All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
I was born with two names: one in English and one in Chinese, Joanna and Jiaying. Those are the names that appear on my IDs. I am Joanna Jiaying Chen. Simple right? Most Asian Americans have two names. I could handle that.
But of course, nothing in my family is ever that simple. My grandmother and my mother decided that my name wasn’t right. Names were important. Names were everything, and for the Chinese, names defined someone’s life. So in three years, my Chinese name morphed twice. By the time I was four, I had gone by a total of four names: one in English and three in Chinese, Jianna and Jiaying, Xiyin, and Xiaohui. That was confusing, especially when I would walk into a room and not realize someone was calling me over.
I. Where it all started.
I was born on January 6, 1994. A snow storm just hit New York City, leaving numerous people stranded in the most inconvenient places possible. The subways were halted, the streets were hard to navigate, and my mother was stranded in the Coney Island Hospital. It was just me and her for hours to come. She sat in bed, stroking her navel, telling me to stay inside for just a little longer. Give her just a little more time.
I learned that when I was in her uterus, she had talked to her best friend about an abortion. My mother didn’t want another child. As a first generation immigrant, as the oldest daughter in her family, as a mother of two boys, as a wife of a full time masters student, she had enough on her plate. She wasn’t ready to handle another child, not when her job had just stabilized. I was going to be aborted when I was two weeks old. But her best friend talked her out of it, thank goodness.
So on January 6, as my mother looked out the window and watched the snow accumulate, she prayed that I would stay in maybe a few more days. I was already overdue. I could wait just long enough for the subways to start, the streets to clear. Just long enough for my father to arrive. But of course, the rebel that I am, I started kicking and turning. I was ready to come out.
Unfortunately, that was a bad move. Because of all my tossing and turning, my kicking and flipping, my birth had many complications. Whoops. My mother’s water broke about 9 am that morning. The doctors did an ultrasound to make sure everything would be okay. But as it turns out, my mother needed a C-section. To this day, she still reminds me of that scar I gave her on her lower abdomen. But I would just tell her she shouldn’t have told me to wait so long. A baby’s gotta have what a baby wants.
For days after my birth, my mother had a high fever and remained unconscious. And so, days after my birth, I didn’t have a name. A little ironic isn’t it? It wasn’t until when my father and my maternal grandmother arrived at the hospital did I get my first name. On January 10, I was named Joanna Jiaying Chen. My grandmother chose it.
For as long as she could remember, my grandmother hated my great-grandfather. He always came home, drunk off a bottle of Xo Chiew (Chinese liquor). What happened? World War II. In 1937, Japan bombed Guangzhou. Government buildings at first, but hundreds of people died. Not long after, troops came marching through the major seaports, and Guangzhou was X’ed on the map.
It was September 1938, morning. Sunlight streamed into the master bedroom as my great-grandfather Zhong prepared to leave his house in Guangzhou. Outside, his three-year-old daughter stumbled on the lawn, and servants hurried to catch her. He looked for his wife, but she was nowhere in sight. At the factory already getting those hands rough again. He chuckled and shook his head. After years of telling her to stop working, she still refused to sit back and enjoy life as the lady of the house.
Zhong gave his daughter a quick peck on the cheeks and opened the front gates to the bustling streets. Stands of steamed buns and fresh vegetables lined the avenue. As he closed the gates, a woman selling flowers walked by. He quickly caught up with her and bought a daffodil. His wife liked bright colors, and daffodils’ graceful shape suited her hair. He imagined slipping his hands around her waist from behind and presenting her a little surprise. She would jump at first only to melt in delight when she saw his face. He tossed the woman an extra coin. She deserved it.
As he turned the corner, he heard a small droning noise. Zhong slowed down and squinted into the sky: three small figures with white tails streaking across a blue canvas. Twenty-two days ago, he came across the same figures. Japan had conducted its first air raids when six planes bombed Baiyun Airport at the outskirts of town. But now, these planes were flying high above the metropolis. Small shadows streamlined toward the city. As explosions sounded in the distance, the ground started to tremor.
The buildings in Guangzhou weren’t designed to sway, so as their foundations shook, sheets of glass and wooden planks fell down. Civilians started trickling from these buildings, as others on the street dispersed in different directions, bumping into stands along the way. Amidst the billowing cloud of dust, some vendors were trying to keep their jade Buddhas and Guanyins from leaping off tables. Zhong pushed against the current of people, hurrying toward the explosions.
Four blocks and a turn later, the crowd became thinner. He tripped over something, and someone groaned. At Jiulong Street, he squinted into the cloud of dust and saw a flickering glow where his factory stood. The bomb did not hit it directly, but half the infrastructure had collapsed. Flames poured through several cracked windows and the fire spread onto the wooden beams that pierce the remnants. Honey dates on the ground began to bake, bubbling and oozing juice.
The street was illuminated just enough for Zhong to see. Ko was slouching against a broken stand, his torso turned sideways as though in hilarity, the angle opening the wound so that a pelvic bone gleamed in the light. Zhong took a step and slipped, and then noticed a pool of blood. Kai and his wife Ji were laying on the ground gazing at the sky, their fingers laced together, unbothered by the wetness beneath them. His eyes follow the blood to another figure, her ears against the pavement, her hand reached towards the factory’s nameplate, now splintered and ablaze.
The occupation of Guangzhou ended in 1945. Planes flew over the city more than two hundred times during the intensive two-year strategic bombing plan that marked the beginning of World War II. Compared to the Rape of Nanking, what happened to Guangzhou was nothing. Thousands of civilians who had fled before the ground invasion returned the city seven years later, bitter about the war, but relieved to see their homes still intact.
It was October 1946, morning. Planks of wood and white sail cloth were still drifting in the harbor, dislodged gray stones still stood on every street, and gaps of emptiness between skyscrapers marked the landscape. But new wooden beams were shipped across town, Haizhu Square was surrounded by construction tarps, and stands of steamed buns and vegetables once again lined the avenues.
The smells of rotten bok choy and urine seeped through the window. Chuu slipped on her robe and followed the odor into her father’s bedroom. His left arm was slung over the edge of the bed, hanging. His right hand was wiping his mouth. Besides his bed, there was a fresh puddle of spotted pale vomit. Only what’s missing was the crumpled pieces of paper with some figures. As she wet a rag with water drawn from the well, her father mumbled something about big and pairs. She bent down and started wiping the floor.
Still unconscious, he grabbed her hair. It didn’t occur to Chuu to drop the rag when she raised her right hand to block her father. Now, the vomit was speckled on her face, the dirty rag just inches from her nose. She stayed in that position, arms up, heads back, and waited for her father to sigh. An undigested legume slid down the rag and fell on her eyelid. She pushed his arms a little, stopping when she felt his grip getting tighter. Without moving her head, she continued to wipe the floor with her left hand. After a few minutes, he sighed and let her go. Chuu wiped her face against her shoulder and rinsed the rag.
Someone banged on the door. She nudged her father with the butt of a rake, but he was useless, limp and lifeless. She looked at the beast in deep slumber, his chest moving up and down, and decided that dying from an impaled heart was better than dying from vomit obstructing the windpipe. The banging became louder. Chuu laid the rake aside and unlocked the front door to two muscular men.
“My, my, who do we have? Little Miss Zhong?” Blue-shirt leaned over.
“Who are you?” She said in her loudest, deepest voice.
They laughed. “We are good friends of your father. My, what is that putrid smell from your hair?” Blue-shirt stood up and turned to Red-shirt. “Obviously her father doesn’t know how to treat a little lady.”
“Aw, don’t worry. We’re the good guys—we swear!” Red-shirt pulled out a piece of paper. “Do you know what this is?”
She took a step back, and they advanced.
“No, no, don’t leave us. If you do, you’ll be a lousy hostess.”
She took another step back and felt a rough, wooden stick against the persimmon tree. As Red-shirt waved the paper in front of her face, Chuu swung the rake forward. It grazed Red-shirt’s skin. Her father stopped snoring and she was hopeful. But the rake only upset the two men. Blue-shirt took out a gun and pointed it between my grandmother’s eyes. She thought about adjusting her head in front of the gun, but she didn’t move. Blue-shirt motions toward the front door with the gun. My grandmother follows Red-shirt to the door, and the Blue-shirt follows her. They are both smiling again.
My grandmother had Jiaying in her mind for a long time, but her first two grandchildren were boys. Jiaying is a girl’s name. She liked the way it sounded. She liked the meaning of the name. The “jia” in Jiaying means home, family, unity; the “ying” means recognition, realization. When my grandmother named me, she wanted to bless me with eternal familial love. She wanted me to realize the hardships she had gone through and to treasure the moments I have in the future.
But as fate would have it, I was separated from my immediate family for the first five years of my life. My parents worked full time; my paternal grandmother had to look after my two older brothers; and nobody had time to care for a newborn. So when my mother woke up, when all was well and everyone could go home, my maternal grandmother picked me up from the baby cradle, dressed me warmly, and brought me to her apartment in Chinatown while my parents returned to our house in Brooklyn.
It was 1951. It had been one year since the end of Chinese Civil War—a small blip compared to the thousands of years of history, but a small blip that triggered tectonic plate movements, separating two million people from mainland China.
It was May 27. Plum blossoms were scattered across the pond, where two mallard ducks rested in silence. Servants holding plates of red tortoise cakes and chestnuts hustled to and from the pavilion which served as an observation point.
“Chuu, hurry. Lady Qi is leaving her room.” Yiqin waved at her from the pavilion. Everything was set except for the candles that Chuu was carrying. Two gardeners bowed and offered to help her. Their garden grid was still disheveled. She slightly dipped her head and continued. People said that out of all the servants in the house, the lady’s servants had it best. They lived under her wings, and as a result were at the top of the food chain. Chuu tripped on the steps. The tray slipped out of her hands, but Yiqin managed to catch the candles on time. “Are you okay?” Yiqin helped my grandmother up.
“Yeah, light it.”
She hurried to the side of the pavilion, head already lowered, waiting for her lady’s arrival. Yiqin slides into place next to her and whispered, “This morning, Lady Shui told Lady Qi to be careful. Old Master was spotted fooling around again.” Chuu glanced to her side as Yiqin slid back into place. Lady Qi ascended the stairs to the pavilion and sat on a stone seat. My grandmother walked forward to pour the lady some tea.
“You have beautiful hands,” the lady said.
That night, my grandmother was blindfolded, gagged, bounded, and thrown against the floor. Someone pinned her down and forced her arms up. His breath was sour.
“Shame. She could’ve been s***.”
“She’s just a kid. H*ll, she could’ve been the Master’s girl.”
“Eight years, no son—what’d you expect. Back’s sore. You got it?”
“You f***ing kiddin’. 4 yuans and it’s a deal.”
“Shut the f*** up and get your a** over here.”
“Two yuans and a round of Xo Chiew.”
“Fine, but they better be f***ing smooth.”
A shoe drove into her navel repeatedly. One of them hummed “My Motherland.” When Chuu moved her hips against the ground, inching away, the humming stopped. “What the? Sweetie, I’m no door. D’you get her hand?”
Someone grabbed her arm, and she held onto his hems tightly. He tugged his shirt. On the third tug, my grandmother lost her grip and fell.
“A fighter, are we? Haven’t had those in a while. I say four, two slabs of pork blood.”
“Fine, but two, tops.”
He kicked her in the head. The blindfold fell from her face, and single pinhole leaked moonlight. As she adjusts to the new lighting, she saw a man sitting on the hay watching her. A sweet smell filled the air. He did it three or four times before she blacked out.
When my grandmother came to, everything was quiet. She had the impression they were gone. Then she heard rustling. The man from the hay walked to her. “He forgot her hands. Lousy,” he muttered. “Hey! You’re only getting one Xo Chiew! You half-a** job.” With that, he dug into her thumb, like a man setting out a cigarette. Pain, then lightheadedness.
When she woke up, somebody had untied the rope, and she felt a sticky wetness against her face. It was almost light when Chuu stepped outside. She walked to the pond behind the outhouse and bathed in it. The bleeding behind her head hadn’t stopped yet, and her left eye was swollen shut. But her thumb could still flex. She slipped back into her room. Yiqin had her back toward the door, so she just lied there until the next day came.
III. A fresh start.
It was 1960. It had been five years since my grandmother left the Qi family. Her uncle was a few years late, but he arrived nonetheless and bargained to get her back. My grandmother was in her uncle’s home, cooking dinner. She had already wiped down the hardwood floors, cleaned the cow udders, and cleared the chicken coop feces. At first, she was helping her aunt, but somewhere along the lines, their roles switched. Her aunt usually forced Chuu to accept help, but today was different.
“So who’s the young lady?” the matchmaker asked.
Chuu’s uncle thought for a moment. “Xinyi.” Xin sounded like “new” in Chinese, and yi sounded like “meaning.” A new meaning, a new life. That was what Chuu needed.
“Where is she?”
“She’s right now in the kitchen preparing for dinner. But we have her photo here and can tell you anything you want.”
“Okay then, how old is the young lady?”
“Twenty-three years old,” her uncle said. She was really twenty-five.
“That’s a little old.” Her pencil made three little dashes, and Chuu’s uncle silently cursed. He was beaten since a kid every time he lied, and now this was the result.
“But she is experienced. She does everything in the house.”
The matchmaker started tapping on the pad. She wasn’t interested; men liked to know how young their future brides were, not how rough their hands were. But countrymen wouldn’t understand this. “What about her parents? You two are her aunt and uncle?”
“Her mother died in labor, and her father immigrated to America a little before the war.”
“Why didn’t she go?”
“Her father thought it would be best if she stayed—America is great, but there’s a lot of gunshots each day. Not a place for young ladies.”
“And this is, after a war?”
“At least she knows Chinese.”
“And yet not a sound.” The matchmaker looked toward the kitchen.
“How about some tea? Freshly brewed.” Her aunt poured some tea into the ceramic cups.
“So her father…? Sounds successful, but not that patriotic—running before the war.”
“Not running per se. He just wanted to make some money for his daughter. But he loved China. He was a patriot. In fact, he joined the U.S. army after hearing about the Rape of Nanking.”
“My aunt died in Nanking.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. How about some of these rice cakes? Chuu made them. They are her specialty. Please try some.” Chuu’s aunt smiled at the matchmaker. In this town, the matchmaker determined a girl’s life. If she liked a girl, the future bride could expect a middleclass groom; if she didn’t like a girl, the future bride better run—more likely, she would end up with a future drunkard or gambler. As of now, it was best to swallow and please, swallow and please.
“No thank you,” the matchmaker said. Chuu’s aunt smiled.
“Well, her father was a pilot in the war and fought against the Japanese. He won numerous purple hearts, though unfortunately he died in battle.”
“Oh?” The matchmaker crossed off two lines. Men who died in war were manly. “Tell me a little more.”
Halfway through the conversation, Chuu’s uncle lost count of the matchmakers’ hashes and lines. And two hours later, he bid the matchmaker farewell. All in the meanwhile, the lady of honor was in the kitchen, not knowing she would soon be wed.
When I was four, Grandma tried learning how to speak in English. She asked me to teach her one afternoon. I forgot what comes after D, so I walked away pretending to be no longer interested. Maybe if I peeked of the alphabet food mat, then I could tell her what’s after D.
Grandma has been at the D for as long as I could remember. She was waiting for me, waiting for the E. But I was side-tracked, and she never learned what was after the D. I imagine she was sitting at the other side, waiting. And no matter how hard she tried, she didn’t get past the D. Then she asked herself why she needed to try so hard. And she put down her pen, folded over her stapled stacks of scrap paper. She didn’t need to learn what’s after D. Four letters was enough for her. Knowing four was better than knowing one. She punctuated her thoughts with a definite “hmp” and pushed on the table.
The stacks of paper in her hand were tossed amongst the other unfinished scrap notebooks in front of the mirror. I remember counting the notebooks when I was four—counting how many of them obstructed the mirror, the only mirror, and I wondered how many stools I needed to take them all down.
Around this time, I was renamed Xiyin. It took Grandma a while to adjust to calling me a new name, and it took me a while to adjust responding to a new name.
IV. Sing it, girl
My family has an odd naming system. Before their first child was born, my father and my mother argued about what to name their baby, but found no common ground. So instead, they cut a deal. If it the baby was a boy, my father would name him. If the baby was a girl, my mother would name her. Little did my mom know, her first two children would be males, and when a female finally joined the family, she would be unconscious.
I don’t remember how it all happened, but I know my mother renamed me. When I was three, I went from being Jiaying to Xiyin. Unlike my first name, Xiyin carried no particular meaning when you dissected the syllables apart. It was just a popular name for little girls in the nineties. And I guess my mother just wanted a little girl so badly. Funny how she wanted an abortion though.
It was morning, 1976. The Cultural Revolution had just been declared successful by Mao. My grandfather was miles away, and my mother awfully missed him. She herded her little sisters into the bathroom and called her brother out of bed. As he came running down, she scowled at him. “What will mom say when she sees your bags?”
“She won’t.” He ushered his little sisters out.
“What do you mean?”
He came out of the bathroom and shrugged.
“What does that mean?” she asked, but he was walking out the door. He bent to his left and grabbed his bag.
“Tell the old lady to hold on the peanuts. Sue is getting a cough I think.”
Ten minutes later, carrying Sue on her back and running alongside with Geen, my mom called out to the old lady at the porridge stand. “Ma’am, I need two bowls of porridges!”
“Right here. You better hurry. School’s going to start soon.”
“Thanks!” she gave the old lady three yuans and started spooning some of her bowl’s porridge into the bowl her sisters were sharing. “Eat more,” she said.
Half a stick of fried dough slid across the table, and my mom quickly stood up. It was the old lady. “Here, take this. It’s fresh.” Sue was reaching across the table and my mom quickly grabbed her arms back.
“Thank you, but I can’t pay for that. You have your own shop and family too. ”
“Don’t worry about it. My family is fine—just quickly eat it before the old man comes back!” The old lady winked at my mom, who smiled and bowed. The old lady left, waddling into the rickety old porridge shop.
My mom sat down and split the fried dough in half for her little sisters. Sue started biting, but Geen ripped her piece in half and gave it back to my sister. Sue looked at her dough with a bite mark and tipped her head down. Shyly, she ripped a piece of that and quickly threw it into her older sister’s porridge bowl.
My mom had dance practices with five other students. The six of them were amazing. They sang operas at the age of 14. They sang at neighboring villages and even travelled overnight to sing at a competition in the city. They were the model students who were the center of the school’s attention. My mother felt liberated every time she sang and dance. She would feel out of place, like a pig in a cocktail dress. But as she held her arms before her and teased the first note out of her vocals, the discomfort would melt into lightness.
The sky was darkening, my mom quickly hurried home from practice. Tonight they were having fried yam, white rice, and some fat the butcher just gave her. Running down the road, she smiled at the thought of Sue’s face as she turned up her sleeves and slipped off one of her bag’s shoulder strap.
In front of the house, an old lady and her mom were pushing a bundle back and forth. Her mom’s head shook and her palms, perpendicular to the ground, pushed away from her. The old lady pushes the bundle back and this continues for a little while before the old lady, clutching the bundle against her chest, bowed deeply. Her mom quickly helped the old lady back up and walked her to the gate. My mom stopped in the road, bag with a little strip of fat in her left hand, her school bag in her right hand. She watched the old lady turn around and say something like everyone else who walked up that door, had the bundling-pushing fiasco, and walked away. She watched her mom watch the old lady disappear down the road. When her mom turned, their eyes met for a second and no more. Her mom was disappearing into the house.
My mom was silent when she walked in. She laid the fat next to the stove, and her mom looked in. “Fat? Again? Are we so rich we can afford to eat fat every day now?”
My mom was about to say it was only the third time that month. She closed her mouth and nodded.
My mom looked intently at the brown, cracked floor and bit her lips and let out a “mmmm.”
V. Twist of fate.
I never met the person who named me Xiaohui. When I was four years old, my mom mailed my photo to a Buddhist monk. She believed he would bless me with an appropriate name. Funny how she thought two syllables determined my future.
My mother received mail from him several weeks later. In a letter, he wrote that I should be a Xiaohui, that I would prosper with the name. He didn’t write why he thought I was a Xiaohui, and he didn’t explain what my name meant. His ambiguity left my mother guessing for a while. I suppose he received hundreds of baby photos a year, and I should just be glad that I received a name from him.
My mom thought the name would make me humble and eager to learn. Xiao meant early, dawn, thus the humble beginning of a bright future. Hui meant wisdom, and dawning intelligence would make me an eager learner. She saw greatness in my life as Xiaohui, so she was happy to rename me. But I think she misinterpreted my name. Xiao means dawn, hui means intelligence, but my name is more of a curse than a blessing. To pursue intelligence, I would have to work until dawn. That would certainly explain all the all-nighters I’ve been pulling. I wonder if the monk didn’t write an explanation because he was afraid of guessing my fate incorrectly.
In the same envelope he mailed, there were three small cards with the monk’s face in front of a golden halo. These cards were supposedly blessed with spiritual fires and sacred incantations, so my mom taped one to each desktop in the house. She figured we would look at him when our programs were loading. His round, puffy cheeks makes him look like a holy chipmunk. And under his face, there is one line: um a mi beh me hom. I have no idea what that means and neither does my mom.
In the 1968, when my mother was five, my grandfather applied to be an immigrant. He didn’t want to be separated from his family because of the Cultural Revolution, and he didn’t want his daughter to grow up on the farm. He thought he was early, but seven years after announcing this plan to his family, the application was still pending.
It was summer. My grandfather came home. My mother was fourteen, but felt six again. She ran up to her dad and sat on his laps the way her little sisters and brother did. She waited for news—anything from the outside world. She has been getting a hold of everything she could get since her father’s last letter to her. She was finally going to have a chance to get out of the village, to find a society where women could find success and not farm.
She was ready. She had been studying American culture (homework’s not the only form of studying!) and even chose an English name, Linda. Scraps of newspapers filled her little journal—one that she continues to put in important documents and facts from newspapers until this very day. She was ready, but her father told her the application for immigration would take longer than what he expected. There was a kink that needs to be ruffled out.
“Is that okay, chap?”
“Yeah, no problem. We’re going to be out of here soon, and when I do go to U.S., I’m going to be famous like Deng Ligwan.” She showed him her notebook. “See, I’m going to be all prepared when I go so I won’t be missing any news or anything. See this restaurant, it’s famous and I can go there one day with you. And with little Sue as well. See this market, I heard you get fresh star fruits there. The last one you sent us was great, but I’m sure these are going to be sweeter, no offense Dad. See, see, see. I’m going to be so ready when I go.”
She smiled at her father. The lines on his forehead aged him considerably since last year. And as she puts her hand on her father’s rough, labor worker’s hand, she could tell his fate now was not much better than hers. He’s trying day out and day in, she could tell. She really could, and it wasn’t right for her to complain.
A month later, my mom heard news of Xiufong’s immigration status and decided it was false. Xiufong was her best friend. She started humming when she heard whispers in the hall. She started to dust the chalkboard erasers when her classmates talked about it. Outside, the sky was blue and she smiled. She needed to run home after dance practice to get that afternoon, when they all met up for dance practice, the coach gathered them up.
Xiufong was leaving the group. “Although it’s sad she will be leaving us, we should all wish her happiness. America is a great place.” Everyone started clapping and my mom followed suit. Her best friend stood up there and smiled. Her best friend is standing there with the reassuring weight of the coach’s arms on her shoulders, looking at rest of us—Kyun taller than Gu by three inches, Eil shifting her weight to her left leg, Xia with her arms crossed, Wei slipping on her pink dance shoes, and my mom smiling.
Like a good friend should, my mom walked up to Xiufong and patted her left shoulder. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” She smiled as she was thinking of a better reaction. All the other girls took turns congratulating Xiufong, who only smiled and thanked everyone. During dance practice, my mom’s arms felt heavy and her feet fell out of rhythm. Time after time, she thought about her notebook and shook her head vigorously and smiled. She is Xiufong’s best friend, and needed to congratulate her from the bottom of her heart.
She walked with Xiufong on the way back. Their houses were in the same direction. They walked in silence, until Xiufong said, “Sorry. I know how much you wanted to go.” My mom looked at her and smiled “No, don’t be! I’m happy for you. Just remember to write to me once in a while.” Xiufong asked, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
My mom replied, “Yeah. But more importantly, why aren’t you acting happy? Jump! Skip! Be happy!” My mom said punctuating her sentence with her arms thrusting into the air. Xiufong looked at her and quietly said, “I am happy.”
“Good. Then so am I,” my mom said. At the crossroad, my mom waved at her as always, and started walking home. She thought about the time they made fun of Gu, who was mistaken for a middle schooler, and smiled. She thought about the time they tried catching frogs at the pond, and smiled. And she thought about Xiufong standing up there today, and pursed her lips into making the same plastered smile. She slowed down, her face looking down on the dirt road. This was the only reason why she loved the village. At any time of the day, she could usually count on seeing nobody on the road. She dropped her bag and let the tears roll down her face. She opened her mouth, thrust her head forward, and forced out all the airs in her lungs, screaming without the sound. She steadied herself my bending over, hands on her knees, and let the last tear roll down her face.
Another old lady was at the door, bowing to her mom. She slowed down and watched the whole fiasco again, the whole bundle-pushing, head-bowing, lies. It was as if the whole village knew how to legally steal from her family. She wondered if the old lady had a good reason for doing this, taking from her. Perhaps she really needed the food and clothes, had three starving grandchildren and this was her last resort. My mom almost began pitying the old woman, with her ragged shawl and gray hair.
A pig walked up to her and she bent down petting the pig. Maybe the old lady doesn’t even have a farm. She stroked the pig’s chin, “Do you think so? She doesn’t have a piggy, she doesn’t have anyone to help raise her three starving grandchildren, and she lives in a little hut with a crack in the wall, right? People here are innocent and wouldn’t steal.” My mom continued petting the pig. But that night, my mom wrote her dad a letter requesting him to send her some of the money he usually sends to mom.
A few months later, grandmother gathered all of her kids and distributed the letters from grandpa. This time, grandpa sent her less money. She told everyone to be mindful of what they do with money. My mom pursed her lips and slid her envelope closer to her navel. When they were allowed to disperse, she went up to her room and found 8 yuan in her envelope. “Your mom has her reasons,” her dad wrote, “Don’t argue with her all the time. But this is a little something for you and your siblings.”
The next day, at the porridge shop, my mom ordered two bowls of porridge and a bowl of sweet dumplings. “Is today a holiday? Why is she ordering sweet dumplings?” Sue whispered to Geen, who looked at the dumplings and swallowed.
My mom said, “Eat, eat before they get cold.” She spooned a dumpling and put it in her mouth, as if showing Sue and Geen how to eat. “Mmmmm,” she said nodding at sue. Sue smiled and started spooning the dumpling. “This is great right? Geen, eat. It’s good!” Geen looked at her sister and then the bowl of sweet dumplings and her sister again and shrugged. She picked up her spoon and dug in. “This is good right?” Her sisters’ mouths were full of sticky flour, so she answered for them. “This is good.”
To some extent, my grandfather knew my grandmother wasn’t really Xinyi and that my great-grandfather wasn’t an American soldier. After all, Chester A. Author signed the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 8, 1882. And this law wasn’t repealed until December 17, 1943. But he never confronted her. Having seen the scars on his wife’s body, he knew she had some past but he loved her and that was okay.
When my mother was depressed, my grandfather was thousands of miles away. For his first few letters, he just sent her money to fulfill her request. But he was distraught and wanted to comfort his daughter, to patch things up emotionally. So, even though he was a teacher, he decided to tell my mother that she had a grandfather who immigrated to America. And because of he fought bravely in World War II in the American Air Force, because he acquired citizenship, their immigration application would go through smoothly. Just a couple of more months maybe. And that became my mother’s and my grandmother’s reality, a dream everyone had together.
I always thought my English name was arbitrary. After all, when my mother was pregnant with me, she barely knew English, and my name definitely has no connection to Hebrew gods or anything like that. But it turns out, as she was stroking her navel, looking out the window that winter morning, she was thinking about me, thinking about her.
The subway trains were halted, the streets were snowed over. As she looked at the flurries of snow, she thought of my name. If you say Joanna with an accent and tweak the tones to fit my native tongue, you can hear how my name stands for new hope.