Victor Yang | Longreads | January 2020 | 16 minutes (4,128 words)
Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love.
* * *
To my mother; Wendy; and all my teachers
I locked my rickety bike in Boston Common. My dress clothes were stained with sweat. In the park’s public bathrooms, I maneuvered my armpits against the hand dryer. A block over, I shivered in the conference room’s AC.
“Tell me about yourself,” asked the woman across the table. I told her about my family. My father’s mother was killed in a fight with her neighbors in rural China. My mother still struggled forming a sentence in correct English. For the past decade, she had been making $14 per hour as a lab tech and cleaner.
“Her fight is my fight,” I said. “It is the fight of all the workers in your union.” My mother’s salary had stayed stagnant for the past decade, whereas this union had raised the pay of janitors from $9.95 to $17.85 an hour. The year after I came on staff, we would win a contract to bring them up to $20 per hour.
My future boss nodded. “What was it like going to Harvard?” She was holding my résumé in her hands. Her smile was curious. She didn’t question my intentions, unlike two prior interviewers who pointed to my Ph.D. from Oxford. They wondered out loud if their job was a twentysomething idealist’s version of a tour stop in fighting poverty.
She hired me as an organizer for the janitors’ union. I was the son of a working-class immigrant and a graduate of two of the most elite universities in the world. I sold myself as candidates do in their stump speeches. Vote for me, and I will bring every American into the middle class. Those politicians may have graduated from Yale and Stanford, but they always mentioned family hardships. Their mother had been laid off, or their grandfather became homeless. As if the steps on the class ladder were like colors on an artist’s palette. Mix enough of them, and you can dull the shine of your Ivy League degree and the gold in your bank account. A humble gray in America’s melting pot.
We get jobs for many reasons other than pure merit: the people we know, the schools we attended, the stories we tell. I told the story of my mother’s failure.
* * *
Wendy wielded a knife with the same scary proficiency as my mother. With a plantain in the palm of her left hand, she’d flick her right wrist. Chunks fell in rapid succession from the peel into the sizzling oil. I hovered in her kitchen or just outside of it. We both wiped sweat off our brows. Her apartment boasted a view of brownstones and sidewalk cafés, but the management company had sealed the windows half shut.
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“What is it like to live in the world of the one percent?” I asked. Wendy laughed, the bulge of her belly shaking, the part of her body she called a colchón. Her mattress. Rents in Boston’s South End had climbed to $3,000 for a one-bedroom like Wendy’s. But she had government-subsidized housing. She was the only person in Boston I knew who could afford to live alone. Rent was proportional to her salary, so she only paid a few hundred a month. She didn’t make much as a part-time janitor.
My mother’s salary had stayed stagnant for the past decade, whereas this union had raised the pay of janitors from $9.95 to $17.85 an hour.
On the first shelf of her TV stand, she showed me her ceramic sandals with the fat pink thongs, watermelon slices painted an artificial red, and the miniature pigs with etched-in parentheses for noses. Each set in her collection came in twos, with little dots on top. “Salt and pepper shakers,” she explained. “We resort to simple joys as poor people, no?” I cringed. At the union, I made $50,000 a year, double my mother’s salary, and almost quadruple Wendy’s. Like all union members, she paid two percent of her salary in dues. Every last cent of my paycheck came from their pockets.
I didn’t say this. Instead, on my visits to Wendy’s house, we took turns guessing at and delighting over how little we spent on our respective outfits from Goodwill. I had been shopping at thrift stores for years because of my mother. “We’re not poor anymore,” my mother said. But she still scoured Macy’s racks for clearance deals, and I still got my clothes secondhand. Thanks to a lifetime of learning from my working-class mother, I could grow close to working-class Wendy.
* * *
My mother blamed Harvard. “They made your head too big,” she said. In her words, I was “wasting my education to help poor people.” As a kid, I promised to win enough scholarships to earn back the money she had forsaken as a stay-at-home mom. On a trip back to China when I was in fifth grade, she brandished a bestseller in the bookstore: 哈佛女, Harvard Girl. Not in her worst nightmares would I use my Harvard education to become a labor organizer.
Members of our labor union cleaned toilet bowls and office floors. Union staff like me were called organizers, charged to clean up social injustice. I worked in the union’s political division. During my time there, I led our union’s workers to become the major force behind a historic upset on the Boston City Council, electing the first-ever woman of color to a conservative seat. We won millions of dollars for affordable housing on the state ballot and passed pro-immigrant legislation in a Trump-esque city. To achieve the American Dream together, we said.
“So you’re just 造反,” my mother said. The first character is the verb to make, the second is to turn over. Together, they denote rebellion. In Chinese, it means you’re up to no good.
I want to do right by you, I wanted to tell her. Others shouldn’t have to suffer the way you have. Instead, I said, “I’m not a troublemaker.” I struggled to describe the job in my limited Mandarin. “Think of me as a teacher.”
I was a teacher. I served as the lead educator for the 18,000 workers in our union. The vast majority were Spanish-speaking janitors, many of them immigrants my mother’s age. My boss charged me with launching a yearlong education program called the Social Justice Leadership Academy. I ran workshops to educate our members on campaigns we were pursuing for economic and immigrant justice.
The first step was to recruit a cohort of 30 students. My boss gave me a name to start with. “Wendy,” she said. “She’ll do the program.” A few days later, a tall woman took a seat across from me in the same overly air-conditioned room where I had my first interview. Wendy was about my height, almost six feet. With her small-rimmed glasses and collared shirts, she could have passed as my teacher. “I just want to learn,” she said. Unlike the version of me who had sat in that same interview seat, she wasn’t claiming to want to change the world, nor rewrite a history that had befallen her mother. She didn’t harbor grand illusions.
I had been in the job for a month and was playing gatekeeper to people who had fought in the union for decades. They had gone on strike, survived civil wars, and raised kids older than me, but somehow I managed to gather up 20-some sheets of paper: 20-some students who signed contracts to attend every session. The Academy consisted of one Saturday class every month from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Many of our workers were trying to cobble together rent money and legal status. The union had answers, we told them. We were on the road to win a $15 minimum wage and laws to protect undocumented immigrants.
Wendy attended every single session, but she was the exception. In the first year of the program, the union hall was so empty, it looked more like a warehouse than a classroom. The few windows were in an offset part of the room, facing high-rises that blocked out the sun. From the ceiling, exposed wires and strip lighting glared onto us. People rolled in hours late, if at all. I’m sick. I took an overtime shift. I have to cook for my daughter’s birthday tomorrow. I didn’t blame them. Nothing could replace time spent with family, I believed, even though I moved away from my parents 10 years prior.
Every month, I stood up and opened class in my amateur Spanish. Everyone else in the room was a native speaker. They were the ones who had snuck children across the border and battled abusive husbands. Yet I was supposed to teach them about immigrant and gender justice.
Officially, the Leadership Academy intended to equip janitors with the skills to lobby politicians, rally coworkers to action, and win campaigns for immigrant rights and economic equality. I had my own agenda, too. I wanted our union members to feel human, to learn and dream beyond their day-to-day work. It was jarring to bump into them on the job — say, at the airport on my trips out of Boston. In the terminal bathrooms, I was a vacationer with disposable income, and they were blue uniforms scrubbing toilets and pushing trash carts. In the tight aisle between the urinals and sinks, everyone rushed past them. I, too, avoided saying hi. I didn’t want to acknowledge how my workers spent their waking hours, invisible. It reminded me of seeing my own mother on the clock. In uniform, she was not the intelligent woman who raised me, but a faceless low-wage worker.
I made myself a pledge for the Leadership Academy. In my class, janitors would be teachers. I divided up the workshop content like slabs of pork, preparing word-by-word scripts for them. America’s borders exclude people based on their nationality and skin color. Sanctuary cities prohibit cooperation between immigration authorities and local police. I gave workers private lessons in the history of redlining in the U.S. and the process for bills to become law. My boss thought it’d be too much material for them to handle. But I took on the responsibility. I wanted to show that low-wage workers were capable.
I had seen my workers hold their own in political debate about Colombian politics and U.S. elections. But in front of our classroom, they stumbled over the awkward Spanish I had written for them. “Isn’t this your job?” they asked. They were janitors, and I was their teacher. School made people like them feel dumb. Like their workplaces and the anti-immigrant media, my academy was another space that dulled their brilliance.
* * *
My mother was brilliant. When I was in middle school, she was a two-kid parent, a two-job holder, a four-course Chinese dinner cook, and a community college student taking eight classes a semester. Sometimes I’d sit next to her after school, just outside the kitchen. She could slice onions, keep her eyes on my geometry homework, and arrange car pools on the phone, all at the same time.
School made people like them feel dumb. Like their workplaces and the anti-immigrant media, my academy was another space that dulled their brilliance.
I used to apply to jobs on my mother’s behalf. On her résumé, I dropped her degree in electrical engineering and a decade of work in the ’80s as a programmer in Beijing. On her new résumé in the New World, she read as a younger woman, if also a poorer one. She vacuumed hotel rooms; she decorated cakes; she mixed chemical solutions. Jobs that didn’t require English. Her bosses were demanding; her pay was too little. She quit. She got laid off.
English was key to her dreams in America. I didn’t help her. When she tried practicing, my hands flew up to either side of my face, like earmuffs. “You’ll never learn,” I told her. I picked up more of the language in my first few months of primary school than she would her entire life. On my trips back home as an adult, I read her Amelia Bedelia books, and she’d stare dumb at the puns before giving up. It made me imagine a rubber band tied to her tongue, pulling her back at the slightest stretch of progress.
I could have become a dedicated teacher for my mother like I did for my workers. I could have taken time off from my schooling or my job. But it was easier to write her off. It was easier to wonder if what everyone thought about my mother and her broken English and pitiful salary were true. She was brilliant and stupid. She could do anything, and she could do nothing.
* * *
Wendy didn’t believe in excuses. Once, she offered to make reminder calls for the Academy. I refused. I was getting paid for this work; she was not. She insisted, sitting down in the empty cubicle next to mine. Some of her classmates were taking their kids to the park. “So what if the weather’s nice?” she asked them on the phone. Her face was a cross between a scowl and a laugh, her chuckles like rocks tumbling off a cliff. “La lucha sigue.” The fight continues.
She pushed people, as organizers should. During discussions in the Academy, her hands made swiping gestures to interrupt the same old men gabbing on about their glory days. A few members looked up at me hopefully, but I was never brave enough to cut people off. One time Wendy got up and tapped me on the shoulder. When I shook my head, she interrupted the man herself. “We have to give room for everyone to talk,” she said as the room breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m radical,” she said, sidling up to me. “I don’t care what other people think of me.” I nodded. But her attitude wasn’t radical. It felt familiar and right. In her broken English, my mother never left a government office or customer service desk without getting her point across. I saw Wendy do the same. They were kindred spirits.
“You’re a leader of leaders,” I told Wendy. She responded with a half howl, half giggle. But I knew it to be true. She believed in the brilliance of other people, and she demanded they show it.
* * *
The next year I ran the Leadership Academy, I stopped giving them scripts. “Write your own,” I said. They looked at me with wide eyes, bewildered.
“What do I know about immigrant justice?” they asked.
“Everything,” I said.
A week later, they came to the workshop with pages of handwritten notes. “I threw up the night before,” several of them confessed. One of them gave a survey of the history of American capitalism, from Columbus in 1492 to the hegemony of the U.S. dollar post–World War II. Gladys’s explanation of historical economy was the best I had ever heard, better than any lecture from my Harvard professors.
On paper, I taught a new group of workers each year of the Academy. But after each cohort graduated, the alumni still insisted on attending. In the third year, they demanded sessions twice a month. “If you do the work,” I told them. So they did. They ran interviews to recruit the new cohort. They organized the turnout calls Wendy and I used to do. They assigned every student a role: photographer, moderator, cleanup captain. Wendy and the other workers took over. The problem hadn’t been that they couldn’t succeed in the Academy. The problem was that I hadn’t let them make the program their own. I hadn’t trusted their intelligence. When I did, they exceeded my greatest expectations.
* * *
“Stop biking,” Wendy ordered when I arrived at the office with shoes covered in salt and snow slush, pebbles grating the floor with each step. Like my mother, she fretted over my safety. “Only in America do rich people choose to ride bikes,” Wendy said. We chuckled at the $250 green contraption I referred to as my spouse. The union members named it my luxury car.
Biking was my one daily pleasure. For an hour or two a day, I could take my mind off of my workers who had gotten harassed, fired, and deported. I zipped between the Financial District and the Latino neighborhoods, past rear bumper lights and stalled subway cars. The city shrunk under my tires. Leg down, pedal up, an effortless momentum: the tread of my tires marked a line forward I often struggled to envision in my activist work.
The problem hadn’t been that they [my workers] couldn’t succeed in the Academy. The problem was that I hadn’t let them make the program their own. I hadn’t trusted their intelligence. When I did, they exceeded my greatest expectations.
Wendy checked on me more than my mother. At the end of her afternoon hospital shift, she walked the few blocks between her worksite and mine. There she hovered next to my cubicle until I told her how I was doing. I’m tired. Overwhelmed. I didn’t share such feelings with my mother. “What could be so hard about your job,” my mother often asked. But Wendy didn’t judge. I showed Wendy the to-do lists I wrote on the back of deconstructed cereal boxes, the cardboard big enough to fit most of the day’s tasks. When I fell ill, she texted me every few hours. Don’t work so hard. You should take a break. Before joining the union, I used to get a cold every two years. In this job, it was every two months.
Among the Spanish expressions she taught me — bad words, slang, and proverbs included — one phrase she repeats to this day: de los buenos quedamos pocos. There are only a few of us good ones left. I nodded as I coughed. “I’m dying.” This half joke was the closest truth I gave her. Between long hours, endless meetings, and Trump’s tweets, I was drowning in discouragement.
The Academy was successful, but it didn’t feel like enough. It was only a part of my job. The part the rest of the union often overlooked. I had to joust with my colleagues to keep the room reservations and dates for workshops that my workers had scheduled months in advance. I often lost. There were always more pressing matters the union needed workers to attend to: layoffs, labor violations, and legislative votes. In my last year of the job, the union slashed the program’s budget. The implicit message: Education was good and fun, but what good were workshops if people were still going to be stuck in low-wage jobs, or worse, without any work at all?
Wendy was trying to get her GED, because her school in the Dominican Republic had yet to produce the high school diploma she earned two decades ago. “Check back later,” they said. I helped her look into high school equivalency classes in Spanish. There were none in Boston, a city of hundreds of thousands of Latinos. The closest classes a town and river away. “I don’t want to be a janitor forever,” she said.
I cringed when Wendy tripped over the easiest of English words. When she sat in the spare cubicle next to mine, her fingers pecked at the keyboard, like a chicken’s beak in slow motion. As she tried logging into her Hotmail account, I turned back to my screen to distract myself, shooting off five emails.
There’s a story I never shared with Wendy. My mother got an associate’s degree in this country. When I was in middle school, I translated her assignments from Chinese to English. No one responded to the 200-plus job applications we sent out, the extra line on her résumé never changed her job prospects. She made far less than those workers of mine who never finished middle school, as she liked to remind me. If an accredited degree didn’t do her any good, what could a ragtag Academy promise my members?
* * *
One day, two-and-a-half years into the job, I left the office after 8 p.m. and rode over to the South End. It was late April. The first flowers were popping out, the last dredges of orange-gray rays of dusk soaking the petals. As much as I dreaded it, Wendy needed to hear it from me face-to-face. “¡Ya estoy!” I yelled into her apartment buzzer. She placed a large rag on the ground of her apartment for my bike. The length of my bike was longer than the width of her hallway, so she left the door ajar. “I can’t stay long,” I told her, even though I never managed to get out of her house in less than an hour. She giggled that I had stunned yet another one of her neighbors with my Spanish. “You look handsome,” she said, even though I was in just a T-shirt and black shorts that day and most days. She handed me as many heads of broccoli and cabbage as my backpack could fit. They were leftover produce from the $2-a-bag truck that stopped every week outside her apartment building.
I interrupted her gossip about another worker: “I have to tell you. I’m leaving.” She asked me to repeat myself, her face blank. We were close on the couch, my head almost backing into the right handlebar of my bicycle. Silence followed. I didn’t want her to think that I was tired of her. That wasn’t it. I was tired of what her story meant, that someone so smart could end up with a job that society thought was for dumb people. I was tired of what I couldn’t change.
“You can’t change your moving date?” she finally asked. “I’ll buy you a ticket to leave later.” I didn’t chuckle. She wasn’t joking. Before I dragged my bike out of the doorway, she stopped me to reveal two potatoes in the palm of her hand. They were smooth and eerily white, the latest installment in her collection of salt and pepper shakers. We had a last laugh.
The next session of the Academy — and my last — Wendy was absent. She had already booked a trip to see family in Philly. I didn’t expect to see her Skype face on Gladys’s phone when my members ushered me into another room, the glass windows covered with red tissue paper. Gladys had revised the workshop agenda to include a “guest speaker” part. The guest speaker was actually four smuggled bottles of champagne, one big rice cake, and a mountain of pupusas Daisy finished making at 1:00 that morning. They flashed cameras. Amanda, a Dominican grandmother in her 60s, stepped forward from the circle, in front of the yellow streamers and orange balloons. She hadn’t been politically active before we met. Over the past few years, she had inched her body from the corner of the room into the center, with sweaty pits and wide smiles. “There was something inside of me,” she said, putting her right hand on her heart, “that I didn’t know was there until I met you.” My chest swelled, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever hear such words from my mother.
In the months since, members call and WhatsApp me. They share stories of sticking up for their coworkers, demanding the sick time they deserve, and applying lessons from the Academy. Because they are trying to fill my shoes at the union, they laugh and say, “We’ll have to ride around town on bicycles.”
I left Boston to return home to my family in Kentucky. This year, I have spent more time with my mother than I have in the past decade. I wish I could tell a noble story that swept full circle: that I had gone to the union to avoid doing the work I should have done with my mother, and that I left the union to come back to her. The reality is, I returned because my parents offered me a free roof and a sunny place to write.
With time, the victories are starting to sink in. My workers remind me not of the times that our work made headlines, but the moments I felt most alive, when my workers felt most alive. Amanda wrapping her arms around my chest, or Wendy crying as she read the Spanish translation of this essay. I remember when Gladys gave her speech on the history of capitalism, or when Wilson, a soft-spoken man, presented a survey of feminism from the Middle Ages to the present, or when all of us took the train to a conference, laughing together like long-time friends. We upturned what society said about their jobs and their intelligence. We were able to 造反. Our little revolution.
From my parents’ house, I complain to Wendy. My mother and I bicker over things a world away from deportations and labor strikes: the size of the bowls I choose for our family dinner, the width of my onion slices in the pan. We fight with a ferocity every night that Wendy and I never had in her kitchen. Wendy texts me that this is just right. This is the labor of family.
* * *
Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:
‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
Tar Bubbles, by Melissa Matthewson
‘To Be Well’: An Unmothered Daughter’s Search for Love, by Vanessa Mártir
Witness Mami Roar, by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
* * *
Victor Yang is a writer, educator, and organizer. His writing has been published in Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, The Tahoma Literary Review, and The Boston Globe. He was the 2018 Chertkov Fellow at the Blue Mountain Center. The proud son of Chinese immigrants, he has been fighting for immigrant and racial justice for a decade.
Editor: Vanessa Mártir
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross