With insight, candor, and grace, Shirley Geok-lin Lim recalls her path from her poverty-stricken childhood in war-torn Malaysia to her new and exciting yet uncertain womanhood in America. Grappling to secure a place for herself in the United States, she is often caught between the stifling traditions of the old world and the harsh challenges of the new. But throughout her journey, she is sustained by her “warrior” spirit, gradually overcoming her sense of alienation to find a new identity as an Asian American woman: professor, wife, mother, and, above all, an impassioned writer.
In Among the White Moon Faces, Lim offers a memorable rendering of immigrant women’s experience and a reflection upon the homelands we leave behind, the homelands we discover, and the homelands we hold within ourselves.
“What sets Among the White Moon Faces apart is that Lim writes with such aching precision, revealing and insightfully analyzing her changing roles as woman, immigrant, scholar, and Other.” —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Lim’s descriptions are both lyrical and precise.” —Publishers Weekly
“Evocative writing bolstered by insights into colonialism, race relations, and the concept of the ‘other’. . . . This is an entrancing memoir.” —Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Shirley Geok-lin Lim is the author of Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian American Memoir of Homelands , winner of an American Book Award, as well as Two Dreams: New and Selected Stories , Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems , and several other books. She is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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Splendor and Squalor
Years later, I lie awake In the deep enclosing heart of a household. Years later than in a crib Floating among the white moon faces that beam and grasp.
Years later, flecking the eyes, Faces like spheres wheeling, savoring myself. Years later, I awake to see Dust falling in the dark, in the house.
I know no other childhood than mine, and that I had left secret as something both treasured, the one talent that my parents unwittingly have provided me, and shameful, how these same parents have as unwittingly mutilated me. Moving myself from Malacca, a small town two degrees north of the equator, to New England, then to Brooklyn and to the rich New York suburb of Westchester County, and now to Southern California, I have attempted to move myself as far away from destitution as an ordinary human creature can. In the move from hunger to plenty, poverty to comfort, I have become transformed, and yet have remained a renegade. The unmovable self situated in the quicksand of memory, like those primeval creatures fixed in tar pits, that childhood twelve thousand miles and four decades away, is a fugitive presence which has not yet fossilized. Buried in the details of an American career, my life as a non-American persists, a parallel universe played out in dreams, in journeys home to Malaysia and Singapore, and in a continuous undercurrent of feelings directed to people I have known, feared, loved, and deserted for this American success.
The irony about a certain kind of immigrant is how little she can enjoy of the very things she chases. Even as she runs away from her first life, this other life that begins to accrue around her remains oddly secondary, unrooted in the sensuality of infancy and the intensities of first memory. Before I could learn to love America, I had to learn to love the land of unconditional choice. The searing light of necessity includes my mother and father, characters whom I never would have chosen had I choice over my history.
Before there is memory of speech, there is memory of the senses. Cold water from a giant tap running down an open drain that is greenish slime under my naked feet. My mother's hands are soaping my straight brown body. I am three. My trunk is neither skinny nor chubby. It runs in a smooth curve to disappear in a small cleft between my two legs. I am laughing as her large palms slide over my soapy skin which offers her no resistance, which slips out of her hands even as she tries to grasp me. I do not see her face, only her square body seated on a short stool and a flowered samfoo that is soaked in patches.
The same open area, the same large green-brass tap above my head, only this time I am crying. My anus hurts me. My mother is whittling a sliver of soap. I watch the white piece of Lifebuoy grow sharper and sharper, like a splinter, a thorn, a needle. She makes me squat down, bare-assed, pushes my body forward, and inserts the sliver up my anus. The soap is soft, it squishes, but it goes up and hurts. This is my mother's cure for constipation. I cry but I do not resist her. I do not slide away but tense and take in the thorn. I have learned to obey my mother.
Both scenes occur in my grandfather's house. The house is full of the children who belong to his sons. It is already overflowing with my brothers and cousins. But all I remember of this early childhood are my aunts. They bulk like shadows to the pre-verbal child, very real and scary. One aunt is tall and stringy; her face, all planes and bolted bones, stares and scowls, her voice a loud screech. Another aunt is round; everything about her curves and presses out; her chest is a cushion, her stomach a ball, her face a full moon, and her smile grows larger and larger like a mouth that will eat you. I am afraid of them both. They wear black trousers and dull sateen samfoo tops, gray embossed with silver or light blue filigree. Their hair is very black, oiled to a high sheen, pulled tight off their faces into round buns, secured by long elaborate gold pins.
I do not remember my mother's figure in this infant's memory of my grandfather's house. She is an outsider, and silent in their presence. This is not her house as it is their house, although my father is a son here. In my infant memory my mother is never a Chinese woman the way my aunts, speaking in Hokkien, will always be Chinese.
Hokkien, a version of Southern Xiamen, the Min dialect from the Fujien Province, is the harsh voluble dialect of the Nanyang, the South Seas Chinese, directive, scolding, a public communication of internal states that by being spoken must be taken in by all. I heard Hokkien as an infant and resisted it, because my mother did not speak it to me. This language of the South Chinese people will always be an ambivalent language for me, calling into question the notion of a mother tongue tied to a racial origin. As a child of a Hokkien community, I should have felt that propulsive abrasive dialect in my genes. Instead, when I speak Hokkien, it is at the level of a five-year-old, the age at which I moved out of my grandfather's house on Heeren Street into my father's shoe store on Kampong Pantai. Hokkien remains for me an imperfectly learned system of grammar comprised of the reduced nouns and verbs of a child's necessary society — chia puai (eat rice); ai koon (want to sleep); kwah (cold); ai kehi (want to go); pai (bad); baibai (pray); baba (father); mahmah (mother). It remains at a more powerful level a language of exclusion, the speech act which disowns me in my very place of birth.
Chinese-speaking Malayans called me a "Kelangkia-kwei," — or a Malay devil — because I could not or would not speak Hokkien. Instead I spoke Malay, my mother's language. My peranakan mother had nursed me in Malay, the language of assimilated Chinese who had lived in the peninsula, jutting southeast of Asia, since the first Chinese contact with the Malacca Sultanate in the fifteenth century. And once I was six and in a British school, I would speak chiefly English, in which I became "fluent," like a drop of rain returning to a river, or a fish thrown back into a sea.
Hokkien had never been a language of familiarity, affection, and home for me. Like the South Seas Chinese paternal house I was born in, Hokkien laid out a foreign territory, for I was of the South Seas Chinese but not one of them. Hokkien was the sounds of strong shadowy women, women who circled but did not welcome me, while in my grandfather's house my enclosing mother dimmed into two hands washing, holding, penetrating me, neither a face nor a shadow.
Then, when Baba opened his shoe shop, we had our own house. Here, in my memory, my mother becomes a woman. She chattered to us, her two sons, her daughter, her baby boy, in Malay. I do not remember moving to the shophouse on Kampong Pantai. It was as if I woke up from a dark and discordant infancy into a world of pleasure in which my mother was the major agent.
In my mother's presence there is memory of talk, not labor. Mother ordered my brothers around. She scolded us for getting ourselves wet or dirty or tired. She joked with her sisters on the manners, the bodies, and crude lusts of their acquaintances. Her baba Malay — the Malay spoken by assimilated Chinese — the idiomatic turns of her ethnic identity, was a waterfall whose drops showered me with sensuous music. She was funny, knowing, elegantly obscene. I remember the rhythms of her phrasings, gentle drumbeats that ended with a mocking laugh, short scolds that faded away, assuming assent.
In my mother's house, she was a nonya, a Malayan-native Chinese woman, whose voice ran soft-accented, filled with exclamations. Scatological phrases, wickedly funny and nasty comments on neighbors and relatives, numerous commands, an infinite list of do's and don'ts, her Malay speech was all social, all appearance and lively, never solo, always interweaving among familiar partners. How could she have talked alone to herself in baba speech? It would have been impossible. Even when alone, it would be speech addressed to kin, a form of sembahyang, prayers before the ancestral altar, to dead yet watchful fathers and mothers.
I listened and must have chattered in response. From a very early age, I was called teasingly by family and strangers a manek manek, a gossipy grandmother or an elderly woman who loves talk, her own and others'. I must have chattered in Malay, for just as the Hokkien-speaking elders named me as a Malay, so the Malay-speakers placed me as an ancestral talker. But I have little memory of what I said or of this precocious childhood tongue I associate with my mother's house. In memory it is my mother's speech but not mine; it was of my childhood but I do not speak it now.
My mother wore nonya clothing, the sarong kebaya. Her stiffly starched sarongs wrapped elegantly around her waist fell with two pleats in the front. Her sarongs were gold and brown, purple and brown, emerald and brown, crimson and brown, sky blue and brown. Ironed till they gleamed, they were stacked in the armoire like a queen's treasure. She wore white lace chemises under her kebaya tops. The breast-hugging, waist-nipping kebayas were of transparent material, the most expensive georgette. They were pale blue, mauve, lavender, white, yellow-green, pricked and patterned with little flowers or tiny geometric designs. They were closed in the front by triple pins or brooches, and these borders were always elaborately worked with a needle into delicate lacy designs, like scallops and shell shapes, or leaf and vine patterns. Women with time on their hands, needing food and money, meticulously picked the fragile threads apart and reworked them into an imitation of the free natural world around them. Each kebaya was a woman's work of art, and my mother changed her sarong kebaya daily as a curator changes an exhibition.
She was good-humored in this act, surrounded by many strange containers. One was filled with sweet-smelling talc and a pink powder puff like a rose that she dipped into white powder and lavishly daubed over her half-dressed body, under her armpits, around her neck and chest, and quickly dabbed between her legs like a furtive signal. Another was a blue-colored jar filled with a sugary white cream. She took a two-fingertip scoop of the shiny cream and rubbed it over her face, a face that I can still see, pale, smooth, and unmarred. She polished her clear fair face with this cream, over her forehead, her gently rounded cheeks, and the sloping chin. Her face shone like an angel's streaked with silver, and when she wiped the silvery streaks off, the skin glowed faintly like a sweet fruit. Later, I would discover that the blue jar was Pond's Cold Cream, the tub of powder, Yardley Talc. She was immersed in Western beauty, a Jean Harlow on the banks of a slowly silting Malacca River, born into a world history she did not understand.
More than store-bought magic, she was also my mother of peranakan female power. Like a native goddess she presided over an extended family — younger sisters Amy and Lei came to live with her, and younger brothers Ling, Charlie, and Mun passed through her home on their way to adult separation. She was surrounded by rituals that worshipped her being. The ritual of the peranakan female face began with white refined rice ground to a fine powder. This bedak was dampened with rainwater to form a smooth paste that my mother smeared over her face. The rice paste caked and dried like a crackled crepe. It filled in the fine pores on her nose and cheeks, the tiny lines around her eyes and forehead; it turned gritty like bleached beach sand. Washed away, it left her face glimmering like a piece of new silk.
My mother was the goddess of smells. She perfumed herself with eau de cologne from cut-glass bottles that were imported from the Rhine Valley in Germany. She knotted one end of a sheer cambric handkerchief and sprinkled the cologne on the knot. I kept the handkerchief in my plaid smock pocket and took it out throughout the day to sniff the knotted end. The scent was intoxicatingly fresh. It was my mother's Hollywood smell.
Some days she dressed us both elaborately, herself in a golden brown sarong and gleaming puce kebaya, and I in a three-tiered, ruffled, and sashed organdy dress with a gold-threaded scarlet ribbon in my hair. We rode in a trishaw to a plain structure, its doorway flanked by banana palms. The walled courtyard led to an interior room; through the door there was darkness and a flickering oil lamp. Gradually my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The small room was empty except for an altar facing the door, and on the altar was a lingam, a black stone stump garlanded with wreaths of orange marigolds and white jasmines. A man as dark as the room, barechested and with a white cotton dhoti wrapped around his hips, his face marked with lines of ash, a thumbprint of red in the center of his forehead, took my mother's money. He gave her a small comb of pisang emas — perhaps ten to fifteen finger-sized bananas — and a clump of incense like a pebble of gray rock candy.
Later that evening she burned the incense on a brass saucer. As the smoke rose with a pleasantly acrid scent she walked from room to room, waving the saucer till the entire house was impregnated with smoke, the smell of frankincense, and the spirits that banish fear, pain, and illness. The gray smoke wavered across the rooms and shrouded me. My mother worked with deities to cast out the envious eye, the ill-wisher, and the intruding hungry ghosts attracted by the plenty in her home. This burning incense was the smell of my mother's faith.
My mother lived through her senses. I do not believe she was capable of thinking abstractly. Her actions even late in her life were driven by needs — for food, shelter, security, affection. When needy mothers love, there is a shameful nakedness about their emotions, a return to flagrant self-love, that embarrasses. Their heat is distancing: we are driven to reject them before they can eat us up. Because my mother abandoned us when I was eight, I was never certain that she loved her children till later in life, when she needed us. Living through her senses, she could not lie about her needs. In this way, my mother's actions were always honest.
When she lived with us, my mother did not read except for magazines on Hollywood stars. Father was enthralled by the movies that frequently came into our town, and he bought expensive copies of Silver Screen and Motion Picture, fan magazines imported from wildly distant cities like Chicago and Burbank. I grew up in the company of glossy photographs of Leslie Caron, Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, even Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and those magnificent creatures Trigger, Lassie, and Francis the Talking Mule.
Other than these Hollywood familiars, we had few photographs and no pictures hanging on our walls. Framed certificates testifying to Father's success in passing the Senior Cambridge Examinations and in achieving the status of a Queen's Scout hung along the upper floor's corridors. So Father's identity was literally imprinted on the walls of our home. But Emak's presence wavered in our senses, entangled among our synapses, roused involuntarily by a scent from a perfume counter, a passing sadness at the sight of white-colored blossoms, an undercurrent of loneliness in a church or temple where old incense still lingers in the empty pews.
My mother's aesthetic sense was insensible to anything as abstract as a picture or a photograph. It must have been Father who cherished the photographs of actors and actresses, which came all the way from California, to be gazed upon by my five-year-old self. These portraits were as remote from me as the statues of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, whose temple my mother visited, as remote as the gold-leafed, soot-covered seated figures of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, and Kwan Ti, God of Literature, War, and Justice, that rested on the tall altars where we placed joss-sticks twice a year in the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple — the Temple of The Green Merciful Clouds. Hollywood, Hindu, and Chinese spirits circled the maternal air, fit denizens whose presence in our lives gave comfort, interest, and security when we chose to remember them. But except for ancestral worship days and forays to temples, Mother lived chiefly from day to day without spirits.
In the background another woman ruled, a doughy-complexioned, large-boned woman in a cotton samfoo. Ah Chan washed our clothes, cooked our meals, and cleaned the bedrooms upstairs. Ah Chan came in the mornings and left every evening. She was and was not one of us.
Ah Chan made it possible for Mother always to be carefully dressed. She ironed our clothes to a high starched gloss. Often she sat on the little stool by the open-air bathroom area next to the kitchen, where she had a large zinc-plated tub full of water and dirty clothes. Or she stood in front of the baked clay charcoal braziers, raising a shower of ash with each blast of her breath, stirring the blackened wok with a huge cast-iron ladle. Ah Chan swept the rooms upstairs with a soft straw-plaited broom, pushing the skirt of straw from one corner of a room to the other. Stocky, broad, silent, she was always doing something. I never heard her speak.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Among the White Moon Faces"
Copyright © 1996 Shirley Geok-lin Lim.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Cover Page,
2. Praise for Among the White Moon Faces,
3. About the Cross-Cultural Memoir Series,
4. Title Page,
5. Copyright Page,
11. Part One,
12. Chapter One: Splendor and Squalor,
13. Chapter Two: War and Marriage,
14. Chapter Three: Geographies of Relocation,
15. Part Two,
16. Chapter Four: Pomegranates and English Education,
17. Chapter Five: Dancing Girl Scholar,
18. Chapter Six: Turning Woman,
20. Part Three,
21. Chapter Seven: Outside the Empire,
22. Chapter Eight: Black Bird Singing,
23. Chapter Nine: Two Lives,
24. Part Four,
25. Chapter Ten: Immigrant Mother,
26. Chapter Eleven: Moving Home,
27. About the Author,
28. About the Feminist Press,
29. Also Available from the Feminist Press,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Seth, reading what you posted bout me made me smile. I didnt know ho much i couldve helped you. I left, well my nook broke, but im back. I will follow what you hav left behind and do my best for the camps. I will forever remeber you.
Im continuing:<p> More stuff at 'sgbl'<p> People who've left:<p> Kenny/Clyde/Creon/Mysterion/Alecto~<br> I hate you. So much. When you get back, SEB. I have some recomendations for you. Go to the SEB and read the two results after our SEB book too. Why did you have to leave when l got back? Now watch your going to show up now that lm gone. Thats why l hate you.<p> People that are Here:<p> Andy ~<br> What happened to you? I dont want this goodby to be bad but, l was going to place my camp (ethics) in your hands... untill l saw the drama you stir up. Man you were a fu<_>cking cool dude. Untill the drama with Rain and Candace. Oh well, your loss. Try to get back on track though.<p> Rain ~<br> And what happend to you? Im more confused with you. You were actually cool, and a serious rper. Now your totally lame, and drama filled. Why? Quit letting people change you like that and get back to how you were.<p> Candace ~<br> Hmm we dont know eachother. I watched you sometimes though, you seem alright. Except the drama part. Congradulations on being the only one right at 'smm' res two. Don't keep this drama up, if you have the power to see the way camps work, and guess the outcome right, you could be a strong leader. However your the center of that drama. Get over it and change for the better. I once had to change, years ago. I was one of those losers who did nothing but cause drama and imposter people, now look at me. Leader of not one camp, but three. And almost everyone has at least heard my name. Its your turn l think.<p> Jack ~<br> Dude you left. Why? Now your back, and l havent had time to say one word to you. Wish l could have. Listen, you may not be leader of my camps, but l sure do need you. Could you try to keep the camps from being drama filled? You are good at that. Hmm. I have nothing to say to you now. Just keep doin' what your doin'.<p> Cyrus ~<br> Although lately we have had our differences l remember us from old times. Killing off he Gods, and destroying Borgias. Hmm. The more l think bout it, the more l wish those days were still here. I will still be doing stories and my symbol guides every once in a while, if you continue the story at Tak, l will help again. Stay strong man, goodbye.<p> Wayne ~<br> Remember graecus? The camp we used to go to? The we went to half god. You, me, Maria, Cyanide, Sabrina, Maggie, all good friends, and you left. You and Cyanide. Everyonce in a while l see ol' Cyan. Wish he would stay for good. You however, have already stepped up and created the second best camp alive right now. Nice job! Stay strong dude and read my letter at 'sgbl'.<p> Cyanide ~<br> I didnt classify you as gone. You watch us all the time. Even while not posting. I hope you get back on so l can tell you by. Goodluck with life dude. Hope you find out how to fix your problems wit your parents. Goodluck.<p> More at the next res.<p> ~§єЂ 拂