Written by Kati Chen.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
My first memory of making my mother angry starts with a mirror.
When I was a kid, I spent countless hours staring at my reflection, pinching and poking my face. Everyone told me they saw my mother’s features in my brows, my eyes, my long, slender fingers. I didn’t get it. Was my face mine, or was it hers?
I would trace the shape of my eyebrow. “This is ma ma’s,” I’d try. My reflection’s brow would furrow up, and I’d try again. “This is mine.” Neither sounded right.
In school, I would retrace the strokes of my name on my worksheet. Katie. I had always hated it – too plain, too boring, too sweet. My mom had given me two names: one English, one Chinese. Neither felt right. Any time she called me by either of them, I felt like I was going to itch straight out of my skin.
There wasn’t much I could do about it but go back to the mirror. Back to prodding and stretching my mouth, as if I could force another, better name out of there. Maybe a Nancy. I could probably pass for a Nancy.
One fateful day, I decided to cut my name short. I put my pencil down before it could trace the last letter, and I studied the result. Kati. No “e”. It was a small change, practically nothing, but I felt like it made all the difference. It looked like something that I could fit into. It looked like a name that my eyebrows and nose and restless, twitchy fingers could belong to.
I went home and broke the news to my parents. My mother was deeply offended. “Your name is beautiful,” she said sharply. “I gave it to you. Why do you want to change it?”
Because you gave it to me, I didn’t say. “Ma ma, It’s just a letter,” I said instead.
“It’s not just a letter,” my mom bit out as my dad tried to placate her. “You’re changing your name. Your family gave you that name. It means something to carry your family’s name.”
I knew about the importance of names in China. Families carefully choose names that will build upon and synthesize with each other to promote close familial harmony. Each name is a meticulously crafted combination of characters that symbolizes your family’s hopes and values.
Regardless, I wasn’t backing down. “It’s just a letter, Mom. Get over it.”
We clashed many more times over this. On top of her physical features, I’d also inherited my mom’s temper and stubborn streak. Even now, she hasn’t quite let go. Twelve years later, I’ll still find absent-minded notes that she’s scribbled on grocery lists: For Katie.
My mother and I have always had a convoluted relationship. When I mention her to others, I feel immense pride. I talk their ears off about how she immigrated to America with no money or connections, and is now a tenured full professor and department chair for graduate studies. Whenever I get good news, she’s the first one I call. Once I get her on the phone, she’ll bombard me with so many questions that I’ll make up any excuse so I can hang up. When the dial tone sounds, I immediately miss her so immensely that my stomach sours.
When I’m in a bad mood, I’ll ignore her texts for hours and feel sick validation from of the increasingly frequent Hello??s that she spams me with. When I’m in a good mood, I’m the one spamming her. When I’m feeling softer – sweet, syrupy – she’s 妈妈. Ma ma. When I’m in a hurry, she’s 妈. Normally, she’s just Mom. I tried to talk to her about it recently, the role of two languages in our relationship.
“Mom,” I say as I push the grocery cart through the produce aisles. “Do you ever think, like – ”
“Don’t say ‘like’.” (My mother, sharp-eared even as she thumps a watermelon to gauge its ripeness.)
“ – like, kids who have different first languages or cultures than their parents will never be able to fully connect with them or, like, understand them, on a fundamental level, because, like, there are some things that can’t be translated over? You know what I mean?”
My mother hmmms and goes to pick up another watermelon.
I don’t want a hmmm. I want a middle ground of mutual understanding. I want an “Aha!” moment. I want some brilliant flash of reconciliation, sparks and all, where she can hook her arm in my elbow and I suddenly understand everything she’s trying to say.
“Because we just grew up in such fundamentally different contexts. And I get that’s true for every parent-child relationship, but… Don’t you ever feel like there’s so much you want to say to me that you can’t express? But that maybe you could if I was raised in Shanxi with you and Grandma?”
My mother deems a watermelon worthy enough and puts it in the cart. “Of course there are idioms and phrases that cannot be translated without losing some intended meaning,” she says smoothly, and the five-year old child within me wants to scream out “You don’t understand!”
At the beginning of freshman year, I joined a leadership program. One of the exercises was to talk about our heroes and what we admired about them. All of the girls in our group began gushing about their moms. “My mother is my best friend,” I heard over and over again. “I miss her so much.”
I shifted uncomfortably and thought about a scene that had happened just two weeks before. I was with my family having our last dinner together before I went off to college. We were at Maudie’s Tex-Mex because I was sick of eating Chinese food. Inevitably, the topic of visiting home came up. “You’ll come home and eat with us on the weekends, right?” My mom asked.
“Uh,” I squeaked. “No? I mean…”
She furrowed her brows in that familiar way, the way that she passed down to me, the way that I often saw in the mirror.
“You’ll be so close to home,” my dad, the peacemaker, coaxed. “Just twenty minutes. You should come back.”
I had no intentions of doing so. Going to college so close to home was already a nightmare. I wanted to get away, to reinvent myself somewhere gorgeous and distant. Instead, I was going to be trapped here, tied to a home that was too small and a mother I didn’t know how to talk to.
“You’ll miss this,” my mom said. “I left my home when I was nineteen, and I never lived there again, not ever. Do you know how much I miss our family dinners?”
I closed my eyes and tried to search for some middle ground. I love you, but I can’t understand you, I didn’t say. I love you, but I want to be away from you, I didn’t say. I love you, I didn’t say.
The next day was a flurry of moving trucks and packing. I slumped onto my tiny new bed in exhaustion as my mom finished hanging up my piles of clothes. I felt my irritation begin to simmer as she fussed and nosed through all my belongings.
After she checked my schedule for the hundredth time, it was time to go. I swallowed the sudden, inexplicable panic in my throat and held myself back from saying anything stupid, like asking her to stay longer.
“Visit home soon,” she told me. I looked at her face, the face that she passed down to me. I studied the ever-present furrow between her brows and wondered if that was one thing that I ended up passing on to her.
When she left, I cried. Home felt much further than twenty minutes away.
Now, my mom and I call and text each other constantly. Somehow, it’s much easier to talk to each other than it was in high school. She’ll FaceTime me when she’s driving home, while she’s making dinner, when she’s on the couch. Sometimes she’ll read me an article in the news.
After I left for college, she ordered a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. This steady stream of newspapers has turned our house into a Hoarders episode. Every flat surface is piled high with plastic-wrapped Wall Street Journals that she swears she’ll catch up to soon enough.
She makes a valiant effort to do so. Almost every night, she sets aside time to meticulously annotate each article. They’re littered with question marks, underlines, and scribbled definitions in the margins. Sometimes, she’ll discover words that she thinks are particularly interesting, and she’ll quiz me on them. A few weeks ago it was “abnegation.”
Most of the time I’ll absentmindedly mumble “I don’t know” as I scroll through Facebook. There is no quicker, more surefire way to irritate her.
“You don’t know, you don’t know!” She’ll gripe. “What do you know?”
“I don’t know,” I’ll say again.
“Guess,” she’ll push.
And it’s normally around this time that I’ll decide I’ve had enough. “Look,” I’ll say, “I’m kind of busy right now.”
She’ll deflate. “Dress warm tomorrow. And don’t forget to read that article I sent you.”
“Okay,” I’ll say.
Then she’ll pause and say, “I love you.” It’ll always crackle coming out of my phone’s speakers.
“Looove you.” I’ll sing-song back to her. For some reason, we only ever say it on the phone. We only ever say it in English.
As soon as she hangs up, I’ll miss her immensely. It’s always the same painful realization that comes too late. I wonder why I can never tell her that when she’s right here. I feel like we’re closest to each other when I’m farthest away.
A few years ago, my dad told me that my mom had multiple benign tumors in her uterus. They were incredibly painful, and he told me to start acting more considerate with her. More kind. More loving.
Last month, she underwent a procedure to treat them. A tube that would cut off blood flow to the tumors was inserted into her arm, and she took a week off of work to recover. I had multiple tests and my organization’s formal that week, but I felt guilty enough that I squeezed out an hour out of my Saturday to go home.
When I unlocked the door, the house was quiet. I made my way up to her bedroom, where she was swaddled in a mass of blankets. She blinked at me sleepily, looking exhausted and gray.
“Hey,” I said stupidly. “Mom. Does it hurt?”
“Do you want to see my formal dress?” I asked. “I just got shoes, too.”
She did, and I put it on for her. Her brow furrowed in that familiar way as she told me I should have saved my money and worn her qipao.
“But… that’s yours.”
She huffed at me, and I crawled in bed next to her. I wanted to be tender, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to take care of her, but I didn’t know how. Maybe I could have figured it out if I had the whole weekend, but I was counting down the minutes I had left in my head. I understood that it was terrible to think this way, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing so.
I asked her if she wanted some tea. She said no, and asked me how long I was staying.
“I have to go in a few, 妈妈,” I said. “I have to get ready for formal.”
“You should stay longer,” she said, but I was already thinking about color schemes and formal pictures and open bar tabs. I left her to rest in bed.
On the night of the midterm elections, I called my mom. She picked up almost instantly, like she could sense that I needed something. “Hello?” she said.
My stomach was riddled with anxiety as I numbly scrolled through different election predictions. I had two assignments to complete by midnight, and I couldn’t focus for the life of me. Election coverage was playing at full-blast in my apartment and on campus, making it impossible to keep my mind on my homework. I felt homesick. “Can I come home?” I asked. “I mean, I know it’s late, but…”
I felt young and needy, like an eight-year-old with simpler problems that my mom could smooth away with a life lesson.
“You can always come home,” my mom said. “Always. You can always 回家.”
Twenty minutes later, I pulled into our driveway. My mom had the porch lights on for me, the way she always turns them on when I drive in the dark. There was a steaming bowl of wonton soup on the table, and a plate of sliced-up apples next to it. As we talked at the dinner table, I catalogued the shape of her eyes, the slant of her brows, the length of her fingers. Mine, I thought. All this, mine. It was all right here, and my mother was with me, always, reflected in my most basic features.
“Thanks for letting me come home,” I said into my bowl of soup, and I knew that if we were on the phone, this was the moment when I’d say “I love you.”
Thanksgivings are always a quiet affair in my family. There’s just the four of us – my parents, my thirteen-year-old brother, and me. We used to buy an HEB rotisserie roasted chicken in lieu of a turkey, but we stopped after I inadvertently insulted my mom by implying that she didn’t understand Thanksgiving traditions. This year, my mom roasts a real turkey. It’s dry and overdone, but we tear into it anyways.
Every holiday meal, we 干杯excessively. It’s essentially drinking to a toast, with lots of glass-clinking every few minutes. This year, we spend a good minute toasting over and over again. My brother gives a classic middle-schooler speech: drawn-out and appropriately pompous. My dad and I raise our eyebrows at each other and wordlessly perform a 干杯.
“Hey!” My brother squeals. “You can’t just toast without saying anything!”
I wiggled my eyebrows obnoxiously. “Dad and I just know what we mean already. We don’t have to say anything. Right, Dad?”
My dad snickers into his macaroni. “We have a special bond.”
I laugh and raise my glass wordlessly to my mom.
She doesn’t raise her glass back. “No,” she says, proud as always. “If you want to toast with me, you have to say it.”
I look into her eyes, which are my eyes, and the words fall out of my mouth and hang suspended in the air like pennies, slowly sinking to the bottom of a fountain. “I’m thankful for you, 妈妈. Mom. I’m proud of you.”
Something in my chest eases a little bit.
Our glasses go clink, and then she doesn’t have to say anything at all. After all this time, I feel like I finally understand. I heap more dry turkey on my plate and I think maybe this is it, finally, we found it – our middle ground.