by Storyteller Nancy Wang
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.
- 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?
- Have you ever seen your mother cry? Do you know why she was crying? Was it surprising to you and, if so, why?
- 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?
- 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?
- 7 Differences between Chinese and American Culture
- Why Mothers and Daughters Can’t Just Get Along
- The Art of Listening – Traubman
- Asian American/Asians
- Education and Life Lessons
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
“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.