May-lee Chai | Longreads | July 2018 | 15 minutes (4,118 words)
When I was a junior in college, my father, mother, and brother took a trip to Hawaii. I didn’t go because I’d been named editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and needed to be at school before the semester started. I needed to get the first issue out for freshmen orientation. I also needed the money. My parents weren’t paying for my college, and I needed every little bit of cash that I could get.
While she was in Hawaii, my mother called me at my dorm to tell me about the trip. Only recently had my mother overcome her severe fear of flying and she still had a kind of ecstatic quality to her voice that I associated with the extreme highs that followed her moments of panic or fear.
“It’s beautiful! This is my place,” she declared. “The flowers, all the flowers, everywhere!”
She then proceeded to tell me how lovely she found Honolulu — the sunlight, the birds of paradise and jasmine and red ginger and hibiscus and bougainvillea, the white sand, the warm ocean. After seven years in the Midwest, seven years of blizzards and tornadoes followed by more blizzards and more tornadoes, she was sick of weather that rotated from one extreme of discomfort to the other.
“And they like me here! I went out into the water, Papa was on the beach, you know he won’t get wet, and Jeff wasn’t feeling well, he was in the room, so I went by myself into the ocean, and I was just splashing the water over my arms, it felt so good, and a white woman came up to me. She said, ‘Aloha! Welcome!’ Then she leaned in close to me and said, ‘We whites have to stick together against the Asian invasion.’” My mother was ecstatic. “She liked me! They like me here!”
“Oh my god!” I was genuinely shocked. “Mama, listen to yourself. ‘They like me’? ‘We have to stick together against the Asian invasion’? That’s terrible! Listen to what she’s saying. Stick together against your Asian husband? Against your Asian son?” I could not even bear to mention myself in this litany. (Against your Asian daughter? I thought. Against me?) I could barely breathe.
My mother was oblivious to my pain. “No, no, they like me! They like me here!” she insisted, as though I’d said something very different, as though I’d said, “They don’t like you” rather than pointing out that the white supremacist didn’t like the rest of us. My mother’s voice remained buoyant, child-like, and our conversation ended very shortly after that. She had nothing more to say to me and hung up.
There are several things you need to know to understand this anecdote:
1. My father is Chinese, my mother white, my brother and I mixed-race Chinese and white.
2. We moved from the New York City metropolitan area to South Dakota when I was twelve, to a rural community, where we became the first mixed-race family with a Chinese man married to a white woman that they’d ever seen. White people there did not like us.
White men drove by our house, first shouting racial slurs out their windows, later shooting at our dogs, killing five of them over the years, leaving the bodies in the driveway for my brother and me to find when we got off the school bus. White women called my mother a floozy, my father a Chinaman. Their children told my brother and me that we were the Devil’s Spawn, that God had put the different races on different continents to keep the races separated, and now we’d violated God’s will.
When my brother and I tried to complain about our treatment at school, my father said we did not know how to get along with people, it was our fault. He said we were ‘weirdos.’
This sounded crazy to me, but later in graduate school I’d learn that a white judge in Virginia used this exact same rationale for declaring mixed-race marriages illegal. This is how he voided Mildred and Richard Lovings’ marriage in 1963. This language is part of the legal ruling.
The kids in my school also explained that when the races mixed, the Devil could reign for a thousand years and there would be a one-world government. We were signs from the Book of Revelations of all that could wrong when God’s will was not followed. I thought this stupid, crazy talk. It was 1979 when we moved to this town. At first, I couldn’t believe people still thought such things. But the more and more kids talked like this, the more I felt exposed, naked, my skin goosepimpling, my stomach dropping with dread.
In 2008 after Barack Obama was elected president, more and more people, white people, would talk like this. They’d be interviewed on cable news; they’d be given platforms to speak. I wasn’t as surprised the second time in my life this happened.
3. During this period when we lived in South Dakota, my parents could not talk about racism. They never used the r-word. My father ranted and raved at these people’s “stupidity,” but he did not call them racist. He called them “ignorant.” He called them “peasants.” He called them “low class.”
When my brother and I tried to complain about our treatment at school, at the violence directed at my brother, at the slurs directed at me, my father said we did not know how to get along with people, it was our fault. He said we were “weirdos.”
My mother said we should laugh, that everyone was kidding, they didn’t mean it. When her white friends made racist jokes about my brother and me, she either smiled or looked away and sometimes walked off, pretending she did not hear them.
4. My parents were born in the 1930s, my father in China, my mother in the Midwest in the United States. Neither grew up in an environment where race or racism was discussed. Both were taught to endure, to be quiet about their own pain and by extension the pain of others. There is a good reason this generation is called the Silent Generation.
My father was a child of war. He was born in Nanjing, and at the age of 5 he had to flee his hometown along with the rest of his family to stay ahead of the invading Japanese Army.
When I was growing up, he’d display signs of PTSD; he’d fly into inexplicable rages, he’d smash plates, throw things on the floor, against walls, shout, and I wouldn’t know why. When I was ten, my mother figured out music could be a trigger, the sound of drums would fill him with a kind of fear that made him immediately start shouting. But sometimes the triggers were not visible, or the reaction delayed, and I could not understand the rages he’d fall into.
I blamed myself as a child, tried to find ways to become invisible, to cause no problems, to remain silent, so as not to trigger his shouting.
I lived like this for years until I was fifteen and I could bear the weight of the silence no more. Every part of my body hurt when my father criticized me. He said I would go to Hell for talking back to my parents, and I decided I’d rather go to Hell than live with this aching pain. Whenever he began his litany of criticism, I shouted back at him, arguing, demanding an answer, demanding accountability for how we were treated in this town. During our fights, which could last for hours, my mother would cry, my brother would cry.
When her white friends made racist jokes about my brother and me, my mother either smiled or looked away and sometimes walked off, pretending she did not hear them.
My mother said I was trying to cause trouble. She was angry at me. She told me that I should suffer in silence, that God would reward me for my suffering when I was dead. She was angry at me because in her opinion I had a bad personality. I was not cheerful. I was a “sourpuss.” I was not a good girl. Good girls, and good women, learned to make other people’s lives easier, especially men’s lives. This is God’s will. I was going against God’s will. My brother learned to make a fist and shake it in the air at me whenever I spoke up about the problems in our school, in our community, the racism that I could see and began to name. He used his fist to punch holes in the walls by my head when I didn’t shut up, or if I didn’t shut up fast enough.
My mother hung pictures over the holes in the walls. Pictures she painted of flowers and sunny fields and happy, peaceful scenes of cows grazing in green pastures.
5. I did not realize while she was alive that my mother was mentally ill. She’d suffered as a child from various forms of abuse; her father was a violent alcoholic, in an era when domestic violence was not treated as a crime. Her father beat her mother even when she was pregnant, even when the children were present. Both her parents took their rage out on the body of their eldest child. My mother had been punched and slapped and verbally and emotionally abused from childhood onwards. She’d never been to a therapist; she’d never had access to mental health care. She’d developed coping mechanisms as a child that she carried into adulthood that were not healthy.
I remember her driving us in her Jeep in South Dakota, just my brother and me. My father was on a trip. The three of us were headed to the next town over to the mall there, the closest McDonald’s. We were going to get sundaes. And suddenly, halfway there the sky seemed too large, the fields too flat, the world too wide and open, and my mother couldn’t breathe. She was hyperventilating, she was crying, she couldn’t make it. She had a bad feeling, it was unsafe. So she turned around and we headed back to our farm. We couldn’t make the drive to the next town. The world was closing in.
That was the end of going to McDonald’s for sundaes.
As a child, I was terrified and confused by my mother’s sudden bouts of panic. I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know what caused them. They could occur when we were in restaurants, and suddenly the music was too loud, and we had to leave, quick quick quick, because my mother said she was going to be sick, there was something wrong with her heart, it was beating too quickly. Sometimes this happened when she was driving, mostly it happened when my father was driving, so he let her drive.
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In addition to her panic attacks, she sided with the aggressor once the white men started shooting at our property and killing the dogs, when the white men made crude jokes about my brother, when their sons tried to beat my brother in school, when the white veterans made crude sexual remarks to me, starting when I was fourteen, when white women pretended that I was adopted, pretended that I could not possibly be my mother’s biological daughter. At first she complained that she’d had to endure twenty hours of labor to give birth, but then after a couple years, she stopped. She’d smile at these people and walk away quickly, leaving me alone with them. She never complained to them about the violence. She never criticized the racist things they said.
When I was child, I wondered if there was something wrong with her ears, how it was possible we could both be standing in the same place, and only I could hear what these people said.
6. You need to be able to see me. I started wearing neckties in seventh grade, bow ties, my father’s black tuxedo jacket. At first it’s a style thing. I was dressing like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, a movie I saw before we left the East Coast. It’s set in New York. We used to live 25 miles outside the city in New Jersey and we visited my paternal grandparents every single weekend in the city and ate at Ye-ye and Nai-nai’s favorite Chinese restaurant, Chun Cha Fu on Broadway and 91st. I considered this my normal life. I was nostalgic for what I considered our normal life. I was dressing in a way that I felt set me in that normal life.
Then my mother in her perpetually dissociative mode would not buy me clothes on a regular basis anymore even though I was outgrowing my old clothes, the clothes we brought from New Jersey. When she bought anything for me, she bought me pink things, frilly things, pants so tight they left ridges in the flesh of my belly, blouses so large they fell off my shoulders. It was as though she could not see me, she could not see my body, she could not seem to remember my size, my corporeal self when she was buying clothes for me in the one store in our small town that sold clothing.
When I was child, I wondered if there was something wrong with my mother’s ears, how it was possible we could both be standing in the same place, and only I could hear what these people said.
She was furious when she brought me these clothes home in gift boxes and I didn’t wear them. I didn’t like pink. The pants were too small. The clothes were too big. I was full of excuses. She was furious. I was a spoiled girl. Or she was crying. I had hurt her feelings.
Throughout junior high, I tried sewing my own clothes. At least they fit.
But in high school, my mother wanted me to work full time. She bought thousands of farm animals — chickens, hogs, goats, cows — and wanted my brother and me to raise them. She was selling the eggs and meat to her white friends. I didn’t have time to sew anymore, so I started wearing my brother’s castoffs. He was growing so fast, my mother had to buy him new clothes every three or four months.
She complained about the expense to me. She explained that she couldn’t buy me new clothes because my brother was growing too fast. I was allowed to wear his old clothes.
I could see the pattern, but didn’t understand the pattern yet, that my brother and I were always to blame. Our unruly bodies. My brother was growing too fast. I was not growing properly. Nothing fit me. My hair was too straight. She wanted me to a get a perm. My face was too round. Her friends remarked upon it. The bridge of my nose wasn’t growing. I was going to have a flat Chinese nose. My eyes needed stronger glasses.
My mother pointed out that an eye doctor had once told her that she needed glasses but he was wrong. She refused to wear them, so her eyes never grew weak, and now she didn’t need glasses at all. I was making my eyes weak. She said I read too much. She said she never should have let me watch so much TV. What she didn’t say was that I’d perhaps inherited my father’s eyes. My eyes were brown like his, myopic like his. Were they perhaps Chinese looking, too, like his? But my mother wouldn’t admit this was genetics. It was a moral failure on my part. I was ruining my eyes. I was not allowed to get new glasses.
I knew this was crazy talk. In some part of my brain, I was conscious that this was all illogical. But everyone seemed to agree with my mother. By everyone I meant her white friends. And I had no friends.
Kids in school made fun of my appearance, my ideas, my way of being. I looked like a freak. Wasn’t I a freak?
How was it possible that I could be right and all of these other people could be wrong?
How could I believe that my body was right and all of these other people were wrong about it?
If I could have used the r-word, this situation might have made sense, but I wasn’t allowed to use the r-word. When I said the r-word, my mother cried, she got angry. If we were at home, she left and went for long walks in the fields. If we were at work in the photography studio she opened in town when I was sixteen, she’d leave and go to the post office to pay bills or go to talk to her friends who run other businesses. She would not stay and talk to me. I was a negative person.
7. My brother started cutting himself, his legs, his arms, the skin between his toes. I stood in the doorway to his room and begged him to stop but he wouldn’t listen to me.
I knew why he did it. To dull the pain. It was less painful when there was physical pain to concentrate on rather than just having to feel and think about how we were treated here.
I didn’t cut myself. I was too squeamish. Instead, I dreamed of leaving. I was going to get out. I kept my grades up. My mother didn’t like to see me studying, my father didn’t seem to care what I did, everything I did made him shout at me, so I secretly studied in the in-between times when people couldn’t stop me. I carried sheets of French verb conjugations in my overalls, and when I worked in the barn, I pulled out the slips of paper and tried to memorize them while filling the animals’ watering trays, or while shoveling their shit, or carrying buckets of feed to them. I memorized my notes as I walked from school to my afternoon job in my mother’s photography studio. I got up an extra hour early in the morning, before anyone else in my family, so I could pull out a notebook and study. No one saw so no one stopped me.
When I was seventeen, my mother announced there was no money for me to go to college. She cried when she said this. She was so upset.
In fact, there was money, but it would not be used for me, and certainly not by me to apply to college. My mother would use it for her farm, for her friends, for her sisters, for her photography studio, for the other things that occupied her mind.
I wasn’t allowed to use the r-word. When I said the r-word, my mother cried, she got angry. She would not stay and talk to me. I was a negative person.
But I had been preparing. I had been secretly studying for the ACT, the SAT. I found study guides in the library, I practiced, and when I took the exams, my scores were good. I studied the college brochures I received in the mail and which I hid in a shoebox under my bed. I had enough money of my own to apply to exactly one school. I picked one with need-blind admission and generous financial aid and average test scores that were much lower than mine. I got in. I got a scholarship.
At eighteen I could leave. And I did.
My mother cried, but I left all the same.
My father would ask my mother where I had decided to go to college. Maybe she told him. I didn’t know. He and I weren’t talking. From the ages of 15 to 17 I would shout with him and at him continuously, and then we fell into a kind of detente where we didn’t speak at all. My mother and brother were relieved that the shouting had stopped.
8. I used to blame my parents for what the white supremacists in that small town did to us.
I should have known better, I did know better, yet still I would blame my parents.
Outside of that town, I had access to better libraries, more books, different conversations. I studied the history of America. I read books on my own. I learned all the right terms. I knew Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, Pocahontas, smallpox, Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, slavery, 3/5 a person, the Missouri Compromise, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Treaty of 1868, Wounded Knee, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Oriental Exclusion Act, the Fourteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment, the Cable Act, the Hayes Code, anti-miscegenation laws, Executive Order 9066, Fat Man and Little Boy, Jim Crow, the 38th Parallel, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Operation Menu, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, the ERA, Reagan, AIDS, silence, Iran-Contra, silence, silence, silence.
But what were names in books compared to the anger I felt in my heart? And here were my parents, their little bodies in the same room as mine, their tired bones, their tiny excuses, their still beating hearts.
When I think of my family in Hawaii, I can see them. My father on a towel on the beach with a newspaper or magazine, waiting for my mother. My mother in a sarong, wading into the water, splashing water onto her arms. The ocean breeze salty, moist. She appreciates the warmth after all those cold winters in South Dakota. My brother has eaten something that disagrees with his stomach, he is in the hotel room, recovering. My parents are out in the world alone.
And then the (white) woman emerges from the crowd, she sees my mother, senses her heat, heads straight for her.
My mother, alone, splashing, head tilted into the sun. She does not yet recognize the woman as a threat. She smiles. My mother is a friendly person. Then the (white) woman opens her mouth, releases her poison, first the greeting, “Aloha.” the welcome. You are part of the tribe. And then the warning, “We whites have to stick together against the Asian invasion.”
The trigger. The panic. The brain waves, the old neural pathways. The fear, the terror, the beaten child, the adult woman is gone, there is only the terrified child appeasing the aggressor, agreeing, agreeing to anything, trying to be cheerful, because if you’re not cheerful, you will be beaten, you make your parents angry. This is the woman who will call me in my dorm, my mother speaking in the voice of her terrified child self, the high pitched voice, the breathiness, I remember it from my adolescence, the insistence, the inability to think rationally, the repetitions over and over of whatever crazy terrible thing she is saying. She is crazy, I will think. I will not realize she is mentally ill. That this is trauma speaking. And that there’s a way to heal this trauma. There are doctors. I will think only, She is crazy! And anger surges through my veins.
And like that, the beach is ruined.
We’ll never go again as a whole family. My mother will die in a few years of cancer. Once grown, my brother and I will live far apart. My father will grow frail. And even though I will live in a city next to the ocean, I will feel haunted every time I look at the ocean.
9. We used to go to the beach quite often when I was a small child. That was back when we lived in California, where my parents met and married, where my brother and I were born. I didn’t remember there was a ninth thing until I started writing this, I didn’t warn you about it, but here it is.
I remember Sunday trips to Laguna, the long hot drive in the car with a cooler packed with sandwiches and small metal cans of orange juice. The actual beach is harder for me to remember, we left California for the East Coast when I was six, but I have photos, proof of our excursions. There’s me in a hot pink swimsuit and green plastic sunglasses, my little brother in his plaid swim trunks beside me, squinting into the camera. We’re kneeling on the sand, with plastic shovels and buckets, digging holes. Our mother in the background is wading into the ocean. She is the only one in our family who knows how to swim, who dares venture into the water. My father must have taken the photo.
I can imagine my father sitting on a towel, his pale legs and arms exposed, only his face and neck tanned. He’s brought a book because he doesn’t know what else to do on the beach. It’s not something he grew up with in China. It’s this new California thing he does for his American wife. But he’s game. He wants her to be happy.
He drives us here at least once a month, fighting the traffic on the highway from our house in the Inland Empire, in the deserty, non-beachfront part of Southern California where he has landed his first tenure-track teaching position. It seems such a normal thing to do at the time as a family. A Sunday on the beach together.
* * *
May-lee Chai‘s latest book, Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories, is forthcoming this October 23 from Blair. Her short prose has appeared in Seventeen, Missouri Review, The Offing, Catapult, ZYZZYVA, The Grist, and Dallas Morning News, among many other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky