Alto

The woman tried hard not to cry, though it was apparent she’d been holding all she’d wanted to say inside for a long time. I know the feeling – when you’re exhausted and filled with unhealthy thoughts, the very littlest invitation to release can send you sobbing up a storm – but the woman, extremely self-conscious, knew she couldn’t just lose it in the middle of a badminton club. She stifled her tears, steadied her voice, and began to tell a story both my mother and I have heard many times before from the lips of other women, all similar in age, all immigrants from Taiwan.

She had come Stateside some fifteen years ago with her high school aged only daughter. In Taiwan, the girl had done poorly in her freshman and sophomore years and showed neither signs nor interest in improving. School wasn’t her strong suit, she said, and her mother shook her head. She knew the system was unforgiving and except for the diligent few that could study and study, shame inducing. At the end of every term their scores were posted alongside their names in the school courtyard for everyone to see. That was the system. One learned to work within it, with it, and if not, well hopefully you were someone else’s daughter. But it was her daughter having the trouble and the woman didn’t need to see a fortuneteller to know that if they stayed in Taiwan, what lay ahead for her daughter’s academic future was a dismal dead end.

The woman herself had been somewhat of a teacher’s pet. She sang alto in her school choir and marks-wise, consistently ranked in the top five percent of her class. She was industrious and diligent, her parents’ pride and joy. Around school she was recognized as such. She attended an all girl’s high school and though she was friendly enough, had no close friends. The choir was an unlikely breeding ground for competition, but it was one of the few places the girls could exercise talents other than who could sit and study the longest. The woman didn’t realize until years later how much or why she loved to sing, not until she woke up alone in a bed her husband had shared with her only once, in a large empty house halfway around the world. But in high school and then college, singing was just one more thing she felt, and rightfully so, that she did better than others.

She was not a great beauty, but always held her head high and sat with a straight back. The other girls thought her rather uptight, but there were always a handful of such girls at every school. She never laughed loudly or spoke out of turn. Sometimes the wild way certain other girls talked and laughed, throwing their heads back and baring all their teeth, gave her shivers – where they ladies or not? She felt sorry for their mothers. When she had a spare moment from her studies and various activities, she thought about having a “career” in an abstract sense, but never sat long enough to give it shape.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet of Flowers, 1937 Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

When the time came to prepare for her college entrance exams she doubled down on study time, shut herself away and read until the prescription of her eyes grew more and more severe. To celebrate her inevitable success – admission into Taiwan’s top colleges – her parents awarded her with a new pair of glasses. They were considered a splurge at the time, Italian frames fitted with special thin lenses that masked the severity of her prescription, but their daughter was a rose on the edge of blooming and college was where such blooms were picked.

And picked she was. Reaped, more like it. She was not a particularly romantic woman, but she met a young man who showed a hunger for success and was not afraid to work for it. He wasn’t like so many of the other girls’ boyfriends she heard about in dorm gossip. The man called often and though he had very little money to spend taking her out, often said she was good for him.

“We are partners,” he would say, “I can tell a woman like you will bring me success.”

Partners. Fifteen later it would seem like a cruel pun.

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