E. Beth Thomas
Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting Inby Paisley Rekdal
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When you come from a mixed race background as Paisley Rekdal does — her mother is Chinese American and her father is Norwegian– thorny issues of identity politics, and interracial desire are never far from the surface. Here in this hypnotic blend of personal essay and travelogue, Rekdal journeys throughout Asia to explore her place in a world where one’s “appearance is the deciding factor of one’s ethnicity.”
In her soul-searching voyage, she teaches English in South Korea where her native colleagues call her a “hermaphrodite,” and is dismissed by her host family in Japan as an American despite her assertion of being half-Chinese. A visit to Taipei with her mother, who doesn’t know the dialect, leads to the bitter realization that they are only tourists, which makes her further question her identity. Written with remarkable insight and clarity, Rekdal a poet whose fierce lyricism is apparent on every page, demonstrates that the shifting frames of identity can be as tricky as they are exhilarating.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
E. Beth Thomas
New York Times Book Review
The Voice Literary Supplement's Spotlight on New Writers
—Lisa See, author of On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
“Makes us feel and see the complicated and violent nature of the issue of race and identity. Rekdal writes with eloquence, liveliness, and poignancy—a truly impressive achievement.”
—Ha Jin, author of Waiting
“She is the sort of observer we should all wish for: disarming, frank, and intelligent. In setting out to explore three realms—China, Japan, and Korea—she ends up learning much more about another one: herself.”
—Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
“Insightful and idiosyncratic…. Rekdal’s essays are so engaging that it takes while to realize how much they reveal about the delicate, shifting balance between the ways others perceive us and how we choose to define ourselves.”–Us Weekly
“An engaging and artful memoir…poetic not in its diction but in it elisions, in the spaces she allows between thoughts.”–The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling, appealing, cinematic. . . With this entire collection, Rekdal refreshes the meaning and the image of being displaced in this world.” — The Boston Globe
“Remarkable. . .A keenly intelligent, restless witness to her mixed-race life, Rekdal is a writer with a deep and urgent story to tell.” — Newsday
“An engaging and artful memoir. . .poetic not in its diction but in it elisions, in the spaces she allows between thoughts.” — The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
We Do Not Live Here, We Are Only Visitors
In Taipei one of the first things I notice are the white cotton masks strapped to the faces of the women. Men wear them, too, but the number of women wearing these makeshift face-filters exceed the number of men, and give Taipei the look of being run by a skinny, anonymous band of surgeons.
After two days my mother, who notices this as well, wants to buy a mask for herself. I argue against it more vehemently than the situation requires, saying that we will only be in Taipei twelve days; whatever damage meant to be done to our lungs in that time will not magically be eliminated by a piece of cotton with two rubber bands. But my mother insists. Near the markets where they sell the masks, she spends minutes haggling with the merchant for a better price than she believes she is being offered. I lounge and snort, tug her away when the merchant's gesticulations become too frenzied to be understood.
In restaurants we argue halfheartedly about the necessity of the masks until we reach a compromise. Now she walks around clutching an old scarf to her face and breathing shallowly. Soon we notice older Chinese women doing the same. Only the young women seem to have adopted the ear-band model. With my mother's wiry skunk hair and still-unlined almond eyes peeking over the tips of her scarf, she has the perfect outfit for traveling. Her brown scarf allows her to blend in with the crowds of older Chinese women in the markets and on the street while always covering her mouth, muffling the fact that she can't speak Chinese.
At night in Taipei after my mother dozes off in front ofthe hotel television, I think about Mark in Seattle, how we argue in bed together about whether we should marry. Mark had almost proposed twice but thought better of it, he said, when he recalled how easily I became seasick. Mark is an Englishman from Kent who works as a navigator for certain shipping companies. We met in Ireland, where I lived for a year; he followed me home when I returned to Seattle. Mark had half the year off from work and decided, in his typically spontaneous fashion, to buy a plane ticket to the States the morning he drove me to the airport. Within two weeks of my return he was sharing my room in the house I rented with friends.
Mark has hired himself out as a sailing instructor now and spends the better part of every weekend teaching his latest student the rudiments of tacking. I can't spend more than a few minutes on a boat without being overcome by nausea. Besides the fact of my seasickness, however, I have found other, more pressing reasons to be hesitant about marriage, such as our inability to agree on anything. Still, marriage seems like the next logical step we need to take in our relationship, and for a while we have pursued the subject relentlessly. But whatever reasons we could invent for ourselves to believe marriage is the right answer, neither of us makes a move to propose. We have stopped referring to marriage at all; my nausea has become a symbol of our stasis. "I'm going sailing," Mark will say, looking meaningfully at me. "Do you want to come?" And I, bilious at the sight of a dock, shake my head.
In the past weeks we have argued so much that we have stopped conversing almost altogether, replacing normal dialogue with sexual banter, teasing each other about our accents. "Zee-bra," I say. "Zeh-bra," Mark answers. Tonight in Taipei, in front of the flickering television, I think about his pink hands. The way his face always appears chapped in the sunset. I won't admit it to him, but I love his accent. The first time my maternal grandmother, Po Po, met him was at her birthday celebration at my parents' house in Seattle. "I can't understand a thing he says," she announced loudly after he'd greeted her.
In bed sometimes he asks me to recite the few Chinese phrases I know. "Kai nooey," I say, stroking his chin. "Gung hay fat choi. Shie shei. Soo jiep." But his favorite is the insult: the epithet Po Po called my father before my parents married.
"Loh fan," I murmur, kissing him. "Old savage. Loh fan."
In Taipei my mother asks about Mark. At first she didn't approve of my sleeping with him out of wedlock and, on their first meetings, had to mask her dislike of him on account of this with excessive politeness. My mother's politeness is terrifying. I've learned about this from ex-boyfriends who insist my mother is the most intimidating woman they have ever met; a single dinner once reduced a man named Tim to sweats and stutters. But when I confront her about this on a tour of the city, she acts playfully bemused.
"They're afraid of me?" She laughs. "I'm so nice."
"It's the niceness that's killing them. They think you're really pointing out their flaws."
"If their flaws are so obvious then I don't have to point them out, do I?" she asks. "It must be cultural. Politeness like that is very Chinese."
My mother has softened toward Mark since she suspects the relationship won't last. She gathers this from the number of times Mark and I fight, the days I've called her up, still yelling my side of the argument because Mark has stormed out of the house and stranded me with my anger. Any time we spend alone together, my mother feels free to question me so intimately that I have begun to suspect her concern really fronts some prurient desire to live through me vicariously. "Oh, you're just in this for the sex," she'll say, and then accuse me of innocence, of becoming steeped in the romantic tripe that has similarly ruined her generation of friends' marriages. To defend myself I try to dismantle my image as naïf as quickly and finally as possible by confessing the most embarrassing, cruel details of our couplehood; things I know I shouldn't tell her even as I reveal them, because if the relationship is going to lead to anything, some amount of privacy and trust has to be preserved. She knows this.
"You don't understand," I say.
"Oh, I do. You're fickle," she replies, and then demands to hear, yet again, how Mark drunkenly begged me to propose to him on New Year's and then, laughing, told me no. She tells me my boy-craziness is only exceeded by my gullibility when I tell her about the time I got so stoned I ended up in a corner and wouldn't leave until Mark, drunk himself, wrestled me out of my clothes and then left me there, naked. I embarrass myself, admitting these details. But I realize how proud my lack of loyalty to Mark makes me, how these secret transgressions increase my sense of independence. The more I tell my mother, the further apart I feel from him. "She wants to know," I tell myself. I feel like I can punish him.
By the seventh month of living with Mark, it was as if my mother had wormed her way into my skin, lodging there like a tick. Even now when Mark touches me after I spend a day alone with my mother, I become distant. I imagine she is there, bobbing above us along the ceiling. The next day the phone rings and I know it is her. I can hear her even before I pick up the receiver, her private ticking, how she is prepared to translate everything.
No one associates my mother and me with each other. To shopkeepers and hotel bellhops in Taipei we are two women traveling together, one white and one Chinese. Only when I address her as "Mom" within earshot of a Taiwanese is our situation made clear. "Your daughter?" he or she will stammer at this revelation, then I am scrutinized. I sometimes wonder what people make of our obvious age discrepancy, how they would explain the older Chinese woman paying for the restaurant and hotel bills and clothes, what kind of relationship they could possibly expect between us. On the streets young women hold hands, cuddle, rest their heads on each other's shoulders. They walk arm in arm, like nineteenth-century couples, helping each other over puddles and curbs. My mother and I, when we travel, often walk like that together in public, where at home we would never think of doing it. In Taipei my mother takes my elbow at every corner (for my safety, not hers; she's fearless in traffic), runs her hand along my back in restaurants or while waiting in long lines. Occasionally people look.
I don't blame the shopkeepers and bellhops for not immediately understanding our relationship. My mother and I really don't look alike, though during the trip I begin to insist that we do. On Christmas Eve, I stand beside her facing the hotel mirror as we make up our faces and say, "I have your nose."
"You do not have my nose," she replies, looking at me out of the corner of her eye.
"I do. Look, there's your nose."
"You don't look a thing like me."
"Mark says we have the same smile," I say, grinning widely to show her.
At this she snorts. "I don't think Mark sees you the way I see you."
"No, he sees me better. He's not as biased. Look," I say, and tilt my face so that its roundness becomes more apparent. "The same face."
"You look more like your father," she says then, ending the discussion. I can't argue with this. I do look more like my fatherbrown hair, narrow nose, even a chin that gently recedes in the same manner, though I do not have his light blue eyes and his broad shoulders. Still, I am taller than my mother, and thinner. Tonight, next to my mother in the mirror, I am struck by a sudden wave of vanity. I imagine that my face, next to hers, seems to glow. I pretend that my skin looks taut, my cheekbones sculpted. For those few imagined minutes my features are no longer a mark of oddity or Western exoticism, but of beauty. In this mirror I look more beautiful than my mother. And I feel strangely distant, cut off from her as if she were covered by a veil.
On the street people stare at me, but not because I am beautiful. Taipei is not populated with hordes of white Westerners like Tokyo or Hong Kong. Here I am scrutinized, though politely, by passersby. They do not, I believe, ever recognize that I am half Chinese. They do not realize that my mother and I know each other. I walk quickly while my mother tends to shuffle; ten minutes into any walk my mother ends up six feet or more behind me. No one, unless they suspect that she is my handservant (as my mother jokes), would place the Chinese matron with the white girl.
Watching my mother in shopwindows, I see her round smooth face with the curls of permed hair, the thicker lips and wide nose. I remember the childhood friend who visited my home and met her for the first time. "What is your mother?" he had asked in private afterward. He did not, I notice, ask the same question about me.
Appearance is the deciding factor of one's ethnicity, I understand; how I look to the majority of people determines how I should behave and what I should accept to be my primary culture. This is not simply a reaction white America has to race. If for the past several years I have become a part of white America it is because it has embraced me so fully, because it is everywhere, because it is comfortable to disappear into, and because the Chinese would not recognize me on sight. Any struggle to assert myself as more than what I seem to be is exhausting. A choice, I realized, either could be made by me or asserted for me. Alone in the bathroom, I plucked my thick Asian eyebrows down to niggling scrubs and watched my brown eyes grow wide in my face, less hooded, more Italian-looking.
Only when I am shown photos of myself and see the new frozen images of me, the overplucked brows and insincere half-smile slapped onto my face, do I become disturbed. Only when I say, "I'm sure I don't look like that," and my friends agree"No, you don't look like that in real life, you look very different"does it occur to me what facade I am staring at. What digs at me so painfully when I see myself.
We are not visiting relatives in this country. We are visiting over the Christmas holidays, we tell strangers who ask, and we know no one in all of Taipei.
In shops my mother pretends she understands the salespeople when they speak to her. But even if she knew as much Mandarin as Cantonese, there is no way she could translate a sentence spoken by a Taiwanese six-year-old, let alone the murderously fast speech of an adult.
In Sogo Department Store, a young saleswoman with spidery eyebrows approaches my mother by a rack of sweaters. The girl wears a black tunic over a white shirt and black stockings. She barely lifts her feet when she walks: what my mother calls "the Chinese shuffle." She notices my mother fingering the material of a red sweater and immediately pounces on the garment's tag, lecturing, I suppose, on its exact blend and weave. I am guessing she tells my mother about how cool it will be for summer. My mother nods and grunts, lets escape a few of the guttural "Ahs" that have begun to punctuate her speech in Taiwan. Suddenly, I realize where she has picked this up; behind me two women converse about the merits of a handbag, and when one speaks, the other replies by fiercely grunting "Ah." My mother is mimicking her.
"Mom," I say, pointing to my watch. The salesgirl turns to me and narrows her eyes. She looks from my mother to me, the sweater dangling from her fingers. She continues speaking to my mother in Chinese though it is obvious that my mother does not know what she is talking about and that the salesgirl, like the signature seal-makers and waitresses before her, is merely babbling to herself. The salesgirl stops and clears her throat. I come forward to stand by my mother's side.
"Where are you from?" she asks in English.
"Washington. Seattle," my mother replies. She looks at me.
"Your daughter?" the salesgirl manages to get out. "She is very . . . tall."
Then she walks away.
"Mom," I say later, at a restaurant for lunch, "you shouldn't do that."
"It's rude to tell her I speak English."
"It's rude to let her go on like that."
"I can understand some things she says," my mother says defensively. But she doesn't really. I can tell by her blank expression and fierce, repetitive "Ahs" during these moments that she's simply trying to cover up.
"She wasn't speaking Cantonese."
"I meant I understood her gestures."
We sit at the dim sum restaurant in silence. My mother has successfully ordered in Chinese, but when the dishes come they are the same dishes we eat in Seattle with Po Po and the same ones we ate yesterday and the day before. I suddenly realize that my mother has been ordering only the foods whose names she knows. On the plane she had declared that she would eat dog before we left, but I can see, with a mixture of disappointment and relief, that this is a prophecy that will not come true. My mother doesn't know the word "dog" in Chinese. Tonight we pick at our food while planning our next day together and I tell her, again, how much I love oyster hash.
When Mark asks about my family, he is relieved to learn that not only I, but my mother and my mother's mother, were all born in Washington State.
"Oh," he says. "That's different."
The history of my family is complicated and vaguely dangerous, as my Aunt Opal insinuates through long looks and abrupt silences at the dinner table. There is something about a tong war, sudden deaths, a disease that couldn't be cured by anything but a special herb that grows only in Canton. The patriarch was dying and the family split up its members into separate households, sending one child, Aunt Opal, to New York and my grandmother to Hong Kong at age nine. Po Po didn't return to Seattle till she was almost twenty. For those eleven years she was actually Chinese, though the entire time, she insists, she dreamed of eating bread by the fistfuls. And she is still, according to both Chinese and American standards regarding race, really Chinese where my mother and I might seem to be impostors. She possesses the homogeneity of physical appearance (the same black hair and eyes, her body perhaps a little stouter than the bodies of the Taiwanese from all the bad American food) and cultural values. She understands the appropriate Chinese rules regarding rudeness and civility so ruthlessly employed by waitresses across Taiwan. Po Po married Chinese. Her body stayed faithful. My mother's and mine do not.
In Seattle, Mark longed for sailing harbors and a good bar, "a real pub," he said once, where he could get Newcastle beer. For two weeks last month we went out every night to a different bar by the water where we would sit and drink pints of lager in silence until I got drunk or Mark tired of the atmosphere and the poor quality of the beer. Then we would go home, fall asleep, and wake the next morning planning for another evening out.
One day, before my mother and I bought tickets to Taiwan, I learned of a disturbing rumor at my college. Several members of the English department felt that the prevailing tone of the university was elitist; people had begun to band in camps of friends that somewhat depended on race and racial sympathies. When I arrived as a student I was not aware of the friction, nor was I close friends with any of the other mixed students in my department, of whom there were only three, at the time. One evening a biracial Latina woman invited me to a dinner party which I could not attend because I was ill. Then I learned of the theory circulating about my absence that night: I was ashamed of being half Chinese. The day I found out about this I met Mark late in the evening at the Blue Unicorn, where he was already working on his third can of Guinness.
"What a load of trash," he said when I told him.
"I don't know how to act now," I said.
"There's nothing to act about. They go around making such a big stink when it doesn't even matter. Half my family comes from France for God's sakes and I don't care."
"I don't think the Norman conquest counts, Mark."
"Then what does count? You don't look Chinese and you don't speak Chinese. At least I can read French."
"Which you learned in school."
"Your mother doesn't speak Chinese," he said, pushing his chair back.
"This is different."
"How is this different?" he demanded, but I couldn't say.
Later I could articulate the differences between us by telling him that my mother, because of her round and slightly sallow face, her dark hair and eyes, would always be perceived as Asian first. Regardless of her fluency in English, my mother's appearance allows her to be categorized, her experience isolated from that of white America, to be discriminated against in the worst situations. No one in England could simply point to Mark's mother or grandmother and say "French" on first sight. Not without being told.
But at the bar I couldn't articulate any of this because I was recalling something further back, a conversation at my parents' home after dinner when my mother had questioned my father and me about what we might change about our lives had we the opportunity. That night she had surprised us by making a pitcher of margaritas, which we drank during the course of the meal. My mother rarely drinks and hates it when my father consumes more than two martinis at a go. For years she refused to serve alcohol at the house when I visited. "I don't want to condone a bad habit," she had said. "I don't want to be blamed if you become an alcoholic."
"Tell me," she insisted that evening. And, irritated, slightly drunk, I told her I wouldn't want to be half Chinese.
"Full or nothing," I said.
"Fully what?" she asked.
"Whatever," I had replied.
"The fact is, it isn't different," Mark finished and stood to get another beer. "If you married me not one person in England would think you were half Chinese. You want to be different and so you make it a difference." When the waiter came to take his order, he sat back down again, fumbling for his money.
After the bar we went home in a cab which Mark paid for. He told me that his company had started sending letters to the officers in England; soon Mark's year-long vacation would end and he'd go back to sea. I could see this delighted him and, even though I was still angry, kissed him for congratulations.
That night in bed he tugged my long hair back with his fingers, holding it in place while he fumbled on the nightstand for my hair clip.
"We have to decide what we'll do," I said.
"About the apartment?"
"About staying together."
He brought his lips close to my temples. "I can't afford to get married now," he said.
"I'm not sure I want to get married."
"Fine," he replied.
"Fine," I said. He leaned into me then and his collarbone smelled of lager. "You really should wear your hair back more," he whispered. "You look like a little China doll like that."
When his smell grew too much to stand I sat up violently in bed, pushing him away.
At the National Gallery my mother turns to me in front of the jade cabbage display and announces, "I hope you won't marry Mark."
I had been talking somewhat along the same lines myself the past few days, but it surprises me to hear her say it.
"What don't you like about him?" I ask, and she looks at me.
"He doesn't read, doesn't think, doesn't treat you well," she says.
"Doesn't like to do anything but sail and you get sick on boats . . ."
I recalled what Po Po had said the first time I mentioned him.
"It's serious, Po Po," I said. "He's coming from England to visit me."
"Is he white?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"That's too bad."
". . . doesn't even think he's in love with you . . ."
"I didn't say that," I say suddenly. "I never said that."
We stop beside a display of ivory miniatures, a tiny woman with white sleeves on a mountain. In the distance lurked a tiger.
"Did Po Po ever tell you not to marry Dad?" I ask.
"Of course not," she says, and I know Po Po didn't have to; my grandmother had refused to speak to my mother when she told her.
"Why do you ask me such embarrassing things?" I demanded.
"You're always asking about our sex life," I say, and my mother's left eye narrows because she can sense we are being watched, overheard, though probably not understood.
"I never ask," she hisses. "You misunderstand my questions."
I walk in frustrated silence for several minutes while she comments glibly about the thousand tiny wood Buddhas stacked in rows, each carving made anonymous by the fact of so many others.
"I just don't understand why you don't like him," I say.
"He exoticizes you," she says finally. "If you want to marry him," she continues, "fine. You can ruin your life with mistakes. After all it doesn't matter what I think about him, it's what you think that makes the difference."
"You just hate him because he's white," I say. She snorts and shakes her head. But her lips close together tightly, as if she is chewing on their delicate inner skin, and I know this is true. In Taipei and at home whenever we see white men with Asian women my mother grimaces complicitously in my direction. I know what she is thinking: This man is taking advantage of her because she is Chinese.
It occurs to me now to ask her if she despises my fatherthe man who had known her for ten years and shyly courted her through collegefor loving her, if indeed he does take advantage of her in private because she is Chinese. But I know he doesn't mistreat her; my mother is not docile or shy or subservient. She does not wait to speak until spoken to and she never kowtows. My father is the silent partner in their marriage, the one always trailing a few steps behind.
"Are you sorry you didn't marry Chinese?" I ask.
"What has that got to do with anything?"
"Are you sorry that I'm half?"
"What are you taking about?" she asks angrily, but I can tell that she understands. How much more Chinese we both would have been, I think bitterly, had she married within the community.
I feel like the salesgirl in Sogo with the spidery eyebrows, cheap sweater dangling between my fingers. I can see her fully now; I suddenly understand what she's saying. I have finally been let into the secret.
We've been arguing the whole day: where north is, the best cafe; for tea. This is the third overcast day and my mother, who packed for warmer weather, is wrapped in a thick sweatshirt she had to buy in order to keep warm. Bundled up this way, it's hard to recognize her in stores or museums. Her appearance makes her anonymous. "I'm freezing," she repeats in the hotel lobby, and I shrug exasperatedly.
It is our next-to-last afternoon in Taipei, and I realize I haven't sent anyone a postcard. Dutifully, I trundle out to the local shop to buy a fistful of cards and can't think of what to write. There is very little that is immediately beautiful about Taipeionly by poring over a map and finding spots like university parks and relatively unvisited temples have we discovered any color, any ornamental relief in this city dominated by high-rises and desolate-looking pockets of houses. Beside the hotel stands a tenement with every window lined with laundry. I keep track of the window toward the far east side, fifth story. Every morning the laundry is different. Today it's four shirts, each white, and a pair of pink shorts. I imagine the woman coming home every night from work and selecting a small portion of the huge laundry pile she must do for the evening. She believes in working in increments; she imagines that by doing just a little every day she can overcome this massive load, never admitting to herself that in a single day she dirties as much as she cleans in a night and so is always stuck in the same place come morning.
When I reach Mark's postcard I can't think of what to write that doesn't sound false or irrelevant. In the end I print, "I'll miss you"; send it, unsigned, from the hotel postbox.
On our last day in Taipei, we both develop hacking coughs that we suspect have more to do with the excessive pollution than the slight flu I caught. To celebrate the end of our vacation I teasingly suggest to Mom that we buy ourselves cotton masks. She glares at me. "Part of growing up," she says, "is learning when to drop it." But we still have to get gifts for family and so we make our way to the market. On the way we find a shop specializing in Thai silks and tablecloths. We go in.
The woman running the shop looks like she'd once spent a significant amount of time in her life following the Grateful Dead. Black bangs completely cover her eyes and she walks around the shop barefoot. Three thick silver bangles slide up and down her tiny arms, covering, the woman insists, "her hideous wrists." My mother and I, sick of each other's company, part immediately at the entrance of the shop, and I go and plant myself in a corner where the saleswoman has stacked ready-made dresses.
My mother fingers everything. The saleswoman speaks rapid-fire Chinese which my mother grunts at, then, guessing that my mother doesn't really understand her, begins typing the prices up on a calculator she has at hand and listing off bits of information in English. I am glad she's caught on to my mother; when their backs are turned I smirk appreciatively at my mother's flustered gestures.
Suddenly my mother turns to me, a full amber-colored cloth draped over her hands. "What do you think?" she asks.
I go over and touch it. "It's beautiful," I say. "How much?"
The saleswoman taps the price into the calculator.
"Buy it," I say.
My mother nods and the woman shuffles off, her patchwork skirt swinging across her feet.
"Visit family here?" she asks as she packs the cloth in paper and I shake my head. We have no family in Taiwan. We know no one in this whole city. She glances over to where my mother sits, hugging herself for warmth.
"Your mother?" she asks blandly as I step forward to receive the wrapped package for my mother.
"Yes," I say slowly. The saleswoman nods.
"Different faces, same feelings," she says. My mother coughs and I smile too broadly.
We decide to pretend she is right.
Age sixteen, my mother loads up red tubs of noodles, teacups chipped and white-gray as teeth, rice clumps that glue themselves to the plastic tub sides or dissolve and turn papery in the weak tea sloshing around the bottom. She's at Diamond Chan's restaurant, where most of her cousins work after school and during summer vacations, some of her friends, too. There's Suzy at the cash register, totaling up bills and giving back change, a little dish of toothpicks beside her and a basket of mints that taste like powdered cream. A couple of my mother's cousins are washing dishes be-hind the swinging kitchen door, and some woman called Auntie #2 (at her age, everyone is Auntie and each must take a number) takes orders at a table of women that look like Po Po's mah-jongg club. They don't play anymore. They go to the racetrack.
The interior of Diamond Chan's restaurant is red: red napkins, red walls, red carp in the tank and in signature seals on the cheap wall hangings. Luck or no luck, it's like the inside of an esophagus. My mother's nails are cracked, kept short by clipping or gnawing, glisten only when varnished with the grease of someone else's leftovers. Still, she enjoys working here, its repetitive actions, the chores that keep her from thinking. The money my mother earns will soon get sucked into the price of a pink cashmere sweater for Po Po's birthday, along with a graduation photo of herself, also in a pink sweater, pearls, her face airbrushed fog-rose at the cheeks and mouth.
Graduation? Unlike her brothers, she knows she's going to college. Smith, to be exact, though without the approval of the school counselor. "Smith is . . . expensive," the school counselor told my mother only yesterday, which is why my mother is slightly irritated now, clomping around under the weight of full tubs of used dishes. "Smith is not for girls like you." What does she plan to be when she grows up? "A doctor?" my mother suggests. Um, no. "Nursing. Or teaching, perhaps, which is even more practical. Don't you think?"
My mother, who is practical above all things, agreed.
So it's the University of Washington in two years with a degree in education. Fine. She slams down full vials of soy sauce onto each table, makes sure the nozzle heads are screwed on exactly. Someone the other week stuck chewing gum up under the lid of one, and my mother had to dig it out with an old chopstick and then forgot to fully tighten the lid. Black, sweet-smelling pool on the white tablecloth. Seeing it, she could feel the back of her throat fill up with salt. Smith is not for girls like her.
"Cindy!" someone shouts. The kitchen door swings open. A momentary view: white chef shirts stained with red and brown grease. A woman wiping her brow with the back of her hand.
It is not, my mother would argue, the fact she could be denied the dream of Smith so much that someone should tell her she could be denied it. My mother knows the counselor was hinting at some limitation my mother would prefer to ignore. Still, she is whiter than white, should intelligence be considered a pale attribute. Deep down she understands she has a special capacity for work; she likes it, she's good at it, she excels at school and its predictable problems. Hers is a discipline entirely lacking in the spirits of whatever loh fan may sneer or wonder at her in study hall; to be told by a fat, dyed-blond guidance counselor she may be inferior? The monkey calling the man animal. Now out of the kitchen erupts the newcomer, a smatter of duck fat and ash. Like everyone here, he's someone's cousin's cousin, though he talks like he's got marbles piled in his mouth.
"I come from Hong Kong," he told my mother on break in the alley. "From real Chinese." Is there a substitute? He leers at Suzy, waves his hand dismissively over the carved dragon beams, the waitresses gossiping in English. He's two years older than my mother, lean, high-cheekboned, shaggy-headed. He has big plans for himself. He likes to whip his arms and legs around in the kitchen, threaten the other busboy. Already he's dropped a dish, insulted the cook, cut his thumb on a knife blade. He smells funny.
"Mr. B. O. Jangles," Suzy calls him. "Kung Fooey."
"What the hell the matter with him?" growls Auntie #2. "I never seen nobody act like that before."
"It's all the rage in China," my mother says. She is repeating what he told her in a tone of voice that is meant to seem sarcastic but comes out another way. All the rage. In China.
She stacks more dishes in her tub. From the kitchen comes a high-pitched human squawk and the sound of something clattering to the floor. He's going to get fired soon and my mother is never going to Smith. A waitress scurries out of the kitchen, bearing more food, a panicked look on her face. My mother stands and watches the kitchen door swing in place behind her. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Around age thirteen, for summer vacation I come down with laziness heretofore unheard of in a child. I doze in bed till noon at least, stay up every night watching bad movies or reading. Sometimes, if it's a bad enough movie and she is not teaching the next morning, my mother wakes and joins me.
Tonight is Enter the Dragon. I remember it because a year or two ago when it came out, all the boys on the block bought numchucks. We smacked our backs with the sticks on chains, left thumb-thick bruise prints on our rib cages. Jeff down the street still has the movie poster, still tells people he has a black belt in karate.
My mother and I watch Bruce Lee set foot on the island, followed closely by the playboy and the black man who will die after the banquet and all his women. Bruce Lee narrows his eyes, ripples his chest muscles underneath his white turtleneck.
"I knew him," my mother tells me. "I worked with him in a restaurant when I was in high school."
"Really?" This is now officially the only cool thing about her. "What was he like?"
"I don't remember. No one liked him, though. All that kung fu stuff; it looked ridiculous. Like a parody."
We watch in the dark as Bruce Lee confronts himself, over and over. In the hall of mirrors, his bloody chest and face seem outlined in silver. He is handsome and wiry; he caws at his opponents like an ethereal avenger. I peek at my mother beside me on the sofa. In the television light, her broad face twists into an expression I do not recognize. Then the light flickers, changes, makes her ordinary again.
What People are Saying About This
author of Waiting
author of On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
author of Memoirs of a Geisha
Meet the Author
Paisley Rekdal was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. She has received Fulbright and Hopwood awards and has published poems and essays in Poetry Northwest and The Sonora Review, among other periodicals. A book of her poetry, A Crash of Rhinos, will be published this year. Rekdal lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and teaches poetry at the University of Wyoming.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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