A few days before Thanksgiving my mother and I began taking walks together in the morning. At first it was a way for us to start talking again, not that we were angry with each other, but because Grandma’s passing on top of our already disparate schedules had made our once nightly talks impossible. She often came home from class or badminton or dinner with my grandfather with little time left to get her classroom affairs in order never mind an hour to talk with me. There were students to Skype with and new teaching techniques to learn, also via Skype. And of course, there was the obligatory time spent with her husband, who has long groused about (but is still secretly quite proud of) his wife’s teaching career.
My mother is a busy woman, and I like walking. So we walk.
|Claude Monet Woman with Parasol, 1875|
On our last few walks however, it seems whatever I had wanted to say to my mother and whatever she wanted to impart to me during these rare quiet mother-daughter moments has been said, which means there are longer silences as we meander through our quiet, leafy neighborhood. Having discussed our entire family at length (our favorite subject being her husband, my father) we now gaze admiringly at our neighbor’s well-manicured lawns and window treatments, their Christmas decorations and their choice of flora, of which my mother, with her proud green thumb, is the ultimate critic.
I have always seen my mother as an emotionally intelligent person. She possesses an uncanny ability to place herself in others’ shoes, which makes her a talented imitator and performer. A fortuneteller once told her that she would have made a great actress, the kind the spotlight couldn’t get enough of, but that she was blessed to not have to work so hard. Instead, my mother teaches Chinese to students young and old and she teaches about life to me and whomever else can recognize a good life teacher when they see one.
My mother is wise when it comes to relationships – it takes an emotional quotient near genius to stay married to my father for so long – and possesses an interesting and enviable blend of blithe disregard for what others think. I would not say necessarily, that she is a complex woman, especially not after what I am about to write, but the fact that what follows comes from the woman who has also written the handbook of the heart which I carry to and through all my relationships, makes her a most complex figure.
This morning, after we’d been walking for ten minutes in complete silence, my mother asked, “Grace (referring to my friend Grace, who currently resides in Miami), did she leave already?”
“Yes,” I said, “She left yesterday.”
“I have been thinking,” my mother said, nodding to herself “That every day, many people fly here and there. So many flights take off every day.”
I stopped and looked back at her, wondering if she would say anything more, but that was it. She had arrived at a conclusion and she shared it with me.
Whether my mother notices my strange stares is questionable, but she has a habit of walking with her eyes up in the air, a soft, relaxed expression on her face. Perhaps these walks is when she lets her mind, as her feet do, wander.
Much of what she says is a result of mental autopilot – the stuff we are compelled to say when the weather is particularly nice and the road seems more peaceful than usual. She has been saying much of it for years, if not to me, then silently to herself when she used to walk alone:
“The weather is perfect today!” (As ninety-nine percent of the time the weather is, in Southern California).
“We are so lucky to live here. It is just like a big park.” (It is, hence our city’s name).
“Look at those trees just beginning to change. Those colors are gorgeous!” (Despite not liking the fall, my mother has endless compliments for it).
But my mother does not just gush. She is not without her knives – razor sharp (often racist, always obvious) observations and judgements that slash through any canvas.
If a fat person is walking our way: “Oh ho, a fat person.”
If an Asian person walks our way (and in a slightly subdued voice): “Asian,” then a rapid succession of guesses at what kind of Asian until they walk close enough to clarify: “Oh, so they were Korean/Chinese/Japanese.”
And a rare but occasional sight, a fat Asian person, “How could an Asian person be so fat?”
If we walk by a particularly beautiful front yard: “This yard is beautiful.”
If the yard has been neglected: “This yard is hard to look at.”
Her expression will be the same one she dons when I emerge from my room wearing heels that are too high or with my hair down, which she won’t shy away from saying makes me look “wild.” If the owner of said yard were to peer out from their kitchen window at precisely the same moment two Asian women are walking by, they would see the younger woman walking a few steps ahead, bemusedly waiting for her mother to catch up with her, and the older woman standing with arms behind her back, neck slightly outstretched and eyes furrowed, lips pursed into a frown – judging, judging. My mother, should their eyes meet, would smile and nod politely though be thinking, “Fix your yard. It is an embarrassment.”
Then she will continue walking slowly towards me and thank goodness the houses are all set quite a ways back from the road, because my mother does not (or does not care to) know how to whisper. She will administer the clincher: “I’ll bet they are Asian.”
And here I will give her my own disapproving look, but she will smile at me and keep on walking.
Also, this morning, a blonde woman leading a blonde horse and an aged German Shepherd walked our way. The horse’s hooves clopped as my mother began her narrative. This is probably what the Caucasians dislike about us: Asians who speak Asian in front of them, but at a time like this I would prefer the Caucasians not understand my mother.
“A horse,” she said.
“Yep,” I said.
“Just like the woman.”
When the woman came closer, we both smiled and said good morning, noticing that the woman was in fact quite pretty, with bright blue eyes and a clear complexion. She wore no makeup and had her hair in a loose ponytail. She carried herself with the easy elegance that comes with having the kind of money that allows you not only to own a horse but also know how to ride it correctly, and despite being in her mid forties (though in truth with Caucasian women it is not uncommon for Asians to over guess their age), kept a trim figure. As soon as she was out of earshot (or at least to our backs), my mother and I turned to each other to voice the obvious things we were both thinking.
“She was really pretty,” I said, “Very elegant.”
“Yes,” my mother agreed.
A few moments later, I had stopped to pick up some pine cones, planning to paint them gold and silver for holiday decorations. My mother, seeing the trouble I was having trying to hold them all, offered to help.
From my bunch of about ten, she took exactly one.
I waited for her to take a few more, but she seemed lost in thought. Processing.
“If I were white,” she finally said, “I would only marry a white person.”
Clutching the pine cones to my chest, I was reminded of my grandmother’s stay in the ICU and her reaction to seeing a black nurse and black respiratory therapist working at the same time. She assumed that they, both being African American, must be married. Surely this sort of prejudice wasn’t genetic? Surely my mother had a more… sophisticated reason for saying something like this?
“Why?” I asked, though it may have been more appropriate to say, “What the -” followed by an expletive. I was aware that my fingers were beginning to cramp.
Perhaps my mother was thinking of all the Asians we had walked by in the last few days, probably all on their way back to houses set behind neglected yards. Whatever the thought, she merely responded, almost wistfully, “There are so few white people left.”
I looked at her, the pine cones poking my hands and wrists, and marveled at her strange opinions. In the Park, statistically speaking, we Asians were still very much a minority. But despite her role as an educator, my mother has never been one to cite statistics (and god help you if you choose to believe any statistics she does cite. They all fall, invariably, under one kind: unreliable). Rather, she views the world at a driveway’s length and calls it as she sees it, not necessarily (or ever, really) as it is. Political correctness and tact figure not at all. At first I worried about this. But then I thought about her world, parts of which are also my world: the Chinese school, the large Chinese family, the mostly Chinese badminton club with a handful of white people, and the yearly two or three week long trips to China and Taiwan.
I thought too, of other worlds and of the times my mother visited them – how when going through her photos of her first ten country tour to Europe I had asked where several of the photographs were taken and she answered earnestly, “Oh it’s written on the back.” I flipped each photograph over to find “Europe” written in my mother’s educated hand.
I don’t think it is worth my worry. More often than not, our bubbles protect us by keeping us away from others, and on top of that, my mother has that magical quality where even the most cutting remark can seem painless and in the recipient’s best interest. She is like a surgeon, sometimes.
And of course, there is her garden, the less tended to aspects of which are behind and to the sides of our house. Though, and I would never tell my mother, our front yard, I think, screams to any passersby who care to note: “Chinese people live here.”