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Melancholy music drifted from the phone as the call connected with my mother. I paced the floor busily, now and then checking on the rice cooker, stir frying the vegetables, and glancing into the bedroom, where my daughter Mei was sitting on the bed, her hands clasped together, staring soundlessly at her hands.
At last, she picked up. “Hello?”
“Mama, it’s me, Yu,” I said, relieved that she was home.
“Ah, Yu! How are you my daughter?” My mother’s voice was cheerful in contrast to my own mood.
“I’m fine, as always, Mama,” I said.
“Ah that’s good, that’s good. Have you eaten enough? You haven’t slept too late have you? And how is Jin doing? Has he done all right at work?”
“Oh yes, Mama, he’s doing well as always.” I ducked over and glance at Mei, who hadn’t moved from her position on the bed.
“He doesn’t come home suspiciously late or anything right?” she asked anxiously.
“No, Mama,” I said patiently. “Jin has never done anything of the sort.”
“Well that’s good. And how are the children? Are Mei and Zhang doing all right?”
I inhaled sharply, as I walked back and peered at Mei. She was still staring at her hands. Her face looked lost, lonely, and blank. I felt a slight twinge of fear for her.
“Hello?” my mother called from the phone. “Are you there?”
“Oh, yes, I’m here, sorry. Yes, both Mei and Zhang are fine.” I said hurriedly.
“Well Zhang is a smart boy,” said my mother. “He has been eating enough right? Has he gained a lot of weight? And Mei as well?”
“Actually, Mama, Mei is the reason why I called you.” I said, taking off my apron with shaking hands.
There was silence from the other end of the phone. “What is wrong with Mei?”
“A lot of things have been happening, actually,” I said wearily, as I hung the apron on its hook, and wrapped our dinner in towels to keep the food warm. “She hasn’t been speaking to us at all.”
“Mei hasn’t spoken? But she’s always been such a vivacious child!” said my mother in disbelief. “How could this be? Have you tried talking to her?”
“Yes, we’ve tried everything,” I answered wearily. I wrung my hands as I looked at Mei again. She had lain down on the bed and fallen asleep. “She just won’t communicate with us. She’s respectful enough, I mean, you’ve trained her well. But she won’t get close enough to us. We take her out on little excursions on the metro to some of the underground malls to buy clothes or toys, and she won’t tell us what she wants. She seems very disinterested in all that.”
“Well she’s a little girl, perhaps she doesn’t like shopping,” suggested my mother.
“We took her to the park and on one of the boats on the Huangpu River. We looked at the colorful lights in the skyscrapers and buildings, but during that whole time, Mei just sat in a corner and refused to go onto the roof of the boat to see the night scenery.”
“Well it might have been a particularly humid night, you know children have their strange quirks,” my mother said.
“We took her out to eat,” I said in frustration. Why didn’t my mother understand? “We made conversation about her studies and so forth. Jin praised her for doing well on her last examination…”
“Praise is a good start,” my mother said.
“…And instead of becoming happy and comfortable and pleased, she only said to Jin, ‘Thank you sir’.”
“Sir?” echoed my mother. “She doesn’t call Jin her father?”
“No, nor does she call me ‘mama’,” I said. “She doesn’t want to talk to us. She doesn’t recognize us as our parents. Mama, we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried to show her love and affection, but she won’t accept it.”
“She has to get use to Shanghai, that’s all,” my mother comforted. “After all, she’s lived apart from you all these years! If she is suddenly taken to a new environment, of course she will be afraid, especially since she is so young and immature. She didn’t even know she had parents until a few months ago!”
“It’s all my fault,” I groaned.
“It isn’t your fault. You did what you could,” my mother soothed.
“Mama, don’t you see? All this could have been avoided if I hadn’t sent her to live with you. Not that I’m ungrateful for what you’ve done for her,” I said quickly. “But she’s lived with you for so long—all that motherly affection I should have shown her, she has gotten from you instead. I’m just a stranger to her.”
“But if you hadn’t sent her away, you wouldn’t have had Zhang,” said my mother. “And having many children—especially sons—is important in carrying on the family name.”
“Was it worth losing my daughter over?” I demanded.
“Many women have done the same thing. You know you couldn’t afford to pay the fine for having a second child. And heaven forbid you send any of your children to an orphanage or a foster family.”
“I should have obeyed the law,” I moaned. “I should have had one child and given her all my love and affection.”
“It is hard to reconnect, but you will have to do your best, Yu. Just continue giving her love. Show her your love even if it gets hard. She is young, and she will absorb all that affection and one day she will return it.”
“I’m afraid, it’s too late,” I said. “She will never love us now.”
“Nonsense, Yu! Mei is a naturally affectionate child. I’m sure once the initial feelings of loneliness and fear wear off…”
I sat down hard on the living room couch and buried my face in my hands. “Mama, we’re tired of trying. So tired.”
“You are a parent. That is no excuse.”
“No, I don’t mean we’ve stopped trying. But Jin messed up…we both messed up.”
“I don’t understand! Yu, if you’d like I can talk to Mei…”
“Nothing you do or say will solve matters,” I said, leaning back on the couch. I covered my hand with my eyes. “I’ll tell you what happened. Yesterday we were eating dinner as usual. I was feeding Zhang and Jin had come home early with a gift for Mei. He had bought her a new doll—and an expensive one.” I could see it in my mind’s eye so clearly: the beautiful porcelain doll with real golden hair, blue eyes, and painted cheeks. “He had it all wrapped up—oh he took such pains with the gift. And he presented it to Mei. He smiled and,” I could feel the tears running down my cheeks. I stopped speaking to wipe them, and scramble for the tissue box. “And he said to her ‘I bought this especially for my dear little daughter from her loving Baba’.”
“Did Mei accept the gift?”
“Mei didn’t seem at all excited by the gift or his kind gesture. She seemed rather stunned and frightened, and in reply, she whispered, ‘Thank you sir’. She barely looked at the gift at all!”
My mother made a sympathetic noise. “Poor Jin!”
“Yes, he was very hurt by that gesture, but he tried to cover it up. He must have gone through such pains with the gift! We were eating as usual and he was serving the food when I think at last he broke. He was giving her food, giving her the best morsels, and every time he served her, I saw how silent she still was and how forlorn he looked. So I goaded her at last and asked, ‘Mei, what do you say when someone gives you something? What is the polite thing to say and do?’ And she looked at her father and said clearly, ‘Thank you sir’. Then he suddenly leapt up, slammed his chopsticks down and slapped her hard across the face. It was so loud and violent that you could hear the impact afterwards.”
“Ah!” said my mother sadly.
“Zhang started crying, and I was stunned. Mei was sobbing hard and Jin was screaming like an insane man, ‘Why won’t you call me Baba? I’ve waited so long, why won’t you just call me Baba?’ And then he ran from the room.” I sniffed as I wiped my nose. “So you see, we can’t possibly keep her after this. She will forever be unhappy.”
“What are you going to do?” asked my mother. “Do you want me to visit?”
“There will be no need of that. We are sending her back to you.” I said. Then I began to cry. I cried and cried for my lost relationship with my firstborn daughter—a daughter that I had willingly sent away so I could illegally give birth to a second child.
“Calm down Yu, it will be all right. Surely that is unnecessary!” said my mother.
“No, Mama, please take her back. Please. We just want her to be happy. She will never be happy with us now. Not after this. Jin and I have discussed this and we agreed that this is the best path for our daughter. She loves you dearly. She doesn’t love us and will never love us.”
My mother was silent. “I love Mei,” she said at last. “If you think this is the best way, I will take her back. I confess I missed the child while she was gone. The house seems quiet without the pattering of her feet.”
“All right then it’s settled. I’ll make the arrangements for her trip back.” I said. “Thank you Mama, goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Yu,” my mother said.
I hung up and stared blankly outside. Out of our apartment window, I could see the sprawling expanse of Shanghai, every square foot of it covered in towering skyscrapers and apartment buildings. I looked at the streets crowded with cars, the pedestrians running across the street, dodging between cars, the foreigners in crisp business suits off to work. Then I turned and went to where Mei lay sleeping. I smoothed her hair back and she woke up, staring at me with round eyes.
“Mei, darling, we’re going to take you to see Grandma. Would you like that?”
Her eyes brightened, and she sat up. “Grandma? We’re going to Grandma’s house?”
“Yes, Mei, you can stay with her too if you’d like.”
Mei considered this for a moment. Then she smiled sweetly, a smile that spread across her face slowly and lit up her eyes like lights on the water.
“Thank you Mama,” she said.