Hillsborough, California — 2005
In elementary school, I longed to be full Chinese. I belonged, after all, to an elite clique of Chinese girls. We ruled fifth grade with our calculated indifference, colorful arsenal of gel pens, and our adolescent sense of intellectual superiority.
But I was clearly the black sheep. They had a whole vernacular to which I was not privy, calling each other’s moms “Auntie” and their grandpas “Baba.” At lunchtime, they would all open thermoses full of steaming white rice, heaped with red sausage, fried egg, and scallions. My string cheeses paled in comparison. Sometimes, when they were bored or there was nothing beter to do, my friends would carry on conversations exclusively in Mandarin, often about me. Their unintelligible, syncopated whispers would ebb and flow, always out of reach, until the word Sabrina would disrupt the wave of sound — stark and mocking. At first, I argued, pleaded for them to stop, but this only incited giggles and snorts of a higher intensity. So I stayed quiet and ignored them, coveting what I could not have. On some days, I would stand in front of my mirror and pull back the skin by my eyebrows, smiling. Admiring my new eyes — delicate and tilted like an upturned scythe. My pretty, almond eyes.
When I could eat dinner at my Chinese friends’ houses, their parents would inevitably ask me (demand, really) why did your mom never teach you Chinese? I began to resent her. Because she never enrolled me in Chinese school, because she never forced me to take piano, because she married a white guy.
I was afraid to ask her why she never taught me Mandarin, dancing around the question for years. Every time I neared it, she grew testy and snapped, changing the subject, never giving me a real answer. Three years ago, I asked her again. The static of her phone faded out into silence for a moment as she thought. The intangibility of the radio waves connecting us had never been more apparent.
“In hindsight I probably should have,” she finally said, the sharp crack of her voice breaking the silence. “But I didn’t want anyone to think my kids weren’t American.”
Taipei, Taiwan — 2012
Two summers ago, I went to Taiwan for the first time, with my mom and my grandparents. When I left the crisp air-conditioning of the airport, the blistering heat and swarms of Taiwanese shouting, bartering, and crying in Mandarin was a hard welcome. Everywhere I looked, I saw squat toilets and fish heads. Taiwan’s stifling 98-degree weather meant that, everywhere I looked, even if I couldn’t immediately see them, I also smelled squat toilets and fish heads.
My grandma’s family invited us to a banquet on our first night there, as is custom in Taiwan. We had a private banquet room. Golden dragons prowled over the upholstered chairs and the cherry-red carpet. Globed chandeliers hung from the ceiling like ripe tangerines, glinting gently and gaudily. Shelves full of simple white plates, bowls, teacups, teapots, and chopstick holders lined the walls in uniform, ceramic multitudes.My elderly Chinese relatives swarmed around me in slow motion, their padded sneakers and walking sticks gently drumming the ground. They were indistinguishably attired in plaid and tweed. They are all shrunken to pre-pubescent height and all have constellations of liver spots like stars across their faces. I knew none of them, and none of them spoke any English.
Throughout most of the dinner, I was content to investigate the strange and wonderful foods placed before me — crackling three-layer pork, the undulating warts of bitter melon, fish heads galore — whilst my family chattered in Chinese. Occasionally my name would come up and, like clockwork, I would smile, nod, and say something along the lines of, “I study very hard.” Then I would continue eating, their conversation drumming gently on.
Midway through the sixth course, I heard a word, an English word. Christine? I ask, Christine who? I asked, overhearing this one English name in a sea of Mandarin. The entire table shook their heads. My grandmother coughed on her shrimp ball. A wizened old man, most likely a great-uncle or something, threw his napkin at me with a shout from across the table, his wispy white beard drooping into his soup. His words were met with more nodding and grunts of corroboration.
“Just drop it,” my mom hissed. She threw her napkin on the table, where it fell like a crumpled swan.
Later that night my mom told me that my great-grandmother bore four girls — Evelyn (my grandmother), Frances, Christine, and Elsie. When Christine came, my great-grandmother despised her. Another girl, she would moan, pushing the baby away to a wet nurse for her first month. Christine cried constantly, and so my great-grandmother griped about her crippling headaches and pushed Christine on to the wet nurse for a couple more months. When Christine grew to six months, the wet nurse requested to take time off to visit her family in the countryside, offering to take Christine so my great-grandmother would not have to care for her. When they returned, Christine could not acclimate. She was terrified of my great-grandmother and fussed all the time. Endlessly superstitious, my great-grandmother became convinced that this returned Christine was not her daughter, that Christine had died during her time in the countryside, that this new baby was an imposter, a fake. She sent Christine away to another family, content with her three good daughters. This was not unusual, she told me. This was not unusual back then.
Hancock, Michigan — 1976
My mom was born in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1962. As my mom remembers it, Taipei was a city of squat toilets and fish heads, everywhere you looked and everywhere you smelled. Air-conditioning was still rare on the subtropical island, but Taiwan’s summers bundled you up in a steaming hot towel soaked with grease and pollution. My grandma forced my mom to wear a hat every time she went outside, pursing her lips when my mom would return with slightly golden skin. “Bah!” she would cluck. “The only people darker than you are peasants.”
My grandpa worked as a naval architect and drank himself asleep on most nights. My grandma worked as a flight attendant on Trans-world Airlines, Panam’s rival at the time, and spoke relatively fluent English, but my mom did not care to learn. Exasperated by Taiwanese schools’ penchant for rote memorization and teachers who rapped her knuckles for reasons she claimed to be frivolous, my mom was not the most driven student. But in the summer after seventh grade, when my grandparents asked my mom if she wanted to go to school in the U.S. (in Michigan, how exotic!), my mom said yes.
Hancock, Michigan sits on the tip of Lake Superior. If you stand out on the edge of the lake and look across, you can see Canada. The second snowiest city in America, Hancock averages 211.7 inches per year. It has been known to snow in June. Hancock is also nearly entirely populated by Finns. Each year, Hancock hosts a festival called Heikinpäivä to celebrate Saint Henrik, the patron saint of Finland, and Heikki Lunta, the Finnish god of snow. Hancock, where everyone was tall, pale, and blonde. Where everyone owned a farm. Where everyone had a sauna and ate strawberry rhubarb pie. My mom — with her jet black bowl cut and her five-foot clean stature — was indeed a curiosity.
She stayed with her Aunt Elsie, one of my grandma’s several kooky sisters. Aunt Elsie could have easily passed as a gaunt, Asian Cher. Long and lithe like a chrysanthemum petal, she wore her inky mop of hair straight down her back. Costume jewelry the size of beetles dripped from her spindly fingers. Aunt Elsie worked as a psychologist, a profession my mom attributes as the cause of her kookiness. Her husband, a university professor, died before my mom arrived in Michigan. Elsie was polite, but not warm.
The day after her flight landed, my mom had her first day at Hancock High School. A beautiful brick building, Hancock High embodied the quintessential American high school you see in movies — rows and rows of lockers and smiling, white teenagers carrying bookbags and talking about sports. Hancock only had one other Asian student, the half-Korean son of a war vet. He was several grades above than my mom, and they avoided each other to fit in.
When I asked my mom to recall her first day at Hancock, I expected revelation. I expected a drawn-out story of painful first impressions, alienation, and eating alone in the bathroom. But she remembers next to nothing. In fact, she only has sparse memories of the entire year. She does remember vowing to herself, I am going to seal myself so I do not cry. And for that day and the rest of the year, my mom never cried.
To learn English, my mom worked with a special education teacher, Mrs. Linda Rulison. Mrs. Rulison, like everyone else, was tall and blonde and pale and Finnish. My mom had a special period each day to work with Mrs. Rulison to improve her English. Mrs. Rulison’s office was a haven for my mom, a safe place in a landscape of Fins and hockey. On weekends, my mom would often stay with Mrs. Rulison and her husband Lars, a burly Nordic fellow with long blonde hair and a long blonde beard. They would plant carrots and potatoes and use their sauna. And every night at home, my mom labored over a workbook from Taiwan that helped her learn English.
Two to three months into the school year, my mom could carry on rudimentary conversations with other students. Halfway through the year, she felt conversant. But making friends was frustrating. While most students were nice, many befriended my mom solely because she was “exotic,” and many more teased her. So she did everything she could to be utterly ordinary.
“I did not want to stand out,” she said. “I did not want to be one iota different.”
That year, overalls were the hippest thing at Hancock High. Everyone who was anyone wore Copper Rivet blue jean overalls. My mom could only buy one pair — rust-colored and corduroy — just because they were on sale. She wore them even in the winter. Most kids in Hancock took the bus each day, but not my mom. She walked half an hour each morning in the nippy Michigan air because Jean Coon would pick on my mom on the bus, pulling my mom’s hat down and “doing weird shit to me,” my mom remembers. She returned to visit Taiwan once, during her first year in Michigan, but she had no desire to go back.
In my mom’s junior year of high school, my grandparents and my uncle finally joined her in America. My Uncle Dan — my mom’s brother — entered sixth grade that year and spoke hardly any English. One day the phone rang, but Dan was too scared and unsure of his English to answer it. My mom yelled at him and called him a coward until he answered. She made a conscious decision to stop speaking Chinese, and, in her eyes, she succeeded.
Today, my mom dislikes the Far East. In her own words, “No. I’m sorry. It does not appeal to me.” She does not like being associated with China or Taiwan and often harps about the white men who took her on dates in college because they hoped she would be exotic or submissive.
Today, my mom does not cook Chinese food. When my grandma speaks to her in Mandarin or calls her by her Chinese name, my mom will answer in English.
Today, my mom’s Mandarin is arrested at a sixth grade level. When I asked her if she regrets not keeping up with it, she cut me off over the phone, defensive: “I feel American.”
Today, my mom thinks in and speaks fluent English. She swears she still has an accent, but it’s imperceptible to everyone but her.
Soochow, China — 1945
My mom’s parents were born in China, but they fled to Taiwan when the Japanese invaded. Their armies moved systematically throughout China, massacring prisoners of war and civilians in multitudes that would exceed 10.2 million over the course of the war. These casualties hit closer and closer to my grandparents’ home until they had no choice but to flee. My grandma and my grandpa were homeless for months, living in constant fear of death by the hands of the Japanese.
At the time, my grandma lived with her younger brother and sister and their bedridden Grandmother. My grandma had never seen Grandmother walk or even leave her tiny, dark room — the musty curtains perpetually half-drawn. A heavy odor prowled the walls of Grandmother’s room, an unfamiliar smell not of candies, chocolates, fruits or nuts, or even my grandma’s mother’s perfume, she remembers. When my grandma was seven years old, each day after school she would sit on a little stool besides Grandmother, holding her small fists tightly, and gently pound Grandmother’s legs, alternating from leg to leg until she fell asleep. Only after Grandmother died did my grandma learn she was addicted to opium.
When Japan marched through China, my grandma remembers the cacophony of their shouts rushing like a tidal wave through her village, enveloping her and my grandfather and their parents and their cousins in an angry ocean of unfamiliar, Japanese sounds. She felt isolated — an alien in this, her homeland.
When the Japanese breached her village, my grandma, her siblings, and her mother hitchhiked for months, away from Japanese-occupied land to free China. Trekking from one remote mountain village to another, they bribed postal drivers to stowaway on their trucks, lodged between giant, creaking postal crates and the truck’s guard rails. My grandma remembers clinging to the rails and the thick, unraveling ropes binding the crates together until rust covered her like dandruff and her fingers bled. The trucks whizzed from mountain to mountain on treacherous roads as slender and winding as unspooled thread. The elements lashed out — blinding sun followed by frigid sleet and wind, making all conversation impossible. My grandma could only cling to her tethers, listening to the crackling babble of the truck’s Japanese drivers watching the truck half a mile ahead that held her brother.
One day my grandma dozed off on the truck, waking to screams and shouts and cries that pierced the mountain air like arrows. Rubbing the sand from her eyes, she could just see a postal caravan tipping off the edge of the mountain. It seemed to hang on the edge of the mountain deliberately, swaying with each gust of wind, until it plummeted down the crags, bouncing and crashing as the rocks stripped away its timbers and wheels and rivets and tarp and passengers — tiny human pinwheels that sprung from the truck like jumping beans. Only the next day did my grandma discover her brother was not in the fallen truck.
In the time leading up to their flight, they wore leather thong necklaces from which tiny capsules of cyanide hung like crystal teardrops. Barely the size of a pea, the glass capsules were shielded by a thin coat of brown rubber and hung low beneath my grandparents’ shirts, resting against their hearts. If captured by the Japanese, my grandparents were to bite down on the glass vials, which would shatter upon impact. The cyanide would sprint through the pulpy gashes in their gums and into their bloodstream, blocking their bodies’ oxygen intake until, convulsing and gasping for air, my grandparents would die.
“Just in case,” my grandma tells me, almost as an addendum. She has been dicing leeks all this time, her tears mingling with the young green stalks of the vegetable. After placing the cleaver on the counter with a tremor, she sits with me, her spindly legs tucked into each other beneath her terry bathrobe, the brocade faded to loose thread. She smiles at me and takes my hand, gripping it tightly until the blues and purples of her veins bloom. “Grandma so happy,” she says, softly, sweetly. “So happy to be here with you.”