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I was only four when my mother chose to leave China. She was a single mother, her husband had died when I was only two months old. I didn’t remember him, but I’m sure she did. My mother was headed to America: the land of opportunity, the land of hope, the land of dreams. I never understood it then, the spark in their eyes when she spoke of it. America. She seemed to envision of a land of the unlimited, something she had wished for only never gotten.
I grew up in America, except I don’t see what she saw. Here, all I see are stereotypes. Racial stereotypes. Gender stereotypes. Stereotypes, and hate. I am sixteen now, and everyday, I hear in the news of something else that has happened. A black man in Ferguson was shot by a white police. An asian girl was driven to suicide because her classmates called her a “dumpling”- someone fat and asian.
Just like I never understood that spark in my mother’s eye, she never understood why I thought of America the way I did. Unlike me, she doesn’t read the news- her English isn’t good enough just yet. All throughout my childhood, she told me stories- anecdotes- that the Chinese have passed down for generations. Some days, when I come home with a terrible grade on a US History test, she frowns at me. I can see the lines permanently etched on her face; they remind me of the thick, black lines I sketch sometimes. “Why you no work harder?” she asks in fractured, broken English. I scoff at her, anger burning freely inside me. Why should I listen to a woman who can barely even speak my language? My mother continues. “Why so hard to get good grade?” She doesn’t understand. I think to myself. She’s from China. She doesn’t understand the American ways. That’s what I always told myself. She doesn’t understand America.
When I just glare at her, she stares back with an expression like a stone. Unmoving. She speaks again. “Yu bu zhuo, bucheng qi,” she says, raising an eyebrow at me. A gem won’t be polished without rubbing, nor a man perfected without trials. It’s a Chinese proverb I have come to recognize in the many times she has told it to me, looking as she is now. My response is the same. Doesn’t she understand that I’m trying my best? How can I work any harder when I’ve been spending hours on end? My arguments are all in my head, but if she’d looked down then, she would have seen my hands balled into fists, the knuckles white and the nails digging it to the skin of my palm. Later, I would see the deep nail marks I had left there, dark red and lurid.
Some days around the dinner table, we would be sitting there, just the two of us. She would often say something, telling me that because I am Chinese, I should do this, or I should be like this. “But I’m American,” I would protest, indignant, “I’m not Chinese.”
“You’re Chinese-american,” she would remind me in simple Chinese, the only kind I could understand. “That is different.”
I hated her for saying that. All my life, I wanted to be American. Just American. I wanted to be like the girls in school whose parents bought them all the clothes they wanted, all the makeup they wanted, all the phones or laptops or iPods they wanted. I wanted to be the girls whose parents smiled and commended them if they came home with an eighty on a US History test. My mother never gave me compliments, she never said “good job” or “nicely done”. To me, it seemed the only words she seemed to know in English were “keep working”. When I reached varsity on my school’s tennis team, she only stared at me and asked, “Are you number one?” When I shook my head no, she nodded to herself and told me, “Keep working.”
Other days she would say, “Why you no exercise? You getting fat!” And staring at her, I wondered if other people’s parents talked to them this way. If they called them fat directly to their face. But the thing was, I wasn’t even fat, by the usual standards. It was on these occasions that I thought of the “dumpling girl” and threatened angrily in my head that if she kept doing this, kept insulting me, I would do the same thing that girl had done. But I never did. I also never spoke when she yelled at me for not practicing piano, or not participating in enough “extra-curriculums”. I was raised this way, to never talk back to my mother. So instead, I screamed back at her in my head. Why do I have to practice piano for three hours when no one else does? Why do I have to have the mother that always insults and never compliments? Why me?
We had an old, rickety table when I was growing up. It was always sitting just beside the window. Most days, the sun shone halfway across the red paint, and as time passed, the red in that half faded to pink. My mother always tried to move the table into the shadows, so that no more of the beautiful red Chinese paint would fade, but I always moved it back. To me, it looked better pink.
I am 46 now, and few opportunities present itself to me. But they do. I went through high school without ever listening. “In one ear, out the other,” my mother puts it in Chinese. “Someday, you’ll learn to listen. You’ll understand what I am saying, whether it be when you're twenty or forty. Other people will get it when they’re twenty, but you will only understand when you’re forty. Twenty years of your life will be wasted, not understanding. Never trying.” And she’s right. I am almost fifty now, and my dreams are passing me by. I realize now that she cared if I performed poorly on a test because she cared about me. She scolded me for not participating in extracurriculars because she cared about my future. In the news these days, I see stories of people like me, yet not quite. They are my age, but they have accomplished so much more in their life. They are the innovators, the engineers, the doctors, the philanthropists. They are something, and I am nothing. I can only watch, watch and listen to the achievements my generation has attained without me. When I was young I dreamed that I would be famous, that I would be remembered for an accomplishment that I had achieved. Someday, I thought, someday people will know my name. I will be famous. But today is not the day, and tomorrow is not the day. I am 46 years old and I have finally learned to listen. But it is too late. Too late have I realized what the spark in my mother’s eye had been when she spoke of America. Too late have I finally understood what it means to listen. Too late have I found that opportunities don’t present itself to you, you seize them. And too late have I discovered that dreaming is not enough, dreaming doesn’t make it happen. It is only the first step, and if you don’t take the other, you might as well have never stepped forward.
I’ve taught my children what my mother taught me, I have taught them my own experiences. And like me, they don’t really listen. It goes in one ear and out the other. But now, I am beginning to see the differences, because unlike me, they are beginning to understand. They are not yet twenty and they are beginning to understand, because of the experiences that I had told them. Experiences my mother never had the chance to tell me, because I refused to listen. Perhaps my children are better than me in that aspect, they know what is important and what is not. Someday, I hope that my dreams will come true through them. I hope they realize that race is never defining, and that culture, whether Chinese or American, should be valued and embraced. Because those are things I never did.
I am eighty now, but my life has become nothing. I am adrift, isolated in a breaking log rushing down the river. I remember my days of high school, but they are blurry. My memories are fading, along with my eyesight and hearing. Some days, I just wish that I could leave this eternal torture. In the news I hear of the great inventions mankind has created. Somewhere in the world is a robot that can do everything for you. Somewhere in the world people are working on self-driving cars. Somewhere in the world are hoverboards that can take you anywhere. But that somewhere is not here. When I flip through the channels, I hear of people doing good, and I want to do the same. But I have realized now that I am unable, there are simply no more opportunities left for me.
I have so many regrets in my life, so many that some days, they seemed to weigh me down. Some days, they feel like a hundred pound weight sitting on my chest forcing me down. I can’t breathe. But I am glad I have made it this far.
I took over my childhood home when my mother passed away a few years back. The red table is still there, sitting by the window. The only difference is that now it’s mostly a faded pink, and I have found that I am beginning to miss the red.
These days, lying in bed, I wonder about my two selves, the Chinese and the American. A clash of cultures. I used to wish I could be wholly American, but these days, I begin to fear that I am losing the Chinese. And that is half of me.