Content Warning: This article contains graphic/violent language.
My mother insists I have the milk warmed. “Cold milk is bad for your stomach,” she says. “It will make you sick.” I let her heat it in the microwave, neglecting to tell her that I had always drank it cold, like any other American, and haven’t had any problems for the 13 years that she’d been gone.
It’s the first time I’ve seen her in person since the pandemic, about four years ago. For exposition: My parents are divorced. They split when I was 6, and two years later my father would remarried and took me to America from China, where I grew up. For many years — during really all the prime years of my childhood — I had no contact with my mom, until she hired a private investigator from North Carolina to track me down. We’ve had a tumultuous relationship since.
Those are facts. However, there is also truth — and for this story, I want to focus on the truth. The truth tends to be more fictional, something journalistic rigor can be ghastly afraid of, but I think that, often, fiction allows us to see things as they are. It was John Okada, author of “No-no Boy,” who wrote, “This is a story which has never been told in fiction and only in fiction can the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of people be adequately recorded.” Life, oftentimes, does not have a writer’s discipline or sense of integrity. Things will happen as they may; it is only in fiction that we can pick apart ourselves without due restraint.
James Baldwin said, “Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.” It has become clear to me this story is mine, although I don’t think this is the best version of this story, I don’t think I will ever get to the best version of this story. Fiction is not all-encompassing, and in telling stories about ourselves, we inevitably lose important pieces. We set parts of us into stone that will lose their resonance later, but those are the terms that a writer has to grow accustomed to.
It is curious when she first sees me again — around Ingalls Mall, where I have told her to be, because I am less likely to run into someone I know — that she exclaims, “It has been so long,” as if we have not lived with each other’s ghosts.
The Chinese treat ghosts (鬼) with care. Tombs get swept and paper offerings burned on gravestones during the Clear Brightness Festival — a national holiday — to appease the dead. Ancestry is meticulously kept; the old truism says that Chinese history stretches back 5,000 years (more factually, about 3,000), through wars, through foreign occupation, through everything. The Chinese are proud of heritage. My father always said that Americans always look toward progress in the future, while the Chinese dwell on the glory of the past.
Then ghosts become the “keepers of history.” Yes, they appear like we expect, as some ancestor who has had their grave defiled or died a too-violent death, to haunt us until some peace offering is made, but they are also a figment of collective memory. When Nánjīng or Tiānānmén happens and images are ripped apart, ghosts carry the torch. They don’t come to us with malice; they come with anxieties, the untold and unheard that desperately need to be voiced before they can be buried.
I look my mother in the eyes for the first time since I went to college, and I know that as much as I have tried to bury her, she has come back. She hugs me and asks me how I have been, how I have enjoyed university, what I plan to do in the future, like I have not answered these questions a million times to her ghost, and I shift so she does not feel the knife in my back pocket. Just in case, because that was how much I trust her.
She tells me she loves me. I tell her I do too. I don’t know if I mean it. Maybe I should: She is my mother. By most metrics, she treats me very well. She cares, and maybe sometimes she does not understand, but I went through the same culture shock that she did, except I was 8 and had no one else to guide me. Still, occasionally, I lose my patience, and I wonder if I would’ve treated my younger self with mercy when he made the same mistakes, or if I have grown into someone he is scared of. Either way, I’m not sure she means it when she tells me she loves me, either. I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re playing the world’s most depressing improv game, where we pretend like we are still a family.
We go to dinner together. I order for her because she can’t read English well enough, but I have a translation app by my side because I can’t speak Chinese to her well enough, either. The night ends; she goes back to her hotel, somewhere fancy in downtown Ann Arbor that’s more like an apartment, with a kitchen and a washer and dryer. I walk back to my house. I think about Joel in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”: Are we the dining dead?
My father told me, before she arrived, that she would come looking for American citizenship — it’s what she’s after, and she can only get it through me, if I fill out immigration paperwork to say she’s family. I don’t blame her. Everyone in China is looking to leave, one way or another. A new term, dubbed 润学 — the art of running away — has emerged in the wake of zero-COVID policies. Chinese interest in Canadian immigration has jumped 28 times over. About 22,000 Chinese people have been arrested by border patrol trying to cross the southern U.S. border in 2023, 13 times higher than the year prior. Ever since Malta started to sell permanent residency, 87% of applicants have been Chinese. The clear message across the nation is “Get out while you can, or at least make sure you won’t be stuck in this country.”
Economic stagnation has finally set in — a bitter pill to swallow for a generation raised on social mobility. The youth unemployment rate is estimated reach 46%. The country’s birth rate, despite the reversal of the one-child policy, has fallen by half since 2016; its population, for the first time in six decades, is in decline. The evergreen economic prosperity of Dèng Xiǎopíng’s open-door policy China is gone, marked by Evergrande, a Chinese real estate giant, stocks falling around 80% late August of this year — foreshadowing the Chinese housing crisis to come.
Xí Jìnpíng, when faced with impending collapse, turns to the past, toward the ghost of Mao. The great firewall, China’s censorship apparatus, has tightened its iron grip. Prominent people are disappearing: either fall in line or die. People are taking to calling Xí the “Accelerator in Chief,” for it is him who will accelerate the CCP, and China as a whole, towards its reckoning.
My mother, over lunch, seems largely unbothered by this. She suggests that I work in Shanghai’s growing technology industry after college. I told her that I was majoring in computer science, which isn’t strictly a lie — it’s some sort of half-truth, the type you get accustomed to telling when you have Asian parents. She says, “Opportunities are good for you back home. Remember where your roots are, anyways,” as if my time in America were an interlude, as if it could all be forgotten, as if the last decade of her non-presence could be fixed over scallops and rice.
I don’t know how to tell her I don’t consider her my mother anymore. My father remarried a woman, who, above anything else, had been there. I think my mother knows my allegiance in her heart, but in a culture that’s prominently focused on family as our blood, with me being her only lifeline to anything that’s not rotting away in a free-falling country, I don’t blame the cognitive dissonance. You have to have a certain amount of it growing up in China, and after a while, it consumes you. If you grow up with enough phantoms, one day you will become one yourself.
At night, I ask her as she floats beside my bedroom window: “Why do I not remember anything? My father and you shared custody. I went to your apartment on the weekends. You went on trips, you went with your friends and with the man who you’d have an affair with, the man I must’ve seen, at least once, so why don’t I remember him? I must’ve been old enough to recall something; I remember my schoolyard, I remember my condo in Tiantan, I remember my grandparents, I remember the street I grew up on, the street my father lived on — so why don’t I remember? My father told me I would cry every weekend that I had to go live with you and beg to stay. I must’ve spent weeks with you in the summer, so why don’t I remember any of it? What did you do to me?”
I come to her hotel the next day. She’s made food for me. I take off my jacket, and for the first time she sees the scar on my arm. “What happened?” She asks. I tell her it was an automobile accident (another half-truth) and she holds it, gingerly, like she’s handling a newborn lamb. “My baby,” she says. “It’ll heal, won’t it?” And you’ll be perfect again?
“Yes,” I reply, in the same way that I say university is going fine, that I will, of course, marry a Chinese woman, that I did miss her every day she was gone, that I am happy.
I told her it’s been three years since I acquired that scar (my mistake; I should’ve said it happened sooner), so she doesn’t quite believe me. She holds it, and she can’t let go, and for a second something in her unwavering face quivers, and she is silent for the longest time, and she breathes, and she realizes I am not 8 years old anymore.
There’s a silent, morbid reality in the fact that she will never get her son back. She did not have a say in this: One day my father and I left, and that was it. She will never have children that care deeply about her. I am the only person who can change this, and sometimes I really, really want to believe, just for a sliver of a second, that I love her, but I can’t force myself to do it.
On the last day, she asks me to stay with her in the hotel. I oblige.
At night, I’m jolted awake. The door into the bedroom is ajar, and I see her shadow in the corner. I quietly grab the knife out of my backpack. I’m scared she is going to kill me. I round the corner, and I see her there, floating. And I hand the knife to her, and I speak.
Stab me. Here, stab me. Slice my skin off and gouge my flesh out and take — take what it is that you have wanted, what it is that you are here for, what it is that you have haunted me for the past decade for. I love you. Take it. Take it and leave me alone, take it and let me exist in this country in peace, let me be golden, let me not have to rip myself apart for a white audience every time I want to feel valued, let me not have to speak in pain and write in pain and wrap myself around grief until all I can see in this world is cracks. Let me tell a happy story.
But every time I do, I see you. I see your ghost, and you turn my words until everything is about you. I see it clearly now: From the beginning, it has been your eyes. From the beginning, I have been frantically digging to try to find what I do not remember, and it has burned through me, it has hallowed me. I love you. Take it. Please just let me go.
And she looks at me, and she says, “You are a bright individual because of your father. In him you find your technical curiosity and your intellect, but you are a writer because of me. You wouldn’t be in America otherwise. You wouldn’t hold any of this worthlessness inside of you. Every word you write is stained.”
“Look around you. Do you want to do this? You know that, any day, you can call me and come back. You can call me and I will answer and we will leave all of this behind. Love me, and we can make all of this pain go away. We can be happy.”
There is something here I can call racial melancholia, a term from David Eng and Shinhee Han, akin to unrequited ethnic longing. There is something here I can call minor feelings, a term Cathy Park Hong defines as the contradiction of American optimism and racialized realities. But the academics don’t help me; it is one thing to theorize about something and another thing entirely to live it.
I tremble, and I look at her, and everything rationally makes sense. She is doing everything I would expect a mother to do, but I can’t. Love isn’t rational. There’s something sublime about it, like we all have a bit of nature in ourselves, for the people we love (and those we don’t) that refuses to be organized, that refuses to make sense, to be tamed by reason. I can try to tell you that I love this person because they are pretty, because they care about me, because they are intelligent or charming or whatever other attribute or act you would like to add but I would be lying. I choose to love because there is something wild and uncontrollable about it, something that latches you onto people that will never love you back and leaves you dry on those that would make things so much easier if you could just feel something about them. That is a part of gazing into an unbound, cosmic part of ourselves that we don’t quite understand. It, undeniably, causes me pain, but that is how I know I am human.
The bedroom door is ajar. I clinch the knife in my left hand, turning my palm fiery white, and I round the corner. She is asleep.
I have two memories from when I first arrived in America. The first is a deep blue: the airplane window and the Atlantic Ocean and its quiet peace. The second is a burnt orange: the apartment we first lived in during the summer between second and third grade; I hadn’t even started school here yet. This was before I would grow to love my stepmother. This was before I would know what living in America quite entailed. I’m staring out of our apartment window on the second floor, turned towards the sunset, and I’m crying.
My dad comes to comfort me and asks me why I’m crying. I don’t quite know then. Now, maybe I can speculate; I’ll grow to know how much pain I would leave behind. I’ll grow to know what it would mean to be surrounded by whiteness. I’ll grow to know what it would mean to have to learn how to exist entirely on your own, to have to learn to be an American and to reckon with yourself without anyone to share that burden with, to have to cut off parts of yourself so you can pretend like this country could love you, and so you and your mother cannot speak the same language, cannot understand each other. I didn’t know any of this yet. For now, all I can do is cry, and I can’t stop crying. When you have grown up around ugly things all of your life, sometimes something plainly beautiful will do that to you.
One day, I was ripped from everything I knew in order to come here, into this alien world, and everything I loved was gone, and everything I loved would grow to not recognize me anymore. I can go back to China, but that world I remember will never be the same. I can stand in my old courtyard and go back to my old school and see my old friends, but it’s all gone, and I will never quite feel comfort in the same way again. There’s a type of pain and longing in this that’s hard to express with language. It’s more primal.
I find it funny that the only person I know who shares this pain with me is my mother.
This writer has asked to remain anonymous for legal purposes. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.