The woman could not place, if you asked her, the exact moment she decided that moving her and her daughter to America was the “smart” thing to do. It was most likely a steady accumulation of things: a name here and there of other wealthy people in their social circles who had sent their kids abroad to the very best boarding schools or public school districts and were now, seemingly, reaping the benefits of such decisions. It seemed drastic and unnecessary to some, including, later, the woman’s daughter when her mother’s plan was made known to her, but even the girl noticed how a handful of her friends had suddenly disappeared after middle school and how, some friends who remained behind talked almost wistfully of this option, if only their families could afford to do so.
Well certainly their family could afford to do so. But there were larger things at work: for one, sending one’s children abroad at middle or high school was fast becoming a cultural norm, something children of the economic upper class could expect to do. It was no longer enough to apply to college abroad; more and more, parents were realizing that sending them out earlier ensured a better grasp on the language and culture which in turn meant they had a better chance to apply and be accepted to the top US colleges. It would not be cheap, and would not always guarantee success, but the hope was that a US degree would be of more value years later, when their children finally returned home to Taiwan and pursued jobs there. On top of that, there was the added bonus of the possibility of citizenship, if for some reason things back home in Taiwan went to dust. At the very least they could hope to become US citizens, the benefits of which, though increasingly arguable, was a sort of golden ticket Taiwanese people had been ingrained to pursue from birth.
The woman recalled one of several pertinent instances: Mrs. Tsai, married to one of her husband’s early investors had remarked once how poorly their daughter Maggie fared in the Taiwanese education system and how once Maggie was shipped to America, she discovered an inner drive to do well. In America, Mrs. Tsai said, there was more freedom for her daughter to focus on what she wanted. Students in America were strong and athletic, they did extracurricular activities and in addition to their bodies were encouraged to exercise their opinions. They were taller, stronger, and more voluble than the pale students in Taiwan who often emerged from their bedrooms after all-night cram sessions like etiolated plants. Maggie ended up enrolling in UCLA and graduating with honors, now worked somewhere in West Hollywood at a company having something to do with movies or movie stars – the woman couldn’t remember which but what she did remember was the infuriating smugness with which Mrs. Tsai had talked about her daughter, who before the move to the U.S., had caused Mr. and Mrs. Tsai so much grief that they hardly ever mentioned her at parties. Now Maggie was all they could talk about. The Tsai’s had gone from feeling hopeless to utterly joyful at the mere mention of their Maggie, who had flourished under this new system and was now destined for great (American) things.
The woman recalled too, the horror stories of kids who had gone to the State unsupervised. Rich princes and princesses who were set up in sprawling houses in San Marino, Pasadena, Irvine, or at the chaotic homes of busy aunts and uncles, all places with minimal supervision and showered them with prodigious financial resources. These kids drove around in shiny BMWs and Mercedes and rather than study their books, learned the little black books of the other privileged rich. They spent hundreds of dollars on clothes, cars, lattes and evenings out at expensive night clubs with their new friends, all with similar pedigrees and life goals.
The woman shuddered. She did not doubt that her own daughter, without the right steering hand at her back, would fall right into this crowd. Her father was too generous with their money and the girl was coming to an age where she understood her father made up for his long absences by saying yes to whatever. The girl wasn’t materialistic, not yet, but it was only a matter of time. “No,” the woman thought firmly, “not my daughter.” A journey to the west would be an investment for their family, and their daughter, young, naive, and foolish still, would not ruin it at any cost. She would need a guardian to keep an eye and what better person to appoint than mother herself? It would be like an adventure, starring mother and daughter, and though they would be far away from both father and husband, the woman would be seen by her husband, by her mother in law, by her own parents, as a sort of hero. She was doing what any good mother with the means would do: her daughter would be grateful. So too, the woman felt most confident about this, so too would her husband.
The woman decided upon California because of its excellent schools, weather and ample Chinese and Taiwanese population. She heard stories too, of how women set up whole new lives in California and who, when they returned to Taiwan to visit relatives and were asked when they planned to move back, would shake their heads and say, “Never, it’s much too good of a life over there.” The woman could see herself enjoying this new life and lifestyle. She knew how to drive and spoke enough English to get by. She had always wanted a garden, something she couldn’t have in a Taipei high rise and she was tiring of her husband’s ‘set’ anyway. The women were so stuffy and competitive, always eying each other’s diamonds and handbags. Such narrow minded simpletons! What’s more, she had lately been grating at the sound of her mother-in-law’s voice. The older woman seemed to think a child’s education was solely the mother’s responsibility. Her son worked too long and too hard to pay for expensive cram schools and tutors. The least the woman could do was make sure his money was being well spent.
“I’ll show her,” the woman thought, “I’ll show all of them. My daughter will not be the black sheep. A year in the states and mom won’t be able to recognize her own granddaughter. She’ll be proud of her. And of me.”
The woman made her case to her husband, though she did not have to try very hard. He was already very tired when she brought it up one evening when they were both in bed, his back turned towards her.
|Edward Hopper “Summer in the City,” 1949 Oil on Canvas|
“You really think that’s a better solution?” he asked, his eyes already closed.
“Of course dear, this is our daughter’s education we’re talking about. She’s struggling here, making all the wrong friends, and you and I both know times are changing. Going to the states means she can actually get the chance to attend a good US college, which is what most people are striving to do here anyway.”
Her husband turned halfway toward her and she felt the sheets loosen around her thighs. The dim light on her nightstand gave the room a warm, yellow glow and she was reminded of the early days of their marriage, when they still lived at the old, much smaller apartment with no Philappina maid down the hall, no angsty teenaged daughter doing god knows what on the computer. Just a young man and a young woman in bed, thinking very different things about their shared future. He would come home and they would chat lightly, then he would turn over and sleep, exhausted from the day’s work. She had always looked forward to those few short conversations when she asked him about his day, but tonight she wanted to do the talking. She knew he was tired, but she had made it a point to put her book aside and looked at him expectantly when he emerged from the bathroom. He hadn’t noticed she wasn’t reading. Or maybe he had, but chose to say nothing and went straight to bed. But not tonight. Tonight they needed to be on the same page about one very important thing.
“Who would she stay with?” he asked, after she’d given her proposal.
They were without close relatives in California, and given the woman’s standing with most of their relatives, not in any position to call and ask such an enormous favor.
“I would go with her,” she said simply.
“Move there with her?”
“Yes. We would go together.”
The woman waited for the man to say, “Well wait a minute, what about me? I need you too,” but he said no such thing. He merely turned back on his side and thought a minute. He closed his eyes. His wife was proposing to take their daughter and place some six thousand miles between them. He loved his daughter dearly, but it was difficult for a businessman as successful as he to also be a successful father. What he could be, he knew, was to be a pleasant and understanding man to be around, someone who provided financial and emotional security, though the former was much easier than the latter and sometimes, it seemed, interchangeable. He knew this and made it a point that every rare, brief interaction with his daughter was a pleasant one.
“Where would you live?”
“We’ll find an apartment somewhere first. Mrs. Tsai was telling me about Irvine and Newport Beach, that those cities have good school districts. That is the most important thing. Then when we are more familiar with the area, we can look into buying a house. An investment for her,” the woman said, nodding in the direction of their daughter’s bedroom.
The man nodded. Financially, it wasn’t a problem. He knew several families who had done the same thing, and the housing market in America, although recovering from a decade long housing bubble, was still ripe for people with ample cash. Eventually too, he knew his daughter would end up in the states for school anyway. The only thing was trusting his wife’s taste in real estate. Perhaps he could accompany them first to make sure they were settled in and then return again when they were ready to buy. He knew his wife wasn’t profligate – this was one reason why he married her – but she was also not a rash woman and this decision, seemingly out of the blue, seemed a bit rash.
But it was late and he was tired. He turned again to look at her. From where he lay, his wife’s profile seemed to glow from the lamp on the bedside table. The left side of her face was in shadow but he could see that she had on some level already made up her mind. She looked straight ahead, her lips closed, her hands on the blanket, smoothing them over her legs, which if he lay very very still could be felt pulsing with an invisible energy. She was anxious and ready to embark on this new adventure she had conjured up. It seemed like just ten minutes ago that he’d gotten off the phone with his mother, who had called before he left the office. She had been on the verge of tears. Their granddaughter’s future was imperiled. The face of the family was imperiled. Both he and his wife had gone been such hard workers and gone to such good schools, but now – and of course she couldn’t call home and tell him this so that’s why she was calling him at the office – what was his wife doing? What did she do all day but nothing? What use was marrying a woman from such a good background if she couldn’t even instill the same diligence in her own daughter? A good wife was supposed to provide solutions and for god’s sake the girl was just one child. From what grandma saw, the girl was obedient enough – wasn’t there something he, the father, could do?
The man had nodded into the phone, “Yes mother, yes, yes, I’ll talk to them,” he had said, though he intended to do just the opposite and go straight to bed. Instead, after he’d brushed his teeth and washed his face, his wife had spoken to him in her sweet, even voice and provided it seemed, a perfect solution, suited to each and every member of the family. They had the money. His wife had the time and the mobility. He needed to work and come home to a quiet house. The maid would stay so that his clothes were washed and ironed and his meals kept hot. And wife and daughter would come back on long holidays, and during the summers. They would not be apart for very long, and when the daughter finally went to college, who knew, the woman would either move back to be with her husband or perhaps by then, he would have reason to move to the states. And there he had it, the woman he’d been wise to marry some thirteen years ago was now sitting up next to him bathed in a golden light, having worried on their behalf for their daughter’s sake and was now presenting him with a fully polished solution. He did not think about missing her because he did not think about missing her. Her plan was sound. He would take it.
“Okay,” he said, beginning to nod off, “Okay.”
The woman looked down at her husband’s face. Was that the hint of smile? It didn’t matter. There was much to plan in the days ahead, and of course, the news they would need to deliver to their unsuspecting daughter, now asleep in the next room. It would not be easy, but some matters are not for children to decide. Mothers always, always know best. The woman reached over and switched the light off so that they were now both in the dark.