wedding will think you’re my
I look at my face in the beauty parlor mirror. I see my reflection. I cannot see my faults, but I
know they are there. I gave my daughter these faults. The same eyes, the same cheeks, the same
chin. Her character, it came from my circumstances. I look at my daughter and now it is the first
time I have seen it.
“Ai-ya! What happened to your nose?”
She looks in the mirror. She sees nothing wrong. “What do you mean? Nothing happened,”
she says. “It’s just the same nose.”
“But how did you get it crooked?” I ask. One side of her nose is bending lower, dragging her
cheek with it.
“What do you mean?” she asks. “It’s your nose. You gave me this nose.”
“How can that be? It’s drooping. You must get plastic surgery and correct it.”
But my daughter has no ears for my words. She puts her smiling face next to my worried one.
“Don’t be silly. Our nose isn’t so bad,” she says. “It makes us look devious.” She looks pleased.
“What is this word, ‘devious,’ ” I ask.
“It means we’re looking one way, while following another. We’re for one side and also the
other. We mean what we say, but our intentions are different.”
“People can see this in our face?”
My daughter laughs. “Well, not everything that we’re thinking. They just know we’re twofaced.”
“This is good?”
“This is good if you get what you want.”
I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is
Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other.
It is like what happened when I went back to China last year, after I had not been there for
almost forty years. I had taken off my fancy jewelry. I did not wear loud colors. I spoke their
language. I used their local money. But still, they knew. They knew my face was not one hundred
percent Chinese. They still charged me high foreign prices.
So now I think, What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what
she thinks.
Jing-Mei Woo
A Pair of Tickets
The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I
can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching
with a familiar old pain. And I think, My mother was right. I am becoming Chinese.
“Cannot be helped,” my mother said when I was fifteen and had vigorously denied that I had
any Chinese whatsoever below my skin. I was a sophomore at Galileo High in San Francisco, and
all my Caucasian friends agreed: I was about as Chinese as they were. But my mother had studied
at a famous nursing school in Shanghai, and she said she knew all about genetics. So there was no
doubt in her mind, whether I agreed or not: Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel
and think Chinese.
“Someday you will see,” said my mother. “It is in your blood, waiting to be let go.”
And when she said this, I saw myself transforming like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA
suddenly triggered, replicating itself insidiously into a syndrome, a cluster of telltale Chinese
behaviors, all those things my mother did to embarrass me—haggling with store owners, pecking
her mouth with a toothpick in public, being color-blind to the fact that lemon yellow and pale pink
are not good combinations for winter clothes.
But today I realize I’ve never really known what it means to be Chinese. I am thirty-six years
old. My mother is dead and I am on a train, carrying with me her dreams of coming home. I am
going to China.
We are first going to Guangzhou, my seventy-two-year-old father, Canning Woo, and I, where
we will visit his aunt, whom he has not seen since he was ten years old. And I don’t know whether
it’s the prospect of seeing his aunt or if it’s because he’s back in China, but now he looks like he’s
a young boy, so innocent and happy I want to button his sweater and pat his head. We are sitting
across from each other, separated by a little table with two cold cups of tea. For the first time I can
ever remember, my father has tears in his eyes, and all he is seeing out the train window is a
sectioned field of yellow, green, and brown, a narrow canal flanking the tracks, low rising hills,
and three people in blue jackets riding an ox-driven cart on this early October morning. And I can’t
help myself. I also have misty eyes, as if I had seen this a long, long time ago, and had almost
In less than three hours, we will be in Guangzhou, which my guidebook tells me is how one
properly refers to Canton these days. It seems all the cities I have heard of, except Shanghai, have
changed their spellings. I think they are saying China has changed in other ways as well. Chungking
is Chongqing. And Kweilin is Guilin. I have looked these names up, because after we see my
father’s aunt in Guangzhou, we will catch a plane to Shanghai, where I will meet my two halfsisters for the first time.
They are my mother’s twin daughters from her first marriage, little babies she was forced to
abandon on a road as she was fleeing Kweilin for Chungking in 1944. That was all my mother had
told me about these daughters, so they had remained babies in my mind, all these years, sitting on
the side of a road, listening to bombs whistling in the distance while sucking their patient red
And it was only this year that someone found them and wrote with this joyful news. A letter
came from Shanghai, addressed to my mother. When I first heard about this, that they were alive, I
imagined my identical sisters transforming from little babies into six-year-old girls. In my mind,
they were seated next to each other at a table, taking turns with the fountain pen. One would write a
neat row of characters: Dearest Mama. We are alive. She would brush back her wispy bangs and
hand the other sister the pen, and she would write: Come get us. Please hurry.
Of course they could not know that my mother had died three months before, suddenly, when a
blood vessel in her brain burst. One minute she was talking to my father, complaining about the
tenants upstairs, scheming how to evict them under the pretense that relatives from China were
moving in. The next minute she was holding her head, her eyes squeezed shut, groping for the sofa,
and then crumpling softly to the floor with fluttering hands.
So my father had been the first one to open the letter, a long letter it turned out. And they did
call her Mama. They said they always revered her as their true mother. They kept a framed picture
of her. They told her about their life, from the time my mother last saw them on the road leaving
Kweilin to when they were finally found.
And the letter had broken my father’s heart so much—these daughters calling my mother from
another life he never knew—that he gave the letter to my mother’s old friend Auntie Lindo and
asked her to write back and tell my sisters, in the gentlest way possible, that my mother was dead.
But instead Auntie Lindo took the letter to the Joy Luck Club and discussed with Auntie Ying
and Auntie An-mei what should be done, because they had known for many years about my
mother’s search for her twin daughters, her endless hope. Auntie Lindo and the others cried over
this double tragedy, of losing my mother three months before, and now again. And so they couldn’t
help but think of some miracle, some possible way of reviving her from the dead, so my mother
could fulfill her dream.
So this is what they wrote to my sisters in Shanghai: “Dearest Daughters, I too have never
forgotten you in my memory or in my heart. I never gave up hope that we would see each other
again in a joyous reunion. I am only sorry it has been too long. I want to tell you everything about
my life since I last saw you. I want to tell you this when our family comes to see you in China.…”
They signed it with my mother’s name.
It wasn’t until all this had been done that they first told me about my sisters, the letter they
received, the one they wrote back.
“They’ll think she’s coming, then,” I murmured. And I had imagined my sisters now being ten
or eleven, jumping up and down, holding hands, their pigtails bouncing, excited that their mother
—their mother—was coming, whereas my mother was dead.
“How can you say she is not coming in a letter?” said Auntie Lindo. “She is their mother. She
is your mother. You must be the one to tell them. All these years, they have been dreaming of her.”
And I thought she was right.
But then I started dreaming, too, of my mother and my sisters and how it would be if I arrived
in Shanghai. All these years, while they waited to be found, I had lived with my mother and then
had lost her. I imagined seeing my sisters at the airport. They would be standing on their tiptoes,
looking anxiously, scanning from one dark head to another as we got off the plane. And I would
recognize them instantly, their faces with the identical worried look.
“Jyejye, Jyejye. Sister, Sister. We are here,” I saw myself saying in my poor version of
“Where is Mama?” they would say, and look around, still smiling, two flushed and eager
faces. “Is she hiding?” And this would have been like my mother, to stand behind just a bit, to
tease a little and make people’s patience pull a little on their hearts. I would shake my head and
tell my sisters she was not hiding.
“Oh, that must be Mama, no?” one of my sisters would whisper excitedly, pointing to another
small woman completely engulfed in a tower of presents. And that, too, would have been like my
mother, to bring mountains of gifts, food, and toys for children—all bought on sale—shunning
thanks, saying the gifts were nothing, and later turning the labels over to show my sisters, “Calvin
Klein, 100% wool.”
I imagined myself starting to say, “Sisters, I am sorry, I have come alone…” and before I
could tell them—they could see it in my face—they were wailing, pulling their hair, their lips
twisted in pain, as they ran away from me. And then I saw myself getting back on the plane and
coming home.
After I had dreamed this scene many times—watching their despair turn from horror into
anger—I begged Auntie Lindo to write another letter. And at first she refused.
“How can I say she is dead? I cannot write this,” said Auntie Lindo with a stubborn look.
“But it’s cruel to have them believe she’s coming on the plane,” I said. “When they see it’s
just me, they’ll hate me.”
“Hate you? Cannot be.” She was scowling. “You are their own sister, their only family.”
“You don’t understand,” I protested.
“What I don’t understand?” she said.
And I whispered, “They’ll think I’m responsible, that she died because I didn’t appreciate
And Auntie Lindo looked satisfied and sad at the same time, as if this were true and I had
finally realized it. She sat down for an hour, and when she stood up she handed me a two-page
letter. She had tears in her eyes. I realized that the very thing I had feared, she had done. So even if
she had written the news of my mother’s death in English, I wouldn’t have had the heart to read it.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
The landscape has become gray, filled with low flat cement buildings, old factories, and then
tracks and more tracks filled with trains like ours passing by in the opposite direction. I see
platforms crowded with people wearing drab Western clothes, with spots of bright colors: little
children wearing pink and yellow, red and peach. And there are soldiers in olive green and red,
and old ladies in gray tops and pants that stop mid-calf. We are in Guangzhou.
Before the train even comes to a stop, people are bringing down their belongings from above
their seats. For a moment there is a dangerous shower of heavy suitcases laden with gifts to
relatives, half-broken boxes wrapped in miles of string to keep the contents from spilling out,
plastic bags filled with yarn and vegetables and packages of dried mushrooms, and camera cases.
And then we are caught in a stream of people rushing, shoving, pushing us along, until we find
ourselves in one of a dozen lines waiting to go through customs. I feel as if I were getting on the
number 30 Stockton bus in San Francisco. I am in China, I remind myself. And somehow the
crowds don’t bother me. It feels right. I start pushing too.
I take out the declaration forms and my passport. “Woo,” it says at the top, and below that,
“June May,” who was born in “California, U.S.A.,” in 1951. I wonder if the customs people will
question whether I’m the same person as in the passport photo. In this picture, my chin-length hair
is swept back and artfully styled. I am wearing false eyelashes, eye shadow, and lip liner. My
cheeks are hollowed out by bronze blusher. But I had not expected the heat in October. And now
my hair hangs limp with the humidity. I wear no makeup; in Hong Kong my mascara had melted
into dark circles and everything else had felt like layers of grease. So today my face is plain,
unadorned except for a thin mist of shiny sweat on my forehead and nose.
Even without makeup, I could never pass for true Chinese. I stand five-foot-six, and my head
pokes above the crowd so that I am eye level only with other tourists. My mother once told me my
height came from my grandfather, who was a northerner, and may have even had some Mongol
blood. “This is what your grandmother once told me,” explained my mother. “But now it is too late
to ask her. They are all dead, your grandparents, your uncles, and their wives and children, all
killed in the war, when a bomb fell on our house. So many generations in one instant.”
She had said this so matter-of-factly that I thought she had long since gotten over any grief she
had. And then I wondered how she knew they were all dead.
“Maybe they left the house before the bomb fell,” I suggested.
“No,” said my mother. “Our whole family is gone. It is just you and I.”
“But how do you know? Some of them could have escaped.”
“Cannot be,” said my mother, this time almost angrily. And then her frown was washed over
by a puzzled blank look, and she began to talk as if she were trying to remember where she had
misplaced something. “I went back to that house. I kept looking up to where the house used to be.
And it wasn’t a house, just the sky. And below, underneath my feet, were four stories of burnt
bricks and wood, all the life of our house. Then off to the side I saw things blown into the yard,
nothing valuable. There was a bed someone used to sleep in, really just a metal frame twisted up at
one corner. And a book, I don’t know what kind, because every page had turned black. And I saw
a teacup which was unbroken but filled with ashes. And then I found my doll, with her hands and
legs broken, her hair burned off.…When I was a little girl, I had cried for that doll, seeing it all
alone in the store window, and my mother had bought it for me. It was an American doll with
yellow hair. It could turn its legs and arms. The eyes moved up and down. And when I married and
left my family home, I gave the doll to my youngest niece, because she was like me. She cried if
that doll was not with her always. Do you see? If she was in the house with that doll, her parents
were there, and so everybody was there, waiting together, because that’s how our family was.”
The woman in the customs booth stares at my documents, then glances at me briefly, and with
two quick movements stamps everything and sternly nods me along. And soon my father and I find
ourselves in a large area filled with thousands of people and suitcases. I feel lost and my father
looks helpless.
“Excuse me,” I say to a man who looks like an American. “Can you tell me where I can get a
taxi?” He mumbles something that sounds Swedish or Dutch.
“Syau Yen! Syau Yen!” I hear a piercing voice shout from behind me. An old woman in a
yellow knit beret is holding up a pink plastic bag filled with wrapped trinkets. I guess she is trying
to sell us something. But my father is staring down at this tiny sparrow of a woman, squinting into
her eyes. And then his eyes widen, his face opens up and he smiles like a pleased little boy.
“Aiyi! Aiyi!”—Auntie Auntie!—he says softly.
“Syau Yen!” coos my great-aunt. I think it’s funny she has just called my father “Little Wild
Goose.” It must be his baby milk name, the name used to discourage ghosts from stealing children.
They clasp each other’s hands—they do not hug—and hold on like this, taking turns saying,
“Look at you! You are so old. Look how old you’ve become!” They are both crying openly,
laughing at the same time, and I bite my lip, trying not to cry. I’m afraid to feel their joy. Because I
am thinking how different our arrival in Shanghai will be tomorrow, how awkward it will feel.
Now Aiyi beams and points to a Polaroid picture of my father. My father had wisely sent
pictures when he wrote and said we were coming. See how smart she was, she seems to intone as
she compares the picture to my father. In the letter, my father had said we would call her from the
hotel once we arrived, so this is a surprise, that they’ve come to meet us. I wonder if my sisters
will be at the airport.
It is only then that I remember the camera. I had meant to take a picture of my father and his
aunt the moment they met. It’s not too late.
“Here, stand together over here,” I say, holding up the Polaroid. The camera flashes and I
hand them the snapshot. Aiyi and my father still stand close together, each of them holding a corner
of the picture, watching as their images begin to form. They are almost reverentially quiet. Aiyi is
only five years older than my father, which makes her around seventy-seven. But she looks ancient,
shrunken, a mummified relic. Her thin hair is pure white, her teeth are brown with decay. So much
for stories of Chinese women looking young forever, I think to myself.
Now Aiyi is crooning to me: “Jandale.” So big already. She looks up at me, at my full height,
and then peers into her pink plastic bag—her gifts to us, I have figured out—as if she is wondering
what she will give to me, now that I am so old and big. And then she grabs my elbow with her
sharp pincerlike grasp and turns me around. A man and woman in their fifties are shaking hands
with my father, everybody smiling and saying, “Ah! Ah!” They are Aiyi’s oldest son and his wife,
and standing next to them are four other people, around my age, and a little girl who’s around ten.
The introductions go by so fast, all I know is that one of them is Aiyi’s grandson, with his wife,
and the other is her granddaughter, with her husband. And the little girl is Lili, Aiyi’s greatgranddaughter.
Aiyi and my father speak the Mandarin dialect from their childhood, but the rest of the family
speaks only the Cantonese of their village. I understand only Mandarin but can’t speak it that well.
So Aiyi and my father gossip unrestrained in Mandarin, exchanging news about people from their
old village. And they stop only occasionally to talk to the rest of us, sometimes in Cantonese,
sometimes in English.
“Oh, it is as I suspected,” says my father, turning to me. “He died last summer.” And I already
understood this. I just don’t know who this person, Li Gong, is. I feel as if I were in the United
Nations and the translators had run amok.
“Hello,” I say to the little girl. “My name is Jing-mei.” But the little girl squirms to look
away, causing her parents to laugh with embarrassment. I try to think of Cantonese words I can say
to her, stuff I learned from friends in Chinatown, but all I can think of are swear words, terms for
bodily functions, and short phrases like “tastes good,” “tastes like garbage,” and “she’s really
ugly.” And then I have another plan: I hold up the Polaroid camera, beckoning Lili with my finger.
She immediately jumps forward, places one hand on her hip in the manner of a fashion model, juts
out her chest, and flashes me a toothy smile. As soon as I take the picture she is standing next to
me, jumping and giggling every few seconds as she watches herself appear on the greenish film.
By the time we hail taxis for the ride to the hotel, Lili is holding tight onto my hand, pulling
me along.
In the taxi, Aiyi talks nonstop, so I have no chance to ask her about the different sights we are
passing by.
“You wrote and said you would come only for one day,” says Aiyi to my father in an agitated
tone. “One day! How can you see your family in one day! Toishan is many hours’ drive from
Guangzhou. And this idea to call us when you arrive. This is nonsense. We have no telephone.”
My heart races a little. I wonder if Auntie Lindo told my sisters we would call from the hotel
in Shanghai?
Aiyi continues to scold my father. “I was so beside myself, ask my son, almost turned heaven
and earth upside down trying to think of a way! So we decided the best was for us to take the bus
from Toishan and come into Guangzhou—meet you right from the start.”
And now I am holding my breath as the taxi driver dodges between trucks and buses, honking
his horn constantly. We seem to be on some sort of long freeway overpass, like a bridge above the
city. I can see row after row of apartments, each floor cluttered with laundry hanging out to dry on
the balcony. We pass a public bus, with people jammed in so tight their faces are nearly wedged
against the window. Then I see the skyline of what must be downtown Guangzhou. From a
distance, it looks like a major American city, with highrises and construction going on everywhere.
As we slow down in the more congested part of the city, I see scores of little shops, dark inside,
lined with counters and shelves. And then there is a building, its front laced with scaffolding made
of bamboo poles held together with plastic strips. Men and women are standing on narrow
platforms, scraping the sides, working without safety straps or helmets. Oh, would OSHA have a
field day here, I think.
Aiyi’s shrill voice rises up again: “So it is a shame you can’t see our village, our house. My
sons have been quite successful, selling our vegetables in the free market. We had enough these
last few years to build a big house, three stories, all of new brick, big enough for our whole family
and then some. And every year, the money is even better. You Americans aren’t the only ones who
know how to get rich!”
The taxi stops and I assume we’ve arrived, but then I peer out at what looks like a grander
version of the Hyatt Regency. “This is communist China?” I wonder out loud. And then I shake my
head toward my father. “This must be the wrong hotel.” I quickly pull out our itinerary, travel
tickets, and reservations. I had explicitly instructed my travel agent to choose something
inexpensive, in the thirty-to-forty-dollar range. I’m sure of this. And there it says on our itinerary:
Garden Hotel, Huanshi Dong Lu. Well, our travel agent had better be prepared to eat the extra,
that’s all I have to say.
The hotel is magnificent. A bellboy complete with uniform and sharp-creased cap jumps
forward and begins to carry our bags into the lobby. Inside, the hotel looks like an orgy of
shopping arcades and restaurants all encased in granite and glass. And rather than be impressed, I
am worried about the expense, as well as the appearance it must give Aiyi, that we rich Americans
cannot be without our luxuries even for one night.
But when I step up to the reservation desk, ready to haggle over this booking mistake, it is
confirmed. Our rooms are prepaid, thirty-four dollars each. I feel sheepish, and Aiyi and the others
seem delighted by our temporary surroundings. Lili is looking wide-eyed at an arcade filled with
video games.
Our whole family crowds into one elevator, and the bellboy waves, saying he will meet us on
the eighteenth floor. As soon as the elevator door shuts, everybody becomes very quiet, and when
the door finally opens again, everybody talks at once in what sounds like relieved voices. I have
the feeling Aiyi and the others have never been on such a long elevator ride.
Our rooms are next to each other and are identical. The rugs, drapes, bedspreads are all in
shades of taupe. There’s a color television with remote-control panels built into the lamp table
between the two twin beds. The bathroom has marble walls and floors. I find a built-in wet bar
with a small refrigerator stocked with Heineken beer, Coke Classic, and Seven-Up, mini-bottles of
Johnnie Walker Red, Bacardi rum, and Smirnoff vodka, and packets of M & M’s, honey-roasted
cashews, and Cadbury chocolate bars. And again I say out loud, “This is communist China?”
My father comes into my room. “They decided we should just stay here and visit,” he says,
shrugging his shoulders. “They say, Less trouble that way. More time to talk.”
“What about dinner?” I ask. I have been envisioning my first real Chinese feast for many days
already, a big banquet with one of those soups steaming out of a carved winter melon, chicken
wrapped in clay, Peking duck, the works.
My father walks over and picks up a room service book next to a Travel & Leisure magazine.
He flips through the pages quickly and then points to the menu. “This is what they want,” says my
So it’s decided. We are going to dine tonight in our rooms, with our family, sharing
hamburgers, french fries, and apple pie à la mode.
Aiyi and her family are browsing the shops while we clean up. After a hot ride on the train,
I’m eager for a shower and cooler clothes.
The hotel has provided little packets of shampoo which, upon opening, I discover is the
consistency and color of hoisin sauce. This is more like it, I think. This is China. And I rub some in
my damp hair.
Standing in the shower, I realize this is the first time I’ve been by myself in what seems like
days. But instead of feeling relieved, I feel forlorn. I think about what my mother said, about
activating my genes and becoming Chinese. And I wonder what she meant.
Right after my mother died, I asked myself a lot of things, things that couldn’t be answered, to
force myself to grieve more. It seemed as if I wanted to sustain my grief, to assure myself that I had
cared deeply enough.
But now I ask the questions mostly because I want to know the answers. What was that pork
stuff she used to make that had the texture of sawdust? What were the names of the uncles who died
in Shanghai? What had she dreamt all these years about her other daughters? All the times when
she got mad at me, was she really thinking about them? Did she wish I were they? Did she regret
that I wasn’t?
At one o’clock in the morning, I awake to tapping sounds on the window. I must have dozed off
and now I feel my body uncramping itself. I’m sitting on the floor, leaning against one of the twin
beds. Lili is lying next to me. The others are asleep, too, sprawled out on the beds and floor. Aiyi
is seated at a little table, looking very sleepy. And my father is staring out the window, tapping his
fingers on the glass. The last time I listened my father was telling Aiyi about his life since he last
saw her. How he had gone to Yenching University, later got a post with a newspaper in Chungking,
met my mother there, a young widow. How they later fled together to Shanghai to try to find my
mother’s family house, but there was nothing there. And then they traveled eventually to Canton
and then to Hong Kong, then Haiphong and finally to San Francisco.…
“Suyuan didn’t tell me she was trying all these years to find her daughters,” he is now saying
in a quiet voice. “Naturally, I did not discuss her daughters with her. I thought she was ashamed
she had left them behind.”
“Where did she leave them?” asks Aiyi. “How were they found?”
I am wide awake now. Although I have heard parts of this story from my mother’s friends.
“It happened when the Japanese took over Kweilin,” says my father.
“Japanese in Kweilin?” says Aiyi. “That was never the case. Couldn’t be. The Japanese
never came to Kweilin.”
“Yes, that is what the newspapers reported. I know this because I was working for the news
bureau at the time. The Kuomintang often told us what we could say and could not say. But we
knew the Japanese had come into Kwangsi Province. We had sources who told us how they had
captured the Wuchang-Canton railway. How they were coming overland, making very fast
progress, marching toward the provincial capital.”
Aiyi looks astonished. “If people did not know this, how could Suyuan know the Japanese
were coming?”
“An officer of the Kuomintang secretly warned her,” explains my father. “Suyuan’s husband
also was an officer and everybody knew that officers and their families would be the first to be
killed. So she gathered a few possessions and, in the middle of the night, she picked up her
daughters and fled on foot. The babies were not even one year old.”
“How could she give up those babies!” sighs Aiyi. “Twin girls. We have never had such luck
in our family.” And then she yawns again.
“What were they named?” she asks. I listen carefully. I had been planning on using just the
familiar “Sister” to address them both. But now I want to know how to pronounce their names.
“They have their father’s surname, Wang,” says my father. “And their given names are Chwun
Yu and Chwun Hwa.”
“What do the names mean?” I ask.
“Ah.” My father draws imaginary characters on the window. “One means ‘Spring Rain,’ the
other ‘Spring Flower,’ ” he explains in English, “because they born in the spring, and of course
rain come before flower, same order these girls are born. Your mother like a poet, don’t you
I nod my head. I see Aiyi nod her head forward, too. But it falls forward and stays there. She
is breathing deeply, noisily. She is asleep.
“And what does Ma’s name mean?” I whisper.
“ ‘Suyuan,’ ” he says, writing more invisible characters on the glass. “The way she write it in
Chinese, it mean ‘Long-Cherished Wish.’ Quite a fancy name, not so ordinary like flower name.
See this first character, it mean something like ‘Forever Never Forgotten.’ But there is another way
to write ‘Suyuan.’ Sound exactly the same, but the meaning is opposite.” His finger creates the
brushstrokes of another character. “The first part look the same: ‘Never Forgotten.’ But the last
part add to first part make the whole word mean ‘Long-Held Grudge.’ Your mother get angry with
me, I tell her her name should be Grudge.”
My father is looking at me, moist-eyed. “See, I pretty clever, too, hah?”
I nod, wishing I could find some way to comfort him. “And what about my name,” I ask,
“what does ‘Jing-mei’ mean?”
“Your name also special,” he says. I wonder if any name in Chinese is not something special.
“‘Jing’ like excellent jing. Not just good, it’s something pure, essential, the best quality. Jing is
good leftover stuff when you take impurities out of something like gold, or rice, or salt. So what is
left—just pure essence. And ‘Mei,’ this is common mei, as in meimei, ‘younger sister.’ ”
I think about this. My mother’s long-cherished wish. Me, the younger sister who was
supposed to be the essence of the others. I feed myself with the old grief, wondering how
disappointed my mother must have been. Tiny Aiyi stirs suddenly, her head rolls and then falls
back, her mouth opens as if to answer my question. She grunts in her sleep, tucking her body more
closely into the chair.
“So why did she abandon those babies on the road?” I need to know, because now I feel
abandoned too.
“Long time I wondered this myself,” says my father. “But then I read that letter from her
daughters in Shanghai now, and I talk to Auntie Lindo, all the others. And then I knew. No shame in
what she done. None.”
“What happened?”
“Your mother running away—” begins my father.
“No, tell me in Chinese,” I interrupt. “Really, I can understand.”
He begins to talk, still standing at the window, looking into the night.
After fleeing Kweilin, your mother walked for several days trying to find a main road. Her thought
was to catch a ride on a truck or wagon, to catch enough rides until she reached Chungking, where
her husband was stationed.
She had sewn money and jewelry into the lining of her dress, enough, she thought, to barter
rides all the way. If I am lucky, she thought, I will not have to trade the heavy gold bracelet and
jade ring. These were things from her mother, your grandmother.
By the third day, she had traded nothing. The roads were filled with people, everybody
running and begging for rides from passing trucks. The trucks rushed by, afraid to stop. So your
mother found no rides, only the start of dysentery pains in her stomach.
Her shoulders ached from the two babies swinging from scarf slings. Blisters grew on her
palms from holding two leather suitcases. And then the blisters burst and began to bleed. After a
while, she left the suitcases behind, keeping only the food and a few clothes. And later she also
dropped the bags of wheat flour and rice and kept walking like this for many miles, singing songs
to her little girls, until she was delirious with pain and fever.
Finally, there was not one more step left in her body. She didn’t have the strength to carry
those babies any farther. She slumped to the ground. She knew she would die of her sickness, or
perhaps from thirst, from starvation, or from the Japanese, who she was sure were marching right
behind her.
She took the babies out of the slings and sat them on the side of the road, then lay down next
to them. You babies are so good, she said, so quiet. They smiled back, reaching their chubby hands
for her, wanting to be picked up again. And then she knew she could not bear to watch her babies
die with her.
She saw a family with three young children in a cart going by. “Take my babies, I beg you,”
she cried to them. But they stared back with empty eyes and never stopped.
She saw another person pass and called out again. This time a man turned around, and he had
such a terrible expression—your mother said it looked like death itself—she shivered and looked
When the road grew quiet, she tore open the lining of her dress, and stuffed jewelry under the
shirt of one baby and money under the other. She reached into her pocket and drew out the photos
of her family, the picture of her father and mother, the picture of herself and her husband on their
wedding day. And she wrote on the back of each the names of the babies and this same message:
“Please care for these babies with the money and valuables provided. When it is safe to come, if
you bring them to Shanghai, 9 Weichang Lu, the Li family will be glad to give you a generous
reward. Li Suyuan and Wang Fuchi.”
And then she touched each baby’s cheek and told her not to cry. She would go down the road
to find them some food and would be back. And without looking back, she walked down the road,
stumbling and crying, thinking only of this one last hope, that her daughters would be found by a
kindhearted person who would care for them. She would not allow herself to imagine anything
She did not remember how far she walked, which direction she went, when she fainted, or
how she was found. When she awoke, she was in the back of a bouncing truck with several other
sick people, all moaning. And she began to scream, thinking she was now on a journey to Buddhist
hell. But the fact of an American missionary lady bent over her and smiled, talking to her in a
soothing language she did not understand. And yet she could somehow understand. She had been
saved for no good reason, and it was now too late to go back and save her babies.
When she arrived in Chungking, she learned her husband had died two weeks before. She told
me later she laughed when the officers told her this news, she was so delirious with madness and
disease. To come so far, to lose so much and to find nothing.
I met her in a hospital. She was lying on a cot, hardly able to move, her dysentery had drained
her so thin. I had come in for my foot, my missing toe, which was cut off by a piece of falling
rubble. She was talking to herself, mumbling.
“Look at these clothes,” she said, and I saw she had on a rather unusual dress for wartime. It
was silk satin, quite dirty, but there was no doubt it was a beautiful dress.
“Look at this face,” she said, and I saw her dusty face and hollow cheeks, her eyes shining
back. “Do you see my foolish hope?”
“I thought I had lost everything, except these two things,” she murmured. “And I wondered
which I would lose next. Clothes or hope? Hope or clothes?”
“But now, see here, look what is happening,” she said, laughing, as if all her prayers had been
answered. And she was pulling hair out of her head as easily as one lifts new wheat from wet soil.
It was an old peasant woman who found them. “How could I resist?” the peasant woman later
told your sisters when they were older. They were still sitting obediently near where your mother
had left them, looking like little fairy queens waiting for their sedan to arrive.
The woman, Mei Ching, and her husband, Mei Han, lived in a stone cave. There were
thousands of hidden caves like that in and around Kweilin so secret that the people remained
hidden even after the war ended. The Meis would come out of their cave every few days and
forage for food supplies left on the road, and sometimes they would see something that they both
agreed was a tragedy to leave behind. So one day they took back to their cave a delicately painted
set of rice bowls, another day a little footstool with a velvet cushion and two new wedding
blankets. And once, it was your sisters.
They were pious people, Muslims, who believed the twin babies were a sign of double luck,
and they were sure of this when, later in the evening, they discovered how valuable the babies
were. She and her husband had never seen rings and bracelets like those. And while they admired
the pictures, knowing the babies came from a good family, neither of them could read or write. It
was not until many months later that Mei Ching found someone who could read the writing on the
back. By then, she loved these baby girls like her own.
In 1952 Mei Han, the husband, died. The twins were already eight years old, and Mei Ching
now decided it was time to find your sisters’ true family.
She showed the girls the picture of their mother and told them they had been born into a great
family and she would take them back to see their true mother and grandparents. Mei Chang told
them about the reward, but she swore she would refuse it. She loved these girls so much, she only
wanted them to have what they were entitled to—a better life, a fine house, educated ways. Maybe
the family would let her stay on as the girls’ amah. Yes, she was certain they would insist.
Of course, when she found the place at 9 Weichang Lu, in the old French Concession, it was
something completely different. It was the site of a factory building, recently constructed, and none
of the workers knew what had become of the family whose house had burned down on that spot.
Mei Ching could not have known, of course, that your mother and I, her new husband, had
already returned to that same place in 1945 in hopes of finding both her family and her daughters.
Your mother and I stayed in China until 1947. We went to many different cities—back to
Kweilin, to Changsha, as far south as Kunming. She was always looking out of one corner of her
eye for twin babies, then little girls. Later we went to Hong Kong, and when we finally left in 1949
for the United States, I think she was even looking for them on the boat. But when we arrived, she
no longer talked about them. I thought, At last, they have died in her heart.
When letters could be openly exchanged between China and the United States, she wrote
immediately to old friends in Shanghai and Kweilin. I did not know she did this. Auntie Lindo told
me. But of course, by then, all the street names had changed. Some people had died, others had
moved away. So it took many years to find a contact. And when she did find an old schoolmate’s
address and wrote asking her to look for her daughters, her friend wrote back and said this was
impossible, like looking for a needle on the bottom of the ocean. How did she know her daughters
were in Shanghai and not somewhere else in China? The friend, of course, did not ask, How do
you know your daughters are still alive?
So her schoolmate did not look. Finding babies lost during the war was a matter of foolish
imagination, and she had no time for that.
But every year, your mother wrote to different people. And this last year, I think she got a big
idea in her head, to go to China and find them herself. I remember she told me, “Canning, we
should go, before it is too late, before we are too old.” And I told her we were already too old, it
was already too late.
I just thought she wanted to be a tourist! I didn’t know she wanted to go and look for her
daughters. So when I said it was too late, that must have put a terrible thought in her head that her
daughters might be dead. And I think this possibility grew bigger and bigger in her head, until it
killed her.
Maybe it was your mother’s dead spirit who guided her Shanghai schoolmate to find her
daughters. Because after your mother died, the schoolmate saw your sisters, by chance, while
shopping for shoes at the Number One Department Store on Nanjing Dong Road. She said it was
like a dream, seeing these two women who looked so much alike, moving down the stairs together.
There was something about their facial expressions that reminded the schoolmate of your mother.
She quickly walked over to them and called their names, which of course, they did not
recognize at first, because Mei Ching had changed their names. But your mother’s friend was so
sure, she persisted. “Are you not Wang Chwun Yu and Wang Chwun Hwa?” she asked them. And
then these double-image women became very excited, because they remembered the names written
on the back of an old photo, a photo of a young man and woman they still honored, as their muchloved first parents, who had died and become spirit ghosts still roaming the earth looking for them.
At the airport, I am exhausted. I could not sleep last night. Aiyi had followed me into my room at
three in the morning, and she instantly fell asleep on one of the twin beds, snoring with the might of
a lumberjack. I lay awake thinking about my mother’s story, realizing how much I have never
known about her, grieving that my sisters and I had both lost her.
And now at the airport, after shaking hands with everybody, waving good-bye, I think about
all the different ways we leave people in this world. Cheerily waving good-bye to some at
airports, knowing we’ll never see each other again. Leaving others on the side of the road, hoping
that we will. Finding my mother in my father’s story and saying good-bye before I have a chance to
know her better.
Aiyi smiles at me as we wait for our gate to be called. She is so old. I put one arm around her
and one arm around Lili. They are the same size, it seems. And then it’s time. As we wave goodbye one more time and enter the waiting area, I get the sense I am going from one funeral to
another. In my hand I’m clutching a pair of tickets to Shanghai. In two hours we’ll be there.
The plane takes off. I close my eyes. How can I describe to them in my broken Chinese about
our mother’s life? Where should I begin?
“Wake up, we’re here,” says my father. And I awake with my heart pounding in my throat. I
look out the window and we’re already on the runway. It’s gray outside.
And now I’m walking down the steps of the plane, onto the tarmac and toward the building. If
only, I think, if only my mother had lived long enough to be the one walking toward them. I am so
nervous I cannot even feel my feet. I am just moving somehow.
Somebody shouts, “She’s arrived!” And then I see her. Her short hair. Her small body. And
that same look on her face. She has the back of her hand pressed hard against her mouth. She is
crying as though she had gone through a terrible ordeal and were happy it is over.
And I know it’s not my mother, yet it is the same look she had when I was five and had
disappeared all afternoon, for such a long time, that she was convinced I was dead. And when I
miraculously appeared, sleepy-eyed, crawling from underneath my bed, she wept and laughed,
biting the back of her hand to make sure it was true.
And now I see her again, two of her, waving, and in one hand there is a photo, the Polaroid I
sent them. As soon as I get beyond the gate, we run toward each other, all three of us embracing,
all hesitations and expectations forgotten.
“Mama, Mama,” we all murmur, as if she is among us.
My sisters look at me, proudly. “Meimei jandale,” says one sister proudly to the other. “Little
Sister has grown up.” I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they
still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family.
It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go.
My sisters and I stand, arms around each other, laughing and wiping the tears from each
other’s eyes. The flash of the Polaroid goes off and my father hands me the snapshot. My sisters
and I watch quietly together, eager to see what develops.
The gray-green surface changes to the bright colors of our three images, sharpening and
deepening all at once. And although we don’t speak, I know we all see it: Together we look like
our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished
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Mục lục
Feathers From a Thousand LI Away
Jing-Mei Woo: The Joy Luck Club
An-Mei Hsu: Scar
Lindo Jong: The Red Candle
Ying-Ying St. Clair: The Moon Lady
The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates
Waverly Jong: Rules of the Game
Lena St. Clair: The Voice from the Wall
Rose Hsu Jordan: Half and Half
Jing-Mei Woo: Two Kinds
American Translation
Lena St. Clair: Rice Husband
Waverly Jong: Four Directions
Rose Hsu Jordan: Without Wood
Jing-Mei Woo: Best Quality
Queen Mother of the Western Skies
An-Mei Hsu: Magpies
Ying-Ying St. Clair: Waiting Between the Trees
Lindo Jong: Double Face
Jing-Mei Woo: A Pair of Tickets
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