Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

Submission deadline for Spring 2007 issue is Feb. 15, 2007.

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Hold My Hand, Remember My Face

by YiJia Chu

Let me start with my first child: your sister. She was born in 1980 without a name in a Shanghai hospital that, as far as I am concerned, was also nameless. Her time with us was short, but during her six months of precious life, she taught me a love I never knew—a love I never thought was possible to experience. I know I have been part of that love, being the daughter of my mother, but I never imagined it would take such hold of me when it was my time to offer that same love.

China’s strict policy to slow down over-population allowed me only one child, and she was going to be my world. When she was alive, I called her “Mi-Mi.” It was the nickname my mother gave to anything and everything small and cute. Oftentimes, I would not know whether she was talking to me or to one of the nine cats from whom we rented our small apartment. I called my baby Mi-Mi because if this was my only chance to do something this special, I wanted to take my time to find the most beautiful, most enchanting, sweetest name I could think of. It would be a name that brought men to their knees, a name that demanded attention and respect. It would be perfect, it had to be. She was my only daughter, my only child.

The perfect name never came, and all the time in the world could not bring her back to me.

My first daughter died in 1981 without an identity. Her heart failed her body, and during the following months, my heart slowly began to fail my own mind. I cried every day because the hole in my life was too large to fill. No love was the same—no one was there to receive the love that a mother gives her child. And I laughed bitterly every day because I thought I was foolish to think such joy would last forever. The little person who was my child was too good to be true, and maybe I was greedy and enjoyed her presence too much. Was that why she died? What did I do wrong? What didn’t I do right? These questions and millions of others raced through my mind without pause and without answer until 1983, when I felt again a new life within me.

I remember crying uncontrollably on the examination table when I heard your heartbeat. You were alive and slowly filling the hole that the death of your sister left in me, and I was overwhelmed by fear of your death rather than jubilation over your life. You were healthy and residing in the same flesh and fluid as your sister had. Did you know someone else had been there? Did she make it cozier for you?

For nine months, I was terrified for your life, despite a long list of negative test results. As you grew inside me, a recurring nightmare plagued my restless nights. I dreamed of myself lying on an operating bed, surrounded by doctors wearing black surgical masks. And as they would slowly move the scalpel blade across my firm belly, they would realize that you were not there. Nothing but bloody water filled my womb, and a sea of red poured forth onto the ground as the doctors filed out of the operating room, leaving me sedated, unconscious, emotionless.

I would wake up with tears in the corners of my eyes and would quickly place my hand on my stomach, almost reflexively. I hope you did not think I was hitting you. I never wanted to cause you any more pain than your life will give you. I only hoped that you would live to experience those pains, as well the moments of pure happiness that I would dedicate the rest of my life to affording you.

Months before you came into this world, I named you Yi Jia, which in old Chinese means “The Excellent One.” An ancient legend tells of warriors who bore this name because they were destined to rescue their people from being conquered and murdered. By a heavenly decree, these warriors were given divine guidance and dubbed “Yi Jia,” and rightly so, by the emperor.

I gave you this name even before you moved inside me because I did not want you to come into this world without one, as your sister did. You were going to be the one to make it. You would be great, live a prosperous life, and bring life to everything and everyone you touched. You were going to be my excellent one and save me from a life void of my child’s love.

You were born in 1983, healthy and beautiful.

* * *

This is your story, mom. I am writing it because you cannot write it—probably would not want to—and because I need to tell it. Consider my writing and my thoughts as your own voice, your own identity. What I am doing now is not so much different from when you used to hand me the phone because you wanted me to speak to customer service on your behalf. You breezed through the introductions and gave them all the Personal Identification Numbers or passwords they required, but when it came down to business, you turned to your teenage son to get you through the rest of the conversation. I bet I knew more about our family’s finances, health insurance, car insurance, stock portfolios, and electric bills than any kid I have ever known.

Why did you rely on me so much? How did you know I would be able to communicate with these service representatives any better than you could have? You never wanted to test your English with anyone besides me if you did not have to, and even then I have never known you to give up at something so easily. I almost felt as if you enjoyed the fact that you could count on me, liked it because I wanted to help you. So let me tell another story for you, mom.

My life changed when I realized that you may not be the most important woman in it, and I have to know you are okay with that—okay with the fact that the woman who is the most important woman in my life is not even Chinese, not one of us. I am going to tell your story because it could be too painful for you to do it yourself, and because only by doing so will I understand it for myself.

Consider this the last story I help you tell, and I will consider it as the only way to see our relationship through your eyes. I may not get everything right, but it will be honest and truthful throughout. I have the phone in hand. Whisper in my ear, mom, and I will tell them what you have to say. I will tell them all.

* * *

I am fifty-five years old this year, and I have spent almost that entire time taking care of all the men in my life. Being an only daughter with four brothers, I had to learn very quickly how to take care of them. It was what Chinese daughters did; we learned to help our mothers with chores as early as we could. In fact, I would not be surprised if, as a baby, I crawled around with cloths tied to my hands and knees just so I could clean the hardwood floors. I helped your grandmother keep the family together, and I was proud of it.

She told me never to cry in front of your uncles because if I did, they would think I was just another girly girl. So I never showed any signs of weakness. I did not cry when my oldest brother died of a brain tumor. I never left his side: I bathed him every morning and every night and watched his minor headache slowly turn into a type of suffering I could not understand.

By the end, he did not recognize anyone, but I refused to believe that applied to me. For some reason, I could not accept the fact that he did not remember his loving sister, my dark hair, the way I touched his skin, and I never got over the pain it caused me. I was angry he forgot it was me who took care of him for almost a year. His death came and went, but I did not know if he felt the love I was trying to give him. Did it help him die more peacefully? Did he even know I was there? Did he remember my face?

I am getting older now, and I need someone to take care of me. I need to feel loved and wanted and needed by others, but especially by you. My time of taking care of you and raising you are over, don’t you think? Let’s switch roles of parent and child, and why don’t you bring me a glass of juice for a change? It is your turn now, son. Teach me something and show me a part of your world. Convince me that I have raised a son who will always be there for his mother, because you and I both know some of your actions have suggested otherwise.

Sometimes, after a long day of work, I want nothing more than to hear your voice, even if just for a minute. I sit next to the phone when I am resting and bring it with me into every room I enter. I often find myself daydreaming about how it would feel if you called me as much as those despicable telemarketers do. Look in my cell phone and you will find two numbers: your cell phone and your dorm room. Who else would I call? Who else do I care enough about to put their number into my cell phone? I know you spend most of your time on the phone with your girlfriend—your future wife—and I can understand that. But when I call you, I cannot help but feel as if I am begging for your affection. So I hardly call.

Years ago, when my father died, I returned to China to bury him, but do not think for a second that I was not aware of your new girlfriend. Why didn’t you tell me? You must have been afraid of how I would react. When you finally told me about her, I wasn’t angry because she is white. I was angry because you lied to me, and I knew this relationship would come between us. It already had. I tried to prevent it, and I tried to tell you the truth: you deserved better. I realized it long before you did, but better late than never.

When she broke your heart—my precious son’s heart—I was there for you. Will you be there for me?

* * *

I need you to know that girl did not break my heart—just my pride. I never knew myself to lose control of my thoughts and my behavior, but I did with her. I hate myself for wasting so much time and so many emotions. I wish I could have it all back, but I wanted so desperately for her to show me the kind of love I knew was possible since the first time I saw you dancing with dad. I should have listened to you, and the pain I experienced was only because I didn’t. Now I know.

I am sorry for how I treated you when I was involved with that girl. I am sorry for all those nights you waited up for me, only to be ignored as I walked past you and closed my bedroom door behind me. I should have known that is not how a son acts. I should have known that is not how a person who wants to know love lives. You taught me how to love; you loved me and cared for me, and that is all it took. And I am sorry I forgot. I regret pushing you away, because that is more stitches I must make in order to mend the fabric of our relationship. But no need to worry, mom; I have my thimble on, and Amanda, my wife-to-be, has given me all the thread I will ever need.

I want you to know that I see you in her. She too is strong and brave. She can make me feel like a child who has no worries, knows no fears—and she can make me feel like a man who has conquered the world, shed his worries, and faced his fears. She loves our culture, has tried to learn our language, and wants to learn from you. Will you let her? Will you show her how to cook the meals on which you raised me? In her, I have found the love I have been searching for but never could uncover. She has taught me how to be a better son. She gets upset when I forget to call you, reminds me of Mother’s Day, and always tells me that nothing can be right if it causes you any pain. I hope you know she cares about you.

In our home, above the mantel in the hallway, hangs a wooden picture frame. It holds many pictures, each portraying a cherished memory from our past. In the upper-left-most picture is a boy dressed in, I think, a white gown. He has on blush and lipstick, and his hair is cut short, covered by a large black woman’s hat. Why is the boy in that picture me?

There are days when I fear you wish I were a girl, wish you could have your daughter back. Is that why you dressed me up in that white dress and so happily searched for your clip-on earrings? When I asked you not to frame that picture, you even told me you would just tell people she was my older sister.

“Don’t they look so much alike?” you told me you would say.

I wonder if you ever glance at that picture and think how happy or how much better things could be. You would never have to experience what it is like to be replaced by another woman, and your bond with your daughter would be stronger than anything we could develop. You would always have your little girl. No matter where she lived, she would always be by your side.

But am I just a stranger to you? Can’t you feel the love that I am trying to show you? Don’t you realize that when I allowed you to put me in that dress, I was just a son, trying to live life and laugh with his mother whom he loved so much—loves so much? Can you see Amanda not as your replacement, but as another avenue for my love—the love you both will receive forever and ever?

I see my life in her, and she is excited to be a part of our family. Embrace her and accept her as the daughter who was so abruptly taken from you. Do not fear that our culture, the one that we have clung too so tightly, will be diluted because of her. If anything, she will amplify our traditions and transmit them to your grandchildren better than I could have done myself. She wants to give them Chinese names. And like you, she is already worried about finding the right ones. Will you help her find the perfect names?

* * *

You have always wanted a little sister. When you were five or six, not a day passed without you begging me to have another child. You wanted me to give you a sister so that you could take care of her, watch her, raise her, be a good older brother to her, and I saw your capacity to love and to nurture. I did not bring another child into this world because you were always enough for me. You were all I needed.

I took pleasure from your fear of sleeping in the dark because I could sleep with my little baby in my arms. When you were scared of your nightmares, I told you that if you held my hand, you would dream of being in your grandmother’s home, eating dumplings with chili sauce. I will never forget the morning you told me you were too full from Nai Nai’s dumplings to eat breakfast. Whether you meant it or not, thank you for humoring me and for letting me know you appreciated my love.

Things are different now. You do not even live in my home, much less lie beside me in my bed. I will never again feel the warmth of your body as I sleep—only Amanda will. Do not call it jealousy, though; it is nostalgia. I can only dream of your beautiful face. I need to know the moments will return when I am your mother and you my son. I need you there to make me breakfast, to wash my clothes, to hold my hand as I sleep. I gave you your life; all I ask for is your love.

I love Amanda, and you must know that I welcome her American culture into my family. I know she is unlike any other girl you have cared for because she understands me and wants to understand our culture. She knows how I feel when you and I argue or when you do not call me. I am not scared she will come between us; I am terrified that you may think I will come between you two. What will happen when you start your life with her? Will I be in it? I do not want to be the mother whose visits you dread. I hope you never say or do anything to suggest you do. It would be too painful to visit you ever again.

What about fried rice with eggs, pork, and peas? What about the meals I learned to cook—the gumbo, the spaghetti, the hamburgers, the mashed potatoes? What about warm towels when you cried and ping-pong on the coffee table? What about the cat I gave you when I knew we weren’t supposed to have animals in our apartment? What about that brand new gold trumpet bought with money I didn’t have? What about the scar you left me on my stomach? Do you remember my love? Do you remember what I have done for you? I need to know you love me. I need to know every day, every moment I live. It is the only way I can go on without you by my side.

Show me you remember so I know you will never forget my face.

I remember.

© 2005 MIT E-merging Journal