BITTERSWEET: MOM’S STORY

by Storyteller Nancy Wang

Story Summary:

 Many of us have ambivalent relationships with our mothers. In this story, Nancy dives into that ambivalence trying to understand what has been so difficult about it and why.  Her journey is colored by the differences between Chinese and Western values and behaviors making it even more difficult to understand. But in the end, there is a final discovery that brings peace, love and reconciliation with her Chinese mom.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Bittersweet

Discussion Question:

  1. What are your ambivalent feelings toward your mom? Does she know about it?  What would it take for you to sit down with your mom and have a talk with how you feel? What would be scary or uncomfortable about it? Are any of your challenges because of ethnic or generational or some other cultural difference?
  2. Have you ever seen your mother cry? Do you know why she was crying? Was it surprising to you and, if so, why?
  3. Can you imagine your mother as a child? a teenager? What do you think she was like when she was your age? Would she be a friend of yours?
  4.  Have you ever sat with your mother and asked her to tell you about one of the most wonderful moments in her life? or the saddest? or one that changed her life?   What would your relationship with her be like if you began to hear her stories?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Bullying
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

“Mama, mama, mama,” a universal and sacred sound. And then there’s, “Mom! Mother. Mama. Mom, mom,” also universal and a shared sound with memories. Like when I was 10 years old weaving through crowds on State Street in Chicago trying to keep up with my mother. If I didn’t keep my eye on her, I’d be lost. And would she even notice? And another time, I was walking down the street with my mom to the bus stop and I was walking around a wooden crate. “Oh, Mom it was a nail! It’s bleeding! Mom, it’s bleeding!”

“Bènzhuō, clumsy! Now look what you’ve done! Now I gonna have a scar!” And you’re like, why was my mother like that? Because she wasn’t always like that, although it certainly seemed like it. And not just when I was a child, when she came to live with me, when she was 91 years old, she had shrunk from five foot two to a compact four foot nine inches. But it did not shrink at all. Her complaints and her disapproving scowls. So, what was, what was, why was she like that? I still didn’t understand that.
And for six years it would be, “This is not hot enough. This is not cold enough.” It never stopped. And then in that sixth year, one day it was already dark, and my mother was not answering the phone so I rushed downstairs and her whole apartment was dark. And then I saw her standing in the shadows by the ironing board, dazed and confused. So, I asked her what’s wrong and she said, “Cold. I can’t get warm.”

So, I made a hot bath for her. And when she was warmed up, I got her back dressed up and I took her to emergency. And as we were waiting for the doctor, she sat there staring into space. And I asked her, “What are you thinking about, Mom?”

“Oh, about what a happy childhood I had.” I near… I nearly fell off my chair because she, all I had heard was how horrible her, her childhood was in Chicago. And then a smile spread across her face. “When we were young, our family went to Paw Paw Lake every summer. And we’d all walk out to the middle of the lake and the water would still only be at our waist. And we would collect the frogs and the turtles and have races. And I remember running down two rows of corn stalks. My mom and dad holding hands.”
“Wow! What had happened?”

And when we found out that she had had a heart attack and 20 percent of her heart muscle had died, I wondered if that 20 percent held all her anger and bitterness because after that she was a changed person. She was nice. She was kind. She was soft. She was funny. And she said thank you a lot, which she had never done before. Now, I had heard stories from all these other relatives but I’d never thought about sitting down and asking my mother about her own life. And then she died.

I had all these questions. But it was too late. I started going through all her things, her boxes of papers and photos, and, and all her recollections… Well she had collections of antiques, and miniatures, and too many Chinese fans, and I mean, you name it, she had it. And I even found a list of all the things she valued in my father who she had always complained about my entire life. Who was this woman? So, it was like I had a box of puzzles without knowing what the picture was. And I had to examine each puzzle piece and see how it fit. And maybe then, I would know this woman, not just my mother, but who this woman was.

Well, I had had… I had heard stories from my grandmother. And my grandmother told me that when she was 16 she was married to a man 26 years old all the way in Chicago. And we were in San Francisco at that time. She would have to marry a stranger and travel all that way with… with a stranger? All she cared about was, was he kind. Well, turned out he was kind. And he was handsome and not only that, he was a very, very successful merchant in Chicago. And in time he began, in 1905, to have this amazing restaurant called, “The Mandarin Inn.” He didn’t locate it in Chinatown but he located it downtown Chicago, near the opera house. It had four floors. The top floor was the kitchen, then the Chinese food, then the American food, and in the bottom basement was the food storage. And he always wore this black tuxedo, white starch shirt, black bow tie, and had it finished off with black patent leather shoes. And he drank and he smoked cigars with all his upper class Euro-American clientele so that he could charm them back over and over again. And that charm was not wasted on my grandmother either because not only did she raise her own seven children but he convinced her to raise his daughter from a first marriage and three of his nephews. Well, she must’ve charmed him back because they also raised her four younger sibs when her mother died. Altogether, my grandmother raised 14 children starting at the age of 17.

Well, my grandfather was very generous with everyone. In fact, I saw a old article in the newspaper about my grandfather saying that he felt that any upstanding citizen had the right to live anywhere he wanted to, no matter what his race. And with the help of newspaper reporter friends, they started a public relations. And soon my grandfather moved his entire family out of Chinatown, into a very fashionable all white neighborhood in Southside Chicago. It was a mansion; three stories and a historical one at that.

And now, that’s the kind of background that my mother was born into. She was born in 1911 and she always told me that her mother didn’t like her. Because her mother had coughed up blood the entire time she was pregnant with my mother, as it was her fault, she’d say. But my mother was also number two daughter. And in China’s culture, that’s not such a fortunate position. You have your number one son, your number one daughter, but another daughter…mm, mmm…you’re supposed to have another son. “Well, my mother said, “Why else would she treat me this way? I mean, I was always the babysitter and I was the only one to do the chores.”

Well, she lit up, however, when she talked about her dad. She told me she was the one that ran to the chicken coop every morning to get an egg, so her father could eat it raw. And after every dance class, she would run to her father’s restaurant, The Mandarin Inn, which was on the same block, and she would dance for him and then order her favorite meal, roast beef. He would sit right next to her and she… everyone called her Roast Beef Gladys. She really loved her dad.

And then one day I think, for perfectly good reasons, my grandfather decided that the entire family should move to Ch… to China for their cultural education. So, they sold their mansion and everything in it. Everyone was dispersed in the homes of different friends. They would take the train to the West Coast, visit Monterey family, and then off they’d go on a steamer to China. “At least Dad had it… certainly was going to leave them at the train station to say goodbye.” But instead that night the phone rang. “Accident?! Restaurant?!” Her father was dead.

My grandmother accused her own brother of pushing her husband down the elevator shaft. But my Uncle Eugene said, “No that’s not what happened!”

It was hot, it was raining really hard that day, and all homes in Chicago flood, restaurants too. He was downstairs, picking up the produce from the water, but the dumbwaiter was stuck. And my grandfather, he said, was up at the kitchen height, pulling on the rope, trying to get it unstuck. And then suddenly, he plunged to his death. The rope broke, or was it his patent leather shoes that slipped? Or was it the Tong, the Chinese Mafia that pushed him? We’ll never know. It was 1923 and my mother 12 years old.
Now, because now there were limited funds, only my mother and my mother’s older sister were sent back to China for their cultural education. And when they got to Canton, China they were placed in kindergarten because they didn’t know enough Cantonese. “Ha!” my mother said. “Can you imagine teenagers sitting with kindergartners? They laughed at us. They didn’t even think we were Chinese.”

But they did master Cantonese. And then when they were old enough, they went on to the University of Beijing. And now they had to learn Mandarin. They were always called, “The Americans.” my mother said.

Well, this is when my mother must have blossomed because what a thrill it must have been for her to discover what a great athlete she was. She competed for the university in tennis, volleyball, track, baseball, shotput, broad jump. And she, I heard, was one of the top 10 athletes in China at the time. Country of billions and she was top 10. She won scores of medals but I swear her favorite medal was her finger. “See this knob-knuckle here? I was playing volleyball and it snapped back. All they did was slap it back up and they put me right back in the game. Oh, they don’t do that today. You get hurt, they take you right out of the game. Oh, but back then you had to be tough, like me, tough.” That was her mantra. Tough!

Well, when she was 26 – 14 years on her own in China, away from her family, she was called back to Chicago for a family reunion, but she intended on going back to China. Only she met my dad, and that was the end of that plan. My father had just been promoted to Consulate General of China and was assigned to New Orleans. Now, he became very busy. I mean, my mother used to complain that, “Your father, first came the community, then came you kids, and then me.” So, while my father was doing all these wonderful things in the community, not only in New Orleans, but later when we moved to Chicago, continued to do that in Chinatown, my mother was doing everything else. She was the nanny. She was the cook. She was chauffeur. She was the cook. She was the recreation director, the medical social worker. She was the bookkeeper for the family. She did everything. While my father was being awarded by the entire city of Chicago, our family didn’t even appreciate my mother. Now we’ve all heard that behind every great man is a great woman but recently a puzzle piece came to me. I was told that behind every great man is a lonely woman; my mother was lonely. Because going through her things I found, I found photo albums of my mother when she was in China. There were pictures of her laughing with friends, on a horse, on a bicycle, on a camel. She had gone with her friends to Mongolia to convince the Mongolian Prince to not collaborate with the invading Japanese Army. My mother was a student activist.

Well, now I began to understand something about my mother. Because, you know… this is the thing that really clinched it. I gonna read it to you. There was a note I found that my mother wrote.

“Today’s the last day of 2007 in San Francisco, the birthplace of my mother, Yoklind. Living independently in a first-floor apartment has been great, as I manage my life as I please. I go to bed whenever I want and I rise whenever I want. I’ll go out and shop at Thrift Town, 20th and Mission, and look and shop. And if I find anything interesting, which I always do, I may go on to the grocery shops if necessary. Nothing like buying something. And then my cart gets full. I do enjoy my freedom to do as I wish. All I want is to maintain my independence and mobility.”

Independence and mobility like she had had in China, which she had totally given up for my father and for us kids. Independence and mobility.

Mom… I wish I could tell her this now. How much I thank her for her life. How much she gave to us even when she was bitter. And that finally, how wonderful it was for her to find sweetness in her life. It was…I, I just want to say that we never know our mothers. And let’s not wait till it’s too late. Because now… Mom… I’m so grateful and I miss you.

IMMIGRANT STORY

By Storyteller Nancy Wang

 

Story Summary:

 This story follows the journey of Nancy Wang’s ancestors who arrived in California on a junk boat in 1850 and started the fishing industry of the Monterey Peninsula. However, both legal and illegal violence ensued against them for generations. This story reveals how a group of immigrants rallied with resilience and ingenuity so that the 7th generation of Chinese Americans thrives today.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Immigrant-Story-A-Chinese-Family-in-the-U.S.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  1.Why is it important for Nancy to read about her family in a book? What does that book represent?
  2. The family originally emigrated from China for what reasons? And did they accomplish what they set out to do? Were there differences of opinion within the family toward their former and present country?
  3. What was a Celestial? Why were the Chinese given that name? By using the term Celestial, how/why does this separate the Chinese? Were the Chinese different from other settlers moving into California? How?

Resource:

  • The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by Iris Chang

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Immigration
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

1850, a hundred and sixty years ago, my great, great grandmother So Mui and my great-great grandfather Quock Po, like most of China, had heard about the gold rush in California. But they’d also heard about the anti-Chinese, unprovoked violence in California but China was plagued by famine, earthquakes, floods, droughts, civil unrest. So, there was very little to lose leaving China. And so, my great-great grandparents So Mui and Quock Po, who were married and just teenagers, with four other teenagers, would take a 30 foot chungs (a junk boat, a Chinese sailboat) across the Pacific, from the Delta River region in China all the way to California. Hugs and tears, family charms, a small red altar with incense, were given to the teens because, who knew when or if they’d ever see them again.

The voyage to this unknown would be four months, maybe five more months at the most if they were lucky.  And they were lucky until they got to the foggy shores of California.  There, they got caught in a storm. I can imagine the terror as the waves thrashed the boat about and the wind tore the sails and the, the, the tide rushed them towards the rocky shore. “Mung, mung! Tǔdì, tǔdì! There, there! A beach! Still there, there!” But the boat capsized, spilling the teens into the rushing waves. Now only by pure luck and probably the generosity of the sea goddess, they missed the rocky shore. They were pulled to dry land on the beach by the Rumsen Indians. They had gone south of San Francisco, passed right by it, and crashed into the Carmel Bay at Point Lobos which is right near Monterey, California. And one of the first things they noticed was… that in the bay and in the Pacific Ocean beyond, there were no sail… there were no fishing boats.  And they were fisher people.

So, they started their very industry, the fishing industry that Monterey became famous for. They built their own fishing boats, they built nets and they fished out into the bay and the sea beyond.  And they dried that fish. And they sold it to the Chinese miners, the Chinese loggers, the Chinese farmers, up and down California.  And they sent hundreds and hundreds of pounds of this salted, dry fish back to China. And each year, their sales grew and each year the villages grew in size and numbers.  And not only at Point Lobos now but at Pescadero Beach, at Maccabee Beach and that Point Alones. Monterey thrived with the Chinese doing all of this wonderful business. They built the very fish, fish canneries. The very first ones, despite the fact that from 1850 through the early 1900s, hatred and anti-Chinese violence was rampant up and down the west coast, and I’m not just talking about California.

There was a cry for extermination or deportation. The Chinese were being murdered and mutilated, robbed, set on fire. They would be rounded up; whole villages were rounded up and marched out of wherever they were for hundreds of miles, no matter what the weather, and sometimes only with the clothes on their back. They were rounded up by angry mobs of thousands of white men with clubs, and poles, and pipes, and guns. I could hear my great-great grandparents, now, “Oh! It is this time to go home. Go to China. We work so hard. Our hands never stop working. We give so much. I know Quock Po. I know. But we make good living right now. Everything going to be OK.” But everything wasn’t going to be OK.

As the European settlers increased, bringing their own broken-heart hopes and dreams, they began to use their anger by accusing the Chinese of taking their jobs. And then they turn that into anti-Chinese immigration, not their own immigration but our immigration. Even though the Chinese were fully employed, and the miners tax alone, which was only level… levied on the Chinese, was one-fourth to one-half of the entire California budget at one point. And as, uh, the Monterey people began to grow in numbers in terms of their European settlements, they began to be a little more personal. Now, we weren’t marched out, so we were a little bit better off than the rest of California. But we were, because we weren’t marched out, but the Italians did burn down our fishing cannery so they could build their own. The Portuguese ran their boats into… to ours over and over so that they ripped our nets, crippling our fishing capabilities. And the very politically savvy Irish men, well, they, they stirred up hatred group fury with the slogan, “The Chinese must go. The Chinese must go. America is for whites.” But we weren’t marched out. They began to burn our villages. A Chinese man was hung in Monterey for voting but we weren’t marched out. Who they marched out were the Rumsen Indians, who had been the original inhabitants of the area. And who they marched were the Mexicans, who the Spanish had deeded their land and their ranches to before most of the Europeans even arrived. But they didn’t march us out for some reason. And through all of that, the first generation gave birth to the second generation and the second generation continued to harvest the gifts of the sea; squid and seaweed.

And I say squid because at one point, the Monterey people began to pass their our laws encouraged by the European at the federal government that had passed laws that Chinese could know… could not testify against the white people in court. They couldn’t own land. And then there was the exclusion act that excluded only the Chinese immigrating to America. So Monterey began passing own laws. For example: Chinese not allowed to fish from shore. Chinese is not allowed to fish during the day. “Oh! Then we, we fish at nighttime. We hang lanterns on top of boat, attract squid, like in old country.” The Europeans hadn’t counted on our stubborn perseverance; our time was patience, and our ingenuity. So, the second generation started to dry that squid. And then within a few years, a new law: Chinese not allowed to dry squid. And if the Chinese couldn’t dry the squid, then they couldn’t preserve the squid. And if they couldn’t do that, well, they couldn’t ship it anywhere. And they thought, well, Chinese make no money, no more Chinese…they thought.

Because by then, a third generation began to figure out what next to do. They began to gather all the fish heads and the fish innards, and the fish tails that the Italian canneries had just thrown out onto the beach and they made fish emulsion, fertilizer. And they began to sell that up and down the California valleys to the farmers. But once again, in time, the Italians burned my grand-uncle’s fish emulsion factory. And when the locals also burnt yet another village, that was it. Here we been in the Monterey area for over 59 years, more than most of the European settlers. And there we stood outside the fence that was constructed around our burnt village so that we could not rebuild, while the white folk were inside the fence rummaging through all the ashes looking for our treasures to keep for themselves. Well, that was it. We began to disperse.

And I tell you, that still today we are here. We are. I am a fifth generation. My children are the sixth generation and my sibs have grandchildren who are the seventh generation. We are still here and we continue just like our forefathers to contribute to the success of this country called America.