My mother and I don’t speak the same language. Her English is sparse, and my Mandarin stalled at the picture-book level on the day I started kindergarten in California, when I realized that the few English words I knew—hello, please, thank you—weren’t going to get me very far. I immersed myself in strange grammar and new vocabulary, eventually devouring books with a religious fervor. My mother tongue withered, but I found power in my new vernacular. Reading, which made the world legible to me, inevitably led to writing, which made me legible to the world. It gave me a way to articulate my personhood and imagination, and to refute the narrative that I was just a timid, inscrutable Asian.
Wanting to write, however, made me unintelligible to my mother. I couldn’t explain how I would survive on a career in words, and she couldn’t fathom why I would squander the chance at prosperity my parents had contorted to give me. By moving me to another country, she’d moved me beyond her understanding. I’d plod along in her language, groping for sentences that were wildly inadequate: How could I describe my gratitude for a path to self-fulfillment when all I could say was “kai xin,” or “happy”? How could she communicate the trauma and instability of growing up under Mao if all she could say was “difficult”? Without the words to bridge the gulf between our worldviews, our resentment and fear ossified, making even mundane disagreements devolve into tearful fights.
I landed a day job editing a design magazine, but for seven years, I worked on my debut novel, Holding Pattern, in my off-hours. As its main characters, Marissa and Kathleen, collided on the page, their mother-daughter relationship unconsciously began to resemble my own. Their bond is strangled by the narratives they’ve internalized about each other and cleaved by cultural difference—though always resuscitated by love. But the book is in English, so my mom won’t be able to read it. I’ve essentially written a love letter that the recipient can’t decipher.
In a way, this is a familiar problem for us. So much of our relationship is rooted in the unsaid or the unsayable. She once explained that in China, it’s rare to hear “I love you”—to this day, we say it in English. Although she is rarely sentimental, her fierce devotion has always been tangible, expressed through plates of cut fruit, piles of folded laundry, and haircuts given in the kitchen despite our ringing argument an hour before. And though my mom is notoriously loquacious, she seldom spoke about her youth in 1960s and ’70s Shanghai. When she did, connecting the dots among the anecdotes was hard. When I put off washing the dishes, she scolded me with a story about lining up at dawn for a ration of eggs. When I moaned about school, she recalled ridiculing her teacher for being bourgeois.
Writing Holding Pattern gave me a reason to mine for details about that time and place, and a tool with which to dig. I’d spent so much of my adolescence shedding my Chineseness as a way to assimilate—refusing the weekend Mandarin classes the other kids were taking, cruelly correcting my parents’ accents—that by the time I’d reached adulthood, I was unmoored from our history. I started asking questions, hoping to find a new understanding of us. In doing so, I unearthed family dramas I was shocked to have never known about: My grandfather’s coal business was shuttered by Mao. My grandmother’s affair with a fellow doctor was exposed in a “big-character poster,” a handwritten condemnation hung at the hospital where she worked. My great-aunt was tarred and tortured for being a landlord’s daughter.
Amid these revelations were joyful memories too, like the fragrant musk of the white champac flowers my mother would pin to her blouse, or the hubbub of visiting her cousins in the countryside. As the texture of her world became clearer to me, so did the contours of the tragedies and banalities that remain obscure. With each morsel, I came closer to knowing who she is, why she left, and what it cost her.
My mom has always been forward-looking. Perhaps she swallowed these histories for my protection and benefit. But researching the book has been a way to penetrate that silence and find, through storytelling, a way to convey and recognize our love. Her memories are embroidered throughout the novel, and I gave the main characters the same opportunities for healing that I had longed for. When I showed my mother a galley copy, she marveled at her Chinese name in the acknowledgements and said, in Mandarin, “Now I know you truly love me.” I wish it hadn’t taken this long to find a way to tell her. She may not understand it word for word, but I know she gets the message.