Family Planning

Family Planning Very highbrow
Mary Cassatt The Boating Party  1893/1894 Oil on Canvas

On May 12, 2015, I wrote this blog about why I wasn’t ready to have kids. The reasons were pretty sound: I was unemployed, unpublished, and – oh right – unmarried. Continue reading “Family Planning”

Little Children

Great books for parents to read to young children.
Some of my favorite books from childhood. Towards the bottom, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Edward Gorey. 

Earlier this evening an old friend of my parents joined us for dinner at Grandpa’s house. My parents told her not to bring any dishes – Grandpa doesn’t each much and they’d cooked enough to ensure leftovers for at least two more meals – but Mrs. R– hopped in ten minutes late carrying a big pot of “lion head” meatballs and a smaller platter of stir-fried cucumber and sliced fish cakes.  Continue reading “Little Children”

What is Good Parenting?

Greetings from San Mateo, California, where my brother and sister-in-law live with their newborn baby – my nephew – Dylan and their dog Poochy. Dylan is cute. In all the ways babies ought to be, as though cobbled together from various types of bread: with arms like just-baked dinner rolls, belly like a giant loaf of sourdough, hands and feet like delicate braided pastries and a gleaming, puffy face which, for some reason, reminds me of a doughnut. A glazed donut when he cries. Continue reading “What is Good Parenting?”

Monday Night Blather: Large Chinese Family Edition

Lately, I don’t feel like writing much. I also don’t feel like reading much, and this may or may not have something to do with the fact that this trip to Taipei, I’m living on the 7th floor instead of the 6th, where my aunt, uncle, and cousins live. My aunt has a key so she comes in whenever, often when I’m in the middle of doing yoga (in the morning) or on the computer (in the evening), and I go down to the 6th floor for my meals when I don’t eat out.

Anyway. I was afraid of this (but I doubt it can be remedied now), the brain drain I lamented in the States shortly before coming here. Two years ago I stayed in Taipei and stood at some sort of existential crossroads. I was waiting for a Fulbright and rationalized that I could dick around for a while before the die was cast. I mean, I wasn’t going to go through the hassle of finding a job and then have to quit just in case I got the Fulbright, right?

Well, it’s kind of similar this time, except I harbor a (not so secret anymore) fear that God’s like, “Dude, you’re having way too much fun because you think you’ll get into grad school.”

“Well God,” I say back, “Won’t I?”

He shrugs, “Perhaps.”

I try to write every day, to be productive by my productivity standards, which are already low by any means. Please don’t compare your life with mine because you can bet your butt I don’t compare my anything with yours – yeah, you there, with the job, the doting boyfriend/fiance, the master’s or imminent doctorate. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to remember everything I’m seeing and hearing and thinking, but there’s a lot going on – almost too much, in fact, in and around my family and my internal organs (mostly my brain). That kind of means I should be writing all of it down, but instead I sit in front of the computer or my diary and am frozen.

I don’t want to do anything but look at pretty pictures on other people’s consistently updated blogs, or read fluffy articles in the NYTimes (yes, they have fluffy articles). Oddly, I love reading about longevity and how to achieve it, even though my life is looking pretty murky right now. What’s the point of living as long as my grandfather did if sometimes all I want to do is watch “Transformers 3” again? It is without a doubt that Shia LaBeouf and his shiny robot friends will save earth yet again, though I’m not too sure what I’ll feel like at the end of the week. I’m not talking about the doubt that comes with thirteen grad school applications in a field that is more subjective than your take on Damien Hirst’s latest piece, but the doubt that seems to plague my generation (and probably future generations as well – but not my kids, hell no) in general.

Like… what….am….I…..doing? Not just today, but tomorrow and the day after and the day after that?

Well.

I’ll tell you a little story that may have colored my worldview today. Who knows – tomorrow I may write something entirely different and say, “Wow! Look at the colors of the sky! Look at the rain! How fresh and fragrant! The banyan trees lining DunHua South Road – so romantic, those aging silvan soldiers!”

My aunt caught up with me today as I was heading home from a long walk in the XinYi district. She had rushed to the organic produce store around the corner to get two little plastic trays of basil and cilantro – she was going to stir fry some clams for dinner, and the herbs complete the dish.

“Do you remember your San Gu Gu’s husband?”

I nodded. San Gu Gu is Third Aunt, my dad’s half-sister from my grandfather’s second marriage. She is about seventy-seven or so. We saw her and her family about every three or four years as she lived in Shanghai. I do not like San Gu Gu – she seems fake and has a reputation for asking my dad and uncles for money one too many times, even though she’s done quite well for herself as a doctor in Shanghai. I do however, like her husband very much. He’s a simple guy with simple tastes. He and his highly educated wife had three rather spoiled, lackluster children, one of who is slow and has stayed home all his life, and two others who went to expensive colleges in Japan (it was apparently the “vogue” thing to do for upper class Shanghai folks back in the 80’s) before moving to the States, where the daughter quickly married a lackluster guy and their son, Cheng, had his own spoiled, lackluster son named Jimmy with his wife, whom he met and married in Japan. They usually come over for Christmas and everyone shakes their head at Jimmy’s stunted emotional development and limited palate and widening girth – apparently Jimmy is a picky eater who really, according to his mother, “can only eat MacDonald’s so what can I do?” Well, don’t bring it to his room on a silver platter so that he can stuff his face without interrupting his video games, for one… but then again, he’s not my kid.

They didn’t come to Christmas this year because Jimmy’s mom, my cousin-in-law, I guess, if we’re going to get technical with family terms, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and is now dying in a hospital in Downtown LA. Cheng put his job as a LA Area Chinese tour guide on hold to take care of his wife and Jimmy dropped out of school. I can’t imagine what Jimmy’s going through right now, but my impression of that kid is so poor I think he’s relieved to be able to sleep in this semester. It’s a terrible way to think because god knows I’d drop out of school ten times over if anything happened to my parents, so I shouldn’t judge a thirteen year old kid, but god he was spoiled. I can’t even begin to fathom how Cheng is doing.

“San Gu Zhang, your cousin Cheng’s dad, passed away last night at midnight,” my aunt said, “He had a stroke a few months ago and then I guess he just didn’t make it.”

My aunt opened the fridge to take out the clams. I noticed in the sink that she had broccoli stalks soaking in a large plastic bowl. My aunt was pretty paranoid about pesticides (as most people who cook for their families should be, I suppose), and always insisted on soaking and resoaking and rinsing the vegetables thoroughly.

“Was anyone there with him?” I asked.

I asked because Cheng, his wife and kid were all in the States, and San Gu Gu had fallen last month on her way home from the hospital. A particularly harsh cold front hit Shanghai just as her husband was hospitalized, and she had slipped on the ice that’d formed on the hospital steps. She broke her hip and was herself hospitalized and then confined to bedrest, far too incapacitated to visit her husband everyday as she’d hoped.

“No,” my aunt replied, “he died alone. The hospital called San Gu Gu who had to arrange a nurse friend of hers to take their youngest son, the slow one, to the hospital to see his dad one last time. Your San Gu Gu arranged to have her husband’s body donated to science.”

I thought about how sad it is to die alone in a cold hospital room, especially during a Shanghai winter. I hoped his room at a window at least.

“The strange thing is, your San Gu Gu knew she would never see him again after she fell.”

A few weeks earlier, when she’d first fallen, she had called my aunt, “My blasted hip,” she said, “I don’t think my husband and I have the karma to be together when either of us departs this earth. Of course, he will probably leave first – I don’t think I will ever see him again.”

This she said in a bed less than a few miles from her husband’s.

“It was such a cold cold thing to say,” my aunt said, slicing the broccoli. A small pot of water was boiling and I could smell the ginger and wine my aunt had tossed in with the clams, “But in the end, she was right. She knew it, somehow.”

I watched my aunt assemble the night’s dinner in silence. The clams simmered and slowly opened. The ginger puffed up with water and the small chili pepper my aunt sliced in cut through fragrant steam emanating from the wok. The broccoli bubbled and turned over and over – my aunt fished each stalk out with chopsticks. The rice steamer clicked. I set the table – just three spots tonight: me, my aunt and my uncle – all in relative good health. My cousins stayed late at work.

My aunt sighed as she carried out the last dish, a spicy minced pork. A Thai dish that she’d bought ready made at a gourmet grocery store in the basement of our favorite department store. My aunt is all about trying new things.

“Your cousin Cheng is probably having the worst year of his life. And it’s only February. First his dad, and now his wife…”

I nodded, but wondered if Cheng had the strength to tell himself that things could only get better from this point, well, some future point, not too far off. His wife is still here, not exactly fighting the cancer but not exactly giving up. I did not know her that well, but she wide-eyed and kind. The kind of person you describe blandly as, “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” and “simple-minded” who ended up being a bad mother because she was only trying to be the best mother possible, never saying no to her kid.

When my parents went to visit her at the hospital, I did not go. I didn’t want to.

The last bit I heard about her: her lungs too, like my grandmother’s, are filling with water. She was so skeletal my mother had a hard time staying in the room, because all she wanted to do was cry with pity.

“Pity is useless,” my father says, but even he was oddly quiet after he returned from the hospital.

At the dinner table my aunt and uncle shook their heads, thinking about all the older relatives we’ve lost these past few years. They rattled off their names like lottery numbers, and I was startled to realize that there had been so many deaths. I knew them all, varying degrees of vagueness. They touched my face at some point, told me I looked like my mother or my father, held my soft young hands in their old papery ones and said, each of them I’m sure, “How good it is to be young!”

“Tell your mother not to work so hard anymore,” my aunt said suddenly, chopsticks pointing at me.

“Why?”

“Life is so short, you see? She needs to enjoy it now, while she can. Go to the places she wants to go. Spend time with the people she wants to spend time with.”

I nodded, but inside, was shaking my head. When you’re a twenty-six year old kid like me, your parents are still the same parents who used to spank you and make you practice piano for an hour each day. They age, sure, but it’s like a flash. You go away somewhere for a little bit, and come back a few months later and notice that while your room is exactly the same and the sun still lands in the same spots on the carpet, your father has a lot of grey hair and your mom moves at a glacial pace. She’s always moved at a glacial pace, but Jesus now she’s really slow. Her back used to be so straight and now she’s slightly hunched. You wonder about your dad’s blood pressure.

“Mom enjoys teaching,” I say, “But I know what you mean.”

My uncle, ever the optimist, pushes back his plate – filled with empty clam shells – and smiles at me. Life is short, the eyes say, handle what you can handle.

“Me?” he asks, as though I’ve asked him, though I guess my look is searching. He gets up to get fruit from the fridge and brings it back with a flourish, “I’d like to live forever.”

“Don’t we all.” My aunt rolls her eyes, motioning with her chopsticks for me and her to finish off the last four clams.

I oblige then take a chunk of honeydew with slightly salty chopsticks. The cold juice floods my mouth and I wince. It’s too sweet for me.

A Short Talk

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.

Alone on Thanksgiving

Unexpectedly, a small army of my mother’s badminton friends banded together to buy several lavish flower arrangements for my grandmother’s memorial service and for my mother. A massive pot of stunning purple and violet orchids were delivered to the chapel and a few days later, a young Hispanic man showed up at our door with two smaller but no less gorgeous arrangements for our home. Together, they cost a pretty penny and my mother was grateful.

“I ought to do something for them,” she said, “They really didn’t need to spend so much money and send so many flowers.”

It was decided that to show our thanks, she would buy them little candies and I would bake cookies to put together in pretty gift bags.

I baked an assortment of holiday spiced cookies: molasses gingerbread, cinnamon oatmeal lacies and pumpkin spiced walnut cookies and give each contributor a dozen or so to share with their family. I kept the oven on for what seemed like two days straight to bake enough for seventeen people, and when everything was packaged and wrapped, my mother was delighted in the overall effect.

So were the friends at the badminton club.

She came home on the evening after all the gifts had been delivered and I asked her how it went.

“Oh they were all so happy,” she said, “especially Ju Pei.”

“Who’s Ju Pei?”

“Don’t you remember the woman with the daughter that doesn’t like her?”

I did. I had very nearly written a novella about her.

“She loved the cookies,” my mother said, then her eyes got wide, “and she ate the whole dozen right in front of me.”

I stared at my mother. My cookies are known to be larger than the average sized cookie – whatever that means – and I always end up making ten or so less than the recipe calls for because of this.

“She ate all twelve in one sitting?”

“In less than thirty minutes,” my mother said.

My mother had presented her the gift bag upon her arrival at the club and Ju Pei was there, forty-five minutes earlier than when her lesson was scheduled to start. She often did that, as she disliked being alone in her house and passed most of the afternoon at the badminton club.

“She was so happy when I handed her the bag, and even happier when she saw the cookies. We started talking and she just reached in, eating one after another. By the time her lesson was starting, the bag was empty.”

“Didn’t she feel sick?”

My mother shook her head, her expression as surprised as mine, “No, not at all. She just kept on saying how delicious they were and how lucky I was to have a nice talented daughter who took the time to bake things for her friends.”

“Wow,” I said, “Well, that’s really nice of her. I guess I can make more for her next time, since she liked them so much.”

“Yes…” my mother said slowly, “Though she plays so much badminton to maintain her sixty pound weight loss…so I’m not sure if you should make her quite so many cookies.”

After her lesson Ju Pei came to chat with my mother again, asking if my mother and her husband were free to have dinner with her on Thanksgiving.

“I was thinking,” Ju Pei began, “I’d like to take you and your husband out to dinner on Thanksgiving. To Capital Seafood in Irvine. We’ll have lobster and crab! You can bring your daughter too.”

“That’s very nice,” my mother said, and trying to phrase the obvious as gingerly as possible, “but we spend Thanksgiving with our family.”

Ju Pei’s expression, my mother said, could not be described as crestfallen, but discouraged was certainly apt.

“Who the hell invites someone to dinner on Thanksgiving?” I asked, incredulous.

“Well she didn’t know that we made a big to-do about it, because she never celebrates with her daughter.” 

“Why not?”

“She says her daughter never asks her to dinner at her house, never mind Thanksgiving.”

“That’s really a pity,” I said, feeling terrible for the woman. I thought ahead to all the faces I looked forward to seeing on Thanksgiving and how warm my aunt’s house felt, no matter how cold it was outside, no matter that we had just lost our grandmother. I imagined the woman eating alone at the Seafood Restaurant, a glistening, sautéed lobster on the table before her.

“I don’t know what you do as a mother, as a woman to end up like that,” my mother shook her head, “but I sure hope I’m not doing it now.”

I kissed my mother on the cheek, knowing that it wasn’t a so much a difference in action as it was in souls. The woman wasn’t a bad person – she had just been ill-advised and then, it seems, too narrow-minded and nearsighted. Impulsive too, perhaps. But from what my mother told me the woman was beginning to change.  She was definitely someone worth studying, but perhaps not right now. My mother and I had Thanksgiving with our family to think about.

A Decision

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.

A Child Grows Up

“You know what the strangest part was,” the woman said to my mother, “I never once thought of leaving him.”
My mother thought she understood, but then asked the woman to clarify. It was common for women in the same predicament to stay in such marriages – we both knew a handful of women who had stayed but thought of leaving every single day. For the woman to say that she had not even thought of leaving seemed unlikely.
“No, I didn’t even think it,” the woman insisted. She stared up for a moment at the soft lights hanging above the badminton club – whatever she hadn’t thought about ten, fifteen years ago she was certainly thinking of now, but my mother recognized a look of genuine confusion.
“I don’t know why,” the woman finally said, “It wasn’t good at all, was it? Looking back, I had all the time in the world to think about it, but instead I just focused on raising my daughter and making sure she had everything she needed to succeed. And even then, with all my focus and energy she turned into someone who sees herself as my exact opposite.”
It was the most self realized statement my mother had heard the woman make thus far. My mother asked, “What makes you say that?”
Without a hint of irony, the woman replied, “Oh my daughter has told me a many times in fits of rage, ever since she was in middle school.”

Around the age of thirteen it became apparent to the daughter that she was self-aware in all the ways her mother was not. Daughter cringed at family parties, watching mother talk others’ ears off, wondering if it was very obvious that her mother talked merely for her own benefit, to hear the sound of her own voice. Studying the faces of relatives around her, she realized it was very obvious. Most people tried to avoid her mother. So did she.
At home, her mother sang until inevitably her father would say, “Can you please. Not now, I’m on the phone.” If she was not singing, she poked her head into her daughter’s business, thinking she was being helpful and that the best thing was perhaps to mold her daughter into a miniature version of herself, but the girl had other ideas. As she grew older, she opted to spend more time out of the house, preferring to study in the busy MacDonald’s around the corner from the most popular cram schools (though not at the actual cram schools) rather than at her own desk, which was only a short hallway and thin door away from her mother’s incessant nagging. Though the MacDonald’s was a notorious breeding ground for tomfoolery and time-consuming middle school romance, there, the girl found something of a haven. She found other adolescents from middle schools all over the city who more or less wanted to escape the restrictive and overbearing mothers, and who like her, were more concerned about the sudden proliferation of acne on their young faces or the fact that they, males and females, were beginning to see each other in a new and rather interesting light. 
Edward Hopper Automat 1927 Oil on Canvas
 Over French fries and Chicken Nuggets she wrote notes to her girlfriends instead of studied the notes she took in class, whispering and giggling about several boys she found handsome and charming. She developed into a restless young woman who because of privilege and hormones and the desire to get away from home, could not apply herself as wholeheartedly to her studies as her mother would have liked. Her father, though doting, was hardly home and when he was, more or less echoed what her mother said, though to him she was much more receptive.
The girl was not academically gifted, not as her mother had been, and of this her mother never failed to remind her whenever her marks came home.
“When I was your age I never had any trouble testing into first or second place,” her mother said at every age, “School came easily. You need to sit down and apply yourself.”
Her mother, thank god, did not believe in corporal punishment as many of her friend’s parents did, but still, the girl felt an interminable animosity towards her mother. Sometimes she asked herself where the anger came from, but she couldn’t explain it. It was as though she were born to dislike the woman who had given birth to her. She tried hard to be civil, to hold her tongue and temper whenever her mother began to nag or imply just one of a hundred shortcomings she saw in her daughter, but it was very difficult. There were many types of abuse and the daily verbal reminders that she was never quite what her mother had hoped for in a child, not even the right sex, was enough to make the relationship brittle. Was that not reason enough that she found her own mother’s voice so grating?  
In her last year of middle school her extracurricular activities at the fast food joint caused the girl to test into a low ranking high school, from which the students were almost guaranteed to feed into technical colleges rather than prestigious universities where good, stable jobs were guaranteed. Her mother was mortified, herself having attended the second best high school in the nation. She spent the better part of an afternoon fluttering around the house wondering if her daughter’s future was damned.
“I don’t understand,” she said, “we pay for all those cram schools and still, you can’t even place into the top five?” Her voice became more and more shrill, and for once her daughter wished her mother would sing instead.
The berating revolved around her mother and her “reputation” – how would people perceive it when they found that the academic superstar had given birth to a daughter who couldn’t even place into the top five? The top five! That’s all she was asking. The girl had no excuse really, mother and father worked so hard to give her everything she wanted, sent her to the top cram schools and even offered to pay for extra tutors. They gave her freedoms, didn’t they? She had no curfew, could come and go as she pleased. And money! Didn’t the always keep her flushed with cash. When had they ever denied her anything? Materially, didn’t she have more than the rest of her classmates? And now look, she had gone and left herself behind in their more diligent, disciplined dust.
The girl wanted to scream, shut up mother, but she held her tongue. She had perfected a deadened look that she put on whenever her mother began to talk to her. Why was there was never any loving remark from her mother’s lips, only questions about grades or her appearance or if she had blown through her allowance yet. And now in her mother’s eyes the girl had failed in the penultimate way, but she didn’t care. Her mother, she knew, needed to be in control but she was older now and saw her mother controlled nothing. Her father disregarded her, and even the Philippina maid could sometimes be caught rolling her eyes at her mother. No one respected her.
Her father, when he learned the news, sighed heavily and suggested they enroll her into a private school.
“No,” the girl said, “I’m old enough to make my own decisions, and I’m fine with attending this school.”
“You are not old enough to make your own decisions. I am not fine with you attending that school,” the mother said.
The girl said nothing, but looked at her father, who seemed more tired than usual.
The father looked at his daughter and then at his wife. Had fourteen years really just flown by like that? Now his daughter was old enough to argue and it seemed like that’s all he heard when he came home, mother arguing with daughter, or mother nagging daughter and daughter sullen and quiet. He cared about his daughter’s educational future, but both he and his wife had been self-motivated enough to do well on their own, without parents having to push them. He trusted his daughter to do the same. Or at least he hoped she would; he didn’t have the time to pursue an alternative, and while his wife certainly did, he could see her technique needed improvement. Anyway he had work to do. Phone calls to make. A business trip to plan. 
“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. And by saying so, he gave his wife time to think.  

Birth

Less than two months later the woman learned that she was pregnant and a collective sigh emerged from the breath of all those involved, namely, the woman and her husband. He came home from work early the evening she found out and held her hands tightly and looked at her in the same way he’d looked at her when they were still sweethearts in college. It stirred her heart, this look, and made her love her husband more. She felt proud, like she did when she was a little girl and brought home accolades from school, and her parents beamed but were not too lavish with the praise. They knew too much praise for tiny accomplishments would only lead to a lazy child who expected it.

Now however, the woman felt a strange sense of triumph, that she had somehow overcome an impossible obstacle. She knew nothing of medicine or the mysteries of what made this particular pregnancy possible, but she understood that it had felt like an impossibility for the longest time and now, here she was, sitting in her husband’s tender embrace, the beginnings of their child floating warmly in the womb.

It was not an easy pregnancy. She tossed and turned and suffered violent nausea that rocked her entire frame, which seemed to simultaneously swell up and diminish. How her back ached! How her feet hurt! How her stomach churned and churned! Had she not known any better she might have suspected that she was slowly being poisoned to death, but of course she said none of this to her husband, who although still spent much time away from home, was quite attentive when he returned, always making sure to bring her some sweets or noodles. Often she did not feel like eating, but her mother and her mother in law would tsk tsk and made sure she ate half her weight’s worth of herbal broths and such. They brought over entire chickens cooked in ginger broth, the pale, plucked skins of which sickened her to look at but which she ate dutifully, knowing it was for the baby. She put on twenty, then thirty pounds and by the time it was revealed that the baby was in fact, a girl, the woman could hardly recognize herself in the mirror.

A girl! The girl was safely tucked away in her mother’s belly, unable to see the ensuing disappointment on her parent’s faces, but perhaps she felt something – an intangible but audible rhythm that sprang from the valves of her mother’s pulsing heart, reverberated down the maternal spine and through the uterine wall; a miniscule shockwave, barely detectible except to the thin, translucent membranes of a developing fetus. The baby did not yet know the word “disappointment,” but she felt it early on. It was uncomfortable. In response, she kicked and kicked. The woman winced. A girl! This child would not be easy.

—————–

A mother ought to love her child, regardless of its sex, unconditionally. The woman knew this, but when the girl was born and placed into her arms, she was only exhausted. The labor had been brutal, nearing 32 hours. At one point the doctor had feared the baby would stop breathing and they would have to operate.

“It’s as though she doesn’t want to leave,” the nurse said.

The woman moaned through gritted teeth, “No, no,” she gasped, “She wants to kill me first.”

But both mother and daughter survived and the baby emerged shrieking, a loud, siren-like noise that seemed to belong to a much larger animal.

The woman leaned back into her pillow, relieved that the pressure she had felt for the past day and a half was no longer there, still unaware of the pain and discomfort that lay ahead. Beneath the sheets lay a bloody mess, but at least the baby had all ten fingers and toes. At least she was intact. 

Madame Roulin and her Baby, Vincent van Gogh 1888, Oil on Canvas

Her mother placed her hand on her daughter’s warm forehead, brushing away the matted hair, “She’s a good girl,” the mother said, taking the baby from the woman’s arms, “She looks just like her father.”

The girl’s father was away at the office and would see his daughter a few hours later. He would take the little girl up in his arms and smile a contented smile – true, he had wanted a son, or did he? It wasn’t typical for a man to admit, but he had rather liked the idea of having a daughter – here was a person you could spoil and place upon a pedestal rather than worry if he, a son, could live up to your accomplishments. The man was still a young man at that point but he had foresight – just as he knew he had chosen a suitable and obedient companion in the woman, he knew he would be tremendously successful in his business ventures. It wasn’t a doubt he had ever experienced – he did not have the luxury of doubt. And now he had a daughter upon whom he could shower the spoils of his success. What a princess he held! His princess. His mother in law repeated what she’d said to her daughter and he nodded, looking into what might as well have been a tiny mirror. She did look quite like him.