The girl, expectedly, was not happy.
“I don’t want to move to the beautiful country,” she spat the Chinese name of America, “You can’t just uproot me and move me halfway across the world without talking to me about it.”
“I’m talking to you now,” her mother said as a matter-of-factly, aware of her use of the singular. Even though her husband sat right next to her, he said nothing. Fine with her. Mothers are expected to deliver the bad news that would change their children’s lives for the better.
The girl was nearly speechless with anger, but she saw on her mother’s face the expression she had come to hate: the one of resolute, immovable decision. In it was etched the selfishness and the stubborn pride she had come to associate with her mother and everything wrong in general with old-fashioned, conservative mothers. It was like a disease, that expression. The girl saw it in the parents of some of her friends as well – the flashing but strangely dead eyes that signalled a challenge almost to their offspring. Fight me, the eyes said, but you will lose. In the future, when the girl’s English improved she learned the phrase “my way or the highway,” and often thought of it when she fought with her mother. As afflictions went, the girl felt her mother had an almost terminal case of it. Saving face, saving face – this was what her mother lived by so that it seemed she had only one face, one expression – her mother seemed like a statue to her then, but oddly, the girl did not see the strength of stone, but weak plaster wanting desperately to represent something it was not. Regardless, the die had been cast by her mother’s stiff hand and her father, though far from a pushover, was only slightly more alive and would not do anything to reverse it.
“We will come back during the summers, unless you need summer school,” her mother continued, “some kids who don’t study hard during the school year need to stay and take extra courses during the summer, but,” the woman looked at her daughter, “hopefully you won’t need it.”
“And dad?” the girl turned to her father. She loved him more than she loved her mother, but she felt a growing rift. In her gut she knew he had very little to do with this decision.
The woman looked at her husband. He leaned forward and rubbed his face. He did not know, precisely, what it was he felt at the moment except that his family seemed very far from him even though they were, at present, sitting right in front of him.
“Your father will stay here and work,” the woman said simply, and as though to reinforce her words she rubbed his back, which instinctively stiffened to her touch. Whether the woman felt this he did not know or care. “Your father works very hard, as you know, and his work is here. He can come visit us whenever he wants, and we will come back for all your breaks. Unless you have summer school.”
The man finally spoke.
“Your mother and I discussed this at length. You’re not doing well here. We think you will do better in the American school system. You have more freedom there.”
The girl leaned back. What a robot. She was disgusted, but mostly she was sad. She had not the words to describe this sadness, not at that age when one’s world is small and narrow, but only that whatever family life she had was slowly being chipped away and deemed unimportant.
“We need to think about your future,” the man said, “Education comes first.”
Of course it does. But this freedom her father referred to. Did he know his wife at all?
She was barely fourteen, had not yet begun to develop an appetite for the world but still, she knew a thing or two about freedom and how certain environments could help expand or limit already limited freedom. At least in Taipei she could go out on her own, could walk around the city or hide out in cafes and bookstores. She’d gone to the US before to visit cousins who liked her enough but were clearly different. They spoke such rapid English, for one thing, and didn’t understand half of the words she used in Chinese, but what’s more, they relied on their parents to take them anywhere. This took some getting used to. She had done the requisite visits to Disneyland, Sea World, all fun places but inaccessible without a car. And what of her beloved hiding spots? Would she find new ones in the new world? She could not even begin to imagine life in California and she did not want to.
“Get yourself ready,” her mother said, “tell your friends you will come back and that they can come visit us anytime.”
She would not say anything to her friends, the girl decided. It was much easier to disappear off the face of the earth and let everyone wonder.
The girl did not cry when her mother stood up to go. Her father stayed behind with her on the couch. She was silent and sat staring out the window – the sky had gone dark since they’d first sat down, and it felt like years ago when really, the whole disruption of her present life had taken less than fifteen minutes. She thought it had begun to rain but turned to find that her father had turned the TV on to the weather channel. It was raining elsewhere, not in Taipei. But it didn’t matter. The weather in Taipei would not affect the girl at all, not in a few months, and after a moment her father got up and left too.